Thursday, October 25, 2007

What is normal?

It is very seldom that I awake and want to pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep. I love mornings! But, this morning, I wasn't too keen on arising... It's the weather, you know.

It snowed last night. It was beautiful -- but, it snowed. How could it have snowed? It was 20 degrees Celsius during the day. (68F) I rode my bike around the reservoir at 5pm wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Is this normal?

Whoopi Goldberg, comedian, actress, activist once said, "Normal is nothing more than a cycle on a washing machine."

Well, I feel like the weather has put me through the wring cycle! Do you think I'm taking it a bit too personally?


And then I breathe. Yup. It snowed. Only weather. Can't change it. Can't move it. Can't make it disappear. It's weather. And having weather is normal. Complaining about it is normal -- but useless. When I complain about something I can do nothing about, I am putting myself through the wash cycle, tossing my emotions into the tub, scrubbing and scrubbing and never getting my complaints all washed out.

Like memories.

Everyday, I encounter situations and sensations that enter my mind as forms of energy through my five senses and are immediately transformed into patterned activity of sensory neurons that my brain can make sense of. Depending upon whether or not my 'lower brain' figures I've 'been there, done that' before, the information will be acted upon, escalated or stored for future reference.

Within me live millions of memories. Some are carefully stored in quadrants of my brain that help me deal with my emotions around the memory, particularly if they are trauma-based. I cannot know what memory will trigger with each sensation or experience I encounter during my day. Asking the question, is this real for me today, or are my emotions around this experience stemming from past traumatic events, helps me regulate the temperature at which I express my emotions -- and the damage I cause in the world around me.

But, and there's always a but....

How do I maintain my balance in a world of chaos?

It was a windy, blustery evening riding around the reservoir with a girlfriend last night. Whitecaps tossed themselves with gay abandon across the water's surface, dark clouds boiled in angry defiance against the mountain ridges. As we rode, we spotted a sailboat in the middle of the lake. It tipped. Once. Twice. We could vaguely see a couple of figures scurrying around but couldn't quite make out what was happening.

"Should we call 9-1-1?" my girlfriend asked.

"Can't really tell if they're in distress," I replied. "Let's keep riding and watching. Looks like they're taking down their sails."

By the time we rode around the end of the lake, we could see the occupants of the sailboat standing on a buoy as another sailboat approached. Someone had already called emergency services and police, EMS and Firefighters were all standing on shore watching the drama unfold in the water. It was a spectacular feat of sailing by the man in the other sailboat. He whipped around the buoy, picked up first one person and then retreated, rejigged and returned to pick up the second. As he pulled into the dock the emergency crew and their water rescue boat were just pulling up. Nobody was taken away by ambulance and it appeared that other than perhaps a wet dunking and bruised egos, the survivors were fine.

"Wow!" exclaimed my girlfriend as we stopped to let an emergency vehicle cross in front of us. "We should have called a TV station and got them in on the drama. That was exciting."

"No sense calling after-the-fact," I casually responded as I got back on my bike to pedal on.

"We should have thought to call during the excitement." She picked up on my silence and nodded her head. "Oh wait. You must see drama like this every day at the shelter. Guess it's not as shattering to you."

I wondered about her question. Is that true? Have I become inured to high-stakes drama and thus, less likely to dial 9-1-1, even when it's necessary?

The brain is an amazing, miraculous and incredible place. It sorts, sifts, organizes, measures, repositions and tabulates information at incredible speed, every second of every day. Perhaps that's why sleep is so important. The brain gets to take a break from being constantly bombarded by sensory perceptions that need transformation and regulation.

But, as science has proven, extended periods of exposure to stress decrease our coping abilities. They de-sensitize our ability to consciously discern between friend and foe. They inhibit our ability to take appropriate action.

Within my brain are the memories of those 4 years 9 months I lived in emotional terror. With each day I move away from the trauma, my memories become less vivid, less front and centre in my thinking.

But, they do exist. Memory never goes away. It is always there. It's just our ability to access it, and how it is accessed that changes.

Yesterday at the shelter where I work, a frontline worker got into the middle of the fight and ended up breaking her elbow. It wasn't intentional. One of the combatants fell backwards and landed on her, shoving her into a wall.

Fights are not unusual occurrences at the Drop-In. Staff are not generally the targets, but it does happen.

In working in that environment everyday, my fight or flight senses have become overloaded. My ability to discern between what is real fear and what is imagined is being affected on a daily basis.

My girlfriend's comment yesterday that I must see this kind of drama everyday disturbed me. Not because it's untrue, but because it is.

I don't know how to minimize the effects of my work environment. Most days I am balanced between believing in the absolute necessity of what we do and the belief that what we do makes a difference. Most days I walk with optimism and hope that what we do is necessary.

What I don't often look at is its internal effect on me.

Today, I'm thinking about it. It requires a more thoughtful approach. A more considered, measured response. I need to breathe. I need to let my mind begin the process of assessing, measuring, evaluating and stimulating my thinking.

The question is: What is normal? Do you routinely shoot from the hip and then ask questions, or do you ask yourself after every unusual occurrence, "Is this normal for me behaviour? Am I responding to reality, or to what I fear? Are my fears real, or are they perceptions based on past experience clouding my reality today?"

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