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  1. On Independence Day, 4th July, my brother’s wife felt her waters break in Greenwich Park, where she was picnicking with her mother and daughter.  It was a lovely sunny day.  Her second child, a girl, had been due the previous day, and we were all anticipating the new arrival with great joy and excitement.  And that afternoon became, as some days unexpectedly do, intensely and entirely focused around the family Whatsapp group.  We were like excited birds, chatting and chirruping together.  The news began to dribble in.  First that there was a yellow tinge to the waters so the homebirth was off – they were straight to the hospital.  Then that the baby was breech, which they hadn’t known, so a caesarean was being arranged for that afternoon.  Then that my brother, who had had trouble parking, arrived breathless to find my sister-in-law already anaesthetised and prepped in the operating room – he shared a picture of him in gown and mask ready for the off.  They would have their new baby within half an hour.  I happily put my phone down and continued with life, part of me alert and expectant for the ping of an incoming message.  Right now, at this very moment, a baby was being born and joining our family.  A joyful, important day!  But the phone stayed silent.  Two hours later, still nothing.  The children and I had been saying to each other, well it’s so busy when the baby’s born, and you’re feeding for the first time and cuddling and all the caesarean clearing-up stuff, it’s all still fine, the news will come.  But nothing came for nearly three hours, and by then I knew, deep down where you just know things, that this wasn’t good.  I kept tuning in to this place, somewhere in my gut, asking it whether it was all going to be ok, and the message that kept coming back was no.  No.  It’s not ok.

    This is the life we are given to live.  This is the human experience.  It is a sunny day, and an already-adored baby is coming into the world, and it will surely go well because their first birth was normal and – for God’s sake – there are seven billion of us walking around so we can surely assume that it tends to go well.  But as a family we have form in this area.  Four complicated and traumatic births in our immediate family have taught us not to make these assumptions.  We are not unfamiliar with resuscitation, and the incubator, and with the watching and waiting for days for tests that sometimes come back positive.  So the silence from London was also triggering past traumas, both for me and for my husband, for my other brother and sister-in-law, and for my parents.  It was a sickening feeling, both a sinking of hope and a rising of horror, and somehow those opposing forces could co-exist with equal strength and force.  The family Whatsapp group was now a huge void of silence and fear.  We weren’t even talking to each other.  Eventually my other sister-in-law and I exchanged a few confused messages.  Finally I called my mum, who I thought would probably be the first to know anything.

    It had not gone well.  My niece was delivered lifeless and unresponsive – the cord wrapped five times round her neck – and my brother and sister-in-law saw her immediately whisked off for emergency resuscitation, a team of people working frantically on this tiny still body.  My brother watched in agony and thought that she was dead.  My sister-in-law later told us that while they were waiting she was praying to the baby, calling to her: I am here, Mummy is here, come to me, come to me.  My brother joined in too, shouting the baby’s name, begging her to breathe.  And after God knows how long of not breathing her chest suddenly started to move.  She had come back.  The news was not good, though.  They were concerned about oxygen deprivation and brain damage.  She was rushed to special care.  Her kidneys and liver had shut down so that any oxygen would go straight to her brain and heart.  They were going to lower her body temperature to 33° for 72 hours in order to minimise any damage to the brain, and then would slowly bring it back up to normal over 16 hours and start the raft of scans and tests.

    I went over to my parents’ house, finding my mum shaken and tear-stained, and we looked at each other without speaking.  The agony of waiting and walking through each day braced for the periodic ping of the phone had begun again.  When another beloved niece was born in even more traumatic circumstances eleven years ago, I was pregnant and about to give birth to my second child in a few short weeks.  I think because of the imminence of my own birthing my consciousness shielded me to a certain extent from the immense pain that was being lived out only one step removed.  I felt it, but as if from a distance somehow.  But when their third child was born, and again there were problems and fear of profound disability, I felt a tsunami of pain: it was as if everything I had buried from the first birth came back in full force on top of the terror of it happening again to this precious family.  I truly don’t think we ever escape these things.  We might bury them, but the body stores every last drop of it and it can all come surging back up to the surface as if the years that have passed are just a moment.  As if the body keeps time in a non-linear way.  As if it is all happening simultaneously.

    So I remembered on that evening the awful fear and distress I had suffered seven years ago, the powerlessness, the rage.  How dare this be happening to them?  To us.  And I realised in that moment that the only power I had over this situation was my choice of response.  I could not make this darling baby well, immediately and totally.  I could not avoid the journey we were about to walk together or the pace at which it would unfold or the course it would take.  All I could choose was my reaction.

    There is a particular quality of pain to family crisis, to the suffering of those nearest you.  It is yours, but it is not yours to bear, not entirely.  Watching people you love in the fires of their own suffering you feel the ferocious heat of the flames on your skin but you are not actually burning yourself.  Instead this heat becomes the background for your days.  You have to continue going about your business because it’s not happening to you; you’re not in the intensive care unit with your seriously ill baby, you’re picking up the kids saying ‘Fine thanks’, you’re in the supermarket, you’re in assembly as your son leaves primary school.  But the heat sits sharp and heavy on your body – in your jaw, on your shoulders, in your hips, at the back of your skull.  It is tangible.  It is physical.  It makes you want to step back at times, move away from the fire.  But this time I had a decision to make.  How to stay connected and empathic, and at the same time stay strong and in tune with myself.  Neither a weeping, flailing mess, nor shut down and waiting to wake up again when it was over.  I was reminded of Mary at the foot of the cross.  Do not turn your face away.  Sit there in the dirt loving him, holding his gaze.  A few months ago as part of my training I was given a Japanese Zen koan to contemplate.  It read: ‘Enlightenment is an open-eyed man falling into a well.’  I let this stew inside me for some weeks, and it slowly taught me about a quality of surrender that is not in any way a denial of experience but rather a deep and determined encounter with the breadth and truth of the moment.  It is all there: the falling, the terror, the darkness, the open eyes, the still-aliveness, the not knowing, the uncertain outcome.   Might die.  Might be ok. 

    So I turned again to Sophrology to help me fall this time with as much grace and awareness as I could muster.  Staying in the present was, I knew, absolutely key.  I returned to the yoga-based exercises of level 1, which are all about releasing physical tension and anchoring you in the present moment.  I returned, over and over again, to the breath.  The faithful breath, reminding me with each rise and fall that all things pass, and that there is something to be sensed in the journey of each movement, and in the brief moment between them.  It is all my life and it is all precious.  Keep your eyes open.  If a message came in that was frightening: a lumbar puncture, possible meningitis, the MRI scan of her brain, the waiting, another infection; I came consciously back to myself, to now, with whatever exercise I needed.  At times I jumped up and down shaking the worst of it off.  Moving was important.  I felt myself wanting to run (I am not a runner), and I started the Couch to 5k course on my phone, jogging painfully and slowly over the fields with the dog.  Keep the experience moving through you.  Above all I stayed resolutely focused on uncertainty.  I did not know how this would unfold, but surely I would somehow have the strength to handle it – just not in advance.  And maybe I wouldn’t need that strength anyway.  Maybe there would be a big mattress at the bottom of the well.  So stay in the moment. 

    The days passed and the baby pulled through.  Tiny and astonishingly determined to live, she came home with a clean bill of health.  Fourteen years ago after my first child was born I sat in the GP’s office and confessed that I was worrying about having harmed him during the birth: I had been pushing against a closed cervix.  I was worried about his head.  The GP, a lovely man with five children, looked kindly at me and said: ‘My dear, birth is a high risk activity.  But babies are very resilient.  We seem to really want to be here.’

    Last week, a month after the birth, we celebrated my sister-in-law’s fortieth birthday on the beach.  The baby was sleeping peacefully in her father’s arms as my sister-in-law and I stood on the edge of the sea, our feet in the water, and breathed together.  I guided her in the briefest of Sophrology practices, a body scan and some breath awareness, and then stood next to her as she breathed deeply, her face turned up to the sky.  I could almost see the winds of pain blowing through her and disappearing into the dusk, off somewhere over the sea.  It was the start of her homecoming.  A new decade, a new daughter, a new awareness wrought in the furnace of that pain.  Really, would we change any of it?

    And as for you, little baby – youngest and smallest of our clan – we welcome you.  This life is a place of terror and beauty, but then you already know that.  There was the peril of your birth, but then there was the skill and tenderness of the unknown nurse in the middle of the night when no one else was there.  And now there is only the warm breast of your mother, and her smell, and her arms around you.  Surely all is well.

    Wishing you resilience, and open eyes.

    Helena

  2. I am new to Instagram.  Never having seen the point of it, I have started to engage with it slowly over the past few months, aware that ‘the world is on Instagram’.  That would not have been an attraction until recently, but I have been taking conscious and deliberate steps towards engaging more with the wider world.  Putting myself out there.  It’s an uncomfortable process, to be frank, and is challenging me on many levels as I am fundamentally a very private person, and – in all honesty – I have never seen the world as a particularly safe place to be visible.  This was brought home to me within about five minutes of starting to post on Instagram, to my tiny handful of followers: a sexual message came through, and then – when I rebuffed it – it was swiftly followed by another one.  At which point I searched for how to block this guy.  I was standing in my hallway, having a good and happy day, and then suddenly I wasn’t – I was fielding sexual shit from some random man on Instagram.  My home was suddenly filled with threat and menace.  My day was changed. 

    While I may have been naïve to be surprised about this (I hadn’t signed up for Tinder, for God’s sake), I am anything but naïve about what goes on out in the world.  I loved my work at the Samaritans, and am a fervent supporter of the organisation, but four years’ volunteering there was a stark education in the darkness of humanity’s relationship with sexuality.  It’s a little known fact, but female volunteers at the organisation constantly field what were known in the trade as ‘TMs’, or telephone masturbators.  A whole module in the training was devoted to strategies for dealing with them.  Because it’s a freephone number, they would call Samaritans rather than spend big bucks on the sex lines, but then were faced with the challenge of keeping us on the line while they got what they wanted.  Many were instantly identifiable, and the phone went down straight away, but some were very manipulative and clever, spinning a tale just plausible enough to keep you on the right side of the benefit of the doubt.  Those calls were unpleasant and the after effects lingered.  For many female volunteers I talked to, this was such a common and regular experience that it dampened their spirit for the vital work we did with our genuine callers.  I know of at least a couple of women who left because of it.  Male volunteers were also affected, but very, very rarely in comparison to the women.  If I had two or three shifts in a row without a TM, that was an unusually good run.  Some life-sapping shifts were almost entirely TMs or sexually manipulative callers.  So I think when that Instagram message came in, I was transported immediately back both to this and also – in a heartbeat – back to the many, many #metoo experiences I had in my teens and twenties as a young woman. 

    I realised in the days that followed, as I tried to unpack my intense response to Instagram Man, that I was still carrying quite a deep wound within me around the experience of being female in this world.  I count myself lucky that I am a woman in my forties who has *only* experienced a *normal* amount of sexual harassment.  From the age of 12 or so, I got regular verbal abuse from men driving or walking past me on my way home from school.  Regular enough so that every day I was braced for it.  Then a few sinister encounters in my teens, where every instinct was screaming get out of here.  I did, and I was safe.  At 18 I was punched in the face in East Africa for being a prostitute – I was out on the street after dark.  At 23, and at a work do, I was pinned up against a wall in a bar in Shoreditch on my way down to the toilets.  Luckily he was drunk and I twisted out of his grasp and ran.  There were the usual close encounters on the tube at rush hour.  The street comments continued.  At 29 a man known to my family whispered obscenities into my ear as he said hello at a lunchtime family gathering.  And throughout I cannot count the many dark streets and carparks where my heart has hammered out of my chest, the number of times I have held my keys ready to defend myself.  I had thought until very recently that perhaps it was something I had outgrown, one of the many blessings of getting older, but then I was walking alone in the town at 10.30pm last month for the first time in years, and encountered two big men in a narrow street.  Noone else was around.  Strangely, as I approached, they split up and forced me to walk through the middle of them, which I did blazing with confidence and strength.  But it felt like a weird and threatening power play, and I found myself running the last 100m just as I used to in my twenties in London.  It turned out nothing had changed, except the fact that I am almost never out at that time in those places anymore. 

    So fear of men and the real possibility of their violence has been drummed into me from an early age, and yet I am still on the ‘lucky’ side of the statistic that states that 1 in 3 females globally, girls and women, will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. 

    This enrages me.

    Still so much work to be done here in the world.

    Which is where the issue of our values comes in.  A recent essay in The Guardian (an extract from ‘Mindfulness and its Discontents’ by David Forbes) lamented the rise of ‘McMindfulness’, rolling out this ubiquitous, fast-food tool of mass-anaesthetisation whose side-effect is potentially subduing the populace’s fire in the belly for necessary action and change.  Essentially, Forbes argued, we are at risk of being soothed and manipulated into acceptance of what we should be fighting.  I can talk directly to this through Sophrology, however – and it is one of the things I like very much about it: it is hardwired into the world.  Caycedo believed it essential that healing and self-development should always lead us back into the world armed with a clear understanding of our values and our contribution, and endowed with the strength to act. 

    So, going back to Instagram Man, my initial response was to crawl back under a rock and forget the whole thing.  It clearly wasn’t safe for me to put my work out there, and I have frankly had a bellyful of this shit.  It’s not worth it.  Don’t speak up.  Don’t be visible, even in a small way.  Don’t put your head above the parapet.  But then another voice came forwards.  How can I heal this part of myself that still holds so much fear so that I can move forward in my life with strength and courage, offering my work, standing in my truth?  I do not want this fear, any longer, to hold me back.  It was, unexpectedly, an opportunity.

    The fourth level of Sophrology weaves into the work the concept of our values.  This seems harshly relevant to me in these days of pragmatist, populist politics.  I am far less interested in whether Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will definitely take us out of Europe on 31st October, than I am in their personal values, because these values will inform every single damn decision that they make – consciously or unconsciously.  What do we stand for in this world?  What drives us?  Because in the absence of consciously articulated values, we will live from unconsciously driven needs.  The last training on my course deep-dived into this realm, and for two days I excavated my relationship with what I hold most dear.  And it turned out that, passionately, fervently, my two strongest values at the moment are freedom and courage.  Abstract nouns, but Sophrology – so cleverly – builds them into our bodies and minds until they infuse us with their anything-but-abstract power.  Other values, interestingly, surfaced too.  After a week of worrying about Instagram Man, I rediscovered my love of playfulness.  It actually really matters to me that we have a laugh while we’re here.  I also found myself lingering over connection, and my profound wish to have meaningful and rich connections with the people in my life.  But freedom and courage kept coming back.  And by the end of the weekend I had had a revelation.  If I leaned into my dominant values of freedom and courage, rather than leaning into the Instagram Man mess, I knew immediately and clearly what to do.  I had been leaning into the turmoil and the fear, and they were keeping me stuck.  But choosing to lean into my values, it was a no-brainer.  Immediate, total clarity.

    I keep going.  I get out there.  I speak up.

    Perhaps you are in a situation right now which is challenging you to get clear on your values.  Many of us experiencing stress at work, or in relationships, are grappling with conflicts of values.  It can, as the stress and anxiety builds, end up taking you all the way to burn-out.  As with Instagram Man, this could be an opportunity to realign with what is most important for you and gain clarity as to the way ahead.  Working with Sophrology invites us into relationship with our values in a way that embeds them within us powerfully.  I now have a tangible feeling within me for the freedom and courage I want to underpin my life.  I can feel them in my bones.  They are now my compass, my true north, and when I align myself with them I find what is irrelevant melts away like the Wicked Witch of the West.  Not that I don’t still live in a world where bad things happen to many people, and I am somehow soothed, lulled, into peace nonetheless.  No.  I am armed with peace and strength and confidence, and I go back out there in alignment with what is most important to me in order to do the work I am called to do for the years that remain to me.

    Wishing you peace, and courage, and freedom, and whatever your heart calls out for.

    Helena