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.

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…

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?

Less shaky in my body, more tense in my head

I’ve been loosely following the diet in Adrenal Fatigue by Dr James Wilson for a few months now and I notice that my symptoms have changed a little lately. I seem to be feeling less shaky in my body and my arms feel calmer. In fact it feels a bit weird; I think I’ve been so used to the “wired” feeling that goes along with CFS that now when my arms are at rest, they just feel oddly dead. But not in a bad way. I’m hoping this is consistent with my adrenal system switching off being on overdrive all the time, and now I might start to feel a little better. So far the other main symptom is that my head feels like it’s cased in lead a lot of the time, or like I’m wearing a beanie that’s a few sizes too small. It’s a tiny bit unpleasant, but not anything as bad as the debilitating headaches I had previously been getting.

I’ve also finally decided to drop a lot of the fun stuff I was doing that was causing me more stress. I can see that I habitually do too much stuff, and while it was all great stuff to do, I was just feeling overwhelmed a lot of the time. I’ve decided to quit Toastmasters and put my plans to become a comedian on hold. I feel like I’m giving up my dreams, but it’s necessary if I’m going to have a life that feels worth actually living. Meanwhile I’m going to keep writing in the mornings when I feel fairly motivated, and take the afternoons off to meditate and play guitar. I think this should be sustainable.

For the last few months I’ve also been going to group therapy sessions three times a week. The facilitator gets us to focus on expressing how we feel, and everyone in the group triggers everyone else so the process flows along nicely. It’s all about getting out of my head and into my feelings. I think this is contributing to me feeling less anxious, plus I’ve taken the opportunity to express a few emotions that I felt were inappropriate like lust and anger; I always know I’m making progress when my heart is racing and my head is thinking “What will they think?”. That’s my cue to share what’s really going on. Some other friends tell me I’m really brave for doing this, but for me it’s just what I need to do to heal some of the internal shame that keeps me feeling anxious, overwhelmed and burned out.

I have also been doing a little research into Mickel Reverse therapy, which is based on a similar premise to the Gupta programme that the body gets stuck in fight-or-flight mode, but the focus is on the hypothalamus instead of the amygdala. The idea is to identify the emotions underneath physical symptoms and learn to deal with the emotion so the symptom goes away. I suspect that dealing more directly with emotions would make Mickel therapy more powerful than Gupta. But it also sounds very similar to what I’m doing in the therapy group, so I’m wondering whether it’s worth splashing out the $1300 it would cost for a series of Mickel sessions. I have a hunch they’re going to teach me to do things I’m already doing; but maybe it’d be more efficient and I’d get better faster. If that’s the case, it’s probably worth it. Meanwhile my cash is running low and my online business is taking off much slower that I’d like, so financial stress causes me more anxiety than I’d like. Hopefully a zillion guys will hit my website soon and I’ll start earning consistently… but who knows.

I’ve also added Vitamin B12 supplements to my diet, since it’s meant to be good for the nervous system. Aside from that I don’t take any exotic supplements: just a multi-vitamin and some Vitamin C each day. Can’t say I’ve ever felt any real effect from any vitamin supplements but the B12 may be working to make my body less jittery. Here’s hoping.

Meanwhile I’ve been applying my no-rush rule more consistently the last few days, and taking more time out to just relax and enjoy life. I was running around from one healing workshop/coaching session to another lately and it was giving me headaches. People kept telling me that slowing down is the answer and I think I’m finally starting to listen.

Happy 2011, and an update

Hey folks,

Well it’s been a long time between updates, but I thought I’d drop in to wish you all a Happy 2011.

This year has been pretty rough at times, but I seem to be recovering gradually. There is hope on the horizon. On a bad day it may feel like wishful thinking, but I don’t think so.

Most of my energy in 2010 was taken up with a very demanding acting course, which another friend with Chronic Fatigue recommended as a way of unlocking my blocked emotions. Wow, it was a blast. High highs, and low lows. Plus I got to meet a really inspiring group of people who are pursuing their dreams. I’ll always be grateful for the friend who put me onto it. Did it make me better physically? I’m not so sure, but it was a great experience and I do seem a bit more energetic than when I started the year.

In lieu of any better explanation, I’m going along with Gupta’s amygdala hypothesis that the underlying problem is really anxiety. It seems to fit my symptoms, especially the panic attacks and frequent anxiety overwhelm. I suspect I got more out of doing Path of Love than I did out of doing the Gupta program though, and I’m going to continue to pursue avenues for emotional catharsis, reducing anxiety and eliminating shame through exposure in loving environments.

I’ve spent the last 4 months working on The Confident Man Project, which is now mostly in maintenance mode. There will always be more stuff I can do on it, but I have many other projects in mind to complete. I tend to jump from one thing to another rapidly without settling, which makes it difficult to see anything through to successful completion. I think the more emotional healing work I do, the closer I get to being my true self, and the clearer my plan for the future should become.

One minute I want to be a rock star, the next a famous writer, the next a stand-up comic, and then some sort of life coach. Fear of failure and the amount of effort involved in anything creative to become successful has me blocked. I feel stressed due to a lack of clear direction, but in the mean time I keep working on existing projects. Maybe one day I’ll feel satisfied just “being” without having to “do”; but I want to make a contribution and I want to be rewarded financially. That’s not gonna happen just sitting back meditating all day, even if I did have the patience for it.

Anyway, life is pretty good. I’m not so depressed these days, and less anxious lately. Sharing how I really feel with other people has been tremendously valuable in this regard, as has learning to express my anger and stand up for myself more. It’s all hard work when I’m feeling fatigued, but that hasn’t been so bad lately, so I feel optimistic.

Be kind to yourselves, and be real with other people folks. If people accuse you of negative thinking when expressing frustration, grief or upset at being ill, tell ’em to take a hike. We will get better. Hang in there…

Cheers,
Graham

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!

XMRV and where I’m at

There’s some more research out confirming the association between XMRV and CFS. It’s sounding more plausible to me, although I’ve no idea how I would have picked up XMRV. I wonder if it’s possible to get tested for it, out here in far-flung Australia. Even if I was positive, there’s no recommended treatment yet… so for the time being, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing; which is basically getting on with my life instead of waiting around till I feel well.

I’m encouraged by the news that a friend from my CFS support group has joined a gym. I’ve been working out lightly with weights for a few days, and now that my arms don’t ache like buggery, I seem to be doing OK with the exercise. My insomnia lately has been pretty bad, and that’s been bugging me.

I recently realised that the way to make your dreams come true is to help others to make theirs come true, so I’m going to put more attention into that from now on. It also leaves me less time to focus on not-feeling-well. I still do the odd Stop-Stop-Stop from Gupta’s programme, and listen to the meditation CD occasionally but it’s been a couple of months since I did it hard-core. I’ve been using the Sedona Method release process more than Stop-Stop-Stop.

Tonight is my last night as President of my Toastmasters Club, which means I can focus on my speaking career instead of club leadership. I’m still battling with anxiety at times, but it seems to go away when I get some form of emotional release which is happening more and more often what with my acting classes, and when I’m totally preoccupied with something else. That means I actually feel less anxious when I’m public-speaking or performing, because I don’t have time to think about not feeling well! Weird.

Woke up this morning feeling tense and agitated

Couldn’t get to sleep last night, so I stayed up late finishing off Richard Branson’s autobiography Losing My Virginity. I love the guy’s mindset; whatever he wants, he just goes after, seemingly without fear. Very inspiring.

Woke up this morning feeling quite tense and agitated. My cold/flu is gone, so I’m back to just feeling moderately lousy all the time. I had the dating workshop on the weekend, and found it quite stressful. Approaching women I’ve never met before and starting conversations with them is something I really want to master, but isn’t easy. I seem to do OK pushing myself at the time, but then feel the nervous energy hanging around a long time even days later. I felt a headache coming on as the last evening approached, and decided to bail, only to be talked around by my wing man… for which I ended up being grateful.

Everything I want to do with my life from here-on in seems to require overcoming some kind of fear or anxiety, and sometimes I’m in the mood, but today I’m not. I got up this morning and started pounding into my punching bag to try and release the nervous tension. That helped a bit.

Then things went further downhill when I put on my tape of the Australia vs Germany world cup match which was on at 4:30am local time… we got slaughtered 4:0. Damn!

Fortunately yesterday my old guitar friends got together for a jam, and I was able to go along. God it was good to see them again, and tell them my stories of what I’ve been up to at acting class, meditation retreats, etc. I love story-telling and making them all laugh. It reinforced that this is what I want to do career-wise, and helped motivate me towards the long road to get there.

One of the songs we played yesterday was Everybody Hurts by REM. It’s a beautiful song with poignant lyrics, and a really sweet arpeggio picking pattern. So I picked up my faithful guitar and started learning it… and the tears flowed freely. I seem to release emotions a lot better when I’m playing music. I feel a lot better now. I’m going back to play some more, but meanwhile you can listen to it here:

Happy long weekend Aussies!

Feeling OK Today

Went to a humorous public speaking workshop today, which was good fun. Learned heaps, and decided to do a bootcamp on the topic on Monday/Tuesday. Didn’t sleep brilliantly last night, but hey, what’s new? Heading out tonight to do a little nightclubbing; I can afford to write tomorrow off. Don’t think I’ll stay overly late though. Currently feeling about 6/10, which is manageable. I felt anxious this morning, but I think a lot of that has to do with fear over my direction in life, and today’s workshop reminded me that I really do like making people laugh, and speaking. So I’m on track.