Over the autumn and winter my sister and I have been moving our elderly mother into sheltered housing and selling the family home that had been a solid and reliable part of our lives almost since we were toddlers.
Yesterday my sister called to say she was making one final trip to Meadow Cottage to take to the tip -amongst other things – our cot. This is the blue, wooden cot with a lamb motif our parents bought second-hand in 1965 and in which we slept from the moment we were picked up from children’s homes, both adopted as babies. Nearly 50 years on, it’s the cot in which all of our own children have also slept whenever they visited their Nana.
I said my own goodbyes to Meadow Cottage just before Christmas. Since then I have dreamt about it almost every night: sad dreams of anguish and longing.
I’ve dreamt of my first pet, a black cat called Lotti, who is buried in the field behind the house; of the garden and its apple trees, rhubarb and gooseberries and fears they’re being smothered in tarmac by the new owners; I’ve dreamt of my dad, who celebrated his 64th birthday with balloons at the end of his downstairs bed just a week before his death from leukaemia in 1995; I’ve remembered my parents’ blank helplessness at my tears at times I’ve felt rejected or lonely. It seems the loss of this lump of bricks and mortar has set off a ricochet of other, never-forgotten losses.
Looking back from the vantage-point of my 48th birthday in October I could see only a landscape of longing and what-ifs. Looking forward I could see old age engulfing my mum and snuffing out her options. For a while the sadness laid me low. In between 300-mile round trips to empty the old house I could only just summon the energy to teach yoga, cook and take the kids to and from school.
Anything more than that seemed too much effort and somehow pointless. I lay on the sofa and watched detective dramas. Washing lay in piles; dust gathered; dishes sat in sinks. My yoga practice dwindled and I eat far too much chocolate.
And through all this I knew that one of the core teachings of the spiritual tradition of yoga is that “attachment is suffering”; it’s clinging onto things, ideas, thoughts, that causes our pain. “Letting go” is what we practise over and over again on the yoga mat, but I was finding it oh-so-hard to let go of Meadow Cottage and all it had come to represent in the 43 years I’d called it home. It felt like letting go of a part of myself.
Eventually, in the run-up to Christmas, I began to pull out of the gloom. The prospect of seeing old friends over the holidays gave me something to look forward to. And a number of other things also really helped:
Admitting I was depressed
It’s not a word I’d ever used about myself before. Sad, upset, angry, demoralised sometimes, but not the feeling of pointlessness that characterises depression.
Talking about it
The first person I really talked to about how I was feeling was my husband. And what was great about the way he listened was that he didn’t try to solve it; he just acknowledged how rotten I was feeling. That gave me the confidence to mention it to other people – not necessarily the full multi-coloured glory of my self-pity, but I put up a few flags saying, “I’m finding things hard at the moment,” and was greeted only with sympathy and support.
One of my friends recommended using Moodscope – an online mood-tracking application. Every day you answer 20 questions and it plots your mood over time. This helped me see patterns and changes from day to day, counteracting the feeling that the depression was a huge, immovable mass that might last for ever.
My usual, rather gentle, yoga practice didn’t feel helpful, so I made myself go out for some runs. Even if I didn’t run far or fast, just getting out into the park, in fresh air and daylight and feeling my heart and body pounding, somehow made more feel possible.
The one aspect of my yoga practice that did seem to help was pranayama – breathing exercises. In particular, bellows breath, quite a dynamic practice of “pumping” the air in and out of the lungs using the abdominal muscles. Whenever I started the day with five minutes of this, I felt more energetic and more able to cope.
Doing something for someone else – and myself
Around this time the quarterly newletter from the Prison Phoenix Trust plopped through the letter box. It’s an organisation that trains and supports yoga teachers in prisons. The testimonies of people who’ve managed to turn their lives around by practising yoga and meditation while incarcerated are inspiring, so I signed up to support them more regularly and embark on their training for would-be teachers of yoga in prisons. By doing something for someone else, I started to feel more capable and motivated.
I started going regularly to the local choir I had only occasionally managed to get to earlier in the year. I found the experience of adding my voice to others and somehow between us creating a beautiful sound quite exhilerating. After our Christmas concert in the White Lion pub in Streatham, my eight-year-old son rushed up to me beaming: “That was amazing, mummy – I never knew you could do things like that.” I was crying again, but happy tears this time.
Since the new year, I’m still sad that our beloved old home is gone to us. But I’m focusing on a daily practice of 10-20 minutes meditation to see if I can gradually develop a stronger sense of equilibrium, being present to my feelings but less attached to what has long-gone. Occasionally, through the repeated attempt to quieten the twinges of my body and the thought-and-memory-chasing activity of my mind, I get a glimpse of another more constant me: one that is always here and always has been.