Monday, June 9, 2008

"Breakingdown, Breakingthrough...." Review

The following is the entire Review which appeared in both Breathe Magazine for Breathwork & Rebirthing, (UK) and The Healing Breath - a Journal of Breathwork Practice, Psychology and Spirituality, (US)

Margaret Coyne (2005): Breakingdown, Breakingthrough: My Thorn-Paved Road to Healing via Altered States and Near Madness. (Self-Published, Dublin, Ireland).

This book is about one woman’s difficult, often agonising journey to emotional and spiritual well being through Holotropic Breathwork. And what a journey it has been. In 1992 Coyne’s brother-in-law who was also one of her closest friends died. This kick-started a period of deep depression when she “couldn’t even bring myself to carry out basic hygiene functions” (p. x). The depression was characterised by frequent episodes of altered consciousness which she could not talk about to anyone. She was also drinking heavily. Finally, in early 1994 she met a therapist who eventually introduced her to Holotropic Breathwork. Over the next two and a half years she attended 30 breathwork sessions. Some were one day events, some held over three days. This book is the diary she kept throughout those years.

Coyne meticulously chronicled her breathwork experiences. Even if the diary entries were written immediately after each session, her power of recall is astonishing. Each session is documented, the insights gained are listed and even her feelings on each day following the session are set out under the headings of “morning”, “afternoon”, “evening” and “night”.

Coyne’s was a tough journey. She worked through incredibly painful feelings and experiences of childhood sexual abuse, fostering, adoption by parents who were at times nothing short of abusive, an eating disorder, her birth, multiple losses, etc. Her writing style is very direct, almost painfully so, as she evokes the pure terror of episodes in her life. The effect is that the reader can feel the rawness of the experience, the emotional wrenching apart of a child subject to abuse, of a baby being born, of a woman losing control of her life and desperately in need of help. The writing is at times powerful and it evokes deep empathy with the author and with the suffering some people have to go through in life.

This book is a very raw and real illustration of the pain that can arise from events children appear to have survived unscathed: birth, adoption, fostering…It’s also a very graphic description of what it is like to revisit the old wounds through Holotropic Breathwork. Coyne does point out that many holotropic sessions are quiet and peaceful, but the majority of what she describes was very dramatic as well as physically and emotionally painful. As a rebirther I certainly have never experienced or witnessed anything like what Coyne describes. I don’t know whether the anguish of her experience would put people off going for breathwork sessions or attract them. For this reason it might be risky to give this book to prospective clients. It could, however, be very valuable for existing clients who still aren’t sure of how the process of breathwork unfolds as well as for students of breathwork. It would be a worthwhile addition to the reading lists in schools of breathwork around the world.

At the end of her thirty sessions Coyne fell into a very deep depression for which she was hospitalised for a short time. She sees this as a spiritual emergence prompted by breathwork, rather than a breakdown. After the hospitalisation she took a break from breathwork. But for Coyne, it was all worth it. She was “privileged…to experience [her] suffering”. (p.251). The ‘breakdown’ “was in fact heralding the beginning of [her] breakthrough to recovery. Sadly, not everyone saw it that way” (p. xiii). She was heavily drugged in hospital and had a difficult time getting off Seroxat afterwards. Part of her hope in writing the book was to “encourage these people to reconsider their routine use of strong sedation of patients on their immediate admission to hospital, especially cases of deep depression”. She left hospital “high as a kite without ever once having dealt with the underlying cause of [her] depression” (p.250).

For people who have never been exposed to the phenomenon Grof describes as spiritual emergence, the concept can be tough to swallow. And this is where Coyne could really come into her own as an author. She has experienced it, she has been hospitalised and has survived. Her opinions therefore are not just based on a crazy theory. They have the credibility of experience behind them. But the emergence and hospitalisation come right at the end of the book. There is no room to go into detail about either and I think she needs to do this if she is to have an influence on the state mental health system. The book is self-published and therefore, as the author points out, does not benefit from the services of a professional editor. This is a pity. A professional editor might have curtailed the diary format which can be repetitive at times. This would have created space for a discussion of the spiritual emergence and the inappropriate treatment of it in hospital. Hopefully Coyne will turn her very obvious writing ability to this aspect of her experience in the near future. Such a book would have a good chance of attracting a publisher.

Catherine Dowling, Eire


Saturday, June 7, 2008

Depression: Still The Great Taboo

If you’ve ever spent time as an in-patient in a psychiatric hospital and later had to endure the pain of people treating you like you were some kind of oddball then you’ll know what I went through ten years ago following my admission for nine days to such an institution. I was severely depressed shortly after completing my thirtyieth Holotropic BreathworkTM session and both my therapist at the time and my family doctor felt I needed to be in a place where I could get the rest and treatment required to get me well again.

I definitely don’t remember the first three days in the hospital because seemingly it is psychiatric hospital policy to drug patients silly on admission probably to make life easier for the staff in cases where they’d be dealing with very distressed patients. The last thing I needed was sedation. What I needed was someone to listen to my pain and try to understand the weird feelings I’d been having during the previous few weeks, keeping me half stoned all the time wasn’t the way to go.

The hardest thing for me to deal with was when I arrived back in the real world and found people who meant a lot to me suddenly treating me as someone not to be trusted. A typical example was when I applied to work as a volunteer in my local childrens’ hospital and my friend who I’d asked to be my referee actually wrote to the hospital explaining that I’d been an in-patient in a psychiatric hospital. She never even discussed this with me before writing the letter. Luckily, I got the job and spent six happy years there until I had to quit because of a mild heart condition.

I put my friend’s action down to ignorance as a lot of people, even in this day and age still regard any form of mental illness, albeit in my case depression brought about by what’s known in transpersonal psychology terms as a spiritual emergency, as something to be greatly feared.

Ten years on I’m thankfully in excellent mental health and haven’t taken any anti-depressant medication for over eight years. My demons have finally been put to rest.