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How to survive until 30

Last month I turned thirty. Amid the celebrations I remembered my stormy teenage years and how I had been sure that the older I grow the happier I will be. Oh, how right my teenage-self was! There are a lot of people who have spent their 30th birthday in a crisis, agonizing over aging and where they are in life. I on the other hand have spent my celebrations in blessed certainty that this age suits me perfectly.

Me on the morning of my birthday.

Apparently turning thirty launches some kind of genetic retrospective disorder that makes you unable to resist reminiscing about the past and going through the hardships and joys of your earlier life. So in the spirit of gaining years (and hopefully wisdom) I want to publish my very own DIY strategy that has enabled me to survive to this feared age without losing my marbles or my ability to laugh even in the most absurd of situations. Shockingly, despite being thirty I still love life and humanity.

Contrary to the general belief I am not one of those ”born to be happy” people. I have inherited my farther’s (over)analytic world view and my mother’s timidness. When you combine these two it is easy to find yourself in situations where you excessively monitor even the slightest of changes inside of you. Luckily, my pragmatism forces me to believe that everything can be modified, fixed or changed as long as you choose the right tools and – most importantly – start working on it.

”Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage.
If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

Dale Carnegie

Ready? Here we go: When facing desperate situations, when life is throwing buckets of shit my way, and when I see only darkness in the future, I open up my laptop and:

1. Search for books that address the hardships I’m facing

2. Study and discuss what I’ve learned

3. Give myself time to apply what I’ve learned in practice

That’s it. Works every time.

With the help of this simple method I’ve overcome panic attacks that I had as a teenager, I’ve ”cured” myself of tinnitus, I’ve come to terms with my body-image, I’ve learned to stop my excessive worrying/overanalyzing/mulling, and I’ve found myself a cure for a life-threatening condition. As the cherry on top I also was able to help couple of thousand other patients with the same condition.

Best of all, with this method, I’ve learned many things in practice that would’ve taken me a lot longer to learn without it. The lessons have been hard, but well worth the effort. I have no regrets and oddly enough even feel gratitude towards everything I’ve gone through. So here they are, the most important lessons of my 30-year-old life which I’ve learned by following my DIY survival strategy:

Ignorance is never bliss

You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.

– Eric Hoffer

Knowledge can create pain at the beginning of your research, but I promise you that it will get easier when you overcome the first hurdle. The pain that comes out of knowing stuff is nothing compared to the fear of the unknown. Ignorance is never bliss. An enlightened mind does not hold shadows for monsters to hide in. Never be afraid of the things that you are learning.

A living exampleWhen I was a teenager I was struggling with panic attacks. Those of you who have never experienced them don’t understand how much they can limit your life. You live in constant fear of fear and neurotic introspection. It feels like you are living out your life with a monster that has complete power over your mental and physical well-being. It is a shitty place to be.

Eventually my anxiety led me to start looking for help from the internet. A mistake. In 20/20 hindsight I can say that even tho’ the internet is one of the greatest inventions of the human race, it is not the best place to start seeking help. There are a couple of reasons for this:

1. Without a properly developed mental filtering system it is easy to believe in just about any unholy crap that the internet has to offer. When you have just survived another panic attack, the last thing you want to read are those ”comforting” ”studies” that claim that people who get panic attacks have a 101% greater chance to die alone and without friends, grow a third nipple or become kidnapped by aliens.

2. Forums are usually filled with other sick people who are stuck in victim mode and/or people who support this kind of behavior. When it gets really bad it can lead to sick people justifying their problems – for example an anorexic person justifying her/his dieting method as necessary and efficient. I would recommend never taking advice from a person a) whom you have never met, b) whose history you don’t know, c) who doesn’t have any constructive or practical advice for your problem (such as ”I was in your situation once and this is how I solved it”).

3. The internet offers a platform for self-diagnosis that can, when used incorrectly, lead to the following situation:

You gotta start somewhere tho’, and this is the initial shock you will have to face. It helps to remind yourself that this is just the beginning. What’s most important is that you’ve taken the first step towards finding a solution to your problem instead of playing the victim card. When you continue doing research you will automatically learn to fine-tune your inner filtering system to ignore the useless advice and to find solutions that have some practical use. For me it was finding a book from David D. Burns called  When Panic Attacks. It finally put a stop to my anxiety after trying out a plethora of other things. I kept the book on my shelf for a few more years to give me comfort and to remind me that I can always find the path again, should I ever get lost. Eventually the day arrived that I gave the book away to a friend of mine who also found it helpful.

Years later I also grew interested in the more scientific perspective of fear. I was wondering why fear affects us the way it does and why we fear various small and big things. I found a book from Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear, hitting the jackpot. If your sense of reality and perspective gets lost from time to time, I recommend reading it. For those that worry more than fear (hmmm…where do you draw the line?) I would recommend The Worry Cure from Robert Leahy.

You are never ever alone. Ever.

“A man only learns in two ways:

One by reading, and the other by association with smarter people”

-Will Rogers

There are plenty of other people who have struggled with the same problems you are going through. You are never the only one on this planet who thinks about things in a certain way. When your life is in turmoil and feels like it has no direction, it is very easy to start circling around your own navel when looking for comfort. We think that our pain and suffering is unique and thus justified. We often think that a familiar pain/complaint/problem is better than a jump to the unknown. Even tho’ your own navel feels like a save haven, it is wiser to start looking at other people’s navels. You will be surprised by the amount of new perspectives and paths that didn’t occur to you.

A living example: Those teenage years that I spent in clubs without proper hearing protection finally showed their consequences: One silent moment I heard my tinnitus. That very same moment I remembered all those scary stories about tinnitus: It’s incurable, dangerous and it will with out a doubt slowly drive you mad. After that all I could do was to constantly monitor this unfamiliar inner sound.

Enough sleepless, neurotic nights passed and finally my anxiety reached such a high frequency (herp derp) that it triggered my DIY survival mode: learn, learn everything about my enemy. During my research I eventually found articles that brought a whole new perspective to tinnitus. I found out that I’m not the only one in the world who could hear this sound. Even better: I found out that everyone is able to hear it!

I talked about my findings with Jonas and during the conversation he pointed out that even he can hear his ears ringing. When I asked him how long he had heard it he said that from a really young age – he just didn’t care. My big brother had the same story. After some more research learned that I just happened to have a personality type that found the sound of tinnitus stressful and not a natural part of life. What’s that? It is a psychological issue? Hah! Now, on psychological issues I was in my element. So I ordered a couple of books, studied them, and then, with time, applied the things I learned to real life.

I encountered my final lesson on this subject a couple of months ago, when I felt that I was confident enough to start talking about my experiences with other people. I met an aboriginal born, Australian adventurer/researcher who was particularly interested in hearing about the subject. After we spoke a while he broke into laughter and said:

”I find it fascinating that tinnitus is seen by Western countries as a threat. I have heard this sound my entire life and I have often used it as a tool to interpret the world around me. I have discovered that it becomes louder every time I’m in an area where a some scale of natural disaster is going to happen and it has never been wrong. So I use it for survival as well. That is why I find it extremely difficult to see tinnitus as a health issue.”

Even tho’ I didn’t share his perspective regarding the function of tinnitus, the whole conversation reminded me of how different our perspectives can be. People have such a vast amount of different views on various problems. Some of them are proactive, some not so much. But we can learn a lot from people who are solution-oriented and simply won’t allow you to sit back and justify your own suffering as ”necessary”.

You are your own miracle

”Success is a frame of mind, achievement is a frame of mind, joy is a frame of mind, wealth is a frame of mind. Are you getting it? These things are results, not causes. Read that again 50 times.”

-Scott Abel

It is so easy to become addicted to playing the victim and waiting that Someone Else™ came and saved you from your problems. Unfortunately it is more likely to see a nun in a bikini than to have someone help you without you asking for it. Even after making the request there is a big chance that no one will do anything for you. It’s better if you simply accept the fact that starting to trust your own abilities will be more beneficial. So if you want a miracle, you need to work for it – if it needs sowing, sow; if it requires changing, change; if it takes studying, study; if it takes working, work; whatever you have to do, do it. You will then be well on your way to a miracle.

A living example: At the tender age of 21 I found myself in a hospital. I had survived two weeks of serious diarrhea. A week after that I had my diagnosis: I had Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease that caused my own cells to imitate the TSH hormone produced by my pituitary gland, which in turn made my thyroid go crazy. Two weeks after my diagnosis the problem was already ”solved” by giving me a dose of radioactive iodine that shut my thyroid down permanently. The main gland, virtually entirely responsible for my metabolism, was eliminated. So at a very young age I found myself in a situation where my life was dependent on a bottle of pills. The next two years were a living hell that almost killed me.

Due to thyroid hormones affecting almost every living cell in your body, treating thyroid diseases is tricky business. There are so many things you have to take into account. Unfortunately the medical community is used to dated treatment methods and the whole field is filled with misinformation and urban legends. After the RAI treatment the doctors failed to realize that my body would need more than one measly, synthetically produced hormone to keep me functional. After all, before the treatment my thyroid was producing 3 different important hormones and helped to co-create 7 other life-supporting hormones and enzymes.

I gained 25 kilos in 6 months (without any change to my previous eating habits), I started losing hair and my skin became so dry that I bled from my knees and elbows. I started having trouble remembering basic words and I just couldn’t stay awake. After sleeping I felt exactly the same as before falling asleep: tired, slow, cold and numb. I wasn’t recovering. My vision was delayed and I was just withering away. It was a scary place to be so suddenly and at such a young age. I felt like I had lost all control of my body, that which used to be so healthy and vibrant. Gradually I started to have thoughts of just wanting to fall asleep and never wake up. What was the point anyway? Nobody was listening to me. The doctors just said I was fine or that I was depressed or that I was just eating too much. Apparently I just made it all up. To them I was a hopeless case. How can you treat someone if you refuse to see the symptoms? Finally there came a day when I was walking home and crying. I was so angry and sad that I didn’t really care how many people saw my tears. I had just left the office of the most famous endocrinologist in Finland who had just stared my laboratory results (never looking me in the eyes), saying that I was fine and turning me away with a 120-euro bill.

I was in a situation where I could either die or try to do something about it. So what else can a girl do in a situation like that? For the next two months I used all my free time to study. I ordered all the books that had been written about my condition from Amazon and read through all the online medical articles I could find. At the same time I kept documenting everything that happened in my body as well as everything I found during my research. I didn’t really have any other choice, since I couldn’t rely on my memory anymore. I learned that the treatment I was receiving was absolutely insufficient to keep my body working. I also found the direction I had to head in next. I had to find an alternative drug for my condition that would contain all the hormones my healthy thyroid had been producing instead of the single hormone my current drug gave me. I discovered that this drug actually existed, but only a handful of people in Finland had ever taken it and you would need to have a special permit to get it.

I also found out that I wasn’t alone. There was a horde of other patients in the same situation. I encountered so many stories of other people going through a longer and more brutal abuse than I. My research uncovered a broad patient advocacy community of other informed patients and even a few doctors who worked tirelessly to change the current treatment system. But the gears turn painfully slowly in the medical world. I published all my findings in Finnish (they were the first articles ever published in Finnish on this topic) while doing everything I could to help my own situation. My stubbornness was eventually rewarded one day, when I finally found a brave doctor who listened to my symptoms, met me with compassion and wrote me a prescription while mumbling ”This is absurd! How has nobody else fixed this problem before?” I started treating myself with Armour Thyroid a week after that. I decided upon the dosage by gauging how my body reacted since there weren’t any official guidelines available at the time.

It took about a year before my body had finally healed itself. I had to learn to be patient. I had obviously underestimated the damage the mistreatment had done my body and overestimated my body’s ability to regenerate. While healing, I continued patient advocacy, updating articles and setting up a system for a new and better Finnish thyroid site. I was 25 years old when I finally felt that the time had come to step away from the community. I had lost my young adult years to the condition; now I wanted to take them back. When I left, there were 500 new registered patients who had prescriptions for Armour Thyroid – the ”new” treatment on the market. For many it was a life-saver. Today the movement is going strong with more prescriptions than ever and even a new drug variant appearing on the Finnish market.

Just before our round-the-world trip I had to renew my prescription with a doctor I hadn’t met before. As I was leaving the office, he gave me a stack of printed papers and said, ”You should read this information package now. It contains valuable information about your condition. Bon voyage!”. That pile of papers was my written research. I smiled and remembered how good it felt to be my own miracle.

Emotions are just that: emotions

Instead of allowing ourselves to indulge in occurrences of strong emotions, we should work at decreasing our propensity toward them. If we ask ourselves whether we are happier when angry or when calm, the answer is evident.

-Dalai Lama

Read that again: Emotions are just emotions. We all have thoughts that create emotions, but it doesn’t mean that we should always act on them – we can just let them be. Reacting to your emotions constructively is a skill you can learn just like riding a bicycle. Emotions should never define us or the world around us and even tho’ some emotions are stronger and longer lasting than others they never last forever.

It might be difficult to remember that – especially when you are all alone with your darkest, grimiest and scariest emotions. Sometimes they can feel so overwhelming and soul-shattering that it is hard to believe that anything else could exist outside of them. But after you’ve learned to trust that emotions are transitory, you can start to practice your tolerance towards and acceptance of them. This will help to stretch that famous moment between emotion and reaction. I say famous because Taoism teaches that instead of impulsively reacting to an emotion, you can actually stop and choose you next action. You will discover that most of the time it is more beneficial to choose to chill the duck out.

Chill out, mon (original:

A living example: Accepting your body just the way it is, is a journey of learning to just be with your emotions. It starts from being willing to face all your emotions without immediately reacting to them by eating, refraining from eating or overtraining. I’m lucky that I never pushed the battle with my body image far enough to create any actual physical harm, but I didn’t survive without any struggles either. My health views were fueled by my parents and their unhealthy way of taking care of themselves and by choosing too many boyfriends of the you-should-be-more-beautiful philosophy. I made my greatest error when healing from my thyroid condition. In a sheer after-panic from my failing health I swore I would do everything in my mortal power to never be sick again. And I’ve learned that when my mortal power comes to play, it can be a pretty unstoppable force. I thought that, by optimizing everything health-related in my life, I could prevent any further mishaps and be in total control of my body. The idea was solid but, when left unchecked, my obsession, fear and association with the wrong people did in time form a rubber band effect – a textbook version of the overtraining-binge eating-self loathing-overtraining cycle. Physically I was probably in the best shape of my life, but mentally I was a train wreck. The final wake up call was when -due to over-training- I lost my periods for 4 months. I looked myself in the mirror and slowly came in to the conclusion that I had lost my way.

In the end three things contributed to the 2 year long healing process:

1. To nobody’s surprise: I did everything in my power to manically research everything surrounding the subject. Especially reading Scott Abel’s ”The other side of the mirror” hit home hard and I would highly recommend his other writings to anyone with similar issues. They are aimed to give a healthy dose of reality to everyone involved with the bodybuilding and fitness industry, as well as to those who are just generally lost with their body image.

2. I started to listen that nagging inner voice that was too proud to succumb ”to something as stupid as an eating disorder”. I had gotten so far and did so well and I didn’t want to through it all away. I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes my parents made. I was convinced that I had better things to do in life than think about food all the time and attach a hoard of emotions around it. This realization didn’t really diminish the amount of work I had to do to get on track again but it did guide my actions in the right direction.

3. I taught myself to love myself so much that I wasn’t willing to settle for anything less anymore: I found myself a partner that loved me as much as I did, and just as I was. (Related to this I would also recommend reading Undefended Love.). Learning to ”love thy self” is a process tho’ and I think with me it is a life long one. You need to learn to love everything you are in every situation you are – wether in good or bad. Having someone next to you reminding you that you all worth it, helped.

In the words of Andrew Adler:

”The body you are given will be yours for the duration of your time here. Love it or hate it, accept it or reject it, it is the only one you will receive in this lifetime. It will be with you from the moment you draw your first breath to the last beat of your heart. Since there is no refund, no exchange policy on this body of yours, it is essential that you learn to transform your body from a mere vessel into a beloved partner and lifelong ally, as the relationship between you and your body is the most fundamental and important relationship of your lifetime. It is the blueprint from which all your other relationships will be built.

The challenge of the first rule is to make peace with your body, so that it can effectively serve its purpose and share its valuable lessons of acceptance, self esteem, respect, and pleasure. Everyone learns these lessons before they are able to journey successfully through life.”

Final words

I bet the next 30 years will bring even more valuable lessons! I can’t wait!

PS: I have also learned that eating watermelon in the shower is super fun. You should try it some time.