Mid way into therapy, I was finding that I was disappearing off in to my head, completely consumed with the recovery of memories, and trapped, with increasingly powerful flashbacks and no escape. Overwhelming, is such a clichéd word and over used, but it does sum up the experience (or maybe all-consuming is better?) I found myself disconnected and disengaged from truly living and at times, unable to cope even with every day mummy duties. I had been successful at finding a medium of expression, with writing poems and then articles, which developed in to starting the book and I became so focused on getting everything out, while continually processing therapy sessions from week to week, that I really wasn’t ‘here’ at all. I wanted to reclaim the moment and live in it. I wanted to be less effected when life stresses, were piled on top of therapy and the healing journey.
Fairly early on in to my therapy, my therapist mentioned mindfulness and gave me a flyer of a course running (in the same building), a few months in advance. I was really nervous about the idea of starting a mindfulness course, because I knew that it was conducted in a group setting. I also knew that because it was facilitated in the same building as my therapy, the other members of the group would also be survivors of sexual abuse, or sexually violent crimes. I had settled in to therapy and I had found my feet at the centre. I built up an unbreakable level of trust, inside a fantastic working relationship with my therapist, but this course was to be all new. I understood that therapy could not be a way of life and I was very aware, that, unfortunately, it was time limited. I had reached an understanding that ‘fixed’ and ‘healed’ was not going to be the final destination and that my healing and recovery would be a life-long path, but I had made that commitment to myself. So, hesitantly, I booked myself a place on the next mindfulness course, viewing it as, potentially, another tool in my box to draw on, while walking the path alone, post therapy.
The course began on the 15th September 2017 and would run for 8 weeks. I was in week 23 of my therapy (so towards the end), and the two would run concurrently for a while. In the first session I got to meet the facilitator and there was another participant and myself, with the promise of a third participant joining us in week 2. The facilitator handed us a ring binder and a book called ‘The mindfulness Journal‘ which claimed on the front cover to contain “Exercises to help you find peace and calm wherever you are”. It became apparent that the ring binder was going to house a series of handouts, distributed in the sessions, to enhance our own understanding and practice. The first handout we were given, was an over view of the course, which clearly stated that there would be weekly homework (1 hour a day) and at least one weekly meditation in the sessions, but I was struck by the warnings contained on the handout: “It is not unusual to come across difficulties while practising” ; “if you do encounter difficulties and want to discuss those difficulties, please do not hesitate to contact…..”
Under an ‘importance of practise’ subheading I discovered that mindfulness was about working to change patterns of mind, that had become habits. It was about becoming more fully aware and present in each moment of life. I still don’t think I really understood what mindfulness was at that point. I think the usual plan was to attend a taster session to gain a general idea of mindfulness, but for some reason I had not been invited to attend one, so I was pretty clueless, but open and willing. Helpfully a definition was provided: “Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non judgementally to things as they are” (Williams, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn 2007).
Session one was entitled “Awareness and Autopilot” and I took that as a complete validation for my need to attend the course. I had noticed that I go through much of life and many daily activities without really being aware of what’s going on around me. I have driven to places and have noticed absolutely nothing along the way, shocked by the realisation that I had actually arrived. Strangely though I have a hyper vigilance when it comes to my senses. I can be lying in bed asleep and be instantly awake if one of the children wanders in, before they say anything. It’s almost like I can feel the air pressure in the room change. The session highlighted the need to be more aware of thoughts, feelings and body sensations so that we can respond to situations with choice, rather than by initiating an ingrained automatic response which sees the overwhelming feeling, continue.
We were introduced to our first guided meditation, entitled ‘The Body Scan’, which promised to direct our attention to different parts of the body as a way of anchoring our awareness here in the present moment. This was a 40 minute meditation. (In my head I could hear “40mins? Meditation? What is this?”) The facilitator read out the meditation from a script, but stated that we would be sent audio files, via email, to continue mindful practice at home. She had a lovely, relaxing, calm, reassuring, warm voice, but we were told that the aim of mindfulness was not relaxation. (In my head I could hear the eldest of my inner children saying “so what is the point then?”).
There was a pointer directing us to consider our posture, noticing our bodies in general, as well as noticing the sounds in and outside the room. Early on in the meditation we were invited to close our eyes and focus on the natural rise and fall of our own breathe. (Closing your eyes in a room with 2 other people you have never met before, when you are not quite sure what is going to happen next, was initially quite a daunting task, but actually I needn’t have been phased). Stopping to notice the breathe from the first point of entry into the body, through the nostrils, I don’t think I have done before and I certainly wouldn’t have done it then, if not suggested in this meditation. Breathing deeper in to the throat, down through the chest and deeper down in to the abdomen, is not something I would have consciously done.
I thought I had a heightened sense of awareness since being a traumatised child: I have a sixth sense of the area behind me, I hear everything and I can find the smallest, seemingly insignificant noise very distracting from thoughts and activities. I have always been very aware of my own heart beat, and my sense of direction is impeccable (I can always find my way back to my car for example, even in places I have never been before, because I view it as my means of escape). However, this level of awareness in this meditation, was different. I had never really stopped to appreciate how the breathe just breathes itself. The breathe may change in different situations, but it just continues to happen, with very minimal effort and thought.
I very much liked this new concept of using the breathe as an anchor. Placing my hands on my tummy (as directed), to really feel my sense of presence in the moment, knowing that the breathe will just go on and on regardless, was extremely powerful and reassuring. Only because I was being guided to notice these things, did I realise that there was no other real thoughts occurring, I was just connecting my sense of being a physical entity, to the moment.
As the meditation continued, the focus of attention was taken to the toes of our left feet. We were encouraged to be accepting and acknowledge the other things, that wanted to take our attention but just to try and return the focus. The meditation changed the focus, moving slowly around the body. The soul of left foot. The top of the foot. The ankle. We were asked to consider the sensations if there were any, both surface level and internally. The lower leg. The knee. The thigh to the groin. The meditation with littered with clues and pointers directing us to notice sensations and extending the awareness. The whole leg. Constant verbal reminders drawing our attention back to the breathe, were reassuring.
We repeating the process with the right side, before we were asked to focus on both legs at the same time. I remember thinking how interesting it was being asked to focus from the ground up. The pelvis. The lower back. The lower abdomen. The whole Abdomen. The chest area. The back. This seemed like a comprehensive whole body activity. The fingers on both hands. (I remember thinking we asked to focus on one foot at a time, and now we are focusing on the fingers on both hands at the same time and I wandered what the significance of that was). The lower arms. The upper arms. There seemed to be a logical and methodical path around the body. The shoulders. The neck. The throat. When the focus was taken to our bottom jaw I noticed how I had been holding tension there and it was instantly released. The face. The top of head. The whole body. Then calmly, I heard the sound of the chime which signified the end of the activity and brought us back to everyday life and the room we were sat in. A soft and gentle break to the meditated state.
When I started therapy (23weeks previously), I wanted to feel both comfortable and safe and I found that it was comforting to remove my shoes. I often sat with my feet crossed in front of me on the couch, like kids do in primary school assemblies. I quickly discovered that this want to feel comfortable, was also a need while doing this body scan meditation. I needed to feel the floor. I was able to wriggle my toes and remember where I was. I could follow the meditation and the instructions within it, but I felt safer knowing I was directly linked to the ground.
I was reassured that it did not matter if my mind wandered or drifted away from the focus; I was just encouraged to bring the focus back. I was surprised by how much I noticed in the activity itself; mindful meditation was not about drifting off somewhere else, it was about remaining completely present. I could feel the energy moving around my body as the focus changed and travelled around the body. I could feel a physical warmth in the area of focus, but coldness at other parts of the body. Other than the coldness in places that were not the focus, I found my mind quite empty. There were no other thoughts going on and there was a stillness and calmness that was alien to me and my usually busy head. It was lovely.
At the end of this first session, the facilitator read out this poem by Portia Nelson:
“I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.
walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.”
I disagreed intently with this poem and I was able to verbalise what I was thinking to the facilitator. I didn’t want to walk a different path. The path I am on, IS my path. I thought I was now walking the path properly: noticing more; closing the gates; pruning the weeds; smelling the flowers. This is to say that I was no longer avoiding or diverting my attention away from ‘my shit’. I didn’t mind falling in the holes any more, because each time I did, I was learning something new about myself and that was important. What I wanted was to be able to get myself out of the holes much quicker and with less effects and wobbles. I think this verbalisation clarified to me, how far I had travelled and the progress I had made so far.
We were encouraged to do mindful daily activities at home that first week; things like brushing my teeth, washing up, or having a shower (as well as the body scan meditation daily). I was a little concerned then, because I was not sure what it meant. I do most of those tasks without even realising, and usually in a rushed way, to move on to something else more pressing. The facilitator was lovely and I found the other participant fine, despite being nervous. I completed the homework, so I took that as evidence for my commitment to the course from the first session.
Session 2 was entitled ‘Living in our heads’ and was about acknowledging actualities, without immediately being swept along by the automatic thought processes, that are ingrained. There was a continual reference to accepting things as they are and I kept thinking to myself I don’t want to be where I am, I don’t want to accept things as the are. I think these thoughts related to my situation generally, rather than the specific moment I was in, however.
The other participant from week 1, did not return, but the promised other did arrive. We had fallen in a to a comfortable format and started planning to have a break, a coffee and a biscuit half way through the session. I would go downstairs and outside for a healthy puff on my e-cig, while the facilitator went downstairs to the kitchen to make coffee. My thoughts were of the new girl sat alone upstairs, waiting for us to return and I went back quickly to talk to her. This girl had only recently been offered therapy at the centre and was also doing this mindfulness course concurrently. She was at the very beginning of her journey, as I was nearing the end of mine.
When coffee arrived, the new girl and I were deep in some quite heavy conversation, which the facilitator allowed to continue. This girl clearly needed to talk and I felt like I was able to say some quite constructive things to her, whilst trying to in-still some hope and calm. We only had time to complete a 20 minute meditation activity rather than the 40 minute body scan, as a result of the organic conversation, but the facilitator didn’t seem to mind.
This new meditation started at the top of the head and encouraged us to imagine the tension melting away; all the way from the body part of focus, down the body and in to the ground. It focused on areas that are likely to hold tension, such as the neck, the jaw and the shoulders. I was breathing in to this tension and I could feel it release and relax. It was a quicker meditation, with less time to pause at each point, but it was just as effective as the 40 minute body scan. I don’t know if it was the heavy conversation, or the different meditation, but my heart ached afterwards. I felt heavy, and my chest and breathing became more laboured, but it was different to the trapped emotion feeling I had endured and written about.
Session 3 was entitled ‘Gathering the scattered mind’. The idea of this session was to change the focus of ‘doing’ into ‘being’. I have often been lost in my own head dealing with thoughts of the past and I have been not really in the here and now and it can be quite disorientating. The other participant from week 2 returned, but I didn’t really even notice her because it turned out to be a very difficult session for me. We did ‘the raisin activity’ and I made a massive connection………
A raisin was placed in my hand and I was invited to look at it; really observe it, noticing the weight, touch and texture in my hand. I was then invited to smell the raisin. I had to place the raisin in my mouth without chewing it, just moving it around, feeling it. (This is when I freaked out). We were given permission to chew the raisin without swallowing, before finally swallowing it at the end. This was about mindfully eating and the facilitator told us that people had successfully managed to lose a significant amount of weight, as a result of always eating in this mindful way.
The huge connection for me was about the way that I eat and the reasons for that; I eat very quickly, I don’t like holding food in my mouth and I want food out of my mouth as soon as possible. Food is very functional for me and I don’t really enjoy the experience of eating at all. I hated this task. I had flashbacks and memories firing off the whole time, combined with a real physical pain in my throat and under my chin. I found this activity particularly distressing because it took me right back to the abuse I had suffered. I felt like my body was really making me remember the abuse. Thinking after this session, I have no problem with chewing gum or my tooth brush being in my mouth and I think the difficulty I have, is specifically related to swallowing. I guess the aim was to engage all of the senses in the process of eating, to be fully aware of the whole experience and I would not have made these connections with out doing the activity.
This activity was then followed by the body scan meditation but the feeling in my throat continued and remained for the rest of the week.
Session 4 was the first time that I was the only attendee present, which led to a different kind of conversation with the facilitator. Although I wasn’t phased by the presence of the other participants, I found it easier to be more full and frank in answers to questions without them there. The focus for this session was ‘recognising aversion’ and acknowledging the automatic thoughts. A lot of my initial thoughts were born out of faulty core beliefs and a high level of self doubt, coupled with low self esteem. I was able to recognise that, after being given an automatic thoughts questionnaire.
We did a 3 minute breathing space meditation and the facilitator asked me about the experience afterwards. I told her the meditation “felt like a hug when no-one is there” and I cried. A very powerful moment and I think this was the first point that I realised that actually, I can practice self care when things become overwhelming.
At the end of the session the facilitator read out the following poem by Jellaludin Rumi
The guest house
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
I liked this poem. I had started to feel that even though there had been many overwhelming moments, I have learnt an awful lot about myself as a result.
Session 5 was on the hot foot from a night away in Birmingham, so I arrived a little flustered. The participant from week 2 and 3 returned and it was lovely to see her. The focus of this session was ‘allowing and letting be’. The facilitator explained what we were going to be doing in the session, but I did not understand; I couldn’t see the difference between what we had been doing up until that point and what she was describing for this session. As soon as I dropped in to a state of awareness, eyes closed and breathing, I realised that the facilitator was reading a different meditation script and all she had been saying, suddenly became clear. This meditation focused on noises, thoughts and feelings but it continued to use the breathe as an anchor.
I was flooded sensorily, because I have always been hyper aware of sound. I had gotten in the habit of taking my shoes off in these sessions to feel grounded, but it did not work in this session as my hands and feet became numb throughout the course of the meditation. I experienced a real heaviness in my chest and I could see ‘him’. I drew on my awareness of my breathe to keep me safe, but my mind definitely wandered during this meditation. I think this meditation was deeper than the body scan. I had a feeling like my head was shaking, like my brain was rattling and I was a little disorientated at the end. When the bell chimed, to bring us back to the here and now in a gentle, safe, way, I had to go outside. I was offered the chance to speak to somebody there and then, another trained counsellor (the facilitator of the course is a qualified counsellor, but she obviously needed to continue the session for the other participant, despite my difficulty), but I refused. As the facilitator wrapped up the session, I could smell cigarettes but nobody had been smoking and I could hear a radio that was not there.
Session 6 and I was the only participant to attend again. This session’s focus was ‘thoughts are not facts’. When the thoughts come thick and fast, sometimes I really believe them, so this reminder seemed to make perfect sense to me. One of the handouts contained a list of questions I feel like I can ask myself when I feel overwhelmed. This was a set of questions which I think could return rationality when the thoughts are intense. These questions could help me to distance myself from the feelings that are attached to the automatic thoughts and could help me to regain some perspective.
After I told her about my writing journey, the facilitator asked me if I would consider doing some CPD type training with the staff at the centre and she also asked if I would write something about mindfulness for her next running taster session (I hope this will be OK). She also asked if I would ever consider working with survivors in the future and I completely think that this is my purpose and what I am here for.
The conversation and level of depth was always different when I was the only attendee. I spoke a little about my trapped emotion and how when I was a child, this feeling used to be in my stomach and would escalate at around 3p.m. when I began sensing that soon, I would have to leave school and go home. When I started disclosing, the pain of the emotion moved to my chest. But at that point, and especially after the raisin exercise, the pain had travelled to my throat. She gave me an article to read which described the throat area as the gateway, for food to go in, air etc. and all the things that keep us here and sustain life. Every time I get sick it is always throat related. I have found my voice and the more I talk and the more that comes out, maybe the words are hurting on the way out? The point I am trying to make is that I was starting to feel like my body and mind were reconnecting, as a direct result of this course. A very deep and comprehensive session, that I got a lot out of.
Session 7’s focus was ‘triggers, thoughts, behaviours, sensations and feelings’. I had spent some time writing and identifying my triggers and also writing about my self destruct button as a result of difficulty with them, but I had not looked at all of these things at the same time. We took some time to write sown some of mine and we talked a little about them. (I was the only participant again in this session). I was advised that I could use meditation to focus on some of these things, or in a reactionary way when things come up; whenever I feel overwhelmed.
The focus was also about taking better care of me, something I knew I needed to do. I was able to draw on recent events going on to back up the points I was making and this session was almost like a back handed venting session. The therapist reinforced the message to me, from my own positive self regard article, that at any given time, I am actually doing the best I can and I need to stop beating myself up. The day after this session was the anniversary of 10 weeks sober and the therapist asked how I was going to celebrate that.
Session 8 was the final session in this course and again I was the only attendee. The facilitator called this session ‘celebration week’. I was given another little book to keep entitled “The little Book of mindfulness” which claimed 10 minutes of mindful practice could lead to “less stress, more peace”. I received a lovely little card, thanking me for my commitment to the course. The facilitator also told me how much she had enjoyed our little chats. I was also given a little pink windmill to remind me to breathe going forward; a visual symbol to keep at home, that reminds me to practice mindfulness.
I really felt like I was dancing on a very fine line between sleep and awake in the meditation. This was the seated meditation, another 40 minute meditation which was powerful and deep, with lots of long pauses. This meditation feels more free than the body scan one. I think I now have the audio files for 7 different meditations, or different focuses and length.
I feel like my mind, body and soul reconnected and realigned as a result of this course. As well as being relaxing and calming, mindfulness helps me to be more aware and accepting of thoughts, emotions and sensations. Mindfulness helps me to remain in the moment and encourages me to remove myself from the auto-pilot monotony, that sees life pass me by. I would recommend this practice to anyone, and it will remain one of the tools I have in my box to draw upon, to support me in self care, forever.