Just Started Tennis Lessons

Hot on the heals of my recent insight into Mickel Therapy's hypothalamus theory, I've recently signed up for tennis lessons. I exercise every morning now, but up until now I have always done it alone which isn't likely to alleviate feelings of boredom and loneliness. So I decided to pick a social sport that I could do instead, and tennis seems like a good choice.

I used to play soccer when I was a kid, but I always ran myself into exhaustion. I played volleyball a few years before falling ill, but it's hard on the knees and I kept spraining thumbs which isn't what I want now that I'm a musician.

So I picked tennis, and found that a local community college runs lessons at 8am on Saturday morning which is perfect for having me up and exercising early in the morning. I'm still pretty limited in how many evenings I can spend out but for the most part I have a fairly normal life now and rarely feel like I need to spend a whole day in bed. Sundays are my rest day when I take it easy and don't consciously do any exercise. I figure even a healthy body needs time to regenerate.

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Maybe Mickel Therapy Isn't Complete Bullshit After All

I had a go at Mickel Therapy a couple of years ago, but gave up because:

  • I had difficulty identifying the onset of any particular symptom, which is key to the process. My symptoms remained pretty much constant, aside from an intense tiredness hitting in the afternoon. None of the actions I took every had an immediate impact on the symptom I was experiencing at the time, which left me feeling pretty hopeless about the process.
  • The primary emotion I was experiencing was anger, and Mickel Therapy didn't appear to have a tool for dealing with anger unless it arose in response to something. I felt angry pretty much all the time.
  • The one thing I could identify that triggered anger was my therapist using a facile analogy of sitting on a pin to describe why it was important to identify the trigger and deal with it. Of course if you're sitting on a pin, you don't just sit and meditate on the pain you're in... you pull out the fucking pin. But when you're sitting on a pin you know exactly where the problem lies so it's easy to identify the solution. CFS wasn't like that for me. My therapist trotted out this ridiculous analogy every time we talked, so my strategy for dealing with that emotion was to quit talking to him.

So I gave up. However, I did continue to implement the 3 assertiveness keys, and to look for ways to process emotions that came my way. In particular I remembered Fleur telling me that she realized by doing MT that she was basically bored. So I started riding my bicycle in the afternoons instead of going to bed, then going to an acting class right around the time I usually felt most tired. Or hanging out with a friend in the afternoon. Or going to the beach to go body boarding. Interestingly, when I did these things I didn't feel so tired; or at least I didn't notice it, and didn't spend time obsessing over it. I've also continued to do things I love, like playing music, and to plan more of them every day.

I've also been applying some of the principles I learned in the Gupta Program, like meditating every day and going for a walk in nature. I live near bushland, and spend at least an hour each day bushwalking, or just sitting and meditating. Over time, I've found my mind is much calmer now and I'm not so anxious. I also exercise first thing in the morning, something my naturopath put me onto in an effort to reduce my night-time cortisol levels so I could get some restorative sleep. My Mickel Therapist had suggested that I not do any other therapy at the same time, and I sort of ignored his advice as I was taking what seemed like the best advice from all over the place. Perhaps that wasn't such a good idea.

The other day I went cycling in the morning with another friend of mine who has recently done The Lightning Process, and found it significantly increased his energy levels. Along the way we stopped at a beach where I had a swim. I'm not a great swimmer as I've never been comfortable putting my face under water; even snorkeling causes me to panic over whether I'll be able to breathe. So I tried swimming "properly" with my face under the water for a few strokes; something that used to cause me great anxiety as a kid. After a minute or so of doing this in shallow water, I stood up and felt so disoriented, I couldn't walk straight. I felt nauseous for about the next hours, as if I'd been spun around until I felt sick. I thought I was going to throw up.

Now I can't explain this purely in terms of fight/flight/freeze response. Nor have I ever been fully comfortable with Gupta's explanation of the amygdala triggering flu-like symptoms. I just don't get how that could happen; it doesn't have that level of control. But the hypothalamus does; it's in control of just about everything. When I stuck my head under the water, my best guess is that an oversensitive amygdala triggered an oversensitive hypothalamus leading my body to go all out of wack.

So perhaps Gupta and Mickel are both right, and the amygdala and the hypothalamus are both overstimulated; but while lots of the therapy I've been doing has been amygdala focused (like dealing with past trauma), it probably came at the expense of retriggering the hypothalamus. It seems to me that since the physical symptoms are the most distressing, the most important thing is to calm down the hypothalamus; and let the amygdala calm down by itself. Or perhaps Mickel Therapy calms them both down by removing the emotional stimulus.

I'm off into speculation land now, but the main learning for me is to stop doing things that scare me, in my attempts to deal with anxiety by expanding my comfort zone. The one exception to this is stuff that contributes directly to my future career, since financial stress is one thing that contributes to anxiety. I also feel even more committed to finding things that I love to do, and doing more of them, so that my amygdala is only ever sending feel-good signals to the hypothalamus.

If everyone else in the world could just join me in this plan, perhaps we can have world peace without me having to win a beauty contest.

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Feeling Angry

I've been feeling really angry lately. I wake up with it, and it's like a default state that I fall back to when I'm not engaged in anything. I'm not consciously aware of being angry about anything in particular; of course I'm pissed off about the usual suspects like:

  • not feeling well for so long
  • not getting great emotional support from my family
  • my business not going gangbusters
  • not being able to go out at night and have fun

But it's not like I wake up thinking any of those things; I just wake up feeling tense in the head and cranky. At least it's better than feeling anxious though. Anger has a more empowering feel to it than anxiety, and I've been doing a lot of work over the last few years to learn to express my anger so perhaps the fruits of my labour are finally paying off.

Anger and anxiety are both generated in the same part of the brain; the amygdala. It's the area that Gupta's program attempts to "retrain" in the hope of curing CFS. I suspect there's more to it than that, and that the trauma goes deeper into the nervous system than just the amygdala. But it makes sense that if you suppress anger, it's going to come out as anxiety since the same brain structure generates both.

As I mentioned in another post, I've been practicing Peter Levine's Somatic Experiencing for over a year, and I still get shivers running through my nervous system which I hope are related to the shuddering he talks about when nervous energy is released. I suspect this is the same reason that Osho's Dynamic Meditation works: by triggering the release of pent-up nervous energy.

I first learned Dynamic Meditation when I did Path Of Love a few years ago. It's a form of meditation where you move your body in order to release nervous stress, so that the mind can settle more easily when you finally stop. As with any spiritual practice, the important point is to practice it. But I rarely do. Instead, I'd been relying on other people to create a space where I'd be motivated to do it, like doing Path Of Love again and going to burn meditations. It certainly is easier to do the practice in a group, but if I'm going to take responsibility for my own healing it doesn't make sense to rely on other people all the time.

Reading Osho's autobiography lately has inspired me; now I get what the guy was on about. There's a greater goal now than just recovery from CFS: Freedom. Enlightenment.

So I've started doing "Dynamic" each morning. I notice during the cathartic phase that I end up dry retching. Vomiting up nervous energy or anger. I had a similar experience when I first started my morning bike rides; part way along the ride I'd have to stop to throw up, even though I didn't feel nauseous. It was reminiscent of the migraines I used to get, which were overwhelmingly painful to the point where I would throw up; which felt absolutely ghastly, but always relieved the pain.

I'm hoping that doing the dynamic every morning will shift the anger that I'm feeling, and my sense of humour will return. There isn't too much to laugh at when I'm pissed off all the time, and I'm not all that interested in contributing to the world when I'm angry.

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My Personal "Graded Exercise" Program

My graded exercise program didn't start out as an exercise program at all; in fact, I was very reluctant to do any exercise at all when I first started it. I'd read horror stories on the Internet about people having terrible setbacks doing graded exercise guided by well-meaning doctors, and my own experience was that any time I exerted myself physically, I paid for it big time with post-exertional malaise or a killer headache the next day.

When my Mickel Therapist suggested that I try experimenting with different activities in the afternoons when my most severe symptoms of overwhelming tiredness would hit me, I was a little skeptical. All I wanted to do around 3 or 4 PM each day was go to bed and lie down. If my body kept telling me I was exhausted, then obviously I needed to rest. But all that rest every day wasn't making me feel better; in fact on the days when I fell asleep mid-afternoon, I tended to wake up feeling worse... much worse. Even just writing about it now is bringing back anxiety for me.

One of the ideas behind Mickel Therapy is that the body sends us symptoms as a message to get us to change our behaviour. I'm still a little skeptical; after all, if the symptom is overwhelming tiredness and the behavioural change required is more or different activity instead of just lying down, then what we have... is a failure... to communicate. But nevertheless, I was prepared to play with the idea that my body might be "bored" and needing stimulation rather than rest. When I thought about what activities I used to enjoy as a kid that I hadn't done since falling ill, I thought of riding my mountain bike. So I started doing that mid-afternoon when the most severe fatigue hit me, instead of lying down.

Mind you, I wasn't riding it for exercise: I was riding it just to give my body something interesting to do. So each afternoon I'd get on my bike and ride figure-8's around the culdesac-like corner of my street out the front of the complex where I live. I was very conscious not to exert myself or to raise my heart rate. Cardio exercise always brought on the dreaded post-exertional malaise; and I wasn't exercising... I was just moving my body.

I can't say I noticed any immediate change in my symptoms as a result of this, which really frustrated the Mickel Therapy process since the idea is to try different things until you find something that resolves the symptom. I came in from each bike ride feeling just as tired as I had gone out. I talked this over with my Mickel Therapist, who seemed convinced that he saw progress in the symptom/activity/result tables that I filled in and sent him. He also said I should avoid boring activities; but my most boring activity was filling in the Mickel Therapy tables. I wasn't seeing the progress he seemed to think he was, and I started getting very angry with him. The process also seemed to be making me much more anxious, which felt unbearable. I heard a talk by Dr Mickel where he talked about some people encountering severe anxiety when doing the therapy, and I felt disappointed that Mickel Therapy didn't seem to have any useful tools for dealing with anxiety and anger.

I ended up discontinuing the work with my Mickel Therapist, but I remembered what Fleur, a passionate Mickel Therapy advocate who attributes her miraculous recovery to MT, had told me about her experience of realising that her body was really bored. So I continued my afternoon cycling routine most days; it felt better than lying in bed: the movement gave my mind a distraction from constant anxiety-inducing thoughts about being ill, and since I didn't push the envelope at all or get my heart rate up, I came back in feeling pretty much the same as when I went out. No post-exertional malaise.

After a couple of weeks I found myself getting bored with the street I live in, and venturing down to a local park to ride my figure-8s. Then further afield to a local sporting ground, which happened to have a skate ramp that was idle most weekdays. So I'd jump on and ride around and around the skate ramp from one end to the other and back home again. It got me out of my head, and felt like fun. I still wasn't exercising, I was just moving my body. But each day I went out slightly longer than the day before.

One of the things that has kept me partly-sane during the five years I've been ill has been learning to play music. In fact, I bought my first guitar right around the time my CFS symptoms hit me. Playing guitar is sufficiently engrossing that I get into a state of flow where I forget about being ill, and it's fun to do with other people. It also doesn't take much physical energy. However, I get bored easily and although I'm nowhere near mastering guitar I decided I wanted a new challenge.

I had wanted to learn to play drums for several years; I played in a Samba band at the time I fell ill, and one thing I really missed was jamming and gigging with my other band members. But I played tamborim which isn't the sexiest instrument for a guy to play. Part of me wants to be a rock star and would love to play drums in a rock band. Also, I figured this would give me an outlet for some of the anger that I was constantly encountering. I have a punching bag that I often hit when I'm feeling really angry, but finding the motivation to work through all the anger is a challenge when I feel so exhausted that I just want to rest as soon as I start hitting the thing. Having a drumset to hit would be more motivating, I thought. So about 8 months ago I went out and bought myself a Roland electronic drumkit which is relatively quiet if you don't have the headphones on, so it doesn't annoy the neighbours. I figured I'd be able to bash my drums when I was angry, play for fun when I needed something to do, and one day maybe get on stage and be a rock star.

Playing drums is great for me for several reasons. Although I have a decent sense of rhythm from my time in the Samba band and the years I spent dancing before falling ill, I had never played a full rock drumset before. I didn't have the co-ordination initially, so I had to learn almost from scratch. This meant that I couldn't overdo it and push myself too hard physically. It took time to learn to coordinate my two legs and two arms to play even basic rock rhythms, and over this time my stamina gradually increased without being pushed into the dreaded cardio zone that seemed to trigger the old post-exertional malaise.

Also I've come to conclude that CFS is a nervous system disorder, and I figured the rhythmic stimulation of playing drums was most likely a good thing for my nervous system. Almost all the shamanic healing rituals I've done have involved drumming, and there's just something calming about the rhythm of a drum. I suspect it's because it reminds us of our mother's heartbeat while we were in the womb; surely it's not just coincidence that the tempo of most music is around the same tempo as a heartbeat. Also, playing drums requires enough concentration that I get distracted from the constant thoughts of being ill. As I improve on playing any given rhythm, I find it requires less and less concentration and the distressing thoughts start to creep back in... at which point I just move on to a new or more complicated rhythm.

I've found playing drums quite addictive, and wanted to play as much as possible. My upstairs neighbour put the kybosh on that when she complained that the kick-pedal really disturbed her. She works during regular office hours which means I can only play 9 to 5 when she's at work. This turns out not to be a bad thing...

When my naturopath and I got the test results showing that my cortisol levels were extremely high, my mission in life became lowering my nighttime cortisol levels to the point where my body can get a decent rest so that I'll eventually recover. My naturopath pointed out that in order to do this, I needed to exercise first thing in the morning and limit my evening activity. So no late-night drums for me. Everything started to make sense at this point: I understood why I woke up with a headache after going out dancing at night. Physical activity increases cortisol levels, after which they drop further than if you hadn't exercised at all. But the drop takes time: if the activity occurs late at night, there isn't time for the cortisol levels to drop before hitting the bed. Especially if the level is very high to begin with.

Although my afternoon bike rides were a good way to distract myself from distressing thoughts and give my body something interesting to do (who knows, perhaps Mickel Therapy isn't complete bullshit after all), afternoon wasn't the ideal time to be exerting myself. It would have been better to go for a ride first thing in the morning at dawn, when my naturopath was advising me to get up. At first, I got up at dawn and did some Yoga out in the sun or meditated with my eyes open to let the sunlight onto my retina; this resets our circadian rhythm and is the ultimate cure for the insomnia that prevented me getting to sleep. At first, getting up at dawn was hard. Really hard. I just can't stress how hard I found it to get up at the crack of dawn every day when I felt totally exhausted all the time. But I realised that getting my sleep pattern sorted out was key to recovering from CFS. This was the second most important thing, after the whole cortisol-reduction mission.

So I shifted my afternoon bike rides to the morning. I still wasn't really doing them for exercise, but don't tell my naturopath that. The idea was simply to get my body moving. I also found that it was much easier to remember to do the deep breathing necessary to calm my nervous system, when I was requiring more oxygen due to the cycling. Initially I just rode around my street again, or down to the park with the sports field. I'd stop along the way and do some meditation too. Then I discovered a really nice ride that winds its way through a number of parks by the river in a neighbouring suburb, and I started doing that regularly. Somewhere along the way I started actually exercising. Still not intense cardio, but just moving my body a little more each day. I never pushed it, and I never even came home feeling tired after these rides; or at least, no more tired than when I left home. In fact, I felt more energised afterwards; and that's what I reminded myself on the mornings when I'd lie in bed thinking "I don't want to get up and go for a ride; I'm too tired".

Another physical activity I took on was a conscious dance practise called 5 Rhythms, after another woman I met who said she'd suffered from chronic fatigue told me she found it really helpful. So I started going to Radiance Dance in Sydney on Sunday mornings and the occasional Wednesday evenings. It's a form of moving meditation: a spiritual practice where you dance in various different free-form styles while working through emotions. It's also got a really nice community connected to it which I like; I realised that my community had shrunk to the point where all my friends had CFS. While other sufferers are great when it comes to understanding how I feel, they aren't overly inspiring and there were times when I just wanted to talk about something else. With the insight about cortisol profiles during the day and evening, I stopped going during the evening and just stuck to Sunday mornings. At first, I felt terribly self-conscious doing the ecstatic dance thing and just went and sat in the corner feeling like a fool. When I did dance, I had to stop and rest ever 15 minutes or so. But I saw other people dancing unselfconsciously and decided to stick at it and make it my new community. After a while I really got into it, and now it's like going to church every Sunday morning for me.

There have been times when I've overdone it on this whole exercise thing, and when that happens the penalty I pay is waking up with a killer headache that wipes me out and lasts all day. The antidote for this is getting to bed by 10PM every night, and not going too hard at the exercise. I did a boxing class at the local gym a couple of weeks ago in the hope that it would help me get out some of the anger I'd been feeling lately; but it turned out to be an intense cardio workout that I just wasn't up for. Plus it hurt my hands, which isn't a good thing if I want to be a musician. I woke up the next day with a killer headache, vowing never to do that to myself again. I also recognise that in between periods of exercise, I need periods of physical and mental rest. But yes, I do actually call it exercise now.

I've also added some muscular exercises to my routine on the advice of my physiotherapist, in response to the debilitating headaches I was getting. To be honest, I don't think they're helping the headaches much since I suspect the headaches are just a symptom of the high cortisol (i.e. stress), but the exercises are designed to improve my posture by strengthening my upper back muscles which is a good thing anyway. I've also started doing sit-ups each day to improve my core strength. This is important when I'm sitting on a drum throne since they have no back support and core strength and posture become really important.

Which leads me to where I am now with all this. My full-time job at the moment is still recovering from chronic fatigue. The pay is terrible, but the super scheme is awesome. Monday, Wednesday and Fridays are my exercise days where I get up at dawn and do my bike ride, which goes for about an hour and a half. Along the way I stop to meditate by the river, so it's usually about two hours all up. It's winter here now, and it's f__king freezing, but I do it anyway. Tuesday and Thursday I take it easier, getting up at dawn and going for a walk down to the river to meditate. When I get home I have breakfast then I play my drums for a few hours, taking breaks whenever I feel tired to do something else like read email, write something or play my keyboard. When I worry about what I'm doing with my life, I remind myself that my full-time job is doing this right now, and learning to play music on the side.

I also go out whenever I can to jam with other musicians, which totally distracts me from feeling ill. I'll regularly play drums almost non-stop for 4 or 5 hours when doing this, and not feel particularly tired at the end. I also go to a theatre class once a week with Milk Crate Theatre which has been a godsend for me because all their classes, rehearsals and even their shows are on during the day; so I can get onstage and still be in bed by the magic 10PM.

I'm much, much fitter now as a result of all this regular physical activity over the last year. I find I very rarely feel true physical tiredness; it's more a mental and/or emotional exhaustion that I feel now. I've learned that often when I think I feel tired, what I'm really feeling is anxious. I go to an anxiety support group once a week where I deal with this. I rarely feel anxious when I'm playing music. I get anxious when I don't know what to do, and the solution for me is to pick something and go do it. Like write this article, say.

I know it's been a long time between updates and I regret that a little since I've really been making a lot more progress over the last few months than I did in the years before that. But I also realised that sitting in front of a screen being stimulated with constant Facebook and email updates isn't good for my cortisol levels. Plus, I have music to play!

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My Cortisol levels are sky high

Hi folks. I haven't posted in a while, as I've been of focusing on what I need to do in order to get well. However, there has been a very significant development in my health: I visited a Naturopath in December 2012 who got me to do the salivary hormone test recommended in the Adrenal Fatigue book. My results came back mid-January this year, very elevated. My nighttime reading in particular is way too high: 27nmol/L, when it should be under 5.

I was elated to get these results; it's the first medical test I've had in 5 years that showed any abnormality at all. So I'm not crazy after all. I also don't have adrenal fatigue; what I have is constant stress on my body due to excessive cortisol. It's a bit chicken-and-egg, and not entirely clear what is causing it, but apparently if the nighttime reading doesn't drop low enough, my body doesn't enter sufficiently restful sleep to repair itself. Next day I wake up with elevated cortisol again, and the whole thing just repeats. No wonder I feel exhausted all the time. This is pretty consistent with what Gupta says, but now that I have lab test results to prove it, I'm more convinced than ever.

So the most important thing now is to get my nighttime cortisol levels down below 5nmol/L so my body can sleep properly. My nervous system should then start repairing. To help do this, I've changed my routine so I:

  • Get up at 6am every day.
  • Eat and exercise before 7am (within an hour of getting up).
  • Don't exercise after mid-day.
  • Start winding down at 9:30pm
  • Be in bed by 10pm every night

Apparently exercise raises your cortisol levels temporarily, but they peak half an hour or so after you stop, and then fall below where they would have been if you hadn't exercised. I had been exercising in the afternoon when I felt terrible, and even worse sometimes went dancing at night. So I was exercising at the wrong time of day.

Getting to sleep by 10pm is really important. It's not just how long you sleep; what hours you are asleep also makes a difference. I had read this before, but wasn't doing it religiously. I don't go out in the evenings now, unless it's to something low-energy that's directly related to reducing my stress levels. My social life is restricted to daytime for the time being, which gets pretty lonely. I do a free acting class on Tuesdays during the day run by Milk Crate Theatre, because it's really fun. We laugh a lot. Hanging out with homeless people is funnier than I would have expected.

My night time wind-down ritual involves turning the TV off early, lighting some candles, putting on some lavender aromatherapy oil in my burner, and playing relaxation music while lying on the lounge.

I'm also doing a massage course, which is good for calming the nervous system. I get together with other students to practise, so I'm getting lots of massages while also overcoming my fear of physical touch with strangers and learning a handy skill at the same time.

I was already on a low-sugar diet, so I'm still doing that. The Naturopath said that fruit was OK, and pointed out that some of the breakfast cereals I was eating had sugar in them. I'm avoiding them now.

I'm currently taking these supplements, which are intended to calm the adrenal glad, lower cortisol levels, and heal the nervous system:

  • An adrenal-calming herbal tonic twice a day. I haven't asked what herbs are in it, but beware that some herbal medicines stimulate the adrenals, which isn't what you want.
  • Vitamin C: 2000 mg (I take Blackmores BIO C)
  • Vitamin B12: 1000 mcg
  • Folic Acid: 500 mcg (No, I'm not pregnant)
  • Fish Oil: >800 EPA (I take Nature's Own Liquid Fish Oil, which is easier to swallow than 3 high-potency capsules you'd need for the EPA dosage)
  • A multivitamin, just for the hell of it

The Naturopath also measured my breathing, and found that it was shallow and had too low a level of CO2. High CO2 level have a calming effect on the nervous system apparently. So now I do breathing exercises where I take a long slow in breath, and an even longer slow out breath. The idea is to slow the out breath down as far as possible. "It should feel as if you just want to gasp for air", she said.

I've also been doing a regular meditation every day. After trying hundreds, I've settled on chanting the Oneness Chakra Meditation recorded by Ananda Giri because it's the most calming I've tried.

Can't say I've seen miraculous results yet, but it's early days. I was on the right track before seeing the Naturopath, but there were a few things I was doing that weren't helping me; like exercising too late in the day. The cool thing about having the cortisol test results is that I can do the test again in a few months to see if what I'm doing is having an effect on reducing the levels; even if I don't feel radically better yet. I like at least having a metric that shows I'm heading in the right direction.

I was influenced to visit the Naturopath by Daniel Neuffer's book CFS Unravelled, which recommends finding a health practitioner who is on top of this stuff. It's hard to do it on your own. I spoke to Daniel via Skype (by a freak coincidence, he went to my high school) and he seems to genuinely want to help other CFS sufferers now that he's recovered. His description of the mechanics behind CFS is the best I've come across; assuming he's right. If so, I should be all better within a few months. I recommend Daniel's book, with the reservation that following his advice hasn't healed me... yet. It will be free on Amazon next week, since he really wants to get the word out.

I also recently came across another recovering CFS sufferer named Marissa Hakansson who saw her experience of CFS as a spiritual journey, and now teaches stress-reduction techniques to other people suffering from CFS. She specializes in helping women but I still found it really helpful talking to her; like Daniel's book, it helped confirm that I was on the right path. I recommend contacting her if you're stressed out and need someone to talk to who understands where you're coming from.

I have a lot more free time now I get up so early in the morning. I'm spending it writing comedy on my home blog, in the hope of pursuing the dream of being a comedian when I've recovered. That probably won't be until next year, since getting up on stage causes a huge adrenaline/cortisol rush; which definitely isn't what I need right now. I can see now why getting up on stage and doing Improv caused me to have a meltdown. Oops.

When I'm not doing that, I'm playing my drums (but only in the mornings) or guitar. Or watching Woody Allen movies or other comedies to make me laugh. Occasionally I'll meet up with a friend during the day. That pretty much fills up the time while I recover.

I still feel more anxious than I would like more of the time than I would like. I can see that some of the personal development courses I've done over the past few years in an attempt to address this haven't been such a great idea in hindsight, given that I really had to push my body in order to get to them. I decided last night that I have power over my thoughts, and that thought makes me feel less anxious. I find this easier than doing the Stop-Stop-Stop technique that Gupta recommends, which is exhausting when the scary thoughts are coming thick and fast. Much of my anxiety is around thoughts like "This won't work! I'll never get better! I'm missing out! It's taking too long!" I'll just have to stick at it and see.

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Getting An Empathy Buddy

I recently got myself an empathy buddy and am finding it tremendously helpful to receive some non-judgmental emotional support, especially when I'm feeling like crap. The idea is to have a buddy who listens to where I'm at without judging me and occasionally reflects back how I'm feeling and what my needs are. I talk to my empathy buddy every few days and find it an invaluable emotional support.

I believe that CFS is a stress-related illness, and empathy is the most powerful antidote I know for stress. Having an empathy buddy also lessens my isolation and gives me a feeling that someone else understands and cares what I'm going through; all of which lessens my stress. With an empathy buddy I also get to reciprocate which means my attention isn't always just on me and my problems.

The idea of an empathy buddy comes from the Non-Violent Communication (NVC) community, also known as Empathic Communication. NVC is a style of communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg with the aim that everyone can get their needs met by communicating feelings and needs clearly and directly. Showing empathy is also a core skill for relating to other people so it's also a great thing to learn and practice in its own right.

Most of the people I know with Chronic Fatigue have a history of emotional repression and/or past emotional trauma leading to chronic stress. Having an empathy buddy gives you a safe environment to start exploring these feelings by allowing you permission to feel how you feel without being told that you're wrong or should be different.

All the CFS support groups that I've been to appeared to skirt around the issue of how everyone was really feeling, which I believe is why the groups aren't particularly helpful; they turn into a mutual misery discussion without addressing and dealing with feelings and needs directly. The most helpful group I attended was an anxiety support group which dealt almost exclusively with feelings and steered away from discussing the illness entirely.

I recently met a girl through this blog who had been suffering for 15 years with CFS and was overwhelmed with anxiety, yet had never revealed to anyone just how frightened she was for fear of judgement. I offered her empathy and watched her relax right in front of me. This is powerful stuff.

How to Work With An Empathy Buddy

Firstly, you find someone to be your buddy and agree that the purpose of your meetings is to exchange non-judgmental empathy based on feelings and needs. They don't need to have the same issues as you; they don't need to have CFS for instance. Anyone willing to follow the guidelines who you think you can trust will do.

An empathy exchange is not a time for idle conversation or chit-chat; you can potentially do this as well in a single interaction, but make sure you're very clear when you're doing the empathy exchange and when you're just socializing.

Schedule a time to talk for at least an hour, either in person or on Skype. Divide your time like this:

  • 5 minutes: Brief check-in of how each of you is feeling.
  • 25 minutes: Person A talks, Person B listens
  • 25 minutes: Person B talks, Person A listens
  • 5 minutes: Brief check-out of how each of you is feeling
  • Set a time for your next exchange.

If you want a longer exchange, you can alter the times accordingly. During the main sharing part set a timer to go off 5 minutes before the end of the time so the talker knows when to start wrapping up. Stick to the structure; it helps you both relax into how you're feeling and what you're needing.

Agree at the beginning who will be the talker first, and who will be the listener. It doesn't really matter who goes first since you'll swap over later, but you just need to be clear which role you are in.

Here are some guidelines for each role:

When You're Talking

Talk about how you're feeling, and what you imagine you're needing right now. Avoid going too deeply into story about what has happened in the past. Story is useful only for triggering feelings and identifying needs. Many of us get stuck in our stories too easily and this allows us to avoid the feelings we need to get in touch with to heal.

Stick as much as possible to what is happening right now in the present. As Marshal Rosenberg says in this video, "We don't heal by talking about the past; we heal by talking about what's alive in us right now, stimulated by the past". The important thing is to identify how you're feeling and what you need because this activates the emotional center of the brain which will help relieve your stress.

Use words that describe emotions directly, like happy, sad, angry, upset, scared, anxious, furious, despondent. Avoid words that describe mental states like depressed, or physical states like tired. Instead, say how you feel about being depressed (e.g. sad) or tired (e.g. frustrated). Remember, you're trying to trigger your brain into releasing the pent-up energy behind the emotion.

If you start to cry, let the tears flow; crying is a healing stress-relief. Avoid dramatic judgements like saying that you “burst into tears”, and don't try to suppress the tears either. We've been conditioned to believe that crying is a sign of weakness and many of us have suppressed this emotion to the detriment of our health. If your tears shut down out of fear of what the listener might think, you're experiencing shame, so express the emotion behind this by saying so: “Now I'm feeling ashamed of crying in front of you”. Stick with what's happening for you in the present.

The emotional parts of our brain are primitive and child-like, so it's probably better to say that you're frightened or scared than use more adult words like anxious. Adult western vocabulary tends to steer away from emotions and the purpose here is to express and feel our way through the feelings, not to avoid or rationalize them.

If you're clear on what you're needing add it in to what you share. Don't worry if you're not clear, as the listener's role is to identify this from what you're saying.

You may feel emotions arising unexpectedly which may be frightening if you're not used to receiving non-judgmental empathy. Don't shy away from the feelings by rationalizing or going into story about something else. Just express how you feel in the moment and wait for some empathy from your listener.

Try not to go over time; respect the boundaries that you've set between you. If it's an emergency and you desperately need a lot of empathy, try to say so at the beginning so the listener knows they may not get to share this time. Line up a future meeting where they can share and you just listen. If you find yourself needing a lot of emergency empathy that's preventing mutual sharing with your buddy, get yourself another empathy buddy so you have more than one person supporting you.

When You're Listening

Your role as the listener is to provide a safe, non-judgemental space for the talker to share in while you identify how they are feeling and what they need. For the most part you just listen with this in mind. Every now and then when the talker pauses, offer a reflection following the NVC formula:

“Are you feeling X because you're needing Y?”

The talker will generally clarify whether you are accurate, if not correct you, and then continue sharing how they are feeling. Their feelings may change during the exchange, in which case you pick up on the new feelings and the needs behind them.

You don't always have to stick to the exact formula; try to vary it a bit so the talker doesn't feel like they're talking to a robot. Always remember it's all about feelings and needs, and try to communicate what you're hearing clearly. If you get stuck, just listen or use the formula: it works.

Identifying feelings and needs may be new for you since we're not educated to communicate in this way, so cut yourself some slack if you get it “wrong”. Just keep listening for feelings and needs in the talker. If you experience feelings of fear or shame around getting the reflection wrong, share that with your partner during your turn as talker so you can get empathy to heal the fear of getting things wrong that many of us have.

You are not obligated to meet the needs of the talker; your role is simply to identify what they are. Some needs may end up being met during the exchange itself; for instance the need to be heard, to be taken seriously, or to feel understood. Other needs remain the responsibility of the talker. Avoid trying to rescue of fix the situation for them either during or after the empathy exchange. Treat the other person as capable of finding ways to meet their own needs. If you do end up meeting other needs they have outside the empathy exchange, be clear on what needs of your own you are meeting in doing so. Keep the boundaries of the empathy exchange clear.

Keep all judgements about the person and what they share to yourself. Focus on how they feel and what they need, not what you think they're thinking. Avoid criticizing, making them wrong, problem-solving, offering suggestions, telling them it's all going to be OK or trying to fix things for them.

Your buddy may go through a range of emotions that they have not previously been comfortable sharing, and that you may not be entirely comfortable hearing. Notice when you're triggered emotionally by what the other person shares and share your feelings with them during your turn as speaker or during your final checkout. If you still feel these feelings later, come back to them in a future empathy exchange to get some empathy for them yourself.

You are not responsible for your buddy's feelings nor for resolving them. If they start to cry for instance, it's because they've contacted some pain or grief that they are now healing. Allow them the space to cry for as long as it takes, bearing in mind the time agreement between you. A big issue may require empathy over several sessions or with several buddies to fully heal. Even then, healing tends to happen in layers so the same issue may come up on a deeper level later on.

Avoid giving sympathy or there-there responses. If the talker seems stuck in story or is going around in circles without identifying feelings, interrupt them gently to ask them “How are you feeling right now about this?” If you get impatient or bored, it could be a sign that the talker is avoiding feelings or it could indicate painful feelings of your own that you need empathy for when it's your turn to talk.

Warnings

Getting empathy can trigger strong emotions that you may not previously have felt in full force. If it becomes overwhelming, get some professional help for what you're going through. I believe that empathy is the key healing ingredient in all effective therapies, but your empathy buddy isn't a therapist. Don't expect them to solve your problems for you and don't rely on them as your sole means of emotional support.

Your relationship with your empathy buddy may go through all the normal ups and downs of a regular relationship or friendship. If your buddy triggers strong feelings, share them in your next empathy exchange and request empathy for them. If your buddy gets defensive or critical, share how you felt in that moment and ask them simply to identify your feelings and needs. Your buddy may trigger feelings in you that aren't their fault or they may need time to learn how to offer empathy effectively. And vice-versa. If you feel unsafe or it doesn't seem to be working, find another buddy who can offer empathy in a way that makes you feel safe.

Sharing feelings is the basis of all close relationships, so don't be surprised if you end up feeling close to your buddy. I've even experienced feelings of jealousy hearing my buddy talk about her other empathy buddies! We've also had exchanges where we shared our feelings about the relationship itself and triggers that made us feel unsafe with each other, so we could get empathy to resolve our projections onto each other and establish a deeper level of trust.

Beware of becoming overly intimate with your empathy buddy, especially at the expense of your primary relationship. If have a partner, consider having a weekly empathy exchange with them where you follow this same structure. It's likely to do wonders for your relationship.

Resources

Here are some other resources that I highly recommend for learning to be a good Empathy Buddy:

If you'd like some empathy or want to line up an empathy buddy to get some mutual emotional support around CFS, leave a comment and I'll get back to you.

Posted in Good days | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Goddam it, I'm angry!!!

Today's bout of anger and rage is brought to you by my recent recovery from the flu, which took just on two weeks to get over. Why should recovering from the flu make me angry, you might ask? Because I don't really recover; I just go back to the usual yuppie flu symptoms. So I'm still coughing away and generally feeling run down. And that makes me angry. And anxious.

This morning I had a loud screaming match with myself in the car on the way to see if there was anything worth seeing at Burnham Heads. There isn't. Nevertheless, I felt anxious yet again, and very very cranky about that. A good yelling session and a hoarse voice later, I felt somewhat calmer. Spent the day playing guitar by the river inlet, in lieu of anything more exciting to do at the place.

I've spent the last 2 weeks staying in a very quiet youth hostel at Hervey Bay, on the beautiful Queensland coast. It's about 1213.8 km drive from where I live in Sydney. I got here in smallish chunks of up to 500 km per day. First stop was Newcastle, where I met some lovely ladies in the youth hostel. Then I headed for Port Macquarie, where I spent 3 days totally failing to meet up with a female friend from my old acting class. I left in a huff, and drove to Byron Bay. Stayed there for a week of torrential rain, followed by a week doing The Hoffman Process in the hope of quelling some of my anxiety. Oh, all the while still attempting to be aware of what emotions/symptoms my body is sending me ala Mickel Therapy. Then another week in Byron Bay winding down after being hit by the Hoffman truck.

And then I headed north in search of adventure, partying and women.

Big mistake.

Huge.

I was hoping that The Hoffman Process would turn me into a completely different person: someone comfortable in his own skin, who loved to party like crazy. A magnet for the ladies. In my dreams, the whole thing was destined to be a debauched affiar, with lots of great stories to tell my mates later.

Sadly, I'm still the same person I was before doing Hoffman. Goddam it! I'm still overwhelmed at parties. I ended up spending a few days on the Gold Coast in a youth hostel, which was kinda fun. There was one cute girl there who I teased and joked around with so much that she was almost asphyxiating and had to leave the room. Sadly, much of the teasing was about the fact that she had a crush on this Japanese guy who was also staying at the hostel, and wasn't me. I also failed to hook up with a cute Russian woman who was in a state of trauma when I first met her because she'd lost her dogs. I showed her some emergency empathy just when she needed it, but wasn't much help at locating the dogs, which she found the next day, just as I left town. I told her she would. Damn; had her number and everything.

Then I headed to Brisbane, where I hung out with some friends and some relatives on my father's side of the family. Hanging out with my father's relatives always gives me fresh insights into why I'm so neurotic. It's not much fun though.

After that I went to Noosa to visit my aunty. Her daughter has anorexia and we had a great discussion on why anxiety runs in our family. At least I hope it was helpful to her. I feel for her since the screwed up behaviour/genes in the family appear to have trickled in her direction and that's really not her fault. I blame grandpa personally, but this isn't a family history lesson.

Ok, after that things really heated up as I headed to Rockhampton, where it rained for a whole week. In the dry season. The hostel manager just laughed about it, while the overseas backpackers who had come half way around the world to see the place all fumed, and then got together and we all went bowling. Fuck all else to do in Rocky, to be honest if you're a backpacker; although I did go to my first rodeo where I managed to push in on the food queue and then pretend that I hadn't, much to the chagrin of one of the local ladies. My goddam conscience means I still feel bad when I'm breaking rules. Will I ever outgrow that?

A guy named Olly who I met at Rockhampton had primed me to go to Airlie Beach: the backpacker party capital of the world. He described it like some sort of shag fest, which I'm sure it is if you're comfortable in loud, alcohol-fueled environments. Which I'm not. I spent 4 sleepless nights in Beaches hostel, where the bar plays live and loud music every night until midnight, right outside my dorm room balcony. Thanks Olly, you bastard. It was a mixed dorm with guys coming in and going out at all hours, girls coming in and going out, guys with girls coming in, and going out. All except for me, it seemed. I did befriend a few people, and went on a day trip to Whitehaven beach which is just amazingly beautiful. As happens in backpacker land, all my new befriends left after a while although one of them was kind enough to give me a copy of The Hunger Games which I was interested in reading. Another girl asked for a lift north, where I was planning to go next. It's never the cute ones though, is it? I gave up trying to meet people in the loud nightclubs, and decided to try during the day instead. Then anxiety got the better of me, even though a few women I approached around the lagoon were happy to talk to me. It's always the ones that don't want to talk to me that trigger my inner critic to put that old dagger into my self-esteem, and I just feel like a stalker walking up to a stranger and saying high anyway. Fucking goddam negative beliefs. The Japanese girl really liked me, and the two French girls were really friendly. But still, four days of this and my head was about to melt down with anxiety so I decided to hotfoot it back to Sydney to the comfort of friends who love me. If I still have any left...

On the way down the Bruce highway, I decided to break the boredom and drive through one of the stupid little rest stop lanes they have by the side of the road. I wondered whether the car in the distance behind me would follow, completely failing to realize that it was a police car. What are the chances of that??? He pulled me over and threatened to charge me with dangerous driving. Gave me the spiel about how I was doing stupid things on the most dangerous stretch of road in Queensland. I had to use my full powers of grovelling to get out of it. "I feel like a complete idiot", "I've done the wrong thing officer", "I think I've learned my lesson sir". Bloody authority figures make me anxious too. "Did you even bother to look in your mirror to see if there was anything behind you?" he asked. "Yes, I did... " I pleaded lamely. "Well didn't you see the big blue POLICE car behind you???" he asked, still stiff lipped and cranky. "Yes, but it was so far back I didn't see the police sign... I'm an idiot". He let me off, after pointing out that it would be a long way to come for my court appearance. Thanks officer.

I got as far as Hervey Bay after a nightstop in Rockhampton to meet up with Olly and tell him what a dickhead he is. Turns out he was a decent bloke, and has since been giving me updates on the goings on at the hostel there. (I knew that German guy selling the used computer equipment was gonna get kicked out). Having arrived in Hervey Bay, it occurred to me that being away from loud drunk backpackers could be a good thing, and since it's off-season here I decided to stay for a while. Then I immediately came down with the flu, and have spent the two weeks since then taking mega-doses of vitamin C, playing guitar, reading The Hunger Games and Dead Famous by Ben Elton.

Now I seem to be over the flu, I'm back to exercising a bit more. That makes me feel less nervous, and I like the feeling of putting a bit of muscle on again. I'll probably visit Fraser Island (the world's largest sand island, thanks Bruce Highway trivia) before I leave. Not real keen to head south given that it's cold down there. Not real keen to stay here given it's not my home.

My head is still filled with the usual worries about how to get well, what to do with the rest of my life (which depends a lot on the outcome of worry #1), and how to meet up with a bevy of gorgeous women who all think I'm awesome. Or even just the one special one for that matter.

I sent an angry email to my Mickel Therapist yesterday, so although I'm still focused on that, I wonder if he's still talking to me. Pretty sure another friend of mine who I had a ridiculous argument with on Facebook the other day isn't. Nor my hot friend in the U.S. whose relationship status has just changed to "In a relationship". Hi all if you're reading. Ok, that's enough for now. I'm off to bed.

Posted in Bad days | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CFS and Trauma Recovery

I just had this question from a friend via email, and thought I'd share my answer as an update on how I'm doing:

Have you got anything out of Mickel? I am now onto a new theory that I believe is the key to unlocking us. Have you read DRS Peter Levine, David Berceli... both guys are into Trauma Recovery. Childhood trauma ... repression... has locked our fight/flight energy cycle and their are exercises to release it thru shaking/trembling.

The main thing I’ve got out of Mickel is that it’s changed my thinking about what to do when I feel really tired in the afternoons. I used to go lie down. Now, I go out and move my body in some way. I’ve improved to the point where I now exercise regularly and feel no ill effects afterwards; I think being on the adrenal fatigue diet for about 8 months now contributed to this because I remember noticing that I wasn’t so shaky any more before starting Mickel therapy. So my fitness is now improving too; probably faster than my health. I still tense in the head a lot, but I can think straight so that’s not so bad.

I have read Waking The Tiger by Peter Levine, and it made a lot of sense to me. The trauma of growing up hypersensitive in an environment of conflict was heightened for me by my belief that I had to keep my emotions to myself. If I was shaking out of fear, or crying, I would try very hard to suppress it. I can now see that this is the exact opposite of what is needed for the body to recover and avoid internalising the trauma. It makes sense to me that the amygdala and/or hypothalamus could get stuck in this fight-flight-freeze state. I often feel shivers running through my body when doing emotional release work; I have tried to bring them on using somatic experiencing as described in Waking The Tiger, but found the process frustrating. I think moving my body when I feel unwell also helps unlock the tension that’s still stored there.

I feel a bit raw today as I’ve just completed The Hoffman Process, which dives deep into negative patterns learned from parents when we were children. I did it to try and deal with the anxiety that hit me earlier this year; my Mickel therapist said that anxiety was common and indicated that the treatment was working, but I found it very distressing; traumatising in its own right. I identified a heap of negative patterns doing Hoffman, and the ones that led me to suppress emotion seemed particularly relevant to being ill. I was glad my fitness had improved before doing Hoffman because I found it very physically demanding. It’s like all the most intense therapeutic processes you can imagine all crammed into one intense week. I felt a lot of anger towards my mother coming up, but felt stuck when it came to my father. Then finally anger towards my father came up as transference to other course participants in the final half hour of the post-course tutorial. It was too late to do much with in the process, but I’ll be taking up boxing to dig deeper into that.

I figure all this black stuff in the subconscious adds to the anxiety load that triggers the fight-flight-freeze thing but the proof will be in the pudding over the next few months. I’m almost tempted to say I don’t have CFS any more; I just have a lot of tension in my head that makes me tired sometimes. As long as I avoid stressful situations, my flu-like symptoms are quite tolerable... just like having a slightly runny nose.

Cheers,
Graham

PS: Just to make all the Aussies jealous, I'm on holidays in Byron Bay for the next week, then headed north to explore Queensland's east coast. Good times!

Posted in Good days | 4 Comments

Update on Mickel Therapy progress

It's been a while since I've posted, so I thought it was time for an update. It's a bit over two months since I started Mickel Therapy, and I feel really ambivalent about the whole thing.

On the down side, since starting Mickel I've felt more panicy, anxious and depressed than I have for some time. I feel tense in the head all the time (although that started several months before) and the feeling of constant fear sends me crazy. I also go to a depression & anxiety support group where the leader is convinced that my physical symptoms are due to anxiety; technically I shouldn't be doing any other kind of therapy while I'm doing Mickel, but I have no idea how to do that without going completely insane. I need other people to talk to about this whole thing. I have a pretty big fear of going downhill into some crazy depressed/anxious state and not ever coming out again. When I'm really anxious, the negative thoughts just go ballistic and I end up feeling really anxious just about being anxious.

On the up side, applying the third key to Mickel therapy has motivated me to get out more and have more fun. I've been going dancing again about once per week, something I used to love doing before falling ill. I don't seem to have any after-effects from the physical exertion, like I used to. I only stay for half the lesson and just focus on having fun. I used to focus on picking up women at dancing; that was always a big part of the attraction for me. Now I'm trying to focus on just dancing, enjoying the music, and the company of the women who seem to like me and enjoy dancing with me. Perhaps I should have asked for that cute girl's number; but which one? I've fallen into trouble before when I asked for the number of the best friend of another girl I'd been hanging out with a little, not realizing they were best friends...

I've also been doing a greater variety of physical activity, on the assumption that my body is bored. The main element of Mickel therapy is identifying what emotion is underlying the symptoms as they arise, and taking some action to address the emotion involved. My symptoms don't vary all that much and I struggle to apply this part of the process. I hate taking notes and it's just so fucking boring. I can't see any great correlation between the symptoms and anything I try to do to address the emotion underneath them. My bullshit detector keeps going off, telling me this is probably a load of crap, even though much of it is consistent with other things I've been learning about how the brain operates. I'm still skeptical of how a suppressed emotion could generate the feeling that I've got a cold all the time. I get angry with my Mickel therapist when he starts talking about the theory behind it, half of which sounds like something out of a new age Louise Hay book to me. Being ill for four years has certainly put me in touch with my inner cynic and I feel like giving up. Usually in the afternoon between about 2pm and 4pm, when I usually feel like a narcoleptic puppy dog desperately in need of a sleep. Apparently that's just "false tiredness" in Mickel lingo, so I try to go out and do something fun/interesting/less boring instead like ride my bicycle, play guitar, visit a friend or go to the beach. I'm really sick of this whole thing sucking my life energy out of me when what I really want is to be out doing something creative and rewarding. Not trying to get well all the goddam time!

I went to an Inner Child bootcamp two weeks ago, which was all about healing some of the emotional scars I was still carrying from childhood. It was fun at the time and I met some really compassionate people who were also working on their own stuff. I felt exhausted afterwards; I guess emotional healing is just plain tiring. Not doing it is also tiring, so what to do?

I've been feeling anxious a lot lately and that's the worst part of this whole thing. I can cope with feeling tired, but feeling anxious really bugs me. I don't feel so bad when I'm doing something creative. I seem to have the capacity to worry about just about anything. I think I might have a go at worrying about alien invasion or something else that I'm dead certain will never happen. People sometimes say that we always worry about things that never end up happening; but I remember worrying about getting CFS before falling ill, so that's like a kick in the guts.

I alternate a lot between feeling cranky/angry and feeling anxious. I think I prefer angry.

I haven't been posting much because I've been focusing on the third key of Mickel therapy, which is to meet a balance of my own needs, and that means not sitting behind a computer screen blogging all day. Instead I've been playing keyboard and guitar more, and going out more. I love playing guitar by the beach. I fantasize about some hot blonde bombshell in a skimpy bikini seeing me play guitar while walking past, thinking "Hmm... musician!" and sitting down next to me to chat. I end up back at her place learning how to untie a bikini. That sounds like a positive note to end on, and I hear my guitar calling...

Posted in Bad days | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Overwhelmed with fear and anxiety

The last few days have been pretty rough as I've been feeling overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. I have an almost constant tense feeling in my head which waxes and wanes a little, but is there most of the time. I've been finding it difficult to sleep at night with feelings of fear and dread, usually accompanied by fearful thoughts like "Will I ever recover?" and "Am I stuck with this? How long for?" I feel very shaken by the whole experience and often wonder if the four years it's been so far will drag out to five, ten or more. The whole thing sends shivers and sweats right through my whole body.

It seems like the panic attacks I used to get years ago are back. Frankly, that scares the living shit out of me. I could hardly sleep on Friday night (Good Friday my ass!) and found some solace listening to this talk about being overwhelmed with fear, anxiety and panic. When I hear the fear in the woman's trembling voice as she asks her question of the spiritual guru starting "I am overwhelmed with fear and anxiety and panic..." I start to cry, which is a good tension release. His answer is comforting too. There seems to be something deep in my unconscious that's terrified of something. Fuck knows exactly what, or what to do about it. I like to think that it's at the very root of all my anxieties about what other people think of me, about women, about relationships, about being wrong and/or foolish, about failure, about not feeling good enough and about feeling self-conscious, hypervigilant and just generally bloody insecure. In my fantasies I root this troublesome bastard out and get to live the rest of my life feeling free (and healthy as a bonus).

I've recently given up Toastmasters since it seems pointless learning to deal with anxiety up on stage when I can't handle the feelings of panic I get just lying down to sleep. I also recently bailed out of an Improv contest as just the thought of being on stage and out of control was causing me to feel panicy. That's a massive bummer because I actually really love playing Improv games, and I was hoping to fall into a new circle of friends and a new community there. Maybe that's still possible, but it looks like I'm going to be in the audience for the time being; probably feeling envious of my friends on stage having so much fun. My dream of one day being a professional public speaker, comedian or comic actor seems totally shot to pieces right now. Oh well, I seem to have lost my sense of humour anyway.

A huge fear that I feel is about what other people think of me. As long as I can remember, I've felt afraid of social situations while also having an intense craving to connect with other people, feel appreciated, loved and validated by others. I wish I could switch this off and just feel free. That craving is strongest when I see a woman I find attractive, and that's when the fear is most crippling too. I feel like a failure having not found a life partner at 43 years old, and one of my childhood fears was precisely this. For some strange reason I always saw marriage as a prerequisite for happiness when I was a kid, which is particularly odd given how turbulent my parent's relationship seemed to be. I also remember feeling very fearful after a few weeks of feeling ill way back in 2008 that maybe I had chronic fatigue. They may just be self-fulfilling prophecies but for me it appears that some of my biggest fears have been coming true lately and this also scares the crap out of me.

I feel like an abject failure personally. All this fear, anxiety and panic has undermined my self-confidence and is the exact opposite of the sort of man I long to be. I think this puts a terrible barrier in the way of my relationships with women that I'm attracted to since I get overwhelmed with panic just meeting them, and this makes me even more fearful of how they respond to me. I don't have a problem relating to women as friends since I'm pretty open nowadays, but when I meet a girl I really like and find sexually attractive my head just puts this massive self-sabotaging barrier in the way. I recently met a really cute, fun girl at Improv who I like, and she gets on like a house-on-fire with another guy who seems so laid back. Meanwhile I sit there watching feeling jealous and insecure. I hate feeling so insecure, and this fatigue is bringing it all to the surface. I'm going to a Tantra retreat for men next weekend which may help but I'm already pretty jaded and don't see any magic answers to my anxieties around being openly sexual with women. Ironically I've just published a book on confidence and I realize all-too-painfully that I don't live up to my own expectations. Other people seem to find my advice helpful, but I can't really say I've nailed the problem myself and I hate feeling like a fraud. That's a double-whammy since I was relying on the book as a source of income to lessen my financial anxiety and so now that's not likely to work either.

My Mickel Therapist says that it's normal for symptoms to get worse when people start the therapy, which gives me a small sense of hope that this is just a passing thing. But I'm also pretty skeptical at the moment about this therapy and just want some concrete results. I continue to go to an anxiety and depression support/therapy group twice a week which brings up stuff for me, but it seems like a long-haul process. The guy who runs it wants to see me one-on-one but I'm reluctant to start therapy with yet-another-therapist. I think I've done enough talking and need to do something more primal like hit something or someone instead; if only I wasn't afraid of it leaving me feeling exhausted. If the Mickel Therapy doesn't work, I plan to take up Brazillian Ju Jitsu and Mai Thai kickboxing to see if some mindful violence can help with the anxiety. I've only been doing Mickel for a few weeks but I'm just so desperate for the fear to subside and my skepticism is causing me to look for alternatives already.

All this whiny complaining bugs me too. I swear I'm not just doing it for attention, or at least not consciously. The tension in my head and the fear and panic are real and overwhelming. I hate feeling like a victim to all the bullshit in my head, especially when I've read so many books and done so many courses on positive thinking, emotional healing, therapy and all the rest of it. The thought "Why would any attractive woman want to go out with me like this?" pretty much sums up the crux of my relationship anxiety. I'm fucked. Actually, some sex would be a nice distraction come to think of it... Don't get me started on that frustration. I've just started reading Portnoy's Complaint and although I'm not Jewish and didn't masturbate until very late in life because I thought it was sinful, I can relate to a lot of what he says about his mother. Reminds me a bit of one of my favorite Woody Allen films Oedipus Wrecks in New York Stories. I've read a heap of books on women, dating and seduction and they all seem to involve putting on a persona that feels fake and frightening to me. I like acting and all, but anything that feels even the slightest bit deceptive triggers huge stress in me and fear of being caught, getting things wrong, etc etc. Yet I dropped into a pub to listen in to some live music down in Bondi the other night after therapy group, and saw this guy there with tattoos acting like a jerk to this bunch of women... he started going off at one of them about being jealous of him hitting on another girl (who was clearly enjoying it at the time) and a few minutes later they were all over him hugging, arms around him, wanting his attention. Complete opposite of my experience. I know it's my responsibility to "fix" this if I ever want a relationship with an attractive woman, and I hate just whining about how unfair it is that women go for bad boys over decent shy guys but... fuck it, I can't even be bothered finishing this sentence.

Mickel therapy is all about feelings and my therapist says that the anxiety is just because my pressure cooker of emotions is full and so anxiety comes bursting out. I want to release the pressure so I'm trying to avoid too much analytical thinking and just stay with my emotions. Similar deal with the group therapy. I can see that I have a long history of avoiding painful feelings of loneliness, sadness and fear by getting engrossed in the head-space of computers so I've been trying to avoid that... with mixed success. I spend time playing songs on guitar that express how I feel, and I recently borrowed a bunch of books on guitar playing and songwriting from the library. One day I'd like to be able to express my distraught feelings through my own songs. That's part of what I see myself doing on stage in my dreamy future imagination. Meanwhile I'm working on Cold Chisel's You Got Nothing I want, which is how I feel about the situation I'm in... the thought of a good scream seems quite comforting. I'm also working my way through the library's massive DVD collection in the hope of finding more joy and fun in the midst of my exhaustion.

Surely there's more to life than just battling with fear. When do I get to have some good old fashion fun?

Posted in Bad days | Tagged , | 14 Comments