My migraine headaches began on the Fourth of July when I was five years old. By age fifty, I had over fifteen physical and mental symptoms from being in a state of sustained threat physiology. They became extreme and intolerable. I completely lost hope of ever regaining any semblance of an enjoyable life.
The worst part of my ordeal was the mental pain; being bombarded with unpleasant and intrusive thoughts. The more I did battle with them, the more intense they became. I had already slipped into an “internal OCD” (obsessive-compulsive disorder) five years earlier. It manifested with repetitive disturbing thoughts that I countered with positive thoughts. Internal OCD does not have the external characteristics such as hand washing and counting.
“I am a victim”
On Mother’s Day of 2002, I realized what being a victim entailed and saw that I was deeply enmeshed in that role. Up to that point, I had no idea that I was even angry. I was just “right” and “frustrated.” But since I had so many legitimate reasons for feeling this way, I never considered myself as angry. In fact, my concept was that I had dealt with anger and had moved on. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
I felt a deep shift and over the next six weeks. Some of my physical symptoms began to resolve, with the most unexpected one being that the ringing in my ears (tinnitus) decreased dramatically. After 25 years of dealing with it, I had assumed that it was a permanent symptom. However, many of the disturbing thoughts persisted and were interfering with my capacity to enjoy my life. I felt stuck.
The circus mirrors
One day, I had an image of myself standing in front of the kind of reflecting mirrors that you see in the circus. I was staring at repeating versions of myself, going into infinity. I could see the battle that was playing out in my brain—a disruptive thought followed by a counterthought—without an end. This had been playing out in me for years. I realized that there was nothing I could do and I “gave up.” I had reached a point where I had to let go. I truly became deeply discouraged yet at the same time, this realization was accompanied by a deep physical feeling of release. I was perplexed.
I continued to use all the tools of writing, mindfulness, forgiveness, etc. But with my new outlook, I began to move forward with my life, and within six months most of my physical and mental symptoms (including the obsessive thoughts) had dramatically abated. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it turned out that letting go and moving on was the definitive answer. This was well before I understood the concepts of neuroplasticity. Your brain develops wherever you place your attention, and I had been reinforcing the problem by trying to fix it.
Take a break
My patients and I frequently discuss the idea of taking a break. They have been diligent in reading, writing, not discussing their pain or medical care, meditating, processing anger, and even working hard at play. But they continued to be frustrated because, even though their pain had diminished, their anxiety levels remained too high, upsetting thoughts continued to bombard them, and they still didn’t have the quality of life that would allow them to thrive.
Perfectionism often came into play. But the harder they worked at whatever they wanted to improve at, their neurologic energy was still directed at themselves. Inadvertently, by stimulating neuroplastic changes towards the problem, they were reinforcing these unpleasant neurological circuits.
Source: Steve Cukrov.AdobeStock
The victim role (including perfectionism) is so powerful, you will never want to give it up, even after you have felt how free you can be. The decision to let go of being a victim is a day-by-day, sometimes a minute-by-minute decision. Being triggered is inherent to being alive, and you have to decide if and when you want to let go, and when you are ready, just do it. I have not found an alternative, and logic doesn’t work. I call it, “flipping the switch.”
Occasionally, at the end of an office visit, I asked my patient to sit in the exam room and not leave until they committed to “letting go” of the victim role. They may sit for 10-20 minutes before they left. Walking out the door was symbolic of them stepping into their new life. It was surprising how effective that simple action could be.
Bill was a middle-aged, small-business owner who had been in chronic pain for over twenty years. One day, Bill was triggered by one of his business partners and fell deeply back into the abyss of pain and despair, to a depth he had not experienced before. He was becoming suicidal. Unfortunately for me—but fortunately for others—through my own experience, I had gained insights into suicide and realized that anger is what pounds your soul into the ground. Bill was in an extreme victim mode. I called him out on it during an intense conversation. Although it was nerve-wracking for both of us, it clicked. He sat in the exam room for about half an hour. When I saw him back a few months later, he was a changed man and re-entering the workforce.
Letting go is the simplest, and simultaneously the most difficult, aspect of the process. Our anger is powerful and often legitimate. We are accustomed to fixing others and ourselves, but our attention is still on our flaws and those of others. Too much attention to shortcomings inadvertently strengthens our unpleasant neurological circuits.
The DOC Journey provides guidance and tools to get to a place where you are able to let go. Watching people enter this realm is inspiring and is a major factor in motivating me to keep moving forward with this project.
Every action you take today is based on your programming from your past up to this very second. You have learned what is dangerous and what is safe. Most of this occurs in your subconscious brain. For example, your brain sends signals out to constrict your pupils in bright light and dilate them in the dark. You don’t consciously think about it. Although you consciously learned not to touch a hot stove, it also became an automatic reaction. Anytime you are anxious or upset, something in the present has connected to a situation in the past that was threatening, and you are “there” and not in the present moment. The first step in letting go is to develop a “working relationship” with these unpleasant hardwired reactions instead of fighting or trying to cope with them. Then the real solution is truly “letting go” and moving into your new life.