Breakdown and breakthrough

CW trauma recovery

Healing can be a messy process. When it comes to matters of mental health, there are points in the journey that can only be messy. Most of us do not get into difficulty on our own. There are reasons that we suffer from depression and anxiety, and those reasons tend to involve extreme stress and traumatic experiences. To recover from that, you need to be in a safer place, and you will have to square up to what happened.

The most common environment for wounding to occur is the domestic one. People are most at risk from violence, abuse, sexual assault and rape from people they know, not from strangers. This is more traumatic to begin with because of the layers of betrayal and broken trust when the people you should have been able to most trust are the ones who harm you. Part of the healing process for many people will involve squaring up to what someone they loved did to them. That is a vicious, painful process to be in.

Abusers encourage their victims to feel responsible for what is happening. This protects the abuser and keeps the victim pliable and cooperative. The mental health damage is massive. It’s further complicated when the victim wants to think the best of their abuser and is easily persuaded to feel that they are to blame so that they can keep believing that their partner, or parent or other person they care about, is actually a good person. To heal from that experience requires re-visiting it and re-framing it and that is a hard process.

While you’re in there, the difference between breakdown and breakthrough can be almost impossible to spot. Some healing is impossible without some breaking down of the old self and the old worldview first. Again, this is a desperately hard thing to go through, and while in the thick of it, there may be no sense that this is a breakthrough process moving you towards healing. Not everyone hits this in the context of having professional support to get through it.

Breaking down always creates the possibility for a breakthrough of some sort. But, that’s not an obligation to heal. Without support, resources, time and care, a breakdown can be just another hellish period of misery. Having the space to transform breakdown into breakthrough is a privilege issue. For the person who is still in the harmful situation, healing isn’t an option.

But, it can be some comfort to know that when you hit a period of breakdown, it might lead to breakthrough. There is every chance its happening because you are able to step away from the past and start re-building. It is not an easy choice to go with this process rather than fighting it, but sometimes, surrendering really pays off.

I will likely be coming back to this in the not too dim and distant future to talk in more detail about how recent breakdown has allowed me to make some specific breakthroughs.


Rules for them

One of the signs that you are in an abusive situation, is that there are different rules for different people. It’s one thing if someone chooses to hold themselves to higher standards than others. Quite another when someone gives themselves permission to do things others are not allowed to get away with.

This is the situation in the UK right now. Our government has just voted to break international law. They’ve done this after a long summer of playing fast and loose with the rules, letting each other and their advisors off the hook for behaviour that would see the rest of us fined or otherwise in trouble. We find, for example, that most of us are not allowed to meet in groups of more than six now, unless you want to go hunting and shooting, which is different. I doubt the virus sees any difference, but we know who goes hunting and shooting, and it isn’t most of us.

If this country were a household, no one would be in any doubt that we were an abusive household, experiencing emotional and psychological abuse and rather a lot of coercive control. Rules for them and rules for us makes it clear that we’re second class, that the power imbalance is huge and that we just don’t count in the same way as people. Little surprise that they keep talking about scrapping human rights laws.

If we were a household, the police would help us leave safely. There would be, if we were lucky, some space in a shelter where we could hide and recover from the impact of what’s been done to us. We might go on a course to help re-build our relationship with reality. Being manipulated in this way causes cognitive dissonance and makes people crazy. I know, I’ve been there. But, there are resources an individual can tap into that a country cannot. The only thing that can tell a country it’s not entitled to behave this way, is international law, and our government has just decided it doesn’t really take that seriously anyway.

If we were a household right now, we’d be identified as at high risk. Social workers might be thinking about how best to protect our children. Friends might rally round to support us and help us get out. The police might get involved, because for ordinary people, deciding that the laws do not apply to us is not an option we really have. If we were a household, we’d be in a lot of trouble right now. We’re not a household, we’re a country, and the danger is real.

All we can do is look after each other. Support each other in remembering what is true, and what is not. Remind each other that double standards are a very bad sign. Do what we can. Try to stay sane. Try not to lose our personal sense of self worth, validity and importance under this torrent of being devalued. It is not going to be easy.


Candles, prayers and magic

My first experience of using candles for prayers was in my late teens, visiting Gloucester cathedral. The cathedral continues to offer spaces where a person can light a candle as an act of prayer, and it’s something I and my family continue to do. The cathedral is a place I go to connect with my ancestors, amongst other things.

There’s an immediacy to using a candle – the flare of light as you strike the match, or the transference of flame from one lit candle to another. You literally put light into the world. It’s a good focus for will, for petition, for need. The observable effect of the lit candle feels like having done something, so it makes the spell, or the prayer seem more real, more in the world. Then, if you so desire, you can spend time with that candle and with your intentions.

I’ve become uneasy about burning things and using fire in any spiritual context. With so much of the world burning and overheating, I’m ambivalent, these days, about the role I think fire can play in my spiritual practice. Gone are the days when I would want to do ritual around a fire.

There is however comfort in a candle. It’s a small flame. A small gesture of hope even at a time when fire seems problematic to me. The warm light of it is inherently comforting, and when you are praying from a place of need, distress, discomfort, that small comfort can be worth a lot. When distress makes concentration hard, the focus of a candle flame can be a welcome thing indeed. There is light in the darkness. There is warmth and cheer. There is hope, be it ever so small.

So long as the candle flame holds, there is hope. So long as there is the means to light it, there is hope. So long as I refuse to give up on hope, there is hope. Sometimes, small symbolic actions can make a great deal of difference.


Sweet Darkness

This is a lovely piece about darkness. I love Potia’s work, she’s a wonderful person and an inspiring Druid, do check out her blog.

Musings of a Scottish Hearth Druid

Sweet Darkness will you hold me?
Let me rest in your embrace?
The day is harsh and painful
Please hide my tear streaked face.

Gentle Darkness will you hold me?
Let me feel your soothing touch?
My heart is sore, my head is full,
I need your peace so much.

I know that I can find you
When the moon has gone away.
In star lit skies I see you
Until the break of day.

Now dawn begins Her journey
She starts to paint the sky.
Sweet Darkness I must leave you
For in daylight you are shy.

And I must walk in sunlight
Beneath the painful glare,
Where other people judge me,
But some of them still care.

Gentle Darkness I will find you
When day retreats from night.
I’ll rest within your presence,
Find strength again to fight.

By Potia

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Walking, stories and landscape

I experience the landscape around me in a way that is full of story. At this point, these stories are a mix of local folklore, history, personal experience and fiction.

If I walk from my home to the top of Selsley Hill, I go through a tunnel where I once had a rather magical encounter with a fox. I pass a corner where there was a slowworm one time. I walk past a community garden where I used to be involved. There is a pub, which has a few personal stories associated with it. Then I walk past the field where the were-aurochs first transformed in my Wherefore stories. I will tend to remember the first time going up over the grassy part of the hill and saying there was a chance we’d find orchids and then being blown away by how many orchids there were. There is a path where the bee orchids grow, and I remember who I’ve taken to see them in previous years. There is a signpost that gave me a strange experience once in the mist. Finally, there is the barrow, and all that I’ve done there. And all the other points in the landscape visible from the hilltop and all the stories that connect to those.

Each re-visit adds layers to the story of my relationship with this landscape. Over time, some of the personal experiences turn out to be more enduring than others. The fictional stories build alongside this.

Part of the reason my relationship with the land is like this, is that I walk. At walking speed, there is time for memories of a place to come to the surface. There is time to share a story or a bit of folklore. At walking speed, the landscape becomes much bigger because we have more time in it, and that allows room in all kinds of ways.

The car is a rather new thing in terms of human history. Our ancestors walked, for the greater part. There were no road signs. Finding your way through a landscape may well have been a matter of having a narrative map in your head. We know that some early mapping – like establishing the boundaries of a parish, was a narrative that you walked in order to reinforce it. If you can tell a walk as a story, you can teach it to someone who has never been there. Stories make a journey more entertaining and can help you keep going in rough conditions – I’ve certainly used them in that way. Stories help us place ourselves in the landscape – as individuals, as communities, as people with a tradition of being in the landscape.

I don’t have that unbroken lineage that traditional peoples have living in deeply storied landscapes. But, my people have been here a long time, and I have a feeling of rootedness. Most of what I have, I’ve put together for myself, from the local oral tradition, from folklore books, from history, and shared experience. This kind of relationship with a landscape is available to anyone, anywhere – sometimes you have to mostly work with your own material, but that’s fine. Every tradition starts somewhere.


Fire in my head

The lack of fire in my head has been a problem for many years. I used to dream, plan and create from places of intense inspiration. I used to go there a lot. What happened to me is no great mystery – economic pressures, exhaustion, not being able to get anywhere much with my creative work, becoming demoralised and all that sort of thing. What I have kept going with to this point is largely discipline – that’s how I get this blog written. This is how I tackle Wherefore twice a week, how I’m writing Druidry and the Darkness.

I’ve spent most of my life writing. I have skills and experience and I know enough about putting words together that I can do a decent job without being on fire. A few weeks ago I was, for example, asked to write a poem about a gatehouse, for an event. It’s not a location I’ve ever visited, but, I know how to work, and it’s a decent piece.

I’ve missed the fire. I’ve missed writing from a state of passion and putting words down because I have to – for me, not for some economic goal or to do someone else a favour. I’ve missed being on fire. I’d got used to at best having the occasional tiny bursts that might make for a better than average poem. I’d got used to feeling like I am mostly ash and embers in the place where the energy of my inspiration used to burn brightly.

This year has been all about re-enchantment for me. I’ve been able to reclaim, and have been given back a great many lost parts of myself. It’s been intense and surprising, and there has been a single catalyst for all of this. None of it has taken the kind of shape I might have expected. It has been a strange, challenging time, and I’m certainly not through it yet. I’m in a process with massive implications for my sense of self, and that will, one way or another, very likely define much of my future.

This week, the overwhelming emotions of the last month or so coalesced into the need to write. It doesn’t matter if I write a whole book, or whether I fail. It doesn’t matter if anyone else much reads it (almost unheard of for me). It doesn’t matter if it’s any good (again, not a normal way to be feeling). It certainly doesn’t matter if it’s publishable (more usual). I have to write. I have to write this story. I have to sit down with it every day and put pen to paper. I haven’t written like this since I was a teenager.


Druidry and Rabbits

Rabbits are interestingly complicated from a Druid perspective. On one hand, they’re cute, fluffy mammals, and on the other, they could be the poster-creature for humans messing up.

We’ve been moving rabbits around the world for a long time. When exactly they came to the UK is uncertain – could have been the Romans, could have been the Normans. Certainly the Normans had to build warrens for them because apparently rabbits back then weren’t very tough at all! Old rabbit warrens in the landscape can easily be confused for other things. There’s an interesting pair near me that, in local legend, are supposedly mass graves for a smallpox hospital.

Rabbits in Australia have been an ecological disaster. They may be small and cute, but being in a landscape where they don’t belong has had a series impact on other species. Tree loss, soil erosion and loss of other plant species causes huge knock on effects.

Then we get myxomatosis – a virus that originated in South America and turns out to have hideous, crippling effects on rabbits, who die slow and painful deaths from it. I’ve heard a lot of stories about how it was deliberately brought into the UK to control rabbit populations – a horrible choice by any measure.

We move rabbits around so that we can eat them. We keep them as pets. We use the fur of Angora rabbits for clothing, but the treatment of those rabbits, is often appalling. The problems rabbits cause in the world stem from our human assumption that they are there for us to use in whatever way we see fit. When we colonise landscapes, our impact isn’t just about moving people in, and humans – especially white, European humans – have caused a lot of harm by deliberately and accidentally moving creatures to places where they do not belong.

Rabbits invite us to look at how we use power. They invite us to square up to a long history of ecological damage and arrogance. They are intimately tied up with colonial histories and the history of invasion. From a Druid perspective, they have much to tell us about what a lack of natural justice looks like, and what human hubris does in the world.


Pessimism and the Brain Weasels

“Give up,” says the brain weasel. “You’re just torturing yourself with false hope. Really everything is shit and it will hurt less if you admit that and stop fighting it.”

Last week I was thinking about how difficult I find it to imagine good outcomes. This morning, I caught this brain weasel in action, and had a good look at it. I’d been working with the idea that not being able to imagine good outcomes might be an out of date coping mechanism. It isn’t. It’s a way I’ve been taught to think to keep me placid and cooperative.

If hope is torturing yourself and nothing can ever possibly be better, why would you leave? Why would you put up a fight, or try to change anything? Why would you expect people to do better?

Giving up hope is not a protective measure, it’s a form of self-abandonment. It is surrender to all that is wrong, and a way of making sure I never even try to fix things or make them better. It is a deep and soul-killing sinkhole into which I might throw myself.

Would it hurt less if I gave up hope? Would it really? Would it hurt less to think the worst of other people, to imagine that things go wrong because I’m not good enough, or deserve it, or because I am unloveable? Is it really the best choice to abandon all other possible explanations in favour of a story that casts everyone in the worst possible light? Take it apart to see how it works, and this approach doesn’t work at all. It takes the fight out of me, when I need to hold my ground. It takes away my scope for anger at times when I need it most. It also undermines other relationships and reduces my scope to be both imaginative and compassionate. But then, historically, undermining other relationships was a good way of keeping me in a bad place.

I would rather live in hope. I would rather think the best of people and have some space to think well of myself. I would rather hang on to the idea of myriad explanations that have nothing to do with how shit I am, in situations where things go wrong. I would rather imagine there is a way forward, a way out. I do not want to be at the mercy of this particularly nasty little brain weasel.

The trouble with brain weasels is that they present as truth, as obvious facts. This one was given to me, I see that now. It was squeezed into my brain to keep me timid and well behaved and biddable and to stop me imagining that I could have nice things. It tells me that surrendering to pain will hurt less than fighting, and that there is no point fighting, and that hope is my enemy. Time to serve an eviction notice on this creature and not allow it any more residential space in my mind. I need to populate my mind with voices that suit me better. A Hope Otter might be a good move.


Druidry and diverse experience

One of the terms that floats about in contemporary Paganism is UPG – Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis. It’s a useful phrase for flagging up things you know from personal experience but can’t necessarily back up in any way. It’s good to clarify how we know what we know because other people’s mileage can and will vary.

However, there is a natural human desire to substantiate that personal gnosis, most often by agreeing with each other that we have experienced the same things. It can get a bit ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ if we aren’t careful. It can feel vulnerable to have an experience that doesn’t sit well alongside the consensus experience. I’ve been that person in workshops a few times, and even in a friendly space it is uneasy being the person whose UPG does not fit in with the emerging SPG.

When we share experiences, there can seem to be a pressure to have at least had some sort of woo-woo or meaningful experience. I’ve seen this happen repeatedly in meditation sessions, and learned with the Contemplative Druid gatherings how much gentler the process is when you aren’t expected to give feedback on your experiences. To sit together meditatively and not have to say what your experience was is surprisingly liberating. It taught me a lot about the kinds of pressures I’d felt in other places, and how performative spiritual feedback can become.

Does it matter if we all have the same sort of experience? On one hand, it is validating, and some conformation that you have not gone quite mad. There’s being away with the fairies, and then there’s really being away with the fairies… But, I have also experienced people sitting together and not having the same experience around what’s going on in the room.

I feel strongly that diversity of experience should not leave anyone feeling like they got it wrong somehow. If one person has a woo-woo experience and other people who are with them do not, it does not meant that some of the people were less inherently magical. It does not mean that the person experiencing the uncanny is mad, or lying, or otherwise out of kilter. We have to have room for diversity of experience even when we are in the same place and doing the same things.

There is more to magic. It’s complicated. All kinds of ideas, entities, traditions, and ways of working exist in paths and in individual practice. It seems less reasonable to me to expect similar experiences than to expect diverse ones. I am reminded of the Jain story about the blind men trying to make sense of an elephant – it’s a good story to spend time with. Limited as we are, we might easily sit together and have a spiritual experience that is unique to each of us and have no way of knowing how it connects to a coherent whole anyway. And if it doesn’t, that should be ok too.


Druidry and my love of darkness

One of my projects at the moment, is writing a book about Druidry and the darkness. People who support me at the Bards and Dreamers level over on Patreon  are getting monthly excerpts from the work in progress and will get the complete pdf when I’m done – in fact, anyone who supports me on Patreon will get the complete pdf if they want it. (https://www.patreon.com/NimueB)

I like giving my work away. I also like being able to eat and keeping a roof over my head, so Patreon helps with that. During lockdown, Patreon money has represented half of my dependable income. We’ve been getting by on very little.

Back to the darkness… one of the things this project has done, is got me thinking about where my relationship with the dark began, and what the key early influences were. This led to a rather surprising discovery.

As a child, I was obsessed with the musical version of The Phantom of the Opera. Revisiting some of the material from that, it struck me how much The Music of the Night had influenced my sense of what darkness is, and means. It was a song I sang enthusiastically as a young human, probably with more joy than skill. These days it is right at the limits of what I can get my voice to do. I’m not a trained singer.

For various reasons, I ended up doing a paint and cosplay wallow in the darkness with this song, recently. Younger me used to do a lot more dressing up and it was part of how I used to navigate my gender identity, such as it was. I may get back into that. I definitely need to invest more time in play, mucking about and things that aren’t entirely orientated towards making a living. It’s often a thing for creativity – that you need it to pay to justify doing it, but it is the time invested in the not economically focused things that actually make the creativity possible, and therein lies all kinds of challenge!