Learning to Breathe Again. A Therapy Session I Will Never Forget

I am sitting opposite my counsellor, not just crying but sobbing with unstoppable force. Her head is tilted, eyes softened, with the helpless sympathy of a woman who just doesn’t know what to do. It’s eighteen months ago. She nudges the box of tissues towards me, but I’m crying too much to reach out to them. The waves of despair hit me over and over again, and I genuinely can’t stop. The panic is rising, because I might die here, of crying. Has anyone ever died of crying before? But I can’t stop, and surely the only end to this level of grief is death. I’m going to drown in my own tears while the sun shines in through the window and my counsellor looks on.

Six months before, I had suffered a catastrophic loss and my world had caved in. I had caved in. I was immobilised by grief, but unavoidably, life goes on. I was now learning to put one foot in front of the other, to be in the world again and cope. I hadn’t been in this terrifying emotional state for a while, and yet it was more intense than ever. I was a heroin addict overdosing on a single hit after a period of abstinence. This last explosion of emotion was going to steal the life from me. I had been getting better. I thought I had been getting better. I thought I could cope. And now I was back to the beginning again.

“Close your eyes,” she whispers.

I take a deep, helpless breath, but I trust her, so I do as she says. I close my eyes.

“You’re in the river,” she says. “It’s choppy, too choppy, wild. It’s throwing you around. You’re drowning.”

What the hell is she trying to do? My panic intensifies, grows colour around it, as I’m thrown around by the unyielding current. How is this helping?

“You try to reach out, but there’s nothing to save you. The current is too strong and you are powerless. The flow gathers momentum, rushes over you, forcing you under.”

This is it. This is the moment that I might actually die. A fresh wave of despair hits me. I’m dying.

“Now, all at once, you use all of your force to jump out of the river. You’re standing on the bank looking down at the chaos. The water is thrashing and foaming, splintered branches are dragged along by the fierce current, but you are safe. You can feel the earth beneath your feet, the grass between your toes. It’s all still there, but you are no longer in it. You are safe.”

Unimaginably, the most incredible feeling overtook me even as she told me to jump out of the river. I gasped as if I had been underwater and was breaking the surface. And then, unbelievably, I was calm, genuinely calm, my tears drying in an instant. The river was still as hungry for me as it had been before, still raging and snarling with promises of death, but I was out of it. As she said, I was safe.

Breaking free of the river was such an incredible, visceral lesson, exemplifying something that I knew intellectually and had experienced through meditation, but I had never felt it with as much force. In meditation, we learn that we are not our thoughts; we are the thinker of our thoughts. Cross-legged, we close our eyes, free our mind and become the observer of the endless dialogue running through our minds, committing to simply watching thoughts drift past without judgement, without engaging with them. Eventually, the mind calms, the thoughts become fewer and further between, and if we’re lucky, we eventually find the silence.

This gives us incredible freedom from the unwelcome and spiralling thoughts that keep us awake at night, or simply from the inane chatter of our monkey minds that will prattle on endlessly and repetitively if left unchecked – about bills and shopping lists, about what the woman in Sainbury’s really meant by what she said to me last week by the checkouts.

That day with my counsellor, I was presented with a new revelation. We are not our emotions either. Just as we are the thinker of our thoughts, we are the feelers of our emotions. Just as we can distance ourselves and even control the spaghetti junction in our heads, with practice, we can step back from our emotions and return to our calm centre, even when they are overwhelming, even when we think we might die of the pain or anger, the sorrow or grief. As far as revelations go, it’s a biggie.

I am grateful that this powerful experience and realisation came to mind this week because I can feel the first signs of anxiety and depression scratching at the door again. I have been writing a memoir about my experiences over the last two years, which has brought old emotions to the surface, and although I’m trying to stay positive, like most people, I’m struggling with lockdown. So, this week I’m grateful to have simply remembered that the river exists – no more, no less. I can’t pretend to have mastery in this area, but the option to feel the cool, solid earth under my feet, respite from the chaotic emotions I am currently feeling, if only for a short while, is a welcome one … to be able to breathe again.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories

If You’re Going to Write, Write Every Day or Pay the Price

If I don’t write every day, I lose confidence, and then I can’t write, because, like most creative people, I am quite mad. There is a voice in my head that dislikes my happiness and creative expression so much that it won’t stop shouting at me – I’m not good enough, my writing is poor, there are already so many books in the world and my words are being swallowed into the quicksand faster than I can write them, I haven’t got anything original to say, writing is stupid, I hate it, I’m a fraud, everyone is a writer now and there are no more readers left. Round and round it goes, but I have genuinely found that writing every day, religiously, is a great way of jumping in front of the brain pigs with a stop sign and holding them off. It sends out a message that I won’t be bullied. I will not down tools. I am in this for the long haul. Cease and desist.

A single day away from writing costs me dearly. The spell is broken, and I am no longer fully immersed. Rather than engaging with the characters, strolling the paths that they inhabit, thinking in their voices, laughing at their antics, breathing in the aroma of their laundry, I am all too quickly on the outside again, worried, questioning, lacking in confidence, ejected from a world that exists only in my imagination, but it doesn’t stop me getting barred from it.

The simple act of writing is undeniably great for mental health, and we need all the help we can get at the moment.

I’m lucky to work professionally as a ghostwriter, and working on other people’s life stories doesn’t present the same problem. It keeps my creative muscles flexed and gives me faith in my craft. You’d think that would be enough to quieten the voices, but I wonder if any level of success can ever really shave off the demented tentacles of the fragile creative ego. I doubt it.

And, of course, in these destabilising times, there is an additional benefit of writing every day. The simple act of writing is undeniably great for mental health, and we need all the help we can get at the moment.

The first book on my lockdown reading list is ‘Writing Well’ (Philips, Linington, Penman), a writing therapy manual of sorts, which is a boost to my creative writing teaching prep. The opening chapters break down just why writing is so beneficial for those with mental health issues (all of us!), specifically in a group context.

Writing provides an opportunity to externalise feelings

Promotes trust and a sense of community

Can prompt reminiscence

Can develop concentration and orientation in time

Can promote a sense of awareness of others and the environment

Helps to develop a sense of self-esteem

Is a means of developing writing skills

It encourages appreciation of other forms of writing.

I would add to this the paradox of it as a means of making sense of the world while, at the same time, escaping it, of exploring feelings at a safe distance, vacationing in the sub-conscious. It is taking control when the world has become too messy. And the times in my life when I have abandoned writing have been the most unhappy. It’s where the magic happens, pure and simple, and I will gladly, bravely, battle my gatekeepers on a daily basis, swinging my battle-ax and roaring into the wind, if it means I get to spend time there. On a good day, there’s nowhere I would rather be.

Follow Hayley Sherman, Writer …  @hayleystories