My posts about what it feels like to be friend dumped and have a breakdown have been both valuable to me for the insights I have gained and popular with readers. I am continuing the series here with an exploration of the process of counselling I have been through.
I want to share my experiences for the person who is out there feeling like they might need help with emotional issues and is considering counselling as an option. I want to give you an idea of what you could expect counselling to feel like, although each person’s experience will of course be highly individual. I have no idea if I had a typical experience of counselling.
Counselling is also (less technically) called ‘talking therapy’. In fact the terms counselling and therapy are quite often used interchangeably. There are registers of counsellors (e.g. BACP) who have appropriate skills. Those places have great advice on how to choose a counsellor and some information about the different types of counselling. But they don’t really tell you what it feels like.
When I first went to counselling I hadn’t got a clue how it worked and whether it would be able to help me, but I was desperate. I questioned how it would work, (I’m that kind of person). It was never fully explained to me (and to be honest I don’t think anyone truly understands this), but equally I chose not to look up counselling theory.
I managed to believe in counselling through blind faith and the idea that it really couldn’t make anything worse than it already was for me. At the time I had considered moving out of our house and leaving my husband and daughters behind, and even, in a theoretical way, thought about suicide.
Over the course of four years I went from severe depression, to being mentally healthy. If I hadn’t gone when I did, I doubt very much I would be here, writing this. So many things in my life have changed since that first session, for the better. It built me up from the wreck I had become to a woman with new potential. Yes, four years is a long time, but it was the time I needed.
I was extremely resistant to the idea of formal diagnosis and medication for my depression, which may or may not have been postnatal, partly due to the response that I had unfortunately received from an unhelpful GP a year prior when I started the process. For me counselling felt like it was a viable alternative.
My husband chose my counsellor for me as I could not face or take control of this task. I didn’t even feel that I could go by myself for the first session, he had to come for the first session and once I got settled (not comfortable) he went to sit in the car. That is not the ‘normal’ way, but it’s the only way I could have got there.
Whilst the act of going to counselling was what I wanted, I also felt like I was a failure; a failure for having emotions that I couldn’t deal with, a failure for falling apart, a failure for not being able to go by myself. I felt exposed. I felt vulnerable.
I vividly remember being in that room for the first time, what I wore and how I trembled and fiddled, how I found it hard to find the words to express myself, although I cannot for the life of me remember the actual conversation. I cried a lot. I have never been a crier. I bottle up my emotions, I fight with them, I deny them and I bury them. It was a massive emotional release.
My counselling was a private arrangement. It is not the cheapest thing in the world. I often felt like I was wasting our money, because it felt indulgent, frivolous. In reality though it was a good use of our money; if I had fallen any further down my hole, our family wouldn’t have been able to function and we would have had much more serious issues.
I have a fab husband but he was desperately trying to hold everything together and stop our world falling apart, children, work, house, me. He was too close to it all. I just couldn’t talk to him. And I had no one else I felt close enough to, to share my difficult feelings. For me my counsellor filled these shoes.
She offered me a sympathetic and understanding ear, as well as a more objective view point. She listened, she questioned, she guided my thinking. The counselling process worked for me because I developed this strong non-judgemental listening relationship, based on some common ground, that up until that point was absent in my life.
If I could liken it to any possible relationship I would say that she was like a particularly compassionate and caring big sister, without the competition of siblings. My counsellor did become a very important figure in my life, someone I found very difficult to walk away from when I decided it was time to do just that.
I never planned what I wanted to discuss but often things ended up coming out that I had been thinking about. It was led by my direction, but I found it extremely uncomfortable to follow the normal counselling protocol of starting the conversation. Even when asked ‘How are you today?’ I would often reply ‘I’m fine’ or ‘I’m OK’, although by the end this had changed.
I talked about my feelings of being overwhelmed by life, and the daily stresses that I experienced. I spoke of the experience of becoming a mother and of my educational experiences. I also talked about my relationships with family and friends. Remarkably we hardly spoke of my relationship with my husband. He has always known me and accepted me, although he did find my depression hard to deal with.
In a couple of sessions we did free association with story dice and with picture postcards. Sometimes my counsellor set homework, once this resulted in a drawing of an iceberg (superficial things and deeper things bothering me) and another time in a drawing of a tree (trying to discover things that I wanted out of life).
I often left counselling feeling very drained and worse than when I went in. But normally by the end of my walk home, the fresh air had calmed things down a little. I didn’t feel better immediately, progress felt slow, but over the course of a few months I moved away from the severe depression I had experienced to something milder. I had a blip about a year in when I struggled to deal with a life event, but then after that my mental health continued to improve steadily.
Counselling didn’t solve my problems for me, but it helped me explore them, in a safe environment. Many changes happened over the four years I had counselling. Often in imperceptible ways. Sometimes unexpectedly, and I coped, and sometimes by design, because I felt strong enough to create a new reality.
I found out so much more about myself and I learned to understand, if not accept, certain characteristics. I learned not to bury feelings so much (although it remains a trait I have to fight). I learned openness and that it was ok to be vulnerable. I became freer with others, and built deeper, stronger relationships.
Life is not perfect now. It remains a struggle for me, there are times when I have difficulties and times when I can see my depression in the rear view mirror. But I have so many more opportunities to help myself and knowledge of what makes me tick, that I know I can survive and hopefully thrive.
It was me who decided it should end. It could have gone on forever, if I had let it, but I reached a point where I knew it was time to stop, that I was ready for the next stage of my life. It was heart-breaking to lose a relationship that had brought me such strength. I will forever feel close to the woman who saved my life, and be sad that I cannot know her as a friend.
I found a new place to have a voice. Somewhere I could see myself more and more as a valid human being. Somewhere to celebrate the rain and the sunshine. Somewhere to chase the rainbows. Somewhere to fill my life with positivity, optimism and purpose. That next step was here at The Filling Glass.