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My Messy Thoughts

 

It’s so hard for me to corral my thoughts, sometimes. It feels like I’m picking up shards of glass from the floor and trying to piece them back together again. I can recall, or at least summarize, what someone else has said to me, but my own words dissipate into the air much more quickly. Most of the time, I feel like my memories pop up out of order, but if I can write each thought down when it comes to me, and finish the thought three days later when my brain finally gives me the last few words, I can edit it all into a coherent whole and seem like I know what the hell I’m talking about.

I watched two medical dramas on TV, recently, that made plot points out of people whose hearts were on the wrong side of their bodies. And I thought, huh, consider how many things we assume have to be a certain way, like, the heart has to be on the left, and yet, it doesn’t have to be that way, it just happens to be on the left, and all of our assumptions ensue from there. A lot of brain research has been done to try and locate the specific areas of the brain that control different kinds of thoughts. But what if it’s different in each brain? What if we organize the furniture of our brains as differently as we organize the furniture in our homes?

I have different types of bookcases scattered in different rooms. I have hard copies of every writing project in process (there are a lot of them), because when they are only on the computer, I forget that they exist. I have a particular antipathy towards closed drawers, so I tend to keep everything on open shelves, when possible, because it’s too easy to hide things from myself.

Cricket’s mind is a series of hot buttons. Grandma! Food! Shoes! Mailman! Leash! I picture these areas in her brain lighting up in bright red, and it takes a long time to return to a calm pink color. And when any of the bright red areas are lit up, no other thought is possible. It’s only when her brain is cool and calm that she can use her significant intelligence to manipulate her people again. She has set patterns to follow for how to wake up Grandma (bark, scratch, cry, bite ankles), or how to remind me that it’s time for treats (stare at bag of treats, stare at me, stare at bag of treats, crawl under couch and stare at me with disappointed puppy face). And she has incredible long term memory for faces, and smells, and wrongs done to her.

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Cricket, working her magic on Grandma.

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Cricket, putting on her disappointed puppy face.

I like to watch the way Butterfly sets out her kibble on the floor. She places one piece in front of the bathroom door. She radiates kibble out from her food bowl in a messy half-moon. She sets out five or six pieces of kibble on the rug in the living room, like a set of jacks she’s getting ready to scoop up with her paw. Each kibble gesture represents part of the way her brain is set up. She likes to leave kibble, and unfinished chewies, scattered around the apartment, just in case. “Just in case,” is a big theme for her. When we go out for a short walk, she has to have a snack first, and during, and after, just in case. I can relate to this.

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Some just-in-case kibble.

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“Mommy, I’ll trade you this sock for a chicken treat.”

I struggle to make the world stand still long enough so I can see it clearly, or see it the same way two times in a row, so maybe all of my obsessive writing is my version of “just in case.” My brain feels like a kaleidoscope at times: chock full of pieces of things all moving around and refusing to organize themselves into single whole. But it can still be beautiful, in its pieces, and being able to see things in new configurations all the time allows me to see more complexity in how each part of me relates to every other part.

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“Do you know what Mommy is talking about?”

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“Us!”

 

The Brain

I worked hard at gymnastics as a kid, and could barely lift myself up onto the low bar, or walk across the high balance beam. I practiced all the time, but I could never do a back walkover, or hold a handstand for the requisite ten seconds. My body is not smart in that way. My body feels like a group of people who are shouting to each other over mountaintops miles apart. It’s as if the communication system between my various body parts is crunchy and static filled, instead of clear and smooth.

Cricket, on other hand, is an athlete. If she were human instead of canine, gymnastics coaches would be clamoring for her. She’s compact (aka small), and she can run fast and jump high and stretch into unreasonable positions, just like a world class gymnast. I would not send her into rhythmic gymnastics (with the ribbon, and the ball, and the hoop, etc.), because she cannot be trusted with toys, but artistic gymnastics, especially floor work, would be ideal. Butterfly would love to run around the edges of the mat, ready with a bowl of water, or some paw chalk, when her sister needed it.

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Cricket can fly!

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No, really. Butterfly is my witness.

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Butterfly has to work on her flexibility to keep up with Cricket.

The lack of clear communication in my body has always disappointed me. I am in awe of dancers who can speak, and sing (!), with their bodies, never needing words to tell a story. I feel almost mute, physically, and it really bothers me.

My social work internship for next year will be with traumatic brain injury patients. Some will have motor difficulties, speech and reading difficulties, and pain, but all will have some kind of dysfunction in the connections in their brains. Even if every distinct brain region is working fine, the communication between the areas will be muddled in one way or another, and I think that being able to see the varieties of this will be good for me. I have never been diagnosed with a TBI, even a mild one, but while the brain can be shaken up physically, it can also be shaken up emotionally, with similar results.

I took a class called Brain and Behavior a few years ago and was fascinated by the idea that you could identify specific brain areas where certain types of information are processed. There is a biological basis for the things we consider ephemeral and wispy, like emotions, and knowing more about the brain gives more weight to all of those things people have pooh poohed for years as silly and unprovable. Studying the impact of brain injuries on different areas of the brain helps us understand how much who we are, and how we behave, is physiologically caused.

The work I will, eventually, be doing at my internship, comes after the physical therapists, and occupational therapists, and speech therapists have done as much as they can to stabilize the TBI patients, but I will get a chance to observe their work, and I’m very interested in seeing the different methods people have come up with to try and retrain our bodies and brains. With one kind of injury, practicing speech patterns and walking skills can really bring you back up to close to normal, but with another injury, no matter how hard you practice, the brain connections just aren’t there and can’t retain the information. There’s some relief in the idea that you could know which goals are reachable with hard work, and which ones are just not possible.

I can watch Cricket and Butterfly walking next to one another and see clearly how their different physiques control and limit how they walk. Butterfly will never be as flexible as Cricket is, because her rib cage is too big and her legs are too short. And Cricket will never “walk like a girl” because her hips are slim and refuse to sway. Butterfly’s brain can’t begin to imagine the number of horrible dangers Cricket believes are right outside the apartment door, and Cricket’s brain cannot fathom the Zen-like calm that Butterfly feels when she hears bird song in the distance.

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See, they’re completely different.

I wish I could accept my own limitations for what they are, but I still hold onto the dream of plasticity, that my brain will change and grow over time and allow me to be something more. It’s not impossible, actually. Someday, Cricket’s brain might rewire itself inexplicably and allow her some peace.

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Wouldn’t that be wonderful?