I was at Cape Town International Airport when he said that I should be grateful to the person who triggered my series of crises and, boy, was I furious with him.
In saying that he had absolutely no clue about the actual pain of the experience – the almighty disruption that had flipped me out. That had hung me out to dry. I literally had had no inner resources to deal with the flooding of my feelings that had nowhere to go.
That is why the therapeutic experience is so very important to deal with those feelings. Good therapy enables the crisis to be experienced in a way that is held. A kind of holding environment, a container. It is the place where extremely difficult feelings can be known, named, explored, excavated and dived into.
This is not to make it sound easy. It is emotionally and spiritually exhausting. Importantly though, the one to one experience with my therapists, gave me the time and space to get some kind of calmness and stability knowing that, although mine was fairly prolonged, ultimately the therapeutic environment is temporary.
Inevitably, I believe (although this may not be true for everyone) we have to fall back on our own inner lives. What therapy did was to give me the language to name the feelings and the emotions and ultimately helped me to see the universal truth that suffering is something that each of us do in varying degrees. Jack Kornfield amusingly states in one of his podcasts, some of us are quite loyal to suffering and I can relate to that experience.
What is key though is what Mark Epstein says in The Trauma of Everyday Living about the examination of our own trauma: ‘While the things that bother us cannot always be eliminated, we can change the way we relate to them.’ I am not sure what I am imagined when I first went into therapy – whether I wished to find a way to escape from the pain – but I thought six or seven sessions would fix me. Not so. Over four years later I am not fixed but I am in an environment where I have at long last acknowledged my suffering in all its awfulness. I am in a much better position to be the sovereign of my own destiny and not yanked about by feelings and emotions. The key thing, too, is that I am not alone.
The disruption has led me down all sorts of roads and discoveries of contemporary psychotherapists and philosophers, thinkers and wise men and women who have an extraordinary understanding of the human condition. I have learned a lot and it has been tough – on reflection there is no single truth except perhaps the line from Pema Chodron’s book, The Wisdom of No Escape. All the wisdom points in this direction. It is in the examining of the feelings, rather than running away from them and acknowledging trauma and suffering instead of pretending that everything is normal, that we can begin to walk into a wider view of how we live and deal with our stuff.
I wrote Raw-Red Bone of Memory in the midst of my own extraordinary pain which was both spiritual and mental and on re-reading, I have a new perspective. I had had a sharp memory of physical pain and in some kind of weird way this experience became, without sounding too pompous, allegorical.
He called out in a distress forged in the tangle-metal of an accident. Only the songbird-needle of morphine could ever so briefly-fleetingly extinguish the misery of the wide-open unhealed wound, gaping with flesh and blood.
I lay in the next bed to him in the hospital, having been admitted in the morning, doubled over with my own pale version of pain. An emergency had whipped out a fetid appendix (yes, I know, I am being dramatic) and my only experience then was of post-anaesthesia dullness and the odd stomach muscle smarting slightly in a sudden movement.
Summoned, the nurse was unable to ease his pain. He half-shouted out that he didn’t care about being addicted to that songbird in a vial. He simply needed the sweet relief, even if it only glanced him, took the edge off.
Until today, I had completely forgotten about those midnight hours lying in a hospital bed listening to a man who sobbed in his pain, and who cursed and swore at the world. I had been remembering my own pain, gliding in on a songbird of hope, blowing away the awful what-have-beens that sometimes fester in the raw-red bone of memory when, startled, I thought of that hospital ward thirty four years ago.
Which leads to the bit where, now looking back, I can be thankful to the bastard that triggered my shit. I have come full circle from that conversation in Cape Town and see this differently too.
Epstein posits that if trauma does not destroy us, ‘wakes us up both to our own relational capacities and to the suffering of others. Not only does it make us hurt , it makes us more human caring and wise’.
That’s my wish for myself and anyone who is in crisis and pain.
”Where ever you go, there will be people who will be difficult. You know they are waiting for you.” Jack Kornfield, Podcast: The Garden of the Heart