WHAT IF I’M OK?
On Sunday 5th February this year I did something which I have never done before. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I have done something like it before – last October. Except on that occasion it didn’t involve ‘medicine’. It was called a ‘Gong and Didge Sound Journey’ led by practitioner Tony Abram and his lovely wife, Sammy (Energy Vibes Medicine). It was held at a church meeting room in Ingol, Preston. The next morning, having experienced something pretty good, a water pipe in my rented home burst and I woke up to the sound of water flooding my third floor apartment. Any good that might have come from the evening before evaporated a lot quicker than the water did! A plumber was called (on his wedding day, no less) and he fixed things, before he, too, disappeared, to get married.
At this point in time, I was signed off sick from work. Not for the first time, but the third time in the same twelve months period, including this month (April) last year and again last September, when I felt I had gone back to ‘Square One‘. Anyone who knows me is fully aware that I have struggled for years with generalised anxiety and panic disorder. I’ve walked out of jobs just as soon as I’ve started them and not settled in new places quickly enough. I even had a major panic attack on my first day in my new job in Preston. Not a great start! People ask if you are OK and you reply, yeah I’m fine. But often you are not. Many mask their true feelings and inner thoughts. So, asking if someone is OK is usually not enough. People need to dig a little deeper.
I spoke about my experiences in work situations since 2007 in a storytelling event in Norwich (see below) where, without a script and with a sign language interpreter, I stood on a stage and recounted my story of wondering whether I should stay or go. At the end of my story, I made an impromptu statement that I have to manage my diagnosed condition and symptoms. I clearly believed then, in 2019, that I would “never be cured, never be healed“ for my generalised anxiety disorder. Essentially, unlike my plumbing, I understood that I would not be ‘fixed’! That is what I believed, up until a ceremony that I took part in on that particular Sunday two months ago was potentially life changing. Why?
PHYSICIAN HEAL THYSELF
Before I answer that question, I want to refer back to a different blog post from a year ago, about ‘renewal’. Although I did not use that actual phrase above in the post, called The Elixir of life, it comes from a regeneration scene in Doctor Who. What I referred to was actually the 2013 broadcast regeneration scene from The Night of the Doctor (below) as the eighth doctor (played by Paul McGann) drinks the elixir (medicine) and transforms into the ‘war doctor’ played by John Hurt. Whilst, to this day, I believe that the line that preceded it should have been ‘Is this going to Hurt?’ rather than ‘Will it Hurt?’, I had to check where this phrase actually came from. ‘Physician, heal thyself’ (Greek: Ἰατρέ, θεράπευσον σεαυτόν / Latin: Medice, cura te ipsum), is a Biblical saying. In the Gospel of Luke 4:23, Jesus is quoted using the proverb in Nazareth, “Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal thyself’: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.” Miracles had been performed by Jesus in nearby Capernaum, but this was about convincing the Nazarenes that he was the living fulfilment of a messianic prophecy. A real doctor should be able to prove his credentials by correctly diagnosing and treating his own ailments first, before treating others. Which is probably why writer, Steven Moffat used that phrase in the regeneration scene.
My post last year tried to riff on the idea of renewal, if not regeneration. 12 months ago, I was looking for another possible ‘fix’, another way at looking at my ongoing and persistent mental health problems. However, NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming), which is what I flirted with then, fell short of being my ‘cure’, my ‘fix’. It is predominantly a cognitive process. Yes, ‘anchoring’ and ‘reframing’ has its uses. In addition, ‘matching’ and building ‘rapport’ is something that I do fairly well already. The part about ‘breathing’ fascinated me the most. Breathing offers an opportunity to match another, too, in that their breathing might change when you are around them. But, of course, it is something that is important for regaining control during or after a so-called ‘panic attack’, which I now prefer to call an ‘adrenalin rush’, thanks to an excellent book I purchased last year. Anyway, more on that shortly. I have digressed.
So why make this connection? Well, I did not expect any kind of ‘healing’ to occur. I have long assumed, as I have mentioned already, that my mental health problems ‘cannot be cured, never healed’. This acts as a prologue to what happened on 5th February this year. I returned to the ‘sound journey’ for the second time, hoping this time my flat would remain dry the morning after. Except this time there were more explicit instructions or guidance. Firstly, I had to fast for at least 4 hours. I went 8 hours without food just to be sure. I walked from Morecambe to Lancaster, then again from Broughton, along part of the Guild Wheel, to Cottam. I remained hydrated and in good physical shape for the ceremony. Now I have eaten chocolate many times. I have also eaten fairly common 70 or 80% Cocoa based chocolate. But this was full power, 100% Cacao stimulation imported directly from Venezuela and prepared into drink form. It is not illegal, but is almost as close to an illicit ‘drug’ taking experience that you could possibly get away with in a rented community centre. At first, I thought it was similar to a strong Hot Chocolate (note: there once was a band with that name who appropriately had a song called ‘I’ll Put You Together Again‘ and I’ve got the 7″ single). However, the stimulation was enhanced by the frequencies of the sounds that came from gongs and a didgeridoo – blown all over your horizontal body and up your arse. It certainly worked as a diuretic!
The difference between Cacao vs Cocoa
Everything you need to know about taking Cacao in Ceremony
I was advised to bring a notepad and pen in case I wanted to record anything. I did not think beforehand that this would be needed. Like dreams, it is difficult to immediately write down what you thought about during a session, as those thoughts tend to be forgotten as quickly as you wake up. However, on this occasion, I was fully awake, conscious and alert. The stimulation of the medicinal Cacao (or ‘Mama Cacao’) as it was referred to, took me to a new place. This was a spiritual, shamanic, heart chakra awakening in a safe space. Not a religious experience, with all the unwanted doctrines, but a spiritual uplift and opener to what was going on with me. Not just now, but the past and the potential future. It definitely shifted my thinking and decision making from head to heart! It helped tremendously that I went in with clear intentions – to get ‘healed‘, to feel an emotional change, maybe some love and to receive some new positive energy. I digest. I’m more than OK.
OPEN YOUR HEART
At the ceremony, Sammy carried out some ‘sage smudging’. Sage is a sacred medicine. Once gathered and dried, sage can be used for smudging in our homes, at work and in ceremonies. Combined with prayers, smudging brings us closer to ‘the Creator’. The smoke helps purify and protect our bodies, spirits and living spaces. Smudging can also improve mood, alleviate stress and insomnia, and repel negative energies, including viruses.
During the ceremony, I wrote a full list (several pages) of the words and names that came into my mind during the session. I am not sharing that list here as it is far too personal. Suffice to say, the process of doing this really opened up my heart. During the ceremony I went through my whole life, visualising it year by year in chronological order. I had at least one memory land on me for every year, sometimes two or three. It was a cathartic acceptance of what has gone and cannot be changed. During this the main man, Tony, played the handpan, which I had only previously ever seen played by comedic musician and 2020 Strictly winner, Bill Bailey on stage. He loves the intriguing sound but lamented that the instrument had been ‘traduced by the Reiki flakerati’ (his words, not mine). Surprisingly, or maybe unsurprisingly, there is hardly any use of the handpan sound used in popular music. Tori Amos’ ‘Bells for Her’ has something similar sounding, but it’s played on piano. While a certain track from the fourth album by Bjork called ‘Pagan Poetry‘ has a sound which could be, but isn’t. However, there is a Spotify playlist or two available if you wish to ‘float downstream on a lilo of the limbic system with zen meditation and oatmeal conversation’ (ditto).
From Genesis to Revelation: Peter Gabriel releases this track i/o (input/output) today. Stuff coming out. Stuff going in. i/o is also one of Jupiter’s moons – and this post was published on a full moon.
REVELATION OR REVOLUTION?
To be or not to be. One amazing ‘Revelation’ during the first of three ceremonies I had was this: It struck me that one possible underlying reason for my panic disorder is how strict my father was when I was growing up. I had a fear of getting into trouble and would have some of the symptoms of what I later learned was called a ‘panic attack’, if he called me into his study. Afraid of being spanked, actually. Whenever my name was called in a stern manner I knew it meant I was in trouble and expected the worst. I used to be in fear of him. But it was nowhere on a scale of PTSD or other serious childhood trauma that some children develop because of a really strict, abusive or dysfunctional upbringing. My childhood was relatively happy. However, another memory came up of being scared of death. As a young child, once I realised that people died, I could not comprehend not being alive myself. Looking back, I would have some of the symptoms of a panic attack with the thoughts about me not existing. Shaking inside, breathing irregularly. I never mentioned this to my parents, who at that point were probably keen for me to understand the book of Revelation in the Bible and to be reassured and comforted by what awaits for me in heaven- if only I ‘believed in Jesus Christ, my saviour’. Only faith can ‘heal‘. I’m not so OK about this.
The first ceremony ended with two songs, which came to Tony during the evening. One was the song ‘Talkin’ Bout a Revolution‘ by Tracy Chapman – her debut album is one of my all-time favourites. Obviously this has inspired the title of this post, with the slight twist hinted at above. Also played was the song ‘(Something Inside) So Strong‘ by Labi Siffre, and during this all the brothers and sisters, most of whom I did not know and had just met, held hands and sung from their hearts. It was very moving, indeed. To be honest, it was a much better song to play than the overused and clichéd ‘Lean on Me’ by Bill Withers, which suggests a reliance or dependence on others, rather than the former, which suggests self-reliance and autonomy. The evening finished with some testimonies and I shared my mine. However, it took a full month to fully process what happened.
I RELEASE CONTROL
I attended a second, more challenging session on 5 March, when there was no didgeridoo, but with shamanic drumming instead. The rhythm of this reminded me of that time I played Pau-Puk-Keewis in a school production of Longfellow’s Hiawatha – I can still remember the lyrics to the Wedding Feast lament. I held two crystals – given to me by my two best friends and work colleagues in Preston, namely Angela and Chris. Also on 5 March, there were the low frequency vibrations of ‘singing bowls’, while Sammy provided some warming Reiki – it does work, Bill Bailey! There was lovely singing of the above mantra, ‘I Release Control’, too, by their 18 year old daughter, Ellie and which I was reminded of on 25 April by Angela. However, I felt some agitation and at one point Tony came over and held me, sensing some difficulties with processing whatever was going on with me. He did something similar on the third and final ceremony on 2 April, noticing that I had clenched fists and a defensive posture lying down. It struck me I was fighting something deep inside, something that had been plaguing me for years. The final ceremony, which also featured singing bowls and lots of handpan, finished with some energetic dancing from everyone present. It also featured both ‘Talking ‘Bout a Revolution’ and ‘(Something Inside) So Strong’ again – to which I sang my heart out at the top of my voice, whilst trying to stay in tune! I even ran around the altar of candles during the former, before we all held hands aloft for the latter. Powerful and energising! One additional tune played was a dance version of Belinda Carlisle’s UK number one, ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth‘ – as someone’s testimony, that final evening, inspired this track, it seems. We testified once more. I revealed that I had written about this experience. The three ceremonies together had been quite a journey. It provided me, and everyone else present, with something very cathartic and, indeed, offered me some healing. Some amazing testimonies from others were also shared, but it’s not for me to re-share those here. If this was all that I had done recently – it might have been enough. But there is more to my journey.
Whilst the cacao ceremony seems to have provided the biggest shift in me – from head to heart – I also came across the most accessible book I’ve read so far on the topic of anxiety. It is written by Joshua Fletcher and Dean Stott and published/printed by Amazon. It is also available on Audible. When I first arrived in Preston I started following Joshua and listened to some podcasts that he has been involved in both as presenter and guest. He practices as a therapist in something called ‘The Panic Room’ in Manchester and his podcasts are similarly named. Along with Dean, a.k.a ‘DLC Anxiety’ on Instagram, they wrote a book from lived experience and is chatty is parts. Nonetheless, sections on how to deal with anxiety attacks, how to do ‘exposure’ therapy right and cultivating a new culture really resonated with me. Don’t even call them ‘panic attacks’ – linguistically it’s not correct – they are ‘adrenalin rushes’, more biologically accurate – so a bit of cognitive ‘reframing’ there, possibly borrowed from NLP. Actually, we all know that feeling adrenalin coursing through your body can be a good sensation in the right circumstances. It is a short-term boost to our reaction time and alertness. Playing Pau-Puk Keewis at school and appearing on stage in Norwich would be two examples when I felt this. If you can ride it, it can provide elation, a ‘high’ of sorts. Feel the fear and tell your life story, anyway. The latter section of the book includes a part about wilful tolerance of anxiety and I started to practice this, which had only been hinted at during previous therapy. They describe the concept of wilful tolerance in an extract below. I began not responding to thoughts in a panicky way, not giving negative thoughts any power. It took some practice, beginning last year, but has more or less worked since.
In addition, over the past 18 months I have received three separate lots of university provided counselling. This is always welcomed. I am so grateful that my employer takes the mental health of its employees very seriously. For example, over the next few months, the university have a number of mental health awareness and training opportunities for colleagues, including a new support group and event for male colleagues and a series of workshops open to all, but aimed at managers. Other organisations that I have worked for have been OK at this, but providing employees with an app, as a previous employer did, to check in yourself in lieu of actual support is not enough. When I presented a workshop on mental health in English language teaching at IATEFL, in Liverpool, 2019, this was aimed at managers and employers.
For me, counselling deals with the emotional stuff. Just talking can be enough. I believe I would score fairly well on emotional intelligence, but being able to use your emotions in a positive way and not in a way that damages personal relationships is still something I am still learning about. Airing your feelings, discussing your emotional baggage in a safe way and having someone respond is fine. However, when all you hear back is ‘what I hear you say is…’ or nodding and just repeating what you have just said, then something more intrusive and constructive is needed.
So, finally, another significant therapeutic intervention has taken place, too, since the new year. I came out of the latest counselling sessions at the start of this year into some NHS based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This is just coming to end after 8 full-on sessions. I was originally referred in early November last year, following a call to the Lancashire and South Cumbria NHS Foundation Trust, on a particularly bad day. On the three consecutive days from 8-10 November, I was hyperventilating almost non-stop. So much so that I completely missed the T20 World Cup Cricket semi-final between England and India. That’s how bad I was! Occupational Health, through my employer, eventually got involved later that month, although, in hindsight, I should have triggered this sooner.
Now the only other time I have tried CBT was around 9 years ago in Norfolk, I was not in the right space, did not take it seriously enough and did not do the homework- which is actually crucial. I had been in a secure psychiatric unit in Kings Lynn the previous year, including on my 42nd birthday. But out of the brief CBT sessions in 2014, I did buy a classic of the genre, ‘Mind Over Mood: Change how you feel by changing the way you think’ by US based Padesky & Greenberger. I still have it and brought it to my new face-to-face sessions in Preston.
The CBT this time not only worked well, but the therapist has been superb and there has been some great fun conversations during the sessions. PHQ-9 and GAD-7 were completed before each initial session (an example of the one I completed before the second session is below), while an online 40 question survey was introduced halfway through. We have covered negative automatic thoughts, unhelpful thinking and the well-known panic cycle. Whilst anxiety is normal and welcome, excessive levels are unwanted. I now challenge any unhelpful thoughts and bat them away, much like a batter hitting a fast delivery for six! Critically, tools and techniques have now been put in place so as to prevent future panic. My final (9th) session is scheduled for 13 April when I will get closure. My final piece of homework is to complete the ‘therapy blueprint’, which is a reflection on how my difficulties developed, what kept them going and what has been learned during therapy. This time, I feel, something has truly gone into my thick, conditioned skull and will stay!
To conclude, it’s back to asking what if I am OK after all and that rather certain statement that I made on stage in 2019. I said that I would “never be cured, never be healed“ and, unlike my plumbing, never ‘fixed’. That is what I believed, and to some extent this remains true. Big Lancashire pause – BUT… An holistic combination of that book + my own version of the 4 (or 6) C’s – Cacao Ceremonies with candles (for the ‘healing’), Counselling (for the ’emotional stuff’), CBT – for challenging the negative automatic thinking and the usual dodgy Coldplay references (check my links) – appears to have produced amazing results! You might think what has happened is superficial – a passing elation that will wear off. However, I do, tentatively, feel cured from having ‘panic attacks’ at the very least! Just don’t call them that!! With the emotional stuff out of the way, a new heart led decision making process and new thinking tools and techniques in place, I have been significantly more positive and able to cope with minor and even greater stressors. Everything just feels so much easier now. To some extent, I still have to manage any symptoms, but so far they appear to have disappeared – much like the stench on my drenched carpet eventually did! Heaven truly can be a place on Earth if you know where to look. You lift me up in a wave of love. I’m not afraid anymore. You’d better ‘run, run, run, because finally the tables are starting to turn’. There is something inside that is strong and it starts with self-love. Stuff coming out. Stuff going in. Never mind heaven – I feel a hell of a lot better. This is my testimony and it is now public! I am more than OK now.. actually I feel fantastic. We live in a beautiful world and I might try to fix you!
Full Moon Note:
Apart from the cacao ceremony lead practitioners, whose permission I have asked to share this (including the group photo), no-one else that either attended, nor any of the names the I wrote down during the first session, have been named. There were around 15 other participants (brothers and sisters) on each occasion. Each person has/had their own journey/testimony and for many it is a private thing which needs to be respected and shared only they are comfortable with that. Originally this post was even more personal than this, but some information has been deliberately retracted before publication. I have edited this numerous times to get it right, including this past week. I have also not named my counsellor, nor therapist, as there is no need. It is not professional, but they know who they are and I very am grateful to them for doing their jobs. I am also very grateful to work colleague, Angela Kilpatrick, for all the walks with the dog and for introducing me to Tony and his Energy Vibes Medicine Group. She also is largely responsibly for me staying in Preston and not quitting, when I could have left. Also to Chris, Will and Stephen for their support this past year or so. This post has been deliberately published on the Pink Full Moon (6 April) as the moons have a great influence on our lives whether we realise or not. Last Saturday, on 1 April I was given a pink jacket and a pink bucket to collect tokens when I volunteered for the Preston Park Run. Anyway, that’s enough of the hippy astrological shit – whatever, blah blah blah. 😉 I’m joking!
Cree Board of Health (n.d.) Traditional Medicine: Sage. https://www.creehealth.org/health-tips/traditional-medicine-sage#toc-related-resources
Fletcher, J and Stott. D. (2021) Untangle Your Anxiety. (2021) Self-published / Printed by Amazon – available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Untangle-Your-Anxiety-Overcoming-Disorder/dp/B08YQM9SPY
Other references and videos can be found by following the hyperlinks.
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