Rachel Gotto has suffered more than most, from the death of her brother and husband to her cancer diagnosis and dependency on prescription drugs. But by training her brain to change established thought patterns, she found a way to thrive and not simply survive, says Lorna Siggins
If Rachel Gotto was a boat, she would be the envy of any master boatbuilder — for such is her ability to withstand constant knock-backs, broaches, and capsizes.
Whatever the storm, she has weathered it and reached calm waters as a stronger person. In her work, she endeavours to guide others to do the same.
Some might say her life reflects the human capacity for endurance, but she chooses her words carefully, drawing on softer nouns like “possibility” and “hope”, and “thriver” rather than “survivor”.
In the late 1960s, her parents had sailed into Glandore — a picture-postcard west Cork harbour marked by its two outcrops, Adam and Eve — and never left. She grew up in the village where her father established what is one of Ireland’s first chandlery businesses.
While running a restaurant there in her early 20s, she met diver Nic Gotto and the couple would marry. Soon after, her closest brother, Dominic, was diagnosed with cancer and sadly passed away in November 1996, aged just 28.
Not even two years later, in July 1998, Rachel experienced another devastating loss when Nic failed to return from a diving expedition to the wreck of the Kowloon Bridge. While she was above and on the helm of the expedition’s charter vessel, Sundancer II, he had drowned.
Rachel was pregnant with her first child. And when Nicola was born that December, health problems meant that her daughter subsequently lost the sight in her left eye.
Then, when Nicola was six, Rachel began to feel unwell. A barrage of tests revealed a type of brain tumour known as an arteriovenous malformation. Faced with a terminal prognosis, she began searching, and finally she found a surgeon in Bristol who was willing to operate — but who warned her that paralysis was a very likely outcome.
After an almost 15-hour surgery during which she nearly died, Rachel awoke to find that he’d been right; she was completely paralysed down her left side. Her recovery was to take years, but, slowly, movement returned to her limbs. Seizures still plagued her, but she kept going, using a complex cocktail of medications to keep them at bay.
Ironically it was the medications that would offer Rachel her biggest challenge yet. After a decade on them, she found herself depressed and emotionally “numb”, with very little quality of life, physically dependent on the sedative Frisium, a benzodiazepine. The drugs that had been prescribed initially to save her life had turned it into a nightmare. She wanted to stop taking them.
With a life so full of loss, her description of what came next seems shocking.
“Honestly, I would rather relive Dominic and Nic’s death, and my own terminal diagnosis, than revisit the experience of withdrawing from benzodiazepines. It took all the remaining strength I had to survive it. Brain surgery felt like nothing in comparison.”
The experience prompted her to read voraciously about the brain and its ability to form new neural pathways. What she learned from that reading brought her to a turning point in her recovery. She also decided to train with British hypnotherapist Marisa Peer in a technique known as rapid transformational therapy (RTT).
“RTT works by changing the subconscious programmes that we acquire in childhood and replacing them with new empowering and healthy ones. It’s phenomenal,” she explains.
“It evolved from neuroscience and the fact that our subconscious brains respond to the words we say to ourselves, and to the images we form in our heads. We may have developed neural pathways that are dysfunctional. RTT literally re-trains the brain so we change the way we think — and how we feel about what we think”.
Rachel, who now lives with her partner, Malcolm, and dog, Echo, in Galway, established her own busy RTT practice three years ago. She receives referrals from GPs and specialises in treating people with depression, anxiety, and trauma.
“As someone who has experienced so much myself, I feel I’ve developed a wisdom that informs my work and allows me to really empathise with clients. Along with my training, I can identify what they need and deliver phenomenal results,” she says.
For all her optimism though, Rachel is also a pragmatist. “If I had my way I would ban the word ‘happy’ from the dictionary because I feel that the constant push for happiness pulls people away from living in the moment. It seems it is all about looking for more, whereas being content with where we are at is much more achievable and sustainable,” she says.