My Vipassana Initiation

My psychotherapy could not truly begin before my mother had finally died. I had contacted the Therapist more than two years previously, after going back home with a mission: to persuade our mother to down-size from her rambling farmhouse in the countryside into a more manageable bungalow in town, closer to the Social Services. But she wasn’t having it.
“I’ve considered what you and your sister have been telling me,” she said, “and I’m not moving. I want to stay here, in my own home, with my own things.”
“OK,” I conceded, “but what then? Do you imagine that you will just quietly die one day, peacefully, in your sleep?”
“I certainly hope so,” she retorted.
“But supposing it doesn’t go like that?”
“What?” she chuckled, sardonically. “Do you think I’m going to live forever?”
“No mother,” I told her. “I think that you will have another fall, sooner or later, and you will again be hospitalised. Only, next time, they won’t allow you to come back here to carry on alone. They will put you in a home and sell your precious house out from under you to pay for it.”

I stuck it out for a year – arguing & reasoning; pleading & cajoling – but to no avail. I managed mother’s medication, made her decent meals, and tried to curb her drinking. I sifted through the stuff with which my magpie Mum had filled every nook and cranny of her house, feeling that the weight of all those belongings anchored her to the spot. I did persuade her to part with some of the more worthless junk, but saw how even that caused her palpable distress.

Most importantly, to me, I tried to broach the taboo subject of the catastrophic car crash, thirty years previously, that had shattered our family.
“Why is it that we never talk about Daddy’s death?” I asked.
“You never wanted to talk about it,” she lied.
“Well, I would like to talk about it now,” I said.
“Well, she finally admitted, albeit in her authoritarian, that’s the end of it, teacher’s tone of voice, “I would not.”

A consummate actress, my mother had all her friends and neighbours fooled into thinking that everything was perfectly fine with the mildly batty, theatrical, retired schoolteacher of their acquaintance. If anyone suspected that was not the case, it was none of their business. Of course, that didn’t prevent their gossip. What did her adult son think he was doing, interfering with his mother’s life? Why didn’t he leave her alone? That was the feedback I was getting, via the few old school mates with whom I was still acquainted.

Only I witnessed my mother’s escalating insanity, her barely suppressed panic and, most distressingly, creeping incontinence.
“How much longer do you think you can continue to climb the stairs to the bathroom on your hands and knees?” I asked.
“I’ve been doing that for years,” she answered.

My sister was sympathetic, but preoccupied with her own family and career at the other end of the country.
“Why don’t you get a job?” she suggested.
“I have a full time job,” I replied, “caring for our mother and trying to prolong her life. Only, my work is not remunerated, nor appreciated, apparently.”

My tenant moved out from my London flat and I grabbed the opportunity for some respite. A friend who had regular business in Town offered me a lift and I offered him a place to stay, for a bit of rent. As his van turned the corner of my street, I realised that I had spent the entire three and a half hour journey bending his ear about the impossible situation with my mad mother. Clearly, this was ineffectual. I needed professional help. After all, supposing everyone else was right and the problem with my mother existed only in my mind?

I had the phone number of a woman I had gone to see as a practitioner of the Alexander Technique. It had not been at all what I expected. “I thought this was all about posture and that you would give me exercises and perhaps manipulate my limbs a bit on your treatment table,” I told her, “but mostly we just sit opposite each other and talk. It’s more like I imagine psychotherapy to be.” The Therapist smiled and explained that Alex. – which explores how experience is stored in the musculature of our bodies and dictates our present behaviour – has a number of levels. Highly qualified, she was working at the deepest – or highest? – level and was, in fact, also in formal training to become a psychotherapist. Now, I wondered if she’d take me on as a client?

I started coming down to London every other week to see my Therapist, spewing my anger and grief in her consulting room. By the end of the year, I was more than ready to admit defeat with my mother and eager to return to the City to resume my life as a writer and critic and consultant, i.e.: the life in which I had some status and respect. At a New Year’s dinner party, I told the woman seated next to me – who worked with the elderly and cantankerous – the story of what I had been doing in that bucolic neck of the woods. “Sounds like it’s going to take a crisis to force change,” she told me.

The fall came within a month of my leaving. Mother slipped on the ice outside her back door and fell down behind her car, so she could not be seen from the road. By the time the postman found her, hours later, she was frozen and frightened half to death. She was taken into hospital and began her agonisingly protracted withdrawal from life. My mother took a full nine months to die; her death went full term. I returned, to manage the situation, living on her pension, visiting her in hospital, although she had nothing much to say. She was sulking. My mother sulked herself into the incinerator while I carried on seeing my Therapist every fortnight, venting furiously.

But die in the end she did and then it took the best part of a year to clear her house and auction its contents, to sell the house and eventually to share out the proceeds. Now I had enough money to not worry about work for a few years, my psychotherapy could begin in earnest. We started working together twice weekly, in a process I described as, ‘spending my inheritance from my mother on resolving her emotional legacy.’

This process became my whole life, in and out of the consulting room. As secretary of our Residents’ Association, I was confronted by a committee of three women, each of whom represented an aspect of my mother. There was the controlling, manipulative one who always thought she knew best; the arty, talented one who was prone to outbursts of shrieking hysteria; and the fat, absent one who never turned up for meetings, but was still nominally in charge. They provided useful grist to my mill, but the mirror worked both ways. They hated me and launched a virulent gossip campaign in which I was vilified, demonised and, eventually, excluded.

In the jargon of the consulting room I ‘got in touch with my anger,’ coming to understand how it was mother’s milk to me. We went back to my earliest days and I discovered how my mother’s depression, during her pregnancy and after my birth, had precluded our proper bonding. We revisited the scene of the crash and I recalled the atmosphere in the vehicle immediately before impact, as my parents’ feud simmered. She was giving him the silent treatment and he could not stand it, so made an unforced driving error that caused a head-on collision. I surveyed the carnage in stark detail.

My mother’s response to my father’s sudden death was to send me away to boarding school. That had always been the plan and she saw no reason to change it. As I recounted this, I noticed my Therapist was shedding tears.
“What is the matter with you?” I demanded.
“It is so sad,” she said. And then she said the most shocking thing anyone has ever  said to my face: “You are the most unsupported person I have ever met.”

I came to see how I ran on anger and could barely control it. All I could do was cloak it in dark humour, smother it with drink ‘n’ drugs, defend it with my sharp tongue. Occasionally, I’d direct it into my writing and activism. I accepted the fact of my anger, but could not rid myself of it. There was a long period, over a year, during which I was acutely aware that I was deeply angry and frustrated by my inability to let it go.
“We keep talking,” my Therapist told me. “That’s all we can do.”

I began a course of Reflexology with an old acquaintance. Initially, he informed me that he usually prescribed four or six treatments, but I would require at least ten or twelve. We did not get that far. The Reflexologist soon started saying that he really was not getting anywhere with my feet.
“You are a bit less toxic,” he told me, “but you’re still holding so much. I spend an hour opening your meridians and when you come back the following week, they are again clenched tightly shut.”

What to do? “Why not try Vipassana?” the Reflexologist suggested.
“You mean those mental silent ten day meditation courses you go in for?” I said. “No way. You must be joking!”
“Look,” said the Reflexologist, “you can carry on paying me fifty quid a week in perpetuity, but I’m telling you that it’s not working. Or, you can take ten days to learn Vipassana for free and see what difference it might make. What are you scared of and what have you got to lose?”

So, I went. My experience of that first ten day Vipassana course was pure, burning, furious anger for nine days straight with short lunch breaks. My anger was unexpurgated, unabridged and unremitting, although the Indian home cooking was actually pretty good. It was a Hindi/English course and my room-mate was an Indian fellow who also sat next to me in the hall. When we finally spoke on day ten, I was surprised by his Wolverhampton accent!

Anger is heat and it poured out of me as sweat. I would rise at 4am, shower and put on fresh underwear before going to sit in the hall. Two hours later, I was so saturated that I had to shower again and change before breakfast.

As the course went on, the moon grew full and I stopped sleeping more than a few hours after retiring, exhausted, at 9pm. I started waking up in the middle of the night to be extra angry. My defining memory is of being on the toilet at three in the morning, mind buzzing with violent revenge fantasies about those odious women from the Residents’ Association, even though I knew that it was nothing to do with them. I was quaking with misery and humiliation, because there was nothing I could do to make it stop.

I came through it and returned home to London and to psychotherapy. My Therapist met me at the door, led me down the passage to her consulting room, where we sat down, facing each other.
“Wow!” was the first thing she said. “What a transformation!”
“What do you mean?”
“You appear to have dropped all that terribly heavy anger you were carrying around with you,” she said.
I laughed. “Yes, I left it in a field in Herefordshire.”

Toward the end of that session, my Therapist announced, “I think our work here is done.” “Really?” I asked. “Yes. We can continue to make use of this healing space that we have co-created, if you want, and tie up loose ends, but essentially your psychotherapy is complete. I don’t know what they did with you at that meditation centre, or how, but after five years here and ten days there, you’re sorted. Congratulations.”

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