Heal your Aching Heart!
Recently we were joined on The Bridge Retreat by Mental Health Activist and Author, Bryony Gordon. Bryony joined us to…
August 15, 2018
“The car pulled up to a beautiful house in Somerset on a sprawling 42-acre estate. The sky seemed darker than it had been at London Waterloo where I’d caught the train hours earlier for the six-day retreat. It was April 2018, and I was at one of the lowest points in my life. I’d just closed my lifestyle business, I’d been having anxiety attacks and recurring nightmares, and I was depressed, grieving for a future that no longer existed. In my suitcase were some childhood photographs, a pendant inscribed with the word ‘love’ and a diamond ring. I was asked to hand in my phone on arrival.
I’d been to a retreat once before, in Arizona when I was 25, to a place designed to help the families of addicts. I had just checked my then-fiancé Matthew Mellon into rehab. I was stick-thin and hadn’t slept in weeks. Matthew was a difficult man to live with; he had a severe drug addiction and would go on month-long binges. There would be no recollection of the things he’d said or done when he came out of his stupor – it was always a humbling moment for him, to say the least. His ex-wife Tamara Mellon once said to me, ‘If you’re with Matthew, it’s always going to be this way.’ I eventually left him, although I still loved him.
But the Bridge Retreat wasn’t about addiction – it was about coming to terms with loss. As a group, we would process our individual losses, identify the things holding us back and work out how to move on through workshops, bodywork and meditation. Sessions were led by the founders, Gabi and Donna, who were both friendly and super-cool – a million miles from the hippie types I’d imagined. We ate meals around the kitchen table. The three chefs took food seriously, serving frittatas or oatmeal with berries for breakfast and soup and salads with homemade hummus for lunch and dinner. You couldn’t have chosen a more different bunch: 10 women and two men, each of us with our own lorryload of grief to unpack. No one had a story like mine.
I am 34 and I’ve already lost a lot in my life. First was my boyfriend Scot Young, four years ago, when he fell to his death from his penthouse window in Marylebone. The story was in all the papers which was incredibly difficult. We had split up two months before – Scot was getting into such a dark place, and I made a conscious choice to move into the light. When I heard the news, the very first thing I did was meditate. It sounds strange but Scot came to me in that meditation. He said, ‘I’m at peace, it’s OK.’
Grief involves three main feelings: sadness, anger and fear. They differ for each person and each circumstance but, ultimately, if you don’t deal with these feelings, the chances are they will go on to rule your life in ways you can’t control. At The Bridge we were encouraged to explore these emotions. The counsellors guided, nurtured and held us throughout. If that sounds cheesy, it wasn’t. I held the pendant (a gift from Scot) in those early sessions – it was a representation of my grief and looking at it was a reminder of how conflicted I still felt. It was then that I realised how much anger I was holding on to. Anger for the life I’d wanted us to build together, but that we never could. And anger for the situation he’d put me in. I had accepted his lying to me about money; I had seen him through two mental wards and three months in prison [for refusing to reveal his finances during his divorce case]. I was carrying this shit around every day, and the amount of emotional space it was taking up was colossal.
However, Scot’s death wasn’t the hardest part. A year later, I met a banker and fell pregnant with our son, Xander. He was a steady guy. There was no doubt in my mind that when we had a baby, we would get married; it was my one criteria, ever since I had been a child. When he told me the idea of being settled with a wife and a baby was too much for him, I was devastated. That’s where the bodywork helped.
Some of the more unusual sessions involved shuddering and shivering in front of the group, a technique that the founders described as ‘shaking’, based on the work of Dr Peter Levine. Animals ‘shake’ in times of distress, and the theory is that physical movement can help you to release traumatic, emotional distress. After all, you can sit and talk all you want – which many people do for years and years in therapy – but the body holds on to trauma. At first I was very self-conscious, but the feeling gradually disappeared. So, did my anxiety attacks.
There were moments of stillness, too. Twenty minutes of solitude each day was mandatory, so I went walking. There were no massages or spa treatments, and you weren’t allowed to do rigorous exercise, particularly running. The point was to stay with your emotions, not try to escape them. When I was alone, I wore the diamond ring, which I had bought for myself when I was in a good place. It was a symbol of endurance and faith, and wearing it brought a strange sense of empowerment.
At night we performed rituals in a forest on the grounds, inside a huge yurt or around a blazing bonfire. One ritual involved writing a letter to someone from the perspective of your childhood self, then reading it aloud in front of the group. Surprisingly, I addressed my letter not to Matthew, nor Scot, nor the father of my child, but to my own father.
My father was a distant yet controlling character – I’ve always wondered if I chose men who were similar to him. On the surface, both Scot and Matthew were emotionally aware; however, Scot was bipolar and Matthew’s dependence on drugs meant he was never actually available. I poured all my feelings into that letter and writing the words on paper helped to let go. Then I burned it on the bonfire.
The Bridge was transformative. In a way, I wish I had gone sooner – but perhaps I wouldn’t have been ready for it. Since the retreat, things have changed. My nightmares have stopped. I’ve not had a single one since I left. I still love a drink, or three, or four – but I no longer feel the urge to be out all the time. I’ve noticed a shift with men, too. My ex and I remain friends – we share Xander fifty-fifty – but the emotional tie has loosened. I still think about Scot every single day, but anger has been replaced by fondness. The Bridge teaches that you’ll never totally forget about someone you’ve lost, but being able to look back with nostalgia allows you to see the experience as a gift.”
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