Back home again

I just got back this evening from my retreat in the Hunter Valley. I stayed at the Youth Hostel for 3 nights while I did a bit of structural editing on the book I’ve been working on for several years.

Then I went to Path Of Love. Wow… what an amazing experience. Lots of catharsis and emotional healing work in such a short space of time. It was very different to the Vipassana Meditation Retreat I did earlier this year; I’ll write a more complete article about it once I’ve had more time for it to really integrate.

After that, I went back to the Youth Hostel for a couple of nights. Glad I did too, because I was way too tired to drive back home straight after Path Of Love… it was exhausting emotionally, physically, and probably spiritually too! The hostel was buzzing with about 20 women from a hen’s weekend, who’d taken over the kitchen and therefore decided it was easier to feed me than to get out of my way. Bring on the love I say!

This afternoon I went to a Toastmasters seminar, and practised the speech I want to use in the upcoming humorous speech competition. It’s good to see it finally coming together, on the third attempt.

I’m back to Acting class tomorrow, and working on rebuilding my blog to start building a list to market my book to. All very exciting, and a bit scary. Great Expectations.

Just passed six months on the Gupta programme

I’m currently in Brisbane visiting my father’s family, motivated by my aunty’s 80th Birthday. Technically, it’s six months now since I began the Gupta Amygdala Retraining programme for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. So I think it’s time for a review.

I say “technically”, because I only really stuck to the programme for the first four of those six months. After that, I pretty much stopped doing the physical Stop-Stop-Stop business; although I kept doing it in my head every now and then. The other thing I had difficulty with doing was taking six months off life to just recover.

After about a month on the programme, a friend of mine with CFS recommended an acting course that he had found tremendously helpful in unlocking the emotional repression that he believed was at the core of his Chronic Fatigue. His background story was so similar to mine, and the course sounded so amazing, that I just didn’t want to wait until I’d done six months on the Gupta program before starting the classes.

Starting acting classes took all my remaining energy… and then some. I also had a couple of other stressors at the time: I was president of a Toastmasters club (what was I thinking?) where I learned to delegate primarily because I was too ill to actually do anything myself. And I was still attempting to unsuccessfully promote my first book. Which, by the way, is getting rave reviews… but few actual sales! I found the emotional rollercoaster of pushing something unsuccessfully really harsh, so I’ve pretty much sidelined it… at least for the time being.

After a few months on Gupta’s programme, I became pretty skeptical of his Amygdala Hypothesis, and particularly of the ability of the NLP business to break the stress response. I’m currently reading The Emotional Brain, by Joseph Ledoux; the neuroscientist whose work Ashok Gupta based his programme on. It’s a fascinating read, very relevant  to what I want to talk about in my public speaking. I grew up in a family where emotions are so strongly suppressed that they’re pretty much taboo, and this has had a tremendously damaging effect on my psyche. So to read this book about the emotional mechanisms hard-wired into my brain is very validating. Ledoux’s key research interest is the emotion of fear specifically, so it talks a lot about the amygdala and the physiological stress response.

I can see how the stress response could become a learned conditioned response, and how the Stop-Stop-Stop technique is intended to break the association. But it’s a bit of a stretch to jump from Ledoux’s research to Gupta’s theory; I’m not sure if Ledoux would go along with it. I’d been under chronic emotional stress for some time before succumbing to CFS, but even if the stress response does become active constantly, I can’t see how this alone can produce flu-like symptoms. It would surely play havoc with my immune system though, and that could allow for a persistent infection.

My main complaint with the Gupta programme is that it’s just so goddam boring. All that Stop-Stop-Stop and meditation; frankly, I’d rather be out living my life. But then it’s really CFS that’s boring rather than the recovery programme. I seem to have fewer days stuck in bed now than I did when I started the programme, and I don’t feel overwhelmed with anxiety so much. I’m functioning well enough that I think the distraction of getting back to what I actually want to do with my life is more productive than walking around saying “Stop Stop Stop!”. Whether it’s Gupta that got me there, or the acting class, or the vitamins, or the rest, or the non-aerobic exercise, or just the sheer passage of time, or some combination of the above… I’m really not sure. I remember a few months ago I was deeply fearful of being ill indefinitely; now I’m not so worried about that. I just feel like I have a mild cold, and a bit zoned out. But that’s quite liveable, so if it never went away, I’d cope.

I’m basically backing off on Gupta now. I’m going to spend less time watching the DVD’s, reading the forums, and probably less posting to this blog. My plan was to spend 6 months recovering, and this blog’s purpose was to reach out to other sufferers seeking support to stay motivated. It mostly worked, and the 6 months is now over.

Chronic Fatigue has felt like a huge distraction for me from what I actually want to be doing with my life. It’s been like driving with the handbrake on; but the brakes have slowly been coming off lately, and now I’m keen to move forward. However, it has forced me to focus more because I could no longer do all the fun stuff I used to enjoy and had to come up with something else. I have enough energy to practise my public speaking, get to an acting class or two a week, plus some practise sessions; and get back to that autobiographical book that I put on hold when I became ill. The book is meant to be inspiring, and I couldn’t see how I could be inspiring when I was stuck in bed most of the time so I put it on hold for two years, but now I’d rather like to finish it.

Focusing on my future gives me less time to focus on feeling ill. And I don’t feel so ill now anyway… I’m hoping the trend continues. If there’s one thing Gupta got right, it’s that the psychological and emotional effects of Chronic Fatigue are enormous. They’re the thing that actually causes the suffering, and we need to pay more attention to these emotional aspects. Getting emotional support from people has been absolutely crucial for me. Sadly my emotional-brick-wall family don’t qualify, but that’s just more material for what I want to speak about down the track.

I’m considering writing a book about my experience with Chronic Fatigue. There was quite a bit of drama in the first 2 years before this blog started, and I think the story itself would help inspire other sufferers. If you think you’d buy a copy at say $10, drop me a comment and I’m sure I’ll be more motivated to put the time into writing it.

My plan now is to rebuild my home page on WordPress, and start blogging there on a more regular basis. CFS and this blog has helped me learn how to do that better. It’s an ill wind that brings no good, as they say. Then I want to get out to more speaking venues, develop a keynote speech, and get this public speaking career thing happening. Having a plan for the future definitely makes me feel more positive, and less anxious. Anxiety is one of the things I want to speak about, so perhaps CFS has taught me a valuable lesson in there somewhere that I can use.

Meanwhile, let me know how y’all are doing!

3 Month Update

Well it’s 3 months since I started the Gupta programme, so I thought I’d give you all an update on where my symptoms are at.

I don’t feel radically different, but I don’t seem to have the lows that I used to. I’m not feeling so desperate about being ill, or about getting better. I still feel like I have a mild cold, but it’s a mild cold that doesn’t bother me quite so much. I’m not as jittery as I used to be; I don’t drop or spill things so often. I still feel a little tense, but not so much as before. I’m more relaxed. Well, with all that meditation, I’d wanna be!

I haven’t had a headache in a few weeks, and it’s been a long time since I got out of bed, walked to the kitchen and felt like I’d been run over by a truck. So I’m getting there, slowly. I’m getting used to not filling my days with planned activities, and feeling OK about that. I feel a little anxious about where I’ll be at when 6 months rolls around. Almost all my plans for the future are contingent on getting my health back to 100%, and I’d love the nasal drip thing and the cough it causes to go away. If you met me on a good day, you’d have no idea there was anything wrong with me, and I’m hesitant to tell people what’s up until I get to know them a bit. I now consider myself “recovering from CFS” rather than “suffering from CFS”.

I haven’t been doing my Stop-Stop-Stop so much lately, but I’ve just watched Session 5 again and I want to get back on top of that. I listen to the meditation CD with Soften and Flow, and the Positive Visualisation exercise at least once a day. I’m constantly reminding myself not to take on anything new that isn’t directly related to improving my health.

I went out last night to check out venues in the city, as pre-work for one of those dating workshops where they teach you how to approach women in bars and clubs. I have a lot of female friends, and am pretty good at getting along with women, but my fear of approaching and interacting with the women I’m actually attracted to has always held me back so I’ve decided it’s time to get over it and learn the art of pick-up.

I’m mostly taking the Easter weekend easy, but I have a lunch date today with a girl I’ve met on an Internet dating site. She seems really keen, and we seem to have a lot in common. She’s very active, so it’ll be interesting to see how I keep up with her. We’re off to the art gallery this afternoon, and who knows what this evening…

Jealousy, Fear, Anxiety, Setbacks and Starting Again

I went to acting practise last night, and had a good time; it always gives me a lift. There’s a girl there who I really like who has been quite friendly towards me, and I’ve been hoping to get to know her better. Last night I heard her say to one of the other guys “We’ll have to get together for coffee sometime!” Urgh. I felt really jealous. I’ve had a few minor setbacks in the romance area lately; a number of girls I’d been interested in turned out to have boyfriends, or to just seem uninterested in me. Another girl I met on the Internet has turned fickle and negative towards me (yeah, there’s a story there). Definitely triggers my whole abandonment fears. But there are plenty of other fish in the sea, right? So I stayed up late last night sending contact requests to women who sounded interesting on an online dating site. The problem for guys online is that with the usual inhibitions out of the way, women are swamped with requests from introverted guys and you end up lost in the noise. If I get any response at all, most of the time it’s a rejection… which hit’s that abandonment button square on. Gawd, I’d love to be less sensitive. Just brush it all off and move on. I felt really lonely and looked around for someone online to chat to, but there was nobody… and I was too tired to keep my eyes open anyway.

It was almost 1am by the time I got to bed, and I had a pretty good sleep. I woke up about 8:30am this morning feeling an anxious sensation in my chest. It was accompanied by the usual thoughts about the Big Three: health (when is it going to get better?), career (what am I going to do?), and relationships (when am I going to sort that out?). I listened to the meditation CD, and calmed down a bit. I wish it was possible to have an amygdalectomy and just get the bastard removed. My emotions only ever seem to cause me trouble.

I went to see an amateur production of Grease on the weekend which some friends of mine were in. It took me back to my first role, where I played Kenickie… before I got ill. I almost cried when Rizzo sang “There are worse things I could do”; I was actually moved by it. My acting teacher has been telling me to “be more affected by things”, so I guess I’m getting there. I’m still hoping that the acting course unlocks my emotional repression enough to release some of the stress I feel, allowing my body to recover faster than it would just with the Gupta programme alone. I seem to be getting more expressive during practise, and I’m really enjoying the course as it definitely gives me a lift most of the time. Just as long as I don’t wear myself out with the extra workload. I also want to try some psychodrama… I’ll let you know how that goes.

I visited my parents yesterday for the first time in a couple of months, which went OK. I’d grown a beard and shaved my head since last seeing them. My mother didn’t recognise me. Later on she asked “If you could do anything, what would you like to do?”. I think she was reaching out and trying to be helpful; but I wasn’t in the mood. Too tired to really engage, and I had a busy day yesterday which didn’t help. A pre-CFS friend from dancing rang while I was there to invite me around for Good Friday lunch. It’s nice to know I still have a few friends who keep in touch since I dropped off the planet.

I’ve just watched Session 3 of the programme, so I’m back to starting again with Stop-Stop-Stop. I hope the testimonials give me more motivation, as I’ve been kinda slack lately. I haven’t felt too bad physically though lately; mainly just tired and a bit anxious. I’m kinda at the “I can live with this; but it’s still a pain in the ass” level. I’m taking my guitar to acting class this afternoon for my activity, and doing two classes today. That should be fun!

Meditation Retreat

Well I completed the 10-Day Vipassana meditation retreat at Dhamma Bhumi retreat centre on Sunday morning. It’s a beautiful setting at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, about 2 hours west of Sydney. If you want to do Vipassana, I can’t think of a more beautiful place to do it. For me, the experience was largely one of intense discomfort, suffering, and unrelenting pain which just didn’t get any better as I went along; in fact, it got worse! I’m just glad it’s over.

The retreat started on a Wednesday evening with about 60 of us. First thing they did was to separate the men from the women. Well, there’s 90% of the potential for enjoyment gone just there. We enrolled and had a brief orientation session, including the onset of “noble silence”, meaning no talking to anyone for the next 9 days.

And then the meditation began. We arose at 4am each morning, to be ready for meditation in the hall at 4:340. After about 10 minutes, my legs were aching already. I’m not used to sitting cross-legged, and all the tendons in my legs began to hurt. Thank your-chosen-deity we had breaks every hour; I couldn’t wait for them. The initial instruction was to focus on the breath through the nostrils. Not to control it or to influence it, but just to focus. I found the focusing easy, but every time I did my breathing would stop, switching onto manual control. So I had to start breathing manually. I have done quite a bit of conscious-breathing meditation in the past, and learned to breathe diaphrammatically with my vocal coach as my normal modus operandi. I have a feeling some of this may have made it more difficult for me to just observe, rather than also control my breath. I was bored after a few minutes of this, and my mind started to wander; often onto the increasing pain in my legs. Welcome to the next 10 days, as it turned out!

Day 2 I was already struggling. I was experiencing an “aversion” to my suffering, and the solution was to simply observe it objectively and not react to it. Apparently my mind has been conditioned to respond to pleasant and unpleasant experiences with craving and aversion respectively, and the path to enlightenment and freedom from suffering is to become detached from both. Well yeah, I agree that our suffering is compounded when we focus on what we have but don’t want, or on what we don’t have but do want; but I was beginning to wonder whether sitting for long hours in an uncomfortable position was really part of the answer. Plus the food was vegetarian, and although it was down the tasty end of the vego spectrum, I was hanging for a cheeseburger.

For about half the meditation sessions, we had to be together in the hall. For others, we could meditate in our rooms if we wished. I had a room to myself, and took to meditating lying down whenever I was allowed. I felt quite exhausted from the sheer mental and static physical demands of the long meditation sessions. I figured if I fell asleep while meditating lying down in my room, I needed the sleep more than I needed the meditation. I was relieved to have 10 straight days without any aerobic physical activity, and I think this reduced my flu-like symptoms quite a bit.

Day 3’s teaching sounded remarkably similar to Day 2: focus on the breath in and around the nostrils. But they told us it all again anyway. I was in pain, and generally hating it. I kept thinking “I just want to be home playing my guitar”. I moved my posture quite a bit to try to find a new comfortable position. Invariably I would find myself comfortable for only a short while. I spoke to the teacher about this. He was the only person we were allowed to talk to, and then only at set times. He said my discomfort was the result of unconscious impurities of the mind arising, and that I would be purged of these so long as I didn’t create a new aversion to it. I was more of the opinion that my discomfort was the result of sitting in uncomfortable positions for such a long time. He suggested I try a backrest, and I felt relieved: “You mean you have backrests I can use? Oh cool!”. I thought I was finally saved.

Day 4 things got a bit more interesting, as we started scanning our bodies from head to toe observing sensations. Still, that got boring pretty quickly. My usual anxiety-producing thought of “Which path am I going to take in life from here?” ran through my mind a lot, giving me occasional waves of anxiety, and adrenaline. I have a very busy mind that likes to be engaged in doing stuff. Apparently that’s just evidence that I need to meditate more. Forms of entertainment like books and movies are just distractions from dealing with the unconscious impurities in our minds, said the teacher. I could go fill my life with such distractions if I wanted, but they would never really satisfy me. The true path to enlightenment is to face my discomfort, not to distract myself from it.

Day 5’s teaching sounded remarkably similar to Day 4, but they told us again anyway. By this stage I was really bored. And in pain. And finding it harder to focus. The pain in my legs wasn’t getting any better, as I had hoped it would as they got more used to sitting in the poses my normal life never involves. I felt like getting up and yelling “This is bullshit!!” and storming out of the meditation hall, making the biggest scene possible. Probably not that respectful to the other meditators though. I started feeling really angry, and the people I feel most anger towards naturally popped into my head: my parents.

Day 6 introduced a new form of self-imposed torture: The Sitting of Strong Determination. The aim of this was to complete each 1-hour sitting without changing posture. Oh my god. When the recorded teacher’s voice introduced this, I reacted mentally with “There’s always some bloody catch, isn’t there? Now my path to enlightenment is blocked by the fact that I cannot goddam sit still when I’m bored.” Never have been able to. Just ask my mother. I really wanted to be home playing guitar. Or writing. Or doing stand-up comedy. I got through a whole hour-long sitting without changing posture, by reciting a comedy routine I’ve been thinking of doing, in my head. It was contrary to the spirit of the whole meditation thing; in fact, parts of the routine consisted of totally bagging out the whole experience. But it was the only time I sat completely still for the whole hour. Afterwards, my legs ached in “appreciation”.

I wondered whether to practice my assertiveness skills by telling everyone what I really thought of the whole thing and storming out, or my commitment skills by sticking at it. Both could use a boost, but in this case I chose to exercise the commitment skills. I can hear the voices of a couple of ex-girlfriends in my head replying “Bit bloody late for that, don’t you think Graham?”. I complained again to the teacher how uncomfortable I was despite the backrest, and he said they’d get me a chair. “Oh cool!”, I thought, “I’m saved!”

By Day 7 everything was a blur. Not a blur in the fast-moving sense, just a blur in the sense that I’d really rather not remember what was happening. It was quite traumatic. The chair they got me turned out to be one of those white plastic garden setting chairs with the legs cut off, so when I sat on it with my feet on the floor, my knees stuck up in the air. It was only marginally less comfortable than sitting cross-legged. In some respects, it was worse.

The teacher summoned me during the lunch break, and we had a long and partly philosophical discussion where I protested my boredom, the ongoing pain, and the fact that frankly, the idea that impurities of the mind were being purged by all this self-imposed discomfort sounded like crap to me. No wonder Buddhists are so big on suffering, when they impose so much on themselves. And I didn’t even get into what I thought about the idea of past and future lives, or the notion that the suffering therefore just goes on and on until you eventually wise up and begin meditating full-time so that one of your future lives eventually reaches enlightenment. What a load of cobblers.

Day 8 was like Day 7, only with more aches in the legs, less concentration, and greater relief at bed time. I was hoping I’d be getting into it more, rather than less, by this stage, but I was working against a short attention span that needs to see some positive results if it’s to stick at anything. If I didn’t have the motivation of breaking the adrenaline cycle to recover from my chronic fatigue symptoms, I wouldn’t have come. The teacher was of the opinion that my illness is psychosomatic, and I agree. “But this technique will not cure your illness. That’s not why you’re here.”, he said, “The technique is to purify your mind. That is what is most important.”

“Yeah, sure” I replied, “But the reality is that if it weren’t for my illness, I wouldn’t be here.”

“So are you going to stay and finish the course? We can’t lock you in you know, it’s really up to you” he said.

“Yes, I’ve stayed this long. I want to get whatever I can out of it. I’m staying”.

Day 9 we were allowed to scan our bodies for sensations in any manner or direction that we liked. Only made it marginally more interesting for about 30 seconds though. By this stage, I was really over the whole thing. Still hopeful for some sort of breakthrough or magic to happen though, and committed to seeing it through. But I was definitely counting down the meditation sessions by now.

In the final meditation for the day, I decided to give one last red-hot-go at sitting completely still and focusing on the body sensations I was experiencing. Perhaps I could still have a breakthrough at this late stage? I lasted a whole hour with only two changes in posture. My legs were in so much pain afterward that I couldn’t sleep, and felt extremely restless. Even more than normal!

On Day 10, everything changed. We still had to meditate, but we could talk to each other. Even the women, provided it was in the designated area. I’m getting over my historical tendency to try and get people to like me by avoiding offending them. When other people asked how I’d been going, I’d generally reply with “That was bullshit!. I’ve been in agony the whole time!”, which was only a very slight exaggeration. After all, there were times when I was asleep that I wasn’t uncomfortable, and meal breaks were OK. Most people found my experience amusing. Let’s face it, there’s something about another person’s pain that triggers our humor mechanism. It’s a stress relief, and I needed some stress relief. A few confided that they’d had a similar experience as me, after initially saying it was “OK” to avoid offending anyone.

The next day, by 6am it was all over. We’d been given a taste of the technique, and taken the first step on what was supposed to be a life-long path. Two hours of Vipassana a day, and at least one follow-up retreat a year, and we could become enlightened after a lifetime of working on it. My god, I don’t think so!

All the was left to do was to clean the place up, and get the train home. I debriefed with some other fellow sufferers meditators, most of whom could relate to some degree. One girl I met while sweeping out the meditation hall asked “Why didn’t you leave, if it was so bad?” Well, I wanted to see if it would get better! Turned out her experience was very similar to mine. “My legs were aching!”, she said, “But of course they were aching… I was sitting cross-legged for hours on end! And the tingling sensations people were talking about? Well of course you get tingling sensations when you cut off the blood supply by sitting still in the same position for so long!”. She was a thinker. A kindred spirit. I was glad I’d seen it through right to the end, so that I could meet people like her and debrief properly. If I’d left part-way through, I would have returned home feeling a failure thinking the problem was just me. The problem wasn’t just me… others were struggling to.

I probably wouldn’t have gone to the meditation retreat if other friends hadn’t suggested it, and Ashok hadn’t recommended it in the recovery programme. At least I can say I tried it. But I also have an interest in meditation since I know it’s useful for reducing anxiety, which I’ve had bucket loads of during my life. So I was quite happy to give a retreat a try. For me it was mostly just torture though. My biggest breakthrough was simply to get to the end and have the pain finally go away. I caught the train and a bus back home, feeling relaxed and relieved that it was all over. I came home and played my guitars until my fingers hurt so much I couldn’t play any more. I didn’t bother going to acting practise that night; I took the rest of the day off to treat myself well and do things I enjoyed. I went up to the local pub to grab a steak for dinner, and hired a DVD to watch back home. I didn’t particularly want to speak to anyone, or talk about my experience. Frankly, it was quite traumatic. It did make me appreciate my life more, and how little physical suffering I routinely endure. Most of the joy that I’ve experienced since has been based on “I’m glad that’s over!”. No matter what happens to me this week, I know it won’t feel anywhere near as bad as 10 days of torture.

Now I don’t want to put you off or anything but… Oh what the heck, look, for me, it was just plain horrible. The best part is that it was over. I did meet some cool people who I’d like to keep in touch with, and I do feel more relaxed now that it’s done. I only had minimal chronic fatigue symptoms while I was on the retreat too; very little coughing, and only a few nights of bad insomnia. I seem more relaxed since returning home too.

Philisophically, I have less respect for Buddhism now after completing this retreat, even though it’s still my preferred religion after atheism. I just don’t buy the idea that the best way to deal with suffering is to become completely detached from both pleasant and unpleasant sensations. I think a rewarding life incorporates activities that are inherently pleasurable, like socializing with people we like, having meaningful relationships, and doing things we find rewarding like playing music, reading books, learning new skills, entertainment, and dare I say it even sex! All these things have an evolutionary basis; I don’t think they are mere distractions: they’re part of the path of a meaningful life. The “art of living” espoused by the Buddhists discounts all these as craving-creating activities that just lead to suffering when they aren’t available. Yes, relationships end, people die, I won’t be able to read one day when I lose my eyesight, and arthritis will eventually render my guitar silent. Not to mention the times of sexual frustration! But in the meantime, I’m living a rich life; not just temporarily fulfilling endless suffering-creating cravings. I’ll keep doing regular guided visualization meditations, because I seem to get a benefit from them. I’ll try more Vipassana occasionally too, like when I feel really anxious; but I know the adherents will say I need daily practice to develop the skill, or it won’t work. Frankly, I’d rather get in-the-zone by playing my guitar or keyboard. That’s more meditative for me because it’s inherently engaging for me. And it’s something I can share with other people.

My advice for anyone contemplating a meditation retreat is to spend a month sitting cross-legged for as long as you possibly can at home before going. Do it while watching TV, reading, or whatever. I really think this would have helped me. The sheer discomfort I experienced prevented me from gaining any real benefit other than the relief when it was all over. I would have been more comfortable if I was more prepared physically beforehand.

On the Monday after the retreat, I got my head shaved, as part of my commitment to The World’s Greatest Shave. I had a really interesting conversation with my hairdresser, who I met right around the time I quite full-time work about 6 years ago. He has utmost respect for my desire to experience new things, and not just stick at a job I didn’t enjoy any more. He thinks I’m living the dream; and to some extent I am. I said I’d like more direction in my life, but he reminded me how lucky I was to have the opportunity to do all the things I’m doing. Which is true. On the way to acting class I bumped into one of the guys from my old workplace: the one who appeared most cynical and depressed about being there when I left. When he told me about their upcoming meetings, I felt glad I’d made the break. I had a great career there which garnered me lots of respect and satisfaction for many years… but I have no desire to go back, even when I feel 100% healthy again. Nowadays I’m more interested in relating to people than machines. I want to write a best-seller or be a rock star, or teach something worthwhile. That afternoon I felt pretty good about things. My CFS symptoms aren’t too bad, and the pain I experienced at the retreat is over. I have an overdue book report to write and a stack of email to get through, but this week is looking pretty good. I hope yours is too!

I’m off on a Meditation Retreat tomorrow

I had a really good argument with a guy at acting practise tonight. He really pissed me off, and I didn’t hold back. He was challenging me to open up, but wouldn’t open up himself. He was playing games rather than being genuine. Plus he was unnecessarily abusive. So even though he was faking, it totally worked for me because I was furious at his hypocrisy and his bullying. Expressing anger feels much better than bottling it up, I must say!

I’m away for the next 10 days on a Vipassana Meditation Retreat. It sounds very similar to the Art Of Living course that Ashok recommends. So you won’t be hearing from me for a while. I’ll let you all know how I feel after I get back.

Emotional Stress and Chronic Fatigue

This is an edited excerpt from an email I sent to a reader asking whether the treatment in the Gupta program worked.

After trying a bunch of other treatments and listening to crackpot theories from many quarters, I’m convinced that Ashok Gupta has hit the nail on the head with his amygdala hypothesis. CFS seems to be a self-perpetuating stress response where the body wears itself out by being stuck in permanent fight-or-flight mode. I can now see many warning signs in the years before I got ill which I either ignored or didn’t deal with successfully. I had no idea that stress could bring on an illness like this, but now I sure believe it can.

There are several components to the program, but it’s principally a thought-stopping technique plus meditation, plus supportive encouragement. I have the attention span of a small gnat (which just contributes to emotional stress… it’s all tied in somewhere), and I’m starting to wonder about the thought-stopping technique myself. But there are times when I can almost feel the squirt of a adrenaline into my system when I have a pessimistic or worrying thought; they’re not good for you! So part of the problem is me just getting lazy and going “Stop-stop-stop probably doesn’t work… why bother doing it anyway”. Well maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t… it seems worth a try. That’s why I set up my blog… so people would remind me to keep at it. Last night I was fantasising about recovering fully and writing a book about my experience to convince other people that this whole thing is stress-related.

At the same time, I’m also looking at other ways to break the adrenaline cycle. The usual cures for stress should work; anything that lessens emotional stress either about being ill or about life in general ought to help. I’m looking at comedy, laughter, and other avenues of self-expression like music. I repress my anger, and I’m doing an acting course to help me get over it. I had an argument at 3am with a sort-of-girlfriend who stayed over, and god it felt good to actually tell her I was pissed off with her even if I was on shaky ground. I judge my emotions waaaaay too harshly, and I’m learning to say “look, this is how I feel… that’s just how it is”. I’m having a look at psychodrama. I start a 10-day meditation retreat on Wednesday. I’m not going in for any further medical treatments though; I think the continual search for a treatment is just another symptom of the condition.

My skeptical side hears Gupta talking about subconscious thoughts jumping up to consciousness where we have the opportunity to challenge them, and goes “sounds like bullshit to me”. But I get a fair bit of email from people who have made massive strides with the Gupta program where nothing else has worked for them. My symptoms were/are relatively mild (no physical pain, utterly devestating as opposed to complete and utter annhialation of anything resembling a normal live) so it’s hard for me to say anything has changed dramatically yet. I spent all Saturday and most of Sunday in bed either asleep or exhausted, but I wouldn’t class myself as ever having been really bed-ridden. I often overlook the positives and it’s early days yet.

I feel much much worse when I don’t rest. My throat feels sorer, and my breathing much more laboured; and that’s when I find it hardest. And by rest, I mean lie down pretty much whenever I’m tired. Which is all the time.

Many people embark on a graded exercise program, and I’d be interested to hear how they go. I haven’t tried a formal program, but every time I’ve exercised in the past, I’ve felt truly terrible afterwards. Perhaps I overdid it every time, but my thinking now is that we feel tired because our bodies actually are worn out and need rest. They don’t recover properly because we’re still in fight-or-flight mode, but the rest is still essential. The general rule is that exercise is good for you… but I doubt it’s so great after you’ve just run a marathon! We’re running marathons in our sleep. My impression is that the graded exercise concept is based on the idea that we somehow adjust psychologically to being tired and unfit, and need to be shaken out of it with more activity. I don’t buy it. I don’t think this is consistent with the amygdala hypothesis, where we actually are physically exhausted and in need of rest. I sometimes wonder whether any proponents of graded exercise have suffered from the condition. But like I say, I have no formal experience of it.

Highs and Lows

I feel ok today. Woke up and did soften-and-flow and the positive visualisation. I feel stuffed in the head and tired as usual, but pretty up-beat. Hey, it’s a weekend and the sun is shining. You gotta love that.

I’ve had a heap of highs and lows this week. Been feeling quite tense, though nowhere near as bad as mid last year. My acting course is going brilliantly; I’m really enjoying it. It’s awesome to have finally found something I really love doing again. I don’t know if the novelty will wear off, but at the moment I’m really having great fun doing repetition practice with the other students. It’s a fantastic opportunity to play around with a cool bunch of dudes. I especially love rep’ing with the girls; I just feed off their energy and invariably have them in stitches laughing and flirting with me by the end. I kept teasing this girl like crazy last night and she kept swinging between offended-but-amused and laughing uncontrollably. Told me I should be a stand-up comic. I’ll consider that.

I never seem to get angry during the repetition practice even when people are having a go at me. Whenever I start heading towards being angry or sad, I laugh. I know it’s a defence mechanism and I’ve been looking at that as something to try and “fix”, but now I’m thinking maybe I’ll just accept it. I dunno how much I go along with the idea that repressed anger causes illnesses like chronic fatigue anyway. Maybe I’m just not an angry guy. If people insult me and I just laugh it off, that sounds like a pretty good coping mechanism. Much better than getting hurt and upset about it like I used to. So what if I never really get angry? And a stand-up comic who laughs off hecklers and puts them in their place would go down rather well. Perhaps it is my second calling.

The downside is that when I feel low, I really feel low. And it comes on quickly. Lately it’s always triggered by my book not selling. It’s like the world is rejecting me because it doesn’t like what I have to offer, which pushes my buttons big time. I gave up engineering because I got burned out and bored, and doing something more creative in the arts still appeals to me; but the reality is that it’s a shitload easier to get a high-paying engineering job than it is to make a fortune selling e-books on the internet! My conservatism and unwillingness to fork out money on a project that’s not earning anything doesn’t help; I’m massively risk-averse. My savings are my security, especially when I don’t feel up to working. I don’t want to go blowing it on some crazy money-making scheme that may not pan out. And the more time I put into promoting the e-book when it’s not selling, the more I go through these goddam mood swings. Besides, it’s meant to be fun. It’s not fun when I’m worrying about whether people like it or not. That’s just old needy Graham popping up again in a new context.

I’m considering taking next week off altogether; but I know I’m addicted to validation and people purchasing my wares is just another form of that, so I can pretty much guarantee I’ll keep at it. I’m not really following Ashok’s advice to stop working though. My meditation retreat is coming up in a few weeks time, so that will definitely give me some time out.

I’ve also joined a men’s group, and we have our first meeting this afternoon. I’m looking forward to that; I’ve never had really close friendships with many men before, and I think it’s something I’m lacking a bit. It should be a good support mechanism too.

Mood swings

I find I get really big mood swings with this thing. They’re always triggered by some experience, like an interaction with someone else or getting negative feedback in some way.

I went to a workshop in Saturday which was all about who we are and the sort of energy we give to the world. I didn’t like what it told me about myself, which was basically that I’m sensitive and reserved.  I think that’s quite accurate, but it’s not who I would really like to be… So I ended up feeling quite upset and down on myself. I think the inner conflict about this is all part of what stresses me out, and keeps the illness going. I’m going to meet up with the guy who ran the workshop and talk it over with him. Interestingly, he mentioned in passing that he’d suffered from Chronic Fatigue too during his 30’s; understanding who he was and what he had to contribute to the world seemed to be part of his recovery story.

I had a pretty good day today. Created some presentations on SlideShare to promote my book, which was pretty good fun. Had a lie down this afternoon and did the meditations. I don’t feel too bad when I don’t exert myself. Bit frustrating when I imagine all the things I want to do when I’m better during the second meditation; because I want to do them now! But if I can at least keep from feeling like I’ve been hit by a Mach truck all the time, life’s not too bad. I think I’ll skip my guitar classes this term, as I’ll miss two weeks when I’m on the meditation retreat I want to go to.

Meanwhile, if you’re reading this, let me know how you’re doing. If you’re just starting the Gupta programme, make contact so we can talk about how you’re finding it.

The emotional rollercoaster continues

Had a rough night last night emotionally. I had been chatting on MSN to a girl I dated briefly at the end of last year on MSN, and she totally slammed me about the ebook I’ve published on dating and attraction. I kept thinking “That’s your reality, not mine” at the time, letting it just wash over me. But later that evening I got really despondent about it and decided to give up trying to promote it. It’s more important that I get my health back anyway, and it’s just an extra stressor at the moment. Went to bed at 11:30pm feeling despondent, and physically just tired.

Woke up this morning rather early at about 7am. Did the meditation and wellness visualisation.

Then when I checked my email, I found I’d had another sale. That always motivates me. So I did some work on the website, which went quite well. I stopped for lunch at a respectable hour rather than just ploughing through like I used to, and played some guitar. I’m learning a couple of songs for my nieces, for when they get back in a week or so. After finishing “work” for the day, I did the meditation again, and I ended up feeling really positive.

I know I made that 6-month commitment to not work and just do stuff I enjoy, but I actually do enjoy the Internet marketing stuff I’m working on… when I feel like I’m getting results. Fortunately today was one such day. I think it’s important not to push myself when I start feeling tired though, so that’s it for today. I’m off to read a book, grab dinner, and vege out in front of the telly for the rest of the evening.