My Story of a Workshop with Meredith

(originally published in MoreToLife newsletter)

Fifteen years of my life had been spent trying to overcome infertility – and 2 years on from the end of treatment, I was still struggling to “move on”.

My counsellor handed me a leaflet about a “letting go” workshop - “I really think you should go on this – it will do you good”.

I read the leaflet - “…….visualisation, art therapy and movement……” - I looked at her in amazement ! “Do you really think this is for me?”.

She smiled wryly - “yes I know what you’re thinking – it’s not really you – but all the feedback from it is SO positive” – why not give it a try?”

…..And so, on a cold Saturday morning in February, I found myself in a room with 5 complete strangers……. How could I have known at that point just how much those 2 days were going to impact my life…..

It was strange at first – as I tried to participate in the activities, I was thinking “what on earth am I doing here?” as I was doing things that were so far removed from my normal “comfort zone”……but as the day and the week-end progressed, things happened which had a remarkable effect on me - not only at the workshop but also ever since …..

It’s hard to describe exactly what that was –

  • was it hearing the other women’s stories, seeing their sadness and suffering, feeling humbled by their experiences?
  • was it telling my story, with complete openness, to women who’d all “been there” (and were still “there”) and receiving such complete empathy, warmth and support from them all ?
  • or was it that “digging deep” to confront those suppressed emotions brought out by some of those challenging exercises?

I guess it was a mixture of everything - all I know is that I felt truly moved and comforted.

Before the workshop, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to relate to the other women (or them to me) because my story, I felt, was “different”. How wrong I was!!

As each woman told her story, each story was different – different causes of infertility, different experiences, different issues in their life, different circumstances which had compounding their infertility situation – yet somehow this didn’t matter – the shared “end result” was all that mattered and it drew us all together in a common bond.

Of course, there were parts of the week-end that were difficult – as deeply held emotions emerged – sadness, anger, frustration, confusion and pain ……..each woman was affected in different ways – but we all knew that we needed to confront our feelings to begin the process of “moving on”.

And that’s what the workshop does – it “kick starts” that “moving on” process. In the days, weeks and months following the workshop, I found myself reflecting on what had happened, “processing” it – and it induced a change in me that is still evolving now (4 months later).

For me, the benefits began immediately – but for others it took time to recover and “process” their experience - but in the weeks that followed – the benefits kicked in for them too. They all got something out of it, especially with regard to breaking that feeling of isolation (so much a part of infertility) - as one woman put it - “I don’t think I will ever feel quite so alone with my childlessness again”.

And the workshop has led to new, wonderful friendships – the sort of friendship that comes with sharing such a powerful experience and having such a strong common bond – and these friendships continue to help in the “moving on” process.

So what about all that “visualisation, art therapy, movement” I’d been so worried about ?

Well, to be honest, this was well out of my normal “comfort zone” - but as one of the other women said to me just a few days ago “at the beginning you behaved as if you didn’t want to be there – but by the end you were “mucking in” with everything!”.

And when she said it, we both laughed …..….but of course we’ve been doing a lot of laughing recently …… and when we think about how relaxed and happy we are now in comparison to how we felt prior to February, we realise just much more positive we feel and just how much we’ve “moved on”.

I know Meredith is running another workshop. I recommend it to you all.

S.A.F. (author prefers to remain anonymous)

Healing after Miscarriage; A Male Perspective on the Memorial Service

by Gerard Hennessy

I didn’t know what to expect of the memorial service really. All I knew was that since my wife’s miscarriage I had been at odds with the world and with myself. Great sweeping mood changes, ranging from anger to helplessness, remorse to despair, confusion to incomprehension, and all infused with a sense of it somehow being my fault. Why didn’t I know something was going to happen? Why hadn’t I looked after my wife better? Why didn’t I do more of the household chores? Why? why? why?

Information about the service was given to me by a colleague at work who knew one or two of the people involved. I was curious and terrified in equal measure. Would it make everything worse? Would it look soft for a man to go there? Should I just stick my chin out and get on with my life? Questions, always questions, until my head spun. In the end I thought “why not?”. I admitted to myself that I felt awful anyway–perhaps my first steps towards reconciliation.

I’m delighted I went. Everything about the service was wonderfully healing. The location by the canal. The boats moored by the jetty symbolising safe haven. The removal of shoes inside the front door allowing my tired feet - and agitated mind - a sense of being able to breathe.

One of the door greeters asked, ‘Would you like to read one of the participative statements? It would be lovely to have a man to read one.’
What a change from being told endlessly that I couldn’t possibly understand about miscarriage because I was male. Maybe I was an acceptable human being after all, not an uncomprehending failure?

Downstairs in the basement, on arrival, there was tea and homemade food– cakes, scones, biscuits. I felt welcome. No one rushed me, no one stared, the eye contact was friendly and accepting. Introductions were made simply and I remember thinking ‘there is no judgment here’. After fifteen minutes we went upstairs and found seats in the ballroom. There were order of service papers on the chairs. Useful and reassuring.

The service began. There were readings, music, and various activities.
Tears came and for once they were cleansing. I thought of Joanna (the baby we lost) and realised that it was actually okay to think about her, say her name over and over, tell her how sorry I was, tell her I loved her, and would always love her. This wasn’t silly, or stupid or impractical.

The whole ceremony was very beautiful. Everything was simple and accessible and I really valued being able to participate. It made me feel part of something rather than separated, isolated and alone.

We were invited to choose an object to represent our loss and write a message to go with it. That was the first time that an aspect of Joanna had assumed a physical form. It was enormously healing–like I had somehow brought her back into my life and found a special place for her.

At the end we all stood and held hands. It was like being part of a community again and I knew I had been given a chance to accept myself again, work through my pain and move forward with my life.

A precious gift indeed and one that has helped me greatly in the eighteen months since. Am I healed? The answer is best found in the words of F.W.Bion: ‘I am engaged in the endless process of becoming…’ and that is just fine. I could ask for nothing more.

Letting Go Workshop

by Julia Jacobs
(Published originally in Adoption Today)

After many years of infertility investigation, unsuccessful infertility treatment much pain, shame and resentment and three adopted children later I found myself at a workshop designed to support people with difficulties around unwanted childlessness.

Despite my three children I have never really felt like a “real mother” (whatever “real mothers” are!). I decided to attend this workshop to test the water of how infertility could still be impacting on my life. The workshop is run by an experienced transpersonal psychotherapist, herself childless. My attendance in itself was rather remarkable as I have always been extremely cynical about ‘workshops’ and I had decided to allow myself to leave had I needed to! However I was not only still there on Sunday afternoon but quite changed by events.

The workshop is run over the course of a weekend; Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. It culminates in a memorial service to honour the losses associated with unwanted childlessness.

On arrival, fraught with nerves and just as much cynicism I was very quickly astounded by the depth of feeling that was evoked in me by witnessing other women talking about their experiences and by having the opportunity to talk myself.

Over the course of the weekend various exercises were introduced and practised all with the aim of releasing some of the difficult feelings associated with infertility and childlessness. The idea being that by letting-go of the pain, anguish and feelings of failure- through grieving and giving space to fully experience those feelings- then healing can begin. Some of the activities involved talking with others about different aspects of infertility; therapeutic in itself. Others activities were more physical or creative. All just required your willingness to participate and some sense of adventure and of trust in the group. These conditions were well supported and enhanced by the facilitator who created a strong sense of integrity and security. There was some discussion time and feedback after each session. Some involved visualisation, relaxation and meditation. There was music, lots of candles, lots of tears and lots of laughter.

On the Sunday afternoon we attended the service (which was open to the public). This was lead by the workshop facilitator as a non-denominational tribute to the losses that have been experienced by people though infertility in all its forms. This was an incredibly powerful moment that really seemed to consolidate and cement the weekend. It for me was a real rite-of-passage from which it is now much easier to look back.

Probably the strongest most cathartic experience was just being among other people who understood my experiences and could empathise with them. This was however remarkably contained by Meredith Wheeler who created a safe, sensitive and respecting, yet adventurous milieu within which participants were able to work.

Work it was, I was amazed by how exhausting yet energising the weekend was. There was so much food for thought, new relationships to consider, exercises to mull over, feedback for my long suffering husband, things I wished I hadn’t said and things I wished I had. I had never before experienced such complete sadness about my own infertility nor connection with other women. I felt such deep respect for everybody’s experiences and felt I gained the same back. It was a soulful, humbling and healing encounter that has remained very special and important to me.

I feel now much more able to enjoy my children, much more of a mother and much more complete as a woman.

I cannot recommend this course highly enough for anyone suffering from the pain of infertility or those who still have hopes for successful treatment. Although it was obviously a very individual experience, all of the women on the course felt that they had gained something, for some this was momentous. New friendships have developed and new decisions made and quite literally for some new lives begun.

Meredith Wheeler is running a similar residential course in the South of France for individuals or couples. I dare not say too much about that lest you think I have a vested interest, but I do just want to say let yourself have this experience; it really is amazing.

One Path to Healing

by Katie McLeod
(a woman who attended both the workshop & service in 2001)
Infertility had been a long, lonely journey for me. I hadn’t felt able to talk to many people about it and the world seemed full of people with children, who couldn’t possibly understand my pain. From being someone totally in control of my life, I had been reduced to a victim who railed at the cruelty of the world and slid deeper and deeper into my shell. My anger and sorrow at the situation had even driven a deep wedge between me and my husband.

As my 40th birthday approached, the feelings of hopelessness and loss reached a head and I realised that although my life hadn’t turned out as I had expected, I couldn’t spend the rest of it in this state of utter despair. So I trawled the net and through all the sites talking about treatments and alternative therapies, found MoretoLife. There were other people out there who had been through it, some who had even emerged from it.

On the MoretoLife website, I discovered that Meredith Wheeler was facilitating a weekend workshop entitled ‘Letting Go’ that culminated in a Memorial Service. Normally, I would rather run through the office naked than sit in a room full of strangers pouring out my heart, but I decided things couldn’t get any worse. So on a Friday night last April, I found myself sitting in a circle of women, all of whom looked as apprehensive as I felt. By the end of that evening, I’d already slayed two dragons – I’d cried in public and shared ‘my story’ with a complete stranger. Only neither she, nor the other women were strangers. We’d all been on similar journeys, taking different paths, reaching the same destination. Finally here was a group of people who understood. People who had their own pain, but who emanated such warmth that I felt able to open up to them.

The weekend progressed with various exercises – writing a letter to our lost children, using art to express our anger and letting go of the things that were stopping us from moving on with our lives. In between, there were opportunities to talk of ordinary things–but somehow without any of the small talk that normally marks the beginning of relationships.

I’d volunteered to read a poem at the Memorial Service, so on the Sunday morning I was feeling apprehensive. That Sunday morning the workshop group created candle-guards from coloured paper, stickers and crayons with the qualities each of us felt our fertility journey was calling forth from us: patience, wisdom, courage, to name just a few. A feeling of calm and purpose filled the room.

The room where the service was to be held felt serene too, with the sun streaming through the large windows. I knew from the rehearsal that I wouldn’t be able to read the whole poem without crying, as it so perfectly described my feelings. But as the room filled with people, I knew that it didn’t matter any more. The very act of sharing our sorrow began the healing process.

Bill Wither’s Lean on Me played and we joined hands. Suddenly I wasn’t alone. There were lots of other people out there, all of whom had suffered–but all were courageous and somehow better people for their experiences. We lit candles with the names of those we’d lost, but instead of my child, I put my husband’s name and wrote a note of forgiveness to him–something I hadn’t been able to consider before.

The final act of the weekend was to carry the stone cobbles on which we had written words describing the burdens we wished to let go of–pain, grief, resentment– and hurl them into the nearby canal in Little Venice. What release!

We all need to say goodbye to people we have lost and for me the whole experience was about saying goodbye to the life that I thought I’d have–and to begin the new life that I now have. This is no miracle cure, but it feels good to know that I’m not the only person in the world in this situation and to share those thoughts and experiences with people who don’t judge and who completely understand without explanation.

Today, I sat in a meeting at work with a group of people – a man whose wife is 8 months pregnant, a woman who gave birth 6 months ago, another a year ago and a recent grandfather. A year ago their conversation would have been unbearable. Today, I was almost interested!

Finding the Fertile Ground: Infertility Workshops for Women

by Mary O’Rourke.

Until a woman begins to discover she may be infertile, she takes her membership into motherhood for granted; she regards pregnancy as a free and universal right, automatic and, hopefully, unproblematic. If she is lucky, she will have found a good partner to start this creative venture. She has been preparing for this job all her life: her experience with baby animals, dolls, younger siblings and ailing grandparents have taught her the fundamental skills of nurture. She is all but bursting with the potentiality of Child Love.

And then, for whatever confounding reason, it doesn’t happen. It may take a woman several months or several years to act on her infertility. And responses to it are as varied as women themselves. Often it’s a painful ride through various states of being: feeling okay about it, falling into despair or getting roughed up by invasive and unreliable procedures of reproductive technology.

Meredith Wheeler’s infertility workshops offer an illuminating, supportive backup to the strain and frustration of pursuing fertility. One important function of the weekend workshop is to shift the emphasis away from infertility as physical ‘dysfunction’ and broaden it to include unconscious factors that may be impeding pregnancy, such as underlying attitudes to our mothers, relationships and childhood. This is done through a structured, intensive exploration into the psychological dimensions of fertility and The Feminine. These therapeutic exercises are conducted with a small and diverse group of women , all in the same boat, bobbing on a pool of similar experiences.

All but a few of us had never taken part in any kind of workshop.
We didn’t know what to expect; whether anything constructive would come of it or even if we could open up to strangers. Until this point most of us were suffering secretly with what Meredith aptly called ‘the last taboo’. Thankfully, we did manage, through Meredith’s gentle and calming guidance, to create a powerful circle of trust, mutual respect and shared confidences. It was cathartic, really, to be able to openly discuss the wounding humiliation of childlessness and to have other women nodding their heads knowingly.

…the warmth and support of women being together, having one huge aspect of their lives in common. Sharing feelings in a non-judgemental and non-pitying environment. The sharing of these feelings opened up areas inside myself which I thought weren’t there and made me think more clearly about my life with or without children, and relationships with nephews, nieces and friends’ children.

…knowing there are others with similar problems. Being able to explore this reason of wanting to become pregnant. To be able to speak about you’re innermost feelings and knowing that you are being listened to. The different ways in which issues were addressed.

The workshop took place in Meredith’s home where she made us all feel very welcome. I think it was important that the exercises took place in a quiet, non-clinical environment; we sat on cushions around a floating candle and so, were better able to relax and close ourselves off from the outside world.

*First things first, we went around the room introducing each other and learning one another’s names.

*As a warm up, we encouraged to close our eyes and breath deeply; exhaling as much psychical tension as we could.

*We were asked to imagine different parts of the body that usually bear the brunt of tension and anxiety: the back, the shoulders, and the hips. We mentally visualised sinking deeper into our cushions, letting go of all rigid muscles.

*In the second part of this meditation, and to the accompaniment of ethereal music, Meredith talked us through a fascinating visualisation to the core of the earth. This involved slowly imagining our spines connected to a root system that spread and penetrated deep into rich, fecund soil, grounding us and filling us with the earth’s bounty. Many of the women responded powerfully to this image and found that it really helped them enter another frame of mind. It felt like a pleasant descent into ‘ the otherworld’, the unconscious or connection with the centre of Self.

“I was apprehensive about doing the visualisations and art therapy as I do feel that I’m not in touch with my subconscious at all, most of the time. To the point I feel I don’t have one! I was very surprised how things turned out. Now I feel that there are more issues of a different matter that I felt I couldn’t discuss at the workshop, but maybe I will explore them in the future.”

*Once we emerged from the subterranean, we all had a short tea and pee break.

*The second major exercise, most women agreed, was very stimulating if not enjoyable. I personally had forgotten how enjoyable playfulness could be. We were each given a little bag and asked to go into the next room and “shop” for objects. There seemed to be one hundred figurines and miniature objects to describe everything that exists in the world: animals, dolls, anatomical parts, samples of nature, mythological monsters, inanimate objects like houses, walls and tools. Three of our selections had to reflect the persona we project to the world, and another lot to reveal our dreams and our true selves in all their ugly, shameful, or frightening manifestations. Each woman was invited to talk about her personality and relationships through these objects. Others were allowed to respond if they wanted to.

“…Being able to be so open in front of others, sharing experiences, discovering common ground. Discussing old photographs was my favourite session, but choosing objects was also very powerful for me.”

“It was interesting to discover what objects I chose and question and explore why I had chosen them, which brought meaning to me.”

*Some women found the Group sessions were the most harrowing, they cut straight to the grieving vein; some of us talked about our darkest hours, our losses, our traumas, the pain of failed IVF attempts. We were split off into two smaller groups without a facilitator.

*After a longish lunch, we regrouped for a reading of a poetic invocation Meredith was drafting for a special service for grieving parents. We were then shown a large, circular diagram of the various faces of the Feminine; universal archetypes from the girl/child, sensual woman, mother, vocational woman, the Divine feminine round to the wise woman. What was interesting to know that all these stages had a shadow, negative side and that all women could be any one of these types at different points in her life; it was not chronological.

The purpose of this exercise was to understand that the role of mother was not the only option available to women; that the failure to have one’s owns children did not negate one’s feminine identity. This lead to a very interesting discussion of our attitudes to mothers and babies in our social and family circles. And more importantly, explore our own reasons for wanting a child.

“…lots to think about - re-evaluate ideas. I think it will make it easier to copy with my infertility as I can see that having a child won’t solve my own feelings of inadequacy and I’ll need to find some other way to do that. I am already less concerned about what others think and am trying to treasure what I already have rather than yearn for what I think I should have.”

“…It felt extremely significant that the workshop was around Mother’s Day. It made me focus on the feelings I have about my mother and my internal mother. It felt comforting to know I could see her as someone who is loving, as I sway towards hating and blaming her. The weekend emphasised that achieving our goal of having a baby is not going to solve our problems, which is good to keep reminding myself.”

*We concluded the first day with Angel cards; each little tab offered an affirmation or an aspect of ourselves we might like to reflect upon. We were all asked how we felt the day had progressed and we all agreed we were exhausted.

Sunday session.

*Sunday’s exercises seemed to fly past. We began, again, with a relaxation warm up before a second, extended visualisation. We were guided through a landscape with a forked road; we were told to follow ‘the motherhood path’ and to remember the things we saw down that road, the people we encountered and the “things” or messages they offered to us.

*We were handed large sheets of paper and asked to draw what we saw.

*Everyone brought a “little something” for lunch and we ended up with a feast fit for a wedding reception!

*The afternoon was spent discussing the drawings. Some found their visions shocking, revealing, upsetting, confusing, painful, spiritual, uplifting. One woman, a talented artist, enthralled us with a beautiful image of an all-seeing eye, which, turned on its side, could also have been a depiction of a baby slipping out of a birth canal. These visual stories were very touching.

*After a final afternoon tea break we brought out our photos from childhood. It was another visual avenue through which participants could talk about difficult or positive family relationships, painful childhood recollections and experiences.

“ I found the ‘shopping for objects’ exercise and talking about my photo from childhood especially valuable because I find it easier to talk about objects in front of me rather than directly about myself.”

*Before concluding the workshop, Meredith handed out feedback sheets and asked us if we wanted a follow-up meeting. We felt something like that would be beneficial. We were given the time to reflect on the experience and to come back and discuss any changes in our feelings and attitudes to infertility. Everyone felt calmer and more hopeful about their prospects, mainly because the workshop helped to shift negative blocks that were causing so much misery. Everyone agreed that some sort or important picture was emerging; as if we all came to the group with a piece of a puzzle that, of itself, made little sense, but placed in the circle offered snippets of clarity. Meredith claims she has witnessed this many times: when essential and deep truths well up and out of us; they are powerful and life giving and have a value outside ourselves.

“I valued the chance to meet other women in similar circumstances, and the opportunity to explore my own inner conflicts in context with their views: it was revealing to be able to express my feelings fully to others who would listen and really understand, and to hear their responses: equally, it was valuable for me to listen to their stories.”

“I valued the chance to talk to other women (and feel listened to) about my experience of my fertility problems. I feel as if I have come away with a lot, I’m not sure what some of that is yet but I have come away with a feeling of clarity, things don’t seem so confused; hearing other people’s stories has validated my emotions. I had the chance to talk through things that I wanted to, which was quite a challenge for me. I feel more connected to my emotions and others. I liked the visualisations. I find it easier to visualise than talk but having the structures exercises helped me find my voice.”

“It made me realise how much I have moved on. Eighteen months ago I was really to give up my job, I was punishing myself or thought I was being punished, and on my own I have managed to get my perspective on life back on track. This workshop made it clear that I wasn’t just kidding myself that life is going to be okay. It has brought to light, very clearly to me, how important, vital even, my spiritual needs and beliefs are and how my faith will help me through, whatever life may bring.”

“The thought that I can live with all this grief, longing and loss and lead a good life nevertheless, began to germinate. The workshops…gave me great opportunities to explore how I feel, and maybe to start to point to ways I could change for the better.”

What comes across time and again is the sense of empowerment offered by an exclusive women’s environment. In a sense it’s reclaiming knowledge and insights once shared among women before community and extended family life became fragmented.

Giving women a save forum for emotional expression can also go a long way in regaining control of our bodies and minds after medical hijacking has so successfully convinced the childless woman that her identity and destiny is linked with her biological performance; that she is no more than the sum of her reproductive parts.

In The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer may be openly contemptuous of “the fertility nabobs” but her proclamations that women’s are sidelined in the process of IVF ring true. The “mothermakers” are not interested in finding and curing the causes of infertility; causes that may be reversed with alternative medicine or therapy. In this sense the workshops are a vital step in a new direction.

Quotes from Germaine Greer The Whole Woman, Doubleday, London 1999.

p.81 The IVF baby has been studied with great care but the IVF mother and non-mother have not been studied at all. Nobody has asked whether IVF treatment is good for women. The reproductive wizards want us all to believe that infertility is practically unbearable but they do not want us to ask what becomes of the infertile women who puts herself through repeated ordeals in a desperate quest for a pregnancy only to suffer a miscarriage. Is she better or worse off than she was before treatment?.. IVF concerns itself not a whit about their fate. Treatment cycles are usually about three months apart; after months of upheaval to daily life and high levels of pain and stress the relationship of a couple is often severely distorted, which is not an optimum time for even an uneventful pregnancy to begin. As usually no pregnancy does begin, we must wonder how infertile couples manage to repair the damage. No one is interested in measuring the quantum of misery among IVF acceptors who remain childless…Despite the sentimental rhetoric of male fertility magnates whose only expressed desire is to make women happy, the women who undergo hormonal stimulation, egg harvest and reimplantation seem to matter very little more than any other laboratory animal.