In 2015, when I was told that Issy had a plan to end her life, I took in the biggest breath. I was steeling myself for what was to come, trying to fill myself up with bravery and resilience and fight because I didn’t know what was going to happen or if I was strong enough. And I held on and on and on to it – through the darkest days and out into the light, I held that breath. It was my control and my comfort that I could do this.
When my step dad died suddenly in 2013, I took in an unexpected breath. Setting my grief aside, I didn’t know how it would affect my Mum and I knew I had to be there for her. So I took a deep breath in, believing I’d be able to let it out in a few months. But years on, that sensation had become so much a part of how I behaved that I forgot that I had taken in the breath or that I needed to exhale it.
We lost everything in 2001 when we had to close our business and I inhaled all the strength and hope I could and held onto it. My husband fell into a deep depression that lead to him being hospitalised several times, while I was literally left holding the baby (Issy) and Jack and tried to make sense of how to get us all through. That breath was my stabiliser. If I let it out, I had no idea what would collapse.
I’m not alone. I’m sure you’ve got a fair few tales to tell when you’ve held your breath – as a coping mechanism or a defence against the truth while you hope for change and hold onto hope or shield yourself from the difficult truths.
If we look at the physical impacts of literally holding our breath, for the first 30 seconds or so we can feel relaxed. We tend to tune out the noise and settle into relaxation. But then our body kicks in. We start to feel pain in our lungs. Carbon dioxide begins to build up in our blood and our stomach contracts as our diaphragm tries to force us to take a breath. We feel lightheaded as the oxygen in our bloodstream is pushed out. Then our body begins to shake as our muscles contract uncontrollably. Then we black out. Our body needs oxygen so it will render us unconscious so it can allow our automatic breathing mechanism to kick in.
Holding our metaphorical breath has a similar impact. At first you feel a sense of calm control. This will pass, it will soon be done. But as it doesn’t shift, the shock passes and the pain kicks in. You feel the emotional equivalent of light headed – displaced and disconnected. Then you might get angry or emotional – as you try and make sense of what is going on in this nonsensical experience.
And finally, instead of blacking out so your body can do what it does best, you simply step back from the reality of the world and shut down in a different way. Not breathing becomes the norm. Used to the pain, numb from the experience, shut down to any alternative.
Holding your breath, with all of the associated pain, becomes the norm.
You stop caring for yourself as you consider everyone else’s needs.
You no longer see the beauty in the world or the colours and connection in your life.
You don’t believe in the power of change.
You no longer dwell in possibility, one of my favourite places to be.
This summer, when I met my Mum’s lovely lockdown love and saw she had put down her grief and chosen her future, I was able to exhale. (And see that it had stopped me from grieving too.)
And as I’ve been going through therapy (because I want to let go of the childhood trauma that has defined me and I want to be a better me) I’ve realised how I’ve held my breath for so much of my life. For the first few weeks, I inhaled even more. I couldn’t help it. I simply couldn’t cope without that sharp intake of breath to protect me from the raw emotion that the sessions brought up. But gradually, I’ve been reminded to trust myself and my ability to cope. I’m a gold medallist at it! And so are you.
Self care and compassion has pushed away the condemnatory cacophony that has kept me isolated in the past, afraid to breathe out in case everything collapses and made space where I can trust in myself.
I can cope.
We will get through.
I am capable.
And so are you.
If you’re holding your breath, waiting for change, waiting for permission or a sign, this is it.
Gently exhale today.
You can inhale again tomorrow if you want to but for today, let’s let the breath out – before you black out emotionally.
How do we do that?
Acknowledge that what you’re going through is really hard. You don’t need to do a Quincy-esque investigation into the why’s and wherefores – it’s ok to just recognise this is HARD.
Acknowledge that you’re holding on. Maybe it’s not a metaphorical breath. Maybe it’s a physical clenching of your jaw or muscles or a frown. Maybe it’s the heaviness in your shoulders. Maybe it’s the sense in your chest that you can’t really ever relax.
Listen to what you need – is it to be heard? Is it a plan? Is it a bag of fun-sized chocolates you bought for trick or treaters who don’t ever come to your house? ( This may or may not have been my Saturday night!) Is it to have someone help you? How can you get what you need? (Hint: we are here to help you – post and ask for help!)
Give yourself permission to put today down. You’re not weak. You’re really flipping strong for carrying on, but you deserve to breathe it out today. Allow yourself to put down the future and be fully in the present. Whether you’re sitting in a hospital bay, at a desk you want to run away from, an all-consuming relationship you wish you could delete or a life you wish you could fast forward, you have this moment and you’ll never get it back.
Choose to feel it all. Choose to nurture yourself. Choose to allow yourself to let it out.
Do something that reminds you of your best you. Do something that makes you feel good. Maybe it’s a walk embracing the autumn colours, maybe it’s singing along to Disney songs while you make brownies ( I am amazed I still know all the words to many of them.) Maybe it’s saying yes to doing that course or making a bloody big vision board. Maybe it’s curling up on the sofa and binging Netflix.
It’s ok to listen to your needs. Being an amazing, caring, compassionate parent isn’t mutually exclusive from looking after yourself. And looking after yourself doesn’t mean you’re not looking after our child or family.
And then see how you feel tomorrow. If you need to inhale again, that’s ok. But know you can’t hold your breath forever. It’s not good for you – or your family.
Finally, I always found it hard to exhale because I didn’t think that was what strong people did. I’d been told by someone at some point in my teens that I ‘always’ gave up on things – which I now like to think of as being filled with curiosity! I’d been gifted an incorrect feeling that I should hold on to all the emotion and all of the pain, because giving up was bad.
Giving up is great! Trying new ways to feel good and find solutions is to be encouraged.
Give up the guilt and the obligation.
Give up the expectations and the assumptions.
Give it all up. Swipe it aside. What you’re left with is a space you can shape, one where you can build your resilience and your self belief and define the rules of your life.
So, let it all out today. Exhale and know that you can breathe. You can cope. You’ve got this.