Back in black
At the end of November 2017 my world came falling down. For weeks and weeks it was extremely busy at my day-job, in the evenings I was often working on the blog, answering personal emails etc. and in the weekends I was doing all kinds of things. After a while I really had trouble finding peace, in my head it just kept going, night and day, day in day out. I could not find the “stop” button any more. A big feeling of unrest, anxiety and stress began to creep into me. My stomach pained me, my neck pained me, I had constant headaches, I slept badly and on top of that my shoulder hurt. On Bali last year I had dislocated it, luckily it went back in again but it kept bothering me. I could do nothing without the feeling that my arm would pop out of my shoulder and there was a constant, nagging pain. In October I went to to the hospital at last, after my shoulder got dislocated again, for some X-rays. It turned out that the bottom of my right glenoid cavity had broken off, I needed surgery. But before that my brain called it quits. There was so much work at the office (plus a colleague with maternity leave, all kinds of hard- and software issues, no extra helping hands) that I could not handle it any more. Every day I was snoring vast amounts of snuff tobacco, I had a hip flask filled with Austrian stroh-rum of which I sometimes took a swig, all to keep me going and settle down my nerves. Then at a night I had a severe panic attack. I suddenly awoke drenched in sweat with my heart racing while my brain was going in full overdrive. Poor Ellen thought I was having a heart-attack.. That morning I called in sick while crying.. I went to the family doctor and he came to a quick conclusion; I had a mental breakdown on the verge of a full-blown burn-out. I had to take total rest.
The next couple of weeks were utter hell. Every day when I awoke, often after a short night sleep, my mind was racing and I was full of feelings of paranoia, unrest, stress, anxiety and guilt. Guilt because I felt that I had let myself and my colleagues down. Also my emotional barriers were totally shot. I would burst out in tears at nothing several times a day. Luckily I have some great friends who (sadly) had similar mental issues in the past. I talked to them and they gave me all kinds of useful tips. First I had to follow my daily routine as much as possible. So not lie in bed forever but get up, take a shower, make breakfast etc. Second I got the advice to exercise. I began taking a ± 40 minute walk every day through and around the village where I live. Of course while smoking one of my trusted corncob pipes, lunting that is called. Slowly halfway a walk my negative emotions subsided and I began feeling a bit human again. The evenings mostly went ok until I went to bed and awoke again the next morning..
Pipe smoking was a big help for me in those weeks. Just the ritual, the act of choosing the pipe and tobacco, filing the pipe, lighting and slowly smoking it gave me some peace of mind, a soothing experience. During my lunting walks I always smoked aromatics. When enjoying my pipe in public I always try to please the noses of passers-by. Plus that it is a shame to smoke fancy tobaccos which burn away quickly because of the always present winds. I started with Danpipe’s Sweet Vanilla Honeydew (now called SVH), a great tasting blend but it burned way too hot on my tongue. Then I tried Planta’s Danish Black Vanilla which was much better. I really don’t understand the low score on tobaccoreviews.com, for me it is one of the great all time aromatics. But my favourite was Graf Adolf Brauner Flake, one of the home blends of Linzbach in Düsseldorf and also known as John Aylesbury Dragon Flake. Great taste, slow burning and cool. Currently I am smoking Cornell & Diehl Autumn Evening, no bite and very tasty! Another tip of my friends was to do fun things, things that made me relax. So for example I watched all kinds of series on Netflix (loved Peaky Blinders!), shot pictures for my Instagram page, I devoured books on my e-reader (a lot of Indiana Jones books), sometimes had an outdoors lunch after walking and with Ellen I went to see nearby forests and places. By the way, Ellen drove the car wherever we went. I could not drive, it was simply too much for me, too many stimulations. Also I was visiting a psychologist and started practising some mindfulness.
Gradually after some weeks I began to feel a bit better. The mornings were not as bad as before (although still not even near pleasant) and my negative feelings and emotions began to subside somewhat. Slowly I was preparing myself mentally for the surgery on my shoulder at the beginning of January. But 1 day for the actual date I got a call from the hospital, the operation was called off because the surgeon got sick. Another blow.. I also started feeling a bit bored and useless so in consultation with my office I began working again for a couple of hours per day. Which went pretty well luckily. Soon a new date was planned for the shoulder surgery (after some pushing from my side), the last day of January, such a relief. So at the 31st I checked in at the hospital. The operation went well (despite I felt ill afterwards because of the narcosis). They had sawn some bone from another part of my shoulder and used it to repair the glenoid cavity. Also they re-located part of my biceps so it wouldn’t interfere with my shoulder.
Recovery went well, the first week was pretty painful but aside from the nights (I could only sleep on my back and left side) I really could not complain. The most annoying was that I had to have my arm in a sling all day and night. Unfortunately after some weeks I suffered a mental relapse. I got a mail from my work about my travel allowance (nothing serious) but that in combination with the thought of working again in some weeks time (just like the first drive after a car accident) fuelled my feelings of paranoia, unrest, stress and anxiety. It took me more than a week to shake the feelings off. I noticed I wasn’t there yet where I wanted to be mental-wise. Also I discovered that work was not the only reason of my mental breakdown. Roughly for about the last 2 years I had a nagging feeling it was going slowly downhill with me. That I was running aground in who I was, my habits, my thoughts, my past etc. The psychologist I was seeing was a very nice lady but a bit formal, I did not have a connection with her. Besides I needed something more than just talking. I decided to look for someone else.
Soon I stumbled on the website of psychologist Guusta Zuurbier and immediately had a good feeling with her for some reason. So I called her up but could not find the right words immediately at which we both had to laugh a bit, a good sign. She has her practice at home and when I visited her for an introductory conversation I was pleasantly surprised. She lives on a beautiful farm with lots of grassland around it in the rural area of my village. A place of peace and quiet, just what I needed. But I was truly amazed when I saw the practice itself; a stunning original Mongolian yurt! Ok, a tad woolly perhaps but it felt like a place of healing. After some talking we came to the conclusion that I had 2 options. Or take regular sessions with her or begin with an intensive yearlong treatment program called Tools for Life. I choose the latter, I was ready for change. In the following weeks I had 2 intake interviews so Guusta could determine my problems and pain points.
But before it all started I first wanted to let my shoulder further heal and have some working experience again. Luckily all went well and soon it was time for therapy. Tools for Life consists of 2 weeks of 2 hour sessions every day and after that once a month (or more if necessary) for a year. From a friend of Ellen who also did it and from the things I had read I understood those 2 weeks were going to be pretty heavy. Well, I thought, it certainly will not be that bad. Famous last words.. The first day I waited outside the practice in the sunshine enjoying the view before Guusta called me in. I had to take off my shoes and we sat in the yurt while enjoying a cup of herbal tea (afterwards I learned that deliberately no coffee was provided (too much of a stimulant) and alcohol was prohibited in those 2 weeks (which Guusta forgot to mention, whoops..)).
We talked and eventually she asked me to lay down on a mattress and put on an eye-mask. Behind the mask she had put some tissues and I remember myself thinking “Why the tissues? Ah, probably to keep the mask from getting dirty”. We did some relaxing exercises and then she asked me to imagine I was a young child again, about 7 years old and that I was standing before the door of my parental house. Which I did. At that moment I suddenly noticed I got a lump in my throat. What the hell?? Come on man.. So I swallowed it away and continued. Then I had to visualize that my parents came home and constantly, with everything that happened then, I had to tell how that felt, what it was doing to me, the young Arno. I had to feel, feel, feel again and again. And that child now had to say things to his parents, things that he would not have said back then but that the current grown up version of me would have spoken of. So in short I said the things out loud I wouldn’t have said as a child. I accepted and took responsibility for them as a grown-up. And it was soooo hard to do.. Getting those words out of my mouth often felt like getting a stuck cork out of a bottle. I won’t go into specific details but after that session on the mattress I understood the tissues behind the eye-mask, they were soaking wet.. When we sat down again I heard the sentences I had to say out loud were from a technique called logosynthesis, very interesting and incredible. I went home feeling like a zombie who just got steamrollered over.
Every next day pretty much followed the same concept; first some talking, then the mattress and then more talking. I also had home work, for example each day I had to bring a symbol with me that represented the day before. So after the first day I brought an old wristwatch with me that I had bought together with my father to represent his relationship with me and time, the young and current Arno. Besides that I had to write letters to persons and read them out loud to Guusta. Pretty emotionally heavy I can tell you. Further we discussed the circle, which represents my boundaries and wanted (new) and unwanted (old) behaviour. Boundaries in a sense that I only had to let persons, things and events in my life (circle) that I really wanted. Tools for Life also is about recognizing and changing behaviour that you learned in your youth and is making life difficult now. Unwanted (old) behaviour is outside the circle and wanted (new) behaviour is inside. For example old unwanted behaviour is wanting to write a blogpost every month because I feel I have to please people. New wanted behaviour is writing whenever I feel like to without any pressure.
Slowly throughout the days all my mental layers were professionally peeled off like an onion. On the second Monday I could not stand it any more. My masks had all gone and Guusta was, figuratively speaking, constantly rubbing my open wounds and putting salt on it. Feel this feel that… Suddenly I had enough, I wanted to get away, which I told Guusta. “That is escape behaviour, which you also showed before your mental breakdown. But feel free to leave whenever you want.” Arghhh…. I battled with myself but in the end stayed and continued the exercise. I believe that was the turning point. From then on I felt I was slowly getting stronger, more confident. I was on the rise again, an incredible feeling. At the end of the second week it was like I was drifting on clouds, it felt almost unreal. The last day we had a little party, to celebrate I had completed the first stage of Tools for Life. I could ask for anything to eat and drink so at 09:00 in the morning I was sipping away whisky while munching on Croky paprika potato chips. One of the symbols I had brought with me in those weeks was the first CD I ever bought, Back in Black from AC/DC. Like she had read my mind Guusta put on the title song, very fitting: Back in black, I hit the sack, I’ve been too long I’m glad to be back. Yes, I’m let loose, from the noose that’s kept me hanging about. ‘Cause I’m back, yes, I’m back. Yes, I’m back in black.
But the real work starts now, the new road has only begun. I have got some tools to re-program myself. Now if I fall into old automatic behaviour I know and recognize it, so I can change it. Like a birds-eye view I see myself and the situation and am able to respond to it in a new way. Easier said than done, believe me. Luckily Ellen supports me and sometimes points things out to me. So every evening before I go to sleep I go over the day, how did I feel, good or bad, old or new behaviour etc. And some things I write down so I can discuss it in a next session with Guusta. Those will be going on for maximum a year, or less. Right now I feel pretty damn good, back to earth but in a good way. It feels like like once in me was a shed full of all kinds of garbage and now it is clean. And I want to keep it clean.. So I am trying to be more positive in all aspects of my life, unconsciously I had became fairly negative. The glass is half-full, not half empty. And oh, of course there is much more to Tools for Life as I have told here. But some things have to remain a mystery until you undergo it yourself.
If people read this who are experiencing what I experienced, who are having a mental breakdown or a burn-out; learn from my story, there certainly is light at the end of the tunnel. You will get better, you will get stronger. There is absolutely no shame in your condition. Seek (professional) help, talk to people and most important, smoke a relaxing pipe now and then. It helped me! Regarding this blog, there will be fewer posts. The past 2 years I often was really struggling getting a blogpost ready every month. The amount of research, making and getting pictures, the writing itself.. Pffff… No more of that now, I’ll write whenever I feel like writing and take things easy. To you, my readers, I would like to say, thank you for reading!