How metaphors can help us to heal
Have you ever had one of those moments when something so horrible happens, time seems to stop and you are frozen with it?
This happened to me a few weeks ago when my husband fell and couldn’t get back up again. Falling down and getting back up is an analogy I use often in my work on resilience, as it’s a metaphor that most people can relate to in experiences they’ve had. It doesn’t usually hit home as literally.
And this was definitely an experience I won’t forget. Alan’s legs stopped working and he fell on the bedroom floor on the way to the bathroom.
It’s the early hours of Christmas eve, 2017. Alan has got out of bed and stumbles, crashing to the floor as soon as he doesn’t have the wall to hang onto. He has also bumped his head as he fell, and the bruising and swelling have already started to appear.
It’s kind of expected: as his MS worsens, we dread the days when he has bigger setbacks. They are happening more often now. The stark reality has set in, bit by bit, that these symptoms won’t ever get better. There is no cure, which we have both accepted.
Only moments after he has fallen, he says to me: “What if this is permanent?” The look of fear in his eyes and the way he says it convey a soul-wrenching agony that has the same effect within me.
In a split second I choose what to do….by thinking about what he needs in this moment. I say to him “It’s ok Alan, let’s just take it one step at a time. Just rest here for a minute and then we’ll get you up again.”
Oh God, I try to lift him and I can’t even sit him up. Let’s wait a bit longer and pray that this passes. I have to believe it to give him hope. To give us hope.
We pause and wait in the darkness for what seems like ages, every breath seeming like a wave of trepidation. Eventually he manages to get up to a sitting position and we start to talk about what we could do to get him through to the bathroom.
Something is lifting, like an energy that’s there to help us, and we begin to move upwards, somehow feeling supported. And with every millimetre, faith is building that this CAN work, he’s going to be ok (for now) by taking one step at a time and coping with the reality of it all by taking things slowly.
After that, I sit on the bed and wait so I can help Alan back into bed again when he’s ready. By then I’m in practical mode, and I’m working out how to be the best support so he doesn’t have to depend on his legs for the next inevitable visit to the bathroom. It happens another 5 or 6 times that night.
We find a way for me to stand steady in the middle of the floor, reaching out my arms for him to grab and lean on as he makes his way over, and it works! I feel a huge sense of relief, almost elation, which is such a contrast to the moments before. He’s been able to move, one step at a time, and together we get him up onto his feet to be able to lean on the wall.
So we did it. We found a way through…this time. And it has given me faith that we will find a way, somehow, with everything else that will come along.
We got back up again.
Exploring with metaphors
Metaphors often pop into our minds that are symbols or representations of what’s happening at a deeper, unconscious level. Apparently we use several metaphors per minute! Generally they describe one thing in terms of another, e.g. "like a whirlwind", "life is like a merry-go-round", "a bull in a china shop".
These metaphors hold powerful clues that can help us to heal, if we allow ourselves to open up and explore.
The use of metaphors has been developed within NLP and Clean Language, originally founded by David Grove, modelled and developed by many experts since. Over the past few months I have invested in a qualification as a Foundation Level Clean Language Practitioner, to continue to learn tools and structures that support my clients. These are incredible techniques and I have discovered how much they can support me too.
In this case, I began to notice metaphors coming up when I wasn’t really thinking about it, as if they were emerging from my subconscious. Here are some examples and how they helped me to steer into the difficult emotions, and heal in a way that felt very natural.
Getting back up again
Sometimes metaphors can be around movement. Alan and I did literally get back up again, but it was also central to our emotional recovery, in a metaphorical sense. Our whole being was affected by this experience, on the way down, while sitting there, and on the way back up again.
A seed of sadness
As I sat with the feelings and memories of what was a pretty distressing experience, I realised that I was still holding onto some emotional and psychological aspect of it that needed acknowledgement and healing. (I want to emphasise at this point that Alan has had his own experience of this, which is much worse than mine as he has the disease, but I can care for him better if I care for my needs too.)
And the metaphor: the bit I’d been holding onto is like a silvery seed, about the size of my pinky nail. I am aware of the sadness and distress that is held within it, and I don’t know what to do with it.
(I hope you’re still with me – I’m accustomed to exploring experiences in this way, and I forget sometimes that it’s new to others and can sound a bit unusual!)
I ask myself the Clean question: “What do I want to have happen?”
The answer: I want to bury the seed away somewhere dark for now - it is Christmas after all - put it away where I can’t see it, and certainly no one else can see it, and deal with it later.
As those words come into my head I have already pictured myself burying it away, deep down inside. It helps, but I can still feel it a little bit and I know there’s more I have to do later to face this, when the time is right.
A few weeks later, my awareness builds again that the seed is still there, and it feels like it wants (needs?) something now. It’s like a part of me that wants to be acknowledged. I have a vivid image of the seed again, even to the point that I know where it is inside my body, it’s rattling around in the bottom left of my ribcage, under my heart. I can feel it.
And I ask myself the clean question: “And what does this seed want to have happen?”
The answer comes straight away: it needs light, like a kind of love. It wants to be acknowledged and loved and it wants to grow.
As those words emerge, I imagine a heart-shaped hole opening up, right where my heart is, and a beam of light shines in onto the seed. Like time-lapse photography, a little green shoot begins to wind its way out of the seed casing, growing and seeking the light. The love it seeks is already there, I notice. It’s getting bigger and bigger, like a beanstalk, and eventually flower heads appear.
I smile. It’s a hydrangea, my most favourite flower which I associate with happy, sunny holidays. Most recently in beautiful West Cork in Ireland, and in the past, Jersey, Brittany, Cornwall, and many other places. Very happy times with memories that will never fade or darken. Very much in the sunshine and beaming bright light. And full of love.
The flowers are pale blue with lilac and lavender tinges round the edges, moving
slightly as if in a breeze, heads bobbing gently and bringing a cheery presence through the memories associated with them. I sit with them a while…… and then begin to notice they are starting to fade round the edges, now beginning to wither like the natural circle of life. I don’t resist, react, or long for them to stay. They’ve had their time, and they will always be beautiful, colourful and bright…just like my memories will never fade of our wonderful family holidays together.
I feel a sense of ease with this natural ebb and flow of life, accepting it is just as it is, without wanting to change it, stop it or slow it down. The stems are withering now, going from bright vibrant green to a faded grey, shrinking and becoming smaller. Eventually they disappear as if they’ve evaporated, with a final zing of energy that fades gracefully away into the space around it.
The two halves of the seed casing fall open, empty, side by side. The silver has faded a little, becoming more grey. I contemplate these empty pieces for a moment, imagining I hold one in each hand, and as I take a deep breath out I feel at peace, a healing warmth running through and out of my body as I let go.
I am silent and still for some time after that, allowing the feelings to flow, and eventually the vivid pictures in my imagination gently fade away, like being set free. I feel a strong sense of connection and wholeness as this experience is part of me now, part of my learning and resilience, knowing that the “waves keep coming” and there will be more challenges to face on the road ahead.
And we’ll get back up again.
If you would like to know more about metaphors, click the links below or get in touch for a complimentary consultation if you would like to explore this from a personal perspective.
NLP Practitioner Training with me - a great foundation for all of this work, and an opportunity for personal and professional development - September and October
Clean Language and Metaphors - James Lawley and Penny Tompkins
Clean Language Training programmes in Scotland - Tracy Archibald Associates - highly recommended!
Falling down is part of life… - my first ever blog post about the story so far with Alan's MS