We all have a story. It’s the story we tell ourselves when we wake up in the morning and step into the details of our day. The story tells us who we are and how to operate in the world. We use our story to make decisions, engage with people and makes sense of things in our life. Our story evolves with us. Every period of our life adds a chapter, and some chapters change the flow of the narrative so fundamentally that we find ourselves in a totally different story to the one we expected to be living in. One day you might wake up and find yourself stuck in a story that doesn’t work for you anymore. What if you want a new story?
It’s not easy to change your story. You can change your circumstances, your location, or your friends, but in the end, your story is who you are, and you take it with you. As Confucius is supposed to have said “Wherever you go, there you are.” But the science of neuroplasticity tells us that this doesn’t have to be the case. Habits, patterns of behaviour, ways of thinking and even physical limitations and injuries have the potential to be re-wired in your brain, changing your story forever. I recently came across a neural retraining program that uses the science of neuroplasticity to rewire the brains of people with mysterious chronic health problems. I’ve decided to give it a shot. It’s a lengthy process that uses repetition to create new neural pathways, replacing the ones that have been laid down for many years and are being reinforced daily, every time you tell your story. I know that once I begin, I’ll need to start telling a different story. I won’t be able to tell the old story anymore, because I’ll need those neural pathways to wither up and die from disuse. And so, I’d like to tell my story, the one I’m currently living in, one last time.
In this story is a girl who had a good start in life. She had a nice family, a good education, a comfortable home. She grew up, left the family home and made her way in the world. She did all the usual things for a middle class Australian girl. Studied hard, got a job, made friends, had boyfriends. She travelled, got promotions, rented houses and went to parties. She knew certain things about herself and she considered those thing to be mostly immutable. She was clever, nice looking, easily bored and not particularly disposed to tedium. She was naturally good at most things, and didn’t have to work terribly hard to be successful. On the other hand she never seemed able to achieve quite enough to be satisfied. She certainly didn’t feel good enough compared to other people, and was always trying hard to be accepted by them. And so she made sure she was very good at everything and did all the things that other people did. She made plenty of mistakes along the way as she sought acceptance and and belonging, but they were small mistakes in the whole scheme of things. Mostly she followed the rules of society, and at the age of 33 she had a good job, a husband and a pretty house in a good suburb, filled with nice clothes and furniture. But she wondered why it still didn’t feel like enough.
One day she realised that this was not the way the story of her life was supposed to go, and she decided to take it in another, very different direction. This was the most difficult and painful chapter of her story so far, but by following her heart the story began to flow as stories should, and she found and married the love of her life. She created a family with this man, embracing his two boys and eventually bringing a beautiful little girl into the world, just as she’d always known she would. Her story was better now, with belonging and growth and a deep abiding sense of contentment. But it had also become a story of struggle. There was illness and hardship and conflict; things she’d never had to contend with before. She learned about compassion and selflessness and vulnerability. She made new friends, and found herself coming closer to the person she really was, underneath all that striving for acceptance. And yet she was still striving, and she still had quite a bit more to do before she was truly enough. The girl had been working so hard, supporting her family through tough times, doing all of the things that mothers and stepmothers and wives and business owners and friends had to do, and she was so, so tired. No matter how hard she tried she couldn’t find a way to do all the things that other people did. She saw all the health specialists, did all the tests and ate all the right foods, but she failed at being healthy, over and over again until eventually she broke.
The girl is now in her mid 40s and knows she has moved past the physical prime of her life. She has accepted that she suffers from chronic fatigue or something like it. Her body aches most days, but if she is absolutely vigilant about diet and rest and yoga and meditation then she can minimise the fatigue and the pain. She is not vigilant though, and she gets down on herself all the time about failing to be the best version of herself. She sometimes eats gluten or drinks wine or stays up past 9pm because she misses having fun and spontaneity in her life. She knows that no-one can help her get better and is jaded and cynical about alternative therapies and treatments that people recommend. She holds onto the dream that somewhere in the future is a time when she is well again, and there’s enough light in that vision to allow for optimism. Even through the tedium, the self-judgement and the occasional despair, there is still plenty of hope. She loves her home, her friends and her family. She reads, she writes, she plants seeds and she dreams of all the things she might do when she’s well. This is her story. It’s not a bad story, and a full and rewarding life could be made from it, but her soul is asking for more in this lifetime. Forever the optimist, she believes it can be done.
I begin the neural retraining program in a few weeks. As part of the program I won’t be allowed to live in the old story anymore, as breaking it down involves actively avoiding the reinforcement of old ways of thinking. Negative thinking is off limits, so this is my last chance to say that the cynic in me is alive and well. I don’t feel altogether comfortable with ‘thinking’ my way out of chronic fatigue and I have this feeling that I’m going to be forced to tell half truths that only focus on the positives and ignore the reality. I have done a lot of reading about the science though, and I understand the fundamentals. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns and if I have to live in a somewhat fabricated reality for a period of time in order to rewire my brain for health, then it’s a small price to pay.
If you’re interested in learning more about neuroplasticity, check out the book ‘The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge. It’s been a fascinating and life changing read for me. And I’ll definitely be sharing more about the neural training once I get started.