Barbara and I sat across from one another in straight-backed chairs. She suggested that I sit with my feet flat on the floor and my hands resting loosely on my thighs. Before, I was sitting with my arms wrapped around my waist. Barbara said something about being open, the way I was sitting now.

She asked me to close my eyes and focus on my breathing, watching the breath go in and out. Then she asked me to let the breath go all the way down to my feet and back up.

We went on like this for several minutes, taking the breath to different parts of the body. When we were done, Barbara asked what I wanted to talk about.

I didn’t know what to say. She asked me how I was feeling at that moment.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Once again, she told me to focus on my breathing, then asked if I could tell her how I was feeling in my body. I concentrated for a moment and noticed that my forehead felt dead, like a headache, but not quite. She asked me to describe the feeling.

“It’s a total deadness,” I said.

“And what about the rest of the body?”

“I can’t feel a thing. It feels as if everything is cut off at the neck.”

“Tell me what happened with David,” she said.

I didn’t know how to respond.

“How have you been feeling about it this week,” she asked.

“Dead. I’ve been feeling dead.”

“How are you feeling as you talk about it?”

“I don’t really feel anything.”

I felt bad not feeling anything. I would have liked to tell her something else. As I often did with people—trying to figure out and then giving them what they wanted to hear—I started to make something up.

Then I stopped. It didn’t seem right to lie to Barbara. Where was lying going to get me?

Barbara had me do some breathing and asked me where the feeling was. This time the feeling was in my stomach. Suddenly, I started to cry.

I cried about what happened with David. I cried about all the pain it had caused. I cried about how hard it was to feel.

I had hardly ever cried so much at one time and never in front of a stranger. Barbara’s eyes were a little watery when I looked up.

“It’s pretty sad,” I said, and she nodded.

I told her I was afraid from the start that David would leave me. The only thing that made me quit worrying was when he called. I worried like that with every man. And sooner or later, every man stopped calling.

I cried again and then Barbara said, “We’re going to have to stop now, but we can continue with this next week.”

I nodded and said, “OK,” relieved that I had made it through another therapy session. I had a whole week of freedom before I needed to do this again.

As I headed to the corner, I kept my gaze down, hoping no one would look too closely and see my red, puffy eyes. Luckily, I didn’t have long to wait for the J-Church streetcar to arrive.

I liked the ride down the hill even better than the ride up. The view of downtown San Francisco was glorious. Today, I noticed that the view was even better than usual, the sky a wonderful, deep blue.

Then I noticed something else. Where my forehead usually felt stuffed with cotton, the whole area above my eyebrows felt open and clear.

*****

Barbara started our next session by asking me how I felt about having to talk for an hour in therapy every week.

“It makes me nervous that I have to fill up the space,” I said.

“If you prefer, you could be silent. Would that make you uncomfortable?”

“Yes,” I said.

“What does silence mean to you?” she asked.

“Silence is wrong. It means something bad’s about to happen.

“Like in a relationship with a man,” I explained. “Silence is a signal that the relationship is nearing an end. I’m always looking for those signs. When I see them, I think I can turn things around. By talking.”

Barbara asked if my father was ever silent. I had never thought about it before. But there were days when my father sat silently by himself. I could feel the gloom hanging around him, temporarily replacing the air. I hated to be around my father at those times, never knowing when the silence might abruptly end and he’d lash out at me.

“How are you feeling,” Barbara asked.

I answered as I always did, “Dead. Dead in the head.”

At Barbara’s suggestion, I moved through my body with the breath. Today, she had me try something different. She asked me to imagine myself in the room with my father.

Breathing in and out, feeling my feet and ankles and on up to my legs, I pictured myself, a small, blond girl, with my father, who seemed so tall. I felt something in my stomach and the image I saw there startled me. No longer a little girl, I was an egg, soft-boiled without a shell, but with two enormous eyes that flitted around the edge of my egg-body.

I described the image to Barbara. Before I knew it, I was crying.

I could see now how my silent father made me feel: always on guard and afraid.

“We’re going to have to stop,” Barbara said. “We can continue with this next week.”

For the first time, I was aware that something was hidden in the blankness I had substituted for childhood memories. I didn’t feel like I had buried any deep, dark secret, like sexual abuse, but that I checked out of childhood for long periods of time because I felt so sad and scared.

*****

What I felt on those Tuesday therapy mornings could be summed up in a single refrain. “I feel bad. I don’t know what to do to feel better.” I was ashamed that it was taking so long to get over the demise of this latest relationship.

Most of my life I had travelled around a circle called feeling bad. Only occasionally did my normal feeling bad become darker, as it had of late. At those times, an endless tape played in my head, trying to find some way out.

It took being in therapy to realize the difference between my repeated turns around the feeling bad track and talking to Barbara. Barbara had the means to help me get off that track.

In therapy, I learned that most of the time I was incapable of experiencing feelings of anger, sadness and fear connected to the actual event or person that caused those feelings to emerge. What I ended up feeling was anxiety and depression. If something made me sad, I sunk down into a lingering despair.

I poured out my painful stories to Barbara, describing what happened and how bad I felt. But when Barbara asked, “What are you feeling,” I didn’t feel a thing.

Luckily, Barbara didn’t let it go at that. She wanted to know what nothing felt like and where I felt nothing in my body.

“In my head,” I always answered. “In my head.”

Feeling nothing was the equivalent of a dull throbbing in my forehead. Nothing was having cotton stuffed in the whole area above my eyes. Sometimes the cotton was packed so tightly it gave me a headache. Most of the time, the nothingness just made me tired.

Barbara was determined to help me transform that nothing into something. To do that, I had to move out of my head and into my body.

Each week, we began with Barbara asking me to close my eyes and focus on my breath, feeling my feet with my mind’s eye. From there, we moved up, letting the breath fill the knee and thigh, and on over to the right hand. Then Barbara would ask what I was feeling.

At this point, something miraculous usually occurred. The dull nothing feeling in my head was replaced, usually with some sensation in my belly. Often, I felt as if a pair of hands were temporarily hanging out down there. “It feels like twisting, wringing hands,” I would say.

The more we talked, the more I would feel a deep sadness welling up from under those hands. And then I would cry.

I caught the streetcar every Tuesday morning feeling like the deadness was going to swallow me. But during those fifty-minute sessions, I nearly always managed to move the deadness down into my body and feel.

Feeling for me meant crying, sometimes sobbing deeply for fifteen or twenty minutes. Afterwards, I felt immense relief. Feeling made the deadness go away. Feeling turned the world into a brighter place.

Read more on this topic in REMINDING MYSELF I’M NOT CURED: Using the breath to transform depression into feeling»

by Patty Somlo
image: business woman relax via Shutterstock