Therapy Talk

At the beginning of 2015 I had a strange and unsettling episode that harked back to my days as a stressed out third year in university. It was a panic attack, full blown and frightening. Brought on, I think (it’s always hard to pinpoint), by a lack of direction in my life at the time. I had moved to Brussels with my boyfriend and was loving life in Belgium, but my nine month maternity cover job contract was coming to an end and I didn’t have anything else lined up. I was also conscious that my status as a girlfriend rather than a wife in this international setup was somewhat lacking in security. And so, after weeks of internalising my emotions, they built up and burst out of me in a tidal wave of fear. I hyperventilated myself silly, cried and panicked for the best part of an hour. Fortunately my then-boyfriend (now-husband – as it turned out I didn’t have to worry about that part) was on hand to offer words of support and encouragement. I calmed down. But I knew something inside me had awakened, and that I would need to find the courage to face it.

And so I did something I never thought I would actually do: I found a counsellor. And I went to my first session feeling embarrassed and stupid, like I was wasting her time and my own. And thinking surely counsellors are for people with real problems, not women whose biggest issues are which job to choose next and whether their boyfriends will decide to pop the question. But as I sat and talked, in the first session and the next, I realised this was about so much more.

We humans are like onions. When you start to peel away the layers you find layers you never knew existed. Each represents experience, and emotion. And until you have uncovered them all it’s hard to appreciate why you are the way you are, why you interact the way you do with others, with the world. And, most crucially of all, how you can adapt your behaviour to bring about positive and lasting change.

Almost eighteen months later I had my final session. It was tonight.

My counsellor asked me what three things I had learned from our sessions. I said, firstly, I’ve learned how to get some perspective. When I feel myself getting anxious, I now have the tools to dissociate myself from the stressor – even if just for a moment. I can then ask myself how big the problem is, really. If it will matter in three weeks, three months or three years. If it’s worth fighting or losing sleep over. And the answer, of course, is usually no. Secondly, I said I’ve learned some valuable coping mechanisms in response to specific situations. The best one was the victim-perpetrator-rescuer scenario, which I have used successfully to navigate occasional tricky patches in relationships. Finally, I’ve learned to be more empathetic towards others, to appreciate they have layers of their own (layers sometimes even they don’t know about). I have a propensity to be oversensitive, but now I have the capacity to realise that people don’t do things with the aim of upsetting me. It’s just the way they are, the way they have been conditioned. Just as my response to their behaviour is the way I have been conditioned.

It’s been a great experience.

I’ve learned a lot: About the person I was, the person I am and the person I want to be.

Now it’s time to take back the reins.

Anxiety-Looking-Glass

Grinning through the gloom

Whether on a micro or a macro level, it’s an undeniable fact that life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to. No matter how well we lay our plans, the boiler will always break just as we want a shower, the supper will always spoil when we have guests for supper, and giving the customer services team of our bank/mobile phone supplier/energy provider a ‘quick’ ring in our lunch hour will rarely, if ever, be either quick or satisfactorily resolved. It will always rain when we have no umbrella, our bosses will always walk up to our desk at just the moment we flick onto Facebook, and the chain on our bike will always come off when we’re at our most red-faced and unattractive (not to mention in the busiest part of town).

But whilst it sometimes feels like things are sent to thwart us, in reality they are just part of the rich tapestry of life. In some ways it can even be such unexpected occurrences that change the metaphorical direction in which we’re travelling, forcing us to take stock of a situation and re-evaluate it, then change the way we choose to deal with it.

Whatever the reason (or lack thereof) for things going wrong, dwelling on them isn’t going to solve anything. Provided those things aren’t matters of life and death, it’s probably safe to say that they will pass and we will emerge from whatever storm that descended upon us relatively unscathed. It is, of course, easier said than done that we can slap a smile on our faces and grin through the gloom in every circumstance, but if we can remember that this too shall pass we’re half way towards winning the battle.

Bank Rage: Part Two

Whilst I can’t deny some part of today’s struggle has been self-inflicted as a result of the weekend’s birthday festivities, I am nonetheless in wonder at the absolute FUCKTARDERY (excuse my French) of some organisations when it comes to customer ‘service.’ I ranted the other day about Bank of Scotland but today they’ve excelled themselves even further, keeping me on the phone for a SECOND FORTY FIVE MINUTE PREMIUM RATE PHONE CALL (and breathe…), at the end of which they were not only no closer to finding out what the problem is with my account that is preventing the balance transfer for which I applied for this card in the first place, they also managed to accidentally hang up on me. In my frankly irate state I completed a rage-filled complaint form and was duly called back by someone in the complaints team (a new one to add to the repertoire of players I’ve been fobbed off with in the past week), who has assured me she is now dealing personally with the matter. No doubt tomorrow will bring further anger-inducing developments in this painful saga. Stay tuned, folks…(and please trust me when I advise you never, ever to apply for a credit card with the Royal Bank of Scotland).

Meanwhile, the writing magazine website I recently subscribed to for the princely sum of £9.99 per quarter is also having trouble with identifying my account as a subscriber account, barring my access to the subscriber-only writing competitions that were a big part of why I signed up in the first place.

I honestly don’t know what I’ve done to offend the god of technology, but it must be something pretty awful to warrant all this torment….

It’s a hard knock life

I was walking to work this morning, entirely lost in my own myriad thoughts, when I passed a man whose appearance caught my attention. He was older than me by at least ten years, red-eyed, unshaven and carrying some bedding. It was obvious he had been sleeping rough.

When I got into work I had a meeting about developing case studies for my charity, during which I heard some harrowing stories about young people who, prior to taking part in our programme, had been bullied, thrown out of home, started dealing drugs and carrying knives..the list goes on.

Back at my desk I received an email about dementia sufferers, which said that loneliness (of sufferers and their carers) is one of the most painful and yet most under reported effects of the disease.

Why am I telling you these depressing stories? Because they’re real, and they’re all around us. Every single day people of all ages are suffering. These are extreme cases, granted, and on a lesser scale we all have our problems to work through. Which is precisely why we should treat one another with love and compassion rather than harsh judgment and criticism. I think the picture below sums this up perfectly.

Choices

Yesterday I learned a valuable lesson: When you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders you’re not helping anyone, least of all yourself.

Bad things happen in the world – terrible, unforgivable things. It would be inhuman to never feel affected by them. But if you let your defences down too much they will burrow into your skin like maggots and take root in your soul.

Hate breeds hate like a cancer, and it’s precisely this type of disease that the terrorists and white supremacists have. Their disease is terminal; they’re too far gone to see the errors of their ways and the flaws in their thinking.

But the rest of us have a choice. We can let the hate seep into our consciousness and destroy us, or we can fight against it and tell ourselves life isn’t hopeless and that there’s much more goodness in the world than bad.

Internalising the world’s problems is, ultimately, pointless. If you want to make positive change then go ahead and make it, there’s nothing stopping you. But accept the boundaries within which that change is attainable. In this life we get back what we put in, so there’s little point in being negative. It’s bad for our hearts and bad for our health – and without our health how can we expect to achieve anything positive?

In the wake of this realisation I’ve decided not to read the papers or watch the news today, to step away from the perpetual misery and propaganda and just enjoy my own life; my work, my family, my book, my writing. Sometimes it gets too much to bear, the constant onslaught of negative reporting on the world’s plethora of problems (though this, of course, is a first world problem. I have the luxury of turning my back on them, whereas millions don’t; they live those problems every single day with no respite. Those problems are their lives, there is nothing else. This, too, is worth remembering).

My new mantra is this:

Focus on the things you can change, rather than worrying about the things you can’t.

Despite the bad things that happen in it and the ignorant people we share it with, the world is still a beautiful place. And for the short time we’re on this planet, we should at least try to enjoy it.

You had me at first click – Part Six

“Jasper, Amy, come on!” John looked at his watch and sighed.

“I don’t know why you think shouting’s going to speed them up,” said Alison, entering the kitchen with a pile of freshly laundered clothes in her arms and depositing them on the table.

“Well something has to. We’re running late as it is.” John sighed again. “What are they doing up there?”

“Being children, darling,” Alison said, her voice laden with scorn, “something you’ve obviously forgotten all about.” She started sorting through the pile of washing.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Alison identified two matching socks from the pile and set them to one side. She looked up at John and shrugged. “You tell me.”

“I don’t have time for one of your cryptic one-sided conversations right now Alison.”

“Well there’s no change there then.”

John walked into the hallway. “Kids, come ON!”

He re-entered the kitchen and watched in silence as his wife painstakingly sorted his family’s clothes into neat little piles, one for each of them. Her mouth was set in a thin line, her forehead ruched by frown lines. John wondered when she had become so embittered by life, and whether it was his fault.

Thunderous footsteps announced the imminent arrival of Jasper, their eldest. He tore into the kitchen, closely followed by his sister, Amy.

“We’re ready!” Jasper shouted, zooming around the kitchen with his arms held wide like an aeroplane.

“Ready!” Amy mimicked, holding her own arms aloft.

“Don’t forget your packed lunches,” Alison said, pointing to the work surface. “And remember what I said about sweets and chocolate.”

“They’ll rot our teeth,” said Jasper, rolling his eyes.

“And make us fat,” Amy added, her expression solemn.

John shot a disapproving look at his wife and shepherded the kids out to the car. “See you tonight,” he shouted back over his shoulder, not waiting for a response.

At seven and five Jasper and Amy were proving more than a handful, and whilst he loved them dearly these days John often caught himself remembering fondly how easy life had been before they came along.

Whilst other friends had procreated and adapted to life with kids with what seemed – on the surface at least – to be complete ease, John and Alison’s journey into parenthood had not been so easy. John had known when they first got together at university that children were high on Alison’s agenda, but had he foreseen the fervour with which she would pursue her goal despite the detrimental effect it would have on their relationship he may have reconsidered the whole proposition.

When they found out she had polycystic ovaries Alison had cried for days, despite the doctor’s reassurance that it didn’t mean they wouldn’t be able to have children – it might just take longer. When she did eventually fall pregnant she was overjoyed, but her nerves were so frayed after months of treatment and false alarms that she became paranoid about losing the baby – a paranoia that had continued long after both the children were born. Although he knew it sounded dramatic to describe her as a different person to the one he married, in many respects it was true. And he didn’t have the first clue what to do about it.

John parked up outside the school and walked the children inside. It was a typically manic first day of term, with children and staff alike wandering the halls with confused expressions, timetables in hand. As they passed the staff room John heard a man’s voice say “welcome to the mad house,” and a woman’s reply, “thanks. It’s great to be here.”

John stopped in his tracks and turned around. He dropped the kids’ hands and took a few steps closer to the staff room, craning his neck around the door. Sure enough, in the middle of the room was a familiar slender form. Even from behind he could tell it was her, there was something unmistakeable about the way she held herself; something proud and assured. She turned around and gasped as her eyes met his. “John,” she breathed.

“Hello Jen.”

Image

I love this image, taken in northern India. It captures something magical and indefinable.