Ghosts of compassion

This text is fictional inspired by various experiences I have had in and out of my therapeutic practice. Any resemblance to a real person or events is purely coincidental.

Image, Briton Rivière, Compassion; photoshopped by Ghost ren 3

Bruno loves riding his motorcycle; the vibrations going up his spine; the sensation of his body and mind united as he rides; the feeling that he is in full control of the engine.

Well, he used to like it. He still does, but for some time now, his motorcycle hasn’t left the garage. Now suddenly the thought of riding his bike scares him. 

I first met Bruno shortly after his grandfather’s death. Since his grandfather`s passing it seemed like nothing had gone right.  Bruno had been off work for quite a while and his anxiety just seemed to be getting worse.   For some reason, he told me, he just couldn’t accept the sudden loss of his grandfather.  Yes, of course, he loved his grandfather very much but “at his age, it was normal that he would die,” he thought.  “What was wrong with him that he was reacting in such a way?” He couldn’t stop blaming himself, and had the feeling that he was physically falling and mentally falling apart.  To make matters worse, he had recurrent images of himself slipping off his motorcylce, falling off his black Steed with no way to hold on. The bulk of his leather jacket and pants just made it worse. He remained frozen and trapped as these images, like a horror film, repetitively haunted him. 

We begin our work together with some breathing exercises.  I teach Bruno to breathe by inflating his belly on the inbreath and gently slowing down his outbreath. We practice together. He likes the mechanical side of it. He quickly understands that oxygen is the fuel for a combustion reaction in the body. The O2 molecules will release an electric current when they come into contact with the sugar-laden cell membrane. It is this reaction that releases the energy needed for the muscles to contract. The energy is converted, and CO2 is released. The more intensely he breathes, the greater the combustion. Hyperventilating, he realizes, is the basis of his anxiety attacks. He thinks back to those moments when he panicked on his motorbike. He had to stop to regain a sense of control. The heat, his heart beating at 200 mph, his head spinning, the feeling of losing control and most of all, the feeling that these sensations would never end.  It was a horrible experience. He didn’t tell anyone about it, but it kept coming back. Insidiously, the anxiety returned time and time again like a monster creeping up under his leather jacket. 

With the breath, he finds he regains a sense of control for the first time. He understands a little better what has happened and is reassured to have a diagnosis. “Okay, it’s a panic attack, but getting back on the bike is not an option,” he says. It’s not a lack of desire but the idea of having an accident that is still there. His wife and daughters are too important to him, especially since his second daughter has just been born and she is not well. 

In the weeks that follow, his daughter’s health deteriorates, and the prognosis is not good. For Bruno, he feels like his life is a living hell, but he wants to be there for his family. He goes to the hospital whenever he can. Our sessions continue but are less frequent.

One day he tells me that he has something to tell me that he is embarrassed about. He thinks I’m going to think he is crazy. I tell him that I’m the first crazy person in the room so not to feel shy. And he tells me. Lately at night, just before he falls asleep, he says, he sees his grandfather. He insists that it more than just his imagination. He actually feels him; feels his presence. Like a ghost, he is there and Bruno is not alone. Other loved ones who have died are also there alongside him. 

Our discussion continues:

Isa: “It’s more common than we imagine and in the context of what you’re going through, it can make sense.”

Bruno: “It’s ridiculous to think that there’s anything after death.” 

Isa: “Nobody knows what’s after. Objectively, there is no possibility to test a hypothesis on this subject. There are only beliefs. What is more ridiculous is to pretend to know. Everyone is free to believe or to feel as they experience things.”

But what he feels is fear. It terrorizes him. He feels threatened. He doesn’t understand what’s going on. 

He asks me: “Why are they here?

Isa: “What could be your grandfather’s motivation? You know him well. What would make him come to see you today when your child’s life hangs only by a thread?

Bruno: “Of course he wants to help me! That’s what he has always done, help me. Maybe he wants to be there to welcome my daughter from the other side?

Isa: “What do you feel when you think about that?”

Bruno: “I feel soothed, reassured that he is there, just in case. I will know that my daughter will not be alone.” 

Following this discussion, Bruno’s ghosts continued to visit him. But now, he says, they seemed different to him. They were no longer dark and scary, but were rather bright and comforting. 

Unfortunately Bruno`s daughter did not make it. It was a terrible ordeal, but he was able to stay connected to his emotions. He experienced the sadness of mourning with his family and his anxieties gradually began to fade away. He was able to say goodbye to his daughter and his grandfather at the same time. In retrospect he realized that his grandfather had always been like a second father to him. He had taken care of him when he was little, and he was the one who comforted him. Whenever he needed anything, he went to his grandfather. His grandfather took the time to listen without judging and Bruno felt his caring presence. Even when he wasn’t there, it was like he was watching over him. His sudden departure left him with a very profound feeling of loss. 

After feeling the sadness of losing both his daughter and grandfather Bruno was able to find comfort in thinking of them. He imagines them together. He sees his grandfather taking care of his daughter and he feels soothed. His anger faded and was replaced by a feeling of love, still with sadness, but gradually becoming more bearable. 

Bruno finally decided to sell his motorcycle. He was able to regain a sense of serenity when he thought about it. He even drove it again without difficulty, but felt that it was not the same. He went back to work, but he felt that he, as well, was not the same. Life has forced him to change. He has welcomed life`s uncertainties and has discovered both a new sense of balance and new desires within himself…

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Isabelle Leboeuf, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in Lille, France. She is an expert in social joy and compassion. In her private practice, she integrates hypnotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Compassion Focused Therapy. She is offering in October 2021 a workshop with Chia-ying Chou and Chris Fraser on ANGER, POWER and LOVE, a journey back to connection.

Leanne Rondeau is a psychologist who works in a college counselling service and in private practice. She is affiliated with La Clinique de Psychologie Celia Lillo in the Plateau area of Montreal. She offers workshops in English and in French in Compassionate Mind Training.

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