The prospect of needing therapy or counselling can be terrifying. Barbara Stensland explores why getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
I’ve always been the kind of person to keep things bottled up and soldier on, no matter what life threw at me. For a long while, it kind of worked. I believed life’s trials made me a stronger and more capable person.
And then one day, those trials came too thick and too fast to assimilate or to make sense of.
My world was collapsing and I slipped into a downward spiral. Old wounds I thought had long-healed were ripped open, blending with newer challenges until the entire landscape of my emotional life resembled a Jackson Pollock painting.
In short, I was a mess.
I thought that I knew best!
I confided in close friends who recommended I try a few counselling sessions, but I dismissed the idea out of hand. It was my life and I was the best person suited to sort it out.
Instead, I bought a special notebook and jotted my feelings down, connecting a few dots. And then I used the book to write shopping lists in.
I read endless self-help books and quickly threw them against the wall in frustration.
I recited mantras, which promised me serenity and courage. I felt silly and gave it up.
My mind was whirling and I began to feel devoured by negativity and past scenarios running through my head, day and night.
I ate too much, slept too little and began to question my place in the world.
One day, after running out of options, I called a counsellor who had been highly recommended. I was sceptical beyond belief.
How could I distil what I was going through – years and years of events and trauma – into a short therapy session? Would it be like on TV dramas where every comment would be turned back on me with a, ‘… and how did that make you feel?’
I could do that myself, and it wouldn’t cost me a penny!
But that was not all. Admitting I couldn’t cope made me feel somehow ashamed. What kind of person was I if I wasn’t in charge of my own life? Why couldn’t I get it back on track on my own?
After counselling, I now stand corrected
Three years on, after seeing a counsellor every couple of months, I stand corrected.
The first time I met her, I was nervous and embarrassed. The room seemed to echo with my voice and, listening to myself talking to her, I felt self-conscious and a bit ridiculous.
I noticed the box of tissues on the table, confident I would never need them. I was utterly certain she would subtly roll her eyes and suggest I take up a hobby. Like singing, or weaving.
And then she did a weird thing. She recited back to me everything I had told her, which in itself wasn’t strange, but the way she worded it was mind-blowing.
All those jumbled thoughts, the whirling self-doubt and fear, condensed into a few paragraphs. She had scooped up my life and presented it as a task which, with a little help, could be solved.
With a few more probing and uncomfortable questions, it felt like the path ahead of me was unfurling rather than appearing as a confusing, overgrown forest.
Over the last three years, she has given me a huge pair of loppers with which to cut my way through that forest and it’s a tool of empowerment. Patterns have emerged and been understood – finally.
We have discussed my reaction to events and I have modified it to my benefit rather than detriment.
We saw how far I'd come since my first visit
I saw her last week after a gap of around three months and we talked about how far I had come since my initial visit. I was astounded – to hear it back, all those positive effects and how much better my life is now – strengthened me even more.
Life will never be an easy ride, and I accept that. However, I now feel equipped to deal with events as they arise, rather than blindly fumbling my way into the epicentre with no regards to my emotional wellbeing.
I take a step back, think clearly and adjust my way of dealing with things that previously would have rendered me a quivering wreck.
Picking up the phone to book that first meeting is one of my proudest achievements. Sometimes it takes another person, suitably qualified, to untangle life’s stresses.
When my computer breaks down, I take it to an expert.
And now, I do the same with my own life.
Dealing With Trauma, NIH News in Health
8 Good Reasons to See a Counsellor, CTRI
Getting the Most Out of Counseling, ULifeLine
Talking therapies, Mental Health Foundation
NPS-IE-NP-00205 February 2021