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I realised yesterday that, in a strange way, I find writing a blog a bit like counselling.
Obviously, there are days I write something on purpose (ie. Plan a topic and then write about it), but most days, I just sit and wait and see what comes to the surface. Then, when I read what I've written, it’s almost a surprise – as if a deep inner voice is speaking, and I’m finally listening to it for the first time.
Yes, I’ve had counselling.
Yes, it was the most illuminating, life-changing experience.
No, I’m not in the slightest bit ashamed of it.
That’s why I’m writing about it today – to shout from the rooftops that mental health can be hugely improved by a good counsellor.
It must have been about 15 years ago when my life suddenly came to a halt.
After a huge family trauma, then relocating to a new city, then getting married, then starting a new job, my life looked set to finally settle down.
And that’s when, instead, my life simply fell apart.
It was as if all the stress and pain and sadness of the last few years, which I had been holding back behind a straining dam, burst through the exhausted walls and drowned everything in their path.
I developed IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and had to cut out all wheat products from my diet, or spend the day sweating and cramping in bed. I started to feel unbearably anxious about everything – teaching, meeting friends, going shopping. I put on weight – a LOT of weight, but pretended that my clothes were getting smaller. Eventually, I was hit by a nasty virus and was signed off work for a couple of weeks.
After the virus, I felt horrendously weak. I didn’t recognise the pasty, flabby wreck of a girl in the mirror – she had dead eyes and a slumped, defeated posture. If I tried to climb a set of stairs my heart would pound, my vision would go snowy like an old TV, and I’d be out of breath as if I’d run a few miles. I cried a lot. I hated feeling like a beached whale. I hated the blackness that would wash over me every time I woke up in the morning. I slept every minute I possibly could – sleep offered temporary respite from the harsh nightmare of reality.
An inner voice told me I was being self-indulgent, pathetic, weak. The inner voice was most displeased with the amount of time I’d had off work, and the fact that I never seemed to achieve anything. The inner voice scoffed at my inability to go out, meet people and fit into my old clothes.
I was already down, but I kicked myself in the guts for good measure, with a large dose of judgemental, pitiless self-loathing.
A doctor eventually diagnosed post-viral fatigue, possibly glandular fever (my glands were as big as eggs during this period), and prescribed anti-depressants – a vicious drug called Seroxat.
I took these pills for about 3 months. I remember nothing about those 3 months now. I was a living, breathing, eating, sleeping zombie. I refused to take them after I realised that the pain was preferable to being numb. I demanded to see a different doctor.
This time I was referred to a counsellor for a 6 week course of hourly sessions.
I wasn’t particularly impressed. I was ILL, for god’s sake. What was talking about it going to do? What was the point of sitting in a chair for an hour while an annoying woman in a flowing patchwork gypsy skirt, flowered Doc Martens and dangly earrings asked me ‘how I felt about that’ every time I uttered a sentence.
On the day of my first session, I woke up with a conviction that I absolutely was not going to sit in room with a stranger, talking about my issues. It seemed like the biggest waste of my time.
Funny that - as I was managing to do very little with the time I did have.
I phoned up with some excuse about a bathroom leaking, big emergency, very sorry, will definitely be there next week. I feel quite guilty about that now. I wonder how many referred clients cancel their first appointment…
The next week’s session seemed to come around very quickly, and I couldn’t find a way of squirming out of it. You know how babies scream and arch their backs when you try and pummel them into the car seat? That’s how I felt about going.
When I rang the door-bell and met the counsellor for the first time, I immediately decided that she looked exactly how a counsellor should look – compassionate, gentle and sympathetic, with a slightly odd dress sense.
I was led into a plain, neutral room. There were two comfy chairs and a pile of cushions on the floor. She asked me if I wanted the floor or a chair. I chose a chair – and always would over the years I visited her. For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to call her Diane. Obviously, it’s not her real name, but she looked and spoke just like Diane Wiest (the lovely mum from ‘The Lost Boys’ who was dating the Head Vampire).
I stumbled through an apology about the leaking bathroom from the previous week. She smiled and waved it away, clearly seeing right through my lame excuses.
We sat down and faced each other. I took a deep breath, and thought, “Let’s get this over with. The sooner we start, the sooner we finish.” I was still full of resentful negativity. Still reluctant, cynical and sceptical.
What happened next was so surprising and game-changing, I can’t summarise it in a couple of droll, succinct sentences. I think this will have to be a two-parter.
I shall take a leaf out of Charles Dickens’s book, and keep you waiting till tomorrow.