Blog Post: Starting Therapy


I had tried counselling several times over the years, each time at the bitter end of a failed relationship, and each time I never really felt I got anywhere. This isn’t to say that the counsellors were bad, but I realise now that we didn’t even scratch the surface in the few sessions we had together.

I first saw a counsellor when I was 19, after a guy I had been seeing went back to his ex-girlfriend, and I was absolutely heartbroken. I knew that the extent of my grief was disproportionate to the relationship, and so I sought counselling. I remember being on a bus on my way home and sending him a text after we had split, asking if he would see me and he replied saying that meeting up was not a good idea, but he would see me soon and told me I’d be ok.

I will never forget the pain I felt, the raw, overwhelming and crushing feeling that there was absolutely nothing I could do to change the situation. No matter what I did, I could not pull myself out of it. I went to my doctor and I asked to see a counsellor. The experience was positive overall, I felt heard and comforted, but realised that this was how love and life was, people fell in and out of love and I was going to have to learn to deal with it if I wanted to survive. A tough message, but one I needed to hear.

It took me a while, but eventually I weaned myself off of this ex-boyfriend (I still saw him regularly at my lectures) and forced myself to step away. We remained friends, and despite still having feelings for him, I did manage to survive the rest of that year. He’s married now, and apologised more times than I can remember for hurting me, something that really meant a lot to me and I value to this day.

The next time I spoke to a counsellor was after the huge mess left behind by my explosive relationship of 4 years at the age of 27. This relationship started out badly in the first place, because I was with my first real love when I met my second love, and the two crossed over, leaving both confused and consumed with guilt. I was in the worst state I had ever been in, and signed myself up to 5 sessions over the phone with a counsellor. It helped, but it was nowhere near enough to really delve into the problems I was having.

After telling the counsellor how everything was my ex-boyfriends fault, that he relied on me both emotionally and financially, and I was in shock that he had met someone else, he said to me ‘perhaps you need to be needed’. I could also not believe what this puffed up counsellor was saying to me. How dare he tell me this was partly my fault! How could my ex-boyfriend going off with someone else after me giving him everything I had be my fault! I was furious.

A year passed, and I was coming to the conclusion that I was still not feeling any better than I had been the previous year. I felt very alarmed at the thought that I was not getting better, and those words rang in my ears ‘perhaps you need to be needed‘, the horror I felt that perhaps somewhere amidst all this torture that part of it was my fault was unbearable. I started to fall apart at the seams.

I had become an enabled victim, I looked around for someone or something – anything – to blame, because surely this couldn’t be my fault. My work began to suffer as a result, my relationships with family, friends and colleagues deteriorated, and I became a shadow of my former self. I was barely eating, out all the time drinking and trying to numb whatever this was that was eating me alive from the inside. I lost around two stone, and became unrecognisable to those close to me, but I buried my head in the sand.

One day, I had had an argument with my mum, and I ran upstairs to grab my phone and google what I should do. I found myself searching for a therapist, and searched the different types until I found one that I felt suited the best – Cognitive Analytical Therapy (“CAT”), a form of therapy that combines Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (“CBT”) with an analytical approach, i.e. analysis of your existing patterns and behaviours to understand them and the causes before looking to change them.

I realise now that somewhere underneath all of that turmoil, I knew exactly what I needed; someone to hear me, tell me that my feelings were both justified and normal, and help me find a new way to think and behave. I just didn’t realise I knew it at the time. I feel that I have been extremely lucky, because I have heard horror stories of people being physically, emotionally and mentally abused by therapists, but I could not speak more highly of mine.

I booked my first session with him – a taster session – to see if we were the right fit and whether he could help me. It was a 50 minute session after work in August 2012, and despite the whole thing being a blur, I also remember it vividly. I went in thinking that I would only have the recommended 16-24 sessions with him and I would be cured, 4 and a half years later I look back fondly on my 2012 self and wish I could give her some words of comfort and a hug.

By this stage, I had had increasing bouts of suicidal thoughts, my anxiety was completely debilitating and I no longer knew who I was. I hated myself for cheating on my first love and punished myself for losing my second. I went in to my first session ashamed and embarrassed, feeling like the woman with the scarlet letter tattooed across her forehead, and told him what I had done.

I remember him asking me if I had felt suicidal, if I had ever done anything about it or if I had any plans to try in the near future. He asked me about my family and their history of mental health, of who they were and who I was as a part of that unit, and I cried and cried at simply having him pay attention to me. He asked me how I felt and I said relieved, and he told me that he thought he could help me. He asked if I would like to continue and I nodded through my tears and gave him a resounding YES.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I felt during that session, but the only way I can describe it was as if had become aligned with my inner self. I could feel in my gut that I had found someone who would be able to help me. I had no idea how long it would take nor how deep we would have to go, but it didn’t matter, I had found a moment of peace amidst the chaos inside my head. I held on to that, and those moments of peace grew longer and more frequent as he and I continued.

This was only the beginning of my journey, and I’m still processing the sessions and subsequent changes I have undergone over the last four years. It’s been a lot to take in, but it’s been 110% worthwhile.

To anyone curious about or considering undertaking therapy, in my opinion it is a process unique to each individual, and the relationship organic between therapist and patient. There is certainly no one size fits all and part of the beauty of it (excluding those instances of abuse of power and trust) is that you’re opening up and trusting another human being enough to let them help you.

Even from the patients’ perspective I can see what a privilege it is to be allowed into someone’s intimate affairs and to be able to help them. It is a form of support and personal development that I wholeheartedly believe in and I hope to be able to encourage others struggling with this decision by sharing my experience.

 

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Blog Post: Staying Grounded

In my previous post ‘Success ≠ Happiness‘, I talked about how passing my ACCA papers and getting a new job were deemed as ‘successes’, and I thought they would make me happy, but they didn’t. I realised that happiness comes from within (sounds obvious) and funnily enough, all those cliches I heard over the years turned out to be true!

It’s been quite a shock to say the least to have this realisation, as for so long I thought all of these material and external things would make me happy. It was always ‘I’ll be happy when I get that job, when I have enough money, when I buy that car, when I get that house, when I meet Mr Right…’ and the list goes on. The trouble with this ‘I’ll be happy when’ mentality is what if ‘when’ never happens?

I found myself asking this question more and more as time went on, and I can safely say that I no longer find myself stuck in this unsatisfactory mindset, but if I do, I am able to recognise it and pull myself out of it. It is freedom at it’s most liberating. I began by asking ‘yes, but what about now? how can I be happy now?’, and I soon realised the most obvious answer to this question: choice. I could choose to be happy.

If someone had said that to me a few years ago, it’s likely that I would have punched their lights out, and told them how bad my life was, how everything was just falling apart and how dare they tell me I could choose to be happy. Understandably so really, because at the time I was mid-breakdown, and all I could see was grey; happiness was something only other people experienced and I had forgotten what it felt like.

However, after what has felt like years of trudging through mud with a sack of emotional bricks on my back, I have finally found dry land and left those bricks behind. I no longer need these external things to find my happiness, and I am shocked to hear myself say that right now, I am happy! I have no car, no flat, no job, no partner and no plans, and yet I am happier than I have ever been in my life.

Of course I am about to embark on an amazing adventure and fly off over to New Zealand, but even if I wasn’t, I think I would be just as happy. I would find something else to explore, somewhere else to go, new people to meet and challenges to overcome. All of a sudden, I see hope and potential where I saw emptiness and despair, and it is in the small things around me, as well as the things that have always been in my life. They have new meaning, and I find myself holding them with reverence and a clarity I have never had.

This has been a gradual process, one which has taken all of my strength and perseverance, and now that I am here, I can’t quite believe it. As a result of this disbelief, I am feeling a strong need to stay grounded during this period, and not to get carried away with ego trips or fantasies of how my life will now flourish. I want to remember that the whole point of this process has been to attain this feeling, right now, in this very moment; the peace and happiness of now.

It is so easy to feel as if you have achieved your goal, overcome your bad habits and dysfunctional patterns, and that all the hard work has finally paid off. The problem is solved and there’s no more work to be done. So many times I have fallen into this trap and reverted back to my old ways of being and thinking, of living in any moment other than right now, building up expectations of the future and denying my feelings about the past. It’s so easy.

Except it’s not easy, not in the long run, and it’s like learning how to swim with no arm bands but then thinking ‘oh why not, it’s easier with arm bands anyway‘ and not putting in that effort anymore. Your muscles become weak, your muscle memory disappears, and you get comfortable back where you started. Then the whole cycle starts again and you get mad at yourself for letting this happen.

This time, something does feel different. This time, it feels like something might just have stuck. I’ve been seeing my therapist for just under four years now, and a week ago we discussed what we were going to do about our sessions when I go away to New Zealand. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said that I would like to continue our sessions via Skype like I had while I was in Australia. I then asked him the same question, what did he recommend. His answer shocked me, despite knowing in my gut what he was going to say.

He deliberated for a few moments, and before continuing he reminded me that what he said was not gospel, and by no means did I have to do it, but went on to say that he thought we should stop. He said that I had made so much progress in the last few months that to continue with Skype would not benefit me, but more likely confuse the situation. I felt absolutely elated by this news, because for years, and pretty much since the beginning of our relationship, I have been dying for him to say those words to me.

After I left his office in a blur of excitement, I became ill, with a head cold and a horrendously sore throat. I had some personal issues crop up that took my attention for about two days and all of a sudden I had no time to think about my therapist and our impending end. I was caught up in the stress of my personal life and the debilitating virus that had taken me over, and I couldn’t bring myself to think of he and I.

I went back to see him after our 5 days apart, and all I could do was laden him with all the troubles I had had and avoid talking about our ‘ending’. I felt disconnected from him, as if I had shut myself off somehow, and I realised that I felt quite angry at the idea of him ‘pushing me off a cliff’ which is how the whole thing wound up feeling. Instead of feeling liberated and confident, I felt betrayed, and I wanted to give him something – a problem – that would show him I can’t cope without him, how could he do this to me.

He caught me out and highlighted this fact, and when he did I felt immense relief because I then realised how upset, angry and scared I really was. I also felt relief because it reminded me that he knows me, he understands how I must be feeling and he managed to coax it out of me as he has done for the last four years. He also said that the body has a funny way of expressing our feelings for us, that the timing of my illness was aligned with the shock of our conversation, and I agreed with him because that is exactly what if felt like.

I saw him again, and I felt much more connected to him, I was able to admit to how scared and sad I was, yet happy at the same time. I couldn’t stop crying during our 50 minutes, when I recounted the last four years, there was just so much to be thankful for. I have connected with this man like he is a third parent, and he knows all my secrets, but now it is time to say goodbye to him and I am beyond distraught.

Much like baby birds leaving the nest to fly, I am leaving the safety of his office to see what I can do on my own, and it is still both liberating and terrifying all at once. For the first time in my life, I know I am ok, I am worthy of happiness and love. At the same time, I do not know how to grieve for this relationship, nor how to trust that what he has helped me achieve will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I keep taking stock, pausing throughout my day and checking in with myself: are you ok? how are you feeling right now? are you sad, happy, angry or scared? what do you need? what is your gut saying? I do this because I have no choice, despite the scary and intense emotions that are flooding my brain right now, something has kicked in. There is a strong voice that overrides that horrible little gremlin telling me that I am no good, and says stop, you know it’s not true, and now is the time that you must stop listening to this.

Something happened when I heard my therapist say that he thinks I will be ok if we stop, and while physically I just felt panicked and ill, mentally my brain was processing this information and rewiring itself. My body just needed to be out of commission for a few days while my brain needed time to do this, or this is how it felt.

It took a while for my brain to compute what he had said, but slowly the message that he thinks I am there got through. Something inside of me started to take over from him, it said ‘he’s not going to be around to tell you to do this stuff anymore, you’re going to have to do it for yourself‘ and that is exactly how it feels. I can almost feel with every day that passes, that a part of me is letting him go.

Letting him go hurts like absolute hell, it’s as if something is being ripped from my insides when I imagine no longer talking to him, no longer being able to rely on him. I find myself replaying conversations with friends of mine who always asked if it was dangerous to rely on a therapist for this very reason – that there is no guarantee that it will either work nor that I will ever stop relying on him. What will I do if I rely on him too much and I am never able to stop seeing him? This was a question that has haunted me throughout the entire process.

That is the paradox; in order to no longer need someone you must rely on them completely, something he said to me time and time again. I could just never understand this, how the hell am I supposed to get better if I rely on you to do it for me?! But that’s just it, healing is a two person job, and in order to get better you must trust that someone wants to help and allow them to share your pain. There was nothing more validating than having him listen to my story and just feel that pain with me, no judgement, just being present.

Everyone is different, we all have different scars from our past, different patterns of behaviour and levels of dysfunction. For me, I knew I needed someone to tell my that my feelings were ok, that they were allowed and I was entitled to feel them. It’s been a slow process, but over the years I have learnt to accept my feelings, acknowledge them and feel them.

There was a time when I did not know how I felt, except pain, but now I can separate them out, identify them, allow myself to feel them and even identify the cause and release them. I ask myself if I am ready, and my intuition tells me that the answer is yes, despite everything else inside of me screaming no. I also know that I am never going to truly feel ready, as that is the point of going outside of your comfort zone.

When I booked my trip to New Zealand, I could not wait to go, to get away from London and my therapist, to bury my head in the sand and just forget about all the pain, but now that it is here I feel completely different. I am terrified to go to the other side of the world, completely on my own, with nothing sorted except two nights in a hostel, and yet my intuition tells me that it is the right thing to do.

I am as ready as I will ever be; to leave, to end therapy and to go to New Zealand. One moment I am completely bereft, the next I am like a little kid at Christmas, it is an emotional rollercoaster and one that I just have to ride out.

It is the moments in between – the calm, peaceful and centred moments when everything within me is in complete alignment – these are the moments that keep me going. I am listening to the voice within that has always known what to do, the one that told me to get out of a bad relationship, to go to therapy, to quit my job, to keep doing my professional exams, to stop seeing the bad boys, to curb my drinking, the destructive behaviour, go to Australia, and to go to New Zealand, the voice that told me to follow my dreams.

The voice has been that of my therapist, and now that voice is mine. I’m more scared than I have ever been in my entire life, but I have never felt more alive. I feel like I am eating life up like it is a never ending meal, and each day is a delicious bite, whether it is bitter or sweet. I am just about managing to get through these moments of agony as well as exhilaration, by standing still, breathing and making sure my feet stay firmly planted on the ground. These are the moments I find the happiness I never thought was possible.