DEALING WITH DISASTER
My Deadly Diagnosis
How I Dealt With Extreme Emotional Pain (And Had an Awakening)
Anders B. Asphaug, Facilitator & guide
3 October 2016
This is a story of the time when I was convinced I had HIV. It’s also a list of some concrete and practical ways that I used to deal with the emotional pain of it. Hopefully, this will be as useful to you as it was to me, because for me it was life changing.
As it actually turned out, I wasn’t really infected, but I definitely thought I was! And that was enough to provide for a very interesting few weeks. It was intense beyond any experience I’ve had so far. Intensely painful, and intensely rewarding!
Here’s the story:
My father had recently died from prostate cancer, and so I thought it was a good idea for me to have myself tested for that too. As I was at the doctor’s getting the blood sample, I decided to include a few additional ones, and among them was a HIV test…
A week or two later the doctor called me. He said that all the tests were fine, but the HIV test was «inconclusive.» It had to be re-analyzed using a different method (apparently there are several different ways of testing for the virus). And so I had to wait in uncertainty for some weeks.
Though the doctor’s tone of voice did not indicate any cause for worry, my mind (a notorious worry generator) definitely went there. And indeed, there were also some real reasons for concern – reasons involving, among other things, a broken condom a year ago! I had almost forgotten about it, but definitely only almost. My heart sunk when I remembered. I did not know much about the woman in question, but I was not at all sure that she was clean.
Enter emotional upheaval!
Intense fear, shame, guilt, and self-reproach ravaged my inner world. I was seeing my future as a social recluse. I was imagining that no woman would ever want to be with me again. And – most intensely – I was thinking I had infected a lovely young woman who I had been seeing for a while… Imagine telling someone like that how you might have infected her with a disease like this! I don’t know about you, but for me that is a hellish thought.
And for several days, I «knew» that I was infected. I was convinced.
The fact that I also knew that medical science has come a long way in treating the disease, and the fact that I have lots of well-educated great friends who would never reject me because of this, did not stop me from seeing myself dying an early, lonely death. The chaotic rampage of scary thoughts and intense emotions was almost unbearable.
Luckily, I’m a trained practitioner of a number of inner disciplines, most notably Inner Relationship Focusing. So rather than distracting myself from the pain I decided to practice.
I have never had a more clear experience of the immense value of the inner work.
The following section lists some of the key techniques and maneuvers that I used during my ordeal, and with remarkable results. Most of them are (perhaps surprisingly) very simple things that can be practiced by anyone, with minimal training.
Six Simple Ways of Dealing With Intense Suffering
What I’m sharing here is really very general ways of dealing with emotional and mental pain, not specific issues like my possible diagnosis. And by “dealing with” them, I actually mean allowing them to be just as they are. Maybe that sounds counter-intuitive to you, or maybe it even seems counter-productuve, but let me explain. Your body and emotions have a sort of wisdom inherent in them. In painful situation it is natural that there will be a period of “digestion” or adaptation to what has happened. It’s all about letting the natural process do its thing, and to do that we need to stop over-thinking and stop distracting ourselves from the pain.
In other words, these tips won’t necessarily solve your problems. They will make it easier to simply be with your pain, and as your emotions adapt, you will automatically get the necessary energy and peace of mind to deal with the practical stuff more resourcefully.
Here are some of the things I did, and that you can do too:
- Ground yourself through deliberately feeling the physical body
Our inner world is a jungle, and it is so easy to become caught up in the thoughts or emotions that are bringing you to despair. One of the simplest tools, one that will support all the other ones I mention here, is to shift your attention to your concrete bodily sensations of sitting or standing. The contact between you and what is supporting you at the moment. During my ordeal I did this countless times. It’s not always easy when you’re in upheaval, but it is a great relief. Sensing your physical body keeps you close to your experience at the same time as it prevents you from being caught up in the worst of it.
- Get a massage
Simply being in your body can be remarkably pleasurable. Getting a massage will have you gently be in your body like this. I remember that even leaving the house was not an easy thing for me to do, let alone getting undressed in a strange setting. But it was so worth it. I was feeling very heavy and sad, but after my massage I felt relaxed and was even able to enjoy life. Feeling more resourced; I was more able to be with the pain as it re-emerged (and it did!).
- Enlist the caring presence of others
If you have some support, it really gets much more manageable to be with the intense emotions! Although many of us (I’m certainly one of them) tend to withdraw from other people in difficult times, it is important not to isolate yourself too much. Please don’t be all alone. While my main suggestion here is “don’t be alone,” I also want to emphasize that there is a certain type of support that is particularly useful, namely for someone to simply hold space for intensity to be there, without trying to change anything.
People will often try to support by giving advice, or trying to cheer you up. While that is fine (and can be very useful at times) there is also something about it that can be counter-productive. Consider again that your emotional processes have a certain dynamic wisdom to them. When you are grieving for instance, your system is basically processing or digesting something. And that process takes time. It can be premature to start thinking about what to do, or to cheer oneself up (like it’ll be premature to go for a run right after dinner). We don’t want to distract ourselves, because the gift that is behind the intense experience might not emerge then. Your system needs time to process, and if it can be simply held in the loving presence of others, that processing will be much less stressful, more harmonious, and more healing.
In the practice of Focusing we very often work in pairs, and it is remarkable how much easier it is not to become overwhelmed, distracted or identified when you have a companion. You don’t even have to tell them about your troubles in any detail! I’m so grateful toward my focusing partners!
- Use language to support micro-disidentifications
Language is remarkably powerful in shaping our reality. Focusing teacher and linguist Ann Weiser Cornell has developed a way that language can support us in becoming more present and whole: Presence Language. Consider the difference between these two sentences:
a) «I’m so scared» and
b) «Something in me is so scared».
Close your eyes and “taste” the difference as you say them to yourself. Most people can really sense the difference.
Now think of a difficult emotion you’re having at the moment, or have had recently, and apply it to that: «I’m ….» versus «Something in me is …».
Try it out, make it into a habit to use in your everyday life, and it will make things easier when the sh*t hits the fan. What happens for me is that I’m able to step out of identification with the something, and to create a relationship of compassion and understanding with it. (Learn more about Presence Language at Ann’s website: www.focusingresources.com).
- Say an inner «Hello» to something in you that is in pain
Actually try it right now. Say “hello, I know you’re there” to something in you that is feeling x. This is another part of Presence Language introduced in the point above. The act of saying hello enacts and underscores that you are bigger than this emotion. You are the one who can say hello to something in you that is in pain. It will facilitate a relationship with your inner world, which can be nurtured and become supportive. You can be your own supportive parent! This is a large part of what we do in Inner Relationship Focusing.
Any kind of meditation practice is such a valuable thing to have in situations like this. I meditated a lot, and I made it a point to meditate with other people. As countless people who are experienced meditators will tell you, doing it in a group (or with just one other person) enables the meditation to go much deeper than when doing it alone. But as you probably know meditation gets really difficult in emotional upheaval, and the above techniques helped me calm down enough to actually meditate.
I want to stress again that all of these things are basically meant to let your emotional processing happen unobstructed. You don’t need to fix anything. Emotional healing is a natural process, and mostly what you need to do is get out of the way. Getting out of the way, really means adopting a way of being with your emotions that lets them be as they are, having them felt fully, listened to, held in compassion.
By repeatedly and consistently doing these practices (and of course by practicing Focusing) I gradually got to a place where I could start to think more constructively, and even positively, about the situation. How could I turn this into something that would benefit myself and others? I was getting ideas, and making plans for how to live with the condition in a positive way.
This happened spontaneously when I was ready for it. I was not trying to force “positive thinking” on top of my despair.
However, it got deeper than that.
A Major Shift in Perspective
Inner Relationship Focusing was my main practice, and the thing that most helped me stay grounded and present during this whole situation.
However, I also want to mention something more about the other perspectives and practices that were extremely helpful for me, namely those related to «the spiritual» (I’ve already mentioned my meditation practice).
For a long time I was a reluctant «spiritual person.» I’m a quite heady sort of guy, and I have something like 15 years of university studies behind me. This has given me a healthy dose of skepticism against anything “woo-woo.”
However, at the point when this happened I had long since found several very compelling (and satisfyingly heady) books that convinced my rational mind that, at least in part, my skepticism needed to be moderated. I had also had several interesting experiences that seemed to confirm what I was reading. It is not merely that the various spiritual traditions and teachers have a vague sort of wisdom that comforts people (though you’ll find vague and even shady characters in this arena too). When you really go into it, your perspective starts to shift in a way that enables an understanding grounded in your own experience, and then what previously just seemed kind of vague and mysterious, starts to make perfect sense. But I digress…
During the crisis I was reading furiously, and the perspectives I was getting from the spiritual literature really helped me step out of the narrow focus that results from being in a state of fear and stress. For instance I read a most remarkable book called «Facets of Unity» by A.H. Almaas. This book lays out the view of reality from someone who is awake, and it does it from various different perspectives. I believe that all of the practices that I did were greatly enhanced by the intellectual rigor and spiritual transmission that I got from this book.
In addition I spoke to friends who have the same orientation, and even one actual spiritual teacher. This was very helpful in interpreting the inner experiences I was having, because some very interesting things were happening to me.
Presence as substance
My meditations became consistently deep during this period, and a kind of odd thing happened. I started experiencing a silky black sort of presence behind my back during my sitting. It was literally like a (very subtle) substance that seemed quiet, smooth, and spacious. And it was behind me.
Now, thinking back, it seems to me like it «had my back.» It was like some sort of intelligence showing itself to me, but in the gentlest, most non-intrusive sort of way. It was simply quietly there for me to notice and relate to, or not. Thinking about it now, years later, I feel touched and grateful.
Experimenting with ways of being with it, I found that I could internally «step back» into it. I could merge with it. And as I did so, my identification with my body and usual perspective fell away.
Now, using for instance presence language (see point 4 and 5 above) I’d many times been able to do micro-disidentifications. This is in itself so rewarding and amazing, but what now occurred was something else!
This was macro-disidentification!
In an instant all of my worries simply fell way into the background. It was as if I saw the whole world in one vision, and me having HIV was barely even registering as relevant.
Now this shift into the larger perspective happened in a brief instant, and then I came back into my more usual point of view. But all the same, now things were different. I was again Anders, but there was peace and trust. Worry happened, but sort of more quietly, and within a larger peaceful presence.
In my meditations I could still feel the silky substance. My spiritual teacher suggested I inquire if there really was a separation between this presence and me. This inquiry led to another shift where I saw that: no obviously not! This presence is who I am.
I remember laughing for several minutes. My stomach hurt! Such a remarkable, mindblowing insight. I belive this is what they call a satori moment, the sort of moment where you see the truth of your existence, and it just blows you away.
So I was in a very peaceful and elated state in the following days. And then it happened.
My doctor called me.
As it turned out the second, more reliable test was fine! I did not have HIV!
Even if I was in a quite peaceful place, the relief and gratitude was tangible! No having to tell a loved one that I might have infected her, no having to deal with heavy medications, no having to tell my family, friends, and future lovers about my condition.
And that is how the apparent tragedy of a deadly diagnosis turned out to be an awesome gift!
How do you deal with difficulties in your life? I’d love to hear. Feel free to share in a comment below. Also, feel free to ask any questions you might have about this article or about Focusing in general!
Anders B. Asphaug
MSc, Cand. polit.
Anders is a certified Circling Leader, a educated conflict worker, and is currently certifying as a Focusing professional. He leads regular authentic communication workshops and communication courses. He is also available for one-on-one sessions for people who want to gain the inner strength (and skill set) necessary to stand more firmly in their life. He finds that in order to master your relationships with others, it is essential to cultivate your inner relationship.
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