Letting it all go at Penninghame therapy retreat in Scotland

Jane Alexander reviews an immersive week of psychotherapy in the Scottish lowlands and feels safe and held enough to face her issues head-on

As I took the long journey up to Penninghame, I didn’t know quite how I felt. I knew I had a raft of ‘issues’ floating around. Some I understood (depression following my father’s early death was an easy one) but others had no clear origin. Equally I felt unconvinced that a week’s retreat could hold the answers.  I knew I had put a very firm lid on my ‘stuff’.  In therapy I would get so far and then come up against a fortress-like wall – I would simply close down.

Yet Penninghame opened up my Pandora’s box – absolutely everything grim and ghastly in me came pouring out – and it was the most incredible liberation. The very first morning, during our initial dynamic meditation, I found myself curled up in a ball, sobbing uncontrollably. The next day my crying turned into a scream, so primal, so loud, I nearly deafened myself. The third day my heart started beating erratically, my hands wouldn’t stop shaking.  I was in deep fear and, true to form, every time I felt uncomfortable I would vague out, almost going unconscious.  There was so much I didn’t want to face.

Over the following days I plunged deep into my psyche in a way I never imagined I could.  Gradually, as the days passed, I felt safe enough, held enough, to let everything go – all the ego constructs, all the body armouring, all the repressed and hurt feelings. It was intense, often exquisitely painful, yet wildly liberating and deeply beautiful as the barriers came down.

The breathwork sessions were extraordinary.  Many people said they felt blissful, transcendental, but for me it was a far darker journey down the rabbit hole. I ‘went back’ into my mother’s womb and found it, not a place of safety, but one of fear.  I knew, on a cerebral level, that my mother had had miscarriages and abortions but here I experienced those lost siblings on a visceral level. I also confronted my abusive grandfather and came to understand that my family’s dark legacy of abuse, addiction, depression, self-harm and suicide stretched back generations.  Yet, rather than simply talk about it, I was able to process it through my body. During one session, my back arched and my torso writhed and squirmed. My hands cramped into claws as I scratched and scrabbled at the mat.  There were moments when I thought I might actually lose my mind as every childhood nightmare played out before my tightly shut eyes. Yet someone was with me all the way, checking in on me, holding my hand, keeping me safe.

‘The breathwork sessions were extraordinary. Many people said they felt blissful, transcendental, but for me it was a far darker journey down the rabbit hole’

Please don’t get the idea it’s all grim catharsis.  Not everyone underwent my intense soul-scourging and even I experienced times of bubbling joy and wild laughter, alongside the tears.The whole process had a mythic quality – I felt like the hero (and equally the wicked witch, the fire-snorting dragon and several cohorts of foul-smelling ogres) of my own fairy tale, hacking through the dark forest and fending off ravaging monsters to reach the magic castle. I came home with no voice, aching arms (don’t ask) and a slightly wild and proselytising look in my eye.  I felt a blissful sense of freedom from the past and from past programming, and a firm commitment to my own needs and inner peace. My home life, which had been difficult, to put it mildly, started shifting in ways I would never have imagined.

Six months later I returned to Penninghame for Step 2 of the Process (it’s not remotely obligatory but is there as an option for those who want to go deeper with the work).  It felt like coming home.  While this second week wasn’t as dramatic as the first, it brought yet more insights. Inevitably there was more to be mined from the past but the emphasis gently shifted into how to move forwards, how to design a vision for the kind of life you really want to live. I took on board that I am responsible for my own state of mind and that I can choose whether to stay in suffering or not – it was a seismic shift.  I left bursting with positivity and creativity.  I also found I had the tools to kick depression into touch.

Above all, I was amazed at how things changed with my husband.  Adrian and I talked more honestly, more openly, than we had for over 20 years.  Our entire relationship shifted and, a year later, he announced, quite out of the blue, that he wanted to go to Penninghame. I was sceptical – this was a man who had never meditated, who had never been remotely interested in ‘finding himself’.  Yet he said he couldn’t help noticing the effect it had had on me, and he wanted the same for himself.  To say he came back a different man is an understatement. ‘Penninghame gave me the tools to deal with the stresses and strains and anxieties of life,’ he says. ‘Not every process worked but the ones that did have made me a happier and more capable person.’

Now I am just hoping that my son and my wider family and friends will follow suite.  If this work were available to everyone, I firmly believe our world would be a very different place.