Can you sort out your head in a week?

There’s a growing interest in intensive psychotherapy courses, but can you really clear out the baggage of the past in one short, sharp burst? Jane Alexander put the six-day Penninghame process to the test


Can you sort out your head in a week?

After a difficult childhood, I’d tried therapy, and I deemed it successful. But as I hit my 50s, I realised I wasn’t sorted, not by a long way. On the surface, my life was fine. Inside, however, I felt numb and plagued by bouts of deep depression.

Then I went to Penninghame. I go on a lot of retreats, and I figured this one would be no different. I’d emerge feeling uplifted and bright for a short time, before lapsing back to my usual state. Instead, Penninghame ripped through my Pentagon-grade defences.

‘Original wounding happens early,’ said Ray Butler, founder of the programme, which has been running for 15 years. ‘In many families, core needs weren’t met or feelings weren’t allowed.’ In his view, the psyche is built up of several layers. At the core is the heart, where we experience love and connection. This is surrounded by an emotional layer; a churning mass of turbulent feelings (fear, anger, rage, pain). On top of this is a muscular layer, the body’s armour, which keeps potentially dangerous feelings locked in. Surrounding this is the ego layer, which blames other people and outside circumstances – it’s the home of distrust, over-intellectualism, projections and denial.

Working through the pain

The Penninghame process aims to break through these layers and plough into the deep feelings of hurt, loss and anger, so you can get to the root of all the crap, untangle old programming and be able to feel your true self. It uses techniques such as mindfulness, psychosynthesis, constellation work, shadow work, holotropic breathwork, and Family-lab, the work of Jesper Juul. Butler has trained with personal development pioneers, and his team includes counsellors, meditation instructors, psychotherapists and practitioners of hypnotherapy, NLP and Time Line Therapy.

It’s strong, powerful soul work. When you arrive, you’re asked not to divulge exactly what happens. Before I went on the course, that irritated me as I like to know what’s coming. But, having been through the process, I get it. The course is a journey; each element builds on the one before and, if you knew the road map, you just wouldn’t get the full beneficial effect.

What I can say is it was the hardest, most heart-rending thing I’ve ever done, but also the most exhilarating. On the first day, I sobbed. On the second, I screamed so loudly that I couldn’t believe it was coming from me. On the third day, I felt faint, my heart was beating erratically and my head was thumping with pain. 

I realised just how many layers of fear, hurt and anger I had suppressed. On the fourth day, I was in despair. Every time I came up against something threatening to my defences, I went ‘unconscious’. I didn’t pass out; I would just realise that I hadn’t heard a word for the last 10 minutes.

Gentle guidance

‘Let’s work on that,’ said Butler. Suddenly, I felt so cold that my teeth started chattering. The team gently guided me through a process that unpicked my early family dynamic. It felt like lancing a huge, putrid boil with years of poison coming out. Butler then reworked the situation, imprinting new healthy programming in place of the old toxic one. I tingled and my heart felt as if it could physically break.

Surely that was enough? Yet the next day, I plunged even deeper. An intense session of breathwork sent me further into my family dynamic, going back through time until I reached something that felt almost primordial. My body arched and cramped; I screamed, shouted, scratched, scrabbled and squirmed. At times I felt possessed, at others as if I was going to lose my mind; but I felt safe enough to trust the process and the facilitators. When it ended, I felt drained, physically and emotionally, yet also purged.

Then, on the sixth day, the miracle happened. I looked like seven shades of shit and my screamed-out voice had descended into a husky growl, but I felt incredible – clear, light, hopeful.

I must say here that screaming, sobbing and climbing the walls aren’t obligatory. Also, not all the course was painful – there were moments of wild energy, blissful peace and immense playfulness. The sheer inventiveness of it surprised and delighted me time and again.

The beauty of Penninghame is that it isn’t just about the week’s experience. You’re given practical tools to take into everyday life that will help you live more honestly, creatively and authentically. In the weeks following, I noticed my life shift. My home life became more harmonious, I had far more clarity about my work, I found a vision for my future that felt exciting and possible and my bouts of depression seem to have been booted into touch.

But are there dangers inherent in doing such intense, deep work, in just one week? I asked Julia Bueno, a UKCP-registered psychotherapist. ‘As with any therapeutic intervention, these “intensives” are no panacea for all our psychological and emotional problems, nor would I encourage anyone to see them as a quick fix,’ she says. ‘I’ve seen people wobble in their wake if some surprises emerge or the depth of pain experienced remains live. This may occur if you haven’t had any experience of psychological work before, or follow-up resources are lacking.’

‘It is an intense course,’ agrees Butler, ‘but there are very few dangers, as it’s planned and paced around each individual – everyone participates to the degree they wish.’ He adds that it may not be suitable for some people with mental health issues, and everyone wanting to take the course has an interview with a course leader, and completes a questionnaire before admission.

I feel it works because it’s so intense, so focused and stretches over a week. Knowing you don’t have to ‘gather yourself together’ to face the world at the end of an hour’s session gives the psyche the freedom to let go and allow the tough stuff to surface.

So, can you sort out your head in a week? I was deeply sceptical but, yes, I now believe you can. Will you fix all your problems? Probably not. But the process gives you a clear roadmap for your onward journey. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Six months later

It’s been a tough six months, with a lot of everyday challenges, yet I’m curiously serene. I can honestly say I have had just two days when I allowed (and yes, it did feel like a choice) myself to slip into the doldrums. There’s a lightness and confidence about me that I recognise from my childhood – having my wide-eyed, seven-year-old self back is beautiful.

When I left Penninghame, I felt ‘done’, but I’ve realised that this thing called ‘me’ is an ongoing process. The difference is, I’m no longer trying to navigate the path of life with a huge rucksack of garbage on my back.

For more information, see Penninghame offers a sliding scale of fees and bursaries may also be available.

Photograph: iStock

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