The practice of being well.
“For it to get better, you need to get better.”
This is a post about healing; and the previous six years of my life.
Yesterday I had a 5 hour lunch with two friends – married to each other – who have lived for over a decade with the painful, heavy reality of severe injustice and mental illness: the invention of the husband’s mental health issues by an incorrectly diagnosed bout of cerebral malaria; a serious head-trauma inducing car accident; and the subsequent fuckery of a pseudo-scientific, inhumane and dignity-stripping psychiatric system – one that long ago incorrectly appraised my friend’s neurological diversity as a danger to society and to his beloved wife.
They have experienced first hand how being deemed by the authorities as ‘crazy’ in a dangerous way, can in practice render ones human rights null and void. He has endured years of dignity-stripping observation and treament from supposed professionals – forced sectioning in psychiatric facilities, forced medication and injections, forced electric shock treatment. She has endured the continuous heartache of fighting on his behalf for his rights and his dignity, whilst also having to live with the sometimes trying – never dangerous, but trying – neurological results of this in his personality and behaviour.
Over the years through my friendship with this brilliant scientist and kindhearted man, I have had a glimpse of these neurological results, which are as distressing to his own analytical mind as they are to his equally intelligent but soulful and present wife. Through no fault of their own, this is their lot in life. And the other day, we really, really talked – joyfully – about living with circumstances we cannot change, and finding light and hope daily in the midst of such circumstances.
I have some insight into living that kind of life, for various reasons. My friend, she said to me that I’ve experienced an unusual amount of big loss in my life – certainly for someone my chronological age. Most of this loss I am unable to talk about or articulate; but I still feel the pain of those losses. Often I am unable to connect the pain I feel with the actual losses, though. Because of this, I have had these moments in life where I’ve had to get real with myself about me not coping so well with the stuff I cannot change; then seek new methods to alleviate the distress I have tried my best to hide from people.
Last year was a big year in terms of admitting to myself I was not coping so well, and seeking professional help for that. I’ve always been slightly bipolar, and I go through phases of having to withdraw into myself to rejuvenate, followed by a return to “normality” (until the next time). I have learned to live with these cycles and now recognise the profound gifts that come with the pendulum swing – intuitive insights, healing, bursts of creative inspiration and intense joy just being solitary and listening to… well, the universe.
Beyond that natural disposition, in the past I have dealt with various manifestations of psychological distress that followed intense losses in my life – depression, self-starvation, self-harm, suicide ideation. These behaviours and thought patterns I thankfully transcended by the age of 21. But in the last six years, I have been dealing with a different set of symptoms that I frankly was in serious denial about:
extreme anxiety, particularly in social settings; extreme dread and amorphous fear; feeling phobic of particular places; panic attacks following being “triggered” by what I thought were random things – music, the sound of a stranger’s voice, particular words (god, I wish I was joking about that).
I had to take unfathomably heartbreaking but necessary steps to remove myself from a toxic situation that I thought was merely contributing to my mental distress, and the distress of another. I thought that this would give me the psychological space I needed to at least have a chance to heal, and live life. The problem is that I didn’t actually pursue healing – at least, not in the right places. I was merely suppressing parts of myself I actually needed in order to fully live and fulfil my purpose (which was oddly the one thing I continuously gained clarity about throughout. I have a magenta folder on my desk now – my own personal life manual – full of insights about this).
I also thought I was weak – which could not be further from the truth. My self talk got pretty dark and I interpreted these bizarre developments – which were actually symptoms of something – as me just not being on top of things; unfortunately, the symptoms themselves caused me to not be on top of things. For six years – despite some typically lucky success – I have had to constantly cancel projects and plans because of these symptoms. This was demoralising. In conjunction with the usual dysfunctional problems within my family and my ever-present worry for them, I felt completely bound up and trapped in my life.
All of this was of course the universe trying to get me to STOP, and heal; but I am a slow learner. So slow in fact that despite living with all that shit and inner chaos for six years, it took me until May 2015 to acknowledge to myself that “the shit”, as it were, might actually be symptoms of something – although I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what it might be. I hadn’t made the necessary connections yet.
It was a fantastic psychologist who did that for me. She very generously treated me in her home, as her office was not wheelchair accessible. When she officially diagnosed “the shit”, it was as much of a shock as it was a relief. PTSD. Post traumatic stress disorder. I could not believe it, but I could not deny it made sense. I had no references for the experience that had caused the trauma so it never occurred to me that I could actually be seriously traumatised. In that office, it dawned on me.
Miraculous things started to happen after just getting the diagnosis, and shining light on the thing within my psyche that I had not been willing to look at – until that day. In the days and weeks that followed I experienced a massive unblocking of energy and regaining of physical strength; I “looked” different and people noticed – are still noticing. In my sessions with the psychologist we worked through the pain memories causing the distress.
But I did most of that on my own. My psychologist proposed, in addition to what she called for me cognitive behavioural “scripting” (I am a writer, after all) and extremely effective “mental filmmaking”/visualisation (I am a dreamer, after all), EMDR treatment. It kind of strips the pain from the memories. I agreed to it; but I found that in the two week period before we started EMDR, my mind processed the problematic emotions on its own. Now I had the memories, but stripped of the associated painful emotions. This particular “pain body”, as Eckhart Tolle would say, had gone.
I cannot put into words the relief I felt. And I felt it immediately, not just in my mind but in my body. Weird ailments that had developed in it lessened or completely disappeared. And it was a good news year physically, too – my first scan since 2006 revealed the syrinx that caused my disability has reduced in size, without any treatment in that period; and the rest of my spine is clear. At the end of the year I reconnected with a physiotherapy service to work on my strength in particular areas of my body that had weakened since the PTSD symptoms developed; and with stress related lethargy now gone, I can focus on working out my body and mind again.
Most importantly, I know that I have to. I have learned this lesson before, but I keep fucking forgetting… this time, though, I have got it. I have to work on all aspects of my health – staying in tune with what is happening in my mind and body, and my heart; continuously practicing the methods I have been taught over the years to keep my mind and body clear, and my heart open. Without it, I cannot do the work I came here to do. I have to practice being well, everyday.
For people like me, this is our only choice – there is no other way. It is a state of surrender, living this way… a state of presence. I feel very strongly I am going to live a very, very long life; mastering this practice will be essential to that. Some days are easier than others; the key thing to remember is that you have to take each one as it comes. Just keep practicing. Over time, you get better. And because you get better, *it* – life – gets better.
I know it will.