Retreating from a retreat…

When I was little and something went wrong, my dad always said something like, ‘it’s taking part that counts’, or maybe, ‘it’s character-building’. Well I recently failed at going on a retreat. That’s a new one.

I go to weekly CoDA (Codependents Anonymous) meetings. Every Saturday, I run a small, one hour meeting for women only. It’s a fairly regular, familiar group. We have a few newcomers here and there, but they’re almost always outnumbered by the faces I know. And they’re usually people I want to get to know.

My CoDA meetings have been a great positive force in my life. I’ve formed some wonderful friendships within this fellowship. I’ve got to know people I now actually reach out to when I am in crisis. In the past that’s never been something I was able to do. But I am fairly secure with these people, I feel safe with them.

I used to dread all the empty time weekends forced me to deal with. I used to struggle with the therapy gap from Thursday to Tuesday. Having my Saturday meeting provides me with that little bit of extra structure and holding I need to get through the weekend. I look forward to Saturday mornings because of it.

So when a friend suggested I went with her to a CoDA retreat weekend, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. As I’d never been to one before, I decided to just go for one day, and she was happy with that. We carpooled, so I didn’t even have to drive.

Unfortunately, that meant when I arrived and it all went wrong, I couldn’t escape. Why did it go wrong? I think there were several factors.

It wasn’t at all like my Saturday meeting

The meetings were big. I’m used to around 8 people, with a very rare maximum of about 15. The retreat meetings had over 20 people in them. I didn’t know any of these people at all. Some of them shared some quite frightening stories. I struggled to find a connection with them. There was competition to jump in and speak. As one person finished, the next would leap in and begin with barely a second in between. It felt intense and a little aggressive.

I pushed myself to speak

Intellectually, I knew I was safe in those rooms. I could see that the people around me were compassionate and were being open and vulnerable themselves. But there was a core part of me that absolutely did not feel safe there.

I went straight down the self-blaming, self-hating road and decided this anxiety, this fear, was just my lack of courage. Everyone else was speaking and sharing. I’d travelled all the way there and paid to take part – so I should be pushing myself to participate.

That was the wrong thing for me to do. I was scared to speak, but I forced myself to do it and in the end that didn’t feel good. I wound up feeling small and fragile, really triggered and not held.

The relevant topics were the triggering topics

The format was four 90 minute meetings in the day. There were five running simultaneously, each on a different topic. During the introduction, I picked the topics I felt were most important or relevant for me. The first two were ‘anger’, and ‘self-sabotage’.

In hindsight, given that this was a totally new environment, full of strangers, I should have chosen less painful topics. I should’ve gone for something I could talk about and listen to without becoming triggered and vulnerable. Realising this during the lunch break, I chose two topics I didn’t really care about so I could fill the afternoon meetings with zoning out. I could then be present without being a part of it. That was the only way I could make it feel tolerable to be there.

There was no safe place to retreat to

With all this young stuff triggered in me, what I needed more than anything was some kind of secure place. The retreat venue had no quiet lounge I could go to. I didn’t even have my car to go and sit in. I tried leaving the venue and walking around the town, but that made me feel worse. I felt like a tiny lost child. I wanted to be in a familiar, comfy place, wrapped up in blankets and cuddled.

I felt really desperate being trapped there with nowhere safe to hide. Eventually, I found a bookshop that was warm and quiet. I spent a long while there; browsing through poetry and breathing. But I just wanted to be at home. I considered taking a train, but I knew my friends would worry about me and I didn’t want to distract them from focusing on what they wanted from being at the retreat. I guess that was pretty codependent of me.

At the end of the day, I was utterly drained and so relieved to get home. It felt like an ordeal. Now, I am trying to understand what I can learn from this, rather than just berating myself for failing to cope with a retreat – something that should have been calming and nourishing.

But even after all this analysis, it really does feel ridiculous that I couldn’t manage it.

Photo: András Pásztor, Creative Commons.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. This is a problem I’ve run into as well, both on a one day silent meditation retreat and a week-long artist collaboration. In theory it was just what I wanted /needed, in reality it was too full on, there were no quiet spaces and it ended up being extremely distressing.

    I wouldn’t think of any of this as a personal failing, more as a conceptual failing on the part of the organisers. They’re the ones who are only offering one ‘right’ option for participation: being-together-all-the-time-and-talking-through-EVERYTHING-is-good vs being-alone-and-having-quiet-time-to-yourself-to-reflect-and-regroup-is-bad-or-weird. All the 12 step based groups have grown from the same starting point and are centred around particular cultural norms which often seem to go unchallenged.

    You’ve identified things which might make it easier for you to participate in something similar next time (less stressful topic choice, shorter period of participation, options for time-out, and an exit strategy such as having your own transport), which is a positive step and not a weakness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Laura says:

      Thanks. I am glad to hear it’s not just me who finds these things difficult. And I agree that while there are a lot of benefits to the structure in various 12 step programmes, that structure is very rigid and as such can sometimes feel really compassionless. I think having an exit strategy is so vital in these situations and I am definitely going to keep that in mind next time I agree to do something!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. findingmaeve says:

    Great blog. I’m in a 12-step program, as well. I don’t do well in large groups because I feel like I don’t fit in. But also in past group therapy settings, I got triggered and started disassociating. It was too much for me to process and I shut down.


    1. Laura says:

      Thanks, I’m glad you like it. I understand that feeling in groups, it’s hard to feel a part of things. And when dissociation comes into it that can get really scary.


  3. manyofus1980 says:

    I’m glad you have the co dependency group to go to each week. maybe you could talk to them at the next meeting about it? just an idea. I’m sorry the retreat was a bust and you felt unsafe there. xxx

    Liked by 1 person

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