Victory Over Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Through Reverse Therapy
In retrospect, I think that the first signs of my chronic fatigue syndrome began in my first pregnancy, when I was 34, but they were so episodic and mysterious I didn’t think of them as part of a larger picture.
I only began to realize that something was seriously going wrong with me when I caught a virus on my 45th birthday in the fall of 2009, a virus with an inexplicably tenacious cough and deep fatigue that I could not shake, not with rest, supplements, antibiotics, Traditional Chinese Medicine, or acupuncture treatments. Gradually and with a change of the seasons, I finally began to feel more or less recovered by the following summer.
Over the next five years, I played out a cycle of recovery and relapse, crashing when I would push myself to do as much as I used to be able to do, then recovering eventually but to a slightly lower level of functioning, all the while adding more and more symptoms and dysfunction to my story of what was going wrong with me.
My symptoms started out as a recurrent cough and unholy fatigue and later expanded to include bouts of digestive upset, GERD-type reflux, recurrent vertigo, hyperventilating in my sleep, tachycardia, palpitations, skipped beats, exercise induced angina, a diagnosed candida overgrowth, severe rosacea, blepharitis, clinically low vitamin D, and massive brain fog and other cognitive impairments.
Finally, unrelenting fatigue, brainfog, and autonomic dysfunction hit me at the end of 2014, leaving me bedbound, unable to even sit up without my heart racing. A shuffle to the bathroom became an anaerobic workout laced with the fear of low-blood-pressure-caused white-outs.
I needed to lie down twice on my way up a single flight of stairs, and watching a TV show or having a conversation for more than 15 or 20 minutes left me physically exhausted and unable to think clearly for hours.
I had gone from being a constantly busy, active, do-everything-myself-and-do-it-the-hard-way person, to a completely helpless, bedbound, terrified shell of my former self, where suicide seemed the only way out and the emotional needs of my family the only thing preventing me from doing it. That and the complete inability to line up the means of self-annihilation.
I don’t know what was more stunning — that I could fall to such a low level of functioning, or that I could recover so quickly, once I finally found the right template for understanding what was happening to me and why.
Over the course of the five years of my decline, I tried many therapies and regimens.
After exploring what little my HMO doctors had to offer me (this ranged from a dismissive shrug to a battery of tests which ruled out all the major diseases and conditions that feature extreme fatigue and/or facial rashes) I explored acupuncture, naturopathy, holistic medicine and integrative medicine. None of them provided more than a short-lived and minor improvement, followed by an eventual crash to a lower level of functioning.
Increasingly severe dietary restrictions, vast quantities and varieties of supplements, B-12 shots, prescription-strength vitamin D, genetic testing for hypothetical metabolism-undermining mutations, Buteyko breathwork, strictly enforced rest, restorative yoga postures, meditation — nothing could provide any sustained improvement.
It was my integrative physician’s baffled observation (made via e-mail because I was afraid the effort of leaving the house would trigger another crash to an even lower level of functioning) that I ought to be getting better because I was doing absolutely everything right, that marked the turning point for me.
In a hail-Mary-pass sort of way, he suggested a book called The Last Best Cure about the documented improvements that mind-body approaches had on chronic illnesses and pain.
Something about his suggestion, or perhaps the utterly miserable depths to which I had descended, freed me from what felt like a years-long trance — a fiercely clutched belief that what was wrong with me was entirely physical, couldn’t possibly have its roots in any mind-body connection.
For someone who had early on embraced yoga and meditation as effective practices to help me cope with a stressful journalism career and later, the demands of motherhood, I was bafflingly unwilling to consider any explanation or cure for my chronic fatigue that involved a mind-body cause.
I was so in thrall to the analytical part of my mind, and it was so certain that it could research and analyze its way to a cure (not to mention its vehement refusal to believe that it was the actual cause of the entire health crisis), that I was unable to believe the recovery stories I read that involved cognitive therapies, even though I ran across dozens and dozens of them in my endless search for a medical therapy or a supplement that would help me get better.
I credited instead the fatalistic belief of the CFS/ME [myalgic encephalomyelitis] community that one could never really recovery from CFS, but could at best work towards symptom management, and that all cognitive therapies were fraudulent, insulting and a waste of money and time.
In retrospect, I am truly gobsmacked that one part of my intelligence was able to so completely hijack my thinking and for so long.
The part of my brain that did my thinking, planning, and worrying had for decades run me ragged, setting up hoops and obstacles for me to jump. It insisted I had to do things perfectly, the hard way. To always extend myself, regardless of whether I was even asked directly to do something. To never say no to others. To save the planet with every decision I made. To be the perfect mother, wife, and daughter.
It insisted that I fear failure and imperfection so much that I could never risk being truly creative. It told me I should be endlessly frugal and self-denying.
This hectoring, perfectionistic, fear-driven part of my brain had so completely taken over my life that I was blinded to its very existence and to the shattering effect it was having on my happiness, creativity, and peace.
It became so dominant, it drowned out my deeper inner voice so thoroughly, that I had no idea that there was any other part of my intelligence that I could access.
I had no idea what I wanted to do any more or what might make me happy. I simply waited for other people to ask me to do things for them or with them.
This overdeveloped frontal cortex — the part of the brain that made me so smart, so competent, such a good multi-tasker and planner — had eventually created so many rules and so much worry and outright fear, that I could no longer feel joy, creativity, spontaneity or happiness.
It spun around in a dizzying teacup ride of over-thinking, catastrophizing, and other cognitive errors that were intended to protect me from harm or loss of esteem but instead set me up for a chronic triggering of my fight-or-flight response that went on for so long that I exhausted and disregulated my endocrine systems to the point that I was completely incapacitated.
Once I was willing to consider that a mind-body approach might help, I suddenly remembered the dozens of CFS recovery stories I’d uncovered over the years, stories that had sounded crackpot to me at the time, or too mysterious to be truly helpful.
There were indeed stories of CFS or ME sufferers who had changed their lives dramatically — leaving a terrible job or a deeply-wrong-feeling marriage — and had crawled out of the abyss of fatigue and sickness to become totally different people, energetic and fully functional again. People who had literally dragged themselves to yoga classes until they regained enough strength to become yoga teachers themselves.
There were also a number of testimonials from people who had pursued Mickel Therapy and Reverse Therapy, and something secretive called Lightning Process that was considered to be complete hocus pocus in the online CFS community.
But these were, in fact, the only stories I’d ever heard that featured a full recovery from chronic fatigue syndrome.
In my desperation and nascent hopefulness about the power of the mind-body connection, I decided to try one of the programs that had the clearest and most-rational sounding testimonials — Reverse Therapy.
I contacted a practitioner in England, a former nurse named Lyn White who had herself succumbed to severe ME and then recovered via Reverse Therapy and retrained as a recovery coach. We had a half-dozen coaching sessions lasting an hour and a half each, via Skype, over the course of five months.
As soon as I made my first appointment with her, she sent me an e-book on Reverse Therapy written by the psychologist who created the program, John Eaton. I devoured it in the week before that first session. Within a couple of days of reading it, I was able to get out of bed and sit upright for several hours during the day. By the end of a week, I had left the house for a sightseeing drive (courtesy of my patient and very supportive husband), a short walk at a county park, and a delicious plate of French fries at a diner.
My recovery seemed stunningly rapid to me, though it did take me almost a year to feel that the disregulation caused by the chronic over-firing of my fight or flight response had subsided completely.
I have written out a handful of long and detailed blog posts with the specifics of my decline and recovery via Reverse Therapy on a blog for others to find (mychronicfatiguerecovery.wordpress.com.)
But in a nutshell, I needed to understand that my symptoms were in fact ignored communications from a deeper part of myself about how I wanted to be in the world.
They were the result of a chronic over-firing of the sympathetic nervous system, caused by my refusal to even hear my inner voice, a voice that had been drowned out for years and years by the part of my mind that created and enforced the rules and roles I made myself live by.
The basic process of recovering via Reverse Therapy was to reconnect with what might make me happy and start doing it, and to listen when a symptom flared, to get quiet and ask myself through a body-centered meditation, what deeper message I was ignoring in that moment.
It was a simple process, but not easy. Over the months of my recovery, I got better and better at understanding myself — how I would push myself or deny myself without ever seeing clearly what I was doing, that I didn’t have to live this way, under all these onerous rules. I reconnected with what made me happy by doing as many things as I could think of that were fun, creative, satisfying, joy-sparking.
I have returned to full functioning. I walk 2-3 miles a day most days. I sleep well and I rarely need to rest or nap. In March, it will be two years since I first started my Reverse Therapy recovery. I have gone through several major life crises since then, including the unexpected death of my father, a significant loss of income and major dental trauma. I got through them all, not only without a relapse, but growing in my own self-realization and becoming even more happy, open, curious, connected, energetic, and in touch with my heart’s desires.