Turning towards

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Blogs by their nature are exercises in navel gazing. And I’ve never kidded myself that my blog had a wide appeal, mostly I ramble on about things that interest only me/hair.  But this post is so incredibly narcissistic that I give you my regular reader aka mum complete permission to skip this post.

But I have to write about turning towards. Because this revelation has been so fundamentally important in my life that to not mark it here feel wrong. Maybe this might help other people struggling with the same thing. Plus when I inevitably forget this lesson, before the universe slams my head against the wall again I can re-read this post again and tell myself turn towards doofus, turn towards.

As I hinted in my beginning of the year post for the past six months I’ve been struggling. In short:

There are two things I really want. I’ve been doing anything I can think of to accomplish these goals. And running face first into the universe’s indifference as I realise how completely out of my control everything is.

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In response, I’ve felt very sad, hopeless and useless. I don’t like feeling sad, hopeless and useless  – these feelings bummed me out. So I would do whatever I could to make myself feel better. I have *takes deep breath* journalled, gone to therapy, cleaned, seen friends, isolated, eaten chocolate, meditated, drunk many fruity cocktails in different shades, gone on the holiday of a lifetime, distracted myself with books and TV.  I even whisper it exercised. That is how desperate I was 😉

And all of these things worked. I’d feel better for an a hour, an afternoon, a week. But inevitably because I want things, and those things aren’t happening, I would feel very sad, hopeless and useless again. I flipped so fast between hope and despair I gave myself emotional whiplash.

Even worse the negative thoughts began: ‘you’re a trained counsellor. If you’re so good at fixing your clients, why can’t you fix yourself. What’s wrong with you?’ So in addition to feeling crappy, I then beat myself up for feeling crappy. It was if I imagined after gaining my diploma that I’d be teflon coated never suffering again. Fellow counsellors, I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing at me.

This cycle (feel sad, try to make self feel better, while beating self up for feeling bad) might have continued ad infinitum. If not for one weekend when something happened.

During the break in a experiential counselling group (think a therapeutic group for counsellors) I took a walk. It had been an emotional day and I’d connected with an old wound from childhood. I felt off, like a small animal was scritching a hole in my breastplate. I needed… something. I went into the bookshop and stared at my books, my drug of choice and familiar companions. No, that wasn’t it. I went into Waitrose and stared at sugary things, hoping they could satiate my pain. Nope, not it. I walked scrolling through my phone desperate to find somebody who could help take this feeling away.

In that moment I would have done anything, taken anything for the momentary cessation of that scritchy feeling.

Instead I did something different. I sat down on a bench and (in my head) I began to talk to myself. ‘OK’ I said to myself. ‘What up with you?’ I turned towards those feelings blossoming within me like a dark flower. And I felt it all the sadness sloshing inside of me bigger than any ocean, the anger juddering like tectonic plates moving and there at the base of it all a raggedly old wound that never healed.

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It took almost everything I had to not turn away from those feelings. Instead as each feeling emerged I acknowledged it. I tried to name the feeling: was it grief or despair that I was drowning in? I put my hand to where the feelings where located and breathed through it.

Was turning towards those feelings pleasant?

No.

It felt like shining a light into my soul and seeing creatures wiggle in the darkness. It was intensely painful but mixed up in that pain was a relief at those feelings being heard. An ‘Ah yes, there you are!’

In that moment I drew on a couple of ideas that had inspired me but I’d struggled to integrate. Buddhist notions of acceptance, vulnerability from the work of Brené Brown, and techniques from mindfulness and focusing. I accepted those feelings. I embraced my vulnerability instead of turning away in shame. I open myself up to my current experience whatever they were.

I knew from my counselling training that feelings need to be heard. But I had been ignoring mine and worse telling myself that what I felt wasn’t valid.

Let’s get all metaphorical for a minute. It felt emotionally I was in Hull but I really wanted to be in Brighton. It was almost as if for the last six months I spent all my time either distracting myself or being self critical that I wasn’t in Brighton. Neither of which actions got me anywhere. If I ever want to get to Brighton I need to accept I’m in Hull.

I need to accept the reality of my current emotional experience before it can change to make way for something new. 

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For years I’ve had this quote pinned to my fridge. ‘The only way out is through’ by Robert Frost. The thing is going through our feelings hurts, it’s uncomfortable, the terrain is unwieldy. Wanting to avoid pain is human nature. It’s in my nature. But when I avoided my pain it only reinforced my secret fear that my pain is bigger than I am and I am not resilient enough to handle it. By trying to shut of my pain I’d limited my ability to feel pleasure. By turning towards I remembered that there are no shortcuts, the only way out of a feeling is through.

So for the last month I’ve been practising turning towards my feelings. I can feel the ripples spreading. I don’t know where I’ll end up but this feels huge and revolutionary.

For the first time in months I’m feeling like myself. I feel… better (she says tentatively eyeing the skies for more thunderbolts).  Nothing externally has changed but I’ve changed. I still want things that aren’t happening. I still feel sad, useless and bummed out. But instead of ignoring those feelings or telling myself I’m not allowed to have them more often than not I turn towards them. ‘Who are you?’ I ask. ‘What do you need me to hear?’ And whatever I hear and no matter how uncomfortable it is to bear I try to turn towards.

Observations on grief

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I wrote these scattered thoughts over the last six months. It’s not a real post. There aren’t any grand conclusions. But this was how I felt as I struggled through the mourning process for my best friend. I publish these in the hope that somebody out there might go – ‘Me too’ and I’ll feel less alone.

The title of this post makes me feel like a scientist as opposed to the constantly crying person who regards any task (brushing my hair, washing, leaving the house) with an bone-deep exhaustion.

I’m not OK. Why was I expecting to be OK? Because I always have been. I have always coped and pushed the pain somewhere to be dealt with later. But those were rivers of pain and this in the sea. I cannot contain it.  I have to sit in the pain and being not OK for as long as it takes and it is horrible.

Grief is unpredictable. Look at me I think acting like nothing has happened. When I feel like a walking bruise. Like a bombed house during the Blitz, the walls are still intact but inside there is desolation.

There are good days and bad days. On good days I forget and it is blissful until I feel the nagging like a sore tooth. She’s gone and nothing and nobody will bring her back. On bad days I feel like the waves have dragged me under and I linger on the sea bed. Everything is muffled and dimmed, and nothing and nobody can reach me.

People try and help by offering platitudes. ‘She’s with the angels now.’ Well, why don’t we ask the fucking angels to give her back? Oh we can’t… is that because they are imaginary. ‘Celebrate her life don’t mourn her death.’ Are the two mutually exclusive? Can I not do both. ‘Lianne wouldn’t want you to feel this way.’OK, let’s take these in term. 1) Lianne is dead so we can never know what she would want. 2) Even so knowing her as I do, for the accepting loving individual she was she would want me to feel what I feel. 3) Finally and most importantly, it’s not about her anymore. It’s about me mourning the loss of my best friend the only way I can.

Somedays you will recognise that people say these things because they love you and that they do not want to see you in pain. Somedays the unwarranted advice will make you want to punch them in their fucking face. Don’t do that.

Empathy helps. In my experience it is the only thing that does. I remember sitting in my first counselling session talking about Lianne’s death and I said ‘I feel like I’m going mad. What’s wrong with me?’ And my therapist, god bless her said, ‘Your best friend has just died. Of course you feel awful. There is nothing wrong with you.’ I would have wept with relief if I hadn’t been weeping anyway.

Get a therapist.

There is no right way to grieve. Everybody grieves in their own way. And the way I do this is not the way other people have done this. That’s OK.

Grief is not linear, it’s not stages. Now months on I feel like I am moving out of the process but anything could pull me back under. I still miss her. I don’t think I’ll ever not.

Perception is all. The day of Lianne’s funeral was one of the most beautiful days of the summer. The sun shone so hard and the sky was so blue it almost hurt my eyes. But inside all I could feel was the crack as my heart broke into pieces. I expected the world to have changed, that there to be some outside sign that Lianne was missing. That’s the both simultaneously wonderful/cruel thing about grief the world keeps turning just the same. Only you have changed.

You get a free pass. Use it. Grieving allowed me to duck out of social arrangements, reinforce personal boundaries, wear random clothes, and lie in my bed eating cake for breakfast.

I have officially become the person that cries in my therapists reception room. Personal achievement unlocked!

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It hurts. I didn’t know how much grief would hurt. But I know it wouldn’t hurt so much if I hadn’t loved her.

I can no longer watch Steel Magnolias or Beaches, especially fucking Beaches. Turning on the radio has been like playing Russian roulette damn you Queen and Lady Gaga. There is no logic to what shatters my composure.

This is one of the most beautiful letters I have read about grief. In particular I loved this quote:

Fate can’t have any more arrows in its quiver for you that will wound like these. Who was it said that it was astounding how deepest griefs can change in time to a sort of joy? The golden bowl is broken indeed but it was golden; nothing can ever take those boys away from you now.

This letter is also a lie, a kind lie from a place of love but a lie. Nobody can ever take Lianne away from me. She lived, she loved and she was golden however briefly she shone. And the fact that she is no longer here cannot take that away. But I do not believe fate’s arrow is empty for me. When somebody dies the veil is ruptured between worlds and you stare into the void, knowing that this is the first. If I am lucky and live a long and healthy life I will lose more people I love or be buried by them. This is the first blow. There will be others.

sorrow passes and we remain. Whether we want to or not.

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Limbo

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So far, 2013 has been very tough. I only realised just how tough it had been when the pressure alleviated and I felt like I could breathe again.

In early January I found out that somebody I love most in this world was seriously ill and it could be cancer. All I could think was not again, I can’t watch somebody else I love die. The universe cannot possibly be this cruel. While knowing that the universe is exactly this capricious and cruel.

I hardly told anybody. I was worried that if I spoke the words it would make it real. Even telling my best friends was so difficult. When I plucked up the courage to tell my counsellor, after 30 minutes of babbling about nothing, she cried with me. She knew better than anybody how devastating this would be.

I am not somebody who embraces uncertainty and unknowing. I am a bit of a control freak (with weekly, monthly, yearly and five yearly plans). But living in limbo seemed easier than hearing the worst. I dreaded the test results day. I lied to myself that I was coping well until I had a crying fit about our fridge breaking and realised it was nothing to do with the fridge at all.

We got the results and it wasn’t cancer but something else. Yes, he would need treatment but he was going to be OK. That night I slept better than I had in months. When I went for a walk the next day although nothing externally had changed, everything had. I was no longer living in limbo and the relief was amazing. The storm has passed but it has left its mark. So I am going to hug the people I love very tightly, as if it might be the last time. I am going to breathe in and out until the anxiety lessens. I am going to live, fully and deeply and so should you.

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Comfortably numb?

I am really enjoying the process of studying to be a counsellor. I love reading the different theories about why people are the way they are. The other people on my course inspire me with their generosity and willingness to share their experiences. And its indescribable how fulfilled I feel when I work as counsellor.

But, it’s hard too. Although I believe training to become a counsellor is one of the best things I have ever done, I am finding it incredibly tough. It’s not just the practical considerations of taking a massive pay-cut and fitting study and placement hours around work. What I find difficult to bear is the constant emotional upheaval. It’s not like studying engineering. As part of the course, we have to be self reflective, picking every thought and feeling apart. Some aspects of myself I was already so familiar with they seemed like old friends like my inability to say no and pathological need to make everything better. Others blindsided me, you mean everybody doesn’t spend their life in a constant battle to not feel so shit about themselves? Self analysis is uncomfortable at best, painful at worst and some days I just want to exist on the surface not down in the murky depths where darker memories lurk like sea creatures waiting to gobble me up.

Before I started this process I was comfortably numb, under rigid control. Now like opening a Pandoras box feelings are emerging I’ve buried for years. I don’t like feeling this vulnerable and shaken. As if the foundations on which I have built my life are cracking and now I’m wondering what, if anything, I can save from the rubble. A fortnight ago as I was preparing to go to personal counselling I was so over it. (As trainee counsellors we have to be personal counselling throughout the duration of the course. Thank God!) In the past I had always started counselling at my nadir and talking made me feel better. But this time I started counselling when I was in a great place emotionally and digging up the past had started to make me feel worse. I just did not want to talk anymore. Then a friend sent me a link to this Ted Talk by Brene Brown on vulnerability.

And I knew I had a choice to make. I could continue to try to shut out my pain and inhibit my ability to feel joy. I could continuing existing, never really living.

Or I could trust the process and keep going. Accepting that paradoxically my vulnerability was my greatest strength.

So I have. One foot after the other, and again and again. I keep going because I don’t want to feel comfortably numb anymore. I want to be present, inhabiting every inch of my body. But, when shutting certain feelings out has become habitual how do you start listening to yourself again?

Well, on the advice on my counsellor I have been ‘checking in’ with myself. Yes it sounds very hippy dippy but stick with me. (Plus, with a name like Rowan, what else would you expect?) We use check ins at the beginning of our practical workshops at University. The rules are simple we go round the circle and you may share in a short sentence or even a word where you are today. The idea is that you can quickly gauge the emotional weather of the group. And also it’s really helpful to be mindful of what you feel in each moment.

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So for the past week I’ve been checking-in with myself. Am I angry, sleepy, frustrated, cold, hot, happy, hungry, sad, tired, excited or overwhelmed? Mostly I’ve learnt I’m hungry and sleepy 🙂 Ah January, thou art the cruelest month. Joking aside, I’ve noticed that there are certain emotions that feel more familiar and comfortable (sadness) than others (anger).

The challenge for me has been simply noting what I feel and not doing anything with that feeling. Burying myself in activity is much easier than sitting with my feelings. If I feel something I need to, no have to change it.  One of the paradoxes of change we learn about in counselling is only through acceptance does true change occur. But at the moment acceptance is a step too far. One day I hope I will be able to accept the things I don’t like about myself but for now naming and identifying those experiences is enough. Baby steps 🙂