It is a poignant word, one that needs to be taken hold of for a moment—a fragile thing to be cradled and examined tenderly for what it really means. By that I’m not talking about its dictionary or conceptual definition, but both its actual and symbolic sense to you.
Sanctuary—a safe place of retreat, of protection, somewhere where we no longer have to fight, where we can lay down our arms, soften and become who we really are, without artifice, free of fear.
Behind everything that I have been writing here, beyond all the agonies around the various forms of mental despair, lies this need for an internal and external place of refuge.
Once this has been found recovery can really begin.
All the time that we are fighting our thought demons there is no sense of safety. Everything that we try, whether medication, therapy, or therapeutic processes, can only really be a holding pattern if they are the only support. They may allow the sufferer to stay just above water, clinging to what may perhaps just be a temporary life raft, but sanctuary is the solid ground, the foundation for recovery. That first mental step onto dry land after battling the waves, the first pair of strong hands pulling you up into a boat when you thought, when you truly believed, that you were drowning, these are the first moments of reprieve, the beginning of the end of the breakdown.
Sanctuary is where we need to go when we are not ourselves so that we can find ourselves again.
The difficulty is that when it is bad, and when we alone, or using a minimum of discreet help, we are trying to prove to ourselves that it is not as bad as it feels, that we can still manage, and that we will get through this. This itself is a survival mechanism. But the actuality is that it probably is as bad as it feels. The longer we fight through each day, feeling less and less safe all the time, the less energy we have available to allow us to step back and realise how utterly and overwhelmingly exhausted we are.
When do we need to find sanctuary?
We need to know when we have reached the point to seek sanctuary. A clear indicator of this is when each day has become an agonising round of mental hand-to-hand fighting, when each hour is a battle, when even the idea of trying to get through more than an hour at a time seems crushing. When it comes down to this level of segmented time survival, this is the point for refuge.
But here is another tough part—the worse we feel the harder it is to recognise that we are at the point of really needing sanctuary, or even to summon up the energy to find it.
What is sanctuary?
- It is a place, and it does not have to be a physical one, but a place or sense of place where we know we feel safe, where we can retreat in the knowledge that wounds can be licked, and where we can curl up and rest without being told off, until strength begins to return.
- People can be sanctuary, those who we can be ourselves with, in honesty, with all our guards down. People who will take us as we are, and who we would take as they are, if the tables were turned, if they were the ones falling apart.
- Music or images that we love, places we can visit in the knowledge that they have an almost sacred power for us in that the world retreats when we are there. It can be anything from sitting in an art gallery, in front of a picture that allows the internal world to quieten; a place in the landscape to lie in the grass, see the sky, and feel part of something greater than ourselves; a corner seat in a café where we can feel safely anonymous but reassuringly recognised as well; a piece of clothing that makes us feel protected, as though confidence is woven into it.
All these places, things and experiences, they are all the fabric of sanctuary. And then there is perhaps the most sacred of all, and the most readily available—to be able to lie in the quiet of that moment of waking, when the world is still clean. To put your hands on your belly, and to feel your own breath rising under your hands as you breathe in, falling gently as you breathe out. This is real, safe, solid, unchallengeable—this is sanctuary.