HOW TO HEAL

THE TIMES 15.06.05

In 1982 when I was seventeen years old my mother, or Tate as we called her, started teaching me to drive. Coming home from school one sunny July day I made a mistake and we ended up nose first in a ditch. (Neither of us were wearing seatbelts and my mother went through the windscreen.) She died immediately, in a blinding crash of glass and smashing steel, right next to me. In a matter of moments my world shattered. On top of the grief and horror of it all was the crushing guilt: my mother was dead and it was my fault. I had taken my mother's life from her; stolen this woman who was wife, mother, sister, friend to so many. How could I ever make up for that?

I wished I was dead too, but I wasn't, so somehow I had to cope and I had no idea how to do that. All I knew was that I didn't deserve anything. I didn't deserve to cry or to be helped or comforted because I had killed her. I was also terrified by the intensity of the pain and grief that raged inside me. But in my family, like so many British families, we never talked about our feelings or admitted that we were hurt and I had spent my childhood learning how not to feel, so I didn't know that there was a grieving process or that feeling is actually vital to healing. Instead I did the only thing I could do, I buried my feelings as deeply as possible and hoped they would go away. They didn't.

One Saturday afternoon I was shopping in a department store, when I was suddenly enveloped by an unmistakable smell. The smell of lilies. The smell of my mother. I looked around me with a wild surge of hope. Surely it had all been a dreadful mistake and here she was at last! The smell had come from the other side of the shelf and before I even had time to think, I dashed around, expecting to find her standing in the next aisle. Instead there was a young woman with a bottle of Diorissimo, Tate's favourite perfume, in her hand. I stood there for a moment gaping like a mad woman. Then it hit me. It had been over two years since Tate had died and yet I felt a wave of disappointment and shock go through me, as fresh and powerful as if I were learning of her death for the first time. My legs buckled underneath me and I lurched out of the shop, heart pounding, mind reeling.

I was at University and I staggered onto the bus back to my hall of residence and sank down in a seat by a window. I was trembling all over and I wrapped my arms tightly around my body, as if to prevent myself from falling to pieces. It was shocking to discover that the grief and devastation of it all hadn't miraculously gone away and sitting there on the bus, I understood for the first time how seriously hurt I was. Separated from my day to day consciousness by a thin, frozen layer of denial lay a wound so big I had no idea what to do with it, except go on acting as if it wasn't there.

How, I wondered, am I meant to live with this? Is this it? Do I just keep pretending to be fine, while all along I have got this aching, gaping, living wound inside me? Or is there a way to heal? I didn't know anyone who could answer that question. I knew plenty of people who were in pain, because I could see it clearly written across their faces. But no one I knew had figured out how to heal it. Endure it, yes. Transform it? Was that even possible?

Not long after this, I was talking to a friend called David, whose life had also been turned upside down by tragedy when his mother committed suicide the year before. "Nothing matters anymore," he said, nursing his pain over a cup of coffee in the student common room. "I am only here because I have got to be somewhere." As I listened to him I suddenly saw how his life had been taken hostage by his past, because of all the feelings he was unable to resolve. And I realized that the real tragedy is not that difficult things happen, but that we can be affected by them for a lifetime, because we don't know how to heal.

"I understand how unhappy you are," I said to him. "We both are. But I am sure it doesn't have to be like this. We can't change what has happened, but we can choose how it affects us. Right now we are imprisoned by the past, because we don't know how to deal with it. But there must be a way to heal the pain and despair. A way to get free. I don't know what it is or how to do it - but I am determined to find out."

And I walked out of the coffee bar feeling full of hope and optimism - for me, for David, for anyone who was trapped and hurting. But then my guilt stopped me in my tracks. "David is different," a grim inner voice reminded me. He deserved to heal, because he was innocent and I was not. The accident slowly replayed in my mind's eye as it had hundreds of times before and I felt suddenly ashamed. How could I have forgotten? And my hope and determination drained away.

And so I went on. Six years later I had a successful career in television making documentaries. I had bought a flat, which I shared with my boyfriend and one of my best friends. We redecorated, planted the garden and had friends over for dinner. As much as they could be these were happy times. But the gap between how I appeared to be and the pain I felt on the inside was greater than ever. I was still sure that it was possible to heal and over the years I had occasionally thought about seeing a therapist, but my guilt stopped me every time. "I killed my mother," I would remind myself harshly, "of course it hurts. What else do I expect?"

And this is the problem with guilt. It is such a powerful feeling and it has its own rules and logic, which means that you can't think rationally or see what is actually true. So that even after eight years I still didn't believe I deserved to grieve or heal. Until I saw someone else who was just like me. One evening in the spring of 1990 there was a documentary about people who had been involved in fatal accidents. All the stories were harrowing, but it was a nurse who touched me most. As she was driving home from work a child ran out between a row of parked cars. She had no chance to brake or swerve and she hit the child, who died immediately.

She was devastated by it. "If only I could have stopped..." she lamented. "If only I had driven another way..." "I will never be able to forgive myself…" The grief and misery she felt was etched across her face, but despite her obvious anguish and sincerity, I felt no sympathy for her. In fact I felt angry. It was so clearly not her fault that it seemed ridiculous for her to go on torturing herself.

And suddenly I got it. Deeply shaken, I saw that the nurse was a mirror for my own situation, because we were both blaming ourselves for something completely beyond our control; and I finally realized I was not actually responsible for Tate's death, because even if the accident was my fault, the outcome of it was not.

In that tiny, stony gap between cause and effect, forgiveness took root and flowered. The burden of guilt that I carried for eight long years melted away. For days I was filled with euphoria. I wanted to dance, sing, leap, fly, dive, soar. I felt all the delight of a prisoner sentenced to death who is suddenly found innocent. It was not my fault, I chanted to myself over and over again and each time it hit me with the amazing freshness of a revelation. Not my fault! Not my fault! I didn't kill her!

It was a pivotal moment for me in coming to terms with my mother's death. But it turned out to be only the first step in healing and I would discover that were two further stages. The second was to learn how to deal with all the feelings I had buried inside me. But even though I didn't know how to do that, now I could at least give myself permission to find out. And as it happened the answer came quite unexpectedly.

In October I went to visit my Godmother Joan in Oregon. The week-end after I arrived she and her two sons were going on a personal-growth workshop and they invited me to join them. "Sure," I replied, not having the faintest idea what would be involved.

It was run by a couple called Gary and Christie and on the Saturday afternoon Christie began doing one-on-one healing work with people. "The problem is not that tragic or difficult things happen," she explained. "The problem is that we try to push away our grief and anger and hurt. But that doesn't work and we end up living in constant pain, because the truth is you have to feel it to heal it… Now does anyone have anything they'd like to work with?"
I was surprised when Joan put her hand up. But I was completely amazed when she said: "I'd like to volunteer Catherine."
"Can you tell me what happened?" Christy asked.
I struggled to describe the accident and tears began to trickle down my face.
"Its okay," she said, reassuring me. "You can tell us. How did you feel?" As I answered her questions, a tremendous shift was taking place in my body. My chest was cracking open like the earth's crust and the emotions I had buried for so long began to surface. Finally my entire body turned to liquid and my grief poured out in deep, wrenching sobs.

When I came back to England I started therapy, which I found tremendously useful, because it not only helped me continue healing from Tate's death, but to unravel and sort out the rest of my past too. Over time I began to explore more deeply and I discovered that underneath the layers of hurt and misunderstanding there was an innate indwelling sense of happiness and wholeness and I realized that this is our natural state of being. The trouble is that the wounds we carry prevent us from experiencing it, just as the clouds block us from experiencing the light of the sun. But, the good news is that it is possible to reclaim it no matter what has happened.

And so my search for healing gradually revealed itself to be a spiritual journey. Because while most psychotherapy stops at the level of the mind and the emotions, the spiritual journey connects us to the source of that indwelling happiness and wholeness - the great mystery we so often refer to as God. .

As a die-hard atheist, God was the last thing I ever expected to find. But I don't mean the God of the Bible, I mean the invisible ineffable presence that is the source of all life. So the third and ultimately the most profound stage of healing involves coming back home, back to the source of our being and to the love and peace and joy that is our birthright.

The chances are that I would have made this journey even without Tate's accident, because I believe that in the depths of our soul we all have the longing to wake up and discover who we really are. But the gift of Tate's death - and there is a gift in every experience no matter how difficult or painful - is that I was hurting so badly I had no choice but to embark on my journey home.