What does safe look like? Last week, I wrote about agoraphobia and how a daily routine that involves travel can spark apprehension and anxiety. It seems like “safe” is impossible. But I more or less got there in 2014. In October 2014, I started working at UVic. The co-workers respected me. The environment was easy to survive in: I was able to drive to campus. I could walk at lunch time. I was working near my life-long partner– my wife. We could drive into work together. We could have coffee together. The income was okay but it was stable. When I didn’t work, I didn’t need to suffer– I could just ‘be.’ Nothing triggered me. I felt safe and as a side effect, my life started to click. My weight started to drop. I had time for friends and family. Safe felt pretty good. Safe felt like the storm had passed and the sky was blue. I was safe for two months and then some big revelations pummeled me and my marriage.

The revelations were regarding events that had been going on for years. In other words, throughout the years I was in turmoil and the time I felt I was safe, I was actually unsafe. My new partner, told me about the time she worked for a really aggressive property development firm. She remembered a handwritten letter from an elderly investor. The woman thanked the developers for the stable return on investment and how much it meant to her. It make her feel safe. That developer went under– taking $370-million including the life savings of this kindly old lady.

Safe is an illusion.

Lack of safety is both realistic and terrifying. We’re not safe. In a universe with viruses and asteroids, we cannot have a lock on being safe. My struggle: if my period of safety was a brief illusion and the reality is paralyzing, what do I do?

I accept that I am unsafe.

That statement has two meanings.

I have to learn to be okay with both of those statements. I am not safe. Any building could collapse. Any car could crash. Any blood vessel could give out. In the next 100 years, there is about a 100% chance one or all of those will hit me. Between yesterday’s 0% chance and the 100% chance these have happened before 2116, I’m hovering about 0% chance with an increasing chance of these happening. So today’s safety is not long term safety.

Likewise: being safe and predictable isn’t ideal. People can anticipate me. They can border me. They can reinforce the walls I don’t want. So: I have to be okay with exceeding safety limits and ask that people understand that I will exceed safety limits while trying to keep the negative consequences from happening.

I shouldn’t play to be safe. I should play to be unsafe short of frequent or severe negative consequences. I should test my limits, not keep back from them. The man who I thought was my Dad had a dud heart and a string of heart attacks before he was 40. He’s not my Dad. I didn’t inherit a bad heart from him. If I push, I may not break. I should push to discover what my boundaries really are– maybe they are far enough out that my arena isn’t a tiny foosball table, but a massive soccer field. Maybe even bigger than that.

Agoraphobia sparks anxiety. Anxiety manifests in two ways: fight or flight. I’ve been running. I’m tired of running. That trick is played out. What if I started to use fight as my outlet for anxiety? Instead of running from what strikes fear in my heart, what if I turn and stare it down? What if I listened to my spirit animal, the wolf? What if I understood what unsafe was and behaved like a predator and not prey? What if I rode the wave of unsafe and accepted that unsafe is the way of the world? The world is unsafe and still millions live quiet asteroid-free lives. Instead of living in a little box and tricking myself into thinking it’s safe, I’m going to work on strategies for thriving in unsafe places. I’m going to find way to thrive by pushing myself outside of safe, predictable and played out.

Photo credit: Flickr

Swimming Away From The Liferaft

I have agoraphobia. I first noticed it in a pronounced way when I was about 14. Prior to that, I would just opt to stay home instead of going out. It got to be a pretty familiar practice. By 14, I would end up with massive anxiety fits. I took Grade 9 as home schooling and formally swapped to correspondence education in the next year. In my teens, I took to writing for a living. I worked in retail for a number of years (varying degrees of sucking). As soon as I could, I went back to working at home doing web design and programming.

Not being at home is like leaving the liferaft. Going out further is like swimming away from that liferaft. The stress, tension and fatigue of simply not being safe takes its toll. Even though treading water is realistic, exposure in the enemy. I actually feel this wave of relief when I get past the midpoint of a journey, turn for home and know that in the remaining hours I am closing in on a safe place.

Combine the above dynamic with exercise. My preferred exercise routine is walking. It’s my ideal way to lose weight, as it integrates my day-to-day life with exercise. I can get somewhere and get healthy. Try to square that away with increasing anxiety the longer and farther I walk from my safe place. There is a big impetus to not walk. I have been trying to squelch the drive to be safe in lieu of the drive to be healthy.

Why do I have agoraphobia? Safety. It took a lot of detective work, but my agoraphobia crests when my life in flux– when I am unsafe. In an ironic twist, when I get in a domestic quarrel, the best thing to do is walk out of the door and cool off. I know subconsciously that flux plus walking triggers my agoraphobia, so I don’t leave. If I’m not going to leave, I bottle my upset. I box up whatever hurt I am feeling because I cannot vent it well nor safely. If I can’t win an argument because players in my head are not on my side, I will cave on arguments that I could win. I will not champion myself because I am gambling with my safety. It’s better to be safe than right. That’s what I tell myself on some level.

The challenge I am facing is how to fight agoraphobia by wrestling the core issue: feeling safe. I felt safe for a few months in 2014. That bliss was almost a miss-able event because it was an absence of turmoil. 2015 demonstrated that outside forces can spark a lack of safety in me. The goal in 2016 is to get to the point of feeling safe. My partner once called me the bravest man she knows. Outwardly: I will agree. I can stare down hard things and get them done. Internally: there’s a big cave of fear. The fear is borne of a lack of safety. The lack of safety that came from my home life when I was a kid. I’m not a kid. I am capable to feeling myself safe. I am capable of squaring away that lack of safety with the reality that I am safer than most people. I am resourceful and I have a keen survival instinct. My survival instinct came from my long relationship with fear. It’s my driver– my vehicle. My goal is to turn the survival instinct into a tool instead of a vehicle. What will drive me if not fear and a need for safety? I don’t know. It would be great for me say, “I’m gonna be _____!” but I know that I don’t know what the next chapter looks like. That makes the liferaft of safety so hard to puncture. I may be adrift in a kiddie pool. I may be in shallow water. I may be an excellent swimmer. Losing the liferaft of agoraphobia, fear and anxiety is hard because it’s been a part of my life for so long.

The Alchemy of Rage

In the weeks that have followed my break-up, I have had to contend with rage. At the outset of the break-up, I had the sampler of emotions: remorse, regret, rage, sadness, hurt, bitterness. They were prepped fast food style and served out immediately to whoever was closest at hand. Often I dumped them on my first wife* but I also dumped this on others.

The “whys” of why I am in this state are two fold. First, I wanted to end the marriage. When the situation became clear, I seized the opportunity to end the relationship. Why are we heading for a divorce? Because I wanted out. Second, she gave me an abundance of good reasons to get out, so I took them all as sufficient overkill to end it. The “why” of why she did what she did to me is her own deal. It won’t repair anything to know. I know that after a series of painful legal and financial procedures, I will be unencumbered by what her wiring made her do. She will have that in her head forever and so be it. I am pretty good at getting inside of people’s heads, so I have lots of work to do to purge what I have adopted that I now need to abandon.

Still, there is a phantom limb problem that has manifested. I get angry. When I had to sit in a doctor’s office for an hour, I bloomed this sense of injustice and rage. The doctor wanted to prescribe an array of anti-depressants. I was quizzed on whether I had been arrested recently or had suicidal thoughts. Because of my work scheduling, I use my lunch hours to exercise, to work toward the physical component of The Rebuild. When I see a doctor, I have to forego lunch and the exercise so that I can manage the appointment. Seeing a doctor makes me less healthy. I cannot lash out at the doctor who doesn’t know how to heal, only prescribe. I cannot lash out at the drivers on my route from the doctor’s office to the house. I cannot lash out at friends and loved ones. I cannot lash out at my first wife. I feel a lot of sympathy for her. So I have a cocktail of rage, pity and love. When I feel selfish, I cut her down. When I feel the pity, I talk about her getting the help she needs. When I feel love, I feel good. The problem with love: it’s confused with reconciliation by others. Nothing is getting reconciled and mended. It’s like my fondness for Diet Coke. Some days I crave a bottle of Diet Coke (mmm… inorganic material that mimics sugar…); I haven’t had one for a couple months. The craving doesn’t turn into a change in behaviour. Love and pity: those emotions manifest as benign things. The rage does not.

What do I do with the rage? There are three routes:

Explosion. I can unleash my rage every time I feel it. Every time some new betrayal surfaces. Every time I discover how much harder my life has become. Every time I remember something. That’s a dynamite factory. No one’s buying dynamite these days.

Burying. I can suppress it. I can force it down like another painful memory. I had actually gotten really good at making pain into amnesia. There are people who have wronged me who I have largely forgotten who they are and what they did. Even now, the last 18 years is evaporating in my head. So many things are getting purposefully hazy. But buried bodies can surface, so burying has problems.

Alchemy. I can transform the pain into something new, better and productive. There are ways to turn this anger into something positive.

The Alchemy

Don’t bottle it. Own up to it.  From Moby Dick: “He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it. ” Rage isn’t good, but it’s better to spend that counterfeit currency rather than keep it in your wallet. Rage is a blunt instrument, so I use it to accomplish blunt things. If I have to get up a steep hill, I surface my rage and literally scream up that hill. The blur of anger takes me away from the suffering of the climb. When I am done, I am too spent to care and the rage, for a moment, has been spent out.

Couple rage with other physical outlets. Run. Don’t jog. RUN! Pick a track or a route and sprint. Sprint until your endurance is tapped out. In my case, I sprint until my legs give out. I need a t-shirt that reads “I am actually okay” so that people don’t think, “there’s another dead fat man.” I can take a fall. I can lie there until I catch my breath. The intention is to zero out the bank account of fury through exertion.

Find a healthy outlet for a blow out. For example, volunteer to help with a demolition project. Put on some gloves and tear that thing apart. Remember that rage and precision are infrequent allies.

Maybe your rage can be shaved into the shape of a scalpel with enough work. It can fuel you with determination. It can backup your convictions and your attitude. If you are facing a difficult situation and converted rage is simmering below the surface, people will not distinguish conviction all of its own from conviction fueled by “never again.”

One friend transforms her upset into her music and lets her music be the way she expels her emotions. Her pain turns into art.


Getting Help

Self help and spending rage may not get someone the whole distance. Trauma can be transformed, managed and dissipated through different forms of professional therapy. I am working through trauma. One person’s BDSM is another person’s spousal abuse. Without delving into the depths, I react to it as though it is painful. The process of The Rebuild will get me to a place where the pain is less and maybe even successfully transformed. Along the way, there is a lot of merit to getting help.

In researching the topic of PTSD, there wasn’t a great deal available on the intersection of trauma and bad break-ups. This post,!__about-ptsd/effective-treatments does have some strategies through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The general components of CBT for anxiety disorders are:

  1. Cognitive therapy-a systematic effort to change anxious thinking and beliefs.
  2. Exposure therapy-using exposure to feared objects and situations in order to decrease conditioned fear reactions.
  3. Education regarding the disorder and its causes.
  4. Arousal management strategies-using relaxation exercises and other techniques to lower the physical symptoms of anxiety.

Some of the treatments:

Prolonged Exposure (PE): This protocol for PTSD has been well researched, with numerous studies demonstrating its effectiveness.  The program has all of the core components for CBT for PTSD, including cognitive restructuring, education, arousal management strategies, and exposure therapy.  The protocol strongly emphasizes the exposure component of therapy.

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT): This is another CBT-based protocol for PTSD.  This treatment program was originally developed for use with sexual assault victims, but has been successfully adapted for use with combat veterans.  The protocol contains education, arousal management, and a heavy emphasis on cognitive therapy.  The protocol has a much smaller exposure therapy component, with having patients repeatedly imagine their trauma as the main exposure therapy.

Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing therapy (EMDR): This is a controversial but popular therapy and is currently listed as an effective therapy in the DoD/VA guidelines for PTSD.  This therapy largely centers on having patients recall and describe their trauma memories, while the therapist makes movements with their finger or an object in front of the patients face.  The patient holds their head still and follows the movement with their eyes, helping to reprogram and desensitize the traumatic nature of these memories.  This obviously incorporates imaginal exposure to traumatic memories, and this is likely the reason that the therapy works.  While the eye movements have been shown to be unnecessary, and the theory behind the use of eye movements has been show to be scientifically unsound, the overall therapy has been show to help patients with PTSD.


Refined Goods vs. Raw Logs

Being Canadian, I am used to seeing cargo ships sail out of Vancouver laden with raw logs, minerals and other unrefined goods bound for ports overseas. We’re abundant yet we ship the good elsewhere to be converted into something of high value.

I could spew raw hate at the world, but that’s a low value commodity. It’s ubiquitous. Converting hate into something refined and effective doesn’t disown hatred as much as it uses it for some decent end goal.

In converting hatred into determination; rage into focus; and hurt into art; one can take something bad and make something good out of it.  Determination, focus and art: those are high value refined goods.


* I am calling the wife who I have left, my “first wife” as opposed to my “ex-wife.” It doesn’t undo who she was, she is just in my past.