Author, Brigitte Denton, patrolling Venice Beach in 2009 courtesy Stellan Clark.

Ever feel like you are spinning your wheels to get things done only to end the day feeling like you have accomplished very little? Are you struggling to adapt and overcome the challenges presented during this pandemic?

On the morning of October 3, 2010, I took a blow to the head that would change my life forever. Little did I know that this would help prepare me for a microscopic adversary nine and half years later. The purpose of writing this story is to pass along the insights I picked up on this journey, share how it is helping me now, and offer a few reflection exercises; each with the intent to help guide readers toward strategies that will help them through this pandemic. Some may wish to read the entire article while others may choose to scroll through and solely take advantage of the reflection exercises.

It was supposed to be another routine day of working the Los Angeles Triathlon. I had lifeguarded several in the past and was positioned in the surf line as usual. “Shore safety” was my favorite spot and suited my need to stay active and my ingrained yearning to help others. All walks of life participate ranging from professional athletes to those who have never been in the ocean before, have poor swimming technique, or are not in the shape needed to maneuver themselves through the complexities of the ocean. Lifeguards typically rescue hundreds of competitors during this event. Towards the end of the swimming leg, Mother Nature force fed me a large humble pie thrusting a 200+ pound person on top of my head of which I have no recollection.

While I do not wish a traumatic brain injury on my worst enemy, it was a blow to the head I needed. I did not learn right away what the term “self-care” really meant. Despite the migraines, the difficulty focusing and remembering things, the constant searching for words, and need to sleep twelve or more hours a day, I fought and tried to resume my normal life of burning the candle at both ends. I was a high achiever and found success in most of my endeavors. Time and time again I epically failed. Rather than serving as a teachable moment, each failure felt like a debilitating punch to the stomach. A year and a half later I hit rock bottom. I had been slowly plunging myself into a deep cavern and was now at the bottom unable to see the light at the top. I was no longer able to help others. The roles were reversed. I was the one in need. With the help of friends, family, and practitioners, I spent the next two years climbing out reaching deep into my soul and learning a lot about my true self along the way. “How does one with an innate desire to succeed in helping others prevent themselves from burn out?” was a common theme for self-reflection and continues to be to this day.


Lesson 1: Practice being kind to yourself.

One of the ways I excelled in school and in sports was through focusing on constructive feedback I received. I constantly looked for ways I could do better, often disregarded what I was doing well, and internally self-reprimanded in a negative way. I had yet to fully embrace the idea of the “growth mindset”.

  • I was good at acknowledging my weaknesses, but not embracing them. Instead, I abhorred them, which also meant I hated the best parts about myself. One’s greatest strengths are also their greatest weakness.
  • I was focused on the result instead of the process. I was so fixated on the finish line, that I overlooked key steps to get there and was unable to see the lessons along the journey.
  • I did not embrace failure as an opportunity to grow. I thought of all mistakes as a sign of a serious character flaw.

I needed to change! I looked towards gaining more understanding about my injury and was able to come to terms with the fact that it would take time to get back to where I was and that I may not fully recover. I focused less on what I could not do, took it one hour at a time, and began celebrating the little successes (i.e. making a meal, getting out for a walk), which in turn fueled my motivation.

Reflection Exercise: List examples of how you have been kind to yourself in recent weeks. List ways you have not.


Lesson 2: There are no quick solutions to finding what works for you.

One of the things that drove me into the cavern was my frustration fueled by the fact that I wanted to be healed overnight. I was looking for a quick fix. There are a lot of self-help articles, books, and podcasts out there. Friends and family give well intentioned advice. While I think these resources can be helpful and have benefited by them, I also feel that some misinterpret the solutions as instant remedies. Finding tools that work takes time. One must dig and expose what is causing the problem. I saw a psychologist during my TBI recovery and currently see one now. Both therapists have been effective because they understand the principle “What works for others may not work for you!” Mental health is stigmatized in our society and many people do not seek out psychotherapy services even when it is available for free. For a while, I was embarrassed and would not admit that I was in therapy until I realized psychotherapy’s tremendous value. I kick myself for not utilizing this service sooner. It has been vital in the self-reflection process uncovering some of the truths that have led to my behavior patterns. Turned out my head injury wasn’t the real issue. My therapists have helped me become more self aware, willing to challenge my preconceived thought processes, and discover methods that work for me.

Reflection Exercise: What types of self-help resources have you turned to? Have they been easily implemented? If not, what did it take to get it to stick?


Lesson 3: What worked previously may not work today.

One of the mistakes I made during my recovery was expecting that what worked for me previously would work in this situation. As a student athlete I learned early on the importance of time management. My coaches taught us to make a weekly time schedule blocking out school, homework, practice, and competitions. In addition, we were taught to set goals for the season. We were encouraged to make extensive to do lists as part of an action plan to achieve those goals. I carried this into adulthood. My schedule as a middle school science teacher would look something like this.

The grayed-out areas were supposed to be “free time”. However, I was often compelled to use this time to “catch up” on my outstanding to-do-list. Feeling burned out yet?

These tools were part of the problem and had been even before my injury. I kept setting goals that were lofty even for the mentally and physically healthiest person and would berate myself for being unsuccessful thinking it would motivate me to do better the next day. It did not! Adult life is a lot more complex and I had not been honest with myself. Burn out was something I had been battling for a long time.


Lesson 4: Experiment and Adapt

I took what I learned as a student athlete and created a system to meet my current needs. Mapping it out as a worksheet worked well for me especially because I had trouble with short term memory. The principles and their effects are outlined below.

  • Setting weekly benchmark goals as simple as eating three meals a day helped me focus on the process instead of the overarching goal of “recovery”. Accomplishing goals by the week kept me focused on the progression and provided frequent positive reinforcement.
  • Limiting myself to 1–4 goals kept things manageable. Starting out with a one goal maximum allowance and working my way up to no more than four helped me build back my stamina slowly both mentally and physically.
  • Prioritizing my to-do-list helped me recognize and focus on what was “important” and “urgent” as well as on the process.
  • Setting boundaries on the number of items on my weekly to do list kept me from being overwhelmed and encouraged me to set realistic expectations for myself. In addition, it helped me keep “free time”, a crucial aspect of maintaining good mental health, carved out instead of feeling like I needed to spend it tackling an enormous list that would inevitably never get finished.
  • While developing a routine is important to one’s mental health, my routines were too rigid and psychologically impairing. Having an open slate to work with each day and coming up with a daily schedule the night before or the morning of allowed for flexibility. I could tailor each day to how I was feeling. If I woke up with a migraine, I knew that I needed to lay off and gave myself permission to do so with a minimal to-do-list keeping it to the “Top Priority Tasks” that were urgent and important. Instead of having to make a change to a predetermined plan that I had made a week or month ago spurring negative feelings, it encouraged me to focus on my self-care in the present moment.
  • Reflecting daily worked better than weekly or monthly. Evaluating and celebrating the successes I had each day inspired me to keep moving forward. It also allowed me to make little changes, which was far easier than making bigger ones later down the line.
  • Doing it in pencil allowed for flexibility. Things come up and sometimes we need to reprioritize on the fly. Crossing out had a negative connotation and did not account for the conscious decision to change things around.
  • Smiley face stickers to mark a task as completed, as elementary schoolish as it sounds, was a positive motivator for me. Seeing smiles in different colors stare back at me mirrored a positive reflection. Each sticker represented an inch climbed out of the deep cavern.

Through trial and error, I found a system that not only worked, but one that was far superior to the one I had been using. This no longer became about reverting backwards to my old life but moving forward into a life that included healthier habits.

The last few years I “fell off the wagon” and found that I instinctively have resorted to the old patterns that were ingrained in me for over three decades, which has begun to take its toll on me. Without some structure that holds me accountable, I tend to get sucked into work and ignore self-care needs. This pandemic presents an opportunity like my head injury to venture on another journey filled with lessons. Thus far, it has been a good reminder that I must continue to practice these newly developed behaviors as they are not as embedded in my being as the others. I am revisiting some of my deep-seated flaws and addressing other layers.

Reflection Exercise: What previous strategies are working for you during this pandemic? What is not working for you? What changes will you try to implement?


Lesson 5: Helping everyone is not very effective.

In Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he states “The key is not to prioritize what’s in your schedule, but to schedule your priorities”. I took a HARD STOP and asked myself “What are my priorities in this pandemic?” The answer, “helping people”, has not served me well. These last few weeks I have been drawn towards a growing number of pleas for help. As SARS-CoV2 infected more people and mitigation efforts increased, I found myself getting enveloped by not wanting to see people suffer and being pulled in multiple directions trying to help parents, teachers, the unemployed, the displaced, and the sick. All this on top of my responsibilities as a small business owner. My “important” and “urgent” to-do-list exponentially grew and became unrealistic. Last weekend, I decided to have a heart to heart with myself after feeling overwhelmed and disappointed because I had yet to complete the tasks I wanted done by that point. In my attempts to help everyone, I was helping very few if any. Not only was I being ineffective on this front, I wasn’t taking care of myself physically and mentally. I needed to get off the path towards burn out and self-destruction. I realized that “helping others” is not a priority, but an end goal. To achieve this, I will need to choose just a few specific actionable items, categorize the level of importance and urgency, and be kind to myself. Below is the list I came up with.

  • Priority #1 (Important, Urgent): Improve and maintain my self-care so that I can help others. I viewed this as not only important, but urgent because I could feel myself slipping into the cavern again. I needed to act immediately.
  • Priority #2 (Important, Urgent): Evaluate personal and business expenses, budget, and decide on cancelling May and June programming. Ruminating about the future and things out of my control has taken a lot of mental energy. Addressing this has freed up some mental space.
  • Priority #3 (Important, Not Urgent): Help the community by taking on a first responder role. While this is important, there is currently enough hands on deck allowing time to move towards this slowly and methodically. I must focus on my self-care so that I am ready when I am really needed.
  • Priority #4 (Less Important, Not Urgent): Build the resource section of my website. While this can be considered a high value project (important, not urgent), if I do not get tasks completed in a timely manner or at all, it will be okay! There are plenty of talented educators who have done similar things and have made it widely accessible. There are many more currently working on the“crisis schooling” problem.

Completing this reflection exercise helped me refocus. I dug out the tools I used during my TBI recovery and have been tailoring them to set myself up for success during these challenging days. This includes continuing to dig in, experimenting with other strategies, and being willing to throw it all out the window and start afresh if it isn’t working for me. While not perfect by any means, in just a few days, my self-talk has improved, I have more energy, I feel like I am making some progress towards my end goal, and I feel less pressure to be a high performer each day.

Reflection Exercise: Make a list of up to four actionable items to focus on during this pandemic and categorize the level of importance and urgency for each.


Learning does not come without adversity and uncertainty. Dan Millman, author of Living on Purpose: Straight Answers to Universal Questions, wrote:

“Our teachers appear in many forms. Master teachers are found not only on lonely mountaintops or in ashrams of the East. Our teachers may take the form of friends and adversaries, of clouds, animals, wind, and water. Moment to moment, our teachers reveal all we need to know. The question is, are we paying attention? When the student is ready, the teacher appears everywhere.”

The person that landed on my head many years ago did not render me unconscious. Instead, they awakened me to a world of professors. If we are paying attention, we will realize that this virus, too, is a master teacher.

References

Covey, Stephen (2005). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Millman, Dan (2000). Living on Purpose: Straight Answers to Universal Questions. California: New World Library.

Author: Brigitte Denton (Owner/Program Director of Beyond Limits Education)