Category Archives: This thing called life

More general observations, reflections and ideas from life, the world and this round thing on my neck…

Anxiety – a monster under the bed?

We can’t escape it. The worrying thoughts. Sometimes a pounding heart or sweaty palms. At times the sense of unease. Anxiety in its various forms can be present in all of us at different times. It is called many names. Fear, panic, phobia, stress, freaking out, concern, etc. At times it arrives because of a specific event (like an examination or doctor’s appointment). For others it may be the sight of an unwanted visitor. Good morning Incy Wincy Spider!

None of us escape the experience of anxiety. It is in essence hotwired into us. Hotwired neurologically and like electricity runs through our central nervous system. But why do we have anxiety? This uncomfortable and even disabling experience. Why is it often part of our daily lives? Not everyone will agree on “daily “, but I find that the majority of clients presents with a higher or lower degree of anxiety. This is very often the case when anxiety was not their initial complaint or concern. I am thus not surprised when a referral to me is due to depression or other challenges , but it becomes clear that anxiety is part of the package.

When it comes to emotional obstacles, a major challenge can be fighting against what we can not see or what we believe “is part of whom I am”. In essence the fight can then turn against one self. Me versus I. Instead of me against anxiety. To see anxiety as the enemy is not beneficial and can be visualised (imaginative or symbolised by a real object) as the problem the requires management. And the starting point? At the beginning. Understanding how anxiety operates and why we experience it.

Step 1. Feelings of anxiety start with a trigger or catalyst. This may be a smell, seeing an external object or by internal feelings . The amygdala jumps into action by preparing us physically and mentally into a fight or flight mode. This response is triggered by the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream via the kidneys. As a result our blood pressure and blood sugar rises, muscles are fueled with energy and we focus on what may be the potential danger. This may stifle some into a passive state; others are thrown into chaotic action, while others become extremely focussed and structured.

The Shadow ManStep 2. To identify the threat or potential danger. The importance of this that we may be (1) confronted by a real danger or problem, (2) that we responded incorrectly to an external or internal stimulus or (3) that when nothing happens, uncertainty may be appear to be a threat. This step is within the context of anxiety being a survival mechanism. If not for anxiety, we would not have survived as a human beings over centuries. However, when exposed to anxiety on a regular basis or growing up in an environment where anxiety flourished, it might have become behavioural patterns and even part daily routines.

Step 3. Ask yourself, “What purpose does anxiety serve in my life?” Does anxiety enhance my experiences of love, beauty, creativeness and (importantly) logical thoughts. Does it impede in the pleasure I may gain from a loving relationship, my sleep or even my ability to complete my studies or a piece of art? What does anxiety steal from me?

Step 4. Finding ammunition to manage anxiety. Before you fire away, know we cannot rid ourselves of anxiety . We all have times when anxiety visits and times when it serves an important function. However, consider the following:

  • How many of your worries become true? If you write down your weekly worries. Say you start at the floor, write them down one for one till you reach the ceiling. How many did repeat? Then tick each one that became true. How many ticks? Interesting.
  • Stay in the here and now, the present. Anxiety often let us dwell on decisions we made (“Did I do the right thing?”, “What did they think …?”) or focus on the uncertainties of the future (so many “What if?” questions).
  • Know that your experience of anxiety does not imply something is wrong with you. Anxiety visit people from all ages, religions, cultural backgrounds. You are one of us if you experience anxiety. You are not alone. You are not the problem. Anxiety is.
  • Do you ever worry that someone will knock on your door and say, “Congratulations, you have won a wonderful holiday!” No, anxiety does not focus on possible positive outcomes. It tells us the potential bad stuff, what may go wrong and the worst possible scenarios.
  • Know that physical sensations are anxiety gearing you up for action. Your dry mouth, hairs on the back of your neck rising up, having cold feet and pins and needled in your fingers, butterflies on your stomach, shallow breathing and increased heart rate are all part of the fight or flight package. You can use it if you are under threat. But if all is fine, know that it is just anxiety being unpleasant. Know YOU WILL NOT DIE FROM THIS.
  • Breath in. Breath out. Slowly and deeply. Give your body and your brain oxygen. Breath in. Breath out.

Step 5. If you find anxiety overwhelming, find someone to talk to. This may be a friend, a family member, someone you trust (e.g. religious affiliation) or professional. So often anxiety grows on us as we keep it private. But bottling it up just let the temperature rise. Let it out, let it go. The monster under your bed is not real. It is anxiety trying to scare you.

 

 

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Once I was 41 years old

In a wink of an eye. It truly is remarkable. It was the seasonal changes that reminded me. Four years ago, May 2012, the nights were getting darker and longer, the days more misty and gloomy in the autumn light. Working hard, probably too hard. WorkingIMG_1535 hours were stretched into the night and my commute home most often passed family homes where supper was served. And then it stopped. Out of the blue, out of the dark.

My brain tumour’s surprised arrival followed my first ever half marathon (a good one) and a second half marathon (a struggle) two weeks later. I was fit, healthy and our family was settling back into a routine following our return from England 18 months before. Life treated us well, with only run of the mill challenges. Nothing dramatic. Kids at school carving their own marks in discovering their identities in a South African lifestyle. Anneén and I  finding ways to integrate our learning curves from abroad back into systems familiar from long term memory. IMG_1604

And still with the good and the lovely came the unexpected. Loss of consciousness whilst driving on the highway. Waking up under hospital lights. First sight was Anneén’s tears. Comprehending her words, but it did not make sense. Seizure? Brought here by ambulance? Really? But it was true, despite my IMG_1582amnesia. And so the journey started. MRI Brain Scans, differential diagnosis. New differential diagnosis. MRI Brain Scan and craniotomy aka brain surgery. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

And in between I ran. Not away. Not in flight, even though at times in tears. But I found running as a way in between chemo sessions to find open spaces, open mind space. I ran to feel my heart beat, blood in muscles and a sense of moving forward, moving on. It was life affirming. Death denying. Even though “mortality” was suddenly written on a white wall.

When I was 41 years old, the seasons changed in our Wine-lands. The vines lost their green coats, changed into golden, red and brown outfits and were then blown apart by autumn winds. The bare vineyard fingers were exposed, like skeletons. Winter was coming, but so the knowledge that the seasons change. New life will return to the brown vines, crooked in in the morning light. New red and black fruit will return, plucked into baskets and transformed into wine. A new life, a different life. IMG_1436

I am turning 46 soon. The seasonal changes includes us, make us aware of life’s ongoing journey and routines. What will follow around the next corner, over the next hill or within the mountain forest. I am not able to tell – a true blessing.  But I can stand still on my way. Take a deep breath, close my eyes. Hear the wind in the pine trees, smell the dusty roads between the vineyards, see the excitement in our dogs eyes. Breath out. And run.

 

 

 

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Running the Challenge

It is an easy excuse, but the winter months prove a challenge for my running and fitness endeavours. Up to the end of May I have been on the road and muddy tracks several times per week, taking the dogs with me to satisfy their feverish needs to explore the close-by vineyards and our local forest area. My fitness was on a positive upwards curve and I felt in good form. But June and July saw a white flag instead of running shoes. It had been tough in the cold and wet mornings and by the time I arrive home in the evenings, the sun had long gone to warmer climates.

At least there were a couple of runs, in the hope to hold on to some shape of good intention and a tad of fitness. Last Thursday, due to some misunderstanding of dates and days, I accidently had the day off. Loved it for having to do neglected odd bits on my own, but income-wise inconvenient timing. However, it provided me time to take the dog’s running harnesses off the shelf and to enjoy the flood of energy and excitement when they heard the little metal clips calling. To them this is a calling to an hedonistic hour, the pleasure of exploring the outside wilderness where grapes and pine trees grows, where smells and unexpected encounters of fellow canines are “like the best thing ever dude“. Off we went. They loved it. I suffered. The 7.4 km earthy tracks killed my enthusiasm and entered the disappointment of failing in my exercise aspirations.

Tiger Trail J-hoek 2013 II

Luckily there are second chances. Yesterday I took on the tarmac up Blaauklippen Road, past several vineyards and wineries. Running on my own is probably a bit selfish towards my usual running companions. But it allows me to focus on my pace, my posture and to focus on well known distant markers along the way. Crossing the Blaauklippen stream is at 1.4 km. The sign past a small restaurant is my 2.5km turning point when I do 5 km short run. But I had the strength to carry on. Pass the Blouklip turn-off (useful for my Strava challenge) and up the steep circle climb towards Dornier, Kleinnood and Waterford. A good run and knowing that heading back, long stretches of downhill awaits.

There are several things I take away from a good run, like yesterday’s. I completed 8 kilometres and ran it at a satisfying pace (recall of recent laziness). It provides a sense of achievement and knowing I can shake of those couple of extra annoying numbers the bathroom scale throws in my face. But more, it provides comfort. Knowing that I can run, despite past seizures and that bugger of a tumour. That there is always a way to get back up when you feel down and out, or when live gets too comfortable under the warm winter blankets. The challenge is to run and I have to run those challenges. Not against anyone, but for myself and for my family. To stay well and healthy.

Another run coming up in 23 minutes’ time. Not one for the running shoes or with our beautiful dogs. A MRI Brain Scan awaits. A different challenge, but one I can’t shy away from. So wish me luck as off I go.

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A father’s day

Waking up to a misty winter morning, aware of my wife’s breathing and the sun gently stroking the window blinds. While the girls are still asleep, I sneak to the kitchen for my usual strong coffee day-breaker, knowing the dogs’ welcoming sounds. Even before the see me, their tails drum excitingly on the kitchen floor and against the cupboards – as if they have not seen me in weeks. Armed with a red coffee mug, I quietly step out on the deck. The early sunlight is partly hidden behind Stellenbosch mountain and embraced by a thick layer of mist. The trees close-by appears to stand guard against the moist air. Those further away have been surrounded by the grey and white cloudiness and surrendered to the loving damp.

Wandering around the house corner, I disturb a few black birds and they sound the alarm to their fellow worm-seekers. The shrill sounds and flying wings adds to the wonder of the morning and join the unseen feathered ones celebrating the start of a new day with different melodies. How the seasons have changed. Finding a dry spot on our half painted wooden bench (it really needs some loving care to soften time’s scars), I find the warm black liquid almost therapeutic. Daybreak’s display of colours and sounds treated my senses. Coupled with the sense of being blanketed by cloudiness, the caffeine brings my palate to life and the smells activities my awareness of being awake in this moment.

wpid-2015-06-21-17.00.28.jpg

These are precious moments. Stillness. The quiet without is parallel to that within. I am with me. I am with the birdsong, the mist, the moist that drips lightly from the Johannesburg Gold’s leaves. I am embracing the warmth of the coffee mug, as it provides warmth to my body with every sip. I am alive. I am. I am connected in my solitude with my sleeping wife and daughters who are unaware of my thinking of them. I am because of them. I am aware of my, and their, limitations. I can’t always be the father I would want to be . Or whom they may want me to be. But I am blessed to be a father, ‘n pa. Even more to be their dad. In my own imperfect ways to love them and to be proud of them, even when I disappoint with an unnecessary harsh word or working yet another late night.

Maybe I am like this bench. Scarred by a few things what life has thrown my way, but also enriched by what I have encountered along the way. Whereas I wandered into the beauty of the morning today, the old bench lives through it every day. Sees, hears and feels the cycles of life in every moment, but also bears the scars of the wind, rain and heat. I am a tad jealous, as I just stumble into the beauty of this moment. Maybe the lesson is to be more aware. Not only to nature’s invitations to open my senses to the wonder of every moment. But also to be aware of my family’s beauty and wonderful abilities to love and to grow into the people they are meant to be. I am at times only a spectator to their journeys. But what a privilege to stand on the side-line and to openly or quietly cheer them on to embrace challenges. To deal with their uncertainties. To discover their talents. To see the beauty I witness in them. More importantly to recognise their own beauty. I am blessed to be a dad, to be their dad.

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UnreLenting

There may different reasons why a blogger may be neglecting his patch in blogger-world. It could be due to changes in his or life, such as improved health, a career move or another family member arriving. It may due to unfortunate events, such as poor health, strain from being a caregiver or increased commuting time. In my case, it has been due to working hard again. Actually, I want to label it. I have been blessed with the ability to work in my profession following the visit from a brain tumour, a craniotomy (to remove it) and a couple of seizures.

I am well aware that some of my fellow travellers, survivors and fighters followed a similar path of recovery, but some have not been so fortunate while others are slowly finding their feet in the lives they embraced before. I may be incorrect in my recall of Freud stating that the two meaning activities in life are sex (i.e. meaningful relationships) and work. In part I agree as I have seen the consequences of the lack of these and how it can add to experiences of anxiety and depression. However I prefer the idea from the old Jewish wisdom writers (from the book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Harold S. Kushner) that a meaningful life involves, “To live, to love, to learn and to leave a legacy“.  But meaningful living does not only mean saying yes to what is good and beautiful. It also requires the ability to say “no”.

What I found beneficial is to have structure in utilising the gift of saying “No” to myself or “No thank you” to others. For me Lent provides such a structure, given that it is time dedicated (amongst other things) on sacrifice. It is not only within the Christian tradition that the concept of fasting and sacrifice is embedded. Within Muslim (Ramadan), Jewish (e.g. Yom Kippur), Buddhist and Hindu (e.g. Shivaratri) faith traditions times are allocated to focus on abstinence and celebration. These are often based upon remembrance of historical events or in preparation for festivals or significant events within the religious tradition.

Red Red WineSo my commitment for Lent 2015 involved giving up alcohol and sugar. 40 days without while I live among the beautiful vines and wineries of the Western Cape in South African and I savours the flavours, tastes and quality of a good Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. So to pass on the enjoyment of these felt quite daunting. However alcohol was the easy part.  But I realised how deceptively sugar creeps into our relationship with food. Even though I run often, eat healthy, don’t drink soda drinks and in general have a limited sweet tooth (a black Americano, no sugar kind of guy), I caught myself a few times popping something sweet into my mouth. Realisation 1: Abstinence requires focus.

Realisation 2: Sacrifice comes with benefits.  This not includes losing weight and saving a bit of money. On a deeper level it provided an understanding of what I am capable to  do and that the ability to say no does not have catastrophic consequences. It taught me the worth of keeping the balance between yes and no, between please and no thank you. Sacrifice does not only exclude foreign substances, but it challenges our internal dialogues about wants and needs.

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The Irony

It is quite ironic to look back at my last post and my reflections on how quiet life was. Posted in March (2014), there was no reason to complain, no reason to carry the burden of concern and life was providing more positives than challenges. How quickly things can change when the curveball comes flying towards you.

Only 3 weeks later and the baby sitter was booked. A relaxing night out for the two of us in Stellenbosch. With autumn delivering beautiful evenings we started with a stunning glass of red at a local wine bar, followed by a tasty meal at a traditional South African restaurant. As we still had some time to procrastinate our home coming, we called up a mutual friend. As she was in between working on paintings, we were got comfy in her studio/flat for coffee and chats. All in all, exactly what the doctor ordered. By the time we got home and had the kids in bed, it was truly time to slumber contently after a good grown-up evening about town.

It feels unusual to wake in the middle of a dream and the dream-like figures are lingering on against your bedroom walls. However, when the realisation dawns upon you that they are paramedics who are calmly bending over an ambulance trolley, unusual turns into surreal. It takes a step up with the awareness that you are the patient strapped on their ambulance  trolley. It was a seizure. The first I had in 2 years. The first since my brain tumour diagnosis in 2012. In my sleep, on our bed, without warning. The only difference this time, was that I was aware of Anneén being there and while being wheeled out of our house, a good (doctor) friend standing with and comforting my eldest daughter who woke up during my epileptic commotion.

I was much clearer about the rest of the events during the early morning. The red and white ambulance parked outside, they journey to hospital and the doctor and nursing staff who checked me out. I actually felt clear in my thinking. Also clear about the pain in my right shoulder. More than once I was asked if I fell out of bed. No. The whole thing (according to Anneén about 20 minutes in duration) happened while being in bed. I was discharged the next day, luckily a Sunday, feeling more emotionally shook-up than anything else. But my whole body was aching from the power surge that shot through my muscles. Mostly so my shoulder.

Skip forward a few weeks and a few physiotherapist sessions. I am at the orthopaedic surgeon’s office with my scans and sonar results. Well, I was not pregnant. At least that part was easily ruled out! But I fractured my shoulder. Yip, not needed to fall, bump or run into something. Apparently the only way you can break any bone in your body with only using your own strength is by having a seizure. Thus I shook everyone up at home and now a shoulder operation was awaiting.

Yipee yah hey!

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The Quiet

It has been very quiet around here. I apologise for that. It reminds me of Bjork:

It’s oh so quiet;

it’s oh so still.

You’re all alone and peaceful until ….”.

Luckily it is not followed by the loud “zing boom” associated with bad news. Nope none of that dark skies and gloomy headlines and deadlines. No tumour or brain cancer update or that being the underlying reason for the “stilte” (stillness). All is well in the house of orange.

It has just been incredible busy. And I am thankful for that. The ability to work hard, moving house earlier this year, getting hands dirty with loads of DIY and seeing the vineyards being harvested around us are all reasons to celebrate life. On the downside, time for writing (apart from work related stuff) and running has been preciously limited. I need to get back to those.

I am aware that I can also grumble at times about work. Or being tired due to work. But it is a privilege to be able to work, to provide a service to people I meet and to love what I do. Can it get any better than that? There will always be some budget shortfalls, last minute emergencies and at times long hours. But in a country where there are so many who do not have work or where illness have robbed some desperate longing to work from that opportunity, I can only embrace an attitude of gratitude. To be able to enjoy and love what I do, calls for festivities!

I am well. Even when I am off-line and off the grid. Even when I drop in for a quick read of other’s blogs, I do not forget the others I’ve met in blog-land who has battled with brain tumours or life’s other curveballs. Thanks for anyone who gave me a thought since I last put my thoughts in words.

“the sky caves in
the devil cuts loose
you blow blow blow blow blow your fuse
when you’ve fallen in love
ssshhhhhh…”

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