On Thursday 17th December 2020, I did my last day of work until 4th January 2021.
My 17 days of space had taken on a mythical and magical quality. Now I am in it, and it’s only 12 or 13 days, depending on if I count today. It has been a most peculiar year for each and every one of us. The year of the corona virus, lockdowns, body counts, avoidance of the realities of Brexit, division deepening, black men being murdered by police on live television: the best and the worst of us.
I began 2020, in the narrative of my own little life, preparing to have a second spinal surgery in February. I was in constant acute pain. The kind of pain that made me want to die. Literally. I have, as some of you know, given a lot of time to reflecting on and feeling into death… a life-long enquiry. Given that, it wasn’t such a stretch to examine the option to take my life if the alternative was to live like this.
With my dear friend, and most intimate filmmaker, Andrew Hassenruck, I started to explore this possibility on camera. If you would like to see what we made together, here it is.
I had planned my post-surgery back sabbatical with military precision. As a psychotherapist, I had scheduled with care, the two months recovery space for afterwards. Everyone knew what was going on. I knew what was going on. My budget knew what was going on. I arrived at Charing Cross Hospital at 7am on the morning 20thFebruary, accompanied by my heart sister, Louise, who has been beside me all the way through this arduous journey of many appointments and the first surgery the year before.
I was admitted, dressed in all the attractive garb, including unspeakable underwear and socks it took a lot of effort to get on.
And, then the waiting.
And, more waiting, and not much movement of anyone out of the waiting and towards the operating suites. Anxiety began to ripple round the room. There were whispers of some trouble with equipment. After 7 excruciating hours, we were taken to a room and told my surgery had to be cancelled due to the lack of an Xray machine.
I don’t really remember what happened next. I lost it. Loudly. I have a strange gift, in that when I do really lose it, I may not remember much after, but am able to lose it with eloquence. My surgeon came upstairs to speak to me, and we stared into the eyes of each other’s helplessness. He couldn’t help me. He said it was like this down there every day, surgeons fighting over not enough basic equipment. He needed an Xray machine for 3 hours and now the window had closed… he only came in once a month. He could book me in for March but couldn’t promise it wouldn’t happen again… he was willing and able, even if just for a moment, to really see me on my knees… wailing. I did not know how to go on.
Home. Louise. Uber. Leonard the Dog hurriedly retrieved from Dog Heart Hotel…
In the morning, in my own bed rather than the surgical ward as I had expected to be… I knew I couldn’t go on. The only words I could hear, were ask for help.
From somewhere beyond anxiety, head fuckery, shame, ego and all that would have made a pig’s ear of asking for help, a clean, clear voice found its way to the keyboard. I still don’t really understand how that request got written.
I posted it.
It was a huge, life changing, extraordinary experience, that I have written about, and know I will write about more.
Some of you know it, were part of it, have walked the road of it with me.
The short of it, is me calling my surgeon at his private clinic in Harley Street 24 hours after my cancelled operation to ask him when I could book into his clinic and pay him to do the procedure. So many people had given me hard cash, with such generosity and kindness, that I had almost as much as I needed, and more was flowing in. He was astonished. He booked me in.
On 25th February, I had my spinal fusion surgery in his tip top, state of the art facility. He was so delighted to be able to do his best work, under impeccable conditions, with his hand-picked team and absolutely no time pressure.
I came home in post-surgical agony.
I bow deeply to medical science, and the extraordinary things we have learned to do over the last century, and, I think we forget that any surgery is a medicalised violence. We are sliced open and tools are used to rearrange the inside of bits of our body. We are rendered unconscious and intubated. In another context that would be considered traumatic for both body and mind. We have been educated to disassociate from the truth of this, and recovery is measured in a different language.
In summary, the next two months were wending my way, from indescribable pain, overwhelming gratitude to the kindness that gave me my surgery, the shock of Covid, and the Lockdown, a realisation that if not for my personal miracle, I would have been long-term lost in the vortex of a non-critical backlog within the NHS.
There are two strands to my working life. I am a home-based psychotherapist, as well as doing a small admin job for a Devon based, groupwork programme called Movement of Being. I was imagining that many of my ongoing clients wouldn’t want to work on Zoom, which turned out to be the opposite of true. I was also faced with my admin job having become a much more technical affair. My dear bosses, Fanny and Colin, when faced with the stark choice of closing shop for the duration or trying to make a version of their programme happen online, went for the latter.
They didn’t hire me for my tech skills, which are basic, but because I really understand their work, and how to hold their frontline. Communication and basic systems. All of the systems changed and some of them were not so basic.
So, when I came back to work at the beginning of April, I was thrown into, not only a major learning curve for Movement of Being, which turned out not to have been so 20 hours a month, which I’d not really noticed before, but my practice was bursting at the seams. Suddenly, I was seriously lacking in breathing space… I think this is how a lot of people operate in this culture of work and stress. I think where I found myself is many people’s normal… but for me, it hasn’t been like that for a long time. Maybe back when I was training at the Tavistock, doing placements, running my own private practice as well as working a full-time job in Addiction Services, plus trying to have a relationship and a personal life.
Within this new spaceless-ness, much was happening.
I barely left the house.
Not great for my back rehab walking practice.
I sat with more care and effort to posture than ever before, for long hours, with more clients than I’d had for a very long time, and in-between I crashed coursed in learning new admin.
Having learned a bit about self-care along the road, I did put some in.
I saw my therapist, long-time angel, witness, holder of place and space for me, much more regularly. I started to go back to my movement practices, groups and teachers, because I could, because the whole world was happening on zoom. When the first major lockdown started to open up, I went back to see my blessed osteopath, and she gave me an exercise routine for daily practice… I needed core strength and stability to support the surgery.
I worked and worked, so very grateful to be able to earn my living, looking into the mirror of so many people in industries that had collapsed.
I was also trying to work out and assess the results of my surgery. I was in less pain, and significantly more mobile. I was straight, not skewed over to the right. I could feel the new architecture. I had seen x-ray pictures of the surgery. The dust of my two lower discs had been swept away and now I had structure that in principle could support me for the rest of my life.
I was still in pain. Much less than I had ended up in prior to surgery when life became survival, but more than I had imagined. I’d had what I now see quite clearly as a magical thinking delusion that I could wind the clock back 10/15 years, live with constant pain at a much more manageable level. Chronic rather than acute. Obviously, we can’t roll back time. I’m 62 not 47.
Also, I’d missed something so extraordinary, I could hardly believe my blind spot. Yet, that is the nature of a blind spot… it is blind, until it isn’t. Having spent the last 15-20 years deeply involved in healing practices, many involving embodiment and breath, I had failed to notice my lifelong physical disassociation… I fell, in many moments, with many teachers, Grace, Mystery, my own grit and drive, via many beautiful trainings, journeys, techniques for homecoming, and I did fall eventually, when all else failed, into a field of simplicity and kindness. The place of giving up, that welcomed me into a deep understanding of already being here, just waiting.
The physical pain had become split off by my blind spot… I wanted to fix it… it had become unliveable with. I had always been able to say: I was born into depression but had truly failed to recognise the pain began there too. In the first moment, the first clench, the first no to every in-breath. Embodied depression. Not separate, but the bedrock of it all. We are embodied. Everything begins there.
I sort of knew. People would ask me what the physical issue with my back actually was. I never had an accident, or an incident. I always said that a lifetime of clenching had broken me in the end. Sure, my discs had turned to dust, but what I did, until I couldn’t anymore, was just keep going. All the dancing, cooking, walking… all these things that healed my heart, kept breaking my body, and I didn’t notice, until I literally couldn’t do anything that mattered anymore. I still didn’t understand what I didn’t understand…
These last 9 months, underneath all the overfull-ness, my blind spot has been falling from my eyes, from the narrative in which I had thought I’d understood. That sounds so coherent, but let me say, it has been the most untellable storyline of my little life of stories… I have just had to let it do its thing… All sorts of ideas about what I needed for my ongoing Back Project, were exposed as traps and lessons. No, it wasn’t about learning how to think on the dance floor, find the special teacher that could teach me yoga, in spite of my difficulty/impossibility of getting instruction through brain that hears words and understands them, into my body… it wasn’t about learning anything fancy at all, but trusting my teachers are already here… like my dance, my capacity, my limits. Of course, I am already here, and the heart-breaking open, tenderness, of starting to be able to give some words to this, is that my self-parenting mission is to do my best to stay in my body… imperfectly no doubt, but this is what is true… if I stay in my body and listen to what it can and can’t manage, even though I am fixed enough to push on through again, I keep the pain from escalating. If I forget, it escalates. Simple.
A few simple lessons. I can clean my home, but only if I don’t listen. Clean house = more pain. I can dance faster and harder in a 5 Rhythms class and then I escalate the pain… I can walk further and faster, and carry too much shopping, and then I pay the price… learning to listen, to work within my limits, to think about limits without the tone of judgement, to keep on practicing this quality of self-attention, to lovingly listen, and bring home, my tiny unmothered baby bones, to my aging body, while there is still time, well, it is quite something, just beginning to be tellable.
I have been working hard to make coming back to work in January, a thought through, learning from the ending up spaceless, into a balanced and structured enterprise. I can’t do that again. I know bags about repetition, but I can’t do that again. I went a bit mad, and I sort of ended up in another version of surviving at some level. I’m quite proud of doing all the thinking, tweaking, re boundary building, deciding on how many clients, how many days, how to have a weekend rather than 2 days off with work in-between, more structure to my ad-mining for Movement of Being. I have built in spaces, time to be, to exercise, to write, to see what’s there, which is something I was prone to call being lazy and unproductive.
I have some writing to write. It matters to me.
I have friends to have more of.
I have work that I love, and more life to stretch out into, with more breath inside it… as many of you that are kind enough to read my postcards and riffs, already know, I am not planning on much old age. This is not the society I have any interest in getting old and dependant in… but I’ll know when to go, and it’s not yet.
So, back to my 17 DAYS… I put a lot of pressure on myself to USE them productively. I knew I was doing that and couldn’t help it. I’ve finally landed, and it took 6 days… now my days are numbered! 10 more days until I return to work. I’m wrapping up the little one that counts and worries, in a nice soft cashmere shawl, and inviting her to put her head down.
All our days are numbered. If I keep remembering, what I regularly forget, I get to put my head down in the grace of simplicity, often, and that is a place, and a no-place I recognise as Home.