When the Fever Breaks… (#885)

Every year since 2006 I’ve taken a month-long sabbatical in August to recharge my batteries and make space for a fresh perspective to emerge around my work. Normally I spend that time by the ocean with family, but this year I decided to do something completely different and spend the majority of the time with people I normally wouldn’t get the chance to work or spend time with.

So for the first part of the month, my daughter Clara and I traveled to Laos to work and fundraise for an orphanage project (see www.facebook.com/mneill and scroll down to “August” to read the blog); in the second part of the month, my son Oliver and I traveled up to San Francisco to speak in a maximum security prison.

The result of this “differently spent” sabbatical, at least so far here on day two of being back to work, are mixed. On the down side, I think my batteries still have a ways to go before they’re back to full charge. On the up side, I’ve had experiences that will last a lifetime and insights galore about everything from my family (they come out extremely well 🙂 to my work to the well-being of the planet.

One night in particular, I had the experience of sitting up with the daughter of a friend as she went through a “mini nervous breakdown”. After hours of uncontrollable sobbing which eventually subsided to a more gentle, less chaotic rhythm, we sat together watching late-night television, my occasional attempts at conversation largely ignored until around 2am when she suddenly turned to me and asked me about my plans for the rest of my holiday.

When I looked over at her, she seemed completely serene, as if the whole incident had been little more than a dream. I was instantly transported back in time to a particularly bad bout of flu I had when I first moved to London in the late 1980’s. I was living in a bedsit in Kilburn with electricity that only worked if you inserted coins into the meter and a plug which alternated jobs as host to my mini-refrigerator and my heater.

The flu had been bad enough for me to stay home from school for a few days, and I spent my time reading semi-humorous books by Spike Milligan about his experiences during World War II. On the second day, I spent my time between the toilet and the floor, fighting World War II alongside Spike as my body fought the fever and the bug. I was transported into a foxhole, torn between supporting my buddies and saving my skin, shaking with fear and feeling inexorably alone in the midst of chaos.

And then, with no real warning, the fever broke. I found myself back on the floor of my bedsit, soaked in sweat but feeling absolutely well if a bit tired from my exertions.

As I sat with my friend’s daughter carrying on the kind of mundane, polite conversation grown ups have with other people’s teenagers, I reflected on the fact that all the mental unrest I have seen and experienced in my life has that same “feverish” quality. While it’s going on, it’s all consuming; as soon as the fever breaks, it’s almost as though it never happened.

I have the utmost respect for people who make their living by sitting with people who are suffering in a stew of their own psychology, as it can be difficult not to “catch the fever” and get lost in your own insecure thoughts in their presence. As a coach, most of the “fevers” my clients bring into the room range from fears of losing it all to not being good enough and never amounting to anything. They’re rarely life or death in and of themselves.

Yet after twenty three years of doing this work, I’ve also come across everything from a schizophrenic who thought all the song lyrics on the radio were coded messages for him to a frustrated businessman who gave me a month to sort him out before his suicide pills arrived in the post from Europe. And in every single case, at some point, the fever broke. I sat with the schizophrenic as he had five minutes of absolute clarity just moments before his parents came to commit him to a mental institution. The frustrated businessman went on to find success and more importantly, enjoyment in a completely different field. And I watch my clients “fevers” come and go all day long, often inside the space of a single session.

For myself, what I’ve learned from this is that my own bouts of feverish worry and stressful thinking are no more or less real than anyone else’s. While they’re happening, they certainly seem real and even all consuming. I can feel the shortness of breath and the nausea in the pit of my stomach as I contemplate having to deal with one circumstance or another, and the coping mechanisms I’ve evolved over the years  (in my case primarily food, drink, and television) kick in almost without my thinking about them.

Yet because I know that the fever always breaks, I’m able to stay a bit philosophical about it, even while it’s happening. I don’t enjoy it, but I don’t take it as seriously as I might either. I may act like an insufferable victim from time to time, but I somehow always stop myself short of actually creating any “same life karma” by blaming my plight on the outside world and taking it out too harshly on the people around me.

And that, it seems to me, is one of the true gifts of understanding the inside-out nature of experience – that no matter how lost in our heads we get and how feverish our thinking becomes, the knowledge that when the fever breaks, we will return to our innate well-being and ok-ness is our saving grace.

With all my love,
Michael

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