Summary: A 38 year old British women, whilst on a silent Mindfulness Teacher Training retreat, re-experienced trauma and had a relapse of OCD symptoms
My history with meditation and contemplative practice feels quite long. All through my primary school years, I used to visit with the nuns in the local convent who taught me to meditate in stillness on the Tabernacle. In times of adversity in childhood and in adolescence, I always knew how to find this “still place”: the watching place. I found it a great source of comfort, often sitting in silence in nature during troubling times. At 19, a few short months after a particularly traumatic event, I took my first retreat – two days teacher led and seven days within a retreat setting which I found quite healing.
I found silence such a refuge, then.
When pregnant with my second son in my early 30’s, I again felt a deep longing for this silence. I signed up for a pregnancy yoga class in a local centre. After some sessions, I became aware of a lot of hyperawareness and other unusual sensations during the Yoga Nidra sessions. I was open to these for quite some time.
One night however in the middle of my second trimester, I became aware of very vivid intrusive imagery of a graphic nature of harm coming to my toddler son. It was unsettling but initially I brushed it off. However, I noticed as weeks of the class went on that it was becoming more intense and soon, I began to dread it showing up any time my body was in a state of relaxation. By the end of the second trimester, I was given a diagnosis of moderate-severe depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
I continued with mindfulness practices during this difficult time and subsequent period of recovery though looking back, I can see now I quickly learned to avoid both yoga and body scan practices, tending to focus on other practices I found less challenging. I found compassion, mindfulness of sound, awareness and various daily informal practices a great resource during my third pregnancy and in the everyday to and fro of life with young children. When my third son was a year old, I was quite immersed in Mindfulness, and felt drawn to offer this as a resource for others. I applied for, and was accepted onto, an academic postgraduate training course.
In the course of training, we had two retreats. On the first one, particularly when alone, I was very acutely aware of a major increase in intrusive imagery. Initially the thoughts that arose were similar to my old obsessions. I was very familiar with these and found I could work well with them, bringing openness and curiosity to the experience. However, towards the middle of the first retreat, I started having flashes of very distressing images and memories from my past and when I brought this same attention, I found I just wasn’t quite willing or able, which very quickly escalated into what I know now as traumaticre experiencing. One night in particular I couldn’t sleep. My mind was racing and noisy, and I was aware of extreme pain and terror coursing through my body, with images of fire and darkness dancing around my middle and hideous imagery of a statue on the window which I remembered watching during childhood during traumatic experiences, while I felt frozen and unable to move. Whenever I was alone and/or lying down, I found it hard to move between where I was with this, feeling I was really reliving this experience and also feeling profound fear that I was going crazy and perhaps I was hallucinating. Concerned, I spoke to both retreat teachers. They were very kind but given that I was calm and social discussing it, I’m not sure that they really heard what I was pointing to. They did not offer anything concrete to support it.
On return from retreat, I needed to prepare to deliver a body scan to the group so I committed to doing more body practices. Initially, I found I couldn’t stay awake – a normal feature of meditation practice as anyone who has done it for any time will know – but as time went on, no matter what modifications I made, I realised that actually I wasn’t asleep but numbing out at various points in my body and then “returning” aka dissociating (I didn’t have this language for it then). This presented quite a problem for me given that I needed to be assessed on providing this practice, so the attention I turned to it became increasingly forced and striving. I contacted the retreat teachers for a referral to a therapist (which they never responded to, though I managed to source my own).
I began the slow and arduous process of therapy in January of that year, though by June I still hadn’t found words to tell the therapist of any of my more difficult experiences which were arising more and more frequently in my meditation practice. I felt an awful lot of agitation, almost silent rage – as well as confusion and shame that everyone on the training programme seemed to be having such a different experience. I knew they were finding things tough, for sure, but I was noticing increasing periods of inability to function every other month, then every few weeks, which were so difficult to manage with the family that my parents needed to come to stay just to help me get by.
When I look back with the benefit of hindsight it seems unbelievable to me now I didn’t see that I needed a different course of action, more than the therapy I was having and that I was pushing and going too fast, prising open a Pandora’s box. I chalked it down to “process” that I needed to “engage with fully” and not “experientially avoid” to prove my “psychological flexibility” and kept on. A key phrase that motivated me was “what you resist, persists”. I was also very motivated not to “spiritually bypass” these experiences but immerse myself in them fully. I see now I was striving so much. It truly never occurred to me I could choose to take my hand out of the fire, or indeed, this might be the wiser course to take. I was so rule-bound in my “flexibility”.
The second retreat was when my experiences tipped from being uncomfortable and difficult into significantly adverse. I can’t fully remember exactly what happened. I’d recently moved house in not ideal circumstances and there were a variety of heavy-duty stressors e.g. a parent was severely ill but I felt willing and enthusiastic on heading to the retreat.
The first night, I slept well. The memories I have after that are now quite fragmentary, as from the second day, I found myself really struggling to eat, rest or sleep. At times, I felt though I was tipping in and out of consciousness. One memory I have still is of feeling really intense euphoria in the garden of the retreat centre followed by a sensation of a loud banging noise, which caused a panic attack, followed by this weird cotton wool fuzz in my head, like I suddenly wasn’t there anymore, as though I were dissolving. Unable to eat at lunchtime, I remember leaving the retreat and walking to the shops feeling deeply detached from reality, like I was floating over the aisles and that everything was in flux, all the wrappers on the food items were fluorescent and the noises of people talking had this strange circular, warped quality, with this strange prickling and rushing in my blood, like pins and needles and goose bumps all at once. At some point, I started to hear a particular chorus in my head on repeat, a stanza from a Latin mass, and to have intrusive imagery of a religious nature. I found it very distracting, so I found myself squatting in a car park, singing religious songs to myself to drown it out or pacing around the garden, telling myself it was cortisol, like early labour. All of this was not particularly unpleasant and my sense of it from here was that I had a good awareness of it at the time, and a weird calm around it.
This second retreat was a training retreat. This meant that in between these odd experiences I needed to “return” and attend teaching sessions. This was a very strange experience, because often the social interaction of the group yanked me back into “reality”, and there were certainly times I was absolutely fully “there” and present – it was as though I came alive when there were opportunities for social interaction – and yet even here, there were also times I was very fragile, and when there was silence in the group, times I felt like I was outside of my own body, watching myself, like I was a puppet and I was observing myself in a play. I had a particularly challenging encounter with a retreat teacher where I desperately wanted to say somehow something about what was happening, but everything that came out of my mouth felt odd and like it didn’t belong to me, like I was a robot, that what I was saying was scripted by someone outside of myself. I was also aware there was a very strange dark energy around my middle, and, when I left strange electrical sensations in my limbs. That night I was unable to sleep and I paced the floors for hours, interspersing it with compulsively scanning the walls and counting certain points left to right, really sure that I was about to become psychotic and hallucinate. I have a memory of seeing things moving out of the corners of my eyes and of watching the skin on my hands ripple, like one of those visual illusions – but I can honestly say at this point I don’t know if that actually happened, or if it became overlaid as a false memory given how much obsessing I was doing about hallucinating.
In the middle of the retreat, there was a day of silent practice. Again, I felt this profound deadness and odd numbness in my head, like cotton wool. I became aware of really strange experiences, like I was only my breath and the rest of the world dissolved in the gap between breaths, and sometimes so did I. It is hard to put into words. What was most striking to me was that I became unable to write in the retreat diary. Words just wouldn’t form in my mind to put onto paper if I was alone, because being alone evoked such strong sense of dread and terror, as though something horrendous was about to happen, followed by these periods of nothingness, of no-thought, no anything, followed by panic rising and short bursts of what felt, when I was in it, like it was endless sobbing, balled into a foetal shape, rocking and feeling beyond salvation, alone and desolate and often feeling I was outside of myself, watching the crying, getting no relief from it.
At the very end of the retreat, the retreat teacher I had met said to me: “I pushed you too far, didn’t I?” and I stood beside him, held out my hand in front of me, and gestured that when we had met it was as though everything had just exploded. I don’t know what I said, exactly, but somehow I know my words didn’t match what I meant by the gestures.
At home, I found myself in a strange odd state: wrapped in a bubble of love for the world but as though I couldn’t see through it, I couldn’t see my children, nothing seemed quite solid. I tried to write a reflection but the computer malfunctioned and I absolutely fell apart, until I found myself saying to my mother, you need to take the children, while I paced the floor pulling my hair and picking my skin, unable to eat or sleep, throwing up from sheer nervous exhaustion. This was when I reached out to the course co-ordinator. I met her about 4 days after coming home and talked it all out, and it was the most tremendous relief. I so believed that day that this would be the end of it.
The ins and outs of the months that followed hardly matter now, only to say that in retrospect, it is obvious now that every time I attempted a bodily practice in silence, I would be catapulted back to this weird place of pain and terror, numbness and confusion, totally set apart from myself. The pattern remained fairly solid that when I was around or talking with others I was okay, but as soon as I was in silence or alone, or lying down anywhere alone, it would all begin again. It was like being in hell.
I tried to communicate this as best I could, though it didn’t go well and I ended up making a complaint, which more or less reduced the previously available support to nothing. I tried at this point to be switched to a research option, the programme I was on had no alternative to offering the 8 week course so the only option was to be sent away, to leave my group, to build what they called “resilience”, to find what they called “emotional containment”.
That felt like the most profound judgement of me as a person: as though I were weak, other, incompetent, pathetic. I cannot begin to explain how horrific it was to be willing to be open about these experiences and to know, increasingly, that I was being seen as no longer like the others, but now “unwell” and “erratic” with “difficulties”, and yet with no support or open dialogue to make sense of what was happening to me, like I was no longer a competent adult. I had such a sinking, shameful sense there were all these stories held by the teachers about what might be going on, but that these couldn’t or wouldn’t be shared with me honestly or transparently as though I couldn’t still interact when I so desperately needed to talk about this with someone who could guide me, and had no idea how to do that or who to even ask.
There was just nowhere to go. There were no words. There was no conversation. When I was good, I was very very good but when I was bad it was beyond anything I’d ever experienced. I knew and could see these as experiences, I knew and could see they were “not me” nor the whole of me, but there is no support for that in the Western world. It felt as soon as I was living the instruction I was apart from the world I needed to be in, walk in. I also simply had no skills to manage any of it in silence, or alone. I needed guidance, mentorship, support, understanding. I left the programme and stopped meditating for six weeks. Looking back these were good weeks, I began to feel alright again – at which point I made again the same mistake, and resumed practice and did so too far, too fast again – two hours a day. It didn’t go well.
Five months after leaving the programme, I found myself all of a sudden in floods of tears, endlessly emailing the retreat teachers desperate in some way to do something, really not knowing what to do, terrified that it was actually going to kill me with no idea of how to stop it or to redirect it enough just to be able to function again. I kept just diving more and more into the pain and found myself caught in an endless, unrelenting vortex of trauma: panic, then deadness; agitation then floating away. Nightmares upon nightmares, flashbacks upon flashbacks… and so many unhelpful thoughts about what this meant about who I was and who I could yet be.
Eventually, they all just had enough, and I was shunned. I wrote the most heart-wrenching, desperate emails when they told me not to contact anymore, sending some formal letter that clearly totally missed the point of my distress – and there was no response. “I am fighting for my survival here, you have no idea. It is the most awful thing in the world to reach out your hand and have no one take it”, I write. There is no response.
Every attempt I made to find some way out just made things worse, like a Chinese finger trap. What I couldn’t – and still can’t – understand was their anger and irritation with me, as though I was trying to stress them, manipulate them, be difficult when I was just in so much pain, so desperate for some sort of relief, to find some way home to my little boys, to my life.
Ostracised for not managing myself better, for saying please help me in the wrong way, for trying as best I could (but not well enough to be heard) to make sense of things when there was no dialogue to be had, when I was having a one-sided conversation, when no one had the guts or the honesty to say, you know, you really seem like you are having a very hard time. What’s driving this? Do you need help with this? Here’s who you can call. They didn’t “have” to do this because I had left the course. They were free of legal obligations. The human connection severed with the contract. This from people who had said to me “but we’re family”. Some family.
It’s nearly a year now, and I am still not out of the woods in terms of functioning, though there are far more good days than bad of late and I am certainly back in the world more. One day I hope I can look back and see there have been gifts in this – there were certainly times along the way I had some sense of this, in how it opened my eyes to past trauma and that I needed to deal with – but healing from the sense of spoiled identity, of being this person whose story it was not okay to tell, this person for whom it could not be said there was more right with me than wrong with me as long as I was breathing, this needs time. It has rocked all I believed to be true about my spirit, my self. Days, months, years. How long will it take? Who knows? Minds shift, this I know. I am just so desperately sad that this all happened when my children are so young. Ironically, I’ve missed so much time and presence with them, being all wrapped up in some odd spiritual catastrophe. I am having art therapy with a therapist trained in somatic experiencing and mindfulness – this I have found much easier to manage than talking therapy, though I see a Clinical Psychologist too and have a regular yoga practice. I do not formally meditate at this time outside of therapy sessions.
I would never have chosen this for myself, but given my history and what I now know about me and the complexities of the brain on meditation, it does make perfect sense. I am just so grateful to realise, finally, I really am not alone in having these experiences – it is the hope I so desperately needed, many months ago. May the harm there has been here be a lesson to those who need it.