Taking up Swimming Lessons

About seven weeks ago I finally got around to taking swimming lessons. It’s something that I had been planning to do ever since moving to live near the beach 18 months ago.

How Hard Can It Be?

There are a number of reasons for this: Firstly, I don’t feel safe in the ocean when I’m out of my depth. Deep down I know that I’m not a good swimmer and whenever I’m in deep water my body responds with a lot of anxiety. I figured that if I knew I could swim confidently I wouldn’t get so anxious about not being able to touch the bottom. I go body boarding a lot and I feel relatively safe with the body board strapped to my arm, but I get caught in rips all the time and I know that if the strap was to break or I lost the board somehow, I’d be in real trouble.

Continue reading “Taking up Swimming Lessons”

How I Work With My Coaching Clients

I was recently interviewed by another life coach about how I work with my coaching clients, and thought you might find it interesting. The interview focuses on healing emotional trauma:

As always, I’d be interested in any feedback you have via a comment.

My Visit to the Dentist

Warning: this post may contain graphic depictions of bodily fluids.

I’ve been slowly working through all the things that I put off because I’ve been sick, to reduce my sense of overwhelm. One of the things that I’ve been putting off for a long time, is going to the dentist to have a regular checkup and clean.

Three things prompted this: the first was simply that I haven’t been to the dentist in many years even before I became ill almost seven years ago, and I certainly haven’t been since.

Secondly, my gums of started to bleed during brushing lately and that bothers me.

Thirdly, the tension headache that I have most of the time tends to move around and often settles in my teeth, either on my upper jaw, my lower jaw or both at the same time. It occurred to me that the symptoms that I have in my head could be related to toothache or gum disease, and I have also heard theories relating migraines and even CFS to dental or orthodontic work; so I thought I should probably check that out.

Going to the dentist has never felt like much fun for me, so I was feeling pretty anxious. My previous experience of dentists had always been pretty painful, and they keep reminding me that the evil guy in The Little Shop of Horrors who chose to be a dentist so he could inflict pain on other people.

I felt like this guy
I felt like this guy

Continue reading “My Visit to the Dentist”

Other People Don’t like Me, and Other Victim Stories

I’ve been feeling an increasing frustration at the difficulty that I’m having making new friends in the suburb where I live. I moved to Bondi about a year ago, and expected that I would be meeting people all over the place, especially considering that there are attractive, interesting people all over the place to meet.

Backpackers from all around the world come to Bondi, and there are plenty of interesting locals here as well. When I first moved in, it seemed really easy to meet people; but since then I’ve fallen into a bit of a rut and have found it more challenging. The local beach is full of pretty, interesting girls from all around the world, and yet something is stopping me from going up and talking to them.

It’s not hard to imagine what that something might be: my old fear of rejection rearing its ugly head again.

I can remember several years ago walking up to a pretty girl on a beach, despite my nerves, and saying “Hello, do you mind if I join you?” to her. She was quite polite and replied “I’m sorry, I’m not really up for a conversation right now.”

I wandered off feeling like I’d been hit in the head with a frying pan as a full blown panic attack set in. The fact that it was a nude beach, and neither of us had any clothes on probably didn’t help with my anxiety. I ended up calling a friend to help talk me down again. With memories like that, it’s no wonder that I’m still a little reticent.

I’ve had several really good experiences of meeting girls on the beach since moving here, and I don’t feel anywhere near as bothered nowadays when they don’t seem to want to engage with me. But a big part of me remembers those old panic attacks, and just doesn’t want to take the risk.

Even now just writing about it, I’m feeling that tense feeling in the head again.

So yesterday, I headed off to my psychologist to talk about what’s going on for me. If rejection doesn’t bother me so much any more, why is it I still feel like I’m struggling to meet new people?

Almost immediately in the session, I felt some powerful feelings of fear, sadness, grief and anger. Anger at not feeling well enough to do all the things I want to do, and at the people who have rejected me in the past; grief and sadness at the times in the past that I haven’t felt accepted or appreciated by other people; and fear about the whole rejection/loneliness/abandonment thing.

It’s amazing how deep some of these feelings can go. Even after years of working on this stuff, I still get strong feelings of not being safe around other people sometimes. Each time I told my therapist that I didn’t really feel safe, I felt the fear, sadness and grief come up again.

Things that didn’t feel safe for me included:

  • Meeting new people, especially cute girls.
  • Expressing my anger.
  • Telling the truth about what I wanted.
  • Making mistakes
  • Getting things wrong
  • Failure

I still did these things sometimes even though they didn’t feel safe; but I really wanted them to feel safe so that I could be more consistent and not feel like I’m pushing through anxiety all the time.

Another friend who used to suffer from social anxiety recently told me that once he had overcome the social anxiety, he still found that he had another fear to deal with: fear of the fear itself, and that really resonates with me. I can see that over the past few years with all the anxiety related to CFS, I’ve been telling myself a story that anxiety is too much for me; that I just can’t cope with it. I’m still afraid of my own feelings, basically.

I came home feeling exhausted, anxious and restless. It made for a fairly sleepless night.

Dealing with anger and anxiety in particular are still quite challenging for me, but I can see that the extent of the challenge is heavily influenced by what I tell myself about these troubling emotions. When I get all caught up in the story that it’s all too much, and I can’t do it, I just end up creating more stress and suffering for myself. It’s like my inner child still wants mummy to come and fix it all for me.

Clearly, that was never, and is never, going to happen.

Whereas when I tell myself that they’re just feelings, that there is nothing wrong, and that I don’t need anyone to come and save me from them, I feel more empowered.

It’s time to let go of that old story that meeting other people doesn’t feel safe, and start seeing it as a fun, exciting adventure.

The Pros and Cons of Tai Chi

I recently took up Tai Chi as part of the never-ending quest for better health. Tai Chi seems like the perfect exercise for someone with CFS, because it doesn’t feel like exercise. It’s just a series of slow graceful movements that don’t exactly get your heart racing.

Initially, I started by learning from a video on YouTube. But then I decided to take a course with the Sydney Tai Chi society, so that I could get feedback from an instructor and also hopefully meet some other people who are interested in learning Tai Chi.

I’ve been attending the course for six weeks now. The routine that I’m learning is different from the one in the video, but the underlying concepts are all the same: release stress and tension in the body, and your life force will begin to flow again.

I’ve been practising almost every weekday morning for the past six weeks, down at the southern end of Bondi Beach where there are always people practising yoga, meditation, and tai chi every morning. I almost always feel better after my morning practice.

However, this week I started to notice a growing sense of irritation at the fact the Tai Chi is, well, kind of boring. In a sense, it’s just another thing that I’m trying to do in order to “fix myself”, rather than getting out there and living the life that I would really love to be living right now. And frankly, always trying to “fix myself” bugs the shit out of me.

So while practising Tai Chi this Thursday morning, I started thinking about the Mikel therapy concept of doing what your body seems to be asking for. I was there standing by the ocean doing my slow and graceful movements as the waves rolled in, and I thought to myself “you know, I think what I would really like to be doing right now is going body boarding”. But the water is way too cold for me right now since it’s still winter.

I’ve been meaning to go and buy a wetsuit ever since moving near the beach in Bondi, so that I can still enjoy body boarding in the ocean even on cold days. Another concept I learned from nickel therapy was the idea of doing the things that you’ve been putting off, so I decided that instead of continuing to practice my Tai Chi that morning, I would go to the surf store and buy myself the wetsuit that I wanted.

I came home with a brand-new, top-of-the-line wetsuit which is both flexible and warm, picked up my body board, and headed back to the beach. I had a great time body boarding in the waves, and with a snug fitting new wetsuit, barely noticed the cold water.

Conscious of not wanting to over do it, I also stopped and came home before the shark alarm went off that day. I went back for more body boarding on the Friday, And again came home shortly before the shark alarm went off at Bondi for the second day in a row.

I’ve still got a couple weeks to go before my 8-week Tai Chi course ends, although it doesn’t really end at that point: the instructor says that it takes about 18 months to learn the routine that he is teaching us, and I’ve only done six weeks so far. Frankly, I’d like to do something more exciting with my time.

I get that Tai Chi is great for dealing with anxiety and stress, which I think are key components of CFS. But it’s also a bit of a distraction from living the life that I really want, which I think is the ultimate cure for CFS.

I’ll probably continue to practice Tai Chi from time to time even after the course ends, but rather than doing it religiously every day, I’ve decided to practice it when my body seems to be asking for it.

Otherwise, I’ve adopted body boarding as my daily spiritual practice. Sharks not withstanding.

I Continue To Recover… Gradually

It’s been quite a while since I last posted here, as my continued recovery means I have more time and energy to engage in the life that I want, and less desire to talk about how hard recovering from CFS can be. But I get occasional emails from people who have been following this blog asking how I’m doing, so I thought it was time for an update.

My physical symptoms now resemble a fairly mild cold, and the occasional cough. I no longer push myself into stressful situations that make the cough worse, so it doesn’t bug me so much. I still feel a weird sort of tiredness with a background sense of anxiety that varies from mild to moderate. It’s kind of like the tiredness and the anxiety are playing some kind of dance. It might feel like I need a lie down, but going for a leisurely walk along the beach can work just as well. Other times, I really need the lie down and so I take it.

The other weird symptom I have is a tense feeling in my head, which moves around. Right now it’s in my upper jaw and temples. It’s not exactly painful; sometimes it’s just unpleasant, and other times I can be so engrossed in something I’m doing that I don’t notice it. Perhaps it’s boredom and truly disappears when I’m thoughtfully and physically engaged in some task. It seems to get stronger when I’m feeling angry, and turns into a debilitating headache when I’ve been overdoing things… which I take pains now not to do.

Continue reading “I Continue To Recover… Gradually”

Releasing Anxiety With Zpoint

One of the most challenging symptoms that I experience with CFS is anxiety: it’s like having a moderate panic attack that just doesn’t ever really go away. The intensity varies a bit, but it always seems to be there in the background, ready to rear its ugly head.

Does zpoint really give True Peace Of Mind?
Does zpoint really give True Peace Of Mind?

I recently had a comment from a reader of this blog recommending something called “zpoint”. So I contacted the guy behind it, Grant Connoly, to request a review copy of one of his products. He offered to give me a free session in return for an article about my experience with it, and this is that article.

I can’t claim to be an expert in zpoint after only one session, but a lot of what Grant said during the session really resonated with me. Having grown up in an environment where nobody expressed their emotions cleanly, I learned to suppress, repress and internalise mine. It makes sense to me that CFS hit me after several years of therapy when I started to unlock the roots of my repressed emotions, especially anger; the emotion I’ve forced down the hardest.

Zpoint is a subconscious program for releasing our attachment to repressed emotions; even the ones that we don’t remember or realise are still trapped inside us. This makes sense to me, since emotions operate in our unconscious mind and we don’t generally have direct conscious access to what’s going on down there. Furthermore, emotions have physical sensations attached to them, and it makes sense that if the emotion is trapped in our subconscious, then the sensation will remain trapped in our body too. The relief that we feel from releasing our repressed emotions happens in the body because it releases the associated inner-conflict that causes tightness in the body.

I recall Ashok Gupta’s comment during the Soften and Flow meditation that unpleasant symptoms represent trapped emotions. But the Gupta Program doesn’t go as deeply into this idea as zpoint does.

My best guess is that I’m still carrying some anger in my body, and Grant suggests that if we have a hunch that it’s there, then it probably is there. I notice anger popping into my head a lot when I think about my family, and anger is the flip side of anxiety since they’re both generated in the amygdala which triggers our fight (anger) or flight (anxiety) response. This would explain the tense feeling that I still have in my head most of the time.

Another principle that resonated with me is that when we repress unpleasant emotions like anger, sadness and fear because we don’t want to feel them, we end up suppressing the pleasant emotions like excitement, peace, love and joy too. Learning to release the unpleasant emotions frees us to have more pleasant emotions as an extra bonus. Having felt totally self-conscious about expressing any emotion in the past, this made complete sense to me.

During my zpoint session with Grant, he installed the zpoint program for releasing emotions in my unconscious mind. It consisted of visualising a releasing circle in front of me, and then commanding my unconscious to release any and all emotions into that circle. He then took me through the releasing process, which was very gentle and easy.

The process begins with the facilitator counting down from 10 to 1, and then giving instructions to and asking questions of my subconscious, to release my attachment to any and all emotions it was still carrying. All I had to do was mentally repeat the cue word “Yes”, while Grant directed my subconscious mind to release all the emotions that I have trapped in my mind and body.

Each process took about 6 minutes, and we repeated it several times over a session that lasted almost an hour. Each time we focused on a different issue based on questions Grant asked me. For example, one process focused on releasing the emotions that I have about releasing other emotions.

By the end of the session, Grant said he felt buzzed, and that he knew that meant I was releasing emotions. From his perspective, zpoint was working its magic. I felt calmer, but couldn’t help but notice my rational-minded scepticism encroaching. We put that in the releasing circle too.

I only had one session with Grant, and don’t know how many it typically takes to release a lifetime of emotional repression. The zpoint FAQ says “You should see significant positive results within the first 60 – 90 days”. I’m not new to the whole emotional release thing; I’ve had a great deal of therapy and tried virtually every emotional release process known to man, so I was curious to see how zpoint worked and what it could do for me.

It’s 8 weeks later now, and I do feel calmer, less anxious and less angry. I still use the zpoint program frequently by repeating the cue word “Yes” to myself when I’m feeling really anxious. It also reinforces my belief that the best way to deal with CFS is to accept it, not to fight against it: Say “Yes” to the symptoms, because they have something valuable to teach us. This also seems consistent with the idea behind [intlink id=”532″ type=”post”]Mickel Therapy[/intlink], although Mickel is a bit more proactive about working out what exactly the symptom is trying to say.

Since my zpoint session I’ve also been meditating; using guided relaxations and visualisations; playing music; practising Tai Chi; watching comedy; and finally decided to stop pushing myself and just rest, sleep and relax until my cold-like symptoms go away. So I can’t promise that the improvement is solely due to zpoint, but I do think Grant is onto something and am grateful that he gave up his time so I could learn another way of letting go of anxiety and other distressing emotions.

If you’re finding anxiety difficult to deal with, I recommend checking out zpoint at zpointforpeace.com. Leave a comment letting me know how you go if you try it.

Playing Tennis and Even Squash

Time for a fitness update: for the last couple of months I’ve been having tennis lessons and playing regularly during the week. This means I can play for a couple of hours at a time without feeling exhausted. In fact, I feel pretty good after a game. One of the guys from tennis even invited me to join him in a game of squash, so last weekend I played squash for about an hour and a half too. Against two guys about 15 years younger than me. Their game was more strategic than mine, meaning that I spent a lot of time running all over the court. One of the guys remarked that I “had more stamina than both of them combined”. So all that morning exercise must really be helping.

I’ve also been going to the beach to go bodyboarding every day that I can, which tends to work out at about once a week. The weather is getting too cold now though, so I doubt I’ll be doing much more bodyboarding for the forseeable future.

When I’m not out playing tennis or bodyboarding, I’m often playing my drums or going cycling. So yeah, I’m pretty goddam fit now. Probably more fit than the average 45 year old.

That’s the good news. Of course there’s bad news too though; well, no bad than before but just not a whole heap better. I still have a tense feeling in my head most of the time, and feel anxious a lot… to the point where it becomes debilitating.

I’ve noticed during exercise that I’ll often suddenly feel kind of nauseous and start throwing up; but I’m not vomiting anything from my stomach. It’s all coming from my head. And it’s not like I’ve over-exerted myself when this happens; it seems to be just the movement of tension in my head and body that does it. The other day I felt really tense in my teeth, and found myself heaving while cleaning my teeth. Oddly enough I’d just had lunch yet nothing from my stomach came up. It’s like the nausea I used to feel when I’d get really bad migraines way before I had CFS; after throwing up the tension releases and the pain would subside. Never heard anyone else talk about this before. I wonder if it’s related to some kind of trauma release.

I wake up feeling pretty good these days; not as good as I feel in my dreams, but reasonably OK. Then at about 4pm it’s crash time; for some reason I just feel wretched around then: very anxious and tense more than physically tired, but I almost always feel like I need to just go and lie down.

I recall Leigh Hatcher talking about this in his book I’m not crazy, I’m just a little unwell… which, in a freaky coincidence, I read purely out of interest about a year before falling ill myself. But while he put it down to his body running out of fuel, I reckon it’s some sort of emotional/nervous/body rhythm thing. It seems to happen every day regardless of what I eat; but it doesn’t tend to happen if I’m around people I like doing something I find very engaging. Or perhaps I just don’t notice it then.

Yesterday it hit me particularly badly. I went to bed about 4pm and got up again feeling relatively OK around 7pm. Problem is, this really messes with my lifestyle. Perhaps I should just quit my whining given that I now have a relatively functional 12 hours of waking life each day, but last night I just lay on the couch watching TV thinking: “I’m fucked… I really am fucked”.

Not to get too philosophical about it or anything… no bugger that, I think I will: look, we’re all fucked anyway. Eventually we all die. Doesn’t matter if you have CFS/ME/Rabies/Whatever-your-chosen-form-of-suffering. The Buddhists are right: all living things suffer. It’s not meant to be a depressing realization but a compassion-inducing one. Everyone is struggling with something they wish would just hurry up and fuck the hell out of their lives. Mine just happens to be this, and I get all upset and annoyed when I think about the handbrake it puts on my potential future. So I try to live in the moment instead.

I promise to stop whining soon. My tennis coach has some weird physical and mental handicap like cerebral palsy or something, and he seems pretty happy. We’re both big fans of Anchorman, so we walk around joking about our glass cases of emotion. I’ve never seen anyone serve the way he does, with his back arched all over the place. It’s amazing he can get the damn thing over the net. He can sure hit the ball though!

I definitely suffer more when I dwell on how much I’m suffering. I don’t suffer when I’m bodyboarding and some huge wave comes up to scare the bejesus out of me; I’m too busy trying not to drown. Or when I’m engrossed in thrashing some tennis partner. Or playing drums. But then, it’s not even 2pm yet so I’m still in a relatively functional frame of mind. Ask me again in a few hours.

I’m also really bored shitless living where I’m living. I want to move closer to the beach for next summer. In order to do that, I’ll need an income of some sort. Becoming a famous comedian is unlikely to happen given that I’m wiped out in the evening when gigs are on, and I’ve lost my sense of humour lately anyway. I might be able to get some acting work… and like that’s not competitive or anything. There’s always engineering to go back to if I’m starving, but solving technical problems doesn’t grab me any more. Something is bound to come up… and if not, I’ll just do the deep breathing thing. Anxious… argh!

I’ve been trying to do that gratitude thing lately too, where you think of all the good things you’ve got going for you instead of the bad shit that’s going down. So I’m grateful for you reading this post, and even more grateful if you’d leave a comment so I don’t feel so goddam lonely here blogging away by myself.

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!

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.