“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.”
Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
I have been lucky enough to have good mental health for most of my life. But I have also hidden in some caves. Often it’s easier to see in retrospect when mental health has dipped or stayed down, and looking back I can see that I have had four main episodes of struggling since the age of 17. My last year at school was a hard one for many growing-up reasons, and took me much of my gap year to recover from. Then my second year at university saw a period of poor physical health that came with a time of feeling low. Fast forward to age 25, living alone in London and trying to make it as an actor, and for a while things were tough. The decline was so gradual, so incremental, that I didn’t even realise it until I had to breathe my way out of what I somehow knew was an encroaching panic attack on the tube platform at night. I had never had a panic attack, but instinct told me that breathing deeply and regularly was my only hope at this point. I deep-breathed for the whole hour-long journey home on the train and bus, counting my breaths in and out, and while the panic surged at the walls of my defences, like a spring tide, it didn’t drown me. I knew I’d held on by my fingernails though. That night I lay in bed and felt numb. While I did not experience another near-attack, a deep sadness set in. I remember waving goodbye to my dying great aunt, seeing her small thin face at the window, knowing I would not see her again. Then her funeral, at which I felt disproportionately upset. Back at my lodgings, the radiator failed in my room and I didn’t even try to fix it – just carried on throughout the winter months shivering and sleeping in my clothes. It had only needed bleeding, the work of a moment.
I never sought support. And slowly, as the spring came and gave way to summer, I began to see new hope. I probably got an acting job, too – that was always helpful. And for the next twenty years, I was pretty stable, with normal highs and lows. Became a wife, a mother to three children. It was a very good life. Did not return to acting, but volunteered in the community as the children grew older – I became a school governor, and trained as a Samaritan listening volunteer. Every week for four years I picked up the phone to people in emotional distress, many of them in the deepest, darkest places any of us ever go, and I stayed there with them so they were not alone. It mattered to me, and still does, that people should not find themselves alone in this world. I found the work hard and rewarding in equal measure, and I derived a sense of purpose from it. My mental health could perhaps be a blessing to someone who needed it.
Until. About two years ago my world began to shift and then crumble. And within twelve months both my physical and mental health were gone, hammered by a series of difficult experiences. I was like a punch-drunk boxer trying to stagger up between bouts, and finding myself back on the mat again. I just needed a break, a plateau. But it didn’t come, and instead I found myself repeatedly at the GP, whose doors I had barely darkened for two decades. Sinus issues, ear problems, tinnitus, migraines, De Quervain’s syndrome in my hand (a splint for five months), tingling and numbness in hands and arms, indigestion, hormonal issues, back pain. The worst thing though was the constant dizziness, which was distressing and exhausting: I was crawling into bed at 8pm before the children. With all this going on I couldn’t do the things I had hoped to do, and frustration deepened into anger, and then to what I called fear and sadness because I didn’t want to name it anxiety and depression. The intensity of it scared me. At times I would watch it as though looking in on myself, almost amused to see how bad I could feel. Who knew? This is how it feels. This is actually terrible. Then the shame. I’m not someone who feels like this: I’m meant to be someone who helps people who feel like this. All that knowledge and experience of supporting other people’s mental health, and I couldn’t seem to do anything about my own.
I said goodbye to my work at Samaritans. I wasn’t strong enough to do it anymore. It felt like everything was being stripped away. I was a bare tree in winter.
May 2018 was my lowest point. In the eye of the storm, one weekend, I picked up the newspaper and read an article on something called Sophrology. Didn’t even take much of it in, save the conclusion from the journalist that she thought there was something to this worth persisting with. I ordered the book the article was promoting, and a day later found myself reading it and attempting to do some of the exercises it mentioned. From the very first time I felt calmer, somehow steadier inside, like I’d touched a place of peace within me. The breathing, the gentle stretching of my body, the stillness. For the next few months these daily exercises became my lifeline. I looked into seeing a Sophrologist, to benefit from a more tailored programme, but there was noone in my area of the country so I bumbled on as best I could. And despite having trained in counselling, I knew somehow that talking was not what I needed – I needed rather to process the pain through my body. So I just did my Sophrology, day after day after day. I also found myself out in the garden a lot, alone, touching the soil, and every day I walked the dog over the fields, step by step by step. By the end of that long hot summer I was still physically quite weak but my inner world was becoming a little bit lighter, freer again. I began to have patches, several days at a time, when I felt like the fragmented parts, the broken shards, were interlocking again. Some kind of coherence was gradually returning. A sense of trust, of safety again. I know now that I was building a new self out of the scorched earth of the old, and integrating my pain within a new framework of understanding. And with growing clarity, it came to me during that time that I was going to study this Sophrology, a decision that made almost no sense on any level save that of a place of knowing inside. Thankfully my family were on board with it, and in September last year I began the course.
So here I am now, nearly a year on from that time, and I am much better on all levels of my being: I am no longer in that cave. Sophrology continues to support me, and strengthen me. Making sense of this experience, because making story out of our lives is what we do, and because it has undoubtedly been a time of great gifts as well as suffering, I think that the teaching of spiritual mentors like Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr is true: life has a way of spiralling downwards in order ultimately to move us up and on with new levels of compassion and understanding. The way down is the way up. Fully encountered, our mess becomes our message. That’s the hope, anyway.
For now, this is enough – thank you for reading! Next time more of what Sophrology is and how it works.
Wishing you peace.
(Samaritans are contactable in the UK via tel: 116123, or email: [email protected])