About 18 months ago, I was in a terrible state. I had been off work for a month and was at the start of a serious breakdown, which later turned into my greatest breakthrough. It was an extremely difficult time and I was scrabbling around looking for something that would help. I needed somewhere to be while I was working this out, and I found my options were limited. I wasn’t functioning particularly well at home and psychiatric hospital was not a welcome thought, even if I had been able to get a bed there. I wasn’t really sure where I needed to be, but I felt I needed to retreat from the world for a time, to gather myself, find my feet, work out what to do next and how to help myself.
First I went to Devon for a silent meditation retreat at a center I knew well and felt at home in. This was a good place in some ways, because it was familiar and there was support from some very beloved teachers available. But the intensity of the silence turned out not being such a good idea for my state of mind at the time, and the holding my teachers were able to offer was limited to the interviews I had with them every couple of days – it was not a place set up to contain people experiencing very extreme mind-states, and I was warding off depression and working with strong suicidal and self-harming ideation.
I had met Ron at a Hearing Voices conference and had heard about the recovery retreat he and Karen were running. I contact Karen and asked if I could visit for a few days and she encouraged me to come on up. Ron would be working away from home but Karen was happy to host me, she said, so even though I could barely get it together to do my weekly shopping at the time, I managed to book my tickets and make my way to this tiny island, miles and miles away from home.
After travelling on several trains, buses and a ferry, Karen met me on the Island and drove me to the croft. She struck me as incredibly energetic, warm and welcoming. The island was windy and wild, with a strange yellowy quality to the light and it was nothing like anywhere I’d ever been before. Karen showed me around the house and the farm, introduced me to the pigs and other animals, taught me how to light the peat fire to keep myself warm and showed me the food she had left in the kitchen for me to help myself to. Then, when I was more or less orientated, she left me to have my own space.
I was on my own in this traditional croft house, with everything I needed to be warm and fed and comfortable, and Karen just a phone call away if I needed anything. I remember a feeling of utter relief, a rare feeling at that time of mental and emotional turmoil. There was nothing to do but focus on one task at a time – lighting the peat fire, preparing a meal, having a bath, staring into the coal fire in the living room, and finally falling asleep in a comfortable bed.
Karen didn’t know much about me, and incredibly she hadn’t asked for anything in return for offering me this safe haven. She had put her trust in me and that made me feel a sense of responsibility towards her, to treat the house respectfully – to sweep the mud up and keep things tidy – and it began to rekindle a sense of trust in myself. I had so little confidence in my ability to manage the simplest of tasks before I arrived, yet there I was lying in bed, having successfully lit and extinguished the peat and coal fires in this traditional cottage, something I’d never done in my life before.
I felt good, this having to be in the moment, attending to one need at a time, and having to rely on myself (with Karen’s coaching on the phone if needed) to get things done. And it felt good how physical it all was, not just flicking a switch or turning a dial, but shovelling peat from the pile outside, stoking the coal, blowing on the flames. I was more alive after my first day on the island than I had been in the weeks of lying in bed and hiding from the world at home.
My week on the island was split between times alone on the croft and times every day when Karen swooped me up into the heart of her family home up the road and welcomed me in to share meals with her delightful family. They all acted as if it was the most natural thing in the world to have a complete stranger appear out of nowhere and join in with family life. I was touched by how they made space for me, seemingly so effortlessly. I remember having a conversation with the children and thinking how generous they were in sharing of themselves so freely, just like their mum. It felt all very real, warm, grounded and healthy. It was at a time when I was finding it really hard to be around other people, so it was surprising to find how easily I relaxed in Karen’s house, whether it was just with her, her children, or the neighbours and friends that popped in.
Karen showed me the daily tasks that needed doing on the croft, and told me about how it all worked. I went around with her, mainly making sure all the animals were fed and one afternoon digging a vegetable patch together. She said if I’d been staying longer, I’d have been able to take over being in charge of doing most of the tasks myself, but 6 days wasn’t really long enough to feel confident enough for that.
The weather was mostly wet and windy, but it always felt wonderfully energising to squelch through the mud and later so relaxing come inside and warm up by the fire. I became more in touch with my body than I had been for months, maybe years. The wildness of the wind matched the wildness of my mind, and I left my craziness blow through me as I walked through the peat marshes and along the coast. Nothing about my inner experiences felt unwelcome or out of place, and it was clear that there was nothing this environment could not absorb. I could scream and kick and cry (I did all three whilst out on my walks) and the wind would carry my screams and the ground would welcome my stomping and soak up my tears. The pigs were brilliant to talk to and sing to and they would talk and sing back. The cats always knew when to come near and soothe me.
The natural environment was exquisitely beautiful. Karen was keen for me to see the sights and took me on a long drive one day, where we explored lochs and castles and an ancient stone circle. I had a deeply spiritual experience at the stone circle, and I came away with a sense of awe and mystery. The whole island felt a mystical place where magical things could happen.
I went on my long walks on my own. One time, I got lost and didn’t make it back to the house at the time we’d agreed for Karen to come to take me to her house for lunch. When I saw her later on, she said she’d been quite worried about me, since we’d been talking about sensitive issues before and the thought had crossed her mind that I could have decided to take my own life by jumping off the nearby cliffs. I was struck by her approach to managing “risk” and her willingness to hold that anxiety. She said that she believed that, if she welcomed someone into her home in the way that she had me, then they would not be likely to just go out and kill themselves. They would be far more likely to call and talk to her if they were in that much distress, because a trusting relationship had been formed. She was so right. It was the best example of ‘relational security’ that I have ever witnessed.
As we went about the daily life of working on the croft, cooking meals for the family, and going on trips, Karen and I had long conversations. It wasn’t likely she was ‘trying’ to be therapeutic, it just seemed to come really naturally. Everything she did, everything that happened, was therapeutic. The conversation flowed easily, even when it was about difficult things, and there were many comfortable silent pauses. She never pushed, she only invited, and she was sensitive and respectful always. I think the times in between our conversations, when I was left alone and given space to be able to reflect on what had been said were as important as the conversations themselves, and Karen seemed to sense that too. I opened up very quickly with Karen, just because it felt so safe and so natural to do so. I felt a strong bond form with her and I trusted her very quickly; maybe this was because she had demonstrated her trust in me from the start, and because she acted with such integrity that she seemed trustworthy to me.
As we were walking along throwing feed to the animals or digging in mud to make the vegetable plot, I felt the stories inside me find a voice. They seemed to want to be spoken and heard just as a plant wants to grow up through the soil and be touched by the sun. Karen genuinely seemed interested in listening. She also shared of herself and identified with much of what I talked about, so I knew she ‘got it’. She didn’t distance herself from my experiences, even when I described things that to most other people seemed extreme or bizarre. She would wonder out loud interesting questions about what I said and we would explore things together. I told her about some of the strange experiences I had been having, some of which I had never even had language for before. The noises I heard that I sometimes thought was just tinnitus but other times felt was the sound of angels. The never-ending layers of meaning I would lose myself in in the midst of every day interactions and events. The way that people and the world seemed so unreal, and the way that I felt unreal, like I didn’t exist. Karen never dismissed anything; she acted as if my experiences were as valuable and meaningful to her as they felt to me.
We talked about my recovery journey so far and all the work I had already done. I received excellent mentorship from Karen around issues of self-disclosure in my professional life and in the Hearing Voices group I was helping to run. But the conversation I remember most is one that has come back to me again and again since that time. It planted a seed which has grown up into a strong plant since then and has only just ‘fruited’ in recent months. I think this is why it has taken me this long to write this piece about my time at the croft, because before I would not have been able to articulate the most important thing it gave me, and it is there.
Karen had asked me about my history, and I had told her about childhood emotional abuse and neglect from my parents and sexual abuse from my brothers. I had told her in a detached way, though, almost like the way I might recite a shopping list. This was part of my dissociative defence that I had used all my life. One day we were talking through the croft in our wellies and raincoats, and Karen reflected how strange she found it that, despite what I told her, I had not expressed an ounce of anger about it, nor about any of the other abusive relationships I had spoken about. She asked me, “where’s your anger?”, and I could not answer her. I had no idea. Logically, I knew she was right, that it had to be somewhere, but I had no contact with it. I knew there was anger somewhere, but didn’t feel it, I could not embody it. The anger had turned inwards and developed into depression. I had physically run away from these feelings, by fleeing into spiritual realms (the angels), losing myself in chaotic mental mazes, and drowning in wells of existential confusion. When Karen asked me about my anger, a lightbulb switched on inside me. I knew intuitively that she was spot on, and that this was the key to my recovery. However, it was not the time yet to discover how to own my anger, and this was only the beginning of that journey. It didn’t matter, Karen was not one to rush me to be anywhere other than where I was at, and I felt totally accepted just as I was.
I left the croft after 6 short but important days. I clung to Karen like a child when I was hugging her goodbye, suddenly panicked about leaving and reluctant to go. But the experience I had and the love and understanding she showed me have become a part of me and have continued to warm and energise me on my journey ever since.
My mental health continued to deteriorate after I returned home, resulting in four suicide attempts and two psychiatric hospitalisations over two months. I was off work for seven months altogether and lost hope of ever working again, or of ever seeing friends or family or having any real contact with other people ever again. But I was well supported by my therapist and my incredible friends and I did come through, and I did even return to work eventually. I took it very slowly and gradually I came back to functioning and living my life. I came out the other side of that episode weller than I ever have been before, no longer needing even to ‘surf the urge’ to self-harm or commit suicide, because those urges were simply no longer there. This was the first time in my adult life that this had been the case!
That is why I think of that breakdown as a breakthrough. I have been gradually integrating my learning from that breakdown/breakthrough experience over the past year, and the changes in me have been marked. I feel like I’ve had a personal growth-spurt, and have a more solid sense of self that I ever had before. I am more resilient, cleaner, stronger and I feel myself getting weller and wholer every day. One of the most important things that has happened in the last few months is that I have started to feel anger. Not act it out or act it in, not dissociate from it or hide from it or project it onto others. Just feel it, bodily, with the whole of me, and own it. I’ve felt and expressed (in therapy) rage at my parents, brothers, and other people in my past and present. I’ve stood up to people in positions of power over me, like my manager at work, and fought my corner, defended my rights. I’ve allowed myself to lose control and throw and break things rather than trying to be always in control and ending up breaking myself. I’m leaning what anger actually feels like, as a physical sensation, and as an energy that’s mine. This is anger, and it’s a useful energy, and I’m glad to finally meet it. I’m not afraid of it any more.
So, Karen, I am writing this to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, and to let you know that I have found my anger at last. I couldn’t think of any way to express my gratitude for all you gave me other than to write you this story and dedicate my words to you. I have so much respect for all the work you and Ron do. You inspire me. Thank you thank you thank you thank you ….