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

Opera Glasses and a Packet of Frazzles: Visiting the Theatre in the Middle of a Pandemic

I can’t believe I just wrote those words – visiting the theatre in the middle of a pandemic. The NHS is straining at the joints, with doctors and nurses risking their lives on a daily basis, and I’m standing on my bloggy doorstep clapping for the National Theatre. Yes, I was happily listening to the wireless and dancing as the Titanic went down. War? What war? I was having a picnic and playing Cluedo at the time.

But I am genuinely grateful that the National Theatre has decided to stream productions into my living room via YouTube once a week. I couldn’t be more grateful, in fact, because for a whole day we’re able to pretend that we don’t have to stay in, that the world isn’t slowly falling apart at the seams, that we’re normal.

This Thursday, it was our anniversary.

“I wonder if you’ll do me the honour of joining me at the theatre tonight?” I asked sheepishly, as if she might have something better to do.

We’ve been having conversations like this since the lockdown began.

“Where shall we go today? Brighton? We could see our friends, have a paddle, check out La Choza. Nom Nom Nom.”

Sometimes we lick our lips, smile, and let our imaginations take us there. Sometimes we don’t.

But this was real. This was a way out of our ‘Stay at Home’ for a few hours. This was an event.

“We could get dressed up, move the sofa, put the light out, grab the opera glasses and Frazzles.” (Our snack cupboard was looking a bit bare.)

So we did. I in my long pinstripe jacket and bowtie, hair oiled back and moustache drawn on with eyeliner pencil. She in her flapper dress and boa. I have no idea where she found the peacock feather to stick in her hair, but it was a nice touch.

And I’m grateful for the countdown on YouTube before the show began, during which we chatted about how the traffic wasn’t too bad getting there, but we wished they sold better snacks; how I had to queue for ages for the toilet and came back with toilet roll stuck to the bottom of my shoe; how we hoped that the woman in front of us would take off her exceptionally large hat before the show began.

And then the theatre darkened, the curtain rose, and we spent the next few hours laughing at the farcical antics of James Corden and co in One Man, Two Guvnors, breaking only, perhaps ironically, to join in the actual doorstep clap for the NHS at 8.00 p.m., in full costume, before walking back down the dark aisle to find our seats again (H24 and H25 – not too bad for the money we paid, but we would have preferred the stalls, and the man sitting next to me could have slurped his champagne a little less noisily).

I’ve read tweets this week by people who question the worth of financially supporting the arts in these troubling times. I wonder if these same people have done any of the following during their isolation: watched Netflix, TV, YouTube, read a book, magazine, poem or blog, listened to music, a podcast, an audiobook, gazed at a picture on the wall that made them smile or reminded them of better times, been moved by photography or dance or even simply sustained themselves with conversations and memories of times spent exploring the visionary architecture, galleries, theatre productions and festivals of their past … I could go on.

Art, in its many forms, takes us places, gives us freedom, and this is more important than ever as our world seems to get a little bit smaller every day. It makes us laugh or cry and helps us to escape our insecurities and fears, and if we’re lucky, it teaches us a little about the human condition, strengthens and restores us, so we’re able to cope and even find a way to be useful when, for most of us, it feels like our hands are tied.

So, I guess, I’m not just grateful to the National Theatre, but to anyone who has ever picked up a pen, a paintbrush, a guitar, a camera or anything else that can be used to create. I can’t imagine this time without you.

Follow Hayley Sherman …  @hayleystories

Lamb Bingo: A Walk in a Field in Lockdown

It’s such a small, frivolous thing to be thankful for when the world has been brought to its knees by influenza’s older, demented half-brother, with a chip on his shoulder and daddy issues, but we were walking out in a nearby field for our daily exercise, shielding our eyes from the early-evening, orange blush, already grateful enough for such glorious spring colours, when the familiar sight of grazing sheep came into view. And then we saw them … tiny, skipping miracles in the grass around them, newly born into the world, tens of them, just days into their earth experience – hopping and nursing, one of them curled up on its mother’s back.

It’s such a small, frivolous thing to be thankful for when the world has been brought to its knees by influenza’s older, demented half-brother, with a chip on his shoulder and daddy issues.

We raced over. We thought they were tiny dogs to start with (neither of us passed our farm animals GCSE). But no, they were lambs alright. And we were blessed to be there, to be permitted to walk through such a serene and peaceful painting, full of life. There wasn’t a soul around. It was just for us.

We took pictures and made videos, and as always, we laughed. We’ve been doing that a lot over the last few weeks, which is surprising considering we no longer have to turn on the news to find out that the world is a frightening place, but the human condition is a strange one. We laugh at the memes and videos our friends send us, of the innovative ways that people are considering wiping their bums in a time that we deludedly hope to look back on as nothing more than the great toilet roll crisis of 2020. We laugh at each other and the stupid ways we pass the time – anyone for tampon tennis? And we have both been shocked by the dark, dark jokes that emerge at a time like this, which could never be repeated outside of the two of us.

Back in the field, we laughed at the numbers on the lambs’ backs – anyone for lamb bingo? We laughed when one of us suggested calling social services on number 47, who would obviously rather be off flirting than feeding her lamb, who’s buggered off and joined 51, although baby 51 has other ideas. Then we ruminated on how cruel it is that lambs, which are so cute, lovable and full of energy, eventually become the rounded, dowdy frumps that are nursing them, the irony not lost on us that we are both becoming more and more like our own mothers every single day.

In between laughing and taking photos, there were moments of silence. And I think we both felt it. Not just gratitude, but peace and calm. If we could just stay here. If we could just stay here forever, then … I have no idea. But neither of us wanted to leave. We could almost feel the earth taking a sigh with us, her relief obvious, enjoying a temporary reprieve in her own battle against raging disease. And then it was over. We were losing light, getting hungry and had to leave this perfect moment behind, but we were smiling for the rest of the day.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories