Guest post: My journey into mindfulness – the beginning of the beginning
Where it all began
I can pinpoint when it all started. August 2013, my sister was visiting from Yorkshire and for a bit of fun, we lit Chinese lanterns in the garden and let them go. One landed in next door’s garden and set their bin alight, the other two landed in the copse near our house. It was sheer panic for me. I made my sister spend half an hour up in the copse with me looking for said lanterns. We found one – no damage done, but couldn’t find the other.
The runaway train
Whereas the rational-thinking members of my family could see from our house there was no sign of fire – I could not get the idea out of my mind that the lantern was going to set the copse alight. And then it was going to set people’s houses on fire. And then it was going to kill people. I’d have blood on my hands, I’d be sent to prison. What would happen to my kids? I didn’t sleep a wink all night. I kept looking out of the window to look for flames and I got up first thing in the morning to check the local news and make sure there hadn’t been a fire. It was a totally disproportionate reaction to the event.
Like a runaway train that was picking up speed and momentum with no way of stopping, faster and faster and faster until the only way to stop is to crash with devastating consequences.
And so it went from there. Anxiety attacks building and building until they came every day. And eventually every minute of everyday. I was in a constant state of high alert – adrenaline and cortisol staging a constant assault on my body. I spent my days with my head lurching from one anxious thought to the next.
Was that a pothole I just ran over, or a child in the road? Ok, let’s drive back around and look – which I did many, many times.
Did I let my kids walk too close to the road? I don’t think so but let’s run that scenario over in my head a million times until it’s so skewed and confused that I can’t remember anymore, and now it just gives me another reason to panic.
Did I put that hard drive back in the safe at work? If I didn’t someone might steal it, commit industrial espionage, the company will go under, everyone will lose their jobs, I’ll be responsible, I’ll go to prison. Being incarcerated seemed to be a common theme in my darkest hours… and so it went on.
Rumination and catastrophising
Everything seemed huge. I catastrophised about everything and when I wasn’t catastrophising about what was going to happen (always something bad!) I was analysing everything over and over again, ruminating about what I’d said, what I’d done, what I’d not done, what I’d thought. Picking over the bones of my life, putting a negative spin on every situation, event, conversation.
I was literally driving myself mad. I wasn’t eating properly as my stomach was in knots, I wasn’t sleeping properly as sleep provided no relief. I had dark dreams about my children being snatched, my husband dying, something terrible happening to me. I would wake up in cold terror and just want to close my eyes and disappear. I was exhausted.
It was a living hell.
Small steps to taking back control
I struggled on and by Christmas I knew I had to do something. I remember having a glass of prosecco with my Christmas dinner and that once, warm, relaxing feeling I got from the occasional glass of wine, turned into panic that I didn’t feel in control, something terrible might happen and I won’t be 100% on it.
It was like the glass of prosecco was a microscope zooming in on my anxiety and amplifying it a thousand times. So Christmas 2013 was my last alcoholic drink – I never was much of a drinker so it was no big deal on that front, but that first small act was a step towards taking back control of my life. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but with hindsight, I see now that it was.
Two months later, in February 2014, I went to see the doctor. The second step to me taking back control.
Introduction to MBCT
I sobbed and sobbed. The doctor was brilliant. We did a questionnaire to see if I was depressed and, not surprisingly, I was off the scale. He suggested antidepressants – which I refused for a long time (too anxious to take them), and put me on the waiting list for an MBCT course. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.
In brief, MBCT is a treatment originally created and used as a tool to prevent relapses in depression. At its heart, learning how to let go of negative thinking and behaviour patterns.
Due to NHS waiting times I didn’t get to see anyone until April of that year. The longest 3 months of my life! I did everything the doctor suggested while I waited – gave up caffeine, started running everyday, googled best foods to eat – more steps to try and take back control. And I waited and waited for my appointment, pinning all my hopes on this treatment, hoping it would cure me.
I had no idea what to expect. I’d done some reading on mindfulness and was heartened by the research, but I was sceptical that it was going to help me.
My first session was to try some breathing exercises and ‘stay present’. I came away thinking, what the hell is this? How on earth is this going to get me out of the hole I’m in. But week after week I diligently did my homework, and practised the exercises Tom (my therapist) set for me.
The light through the trees
It didn’t happen overnight. For weeks, I would sit with Tom, crying, desperate, coming away feeling worse after some sessions as I didn’t feel I was making progress. I was supposed to have six sessions, he ended up extending it to 16 – I was clearly in a bad way!
And sure enough, slowly but surely, I started to see small rays of light through the trees. I had, by this time, also been persuaded by the doctor to take the antidepressants. It was a very low dose but just gave me that boost I needed to kick-start the right chemicals working in my body again. This combined with intensive MBCT, and I started to see results.
How mindfulness practice saved me
The more results I saw, the more momentum it gained. I practised my exercises every night. I used the techniques given to me to self-sooth and calm those panicky feelings. I listened to guided mindful meditations that focused on my breathing and my body, bringing me back to the present, breaking that autopilot of rumination and catastrophising. And each time my jumpy cricket mind jumped off down a pathway to doom, I gently told myself it was ok and brought my mind back to my body or my breath.
My breath was my anchor. My saviour.
Eventually and after months of consistent practice, the small rays of light shone on to wide open fields, filled with warmth and positivity. I dared to believe I could open myself up again, to love and to trust that I was a good person. For so long I’d shut myself down as I feared my own feelings and where they could take me.
Talking mental health
After three years of private practice – a very personal journey – I decided to be brave and talk about my experiences and share what I had learnt. By being ashamed of what had happened to me, I was contributing to the stigma. I had suffered from a mental health problem and I was going to talk about it. So in June last year I opened a Facebook group called My Little Place of Calm.
It started with a few of my closest friends and people that I knew had an interest in mindfulness. But month on month it grew and has now grown to over 150 members, with new people joining every week. It came as a surprise to many of my friends that I had even suffered from a mental health issue. I was like a swan, seemingly serene and together above the surface, but paddling like a mad woman to keep afloat below the waterline. And in true British style, I didn’t discuss it, kept it private, stiff upper lip and all that.
One of my mantras now in life is ‘don’t look back, you’re not going that way’!
So where next? Well, I’ve recently finished a course to teach mindfulness to youngsters as I am passionate that we equip our next generation with the tools to manage their emotions. In April, I start an MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) course to teach mindfulness techniques to adults who, just like me and many millions of us out there, are trying to get through life dealing with the stresses and strains as best we can.
So if any of this resonates in any way - be brave, recognise it, seek professional help – it is out there, don’t suffer in silence - talk to your loved ones and start taking the control back. You have it within you to live your life to the full, and be the best you can possibly be.
For more insights into mindfulness practices visit my website: My Little Place of Calm
About the Author
My name's Michelle Butler.
I'm a mindfulness practitioner, a kids mindfulness teacher, founder of my little place of calm, mother to 2 gorgeous kids, wife to one amazing husband and have spent a lifetime's career in the design industry working with inspiring and creative minds.
I was introduced to mindfulness 4 years ago through MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) after suffering a bout of severe anxiety. I can honestly say it has changed my life. I practise everyday and try to implement mindfulness with everything I do.
My greatest wish is to open up minds young, old and everything in between to living mindfully and in the process, try to demystify some of the hype.
I'm not a clinical therapist, I am just someone passionately committed to spreading the benefits of mindfulness practices in the hope that it is as positive an experience for you as it is for me.
Originally hailing from Scarborough, I am a straight talking Yorkshire lass. Now living at the other end of the country but still near to my beloved sea, where I feel most at peace.