A Home for the Body

30
Nov

Past in Present

This past weekend I found myself in the company of an old foe.  To some extent I’m still trying to put together all the pieces of what happened.  All I knew at the time was that I was alone somewhere in a thick bog of shame and that I wanted, dare I say needed, to make myself pay for ending up there again. 

 

Potential

590637_18797563Ping!  The ball exploded off the aluminum bat toward the bag at third and I knew my only chance to make a play was to spring out of my stance into a full dive.  My body extended just in time to reach out and snatch the speeding ground ball before it was past me.  As soon as I felt the ball in my web I glanced towards first base to see how much time I had to make a throw.  The runner was almost to first base so without hesitating I reached into my glove and threw the ball from my knees with all my strength.  Caked in dirt and barely able to see through all the shimmering dust I awaited the umpire’s verdict…”You’re OUT!” 

I remember the play so well almost 20 years later because it set in motion a sequence of events that would change my life.  After the game my dad and I were approached by a man in his early twenties.  He was a local basketball coach who mentored young kids at the community center nearby.  He complimented me on my game and was amazed at my ability to make such a difficult play.  My athletic ability caught his eye and he eventually asked me if I had ever considered playing basketball.   He asked if I would come down to the gym with him and shoot some hoops.  “You have so much potential and natural ability…trust me when I say you have what it takes to become great.”

The next day my Dad brought me to the gym to meet him.  I was greeted at the door and introduced to a handful of other kids who were playing pickup.  This wasn’t a normal introduction though, it was more like an announcement of my arrival.  He yelled out to everyone, “this is the kid I was telling y’all about…get ready cause he’s coming for all of ya.”  Every time I walked in the gym this would happen in some way or another. 

I was this man’s “boy” (this title alone provides an interesting commentary on what this man became in my life).  To be in his camp was an honor that every person in the gym wanted.  It meant you were special.  It meant you were chosen.  He was the king of the gym and I was his chosen understudy.

I wasn’t long before this honor and delight was repIaced with a pressure beyond anything I could ever explain.  My place of honor came at a price.  I quickly understood that my success would bring him pride and serve as proof that I was worthy of his continued honor and attention.  My failures would inevitably bring into question whether I deserved to sit next to the Kings throne. With every year, every game, every shot I was playing to prove I was the kid he believed I would become.  Every time I laced up my sneakers I wasn’t just playing to win, I was defending an identity…I was either the best or a disappointment.

There were moments when my performances seemed to live up to the hype.  There were games when I didn’t feel ashamed of myself for letting down expectations.  In my mind though, my good games were supposed to be the norm.  With every average game I lost more control over peoples thoughts about me.  With every missed shot I felt less and less able to convince all my critics that I was the person I was supposed to be.

In my Bones

A couple of months ago I started getting asked to play drums at a local church for money.  I had developed a little bit of a reputation as a good drummer and received lots of compliments from musicians and church members about my abilities.  When the church offered to start paying me I felt the need to take the gig a little more serious.  I thought to myself “I want to live up to their expectations as a professional who deserves to be paid so they will continue to schedule me.”  This weekend I found myself behind the drums performing a rather complicated set of music.  Before the set began the head pastor remarked, “Oh man, we’ve got the all-star band tonight!”  I still love the feeling of being noticed and really wanted my performance to confirm his expectations. 

Everything was going great until I noticed that I had cut out too soon during the first song.  As the song ended I mouthed “sorry” to the worship leader and mentally shook off my embarrassment as just a silly mistake that wouldn’t happen again.  As the second song started I began a difficult drumbeat with ease; everything was back in control again.  Then unexpectantly, during an easy snare roll, I stumbled again.  As soon as it happened I could feel myself start to panic…I started losing confidence and subsequently forgot my parts and our place in the song.  After a brutal and sloppy finish (to my standards) I noticed the face of the bass player on my left…he looked embarrassed to be sitting next to me.

All I could think was, “oh no, they are going to realize that I’m not as good as they thought.”  “You are letting everyone down.”  I felt sure that if I didn’t nail the next few songs that they would never invite me back.  My only hope was that they wouldn’t remember my failure if I played exceptional the next time around.  With the stakes at a fever pitch, I put on my best face and walked back onto the stage just praying that I wouldn’t do anything to further embarrass myself.  Just hoping I could make up for lost ground and prove that I was worth another vote of confidence.

Past in Present

In these moments I feel an almost irresistible compulsion to punish myself.  I’ve punched walls, kicked furniture, verbally assaulted myself, and even hit my own face as I channel the events of an age old drama stored in my very bones.  It is this penance, and the subsequent promise to do better, that allows me to move on from my errors.  I’ve done this dance so many times in my life I go ahead and make myself pay for mistakes even when there is nobody telling me to. 

Long gone are the days when there was an actual taskmaster who demanded that I undergo re-conditioning for every error committed.  It has been years since the last time I was actually yelled at for missing a basket.  I know these stories and have worked extensively to lessen their influence.  But, after a while these voices of accusation become your own. Your body remembers the way you felt when you failed and it remembers the ways you alleviated that suffering.

331062_7357We all have these feelings.  We all know this limbic pain.  And we all have rituals to help escape the shame we felt when we were young.  These memories, these experiences, are stored in our bones.  Our strongest cognitive allegiances are so often powerless to fend them off because we often mistake what these moments are actually communicating.  In reality these moments are actually narrating a brokenness that was active long before our birth.  When we look closely at the essence of these memories we end up seeing and learning more about the faces of our tutors than any contemptuous trait in us. 

Without such reflection it is so easy to judge these tender parts of ourselves, “If only I had been better…smarter…different…etc…”  But, in doing so, we continue to fuel a lie as broken as the men and women we got it from.  A lie that has the power to cripple even the strongest amongst us.  That somehow we are only as good as our diving throws.  

15
Nov

A Mental Death: A Theory on Identity, Concussions, and Sports

For the past several weeks I’ve been discussing the effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), concussions, and brain trauma on athletes.  I wanted to finish up by talking about the complexity of what is happening in the minds of many athletes suffering from CTE.  In order to do so we must start by looking at the functions of the effected parts of the brain and then place that into the existing psyche of an athlete.  There are three functions of the effected brain that are particularly interesting in this discussion: 1) Emotion and emotion regulation, 2) Empathic response, and 3) flexibility.  I highlight these three because of their importance for the mental stability and health of a person, especially a person who has undergone extreme stress, trauma, and abuse and is trying to transition into a new phase of life.  This last part feels particularly important to note because I believe this may be where we see the impact of brain injury come to life.

Regulation, Empathy, Flexibility

O880737_86187705ur brain is divided into different regions that have different functions for our overall health and well-being.  One of the regions of our brain is called our reptilian brain and it is responsible for our most basic needs and desires.  This “reptilian brain” tells us to eat, sleep, have sex, and warns us protects ourselves when in danger (fight or flight).  It is the first part of our brain to develop and we have it in common with all animals.  In comparison, the neo-cortex and limbic system develop later and give us the ability to be controlled, to be mindful (empathetic) and to change our minds (beliefs) among other things.  A subsection of these two latter areas is called the frontal lobe which is located behind our forehead and is connected to other important parts of our brain that narrate emotions and help us understand our identity.  CTE primarily effects the frontal lobe and these surrounding areas of our limbic system and neo-cortex.  The impact of CTE, then, effects some very important facets of our mental health.

I believe the effects of CTE are most visible when a person is going through a season of disruption or transition.  In athletics some of the most notable disruptions and transitions happen when an athlete can no longer perform due to injury or lack of ability.  Through understanding how our mind functions to cope with disruption we get a fuller picture of what an athlete is up against.

In seasons of disruption or transition our sense of who we are comes into question.  Who we have believed we are is countered with evidence to the contrary.  In order to make sense of the ego-dystonic information we are faced with a choice to either integrate this new sense of who we are into our pre-existing identity or we have to protect and barricade our pre-existing identity from a perceived “threat” in order to ensure its’ survival.

[Theological Side Note: The work of integration is often about facing our own idolatry (our belief that we are/can be God).  In facing idolatry, we must come to terms with the frailty and fragility of our humanity in the face of our inability to produce a desired outcome.  In the language of the Apostle Paul, the process of Integration begs us to mentally “die” to self in order that we might be “raised” into a new identity.  The process of mentally dying is something akin to the experience of a depression in that it destroys our hope and ability to imagine goodness and life.  We feel lost, frustrated, and unsure of the point of our lives in the face of a major identity-disruptive event.  However, our desire to avoid this painful process during disruption most often leads us towards an attempt to salvage ourselves and escape our identity’s “death”.  We try whatever we can to hold onto what we believe about ourselves and our identity.  The mental pain involved for an individual will vary depending on how important that aspect of their identity is to their self-worth and perceived value.]

731447_90740785For most athletes their sense of self-worth is directly tied to their ability to perform in athletics.  Sports has afforded them a type of attention and adoration that many are starving for in their lives (see: “Now I have your eyes…).  Like I’ve said before, the madness of sports is that it fosters this belief and provides feedback that you are only loved when you play well.  This drives most athletes to great lengths in order to survive disruption and transition.  It also drives many athletes to seek out people and places that provide ego-syntonic feedback to affirm their sense of self.  There are few things more painful than the realization that you are not who you thought you were, so the logical thing to do is avoid this pain at all costs.  Unfortunately, every single athlete that has ever lived has had to come to terms with this bind.  The unavoidable reality of this bind often leads to an identity collapse for those who have made it to high levels of competitive athletics and who find themselves unable to perform any longer.  The subsequent firestorm of emotional turmoil is as varied as each athlete’s story, but the most common struggles manifest in feelings of anger (first step toward grief a loss), depression, addiction, insecurity, and even suicide.

The good news is that the brain is naturally built to help an individual along in this process of integration in three primary ways: 1) A healthy brain helps us deal with and regulate our impulses and emotions, 2) A healthy brain allows us to connect with and understand others through empathizing, and 3) A healthy brain is malleable and allows for us to integrate new experiences into our internal world and identity.  Some of the primary functions of a psychotherapist is to help an individual begin to progress in these three areas of functioning.  The enemies of these markers of mental health are each person’s experiences of trauma, abuse, and neglect.  Trauma, abuse, and neglect essentially create internal pockets of bondage and fear that begin to guide our behaviors and relationships.  These pockets, informed by our past experiences and relationships, come together to form our internal world which in turn directs our behavior, beliefs, and style of relating to others.  In other words, our internal world, if left unknown and unexplored, will influence and guide our actions and beliefs in the external world.  Our ability to understand the narratives that have shaped our internal world in the present gives us the ability to act, believe, and respond in new ways.  [Spiritually this work is the process of putting on the Spirit of freedom and putting off the spirit of the flesh/bondage].  Needless to say, the ability for us to do this work is paramount to our mental health and we need our brain to help us in this process.  Like I said earlier, the good news is that our brain is built to integrate and change….the bad news for sufferers of CTE is that the hardware essential to the process…just so happen to be primarily in our frontal lobe.

What brain researchers are beginning to find in patients with CTE is that Tau proteins are acting as a tar of sorts that inhibits our frontal lobe.  In other words CTE effects a persons’ ability to deal with their emotions, understand and connect with others, and integrate new experiences into their internal world and identity.  Anger is multiplied because we can’t mediate it normally, our ability to connect empathetically with others is impaired, and our ability to integrate our identity during seasons of Self-disruption is impeded.  The mental effect is like asking a runner to run a marathon with a sprained ankle.  It can be done but it will be very, very difficult.

The normal process of integration for an athlete is hard enough as it is and requires a lot of love and support from a caring community (therapists, family, friends, etc…).  The problem with the disease of CTE is that it damages the parts of our mind that we need in order to begin doing this hard work of integration in community.  The combination of all these things are leaving athletes stranded in a mental health “perfect storm” in which they are often unable to survive.  I don’t believe that it is actually the disease of CTE alone that causes player decline and suicide.  Most players would attest to the fact that there are a whole plethora of other issues that seem more causative when it comes to player decline and death.  I wonder, though, if the most debilitating factor of CTE is that it makes the sufferers ability to regulate emotions, understand and empathize with others, and integrate new experiences into their internal world and identity extremely challenging.  The part of our minds meant to respond can’t because of traumatic brain injury.  And since the enemy is inside of a players head, the presence of self-condemnation and shame will be very powerful.  An athlete’s difficulty in conquering these obstacle will only serve as a reminder that they are not who they thought they were…a fact that may lead many into a type of death that won’t allow for a resurrection.

 

[If you or someone you love is struggling with any of the above symptoms please call Knox Burnett @ 425-202-5716]

 

05
Nov

The Sacrifices of Sport

A717339_61226081 couple of weeks ago PBS: Frontline released a documentary entitled League of Denial: The NFL Concussion Crisis that chronicled the controversy surrounding concussion research and its potential impact on the game of football.  The documentary exposed the NFL’s decade long negligence around concussions and put into question the safety of a billion dollar industry.  The NFL has spent millions on trying to reduce the impact of this on the general public and spent hundreds of millions on lawsuits from former players wanting compensation for damages suffered.  Amidst the off the field firestorm however, the actual game of football continued without a hitch.  Outside of a couple of tweets from current players questioning the integrity of the NFL brass there seemed to be little interest in the findings from former or current players.  What we have seen and heard is that even if the head trauma suffered results in long term damage for players they are willing to take the risk.

This shouldn’t surprise you if you have ever been an athlete because one of the early lessons learned in sports is to tune out anything that could hinder your ability to perform.  I wrote about this on an entry called “Superman”,  The further up the competitive stream you go the more you will find individuals who are willing to do almost whatever it takes to tune out their fears.  If they paid attention to the risks they would never be able to reach the heights needed.  Some players are more aware of this than others, but all players must tell themselves that their worst fears (whatever it may be) won’t happen.  This is how an athlete survives the abuse of a sport…at any level.

Do athletes cognitively understand there might be consequences to playing?  Yes.  Will that stop them from playing?  No.  If it could have it would have stopped them a long time ago when their bodies were asked, for the first time, to perform in ways that brought them close to the fragileness of their humanity.  Similar to a soldier in war, anything that keeps an athlete from completing their mission must be sacrificed…or conditioned out.  So whether we are talking about head injuries, career-ending knee injuries, neck injuries, or even death, rest assured that an athlete will rarely if ever heed these warnings of danger.  To do so they will have to engage in a much more difficult and grievous war against the voices of influence that have told them to numb and ignore their pain.  They will have to eventually question why nobody intervened on their behalf the first time they had a concussion and were told to get back on the field.  They will have to question why those who were entrusted to protect them from harm did not speak up against abuse at the hands of a trainer or coach.  People learn to question because they have been allowed to.  People have freedom to say no as adults because they had the freedom to say no as a child.  To expect a player to quit playing for safety reasons is ridiculous in this context.  My question is however, what responsibility do those in power (parents, teachers, coaches, organizations) have to these players who have been mentally conditioned to ignore what will later impact them?

I came across a commentary of a grandfather who had watched the troubling documentary on football and concussions and his response was telling in this regard.  “I love my grandchildren and all four of them play football.  I am really upset and worried that if I don’t say something to their parents, they’ll suffer.”   This response is quite interesting is it not?  It is almost like there is something in the heart of this man that is causing him to question his desire to speak up and protect his grandchildren.  I have to wonder why.  Why would he struggle to name this?  What forces are against him?  It seems that whatever they are, they must also be competing at the heart of a league that has tried to ignore this issue for decades.  Sadly, this silence marks the lives of many athletes very early on.  The people who have power and responsibility to protect life keep silent at the hands of unknown forces for some known or unknown reason.

Simultaneously, what is confusing about advocating for player health is that I would imagine very few athletes appreciate these voices of protection now that they are grown.  The negative responses by players to new rules and regulations around safety seems to indicate this quite well.  Whenever there is a safety concern addressed by the league and reflected in the rules you end up hearing more frustration from players than appreciation.  Why would someone react negatively to something or someone trying to protect their health?  What could be worse than the devastating effects of a degenerative brain disease?  There is obviously something also in the heart of many athletes that is at war and causing them to silence those advocating for their physical health.

A professor of mine once said “mental pain is always worse than physical pain.”  There is something in this that opens a window into the lives of athletes and the rest of humanity.  I would argue that  there is something much more painful about losing a sense of who we are than there is about suffering physical harm.  These defining characteristics hold so much power because they often name our worth.  People will do whatever it takes to hold onto what gives them worth.  If being an athlete is the defining characteristic of your life, any event or reality that calls this identity into question will be countered with every bit of energy available.  Athletes don’t risk their lives and health for a game…they risk it because they believe being an athlete is what makes them worthy to be loved.

There is a huge bind here.  If one chooses to pursue competitive athletics they will be asked with each increasing level of competition to numb and disavow parts of themselves meant to thrive and speak.  They will have to be willing to sacrifice their mental and physical health for the god of athletic success.  It seems that this is the cost required to make it in sports, and the lessons learned in these trenches will keep you alive on the battlefield.  In a strange turn of events, it is the abuse and trauma that makes an athlete able to withstand the conditions on an unforgiving business.  And it is their longing for worth and purpose that keeps them from saying that they would have it any other way.

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