14 June 2012

What May Have Saved my Life...

image by Ian Britton freefoto.com 
Winston Churchill once said, “a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”. A simple quote; easy to read and forget. But perhaps this quote provides us all with the key to a better life, if we could muster the courage and wherewithal to use it. This brings me to another Churchill quote; “courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all the others”. I have needed to find all my courage of late.

I have been away from this blog for a long time, despite my well intended promises of a “revitalised blog”. During the 18 months or so since I made that promise I have been very ill indeed. I would wake up having missed the whole morning (and often big chunks of the afternoon) to a deep unsatisfying sleep, from which I could not wake. My head would feel like a dense and painful fog as if I’d drunk 3 bottles of my favourite Lagavulin whisky the night before. All my muscles would feel as if I’d just run 24 marathons in a row with a horrendous case of the ‘flu. I could barely pull myself up a flight of stairs and was housebound for a long time. There were times I could hardly lift a fork to eat. All this came as no surprise to me as it was merely a worsening of symptoms I have suffered with for many years, which until 2010 were mis-diagnosed. The symptoms I have described mark only the beginning of my list. Yes; I needed to find all my courage, and double it.

I was suffering from an illness of which many deny the existence. Huge numbers of the non – believers still reside in the medical profession, making life doubly hard when facing such debilitating symptoms. The illness is Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.), commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS or CFS/M.E.). Some know the illness as Myalgic Encephalopathy or Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome (PVFS). For me all these labels (and their slight differences) blend into one; a very unpleasant life stopping experience. It is the illness which ended my career as an employment lawyer in 2005/2006, although at the time I did not know why my mind and body were failing to function. I merely tried to battle on regardless like any true subject of our beloved Queen Elizabeth II – “keep calm and carry on”. I failed of course, because battling on regardless with M.E. is a guarantee that your illness will become worse. Again, back then I had no way of knowing that.

So what has any of this got to do with Winston Churchill? What possible opportunities can arise from suffering from such a devastating illness for which the medical profession has no cure?

It may sound crass, but the opportunity I found from my difficulties was to “re-invent” my life. This is not an answer which came to me in some great epiphany, rather it was an answer which was hacked into my head with a halberd. Thankfully I had the courage to embrace it from the other side of my fog. The halberd which hit me over the head with this opportunity was called ‘Reverse Therapy’, and in particular a Reverse Therapist called Lyn White to whom I owe everything. For me, the payback for having the courage to believe is looking not so much like getting my life back, but perhaps exchanging it for a much better one; one in which I am both happier in myself, and physically well. This potential cure is no divine miracle – it is based in science, and a deep understanding of the working of the body’s intricate systems.

Reverse Therapy was devised by Dr. John Eaton and is far better explained in his book, M.E., Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia - The Reverse Therapy Approach, than I can explain it here. I will leave the science to him, but I will attempt to explain here as far as I can, and as simply as I can.

[PD - 1923]
The body is a very complicated thing, and we have not evolved (bodily) much past our ancestors as hunter gatherers. We still encompass the same primeval bodily protection mechanisms such as “fear, fight, flight”. This mechanism was designed to protect us from harm. If faced with a sabre toothed tiger an unconscious part of the brain may even have detected the threat before our ancestor was aware of it. This part of the brain would divert bodily resources to our vital systems so that our ancestors were ready and poised for action, saving vital time by by-passing the conscious thinking process. Resources are diverted from the digestive system, immune system and so on, to the muscles which are flexing and ready for action. This process is controlled by the Hypothalamus, Pituitary, Adrenal Axis (“HPA Axis”). Our ancestor would be able to act quicker because of this subconscious action and hopefully get away to safety. Once the threat had been dealt with the HPA Axis would restore the body’s systems to normal.

Our bodies today still respond in the same way to perceived threats. The body does not discriminate between the threat of a stampeding elephant, or a non physical threat, such as having the boss from hell. In the former situation the HPA Axis will restore the body’s systems to normal as soon as the threat has passed – hopefully within minutes. The second situation is more complicated, as it is a situation which is not quickly resolved. If we do not listen to the warning signals such as feelings of uneasiness (we may try to “keep calm and carry on”) our body will perceive the situation as a threat and activate the fear, fight, flight mechanism. The body will divert resources from various systems as explained above. The muscles will be continuously flexing and ready for action. The body will not return to normal until the threat is dealt with. With a non physical threat this could take years. We will experience symptoms such as headaches as blood flow to the brain becomes poor, our scalp muscles become tense, and we experience disturbed sleep; sore throats as the immune system becomes out of balance; Irritable Bowel Syndrome as resources move away from digestion. The muscles will experience extreme fatigue as they are constantly working. These are all very common symptoms of M.E. / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The reason my muscles felt like I had run 24 marathons in a row, is that my muscles had in fact experienced something very similar. My head was in a constant fog. I was incapacitated. The symptoms are chronic because the perceived threat remains. The "fear, fight, flight" mechanism was only designed to be a temporary state of affairs. If it is not "switched off" the stresses on the body are immense.

Using Reverse Therapy I was tasked with working out what perceived threat, or threats had set this cycle off, and to do something about it. Put simply I had to eliminate what was wrong with my life and put in place a life which suited me better. I was given the opportunity to “reinvent” my life, using my body’s instincts rather than a logical thought process which would be tainted by the values of others. I have to confess at this point that I was not convinced that such a process would get me well from my debilitating symptoms. I however felt that such a process could only be a positive thing. I embraced it, and will never look back.

I always knew things were wrong, but exploring the issues with an open heart and mind brought me more determination than I ever remember having. The turning point was discovering that I had been leading my life to please others and not for myself. Even my choice of career had not been my own. The more I thought about my own strengths/weaknesses/likes/dislikes, the more mismatched my life seemed to be to my character. At heart I had never been a lawyer and had never desired to be one. The feelings this brought with it were indescribable. I felt like I was being set free.

I am now embarking on learning to live my life as I was designed to live it. I am learning to be myself and not pretending to be someone else in order to please others. I am learning who I really am, which is removing stress and much unhappiness. My natural character is coming out and I’m a much happier person, and therefore much easier to be around! I’m not there yet, but I will get there – I have been given the keys, and the wherewithal to use them. Not only am I happier, I am starting to feel much better physically. This is Reverse Therapy in action – the HPA Axis returning my body’s systems to normal. Through all the illness I have found the opportunities in my difficulties, exactly as Winston Chruchill described it. This has proved not only an opportunity to get well, but an opportunity to build myself a happier and healthier life. The life I was meant to have.

It is not necessary to have an experience as extreme as mine to be able to take advantage of this truth. There is opportunity to be found in every difficulty – if only one can muster the courage.

Copyright © 2012 C. S. Wimsey. 
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13 June 2012

Video Masterclass 5 - Redrafting

Masterclass 5


There are similar videos on YouTube from Keith Gray and The Scottish Book Trust - but I thought I'd stream this directly from YouTube here for your delectation.  The video is not part of this site and I am not part of the Scottish Book Trust - just a fan of this series.  I hope you enjoy it too.