Coloured portrait

Coloured portrait

Friday, December 13, 2019

Anxiety and Dogs

Anxiety and Dogs

I had the first full-blown panic attack when I was eighteen. I had no name for my experience. 

My mother, who had died a year before, used to describe episodes of what she said it felt as if she was going to die. Romania of the 1960’s had no psychotherapy, no understanding or mentioning of psychological trauma, or anxiety. Mother had gone through war, lost her father and brother to antisemitic hate crime, feared for her life for being Jewish, and feared for her body for being beautiful. As a child, I felt anxiety like a low-grade simmering fear holding my belly in a tight, cold grip. After my mother’s death and my father’s depression, the low-grade cold grip became my norm, until that day, when I was eighteen.

That day the simmering came up to a boil. My head felt tense, like a balloon filled with a kind of pressure which threatened to blow it up from the inside. The tension held the neck and throat into a tight grip, and then my heart began to race and beat so fast, so loud, that I thought everyone could hear it. I thought I was going to die of a heart attack. And I was scared. This was not simmering anxiety anymore: it was raw fear. 

My father was dating his future second wife, Eliza, and I was at her home. Father called an ambulance and went outside to wait for it. Eliza sat with me, held my hand, and talked to me the whole time. 

The heart racing subsided and gave way to tremors so violent that my teeth were chattering when I tried to talk. My whole body was shaking, the head seemed gripped into a tight, painful band, and the shaking continued for a timeless while, while Eliza was telling me stories and jokes to distract me. 

I tried to respond and remember my own jokes to tell her, and after a while the tremors subsided, and I was surprised to find a sense of deep peace, deeper than I could remember in years, and an exhilaration which found me telling jokes with humour, enthusiasm and passion. By the time my father came upstairs with the paramedics, I was calm, cheerful, and felt like a fraud. 

“It’s a panic attack” - the paramedic said. 

Soon after that night I went to talk to a psychiatrist and ask him what the panic attack was about. He asked me questions about my relationships, my love life, my family life. Later on I noticed something that at the time seemed bizarre: whenever I had panic attacks, they would subside when in the company of a friend or loved one. 

But it’s not bizarre at all: we are a social species. Human beings survive and thrive thanks to cooperation. We have no claws, fangs, scales or wings, and as individuals we are as safe as a dinner for wild beasts. Our strength lies in community and cooperation. Our greatest fear, the fear of death, arises in social isolation, dysfunction and neglect. Most of the human anxiety out there is not because of natural cataclysms, but rooted in relationship dysfunction. 

Anxiety and loneliness are closely related. And social media is not the cure. Depending on the culture and climate - geographic, social and political - where you live, chances are you have a degree of loneliness and disconnect. Big North American cities like the one where I live offer human connection - touch and intimate talk - for a fee. Snuggle salons, closed circle barefoot dance events, healing touch sharing gatherings, and circling evenings are commercial responses to an unmet human need to commune and belong in supportive, caring, nurturing communities. 

As a single immigrant of Eastern European and Middle - Eastern cultural background in North America, I find myself particularly vulnerable to loneliness, and here, in this ultra-conservative town, I have revisited the cold, tight belly grip of anxiety. 

The medicine I take does not come in the form of pills: it’s golden, it’s hairy, and it sheds. Her name is Carmen, a Golden Retriever adopted through a rescue organization after being picked up as a stray dog from an Istanbul forest where she lived in a pack, malnourished and covered in fleas, for who knows how many years. This is a mutual rescue where Carmen gets her own permanent home, bed, food and care, and where I get a companion for walks, a social connector to cold faces which always soften up into smiles at her sight, someone to cuddle with that is safe, welcoming, and reliably mine. 

Dog people are a tribe. If you’ve ever been to a dog park, you know that even in the coldest of climates (weather and cultural), one can always count on a heart-warming chat dog-parent to dog-parent at any time of the day or night. Touching a dog warms up the heart. Watching the dogs greet each other and play touches a primal playful side of our own personality, which keeps us vibrant and engaged with each other. Talking about our dogs with each other is family interaction, and what softens and warms up the heart and the belly without side effects. Walking a dog (or two, or three) gets you out of the house in all seasons, all weather, and keeps you moving while doing something you love. 

You can tell advanced societies by the way they relate to animals. Boulder-based publishing house, Sounds True, allows staff’s dogs in the office. United States has long time allowed Emotional Support Animals (ESA) to accompany their humans in establishments and on travel, and recently Canada is beginning to follow suit. 

Carmen and I are trailblazers in our community and town as I request her company in communities that I belong to. I believe that more ESAs are to follow and in the future our mental health and well-being as a species will heavily rely on our old best friend, the dog.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

My Language and Communication Influencers

Sixteen years ago a client, who was an NLP master (Neuro-Linguistic Programming for those who don't know), relocated and left me a huge box full of NLP courses on tapes, worth thousands of dollars.
Regarding language skills, studying NLP was the equivalent of jumping up from primary school to university - it revealed a whole world to explore, test and enjoy (also, at times, get annoyed or annoying!)
Other influencers in my verbal communication skills have been:
- Marshall B. Rozenberg's Nonviolent Communication - a bible of human connect in my opinion and a must for any person wishing to master the art of emotional bonding
- David Deida's books, specifically his focus on sexual polarity and language - and I find all his work fascinating and fun to apply 
- Paul Linden who's taught me the difference between poetic language and factual language, and whose kind corrections I've been fortunate to receive for years now: "May I correct your grammar?" (he's also been teaching me asking for permission before interventions)
Both Paul Linden and Mark Walsh have been teaching, showing and inspiring me in learning the congruence of verbal and non-verbal communication. We speak with the whole body more than we speak with our tongue.
All of this has been proving useful and healing and upgrading my inner dialogues, in repairing and building personal relationships, and in increasing my positive influence with clients and students.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

A Cure for Hypochondria and Paranoia

A Cure for Hypochondria and Paranoia

Many years ago, when I was living in Israel, and very much in love with a young Persian man, I woke up one morning to an experience that was going to haunt me, but also sober me, for many years to come.

My boyfriend had a little street food restaurant, with shawarma, rice, and many salads, near the  old Central Bus station in Tel Aviv. I was unemployed at the time, and not too happy about it. I’d wake up late and then meet my boyfriend at his restaurant where I’d putter around and make myself useful. 

That warm and sunny morning I followed nature’s calling into the restroom, and when I looked down to the toilet bowl, I almost fainted: everything was red. Bloody red. I fought with all my might to stay conscious and make a quick decision: do I call an ambulance and go to the hospital, or do I take a taxi to the restaurant and let my boyfriend call the ambulance. 

Then, in a flash of insight, I remember that the night before I ate beets for dinner. The dizzy spell cleared in a blink, I said “Oh!”, shrugged, and went about my day.

If you have ever harboured any hypochondriac thoughts, like I have, you know how this works: you get a symptom, and from all the possible diagnostics out there, you pick the one that is most threatening. It’s not a cough, it’s lung cancer. It’s not indigestion, it’s dysentery.  I know, because last month I discovered a lump on my breast, and panicked. I ran to my doctor, who couldn’t believe my readiness to go for lab tests (a mammogram and an ultrasound), given my habitual refusal of her proposed tests and interventions. For one whole month until the day before yesterday, when my lab testing was scheduled, all I could think of was: “Cancer” and “Death”. 

It’s not that people don’t get cancer or die. We all die of one cause or another, the underlying cause being that we’re born to begin with. I’m going to die one day, for sure. But I am just curious what it’s like to live to that glorious final exit day without worrying about it all the other days. I’m curious because I have, in my own mix of madness, a bit of hypochondria, and a bit of paranoia. My mother, may she rest in peace, was diagnosed with paranoid syndrome, and having lived through her last difficult years of life, I’ve always secretly feared catching, inheriting or developing paranoia myself. If you don’t know what paranoia is, it’s a heightened and not rational sense of threat, where you see threat where there is none. Having lived through my share of adversity and traumatic responses to it, I have a bit of such hypervigilance myself. The hypervigilance is both a curse and a blessings: a curse because it induces anxiety, it’s not socially sexy, and it’s really time consuming to always fret about what and who might harm you. It is a blessing because you can’t be easily fooled. Paranoid people are the salesmen’s nightmare - they just cannot be manipulated into buying stuff, like normal people can.

Back to my breast, so to speak. It turns out the nodule is lipoma, a fatty benign thingy, and nothing to worry about. My relief didn’t last long: now I have a cough. And you know how dangerous that could be.

Until checked, of course. 

There is a time-tested, no-fail cure for both hypochondria and paranoia. It’s called “fact checking”. 

Paranoia is a tricky one to cure because its social nature. If you are, like I am, hyper vigilant about dangers, you are more likely to suspect other people, and sometime animals, for messing with you than you are likely to suspect ocean waves or volcanoes for seeking to destroy you. And this, my friends, gets really messy when living with other people (and animals).  Hypervigilance makes it difficult to distinguish between a real threat and an imagined one, so immediate action is needed just in case the threat is real. Step number one: unconsciously project your suspicions on another and assume their fault. If you can’t find an object, a normal person engages her own problem solving capacity by asking herself: “Where did I put it?” The afflicted person naturally asks: “Who took it?” When I lived with a husband and a dog, that inquiry was easy to do: there was always someone home to project my suspicions upon. Now I live on my own and must get really creative on who to blame. Yesterday I heard on the news that infected needles have been maliciously placed around the city, so when I saw this metallic shining thing on the floor today, I naturally thought that was a needle, and somebody is trying to kill me. I was at home, so the killer could not be human or animal - it must be a poltergeist. I put my glasses on and took a closer look: it was a staple. Now that is nasty: there is a poltergeist in my home, and he’s trying to kill me with a staple.

The battle continues.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Building Trust after Trauma and Abuse

How do you trust after trauma and abuse?
When the war is over and the intellect knows it but the body needs to catch up , even a safe environment and situation can send your body to tense and contract.
Here are some steps I take towards building trust at the level of my body:
- Hang out with authentic people. Fake smiles and pretence of affection make me shudder (whether I do that, or someone else, or both - you know the reluctant hugs with kissing the air around each other's cheeks?)
- Only get on the treatment table of people whose presence, wisdom, competence and character I trust. The other way round too: only work with clients and students with whom I share affinity, so they can trust me. 
- The more dishonest someone is, the more suspicious they are. I practice telling the truth and connecting with people who tell the truth. 
- Check my own suspicions. One of the aftermath results of trauma is hypervigilence, and seeing threats where there are none. Where I find myself to fear a threat that I can't tell whether is real or imagined, I look close until I learn the facts. I have proven my own suspicions wrong often enough to not believe them every time they emerge. Giving the benefit of the doubt is the sanest step to well-being. 
- Upon encountering dishonesty I mentally list those people close to me whom I trust with my life and my house key. Sometimes I need to remind myself that my mistrust of someone is not a deficiency of mine, but a natural and useful response to behaviours that are unsupportive.
- Bodywork to undo the chronic shrugging, the contraction of long term living with mistrust. It's easier to identify trustworthy people with soft, relaxed shoulders and a flexible neck 

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Self-Love: Replenishing Depleted Resources

Replenishing depleted resources. 
This topic shows up evidently in the bank account, state of health of the body and mind, relationships, home and work.
Home resources are easy to see: when you're out of toilet paper, you go buy some. The fridge stop functioning, you repair or replace it. The bulb is burnt, you change it. How many self-loving people does it take to change a bulb? 😜
Money-wise, self-love translates as balance and flow. Not spending more than you make. Great area of growth here for me. Also, what is the cost of the time and effort put in saving a dollar? When looking at cheap versus expensive, what are all the resources considered together with cash? Time? Physical effort? Mental focus? Emotional strain? Money is a great mirror for the life force energy.
Health-wise: sleeping when tired. Nourishing the body when hungry. Practicing QiGong / Reiki / energy management. Receiving energy work / body work. Not pushing oneself beyond the threshold of fatigue to get things done or to support unhealthy habits (addiction to electronic devices 😬). Getting the basic needs met - air, water, food, light, space, movement, touch. No easy topic either to look at, if honest.
Relationships: getting as much support as giving. Being heard as much as listening. Receiving fair payment for work (with as much ease as paying fairly for work). Do your friends call to share the good news and celebrations with you, or only when they're in pain? The facilitator's trap: the friendly phone call or visit from someone who wants to vent and complain, not to connect and exchange or expand ideas. Learning to pay better attention to this.
Work: if what you do makes you tired, it's an expense. If what you do energizes you, it's a resource. I am fortunate to be enlivened by my work, and it wasn't always the case (I worked in banking). Sadly, I hear many making bitter jokes about Mondays.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Dogs and the Animal Nature of the Body

I grew up in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Bucharest with my mother and father, two full-time professionals who hired a nanny to take care of me. We decorated our home as everyone else did, the kitchen table in the center of the living room, right underneath the lamp. A sofa, that doubled as bed at night for my parents, since I occupied the bedroom; four chairs around the kitchen table, and two bookcases brimming with books alongside the walls. 

We were poor, like everyone else was around us. But education and culture was subsidized, so books were cheaper than bread - and my mother loved books. She gathered them and sorted them by collections, the classics, the modern, the folklore. Where did my mother’s love for books came from, I do not know, as she was the first generation academically educated in her family - her mother, my grandmother, was illiterate, and learned how to write late in her life, when one of her grandchildren, my cousin, taught her the printed alphabet. I still remember her apricot preserve jars labeled in large, clumsy capital letters: CAISE - apricots.

Mother taught me how to read when I was still in kindergarten. Then she supplied me with a steady flow of storybooks, and I was out of her hair for many long hours, swept in the stories of knights and princesses, exotic romance in faraway lands and touching adventures and friendship between men and beast. The books I read transported me to places which came alive in my young and fertile imagination, places that I was always happy to leave behind and return to the reality of my tiny apartment and dinner, homework and bath.

With one exception.

When I read Jack London’s stories of dogs and wolves and man’s friendship with them, my heart remained captured in the imagination of such kind of friendship. One night, as I finished reading White Fang (or was it Call of the Wild?) I cried and asked my parents for a dog. I did get a dog, and lived with dogs for most of my life ever since. The friendship with my dogs transported me to a place much different than the literary realm of vivid imagination: a reality of shared affection, touch, movement, playfulness, laughter, sorrow, loss and bonding that was life at its most vibrant and full. The books were the restaurant’s menu, while caring for the dogs was the real food.

Not every individual or culture shares my love for dogs. I’ve seen men kicking stray dogs for amusement; dogs kept outdoors, on short chains, in all kinds of weather, day after day after day for a lifetime; I’ve seen dogs abandoned, dogs punished and beaten and yelled at, and plenty of well-behaved dogs feared and avoided on the street by people with faces grimaced with the terror of their own projected prejudice.

I came to notice a correlation between a culture’s character and the behaviour of dogs. Where people are kind, dogs are trusting; where people are mean, dogs are shy or aggressive. I am fortunate to live in a place that has zero stray dogs, and animals are protected by laws and for most part they are cared by kind people and charitable organizations.

Living with pets connects us with our own animal nature - that part of us that is all instinct but carefully tamed and dressed into socially acceptable personas where we behave in order to belong. We study, then graduate and hold respectable jobs, hold ourselves to a posture and demeanours dignified and worthy of our leadership roles. And inside those tailored suits and such other uniforms of parochial belonging, there’s a hidden wild beast who wants to play-fight and dance and move and cuddle and purr, an inner wild beast which comes out to play on the couch with our cats, and in parks or on the hiking trails with our dogs. It’s in your tee and shorts, when you growl and purr and make silly sounds and roll on the floor with your fur friend and play, that a part of you comes alive, and makes you incredibly happy: your animal self.

Life is about movement and touch - we begin as animals, eating and sleeping and learning through embodied direct experience long before our learning is entirely delegated to our heads and we learn to live from the neck up. There’s a great deal of shadow around our animal nature, in some cultures and subcultures more than others, where human virtue is seen in the transcendence and exclusion of our instincts, where we insult each other by calling each other animals of sorts, where houses are sterile and devoid of animals or plants, boasting to be “pet-free” homes. And we develop depression, as a result of disowning and denying a fundamental aspect of our nature, and try to mask it with drugs and alcohol, at no avail. 

Mental illnesses that do not respond well to medication often respond remarkably to interactions with animals. There are successful projects bringing together autistic children and dolphins or horses, with great results. I remember watching an Israeli television documentary about an animal petting farm where children and adults from violent backgrounds would come and learn how to give and receive caring touch. There were people whose parents had never hugged, kissed or caressed them, and they didn’t hug, kiss or caress their own children. I remember watching a hardened woman with sharp, angular facial features and hoarse, harsh-sounding voice being moved to tears as she was holding a little goat in her arms: this woman softened a bit as she experienced caring feelings that she hadn’t experienced before. 

I’ll make a wild guess to say that people who move, touch, play and cuddle with each other and with animals are happier than those who don’t. Sterile, sedentary, isolated, artificial living is far more threatening to our health than the germs on our hands from a puppy’s saliva. 

If you live with pets, I know, I’m preaching to the choir. I’m “in-between dogs” right now, and stay in touch with the “dogosphere” by walking with shelter dogs on every Tuesday afternoon. It’s my antidepressant medicine and my nourishment for the soul. 

This article is dedicated to the precious friendship with our animal friends, and the part of us that comes alive in this friendship.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Maps and Territory for Consciousness and Meaning

That which is being observed, changes.

What if that which is being observed and mapped changes?

Wondering about the accuracy and value of maps for consciousness and meaning: is a good map one which represents accurately the territory, or one which changes the territory effectively?