In a previous post I wrote for the Recover Clinic I shared my firm belief that everyone should have access to a therapist during difficult times in their life, and that having therapy should not be considered taboo or reflect weakness. I am privileged to be able to afford to meet with a private therapist who I currently see (over FaceTime) twice a week, but this is not my first experience of therapy; this is, in fact, my third and in this post, I want to share my experiences of all three episodes along with some words of encouragement and advice to those reading this who may be thinking about starting therapy.
I first had therapy back in October 2014. Having just passed my NQT year at work, I was still finding it extremely challenging to achieve any kind of work-life balance and was, in hindsight, running myself firmly into the ground. When driving home from a golf lesson one evening along unfamiliar roads, my lack of concentration, tiredness and anxiety over the work I had brought home to complete, I misread the road signals and ended up flying out of a T-junction onto a single carriageway road at 40mph before crashing into a signpost. Thankfully I sustained no major injuries, and no other drivers were involved, but it was the wake-up call I needed to take action in sorting out my life. I’m not quite sure how this event led to me deciding that a therapist would be an appropriate course of action, but without her things would have unfolded very differently.
I was extremely nervous to meet her for our first session (so much so that my mum drove me and waited outside in the car for an hour before taking me home) and the initial sessions were quite daunting as I am not someone who finds it easy to open up and share my thoughts and feelings. However, I knew that something had to change, and this was enough of a driving force for me to put the nerves to one side and give therapy a chance. It helped that the therapist was extremely friendly and helped me feel at ease immediately. As the weeks progressed, my situation at home began to change; my (then) partner was becoming increasingly emotionally abusive and manipulative and we were becoming more distant. The stress of a heavy workload was starting to ruin my appetite and I didn’t think I had the time to eat at school or prepare substantial meals on an evening. As such, the therapy sessions quickly became more tailored to providing me with an outlet to share my partner’s behaviours and working to stop my rapid weight loss and increasing anorexic thoughts and behaviour patterns.
I used to wait, despairingly, for each weekly session to offload onto my therapist who, at the time, was the only person to know the full extent of what I was experiencing. She did everything in her power to help me see the toxic relationship I was in, and the danger I was in of being admitted to hospital, and without these sessions, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to leave my relationship, speak to someone at school about my problems and finally open up about everything to my mum. This episode of therapy sadly did not improve my situation, but it was essential in managing it and keeping me safe and sane. My therapist went above and beyond to look out for me, including regular emails within the week to check-in and discuss my journal entries, but this was not how I envisaged therapy to be when I started, although I could not have predicted how things would unfold in the weeks that followed. I now know that this is not how ‘conventional’ therapy works, but having a safe space at that point in my journey was the lifeline I needed to make it through.
Fast-forward a couple of months and I was admitted to an outpatient centre for eating disorders. This involved sessions with a dietician, key worker and a psychologist with whom I had twelve sessions to explore the triggers of my eating disorder and barriers to recovery. Again I was extremely nervous to start therapy, particularly as there were a lot of details to discuss from the months of October to January when my anorexia took hold, and I had already shared these with my mum, my boss at work, my GP, an occupational therapist and the assessor at the centre… But once again I found that within a couple of sessions that the nerves subsided enough to enable me to really engage with the therapy, something that is so, so important and that I will return to later on.
The downside with this block of therapy is that I was only allocated twelve sessions and each session had a general structure to be followed. This left me feeling quite pressured to make substantial progress every session, and when this did not happen I felt disappointed in myself and frustrated at the system. I was also very deflated when the sessions were over, and that this was all the psychiatric help I was going to have access to, as I felt that we had only scratched the surface with regards to the longstanding issues that had contributed to my current predicament. Nevertheless, the advice that I was given and the tools that were shared with me in the sessions enabled me to better help myself once the therapy came to an end, and again this is a key message that I will return to a little later.
And now onto my current therapy that I have been accessing since April 2020. My therapist and I are conducting psychotherapy and have been examining all events within my life so as to try and disentangle my thought processes, thinking patterns and behaviours to truly understand why I needed to fall back onto anorexia and why I have been suffering from depression since the turn of the year. Starting therapy, on this occasion, was not actually my choice; my ‘support worker’ within school essentially insisted that I was to seek therapy with this particular organisation, almost as a means of proving that I could be responsible for myself and thus continue to work. Initially, I was adamant that I did not want therapy, and that living with an eating disorder, depression and anxiety was inevitable for me, but once my anti-depressant medication started to take effect and I could see the pain it was causing my mum seeing me this way all over again, I knew that I needed to be there.
My therapist is absolutely phenomenal and I always feel that I am able to be completely open and honest with her. Despite the sessions being conducted on FaceTime due to the COVID-19 restrictions, and me despising phone calls and video calls, I have felt able to fully engage with each and every one and talk about pressing issues, current worries and thoughts and feelings that I have been too embarrassed to share with others. It feels wonderful to have a space where I know I can just be me, no matter how I look or how I might be feeling, and know that I will be listened to and understood.
In the short space of time that I have been having the sessions, we have made some great progress in recognising some of the reasons behind my current mental state and I have understood myself more than I have in a long, long time. It is extremely reassuring when my therapist shares with me how she interprets a situation or shares a hypothesis on a particular behaviour I may demonstrate, and she sums me up better than I could have ever done so myself. Knowing that there is no limit to the number of sessions I can have means I do not feel anxious about needing to get X, Y and Z out in one session, and I can steer any session towards whatever has been plaguing me in the preceding days. Equally, it is great to regularly reflect upon how both myself and my therapist think things are progressing so that changes can be made to the provision; it was after a couple of these reflective conversations that we agreed to increase my sessions from weekly to biweekly.
I feel like I can say anything to my therapist and know that I will not be judged or laughed at or made to feel anything other than accepted and heard. I trust her with all of my darkest thoughts and feelings and have even spent a couple of the sessions in floods of tears without fear (and boy am I an ugly crier…!) and this is how I know that I am going to make the progress that is required this time around, regardless of how long it may take me.
To conclude, I would like to share some of my key messages with those of you who are thinking of starting therapy:
- Do not be afraid
It is normal to be apprehensive about the concept of therapy but the benefits far outweigh the nerves and anxiety that precede the sessions. In addition, the therapist will be expecting you to perhaps be nervous, or a little scared, and will do their best to make you feel as comfortable as possible.
- You may not find your ‘perfect’ therapist first time around.
When I started my current psychotherapy I was initially seeing somebody different within the organisation, but after a block of six sessions, I was beginning to question whether the dynamics were right for me. As a very quiet person, I didn’t like that the onus was on me to do much of the talking and take charge of the session; of course, I still have input into my sessions now but my therapist asks me lots of questions, including the all-important difficult ones, and this enables me to open up a lot more easily than in the previous scenario. You are perfectly within your right to end the sessions with the person you are seeing and go in pursuit of someone more suited to you; in fact, this is essential if you are going to get the most out of therapy! And try not to feel guilty about doing this – you are not questioning the competence of the therapist in any way, just how well matched you and they are to each another.
- Be prepared to make a long term commitment to therapy.
It is unlikely that all of your problems are going to be resolved in a short space of time. I was told that, due to the seemingly complex nature of my illnesses, I would likely need to undertake psychotherapy for at least a year. I, therefore, needed to be certain that I could commit to this financially as well as emotionally and logistically before commencing.
- You have to fully engage with therapy if you are going to reap the full benefits.
This is why finding someone you are comfortable with is so important. You may be sharing thoughts and feelings, trauma and life events that are very personal to you and that you may have never shared with anyone previously. You have to not be afraid to be completely open and honest, as this is the only way the therapist will be able to build up an accurate picture of how you are feeling and what life is like for you. Even if that means shedding a few (or a lot!) of tears. Therapy only works if you work, so you have to want to make a change to be able to maximise what you get out of the process.
- You will not be able to rely on your therapist forever.
It is quite unlikely that you will be in therapy for the rest of your life. And whilst you will work with the therapist to bring about positive changes, you will have to learn how to handle future triggering situations or negative events that may result in regression with your mental health. Use the skills that you discuss within the therapy and practise using the tools from your toolkit so that when the time comes to end the therapy, you feel confident in your ability to better deal with whatever life may throw at you.
I strongly believe that therapy is a vital resource for anyone struggling with their mental health. Having a person who can help you understand your own mind is, for me, a complete game-changer. Therapy is not something that you should feel self-conscious, ashamed or embarrassed about; asking for help shows a great survival instinct and you should be proud of yourself for recognising that you need some support. No matter what anyone may tell you, having a therapist does not make you weak or any less of a person. And you would probably be surprised at how many people are actually participating in therapy. So, if you are considering starting therapy, please seriously consider it, because it could just be the first step in your journey to freedom, happiness and self-acceptance, and thus the best step you have ever made.
Written by Una Clifford
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