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It is our challenge to find strength and meaning in the tragedies, fears and confusions that confront us. In discovering ways of dealing with those inevitable events, we have the possibility of alchemizing our experience, turning the base metal of our pain into the gold of wisdom, understanding, enrichment and purpose.
In 2014, one of the worst things that could happen to anyone happened to me – my daughter Melissa took her own life. This tragedy forced me to examine my very existence and expand my concept of who I was. It demanded that I either mature or disintegrate.
Melissa was a vibrant, kind and enthusiastic young woman who’d lived in a magnificent variety of ways. She’d been married for a year to Ian, a sensitive and gentle soul, and was seemingly very happy. She loved the delight in being with others and lived much of her life in the sunshine of other people’s joy – much of that joy being enhanced by her presence. One of my fondest memories of her is her roaring with laughter with her friends, with no sense of holding back, uplifting them with her happiness and engagement.
In addition, she wanted to help people. Anyone could come to her and get her often wise perspective about what was going on in their lives. Despite her being my daughter, I often turned to her when I needed guidance. She was passionate about supporting those who were in turmoil.
Ten years previously she’d had a serious mental breakdown. I took a phone call when she’d said, “Hello, Dad, I’m in a lunatic asylum.” “Very funny,” I replied, and she passed the phone to one of the nurses. She was in an intensive care psychiatric unit, having completely broken down, thrown everything away and run naked through the streets. She later told me it felt like the ultimate freedom.
It took her a year to recover from the breakdown, and it appeared as though it would never recur. She regained her confidence and self-assurance and had a lot of love in her life. She worked for Kids Company, with some of the most damaged children and adolescents, and, as she did with everything in her life, threw herself one hundred per cent into her work.
With hindsight, it’s easy to see that there was a point at which she was swerving between highs and lows, agonizing about life, while at the same time travelling all over the country, partying, socializing and working. The stillness that is part of the healthy psyche was absent. She was all movement. Melissa lost hold of her internal compass and extreme pieces of behaviour emerged.
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She felt the need to take charge of every situation and achieve a successful outcome. As I’ve said, she worked with vulnerable children, and would often take on the most difficult cases, such as children who had been seriously abused or who had extreme behavioural problems. Sometimes the cases had such a strong impact on her that she agonized over whether to continue. Usually, though, she increased the intensity of her work rather than hand over to people who were more experienced.
Her sense of personal responsibility, along with the way that councils’ social work departments and Kids Company were run, meant she felt she had little choice but to carry on. Over a period of some six months, her internal radar became out of sync as she entered one of the darkest depressions it’s possible to imagine.
She was unable to speak to people. Her bright clothing, lipsticks and winning smile were replaced by a sombre, withdrawn demeanour. I didn’t see her in this state, but a friend of hers said it was as if all the colour had been drained out of her.
She made a video tape in which she talked about her mental state and which reflected her utter confusion. She thought she had gone incurably mad, but didn’t want to let herself back into the system because she had felt so abused the first time round. In the psychiatric hospital ten years previously, she had been drugged up intensely; her body was bruised from being held down and she didn’t want to relive that trauma.
Nothing prepared me for this...
In all my years as a psychotherapist, nothing prepared me for this. I did the best I could as a father who deeply loved his daughter, and I tried to support her in any way I was able, including going to therapy with Melissa and her mother in an attempt to sort out our difficulties. As it was, we clashed during her struggles. Some of the things she said came across as obnoxious.
She came to a retreat centre in Skyros, where I was running a therapy group, and ranted at me, challenging my credibility as the director of the session in front of the other participants. At the time, all I could do was manage her. The way I see it now is that she was in deep pain and needed to be loved, met and contained.
Melissa reached out to me, but I was unable to fully find my own wisdom. I was already wounded around the concept of psychosis, or, as I viewed it then, real madness. My sister Beverly had had a nervous breakdown at the age of eighteen. She had been a promising actress, gaining the part of Brigitte in The Sound of Music on the West End stage. One night she began hallucinating. I can still hear her screaming, “The taxi drivers are coming to burn down the house.” Her condition worsened. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic and was given fifty-five electric shock treatments over the next few years. Her kidneys were damaged by her medication and she never regained her centre.
I was terrified of Beverly’s condition and of anyone who exhibited similar signs – a fear that I have explored in depth in my own personal therapy. It’s hard for us to see the profundity of another’s pain when they are so close to us.
When Melissa showed similar signs, I couldn’t get past my own frustration at her seeming intransigence, and I was unable to disidentify with my own need to care for and be cared for by her, and therefore respond dispassionately in the way that I might have done with a close friend, acquaintance or client, where it would have been easier to put myself aside. I saw her as not just mentally ill, but completely mad. I was scared. I just didn’t know how to fully embrace her in that place of illness and need. After around six weeks of languishing in the depths of depression and hopelessness, she left a suicide note that simply said, “sorry, x”.
When we arrive at a crossroads...
We know when we arrive at a crossroads; we are called to act differently, dispense with old ideas and seek new horizons. This call to alter direction often begins as a quiet unease which builds until the crescendo becomes unbearable and we have to make a change. Often it will arrive in the form of external events – a critical illness, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, or the loss of a child.
I couldn’t carry on being who I was in the wake of my daughter’s suicide. It was the worst thing that had ever happened in my life. However, some years on, I am able to say that Melissa’s death carried a hidden blessing: it made me examine myself with painful honesty. I dared to go further into the darker aspects of life, the shadowlands, which house the capacity for healing. This has enabled me to be of more value to my friends, family and clients in increasingly profound ways.
I realised that this tragedy had deepened both my commitment to relieve suffering where I have the capacity to do so, and my understanding that this was my life’s work. It’s hard to put into words, but the suffering and shock has given birth to an extra layer within me. In my heart, there is a burgeoning, richer experience. I live with more fierceness and meaning. I am aware of life’s temporary nature and the need to shine my light as brightly as I can.
Thriving in the face of deep instability...
Thriving in the face of deep instability is not easy; it always demands a level of discomfort. There is no magic wand that will make our troubles disappear and painful experiences vanish. The path may at times be devastating and we may feel stuck and fear that inspiration may never come again.
Equally, thriving isn’t about making life comfortable, fun and happy; it’s about finding purpose and making our own unique contribution. Meaningful, authentic living is about what we do with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Ultimately, thriving is not only possible – evolution demands that we expand to become what we can become. We can flourish, and keep our buoyancy, when things fall apart. Until we grow conscious of the patterns in our life, we’re like a pinball bouncing around from experience to experience. If we dedicate ourselves to practices that feed our self-awareness, we can start making wise choices that no longer make us a victim of circumstance.
Slay your dragons with compassion...
While everyone has their own unique path, many of the experiences and lessons underpinning the journey are universal. I’ve called this book Slay Your Dragons With Compassion because it’s one of my key explorations in groups. I use it to articulate the times when you have to speak uncomfortable truths to people, and when you have to face the delusion and obstinacy within yourself.
In order to thrive, we must confront our obstacles, our resistances, our self-loathing, our terror, our self-doubt. In the broadest sense, every challenge that blocks our way is a dragon we are called to slay. If we can meet the challenge head on, we will discover a treasure in our psyches, a transformation that has been waiting to evolve us.
These are the practices I think could have helped Melissa: a strong attunement to her internal navigation system; greater self-awareness; and practices in skills that ground and enhance us, such as the creation of a support system (what the Buddhists call a sangha) that would have seen beyond the common judgements of her condition. These could have saved her.
©2020 by Malcolm Stern with Ben Craib. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpted with permission f the publisher, Watkins,
an imprint of Watkins Media Limited. www.WatkinsPublishing.com
Slay Your Dragons With Compassion: Ten Ways to Thrive Even When It Feels Impossible
by Malcolm Stern and Ben Craib
Ten key teachings from renowned therapist Malcolm Stern. The book, which includes many exercises, is the distillation of over thirty years' experience in the therapy room and shows us that meaning can exist even in the worst tragedy. By creating a set of practices and making them central to our lives we can find passion, purpose, and meaningful happiness while navigating life's darkest moments in such a way that we discover the gold hidden within.
For more info, or to order this book, click here. (Also available as a Kindle edition and as an Audiobook.)
Another Book by this author: Falling in Love, Staying in Love
About the Author
Malcolm Stern has worked as a group and individual psychotherapist for nearly 30 years. He is co-founder and co-director of Alternatives at St James's Church in London and teaches and runs groups internationally. His approach involves finding where the heart is and helping individuals access their truth. His London One Year Group is the centrepiece of his work and has been successfully operating since 1990. In it he creates an environment of trust, integrity and community, where participants can become skilled in relationships, communication and managing difficult conversations. The ultimate learning is to Slay your dragons with compassion. Visit his website at MalcolmStern.com/