Call off the Search: How I stopped seeking and found peace
Chapter 2: Therapy
Maybe I was at a low ebb anyway but just before my Christmas break I had a horrible meeting at work with a very confrontational man. I knew that he was going to be difficult but I had somehow been unable to summon up any fight or strategies to deal with him. Like I said, maybe I was at a low ebb anyway, I can’t blame it all on him.
I fell apart afterwards, not only in the immediate aftermath, but my general confidence had also been smashed and I lost my strength. That was only one meeting, but at least ten more meetings with him were scheduled for January and February.
The night before I returned to work after Christmas, John asked me if I was ready. I said, ‘well my work clothes and bag are sorted’. ‘I meant psychologically’, he said. ‘Well in that case, no, not at all’. The thought of facing that man again was unbearable. ‘Surely you must have a strategy for dealing with him?’ John asked. ‘Only the ultimate one’, I muttered. ‘For God’s sake Sadie, you can’t kill yourself over someone at work. You aren’t a depressed Goth teenager anymore. I really think it’s about time you got some help with this’.
I had been thinking about it. The idea of getting help had come to me in meditation. I had never sought help before, although I had had suicidal thoughts on and off since I was fifteen.
I had even imagined myself doing a talk about it, at some kind of mental health event, about being in that lonely attic office at work where no one came to see me without an appointment, and then my knee started really hurting so I had to move to a downstairs office that is much more public and you can’t hear people coming from a distance, they just appear. Just before I was moved downstairs I was having very strong suicidal urges. I had brought a craft knife in from home for an art session, but it sat on the top of the filing cabinet screaming ‘method’ to me. I thought about cutting my jugular and the blood dripping down through the floorboards into the office below which is empty.
So on the 12th January 2015, coincidentally (i.e. I hadn’t done it intentionally) one year to the day since I had driven to Wells-next-the-Sea with my swimsuit on under my clothes and bathed in the cold North Norfolk sea as a commitment to the spiritual path* (albeit my own eclectic and ever-changing made-up spiritual path, but still, I meant it), I picked up the phone and rang the work telephone counselling service. *This is described in my previous book How to Find Heaven on Earth, which is for sale super cheap on Amazon.
The phone was answered with a lovely softly spoken Spanish accent, by a man called Jaim and at last, after love, after spiritual awakening, after marriage, after all those years, it was talking with this calm, gentle man every Friday morning that finally washed the worst of my suicidal impulses away (at the moment I am saying) forever.
I sat on the floor of my office with a Do Not Disturb sign on the door and an A4 pad in front of me and as he talked I scribbled down as much of it as I could.
Gently, he dismantled the strange framework I had built inside and around me. Sadie, he said, ‘Thoughts are not real; they are just like when you are watching a film or reading a book, there is no obligation to engage with them.’
No obligation to engage with them? Are you sure? The idea of letting them go and letting myself off was tantalising and delicious but I felt conflicted and guilty at the same time. Surely, if I have an idea as serious as killing myself I should give it some attention? I mean, I must be thinking it for a reason? Or at the very least, the fact that I have thoughts like this surely means there is something very wrong with me and that I am not like everyone else. And if I did give up the suicidal thoughts, I wouldn’t have an ultimate Plan B or anything to hang onto In-Case-Of-Emergency.
But Jaim helped me see that the thing I’m hanging onto is unhelpful to the extent that it has become the problem itself, rather than a solution to the problem. The original problem has gone and all I am left with is the original solution, which has now become a problem: The Problem. I used to think it was a safety net for when I got all freaked out and scared about things that I found difficult. But what if I just say fuck off to it as it as it arises? And what if instead of freaking out over challenges and fears I just get on with whatever task is in front of me? But what will I do without all that to fall back on? Answer: Probably manage quite well or even better: suicidal thoughts do not actually help.
If thoughts and what I think isn’t really who I am, then who am I? How do I know who I am? Is it rather what I do, and the reflection of myself and my actions in the people around me? Question: What to think about instead? I don’t want to stop thinking, I like thinking… Jaim said: ‘Why should you stop the activity of the mind? But you can direct it more consciously to what you want. It’s a myth that stopping the mind, that that is what meditation is all about. Imagining, creation, ideas, are all good things!’
My mind is working better- not thinking unhelpful thoughts. I am learning not to fill my mind with noise except when chosen: a subject of interest on Radio 4, music for pleasure, choosing consciously, rather than ‘filling without knowing’ in Jaim’s words, when you don’t allow yourself any silence or space to choose:
‘If you work too hard and fill every moment with purpose in a rush of doing you forget to just be. Allow yourself times of silence and moments of non doing. It’s in these moments that you realise who you are.’ Jaim said: ‘Accept who you are, warts and all. You have been afraid of showing yourself to be weak, forever trying to please someone else, to be ultra efficient, perfect and invincible but nobody is that. Ask when you don’t know. Tell yourself that it’s okay for me not to know. It’s okay to sometimes not be on top of things. Your previous assumption- ‘I can’t cope’- meant you had to demonstrate the opposite and that was the cause of much stress. The need to prove is a constant source of nervousness.’
I told him about the man I had the meeting with, and that I was scared of facing him again. Jaim said calmly: ‘In my experience there is something simple that will perhaps help you; to be aware, preferably in real time, or if not as soon as possible after, of how you are feeling. Monitor carefully your changes of mood. This is the first indicator that something is happening. If you feel upset, sad or worried, just notice, enquire with an open mind, what is going on, not criticising, not should, not should not, just: Why? What is the reason? What is actually happening? Outer event? Memory? Interpretation as threat? Understand your interpretation: what are you thinking? I’m not good enough? I won’t cope? Deal with these asap- of course I am good enough, I can cope.’
‘Watch out for winter and being tired.’
‘The more you cultivate and develop the ability to observe yourself (your thoughts, feelings and behaviour), the more you will be able to deal with adverse circumstances without panicking.’
‘Your observing mind is the wise part of you that is there to keep an eye on things in the control room, ready to respond to any variations: red lights= respond quick. Observe the dashboard of your life, trust you have the ability to deal with it. Choose to take appropriate action instead of panicking and giving into depressed or unhelpful thoughts. There is usually a way out.’
‘Every half an hour, stop and check in, how I am feeling and why, very simple. You have been so scared of not coping but don’t pre-empt it, don’t assume. Whatever comes to meet you you will find time and a way to deal with it.
You have done it so far! (You have been around a while)’.
‘Being aware stops you being on autopilot, and when you are on autopilot your subconscious mind takes over and can lead you astray.’
‘When we are well we feel well, it’s an inbuilt gauge telling us life is going well. When you get an uncomfortable feeling, that is a warning light: use your feelings to help you. Sometimes it will be a simple solution, sometimes it will be more complicated, that’s okay, we will never understand everything. Feelings are valid: they are telling you something.’
‘You are making decisions every minute, you start afresh every minute: life unfolds in the present.’
Then as I began to get better: he said: ‘The difference is, you are not beating yourself up. You might be doing something wrong, if so, you can correct it. You are walking through life with your wits about you, paying attention to yourself and what’s around you. Observe your thoughts and behaviour, watch the dashboard, watch for changes in mood and take action accordingly. Do you realise how important this is? Feels life changing!’
Replacement coping strategies:
- Help is always available, all you have to do is ask
- Whatever comes your way you will be able to deal with it, as you have always done thus far
One of the things I have to do at work is a type of therapy that involves being part of a group of therapists that meet each week for a ‘therapy for the therapists’ session. Perhaps because of the blurring between personal and professional, work and home I used to find these groups extremely stressful. I negotiated a six month break from the group which gave me a temporary relief, but the six months came to an end and I had to return.
At the start of every 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 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?
Smoking weed only causes psychosis because it opens your mind up to all possibilities: that you are evil or mad, that the brown woollen blanket fronds are tarantula legs. And doesn’t reading all that make me realise that it was all crazy, that all those things are crazy, not just the blanket fronds bit. The blanket is clearly just a blanket not anything more sinister and so that logic also applies to me: I am just me, not anything more sinister. But it (smoking, thinking, and being alive) could just as easily open your mind up to endless positive possibilities. And sometimes I can be very easy to please: right now, if you asked me what I wanted, what I wish for, what would make me happy, my idea of peace and contentment would be to snuggle up on a bed with a cat and read, or take a nap. Maybe if I’m really pushed, a new pair of new earrings.
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 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 then 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 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.
I experienced moments of obvious healing in the Hare Krishna meditation and chanting phase. Seeing myself being healed; my throat was a bit sore then after meditation got better. My shoulders and arms were aching: the combination of sitting up straight and strong and relaxing at shoulders and arms to release tension at same time healed that too. I got into having regular deep tissue massages. I went back to doing Yoga regularly. I began to realise how important ‘bodywork’ can be as part of a spiritual journey, self healing, therapy without words. I had often thought about my patients at work, how unfair the whole assessment and treatment set up is for those who don’t like or can’t do talking. There should be a therapy without words. There is a little access to drama, dance and movement and music therapy, but in general, it’s talking.
I am coming to yoga from a different place, and thereby finding a different place (a metaphor for life). That deep, still, powerful stretch, like sports massage, like meditation, like the deepest relaxation; feeling a sense of emergence and a sense of timelessness. I really feel the duvet on my body now. I am more aware, physically, ever since counselling has encouraged my awareness, and since yoga, since meditation.
‘Through Yoga you can tune into all creation and hear the cosmos.’ All is to be found in the body. Yoga predates all religion, obviously- moving pre dates religion, cats and dogs stretch themselves and rest.
Waking up and looking at my hands, feeling my fingers holding the duvet, a miracle, my whole body a miracle, let alone the insides…. it’s not just babies that are miraculous. The hands, the limbs, the bones and muscles and how they work the nerves, the brain, the mind, incredible, amazing….
Lying in bed, at 44, feeling myself emerge, at last, realising how fast it goes. Sometimes I look in the mirror and see myself differently, like looking at a stranger- I look nice- also getting old is interesting, and how heroic old people are, keeping going despite falling apart bodies, can’t read, etc, like cancer survivors, and in a looks obsessed culture there’s no Red Cross makeovers or wigs to save them, they have to believe there’s something above looks.
The space in between breath, where miracles/enlightenment happens- in that space I thought I could eradicate my worst memories, and that would do me good.
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.
I bought a bottle of Baileys and spent a happy week of evenings watching Orange Is the New Black, drinking Baileys and meditating (now, from the vantage point of complete sobriety I can laugh about this, but it was lovely and just what I needed at the time). I remember meditating in between episodes and saying ‘thank you’ over and over, for my nice dinner and my motivation to cook it, for Baileys, for OITNB, for the nasty man changing jobs, for my husband, for my life; and really feeling it, the electricity of gratitude and then the message: ‘Enjoy’ so I did, back to Baileys and another episode of OITNB.