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I was in hell and nothing was working

How I found the way from utter despair to a life full of joy – by Abigail H.

I am a post-doctorate professional academic teacher with a background in philosophy. I came to Adaptation Practice in a trough of agitated despair. I didn’t know where to turn and was being consumed by negative feelings. Conventional medicine, or I, had failed to find a resolution. Eight years of diagnosed depression and mood swings, a cocktail of heavy drugs, ECT, 15 months in hospital and 5 suicide attempts – the most recent 6 weeks before contacting Dr Sherlock. Nothing was working and I, and clearly those around me, were fed up with it, to say the least.

Having exhausted their known options, the medics were now washing their hands and telling me to take responsibility for my feelings and get on with living. Fair enough. But how? To me, who by then felt totally dismissed as well as depressed, there was an irrefutable logic to the thought: life is hell, so why live it. The fact that I was still alive was a source of intense inner conflict and anxiety, to add to my depression.

In a forlorn hope for help I contacted Dr Clive Sherlock after seeing an article about his work in The Times. I wrote simply asking for information and was amazed when within 2 days I received a phone call, a letter and an appointment. This was the start of what was to be a story of commitment, concern, care and patience and for me the beginnings of what I dubbed ‘a quiet revolution happening in Oxford’.

How we react to emotions

The first meeting did not go according to my expectations. I had anticipated an assessment involving detailed questions about my state of mind, feelings, etc., treatment to date, perhaps some sympathy, certainly some tailoring to my needs of what was to come next. Instead, after supplying a brief medical history of the 8 years of depression which evoked few questions and no comment, we immediately got down to the brass tacks of getting me started on AP. Only later did I realise that this unconventional approach was a part of the practice in AP – to have done as I expected would have been to indulge the ‘I’, my ‘I’, me, and as I was to learn such self-gratification is anathema to the whole idea of Adaptation Practice. Clive had simply not been giving, or letting me give, the ‘I’ the time of day but was getting on with what mattered. Fortunately at the time I had the humility, and the need, to just run with what was offered.

Clive explained to me that the problem with humans is not our emotions per se but our reactions to these emotions. We have evolved to a unique state of consciousness or self-awareness, which generates greater problems than need be (as well as benefits). Unlike animals we reflect, ponder, mull over situations and emotional states and make things worse, rather than just tolerating, being patient, accepting and adapting. His comparison with the animal kingdom, for which I have great respect and empathy, appealed strongly. But even without that empathy, the thesis made sense, it made common sense. We react to our emotions by expressing them, suppressing them, distracting from them or numbing ourselves to them. If we don’t like something, we resist it. Like all humans, I had done all four – and spectacularly failed to even dent the depression. At this first meeting Clive said that there was a fifth ‘option’. I did not know what it was at the time, but I was prepared to run with the possibility. The point now was to start putting the common sense into practice, and that was easier said than done!

You can’t run before you can walk

Learning and practising Adaptation is hard work, as I was to discover. It is a learning through, with and in the body and for a while runs counter to everything that is screaming inside you, counter to all your thoughts, feelings, behaviour patterns etc. It is a practical regime of doing, not a talking-thinking therapy. Some of it can be fairly difficult to do, and at times over the next few months I felt that I was making no headway. Sometimes I felt, or rather thought, I could not go on, but something was growing and developing in me that was stronger and more solid than anything I had known before. Whatever this was, it was encouraging me and drawing me to do AP even more. I was increasingly willing and seeing the sense of abandoning any doubts, suspicions, questioning, and intellectualisation I had been practising and rehearsing all my adult life. With calm intactness, Clive guided me (continues to guide me) through all this. We started with small steps, like a child learning to stand before he walks before he runs. I can now say it is beginning to work. I realise it has been working for some time because when I recall how I was before starting AP, yes, I was a different person by comparison. Others saw changes in me long before I noticed them.

Over the next many weeks I was guided through the horrendous ups and downs of my emotions and how to implement and practise this regime. I said ‘Yes’ to the emotion a thousand times a day, I put nothing off, I pushed and pushed myself to ‘just do it’, whatever the task (usually the simplest thing!), when my mood-thoughts couldn’t be bothered, felt agitated, depressed, fearful, tired etc. I began to hate that little four-letter word ‘just’. Patiently and imaginatively, in phone conversations and meetings, the basic guidelines were elaborated, explained, re-presented and made accessible to me. When my moods were at their darkest and all I saw was hopelessness and futility, I constantly received reassurance (which was dearly needed). At those times I was also quietly told ‘It too will pass’. This was not the glib cliché I had heard from others before: it was always said with absolute conviction which transmitted itself to me and with instruction as to how to say it to myself using the energy of the emotion. Each time I doubted that it would work. Each time it did.

Energy was not a problem

Amazingly, where I had foreseen the biggest problem, there was not one: energy. From being an escapist sleeper, permanently exhausted and dragging myself around a twilight world, I suddenly became energised. I realised from doing Adaptation Practice just how much energy had been going into being depressed and keeping me depressed! I also realised how empowering it was to learn how not to be interested in my negative thoughts was: a simple, effective and liberating practice, though often difficult to keep uppermost. And doing things promptly not only cleared the bills, mail etc, it also swept away the piles of procrastinatory guilt, panic and self-castigation.

Over the weeks new aspects and instructions were added to the old, and the practice deepened and evolved. Once again with hindsight, I can see how effective each simple guideline/instruction was to be. One such instruction was not to express my emotion (breaking down, shouting, etc.) and to be as an actor rehearsing his part: when asked how you are, say “I’m fine thank you.” That took Herculean effort at first as part of me wanted the world to know that inside me was a battleground and, no, I had not undergone a miracle cure! Two of the most evocative messages were (a) when I bemoaned ‘just doing’, being told ‘This is it’ (i.e. that’s life and you’re living it now) and (b) when stating emphatically that I couldn’t cope with my moods or go on, ‘What’s the alternative?’ When said at the right time by Clive and then repeated over to myself, these were very powerful and enabling. Another important lesson concerned my sense that the old black feelings just kept coming back and back no matter how hard I practised. Clive told me that this was because the underlying causes of those moods and feelings had not been dealt with yet. He said that they appeared again and again because they were rekindled by memories, fears and other causal factors in me, like a candle flame once extinguished can never come back; when the candle is relit, the flame may look the same but it is not and cannot be. As I persevered with the practice I became less afraid of my moods and feelings and of what the future might bring. Those upsetting and deeply disparaging memories were losing their power to bring me down. A real strength was developing in me.

Cultivate willingness

After a couple of months my routine was well established, I was doing lots of doing (a big achievement in itself), my anxiety had lessened somewhat and the depression was not so omnipresent. With hindsight I was able to see times when I was actually absorbed in a task and not feeling miserable. Then came the crunch. I was told not only to do, but do willingly; I was told to open my body to the feelings (after all, it’s their home too!), let them be contained, and accept them.

My first reaction was ‘No way! I want rid of the so-and-sos!’ My second was fear: I’d be swamped if I opened my body to these powerful emotions. Again I was guided with gentle patience, reassured the process was safe, that I would not be overwhelmed, that I could trust my body and that, as ever with AP, all things started with small steps. Patience and practice were the keystones. Patience is the bedrock of both the daily practice and the concept drawn from it. I am learning to keep putting my ‘be patient’ cap on.

Profound changes

After only 6 months into Adaptation Practice, and looking back the difference in me is profound. Where before the depression had been nearly constant, with severe bouts of suicidal thoughts and plans, and feelings lasting weeks on end, now my general mood is lighter and the very black times pass more quickly, as do the ‘highs’ which I used to have great problems containing. I have not thought about suicide in weeks. My strength and confidence are growing, and I am now contemplating tackling things that I would not have dreamt of a while back. The anxiety and tension remain but are far less than they were and are now absolutely bearable. Overall, I have a greater sense of peace and on occasion a sense of oneness when I really do not mind. My ‘acting’ is becoming more ‘real’ and increasingly I genuinely engage with people and situations (though a sense of unreality still nudges). The hardest thing now is remembering to practise to tolerate, to keep opening myself to the emotions, literally, until eventually I no longer mind the them. This, the crux, it has to be practised and practised, and care has to be taken not to just use the doing as a form of escapism. Adaptation Practice is not about distraction. In this basic tenet it made sense to me right from the start, and singled it out from other approaches I had experience.

Clive has never told me what to expect with doing the Practice. He did however say that the rewards would be great, without spelling them out, and that there would be glimpses along the way. He was right; he is right. And I am grateful for what is happening. He also said to me: “We have the thoughts; we have the feelings; but where is the heart?” I thought my heart was dead, but now I know I have a heart and it is alive and well again. I shall keep practising.