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When Life Feels Like a Near Death Experience

I was in session last week with my emotionally and socially intelligent therapist learning important role-modelling and personal negotiation skills when my mobile phone started to ring.  I swore loudly, threw my arms in the air, jumped up, and raced out the door and into the courtyard.  I was expecting a phone call to tell me whether or not I had a much-wanted part-time job.

Only for me it wasn’t someone giving me potential employment – it was a life or death experience.  If I got the job I would be ecstatic and if I didn’t get the job I was going to throw myself under a train.  One would make me feel very important and the other would annihilate me.  If I didn’t get the job, I would just keep walking to my car, without explanation because the alternative was to tell my beloved therapist I had failed – yet again.   I just could not face that.  Ever.

Not that I overreact or anything.

I react in the same way to criticism.  Any slight frown or disapproval that might be dished out to me I receive in exactly the same way.  I have a suicide plan set up for when my life goes pear-shaped.  My therapist has a plan too for if things don’t turn out, but it does not include ending her life.

It takes a lot for me to work through sensitive issues without the fight, flight or freeze response setting in.  Sitting in deep, explosive, gut wrenching emotions makes me want to scream and run and hide.  My amygdala caters to my two year old self.  Poisonous, toxic waste material runs through my veins when I hurt.  Physical pain is tolerable as such, but emotional pain for me is a near death experience.

Yoga, Pilates and walking the dog has helped enormously, so has changing my eating habits to include more legumes, brown rice, vegetables and fish and bypassing on junk food, take-a-ways, sweets, sugar, fat, cigarettes and alcohol.  My amygdala thanks my pre-frontal cortex (also known as my inner therapist).  I now know what a peaceful, still body feels like – most of time. Occasionally it does let me down.

When I got back in her office, my heart was thumping and my limbs were trembling and my therapist was not impressed.  She crossed her arms and said she got a shock from my highly erratic and unpredictable behaviour and that she felt shut out of my world and became instantly invisible as soon as my handbag started ringing.  I was rather perplexed.  This was not about her.  Manic behaviour is so normal to me it is almost de rigueur (necessary according to mental health etiquette for the cyclothymic and bipolar disordered).

She said that this was not normal behaviour and told me exactly how I should have handled that phone call – by gently saying to her, “Excuse me, I am expecting an important phone call, would you mind if I took it?” and kept it brief by explaining that I was “in a meeting” and would call them back later.  She put me under her intense laser-beam eyes and therapeutic thumbscrews as I fidgeted, wriggled, wormed and squirmed and she refused to change the subject until it was resolved to her satisfaction.  I almost got the impression she had been waiting a long time for this moment, was thoroughly enjoying it and was going to string it out for as long as she possibly could.

As it turned out the phone call was from my car mechanic, but I did hear the following day that I got the job.  By this stage I had talked myself down from the “all or nothing” suicide position into one that encompassed many other possibilities.  This, by the way, is a peer support job that involves working in the mental health field and part of my duties include role modeling for mentally unwell consumers.  What I learned that session compressed, condensed and focused entirely on an experiential, visceral sense within my body – which is something that does not compare and I could never learn from just talking or reading about it.

And armed with that knowledge I hope to become my own role-model and teach others.

Ironic isn’t it.

When Life Feels Like a Near Death Experience

Sonia Neale

Sonia Neale was recently awarded the Inaugural Barbara Hocking SANE Australia Fellowship to study and research Borderline Personality Disorder overseas in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland. Her previous Psych Central blog was called Therapy Unplugged. She is the author of two books, The Bad Mother’s Revenge and Death by Teenager, both published by ABC Books/Harper Collins. She lives in Western Australia, is married with three adult children, has studied psychoanalytic psychotherapy, has a Certificate IV in Mental Health and is studying for a Psychology/Counselling degree. She currently works as a peer support worker in the mental health field.

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APA Reference
Neale, S. (2011). When Life Feels Like a Near Death Experience. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Mar 2011
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