This is the complete text of chapter 5, lesson 5 in my upcoming book. This is a first draft with no editing, but I did do some basic proofreading so as not to bury you in typos and other annoyances. 😉
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This is a lesson that I wish I didn’t have to write, but I’d be leaving out an important bit of information and experience if I didn’t write it. Before you read on, I am going to remind you that I did everything that I have written about up to this point. I lived this thing. I was you. And I’m still here, better than ever. Millions of others have also traveled this path before you. They also encountered obstacles and challenges, yet still completed the journey. Do not get discouraged, and do not let any of this frighten you. It is better to be prepared with a detailed and realistic road map. I could paint you a rosy picture to make you feel better or inspire you, but that would be the easy way out. Inspiration is great. It’s not everything.
Expect to struggle as you execute your recovery plan. It happened to me. It happens to everyone. It is to be expected. Unfortunately, this is not an easy process. There will be struggles, uncertainties, and periods of slow progress. Trust me on this. It will be all worth it.
Don’t misunderstand me. You are not going to live in a torture chamber for the next few months. Nobody is going to beat you with a stick as part of this process. You won’t be shot at or stabbed or called names, but you still struggle nonetheless. The struggle is in learning to ignore your body and mind when it literally hits the panic button. The struggle is in telling your self-preservation instinct to sit down and shut up. The struggle is in doing hard, scary things, again and again, to learn that they’re not actually hard or scary. The struggle in this process is primarily mental and emotional. This isn’t about enduring pain. This is about enduring doubt, uncertainty, and disbelief.
Recovery from an anxiety disorder does not happen along a straight line. Progress toward freedom from anxiety, panic, and fear is like the stock market. In the market, from hour to hour and day to day, stock prices rise and fall. Money is made and lost. This is normal and expected. One rarely succeeds or fails in the market based on two trades made on a Tuesday. One succeeds by having a smart investment strategy executed over time. A smart investment strategy rarely involves huge trades that make you millions overnight. The most successful people invest wisely in proven companies. They go with what has been shown to work. Most important, they are patient and are willing to play a “long game”.
This applies to your recovery plan and it’s execution. You are not day trading with anxiety and fear. You are playing the “buy and hold” long game. You are building a plan based on what works, knowing that it takes some time to complete that plan. It is very important to remain aware of this as you go about the business of getting your life back. Do not expect every hour to be better than the previous hour. Do not expect every day to include giant victories and steps forward. As jazzed as you may be about kicking anxiety in the rear end, this is not an express elevator to the top of the recovery mountain.
It is a common experience for people to struggle more when first starting out on this new path. This is normal. You are learning how to do new things and how to approach your anxiety in a totally different way. The struggles thus tend to be many in the early days. The good news is that when you stick with it, that gets better. In later days you will be more advanced in your recovery. The struggles are then fewer but can be harder from a mental and emotional standpoint. When you’ve gone a long way, it can be hard to feel dragged back to the starting line (even though that doesn’t actually happen). This is also normal and to be expected. You will struggle more in the early days. You will struggle less later on, but those struggles may be deeper. Keep this in mind as you go.
Now let’s talk about the different struggles and challenges you will likely face along the way.
Some days you will not want to get out of bed to face the hard work. You will be tired. You will be sick of being afraid and on edge and unsteady. Frustration will set in. You will get angry with yourself. Sometimes you will get angry with others in your life because they are not doing what you “need” them to do. You will sit and wish it all away, knowing that it doesn’t work that way. You may find yourself full of regret, sadness or anger over what you see as so much time wasted on anxiety and fear. You will be tempted to beat yourself up over how this problem has diminished the person you used to be. You will think of yourself as a bad parent, partner, friend or employee because of anxiety. Some even experience a crisis of faith or spirituality during recovery. They may wonder if a higher power has abandoned them or is punishing them. These are the emotional and mental obstacles that you will face as you execute your plan. Expect them. Do your best to prepare yourself for these obstacles and recognize them when they pop up.
When doing the actual work itself, you will hit roadblocks. You will try to meditate and focus for five minutes while your mind is racing at close to the speed of light. You will attempt to relax your body, and your body will put up a fight. You will want to do the work but will find yourself almost paralyzed with fear that tells you that you can’t. You will want to allow fear to wash over you, but your survival instinct will scream that you must do something to save yourself. The weather will change on you, introducing new road or travel conditions. This may cause you to incorrectly gauge your safety again. This will fuel more fear. You may get sick with a cold, or a stomach virus or some other ailment. Your fear of your own body will turn a simple temporary condition into what you may be tempted to call a “nightmare”. Schedules will get disrupted. Family and friends will accidentally make things difficult for you sometimes. On some days, maintaining some semblance of a life will feel like a huge burden added to an already full plate. These are the practical challenges and obstacles that will struggle along the way. Again, expect them and prepare for them.
It helps to have a plan in place that you can refer to when it comes to struggle and challenge. When you feel like you’re stuck in cement, progress is coming at a slow pace, and you think you can’t, what will you do? I would suggest saving this lesson somewhere convenient so that you can see it regularly. I would also suggest talking about this and sharing the lesson with someone close to you. When you struggle, it is helpful to revisit information like this to gain perspective. It can be more helpful to have a person (or people) point out that you are sitting passively in the struggle rather than taking action to address it. Online support groups can be a useful part of your “struggle contingency”. Use them as a source of motivation and inspiration (not only sympathy and soothing). Whichever way you choose to do it, having a plan is always going to be better than feeling defeated and directionless.
“I’m struggling and lost.” This is a hard place to be.
“I’m struggling. I will go back and re-read, learn, and look for sources of encouragement and motivation to get me past all this. ” This is still hard, but it’s way better than the first option.
I want you to remember that anxiety disorders are masters of deception. Anxiety, fear, and panic are excellent at magnifying and distorting EVERYTHING bad. They are also excellent at hiding and minimizing everything good. A bad day quickly turns into hours of lament and fear that you will never get better. Panic during an exposure that had become easy for you can be turned into an exasperated feeling that you are back to square one. The realization that your progress hasn’t been fast enough to get you to some important event, may get warped into a three-day catastrophe in your head. Remember this at all times. Write it down on your wall if you have to.
ANXIETY AND FEAR ARE LIARS AND MANIPULATORS!
There will be struggles and challenges. It can help to remember that they will not actually be as disastrous as your mind will make them out to be.
I know that challenges and struggles can be demoralizing and discouraging. I’d like to share some of my own personal experiences with you. I want you to know that I lived what you are living now. I was you. I went through all the ups and downs of recovery. You will not find a more determined, driven person than me, but I struggled too. I promise I know what it feels like.
I will admit that I never doubted my ability to get better. That may simply be part of my personality. But even in the face of a high sense of confidence and competence, some days were discouraging. Actually, some days were VERY discouraging. Many people hear me speak, or see me on video, and conclude that I’m “super strong”. They assume that it must have been easier for me than it is for them. Untrue. There were moments when I wanted to go to sleep for a very long time to get a break and forget about this job I had to do. There were days when I was shaking, unsteady on my feet, and my heart was pounding like a jackhammer. I had to literally drag myself out the door do to the work. For a while, my energy levels varied between tired and exhausted. I was very frustrated on days where I felt like my progress was too slow. At times I was plain angry at the whole situation, and at me for having gotten myself into it.
Especially in the beginning, it wasn’t at all fun in any way. It felt like a very large mountain to be forced to climb. I did not breeze through this process by any stretch of the imagination. While I was very consistent in my approach, that doesn’t mean that everything went forward at a fast pace every day. I assure you, it did not, even for me. I struggled. I faced mental, emotional and practical challenges that were difficult to go over or around.
As time went on, as it will for you, there started to be hours that showed real promise. Then those hours became days. Not consistent days. One good day, then three less than ideal days that felt like crap. Then two good days in a row would happen. At some point, the struggle became less a part of the journey. My brain was learning new lessons, and un-learning the bad lessons it needed to get rid of. The fear wasn’t constant and pervasive. The anxiety habit was breaking over time. The clouds started to lift. Then there would be a day that felt like it came straight out the first week of my recovery. I would get SO angry and impatient and frustrated by that. Then the skies would turn blue again. It was quite a rollercoaster of ups and downs.
In retrospect, I can say with absolute certainty that my recovery – like the stock market over a long enough time – was always trending in a positive direction. Even when it didn’t seem like it, progress was being made. Often this was progress that I could not recognize until later on. It was progress, however. I know now that even the “bad” times served a teaching purpose. They provided experiences that became part of who I am now. The lessons I learned through the struggle still serve me well today and will for the rest of my life.
You will struggle. I struggled. We all struggle. I promise you, however, that you will not struggle forever. Knowledge, planning, determination, and the experience and guidance of those that have come before you will get you through. You will find blue skies after the storm. I know you will.
In the next lesson, we’ll talk about avoiding the judgment trap, and how best to judge and evaluate your progress during recovery.
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