Breakingdown, Breakingthrough

- by Margaret Coyne -


Following the untimely death in 1992 of my brother-in-law, who was also my very dear friend, I began to behave in a really strange way.

During the subsequent months of deep depression when I couldn't even bring myself to carry out basic hygiene functions, I found myself going into some truly weird states of mind on a very regular basis.

These episodes would usually occur in the morning when I'd return to bed after my two boys left for school. I'd be lying on my back when suddenly, for no reason, my body would start to move and I would begin to scream. Usually I would end up, still on my back, with my head hanging over the edge of the bed, choking and spitting and frantically trying to free myself from some imaginary restraint.

Of course, I couldn't talk to anyone about these strange occurrences simply because there was no way of explaining thern that wouldn't make me sound like I was completely off my trolley. So, instead I learned to live with them.

Around the end of 1992 I sadly had to give up a voluntary job that I loved, working with first-time mothers and their babies, because by then I was drinking heavily. By the time the boys would come home from school, which was at two o'clock and three o'clock respectively, I always managed to appear quite sober.

Then, as soon as homeworks were over the drinking would start again and continue on and off throughout the evening. I thought I was so clever because no one ever seemed to notice how pissed I was a lot of the time.

In the September of '92 I began seeing a therapist for one hour once a week. During the few months I attended her I discussed everything, well almost everything, except my drinking. The actual admittance only came about because one morning, having arrived late, hungover and very tearful, I felt I could no longer keep this awful secret to myself.

By Christmas of the same year I'd reached such a state that if my husband and I were going out for the evening I'd have to have about four whiskies before I even left the house. That's how far gone I was. Things got worse before they got slightly better.

1993 saw me at my lowest, by the end of which I almost choked to death one evening during one of my hellish binges. The saddest thing of all was that the children had seen me in some of my worst states and for a seven and ten year old that must have been really scary. Unfortunately, I can never erase those memories for them but I hope some day, when they are old enough, to explain what was happening for me during that awful period. I can only pray that in time they'll forgive me because I know that deep down they still carry that anger inside, even if it is unconscious anger.

It was in January 1994 that I had the good fortune to meet Alan, a therapist, who would over the course of the following four years, help me through some of the most difficult times of my life.

Being able to explain my horrific screaming episodes plus my ever- increasing desire to die, to someone who was not going to judge or condemn me gave me the strength I needed to make it through another day.

Towards the end of '94 I began to feel an overwhelming need to explore my strange behaviour which had by then become an almost everyday occurrence. It had not only begun to take over my life it also at times threatened my very sanity and I knew that the only way l was going to stop this terror was to face it head-on in a safe and loving environment. Having considered the many options available at the time, Alan finally suggested an experiential process known as Holotropic Breathworktm.

Basically, this process involves reaching an altered state of consciousness through deep rapid breathing and the use of heavy drumbeat music, usually of an ethnic nature (i.e. Native American, Australian Outback or African). The term "holotropic" comes from the Greek word "holo" meaning "wholeness" thus the aim is to deal with the "whole person" rather than just his/her symptoms.

Over the course of the next two and a half years (January 1995- June 1997) I attended many one-day and week-end workshops, completing thirty breathwork sessions in all. Following each session I kept a journal, detailing, not only my personal journey (when writing them up I didn't intend to use the present tense, it just came out that way), but a seven-day follow-up record of my physical and emotional states plus notes on insights and feelings between each session. l now feel ready to share these personal voyages.

The purpose of this book is to try and give hope to those searching for the courage to face their demons head-on. I wish I could say that it will be all fun and games, but I can't because for the most part, it will be anything but. Whenever we return to painful experiences in our lives, whether through regression, writing or even in discussion with others, we reopen old wounds that had never quite healed in the first place. It is only in reconnecting with that pain and allowing ourselves to re-experience the experience that we can begin to heal.

For me, the learning process was in meeting so many other people who, like me, were also seeking to understand their fears and anxieties and discovering that I wasn't the only person in this world who was having a rough ride through life.

Probably the greatest discovery I've made through all my years of therapy is that while I'll never be able to change what happened in the past or my lifelong psychological reaction to those painful events, I've learned to a great extent why I am the way I am.

During the process of dealing with all my emotional shit I spent a short while in a psychiatric hospital because I came dangerously close to what the mental health profession call madness (the book, it is hoped, might also encourage these people to reconsider their routine use of strong sedation of patients on their immediate admission to hospital, especially cases of deep depression). I now know that my breakdown was in fact heralding the beginning of my breakthrough to recovery. Sadly, not everyone saw it that way.


The three main issues that my Holotropic BreathworkTM sessions seem to have dealt with are:

1) my birth;
2) feelings of isolation/abandonment;
3) sexual abuse (childhood).

Others, to a lesser degree, have been humiliation, giving birth, being restrained, dying, anger of unknown origin, etc. In order to give some idea of how these issues relate to my life experiences I will begin at my beginning.

Forty nine years ago I arrived into this world with my head securely gripped by cold steel forceps and weighing a healthy six pounds six ounces. My mother, who was unmarried and forty one years old at the time of my birth, had pre-eclampsia and later had a postpartum haemorrhage which resulted in her having to remain one month in hospital. I was with her for all that time.

Following her discharge with me, we spent one week in a hostel for homeless women during which time she would have taken total care of me. It was at the end of that week that I was taken away for adoption and she returned home (her parents never having known of the pregnancy). I'm certain that this is where all my insecurities and feelings of abandonment stem from.

The next two and a half years were spent with several foster families and also included a five-month stay in hospital suffering from pancreatitis. It seems that my health during that period was, to say the least, in a very poor state. For most of the time it appears l had almost permanent gastric problems, which I now understand were probably my food intolerances.

While living with my last long-stay foster family I was finally adopted at the age of two years and three months. (Another huge separation experience).

All of the above information I have obtained from the Adoption Agency, the hospital where I was born and the Sister at the hostel who very kindly told me my mother's name and age.

Shortly after my adoption I was lucky to survive a bout of double pneumonia but while my physical health was still a big problem, I think my mental state was proving an even bigger cause for concern.

It took me a while to get used to my adoptive father because seemingly whenever he took me on his knee I would scream. I don't remember this nor do I remember screaming every time my mother tried giving me a bath. In fact, apart from these instances, it appears I never cried at all. Not only, did I not cry, I didn't talk. Not a single word. I also didn't walk. I have a vague memory, probably sometime before I was three, of pulling myself along the living-room floor on my backside.

One thing I do remember clearly is sitting a lot underneath a chair playing with shoes. As I had no interest in toys and couldn't talk, it looks like this was my secret hide-away where I could be happy in my own little world.

Up until the age of five, when I wasn't sitting under my chair or playing with my imaginary friends in the garden, I would sleep for around eighteen hours a day, unconsciousness being a temporary refuge from my pain.

Another bout of double pneumonia when I was about five years old meant I couldn't start school. Also that year I went into hospital for a tonsillectomy, the memory, which to this day remains painfully vivid. I remember arriving on the children's ward, its dark walls and huge black cots reminiscent of a modern day Romanian orphanage. The staff weren't much fun either. When my mother had to leave and I became hysterical, not one person came to comfort me. I imagine I dealt with that by sleeping through the remainder of the evening.

The following day I was given a pre-op enema and because I was very distressed the nurse slapped me on the thigh and told me to behave myself. Later on, while curled up under the bedclothes and still upset, I was sick. It being just clear fluid, that same nurse accused me of wetting the bed and refused to believe otherwise. Following my tonsillectomy I was transferred to an adult ward where I spent two weeks crying under the bedclothes and refusing to eat.

It was when I was around six years of age that my parents decided to tell me I was adopted. Basically they told me that I was a punishment from God to my mother because I was born before she was married. They said that part of her punishment was that she couldn't even look at me, let alone love me when I was born so I was immediately given up for adoption. Every time I wanted to talk about my mother they told me she wasn't worth talking about and always referred to her as "that bitch" so, as a result I spent the following thirty four years believing that my natural mother hated me and never held me. That's an awful lot of hurt. There were many many times when I felt that instead of emotionally killing me, if only they had physically killed me instead, then all the anguish would have ended so much sooner. By the tender age of six, I had sunk into the beginnings of a depression that would strike after each monumental life event. It's hard to imagine a child so young not wanting to go out to play, just lying on the couch every day crying and not knowing why they are crying.

Probably the worst experience of my early childhood happened when I was eight years old. Whenever I was on school holidays and certainly every Sunday morning I would take our family pet dog for a walk in the local park. On this particular Sunday morning I was happily playing with Scamp, the dog, when I noticed a man who was sitting on the grass beckoning me to sit beside him. Always happy to respond whenever anyone showed the slightest interest in me, I immediately ran over to him.

For the first couple of minutes we just talked, I can't remember about what. The next thing I remember is seeing his penis and I began to feel really scared. I'd never seen one before. When he asked me to hold it I was terrified to touch it because it looked so big and horrible and all I wanted to do was run away. But I couldn't. Fear glued me to the spot. Although I'd no understanding of what was actually happening, I just knew that something was terribly wrong. I remember him smiling a lot and touching me and telling me everything was fine even though I kept telling him that my mother would be looking for me. What happened next was an act of total depravity, the consequence of which was to have a profoundly devastating effect not only on my self-confidence but on how I would, in due course, deal with all the painful issues relating to my body.

After this bastard cupped my hand around his huge erected penis he then proceeded to force my mouth down onto it. To this day I can still feel his sweaty hand on the back of my head. The strangest thing about that sickening act is that l have no recollection of what happened or how I felt between the time of having that liquid filth in my mouth and running for help. It was days later before I told my parents because for some reason l thought that they would be angry with me.

Also around this time I began asking God each night to take me up to Heaven or else turn me back into a baby. When morning came and I was still alive and not a baby I would be very sad indeed because I felt that not even God loved me enough to grant me my greatest wish.

It probably comes as no great surprise that during this stage of my life I developed, what has since become, a life-long obsession with newborn babies. I wonder if very deep down I felt that if I couldn't become a baby then the next best thing was to be constantly with them which is probably why I became a sort of nanny to most of the new comers both in the street where I lived and the surrounding districts. I continued caring for babies right up until I was seventeen years old at which time my parents decided to sell our house and move to the country, leaving me behind to continue in my office job and settle into my new home with a fairly elderly aunt and uncle.

Things didn't really work out well there, mainly because I became man-obsessed and got myself into some very dangerous situations including a relationship of several months with a married man. In the end, one day while my aunt was out shopping, I packed my things and left, not knowing where in God's name I was going to go.

On that same winter's evening, suffering with bad bronchitis, I ended up travelling down the country to my parents in the hope that they'd have me until alternate accommodation could be arranged. Sadly, a few days later, while I was still feeling dreadful, they decided I should return to Dublin and organised for me to stay with yet another aunt and uncle. Over the following three months I lived with these wonderful people who introduced me to "fish and chips" and Babycham (a one-time almost alcoholic drink!). During that time the transformation in my behaviour was truly amazing. Because I was happy, I didn't get into any man- related trouble and was also quite content to come home at a very reasonable hour from the disco. The next morning my aunt would always give me a great big hug and ask me if I'd met any nice "fellas". She was quite a character and the first person in my life to introduce me to the experience of being warmly greeted with a huge hug whenever I arrived home. Sadly, it ended all too soon.

My adoptive parents decided it was time they took me back under their wings again because of all my earlier trouble while living with my other aunt. They bought a small house on the north side of Dublin and when everything was sorted out I had to move back in with them. Shortly afterwards panic attacks, which I'd been experiencing on and off over the years, now began to take complete control of my daily life resulting in my mother taking me to a doctor who arranged for me to attend the local psychiatric hospital as an out-patient. Over the following five years I attended fortnightly clinics, was prescribed numerous medications, had a brief intense relationship with a fellow patient, met my future husband and left home to live in a South Dublin bed-sit.

By mid-1975 I was a married woman still getting used to combining housework with my day job and longing for the day when I would finally be a mother (that dream would not be realised until a further eight years).

Although I was no longer attending the psychiatric hospital, I was still taking a daily maintenance dose (5mg.) of Librium because by then I was just as much psychologically hooked as I was physically. It wasn't until two years later when I was admitted to hospital to have ovarian cysts removed plus an appendectomy that I realised how much I was addicted. For some reason I was afraid to admit to the doctor that I was taking tranquillisers so subsequently after a couple of days began suffering dreadful withdrawal symptoms. I ended up begging for them and was mercifully given them. That episode proved a turning point in deciding to come completely off the pills and a short time later I reduced to 2mg. daily.

Still living in the hope of becoming pregnant soon and determined l was not going to expose my unborn baby to poison chemicals, by the spring of 1978 I managed, albeit painfully both mentally and physically, to kick the habit. I was at last, drug-free.

Over the next twelve years lots of wonderful events happened in my life, the most joyous of these being the births (with the help of fertility treatment) of our two children. They are, and always will be my greatest blessing. Then one day during the long hot summer of 1990 we got the awful news that was to change my life in some ways forever, my brother-in-law was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease.

Anthony was the brother I never had. I loved him to bits and he showed something akin to love towards me, always enquiring and worrying about me. We had the opportunity on a couple of occasions to be there for each other when we both faced devastating news.

For me, the first time was when I was told during a hospital appointment that I would need to see a fertility specialist. Anthony came with me that day as my husband was unable to accompany me at the time, then again some months later after I'd had a laparoscopy which told the doctors that I would only have a 50/50 chance of ever conceiving. My world fell apart that day and again he was there to comfort me.

Ten years later I would accompany Anthony the day he was admitted to hospital for neurological tests and again, a couple of weeks later, when he returned to the hospital for the further test which pretty much revealed the final diagnoses of MND. Then his death, two years on, re-opened in my psyche a pus-filled wound that had somehow remained sealed-over during the past forty years. While still in the throes of my grief from his passing, it was the sudden surfacing of the buried pain (separations from my birth mother, foster mothers and adoptive mother) that catapulted me into my nightmare world of mental terror and physical agony. Anthony's death, it would seem, not only resurrected my hellish demons, it also gave me the opportunity to finally lay them to rest through the power of inner healing and forgiveness.


Holotropic BreathworkTM is a highly powerful experiential process involving the use of deeper and faster breathing and strong rhythmic or other evocative types of music (from ethnic drumming and chanting to orchestral to ethereal) to induce a non-ordinary state of consciousness.

During this state, the "breather" can experience intense emotions of all types, positive and negative. In the negative range, this can include feelings of anger, sadness or even extreme terror, and often corresponds with a release of energy related to particular issues being dealt with in the session. An infinite range of positive feelings can also emerge, including laughter, ecstasy and all types of spiritual states. These feelings can sometimes be expressed through vigorous body movement and verbally (crying, screaming, laughing, chanting), often both.

On a much broader level, however, the experience can become transpersonal and can include: re-experiencing the birth process, even returning to a life before birth; gaining entrance to the world of the Shaman where meetings with spirit guides or "power animals" can occur; encountering deities, demons and even mythical beings. It is also not uncommon for people in an altered state of consciousness to feel as though they are experiencing or communicating with deceased loved ones, and resolving feelings or issues related to them.

While movement during Holotropic BreathworkTM is common, sessions can also have stillness. During this time of quietness is often where the greatest healing takes place.

Whatever the contents and feelings of or about the experience, be they sad, painful, happy, or awesome, it may take several days, or often even weeks for the material experienced during the session to begin to make any sense. During that time, it is not unusual to continue to have feelings emerge, either the same ones as in the session or new ones. It is even possible to feel "spaced out" or indeed downright depressed.

What is important, however, is to realise that these feelings are an important part of the healing process and that eventually they will pass.

As this is just a brief description of the holotropic process based on my own sessions, for those wishing to gain a more in-depth insight into transpersonal consciousness, may I suggest "The Holotropic Mind" by Stanislav Grof, M.D which I found to be a great inspiration and comfort following those incredible journeys.

Read the account of my first Holotropic Breathwork session

Return to Margaret Coyne's Breakingdown, Breakingthrough Index page.