A year ago, my first few sessions of therapy were a challenge. Although I had started going to them voluntarily, I was sceptical it would make any difference. I’d always preferred to keep my worries to myself. I prided myself on being strong. Independent. Not too reliant on anyone. Not even my husband. Over anxious people often irritated me and I had spent much of my life working hard to be in complete control of my emotions. I also found it very hard to trust anyone, unless I had known them for a long time. I didn’t really see how therapy sessions could help me. Unbearable nightmares. Significant weight loss. Panic attacks. Extreme irritability. Many of the symptoms of depression were there. But how exactly could talking about them make them go away?
I was even more sceptical having met my therapist. She was clearly at least ten years younger than me. Probably didn’t have children. Possibly had little life and work experience. And, in those first few sessions, all she seemed to talk about was the obvious: the importance of creating a routine now that I wasn’t working; ensuring that I exercised every day; eating and drinking regularly; and talking to my psychiatrist about medication to help me sleep better. Was this woman for real? Was I really spending my time on being told what was: a) common sense and b) impossible right now? How could I create a routine when work had been my life for ten hours a day for the last fifteen years? How could I exercise when I lacked the energy to get out of bed? How could I eat and drink when I felt so sick that I couldn’t even look at food? And did I really want to go down the road of taking medication to help me?
She was also predictable at the end of every session. She’d remind me to call or to email if I needed to. That her support wasn’t limited to our weekly sessions. She was busy but she, or someone else at the centre, could always find time for me in a crisis.
I would look at her blankly. As if I would call her in a crisis! What would she do, tell me to go for a walk with the dog or distract myself doing something else? As if that would help me in a real crisis!
To my great surprise, things suddenly changed one day and my perspective on therapy was transformed. Having worked from home for a couple of weeks to keep me company, my husband decided to go into his office. It was an hour’s drive away but we were both happy that I was ready to be on my own and it was easier for him to work from there.
By 8.30am the house was silent. My husband had gone to work and my daughters had left for school. I sat on the sofa and tried to calm the rising panic in my chest. The silence was deafening. I had nothing to do. Nowhere to go. No-one to speak to. What was I supposed to do all day? I vaguely recollected conversations with my therapist. Perhaps this was what she meant about the need for routine? The emptiness of my day before me was overwhelming. What on earth was I going to do with myself?
An hour later I had walked the dog and done the ironing. Back on the sofa, the rising panic was even more intense. Thoughts began to bulldozer through my mind. How can it possibly have happened that I wasn’t well enough to work? Was I not good enough to teach anymore? Maybe I wasn’t good enough to be a Mum anymore either? I felt that I was a bad wife. Always stressed or irritable or tired or something. No-one actually wanted or needed me anymore. There was actually no point in me being here at all.
Heart racing, I looked wildly around the room as if in search of inspiration. My eye finally caught my phone that was tucked safely in my palm. My therapist’s words came to mind. Call or email when you need to. That was what she’d said, right? Did that really mean I could email her though? I mean, maybe she’d just said it. I didn’t want to disturb her. This probably didn’t really count as a crisis. Even though I wasn’t sure if I was safe in my own company. Phone her. That was the other option. But that meant calling the office first. So I’d have to speak to two people. And maybe I wouldn’t know the first one. No, I couldn’t do that. Email was the only option.
I paused and took a deep breath. ‘Please help me’ I wrote in the subject box and clicked ‘send’. Leaning back on the sofa, I worried about what I had done. Maybe she wouldn’t answer because she’d be cross with me. She’d probably think I was wasting her time. What could she do anyway? She was on the other end of the phone. It wasn’t as if a conversation would change anything.
Five minutes later, my phone rang. ‘Unknown caller ID’ appeared on the screen and, as I answered, I heard my therapist’s voice. “How can I help? How are you feeling Claire?” I took another deep breath. ‘How could talking help?’ I thought once again. Wondering immediately why I had bothered to email her.
After some gentle encouragement, I began to open up. Then, within minutes, she knew everything. My fear of being alone, the intense sense of panic I felt, my concerns that I wasn’t safe. I sobbed as I spoke and all the words just fell out of my mouth in a relentless cascade that probably made little sense.
With a level of calm that I hadn’t expected (how could someone be so calm when someone else was so hysterical on the other end of the line?), she told me to listen to her plan. I had to hang up the phone and call my husband. I needed to ask him to come home. In the meantime she would free up her schedule to see me. She would call me back in five minutes. Was I listening? Had I understood? Yes, I thought to myself. And thank goodness you are speaking to me like an idiot right now because that is just what I need.
Within fifteen minutes, I knew that my husband was on his way and that I would be seeing my therapist by lunch time. I had a plan to do even more ironing until he got home. That was all I needed to focus on. The ironing. My husband coming home. My appointment with my therapist. I took deep breaths. And focused on those three things. Nothing else. Just those three things. And some level of calm began to return.
I entered my therapist’s office a few hours later and began to sob before she started to speak. She had yet to see me cry and once again I was struck by her calmness. Edging the box of tissues towards me, she waited patiently for me to speak. “I can’t do it,” I whispered. “Life. I can’t do it. It’s just so hard. No-one needs me. No-one wants me. I’m useless. And I just drag them all down. That’s all I do. I drag them all down.”
In a measured and decisive manner, she moved from the chair in front of me to the chair on my left. We were much closer than we’d ever been before. Quietly and softly she began to say, “I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but this moment will pass. You will feel better. You do matter. You are important and you are needed. You can’t see that right now and that’s ok. That’s because you aren’t well and that is why I am here. I am here to remind you. You will get through this. It will end. You just need to hang in there.”
She went on, essentially saying the same thing but in different ways. Her soft words and her physical closeness began to have an impact on me.
After a while, I began to look at her in a different way. I did need someone else after all. Right now, I needed to hear those words and to believe them. She was the one who could say them because she got it. She’d heard it before and, ultimately, she didn’t care. Not in a brutal way, of course, but she didn’t care in the way that someone close might have done. It was a true revelation to me. That was why it was helpful to talk. That was why I was here. This young, unworldly person before me, could offer me something that no-one else could. And I had so much to learn from her.
So, what is my advice to you? Well, when you begin something new, such as therapy, try to abandon preconceived ideas. Both about yourself and about others. As you embark on a new journey, you might surprise yourself and others may well surprise you too. If you are open to that from the beginning, and allow your therapist in, it may well make your travels a little smoother…or at least get them off to a quicker start.