Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Chapter 13: Post Phobia Years

With the phobia finally conquered I felt intense euphoria. I expected a relapse at some point but I was confident now that I had the skills to combat it, and what was more important I felt free for the first time in almost twenty years.

Naturally I overreacted and sought out new opportunities to use my new found skill. I literally invited myself to dinner whenever I could. I was trying to make up for lost time and also to experience the joy and pleasure of such occasions which I had denied myself for such a long time.

The post phobia period was a very emotional time. Amongst the general feeling of euphoria I also felt bitterness at having endured the disability and thinking back over the years of lost opportunities, particularly the year which I travelled and always wondering what might have been. I will, of course, have no way of knowing what might have been.

I also found myself in an isolated position caused by years of deliberately pushing family and friends away and keeping people at a distance. I wondered whether I could ever restore the damage caused by my continued antisocial behaviour. With old friends and acquaintances moving off on different life paths with the passage of time this thought could only prove to be a fantasy. It could never be practically accomplished.

To regain some level of internal peace and closure I did attempt to reach out to some long lost friends who remained dear to me or who had at some point been an integral part of my life. But I found they had advanced on into life with new commitments and responsibilities and apart from some brief friendly exchanges of texts and emails or a quick phone call my rejuvenated connections quickly dissolved.

I also looked up several of my older relatives and took some time out to visit them to restore some form of family connection. This proved a timely gesture on the part of some who have since passed away.

As well through the post phobia period I also partook in a little reading on the subjects of general happiness and mental wellbeing and much which I had self realised regarding the subconscious was confirmed to me. However I did find some snippets of information interesting and one was how the mind establishes a fear situation whether justified or not. Apparently our minds in the interest of self preservation are capable of creating a short cut so that fright and flight can take place before the source of the fear is identified. In that way you can quickly remove yourself from the danger zone before looking back to see what actually scared you. This short cut is very effective in keeping us all alive but can cause problems in the form of a phobia in our modern world as our subconscious can easily form fear links in our quickly changing environments which are not justified.

Also I discovered that the breeding ground for phobias occurs during childhood and early teen years and that if a phobia has developed it will surface in the late teen years. Looking back I can see this is precisely what happened in my situation.

And I discovered that empathetic people are more susceptible to phobias.

But the phenomenon which will always amaze me and remain with me was the fact that my damaged mind healed itself in the remarkable situation of a lunch time get together where on the outside I appeared to be socialising normally. While I was busily integrating with my fellow guests and the hosts with care free chatter and banter my mind was at war with itself until the war was eventually won. I will always find this a staggering scenario and it gave me the inspiration for my novel which is due to be released later this year. (see my blog the novelist for details)

But in the end after much soul searching and deliberation I decided the best thing to do was to simply move on. But before I embark on the second stage of this trilogy tale I would like to mention one other thing.

Early on in the phobia years when my confidence and self esteem was low and I was becoming increasingly indecisive I had to decide on a career choice. I might add that in the early years when I did not understand what was happening to me I was becoming afraid of any non social, confined, inhabited space. This of course affected my career choice as I wanted to avoid office spaces. I was committed to gain tertiary education and embark on a professional career, so I turned to land surveying. This not only fulfilled my self imposed criteria of a global profession with a university degree attached but I could see that it would also allow me to work outdoors for a significant amount of the working day.

Although it proved an intriguing and versatile career choice it also proved to become a source of inspiration because at one particular moment during my self evaluation years I received, literally out of no where, an incredibly strong desire to write; and to write about the characters which I came across during my time at work.

So before I proceed with the main feature I would like to present a handful of these initial stories over the next few blogs.

I will present them in their original form regardless of the writing style as it preserves the intention of the moment.  

Friday, 18 March 2011

Chapter 12: Q & A

I decided to insert this blog to invite readers to ask questions or make comments, in a discreet manner, about anything they have read in this blog.

I am obviously not a trained counselor or qualified psychologist and I do not profess to be, but I do know that I thought through a method which when applied to my situation worked, and freed me of my condition which is now becoming just a distant memory.

If you would like to ask a question or need clarification on anything you have read then feel free to contact me at 

I'll do my best to answer.

Dear         ,

Yes, I should stress that I am in no way a professional and that the intention of my blog is mainly to reassure people that phobia/anxiety can be overcome and to provide an example of how your life can change afterwards once you’re free of your ailment. I tried to solve my problem myself and it took almost twenty years so I’m hoping that my blog will help people solve their problems quicker and not waste precious time. Believe me; you are not young for long.

So what I am providing to you below is purely my thoughts and my techniques which I used to heal myself. I realise everyone’s situation is different and what worked for me may not suit other people. They may not be conventionally/institutionally correct thoughts and techniques but they have worked for me and hopefully you might get something out of the information which can help you as well.

To start with I want to convey some information which helped me diffuse the importance of the phobia/anxiety and then I’ll tell you what I did to bring the problem to an end.

Firstly your brain is always changing from birth till death. I read a book recently called “The Brain that Changes Itself": Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. It is a book on neuroplasticity by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge, M.D. He says that your neurons etc. are continually connecting or disconnecting (or whatever they do) depending on what activities you are engaged in at the time, ie. study, work, retirement etc. That is why it is important to keep your mind active as you grow older because like muscles if you don’t use it you’ll lose it. So I believe that you can change your brain to rid yourself of the phobia. All you are doing is disconnecting the brain’s link between fear and a social situation, which of course is an unrealistic fear situation.

Second thing is we as Homo Sapiens use the “fright and flight” principle to survive. And our brains were conditioned for this even having a short cut where you run away from a fearful situation before even knowing what the source of the fear is. This was particularly important for cave men but as our society changed to todays “safer” world with modern medicine etc. this survival mechanism is not as critical. However, our brains have not had time to evolve to our new “modern world” situation. But what it means is that we are more susceptible to our brains linking with a fear situation which is not actually a threat to our life. I think that empathetic people are susceptible to phobias but that is just my idea.

So what needs to be done is get our brain to break this connection it has with a perceived/unrealistic fear situation.

Also I found it useful to know what caused my phobia. What conditions prevailed in my childhood that resulted in a phobia surfacing in my late teens. For me it also helped dilute the importance of it. If you can do this it might be useful, but it is up to you.

Also, I discovered that the brain sets off a set pattern of events when you are in this fear situation. The chemicals (or whatever) which are put into your system by the brain (to make us prepare for flight) when confronted with a fear situation are the same each and every time it happens, like pressing a key on your keyboard on the computer. The same sequence of events happens whether today, tomorrow or the day after. There are no surprises here as the brain will not do anything different or surprising, only what it is conditioned to do to prepare your body to cope with what it perceives as the “fear” situation which you are in. So I began to see what the worst that can happen is, and that really the worst is not actually that bad.

Realising all this as well as discovering that the phobia loses its strength/power when I had a few drinks I could see that there was a chance to beat it.

So I decided to instead of trying to fight against and resist the feelings that my body was throwing up at me I decide to go the other way and completely relax and actually beckon the feelings to come. As though the phobia was an enemy which I could talk to. I actually said in my head, “come on do the worst that you can do,” all the time consciously forcing every part of my body to relax. I knew that there was only so much my body could do. When the feeling subsided for a moment I would say to myself, “Is that the best you can do, come on do more” The feeling came again but was weaker. So I would mock it and say, “Come on, you can do better.” I still kept forcing my body to relax and to my surprise the feelings became less until they finally went away. I did all this while sitting at a table eating and talking with friends. They had no idea the internal war that was going on in my head. That is what made me realise how amazing our brains are. They are capable of healing themselves.

This “speaking” to the phobia or to my body’s feelings may sound silly but I was desperate enough to try anything and I despised the fact that this phenomenon had such control over me so it really was like speaking to an enemy. Anyway it worked for me.

Having got through that first ordeal with a victory I tried again at another social occasion and it worked again but this time without the intensity. I was weakening the connection my brain had with the fear.

Since then I’ve pretty much had no more trouble. Sometimes, although very rarely, I still get a very mild feeling of unease in a social situation but I just remember my technique and it very quickly goes away. It certainly doesn't control my life anymore.

I hope you can get something out of this. I don’t know your situation of course but you will know what you can take from what I have said above, about my situation, to apply to your circumstances.

If you have any further questions or queries don’t hesitate to get back to me.

Good luck.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Chapter 11: Finding the Fun in Phobias (Part 4 of 4)

     My opportunity came last year when I was invited to a Greek Easter celebration. I accepted the invitation eagerly although massive apprehensions remained. I approached the event without alcohol and applied all my principles with vigour. When panic struck I exhaled slightly and let my body go limp and loose and relaxed back into the chair diffusing the feeling’s strength. When panic struck again it was with less intensity but I relaxed even more. I actually urged panic to strike so that I could practise relaxing but by then the panic had faded completely and I enjoyed one of the best afternoons of my life. I had found a weapon to beat the enemy. The link between my mind and the fear of my childhood had been broken and memories of successful triumphs had begun to accumulate. The road to a full recovery had begun.
     Now after many successful and entertaining dinner invitations, changes back to a normal life have begun. Self esteem has risen, bringing renewed confidence. Having risen from an ocean of fog I can view my life more clearly hence decision making has become easier, and suggestibility is fading. I’m less preoccupied with myself and have become more interested in the world around me. Frustration has been replaced with relaxation, and apathy and depression are retreating with each day.
     I can now pick up the pieces and focus on the things that were pushed aside during the years of understanding - spiritual, career and family development being high on the list.     
     Thankfully, I have passed through the stage of feeling bitter and angry that twenty years of my life have in a sense been taken from me and now have a deep respect for the complexities and power of one’s mind. I have no wish to fully understand the workings of the human brain - I’m happy to leave that to the professionals - but in the time I have spent solving my own problem I have developed a much better understanding as to the conquests and failures of my fellow man. If your mind can work so powerfully against you then what wondrous achievements can be accomplished if it works with you.
     Finally from the whole experience I am left convinced of two things. Firstly, the belief that the same mind that is destroying you can heal you, and of course you should never, ever give up.
     And what of finding fun in phobias - well, alas - the fun only begins when the phobia ends.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Chapter 10: Finding the Fun in Phobias (Part 3 of 4)

     Unexpectedly the road to recovery had already begun. Understanding what had caused the phobia made me realise that the problem lay in my thoughts and not my feelings. The problem began to lose its intensity. I initially had thought that determining the cause of the phobia was important but although it helped me begin to heal, it was what I discovered later that brought the final solution. I now believe it is possible to heal completely without determining the cause.
     At this point in time I began to admit to myself that I was a phobia sufferer even if it didn’t fall under the mainstream banners of phobia types: but it certainly appeared to be a phobia.
     I still lacked the courage to talk openly to people about it and continued to adopt an avoidance policy. Possibly talking to people would have helped to dilute the importance of the situation further but sharing a phobia with non-phobia sufferers could be detrimental considering the lack of sympathy expected. So I decided it wasn’t worth the risk and moved on to the next step.
     Initially I thought that from then on it would be easy. All I had to do was expose myself to the fear situation enough (desensitisation therapy) and it would dissolve away, but I found that the type of phobia I had wouldn’t allow this to happen. When the fear situation was orchestrated in any way, the fear would not arrive.  I couldn’t see how I could expose myself gradually to the fear environment. Leaving for home just after the soup would require considerable explanation. Also to organise a situation meant explaining the problem, which was not what I wanted to do.
     I had to find a way of equipping myself mentally so as to deal with the fear as it unfolded. This was to prove my biggest stumbling block and for many years I didn’t have an answer.
     I had long been aware that the phobia was thought driven. Several things led me to think that. Alcohol had been a great tool for me to use to get through dinner invitations where there was no escape. I quickly learnt that the alcohol interfered with the mind's attempts to induce fear and panic. Also discovering that the origin of the phobia was a mental link to a previous fearful environment, and the fact that I experienced the symptoms of fear when the source of the fear was not present.
     So I began to see how closely thought and feeling were connected. The moment a dinner invitation was extended my body would immediately display the symptoms of fear even if the event were weeks away. My physical situation at that point had not changed, only my mental situation. Also, when I left the dinner table and went into another room or when the meal was over, I’d feel better: but this was only because I was thinking differently.
     I concluded that my body was reacting in a perfectly normal way to the circumstances I was creating for it. Adrenalin works on certain organs only in a certain way.
     So I realised that trying to fight the fear by holding tightly onto myself would always be a losing battle as the tension, panic and fear would only mount to breaking point and I would only have another failure to store away in my memory.
     So I decided to try the opposite. Instead of trying to hold tightly on to myself when panic struck I would consciously relax and release the hold on myself in thought first then physically. I would accept everything my body threw at me, knowing full well that it is bound by biological constraints. I would completely surrender to all my thoughts and feelings so each time panic struck I would not give it the chance to build upon itself. I would not let my feelings bluff me into thinking they were important but just let them wash over me convincing my mind they were of no consequence.
     For the first time I felt I had a mechanism that could help me get through a meal dealing with the fear and panic as it came to me. I tentatively began to look forward to the chance to put all the theory into practice.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Chapter 9: Finding the Fun in Phobias (Part 2 of 4)

     I felt there was no one I could talk to. Who would understand that I found such a common social event so unbearable?
     This continued throughout my university life and into the first few years of my working life. I had a dream to travel the world and towards the end of my twenties the opportunity came. This would be my salvation. I thought the confidence I would gain and the experiences I would have would solve my problem. I couldn't have been more wrong. I took my fear around the world with me with disastrous results. I refused an increasing number of invitations from wonderful people to join them in their homes. I even found myself restructuring my itinerary to avoid and escape. Upon my return home the side affects and ramifications began to surface.
     I was losing both confidence and self esteem at an astonishing rate. The lies and excuses were beginning to take their toll as I dearly wished I didn’t have to make them. I was becoming isolated as I deliberately pushed friends and relatives away. I became indecisive as I was at the mercy of my feelings, and with that I became vulnerable to suggestibility. I became increasingly frustrated and agitated, as there seemed no end in sight to the feelings that were preventing me from living a normal life. I felt detached from the rest of the world. I felt alone. I became tired from the continual drain of nervous energy as I held tightly onto myself, afraid of where the next invitation would come from - the next phone call, the next person to knock at the door, the next person I spoke to at the pub and at work. My mind became tired from all the anxious thought, started losing its resilience and my career stagnated as I lost focus and energy. And of course with all this, depression and apathy were soon to follow.
     At the time I couldn’t see my life changing for the better. A pattern had developed that was beginning to set in concrete. Attempts to explain to family and close friends were greeted with baffled bemusement.  Relationships were brief and kept shallow, as I wouldn’t let myself get too close to anyone for fear of meals with parents and friends. I began to feel that marriage couldn’t be an option for me.     
     But strangely never did I think that I suffered from a phobia. That was for other people.
     Then unexpectedly my mother died and in the grief haze that followed, the reality sank in, that I had a problem and it had to be fixed.
     First I went through a period of what I called “shock”. In other words coping with the harsh reality that the dreams and aspirations I had for my life could not, and would not, eventuate until issues that I had previously been unaware of were dealt with. Admitting to myself (and then later to others) that I had a problem was an extremely difficult thing to do.
     Then I spent a long period of time determining what had caused my present situation. Talking to relatives and dredging up past thoughts brought me to the conclusion that my problem had originated in my childhood. A key factor, which helped me to arrive at this conclusion, was the fact that I never had any problem eating at restaurants, hotels and barbecues. I thought this was very odd at first but then I realised my parents never frequented these sorts of environments. So something had linked fear to invitations to dinner when I was a child. I began to think that my mother’s life-long subjection to epilepsy might have relevance. Close relatives confirmed my suspicions. The pre-dinner environment in our family home was apparently very tense and stressful due to the unpredictability of my mother’s condition. If her epilepsy struck during the meal then considerable embarrassment prevailed. For me as a child, not fully understanding this situation, I began to dread being taken by my parents to their friend’s homes, but I was not old enough to be able to refuse to go. As I reached an age where I could obtain independence from my parents, my subconscious was already full of material that would surface at my cousin’s home when I was eighteen, as a phobia.
     I’m sure the processes and events were much more complex but this simplistic explanation was enough for me to proceed.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Chapter 8: Finding the Fun in Phobias (Part 1 of 4)

     Phobia. Intriguing little word. For a phenomenon that affected my life in such a dramatic, damaging and prolonged way I had expected it to be more than a metre long. Surprising things surely come in small packages.
     Forty years ago I was a helpless babe in a cradle. Thirty years ago the fertile breeding ground for a phobia existed but I don’t think I’d even heard the word. Twenty years ago I was a sufferer but took little notice of the expression when it was used. Ten years ago I was still a sufferer but was convinced that phobias were for other people. Five years ago, still a sufferer, I finally realised the term applied to me but was too afraid to admit it. One year ago I remained a sufferer but could finally admit it to my relatives and friends. Now I’m enjoying the freedom a life without fear can offer and can freely talk, and now hopefully, write about it.
     Arachnophobia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia and even a fear of flying are of course examples of the more common phobias with which people are familiar. However, a unique set of circumstances came together in my childhood, which left me with a not so common fear. A fear of the totally normal behaviour of entering a house that was not my own for a meal. Not that I did not want to participate in such behaviour - I most certainly did - and the majority of the mental pain came from the deliberate avoidance of opportunities that I knew I would thoroughly enjoy. But my mind wouldn’t let me go. It turned such pleasurable events into nightmares so that in the end avoidance at all cost was the easiest scenario.
     Many might wonder what the problem can be. Avoiding a few dinners is not the end of the world. That may be so, but I was to discover that my social phobia had far reaching implications that reverberated through all aspects of my life in unexpected ways.  These would blight and haunt my life for decades until I finally acknowledged the fear, understood it and finally found a way to beat it.
     This led to a ten year voyage of self discovery, self honesty and understanding, which brought me - not to a scientific testament about the operation of the mind - but rather to a simple and practical solution to fix a mental problem that was preventing me from living a normal life.
     The story began when I was eighteen. I had my first anxiety attack when I was half way through an evening meal at my cousin’s home. For some unexplained reason I suddenly experienced panic, sweating, nausea and all the other bodily reactions to fear. I craved to leave the dinner table and go outside but instead I stayed politely seated and tensed up to try to fight off the fear.
     This inexplicable reaction shocked me but thinking it was just an isolated event I gave it no further thought until I had the same experience the next time I dined with friends at their home.
     In bewilderment I immediately began avoiding situations that were likely to cause me concern. I tried to convince myself that it would pass with time, as did my fear of storms as a child.
     But the years passed with no let up. I became used to making excuses. It became part of my life. I lived in a cocoon of excuses and avoidance. When my excuses failed I fought with my feelings throughout the meal, contributing little to the conversation and leaving exhausted, frightened and with a feeling of isolation.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Chapter 7: Beyond the Fear Lies Freedom

As mentioned in the last blog the final process of eradicating the phobia from my mind proved to be a difficult hurdle to overcome.

Most other phobias can be cured using exposure treatment. In other words gradual exposure of oneself to the source of the irrational fear over a period of time. With my particular phobia exposure treatment could not work. I could not see a way where I could gradually expose myself to the fear situation. I could not, for example, just show up for soup and then get up and leave. Also, I found that if the event was staged or orchestrated the anxiety would not occur and this was partly due to the fact that really apart from a very few of my closest friends and relatives no one understood what was going on. And I could not expect any one who hasn’t experienced an irrational fear to understand. To have a fear of eating a meal was ludicrous. Even people with a fear of flying had no comprehension as to my predicament as a fear of flying is quite a rational and understandable fear because although at very low odds planes can crash. So by going through the process of arranging a mock meal and the explanations required the fear situation which I was trying to expose myself too was lost.

This then left me with a conundrum. How could I get the exposure? Or if I couldn’t what other way was there to shake off the fear?

In trying to solve this issue I sought professional help for the first time since I embarked on the quest. I sought the services of a hypnotherapist and a psychiatrist. They both introduced me to the idea of visualisation. To sit comfortably and close my eyes and to visualise entering the fear situation; ie. walking up to the front door and then retreating; walking up to the front door and entering the home and then retreating; walking up to the front door, entering and sitting at the table and then retreating etc. all the while remaining calm and thinking about good feelings and not letting fear introduce itself in my mind. Whenever I began to feel fear I should retreat and try again; that was the theory.

I tried this approach but when the reality came the anxiety returned with gusto. I couldn’t depend on this method as a solution. I had to think of something else. Something more direct and something more attacking.

I thought about what was really happening. The anxiety was caused by my mind telling my body that I was in a fearful situation and that it was going to prepare my body to deal with the fear by releasing chemicals, adrenalin etc. My mind did not differentiate what was a rational fear and what was not. It had just made the connection years earlier that a meal at someone’s home was a fearful situation so it was only doing its job in preparing my body for the fear. So I came from another angle, I thought well how bad can it get? Really, how bad can it get? It is just a prescribed process my mind and body was going through for the situation that presented itself. My mind and body would go through the same routine if I came across a lion in the wild (a proper fear situation). So I figured instead of fighting the anxiety each time why not relax and let go when the anxiety strikes and let it wash over me. I also thought why not actually encourage it to come and mock its severity.

This attack I realised was my only hope, so I was prepared to give it a try.

When another dinner invitation came along I accepted, eager to test my hypothesis. I went along with no alcohol and decided to refuse any if offered. I wanted a clear mind to carry out my test. I was apprehensive, of course, but was determined to give it a try.

And then I lived through the most extraordinary moments I’ve ever encountered and that still amaze me to this day. Once seated at the table I calmly talked and socialised with the people around the dinner table (a few who were strangers, the greatest catalyst for an anxiety attack, I might add) while a battle raged in my head. Of course the anxiety came but I mocked at its strength and urged it to do more. Instead of resisting and fighting I relaxed and let it wash over me. It came again but this time weaker. I urged it to come again and do its worst. It tried but this time it was weaker again. I laughed internally at its hopelessness and urged its onset again but gradually it faded and disappeared and I was fee to enjoy the remainder of the meal, for the first time since my initial attack at my relative’s house almost twenty years prior, in peace.

What was startling to me was that while I appeared calm and coherent to everyone seated at the table on the outside my damaged mind healed itself as the humanoids in the Terminator movies healed themselves when they were damaged. I was finally armed with a tool which I could do battle with the phobia whenever it struck. I was braced for a counter attack.

The counterattacks came but with much less intensity until finally I reached a point when I stopped even thinking about it. The link in my mind between a fear situation and the event of dining in private homes was finally broken and I was, thankfully, free.

Before time dulled my memory of my personal encounter with a phobia I decided to write down my thoughts and experiences so I could recall them at a later date if I so wished. Over the course of the next three of four blogs I will present this article to you. It was jottings of my thoughts at the time. I considered rewriting and updating it but I decided against it. The raw emotion at the time of writing is probably best left intact.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Chapter 6: Alcohol as a Tool

I discovered early in the phobia experience that alcohol was a useful tool for combating anxiety when avoidance was not possible. I used to drink a small amount of vodka before leaving home or insist on an alcoholic beverage when a meal was suddenly thrust upon me when visiting friends or relatives.

After a few miscalculations I soon became familiar with the quantity that was required which was a balance between appearing orderly but with enough intoxication as to ward off an attack. This balance I might add was quite a fine line due to the power of the anxiety and hence the quantity of alcohol involved.

Although alcohol proved a useful crutch I was aware of the implications. I still wanted to be free of the phobia so as to enjoy “dry” dinners and I was wary of becoming addicted to alcohol. I simply wished to be free to enjoy the full spectrum of enjoyment associated with socialising over the consumption of food and drink.

However, this tool proved important in my quest for recovery. It was clear that whatever was going on in my head it could be influenced and controlled. I began to see that after years of being controlled I now had wrestled some control back.

Once I realised this I could see clearly that what the alcohol was doing was taking all the importance out of each situation. By doing this, my subconscious had nothing to base the anxiety on.

This was all very well and although I felt like I was approaching an antidote I still had one more obstacle to negotiate and it was a big one in phobia terms and one that took me a long time to find a solution. But once I did, I was almost there.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Chapter 5: Interrogating a Phobia

My initial thinking process led me to my first conclusion and that ironically enough turned out to be a most important one. I came to the conclusion that I was suffering from a phobia. It may seem a straight forward and logical thing to determine but to go from thinking that you are perfectly normal to self diagnosing a mental illness id in itself a massive emotional step. I still believe to this day that this self diagnosis was the most important step in th whole process of healing. It was really where the road to recovery began.

Once I had determined this I identified what type of phobia it was and discovered that it was a peculiar type of social phobia. Knowing this was really of interest only and didn’t contribute a great deal to recovery.

Once I had my head around this and became adjusted to the concept I tried to work out where it had come from. In other words, what had caused it? Looking back I can see that this process was very important as it removed the mystique from the illness and brought it out into the open for viewing and scrutiny which altogether weakened the phobia. Also knowing what caused it helped me decide how to eliminate it.

I then thought back over my early upbringing and childhood days to determine what may have been happening around me to cause the problem. One piece of knowledge helped me work this out and it was the simple fact that I only suffered from anxiety attacks when I was invited to private venues for dining not public places. I never had a problem when I went to a hotel, restaurant or function centre for meals. This was a major turn of fortune as I cannot begin to imagine the consequences on my life if I didn’t have the public forums freely available to me.

However noting this fact I was able to think back to my early childhood for answers. It came to me that my mother used to suffer from a form of epilepsy which when occurring at family friends homes caused much embarrassment. This meant that when our family was invited to attend a meal the pre dinner atmosphere in our house before leaving was, as I remember, very tense. As I was only young this tension and embarrassing vibes settled into my subconscious and became the breeding ground for a phobia.

Linking all this together in my mind had a large impact. Now being able to identify what the problem was and where it had come from meant that I knew what I was dealing with. Now I knew for sure that it wouldn’t just go away at some undisclosed time in the future.

However this final thought didn’t cause me any alarm because the next piece in the puzzle made me realise for the first time since the first anxiety attack at my relative’s home, over a decade prior, that the problem in my head could be fixed once and for all.  

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Chapter 4: Realisation

I had just entered my fourth decade when my mother suddenly died. I had been very close to my mother so her death hit me hard and I experienced a long grieving period. I was introduced to the notion that you never get over; you just learn to live with the passing of someone so close.

However, it was through this involuntary grieving period that I somehow and in someway took stock of myself, and something made me realise that I had a mental issue that had to be dealt with if I was to have the life I wanted to live. This came as quite a shock as up until then I had not even considered the notion of anything being wrong mentally, which of course may seem strange coming from someone who was subject to anxiety. I had considered that as I was intellectually adequate then that was that as far as my mind was concerned. I still hung on to the notion that the anxiety, although it played a huge part in my life, was one day going to go away. It was not just denial or conceit; it was that it never crossed my mind that mental illness applied to me. That realisation that it did was something that took quite a while to adjust to, although in hindsight I believe that from that moment on I was beginning to heal.

I decided that there was nothing for it but to put my life on hold until I had resolved the issue. I didn’t see that I had any other option. I had a steady job, somewhere to live and a handful of close friends so I pretty much shut down and began to think, and to think hard for a long, long time.     

Monday, 7 March 2011

Chapter 3: Travelling with a Phobia

My year long journey around the world, like what most other backpackers experience, was one of the highlights of my life. Four continents, twenty countries, countless memorable experiences and the delightful companionship of many interesting, fun and stimulating friends along the way. It was a fabulous experience and the year which I completed that trip still remans a benchmark year in my life from which other years have become relegated to either before the trip of after the trip. ie. bt or at.

But as I mentioned in my previous blog, my anxiety enjoyed the trip as well. Contrary to my most hopeful belief the whole travel experience didn’t make the crippling feeling go away. It acted upon me in just the same way as it did at home.

Once again to try and avoid the feeling I began refusing or ignoring invitations, pushing new friends away, deliberately changing or rescheduling my travel plans to avoid oncoming situations, continually consciously predicting future scenarios and sidestepping them and generally finding that being by myself was a “safe” option. Also when an unavoidable potential anxiety hotbed was looming the fear that I experienced consumed the moment so all momentary enjoyment was lost. I was reluctantly forced into antisocial and irrational behaviour and indecision became my mainstay. My journey was only half travelled as instead of immersing myself with unencumbered enthusiasm in all experiences and opportunities that presented themselves, I became controlling and censured what I experienced and what I didn’t. To this day I am still saddened when I think how much richer the journey may have been without travelling with anxiety.

And of course depression was waiting for me when I completed the trip and arrived home. What self confidence I gained from completely such a remarkable journey was quickly eroded once I was back in familiar surroundings. Also, I was confronted with the reality that nothing it seemed was going to make the anxiety attacks go away. I was forced to resign myself to the fact that anxiety was going to be my constant companion for the rest of my life. It was a gloomy prospect and one that overshadowed my every move until another major event occurred in my life several years later which would turn everything around.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Chapter 2: Learning to Live with a Phobia

As I mentioned in the previous blog, I wrote the first anxiety attack off as just a one-off phenomenon; but it wasn’t. Subsequent meals I attended with the usual relish resulted in the same crippling feelings and a devastated retreat. I had no idea what was going on. The whole thing was so strange and bizarre I didn’t even begin to contemplate talking to anyone about it. Who would want to know anyway? Everyone else appeared normal; it was just me having this problem.

For some reason I presumed that the problem would fix itself and I would grow out of it. I remembered being frightened of thunder storms when I was a child and I grew out of that so this would be similar. So I busied myself with life and pushed the problem to the back of my mind. But it wasn’t that easy.

Having left my home town to attend university I was repeatedly invited to attend meals at friend’s houses, whether family homes or in other rented accommodation. The same anxiety attacks occurred with the same intensity as regular as clockwork.

With my confidence waning and my self esteem plummeting I reluctantly withdrew and shied away from any form of this social activity. I began making up excuses as to why I had to refuse invitations. I began to predict events or occurrences which might lead to a dinner invitation and deliberately place myself in a situation which would divert the offer. I intentionally alienated myself from friends, relatives and aspects of the social world so that I wouldn’t find myself in the position of having to reject an invitation to someone’s home for a meal.

Sometimes though whilst trying to engage in social activity and be in the company of friends and relatives I would find myself in a situation where avoidance of a meal at a home was impossible and these events were disastrous for me. I would be continuously consumed in trying to fight my anxiety and all its repercussions and what was supposed to be a delightful event would turn into a nightmare.
So the alienation process intensified and I slowly cut myself off from the world around me. It felt like everyone else in the world was over there and I was over here by myself. I became indecisive, vulnerable and of course depression, which is at the end of the sequence, was closing in fast. I began living in a grey fog.

By now the anxiety attacks, and fear of the anxiety attacks controlled me. They controlled what I did, what I said, who I was with and all decisions I made. My life ground to a halt. I couldn’t see a future. The prospect of marriage seemed impossible. The prospect of having children dimmed. Suicide began to cross my mind more and more. What always stopped me was that, fortunately, it is part of my character to never give up and I always held a theory in my mind about suicide which was this: if things seem like they can never get any worse then they can only get better and if they do get worse then things weren’t so bad before and so the iteration continues and hence there is no theoretical justification for proceeding with the final act.

But there was one shining light on the horizon that gave me hope. After completing university and working for a few years I promised myself a year long global circumnavigation. With a round-the-world ticket in my hand I knew I would be able to set myself free and become new again. I convinced myself that I could once again enjoy the freedom of boundless social interaction and companionship.

But I could’ve been more wrong. Of course my body travelled around the world as free as a bird but my mind with all its idiosyncrasies came with me.

Chapter 1: The Onslaught of Anxiety

The story begins in a midsized southern Australian town. I regarded my childhood as nothing out of the ordinary. I was raised in a three bedroom brick home on a quarter acre block with fresh veggies from the garden, raspberries from the raspberry patch and fruit from the fruit trees. We had a beach nearby for summer swims and schools within walking distance. There were children in the neighbourhood to play with and when I reached my teens I grew interested in girls. I became interested in sailing and went on regular bushwalks into the mountains.

My father was the breadwinner and my mother was a dutiful housewife and cared for the home.

But then towards my late teens something occurred which changed my life forever.

I was invited to a distant relative’s home for dinner, when during the meal I experienced an anxiety attack. At the time I didn’t even know what one was but suddenly I was struck with the symptoms of sweating palms, rapid heart beat and shortness of breath. I had difficulty swallowing the food I was eating as my throat felt like it had closed up and I felt I needed to visit the bathroom continuously and urgently. Eating the remainder of the meal became an ordeal and things became worse when everyone was waiting for me to finish so they could move onto the next course I should have said I was not hungry any more and pushed my plate aside but considering I was experiencing an abnormal internal bodily experience I tried to appear on the outside as normal as I could and finish the plate. Incidentally, I would discover that this was the worst thing I could have done.

After the ordeal of trying to contain the anxiety through out the remainder of the meal I was left confused and frightened as to what had happened.

After a period of time I wrote the whole thing off as just an isolated incident and expected it to never happen again.

But I was wrong, it did.