At the start of every ‘therapy for the therapists’ group there was always a mindfulness exercise and for the first time I understood why we teach this to our patients who have severe emotional and mental distress. I was nervous, but I focussed on the task: I am sitting here, in a chair, the table is brown, the window is square. Just the bare unarguable facts, no suicidal despair, no ‘I can’t cope, I am a leper’. Just deal with what is in front of me.
A few weeks’ later and a few more weeks of Jaim’s lovely therapy and another therapy group meeting. This time the mindfulness was not a ‘describing’ exercise like before but a ‘doing’ exercise. In silence, the group leader handed out photocopies of Valentine’s Day themed Sudoku. Printed on the bottom of the sheet was the website address: Activities for kids. Now, when Sudoku first became a thing in England, I did try it and did know how to do it. But that was a long time ago, and faced with this sheet, in the tense silence of the therapy group, I realised I had absolutely no idea what to do. I ran through the options in my mind: stay still, be mindful of the discomfort, and say nothing. Or ask for help- traditionally we don’t often speak in mindfulness, but mostly the task is relatively simple and clarification isn’t normally needed. I thought that if it was my turn as facilitator I wouldn’t mind if someone asked- in fact I wouldn’t want them to sit silent and confused. So I broke the silence and asked the facilitator and my neighbour who both tried to give me brief and hushed advice. Unfortunately it was no good, maybe because I’d got even more tense at speaking, maybe because the mindfulness section is so short they didn’t spend long explaining it, so I sat, writing anything in the boxes with no clue, feeling hot and uncomfortable but at the same time, a bit of me was laughing, a bit of me was looking forward to telling Jaim about it. And a whole lot more of me knew that whatever was happening in that moment, underneath and beyond it I was still intact, still me, and would come out unscathed.
Jaim and I laughed long and hard about it. ‘What, you mean, you, 15 years experience as a therapist, head of department, manager of a team of twenty, don’t know how to do Sudoku, I mean, really, what will everyone think!!!’ Jaim laughed. He added more seriously: ‘the aim isn’t to avoid ever having a low mood or a bad experience, but to be able to let them go afterwards’.
Eliminate these behaviours and thoughts and I can experience pure happiness at least for a period, until and unless events in life happen as they do but it is true that at present I have no sad events or issues so it would be a shame to waste this opportunity to be perfectly happy.
Driving home from work, listening to Radio 4, I heard someone say: ‘Treat it as normal, that will help it to become normal’. Yes, I thought, that is exactly what I need to do. That could cure my suicidal thoughts and urges, my workplace anxiety, my body issues, my self consciousness, my OCD and all the rest of my various neuroses. They were actually talking about Northern Ireland, but that kind of detail doesn’t bother me, I was listening to the radio at the time, so I’m taking it for my own.
But even as counselling is releasing years of blocks and bad habits from my mind, and recently rediscovered yoga and recently discovered deep tissue massage is releasing years of guilt and tensions from my body, a part of me is fighting to undermine this new found happiness. New OCD behaviours appear and strange new worries spring up. The mind is fighting back: Well you could be happy, but stuff always happens. What if he’s just waiting until you are strong enough to manage on your own and then he’ll leave you? What if he has an affair with your friend? What if he dies? What then? But like in Eat Pray Love (the book, always the book) when she just sits on the beautiful island in silence for days and days while all her guilt and neuroses surface and then subside, I am just going to look kindly and patiently on whilst all this stuff works itself out and is eliminated, out of my mind, out of my body.
And then, in meditation, the thought came: what if this feeling that I am interpreting as stress, anxiety, tension, confusion, OCD, what if it’s just a pregnant transition and is just me, teeming with energy? It isn’t mental illness; it’s me, teeming with energy, coming into my powers. And the power, the energy is just waiting to be told what to do, or for me to put them into action.
I’ve still got a fear of madness when I open doors in my mind. Just like I have a fear of getting fat, stiff and unfit if I stop exercising and let myself off for a few days. A fear of being totally lazy and losing all my drive if I sleep in or rest up or do nothing. A fear of losing control at work or being sacked if I don’t work 100% all the time. What if all these fears are equally unfounded?
Like how anorexics, with devastating consequences, absorb the public health messages about food whilst obese people ignore them; I absorbed the ‘take responsibility’ and ‘accept guilt’ messages when I didn’t always need to. Could it be possible that I am not guilty of everything that I accused myself of?
… Each moment is both unique and yet also the result of the previous moment and all previous moments, like beads being threaded on a string. Is that that what heaven or enlightenment is, simply the result of day after day of right living?
What if the happy, positive me, like when I am all chatty and cheerful and friendly at work, is the real me, and the dark, miserable one is not, is just a shadow trying to drag me back down, yet I used to think that was the real me, and the cheerful one was false, a front.
I went on facebook for the first time in weeks, and Elizabeth Gilbert had posted that having a creative mind is like having a border collie for a pet: if you don’t give it work to do, it will find itself something to do, and you may not like what it chooses. This aligned with what the man on a work wellbeing course said: worry is a misuse of the imagination, give your mind something better to do.
It made me think of worry and also OCD. Is it as simple as that? Forget all the exposure exercises and behaviour charts; just give myself something big and all consuming to do- fall in love, write a book, etc. I remember someone on a creative writing course writing about OCD, maybe she would be able to cure herself by writing more?
I didn’t tell Jaim about the OCD: I didn’t want to be like one of those patients that goes to a ten minute appointment and adds loads of other issues on at the end of the appointment and anyway I was prioritising the most dangerous. I also thought that maybe it would recede as all the other stuff got sorted. And that if it didn’t, well, I’d got help once, I could always get help for the OCD later. Or just employ same method: awareness.
One night late, on my own, before I went to bed I looked up some OCD self help information. It was reassuring, very reassuring, as long as I can fully absorb it:
- Intrusive thoughts are common and are an OCD symptom, i.e. they are not me. Sad, to think of all those people persecuted by thoughts, that they can’t share, and that get worse and worse until they are totally taken over.
- Worrying about them, blocking them, or taking them seriously are all things that make them worse.
- Laughing at them can help, as can reminding yourself that everyone has them and they don’t mean anything.
I thought about all the other healing I have done and realised that I can easily cure myself of my OCD, simply by using the method I have thus far employed for everything else I have done:
- Let go of it. Un-hook my attention and my interest, hook by hook, until it disappears. It is my attention and interest that make it a thing, that give it form, without that, it is nothing.
- And realise that even when I do have it, it doesn’t bother me, I am still intact underneath.
It’s like healthy eating: in the moment of deciding and then starting you can feel totally healthy and transformed even whilst accepting that the body and health you have is the result of years of poor eating and will take a while to change/catch up. Perhaps this is a secular version of the nature of forgiveness?
Gratitude on top of gratitude: In January the man I had had all the difficulties with before Christmas was moved to another job and I never had to see him again.
Thank you very much for reading