This is probably the longest I’ve gone without writing something since I started last June, normally I’m tapping away on the keyboard every few days at least (a lot of stuff doesn’t make it to the publish stage). In my defence I’ve spent the last two weeks intensely practising yoga, and learning about yoga, and mandalas, mantras, ancient Egyptian mythology, native Indian wisdom, and meditating, lots of meditation with the breath, for several hours a day. Besides eating, sleeping and quick trips to the beach there hasn’t been time or space for much else.
“In my defence”
Poignant given the topic of this post. Right, make yourself a cuppa, clear ten minutes of distraction and settle in to read the story of me, (I think) there’s some good stuff here. Writing and processing the content below was an emotional rollercoaster, but I think it may be the most important thing I’ve ever written. Children, parenthood, marriage, divorce, health, trauma, etc, touch everybody’s life at some point, so whilst important to me, hopefully there is something of value here for you too. Here goes…
Today as I meditated in the open-sided, tropical forest-surrounded yoga Pyramid with the class (there are 22 of us) my mind went to a place it rarely goes – outside of my being. If you read either of the posts I published regarding the meditation retreat I attended earlier this year (link here), you’ll know that calming the mind is not exactly a strength of mine. However, here I was, and I was all in. As instructed, I circulated the long deep breaths from left to the right whilst mentally chanting “Saahh Hunggg”. Sah on the inhale, Hung on the exhale, focusing the inhale to the West and the exhale to the East, whilst also gradually circulating up through the brain. Sounds simple, right? Surprisingly I got it almost straight away, two weeks of breathwork and relentless practice must be paying off. I started with a count of 1 and imagined circling around the base of my brain, somewhere around the nose, and after 4 or 5 circles I mentally moved to level 2, slightly above level one. By the time I reached level 15 my deep, long and ponderous breaths had turned short, shallow and rapid, and my body was rocking side to side with each tiny breath. At level 15 I had reached the very top of my head, I was all out of brain to circle, and so there was no place to go but up and out, so that’s where I went. I left my body behind on the ground. By the time I was at level 17 my inhale and exhale were no longer distinguishable from each other and my sideways rocks had turned into a tiny circular sway. I temporarily returned to my physical being and became aware that though my eyelids were shut, my eyes were fiercely active, and potentially rolling up inside my head, but the thought of this was momentary and then it was gone, and my entire focus returned to the area above my head that appeared to be increasing in size and importance. I’m not going to lie, it felt freakin’ magical!
And then our teacher brought us back down to earth. I could hear some of my fellow students start to write in their notebooks, but all I could muster was to collapse down into child’s pose (kneeling on the floor, bent over, head on the floor in front of my knees. Something profound felt like it had happened. I felt exhausted, mentally and physically, I was unable to move or say or do anything, and then it hit me like a freight train. A huge wave of emotion came from nowhere, it was unspecific, there were no thoughts in my head at this time, no target or apparent reason for this thunderbolt of energy. I sat bent over my own knees, my face in my hands, and as this energy rippled through me my body started to shudder. Small little shudders to start, small, but impossible to control or stop, and then of course they grew in size. They grew until it was no longer possible to contain them without any one noticing, and then yup, the tears materialised, shortly after the heaving sobs commenced.
Eventually I pulled myself together, I was kneeling there thinking “well that was a surprise”, then a kind soul came to give me a tissue and placed a soft warm hand on my shoulder and it all started up again. By the time I’d ceased expelling my tears my legs and feet were completely numb, so all I could manage was lying on the floor on my side until one of my classmates came over to massage my legs back to life, which almost set me off again. Thankfully I held it together long enough, to haul myself out of the pyramid and find a quiet place to lie in the sun. Dazed, confused and completely spent.
In a previous post I spoke of another breathwork experience (link here) that led me to a similar outcome. The sizeable difference between the two is that in that previous experience my tears came out of a place of compassion and sadness for my Mother, and the pain she has endured in her life. This time around it was purely selfish, I cried for myself. I’ll explain…
For as long as I can remember I have worried deeply about other people, and more specifically worried about upsetting them. This evening, as I sat down in the restaurant of the little beachside resort I’m staying at, I thought one of the Burmese staff, whom I’ve become matey with, seemed off with me. Rather than thinking “oh he’s having a bad day”, or “maybe he’s just busy and distracted”, you know, like a normal person, I started to rack my brains, searching for something I’d said earlier in the day to upset him. I couldn’t find anything but continued to ruminate on it. Later, he came over for a chat and was friendly as ever. And at that point I realised something that I probably should have realised and addressed a long time ago. This habit of worrying creates an anxiety in me, and has been doing so nearly every day, for the past twenty five years, maybe more. Is it any wonder that my digestive and immune systems are malfunctioning, reacting to foods and common airborne contaminants like they’re the friggin’ bubonic plague, when my nervous system is in a constant state of high alert?
When my health fell apart three years ago it only served to exacerbate the problem. My already busy mind became super sensitive to changes and symptoms in my body. I became obsessed with finding the answer to getting well again. I changed my diet, numerous times (link here), I started experimenting with fasting (link here), I banished sunscreen (link here), I bought a sauna (link here) I listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts on health and nutrition, I tried to build a meditation practice, I disposed of all my belongings, I gave up my job, moved out of my apartment, started to travel, and I wrote about it all (see links above). I am in much better health than I was three years ago, but I have not found the cure. As I cut more and more out of my life I have become more inwardly focused, more distracted, and more unhappy. I am undoubtedly sensitive to mould (link to that story here, and here), my immune system was in a state of disarray after living in an apartment covered in the stuff and then I went and got bitten by a spider in my sleep and the cascade of brutal symptoms commenced. The insomnia started a day or two after the bite, I have no doubt this was the very real and physical trigger, the straw that broke the camel’s back, but I’m starting to believe the condition of my mind had a big old part to play too.
Aside from all the yoga and the chanting, we’ve also been exploring the impact of stored memories, traumas, and behaviours on the body. Western science is today catching up with the East in understanding the power the mind can have over the body. I can not recommend Gabor Mate’s amazing book ‘When the Body Says No’ highly enough for this subject. Yoga goes one further and teaches us that the bodily tissues can store such past experiences, manifesting in back problems, hip tightness, etc. In the West (and now sadly also increasingly in the East) we are so in our heads (and our smartphones) that many of us rarely feel free and easy in our incredible, beautiful bodies, myself included. How many of us truly let go on that dancefloor without substances being pumped through our bloodstreams? How many of us carry our problems in our permanently contracted trapezius muscles? More to the point, how many of us have poor posture, knee, back, shoulder problems, chronic headaches, etc? Lots of us! And as we stiffen up over the years our soft tissue turns hard, until eventually it gets so hard that it breaks or we’re left shuffling along on a walking stick. Gabor Maté shows us in his book that carrying this stuff with you for long enough will eventually, sooner or later lead to disease (dis-ease…think about it). I think I’m a walking talking confirmation of his theory.
But this isn’t a post on why everyone should be practising yoga, or maybe it is, only you can decide that.
As I’ve meditated and breathed over the past two weeks I keep coming back to my childhood. Only tiny flashes of memories have popped up, that was, until two days ago when a flood of old stuff came back to me and I scribbled it all down on page after page of my notebook. On the page it has remained, I’ve been thinking about it, it’s been at the back of my mind, but I didn’t have a clue what to do with it. I figured it’s something I’d have to come back to process in due time. Turns out ‘due time’ was today, the processing started in that idyllic wooden pyramid.
Aged ten or eleven I sat my Mum down and told her enough was enough, kick Dad out, don’t stay together for the sake of us children any longer. It was a very difficult and trying time for everyone involved. My sisters were young; four and six by my reckoning, and with my Dad’s input reduced to trips to the local pool and McDonalds on a Saturday, I glided naturally and easily into the role of looking after them as best as I could. My Mum, bless her, emotionally broken by the break down of her marriage, financially on the edge, on her own and stressed to kingdom come put in a heroic, and largely successful effort to keep three young children clothed, fed, sheltered, and happy. This is my blog, not hers, but I am certain in saying that she was understandably struggling to keep it together. They say a Mother’s love is the strongest bond of them all, looking back I now understand why they say that. Nonetheless I became the man of the house, I became her confidante, or at least one of them, and I did what I could to make her life a little easier. I didn’t think about it at all at the time, but as I look back now on this period of my life, I’m painfully aware of how anxious I was to not upset my mother, to not cause a fuss, to do the housework, to look after my sisters, to put my childish needs to the side, to not bring her any additional problems, especially not my trivial teenage woes. My physical needs were cared for but I kept my emotional needs very much to myself. To the extent that when one of the school bullies turned his attention on me, possibly sensing my weakness, and then some of my ‘friends’ joined in, I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I didn’t want to cause a fuss, instead, blinded by hormonal teenage misery, I kept everything trapped inside in a tight coil, tighter and tighter it wound around my stomach. At one point it became so tight it was unbearable and so I sunk a few paracetamol with vodka thinking that would be less painful. Turns out you have to take a lot more of both to actually cause any harm, thank god.
I confided to a friend what I’d done, and well, they say kids can be cruel, word got out and became a weapon against me. If you read my sixth form yearbook the quote under my name states “never had the full bottle”. I kid you not. It also contains the nicknames ‘sick boy’ and ‘sick head’, referring to times when I lost control of my pent-up frustration and sadness and unleashed uncharacteristic anger and violence in response to the constant poking of the bear.
My mother talks glowingly of me as a young boy; full of zest, happy, smart, caring, interested, mature, polite. Her friends would remark on how grown up I was and I soon found myself more comfortable talking to adults than my own peer group. Like many of us Brits I also developed a coping mechanism of using humour to deflect and avoid saying anything of actual meaning, and also as a means of making people like me, presumably so they wouldn’t put me down and add to the bullying. This is definitely something I still do. I avoid saying what I actually mean or want, and make a joke of it instead, to avoid imposing on someone, or risk upsetting them. I identify strongly with being light-hearted, but am I really light-hearted if a lot of the time it’s really just a coping mechanism? I avoid asking for what I actually want and/or need, which leads me to being dissatisfied with what I get. Life is for the taking, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Down the rabbit hole of self exploration I go.
The biggest thing I’ve realised is that as a young boy growing into a man I determined that only I could satisfy my own needs, that I would not ask for help, that I could and should do it all myself. As I approached my later teens this became a huge source of conflict with my Mum as I pulled away, desperate for independence, to do my own thing free of ties and responsibility, whilst she fought to keep me close. That created a resentment in me that still lingers to this day. Stripped of her marriage, my mother’s life was heavily centered on us children, for our sakes it had to be, and so as we grew up and started to fly the nest it left her with a huge hole to face on her own. I recognise the existence of guilt in myself at leaving her. It is no surprise that previous ‘adult’ relationships have been characterised by me carrying out acts of duty, but rarely asking for anything, or even feeling awkward when on the receiving end of nice gestures. All past girlfriends have told me I never really let them in. I guess I didn’t want to trouble them… Without a strong father figure or male role model in my life I created an image of what a man should be, based on what I thought made my Mum happy. Still feeling the pain of betrayal and divorce, “You’re just like your Father” was a common derogatory phrase thrown my way when I behaved poorly. So it seemed that the aim was to be the exact opposite of whatever my Dad was. The equation was deeply flawed from the start.
It’s not a rabbit hole, it’s a warren.
I think I’ve managed to maintain a lot of that young boy my mum described, but I’ve come to understand that I also became a bottled up, nervous, anxious worrier during my teenage years. This manifested itself in numerous ways; frustration, resentment, alcohol abuse, failed relationships, self doubt, some poor career decisions, moving to Australia, and eventually in the past few years, poor health (which I’ve written extensively about in this blog). It’s hard to say this, but I sit here typing and realise I’ve been faking it. A lot of it. The bullies are no longer present, my mum is in a much better place and our relationship is mostly healed, my sisters have grown into strong, independent, engaging and wonderful young women, but the habits and coping mechanisms I formed at that young age are very much still there in my behaviour. I needed them when I was that young boy. I don’t need them anymore, they’re holding me back.
The good news is, that I am no longer willing to fake it. My health situation got so dire that I could not go on as I was any longer. Leaving behind the world of work and all of its distractions and stressors, I think it is no coincidence that four months later I’ve found myself in this school of the body and mind, in the jungles of Thailand, being guided by a kind-hearted guru who has been teaching for fifty years and has seen this all-too-familiar story many times before. That small boy is still me, he’s still in me, the zest for life still exists, I just have to remove the conditioning and external noise that engulfed him.
A friend of mine told me around this time last year that everything we need is inside of us, at the time I just nodded, not really understanding. I think I’m starting to get it.
Where before I felt guilt and shame I now feel pride. I’m so proud of that brave little boy, who sheltered his sisters in his room whilst the arguments raged. Who physically pulled his parents apart during one fight I recall. Who spoke up and told his Mum to break up our family. Who put his family’s emotional needs before his own. Who survived the bullies. Who loathed his Dad but in time learned to forgive and eventually grew to love him again. The circumstances were shit but he learned how to cope and how to keep it together. How to be strong. He achieved a degree, he made friends, he made a life, a good life. I love that little boy. He is a fucking star. He is me and I am him.
When I started typing this post I was nervous (apt) about what would flow out of me given the subject matter. I worried (apt) about what my family would make of it, would they be upset? Will my friends judge me for it? Possibly. Are they really my friends if they judge me poorly for it? Probably not. To be authentic it needed to be written as I see it, as I feel it, I’ve cried sporadically as I’ve typed. Nothing is embellished or dramatised. I also worried (apt) that I am publishing this too soon, the real processing of this has only just begun after all. I mulled it over, and came to the conclusion that this blog has lead me to this point. I’ve never seen a professional psychologist, this is my therapy. Writing and sharing has helped me open doors to myself, it’s enabled me to become open where I was once shut, it’s allowed me to be ok with being vulnerable where before I was terrified of displaying weakness. I am this blog, this blog is me. I owed it to the blog and to myself to write this now as I’m experiencing it, and to click publish. To not do so would be denying my truth, and really, that’s what this, both the blog and life, is all about.
We must speak our truth for everything else is smoke, mirrors and lies, and ultimately, just ugly noise crowding out the birdsong. I’m dead tired of the ugly noise, I’m ready for more birdsong. It’s time to forgive and forget. To leave behind the victim and the worrier, become the warrior. Our struggles are simply there to shape us into the beautiful people we were born to be.
Fucking Hell. Life’s a trip. I sense this next chapter is going to be fun, perhaps tough, but fun. There may well be more tears, and blog posts.
Ps. I’m thinking I should revert the blog to its previous title – ‘Redesigning My Best Self’. Thoughts?