Three medical non-negotiables
About a year ago, I embarked on a grand experiment. I’m a trained scientist, you know, and what better subject to investigate than me and my brain?
I had a nasty Traumatic Brain Injury four years ago as part of a package deal with lots of other broken stuff. When I left Atlanta’s Shepherd Center to come home, they gave me a list of three non-negotiables for a year.
“First,” my doctor said, raising his thumb, “no alcohol.”
I didn’t care. I drank a beer a month after mowing the lawn in the summer, and that jumped to a weekly beer during the fall when I watched Notre Dame football on TV.
“Good,” he said. “That’s easy. It probably makes the second thing a simple decision, too, but you have got to stay away from drugs.”
“You can’t mean medication, right? You’re sending me home with a dozen prescriptions.”
He laughed. “No, take the prescriptions religiously until they’re gone.” He held his pinched thumb and forefinger to his lips. “I’m taking about weed. You will get A LOT of advice to smoke for any hiccup you have. Don’t do it. We want to give you a year to get back to semi-normal. Weed won’t help. Not your brain, anyway.”
“No problem,” I said. “I think I smoked a fat one back in 1976 and haven’t touched it since.”
“Good. The third thing is caffeine.”
I made a face. “Ew. That’s a toughie. I drink coffee by the gallon.”
“Coffee’s fine,” he said. “Just get the decaf. It’s the caffeine we worry about.”
So I drank decaf for three years. Lots of it. I don’t taste any difference, but it’s hard sometimes to find in the brands I like. I could buy it online, but, being a cheap SOB, when I include shipping costs, my box of Peets runs fifteen bucks now.
I decided it was time to try caffeine. The doctor at Shepherd told me to stay off the juice for a year and then it was up to me. If I wanted to, he said, try it and see how I felt. If I couldn’t sense a difference, fine, drink up, but I could always cut back until I found my threshold. Sit there for at least six months and then try it again.
I started out with a cup a day and didn’t feel any difference as I went through my stash. For ten days, I felt fine. I noticed one day, though, that I was foggy, like my head was stuffed with cotton. I pooh-poohed it, thinking it was ragweed or pollen or who knows what grows around here, but it didn’t go away. I knew I was doing what most of us do and was justifying what I wanted to be true. I went home and told my wife to drink up the coffee, that I was going to go back to decaf. I went on a coffee fast for a few days and then went back to decaf. It’s been six months now, and I haven’t felt any coffee-related weirdness since.
The take-home message
All that being said, and this is the take-home message…I watched a show on PBS the other night about maintaining brain health. One piece of advice was to drink a cup of coffee each day, for the caffeine. Genius researcher that I am, I told my wife that I’m going the try the caffeine thing again, but start with only one cup on Monday mornings. If I feel woozy, I’ll quit for good.
She grabbed the remote from my hand and turned off the TV.
“Let me tell you, buster. What did the doctor tell you about your brain?”
“That it’s a black box, and no one who knows what will work and what won’t.” We’ve had similar discussions before.
“Right. And you know as well as I do that research is all about stats. No one is looking at your brain. They’re looking at a million brains and figuring out what works for most people”
“And this means that you’re different. This show – this thing on TV – is for me. It’s for anyone of the millions of people running around who are getting older and live normal lives with normal brains. I hate to say it, but that’s not you.”
She’s right. And that’s the take-home message. If you’ve had a TBI or a brain injury or a stroke, you aren’t the same as everyone else. In fact, no one – not even the best in the world at the Shepherd Center – can tell you how you are different or how things will affect you.
So, my strong advice is to be careful. Try things one at a time. Once a week, for two months. If nothing weird happens, ramp up slowly. If you try it for the first time and you feel odd, stop. You’ve discovered your threshold. It’s zero. I’ve started having a finger’s worth of red wine at night and feel fine. I have no desire to drink more and do it for my cardiovascular system. I’ve started lifting weights again, too. But it’s all the same: start slow, advance slower, and stop if it’s weird.
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