Shopping for Counsellors

Choosing a counsellor is an important process. However it’s one that we often don’t get to have, or one that perhaps we don’t feel we can do.

Counselling is a deeply individual process, and much of it’s success depends upon the therapeutic relationship between counsellor and client. It has to be a good “fit”.

We very rarely buy clothes or shoes without trying them on to check the fit and how we feel in them, yet how often do we allow ourselves to have introductory or initial sessions with a number of counsellors to see how we feel with them? Even if we are in a position to do so. If our counselling is via the GP, or NHS, then a choice of counsellor may seem impossible. But it’s still important.

We rarely continue friendships with people we don’t feel comfortable with, we don’t open up to them in the way we do to others – so why think a therapeutic relationship with a counsellor would be any different?

It can feel odd to “try someone out” and then reject them and choose someone else. We’re kind of taught that that’s not really a nice thing to do in relationships – even one where we are paying someone to listen to us and entering into what is essentially a business relationship. We aren’t making a new friend here, even if the counsellor may end up knowing up better than most of our closest friends.

If you have the opportunity, take introductory sessions with counsellors. Some do this face to face, some over the phone or skype, often at a reduced rate, occasionally even free. Maybe this would be useful even if you’re entering into a situation where you don’t get to choose your counsellor – it can give you a sense of what type of situation and person works for you.

Try counsellors of different modalities, unless you know what modality is your cup of tea. Psychodynamic is very different to Gestalt, open-ended person-centred is different to short term Solution Focused.

You need your personal unique fit, to your emotional curves, bumps and dimples. How you feel with that person is important. Do you feel safe, do you trust them, can you be honest with them, can you allow them to challenge you, can you be vulnerable with them?

What is your instinctive feeling during that first session?

Sometimes we just like people, or dislike others. Sometimes they remind us of someone, and this can help or hinder the process. Sometimes we can’t pinpoint where our feelings of yes or no come from, but it’s important to listen to and take notice of.

One counsellor does not fit all.

It’s okay not to get on with one and want someone else.

Don’t run an emotional marathon in ill fitting shoes.

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Self Care is Sexy

So I last wrote about lists and tasks and getting things done and how important that is in my fight against the Goblins of Anxiety.

And sometimes it’s not enough…

Sometimes the most important thing to go on the list is Self-Care.

Amongst some of my dearest is the saying “Self-Care is Sexy”

Because we think that self care gets a bad deal. Plus we need reminding ourselves. We’re fine with telling others to look after themselves, but frankly a bit shit at taking our own advice.

Self-care can take many forms. From a duvet day, to seeing friends, from a decent meal, to getting away for a holiday, to a bubblebath, to a nice glass of wine or steering clear of substances for a while to appropriately prescribed medications. All dependent on what’s going on, what you will allow yourself to do and what time/energy you have available.

Self care is personal, just because someone else swears by meditation, running, the gym, crafting while watching trashy telly, doesn’t mean it will work for you. You need to experiment and be honest with yourself about the results.

self-care

I really like that tree from – https://imaginethatyou.wordpress.com/ – while not everything on there is on my self-care list, I like the idea of having a “Self-Care Tree” like this. May have to do this!

There’s also a list somewhere along the lines of – have you eaten, have you slept, have you drunk some water, have you got some fresh air, have you washed – which can be handy when those goblins are running rambunctiously in our minds.

After a number of days of not getting enough sleep, heart palpitations and my digestive system shutting down to the point that I lost 4lbs in as many days, I phoned my doctor and after a chat about what was going on and what I was experiencing, received a prescription for a low dose sedative as a temporary measure.

I’ve been medicated a few times to varying degrees and for various lengths of time. And while I’d rather not, I have no problems with it. It’s like I’d rather not take paracetamol because I don’t want to be in pain to begin with. But if the pain is there, I’m damn well going to take the pills – and look at why I’m in pain and try and address the cause. Natch.

So self care then! Put on your own mental health oxygen mask first before helping others. Healer, heal thyself (then the rest of the D&D party if they ask nicely).

It’s not selfish, or arrogant, or lazy or indulgent to do self care. It doesn’t mean you’re failing.

I’m also not doing the “if you would only have an organic flax seed smoothie every morning and meditate for an hour then you’d not need medication” bollocks, because frankly shut up with that crap.

Whatever works. As long as it doesn’t actively harm you, or others, go for it. If there are things that absolutely must get done, get what support you need to do them. Push anything that can be pushed back by a period of time, and treat yourself.

Donkey and Pride

Friends know about my “slight” obsession with task lists and getting things done. There’s a reason for this.

Living with anxiety goblins, I need weapons with which to fight them. I need an array of weapons. They are sneaky clever fuckers, and they learn to fight back. They have over 40 years of my life with which to attack me with and they wield my dark moments like pros.

It was while studying counselling and psychotherapy (and being the client, and being the therapist) that I learned I wasn’t a failure at life, I had an anxiety disorder. I’d spent most of my three decades up to that point comparing myself with the people around me and wondering why apparently inconsequential things knocked me sideways, why I just couldn’t seem to cope with life as well as most, and why fear seemed to rule me and be my initial response to pretty much anything.

I’d attempted to cure this by staying away from situations that caused fear. Seemed a reasonable response… but it made my world so very small. I self medicated for over two decades to numb the overwhelming physical symptoms of anxiety – until it became a habit and addiction that was deeply entwined with my sense of self. And the fear remained, attached itself to other things, attacked me with the coping mechanisms I was using and I eventually realised this just wasn’t working. I needed to change. I was dying from the inside out. Existing but not living, surviving but not thriving.

So slowly, so very slowly, I started facing things, pushing back the boundaries of my comfort zone, doing things just because they scared me (tandem skydive for one! Singing solo in public for another), but choosing them carefully, building up slowly.

Starting to study counselling was one of these things. I didn’t consider myself particularly academic after failing my A levels (forgetting the huge personal and mental health issues I had going on at the time). I gave myself a hard time. I struggled to give up the habits and addictions holding me in place.

Another thing about me, relevant to this post is that I work in images, in stories and characters. If I can frame something with a character and story then I can understand it better.

And thus we get to the point of this post.

While studying what ended up being half a Masters Degree in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy, I came across a part of my brain that seemed utterly set on sabotaging me. I had to deal with this, I’d invested a lot of money that I didn’t have in this course and wasn’t about to lose it just because part of me wasn’t playing the game.

I investigated this part of me and eventually found an image that just fitted. At the bottom of all this, hiding under the Sabotage and the Fear was Stubborness. There was some part of me simply, firmly, consistently saying, “NO”.

No, not going to do that, not going to look at that, no no no you can’t make me.

The more I tried to force the issue, the harder it stuck, like a psychological finger trap. I realised I needed to be clever. The image that I discovered was that of a donkey digging it’s back heels in.

stubborn-mule

Pulling and pushing at the donkey just made it worse. I realised, in an obvious epiphiny, that I needed to motivate it. I needed to find the right carrot…

And for me, that carrot was pride. The Golden Glittery Carrot of Pride (because making something slightly silly is fun!). I thrilled in getting praise from my tutors, from getting good remarks on my essays, for having work done by the deadlines and research ready to show the group. I suddenly realised that I’d rarely felt proud of myself before and it was a powerful intoxicating feeling. One I wasn’t willing to give up.

I thought long and hard and about what made me feel proud – and it’s an ongoing process. I am by no means a workaholic, but I do like achieving things. I have discovered a very competitive side; with myself.

The question isn’t “What makes me feel proud?”, rather it’s “What will make me feel proud TODAY?”

Because it changes. Sometimes it changes throughout the day. And that doesn’t matter. What matters is developing an honest and congruent conversation with yourself about what’s needed, what’s possible, and what, if this is something that will assist you as well, will make you proud. Doesn’t have to be work, or studying. It can manifest in any and every area of your life and activities.

Sometimes it’s going the extra mile. Sometimes it’s just getting out of bed. Sometimes it’s having that self-care day and staying in bed with movies. Sometimes it’s reaching out to people and sometimes it’s riding out that dip on the rollercoaster.

Getting that donkey onside is a powerful weapon against the brain goblins.

So that’s why I have a constant task list. That’s why I put things on there just to tick them off. That’s why I sometimes say that I can’t rest, I can’t get that treat until after that thing. Because I need and crave that feeling of Pride. Which luckily doesn’t manifest by overdoing it, that’s Stupidity, not Pride. There’s no pride in running yourself into the ground, there’s only exhaustion. Pride is working within your means, and discovering that your means stretch just that little bit further that you initially thought.

As the hashtag says, #thisgirlcan. (please adjust for gender identity preference of your choice)

And there’s only one way to find out…

Henry and Liza

I’m not normally quite this prolific, but I’ve been in need of distractions lately. This isn’t a personal post as some of them are, but more a general pondering that was sparked by randomly coming across this song again –

There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza, There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, a hole.

Then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry, Then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, fix it.

With what shall I fix it, dear Liza, dear Liza? With what shall I fix it, dear Liza, with what?

With straw, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry, With straw, dear Henry, dear Henry, with straw.

The straw is too long, dear Liza, dear Liza, The straw is too long, dear Liza, too long.

Then cut it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry, Then cut it, dear Henry, dear Henry, cut it.

With what shall I cut it, dear Liza, dear Liza? With what shall I cut it, dear Liza, with what?

With an axe, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry, With an axe, dear Henry, dear Henry, an axe.

The axe is too dull, dear Liza, dear Liza, The axe is too dull, dear Liza, too dull.

Then sharpen it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry, Then sharpen it, dear Henry, dear Henry, sharpen it.

With what shall I sharpen it, dear Liza, dear Liza? With what shall I sharpen it, dear Liza, with what?

With a stone, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry, With a stone, dear Henry, dear Henry, a stone.

The stone is too dry, dear Liza, dear Liza, The stone is too dry, dear Liza, too dry.

Then wet it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry, Then wet it, dear Henry, dear Henry, wet it.

With what shall I wet it, dear Liza, dear Liza? With what shall I wet it, dear Liza, with what?

With water, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry, With water, dear Henry, dear Henry, with water.

In what shall I carry it, dear Liza, dear Liza? In what shall I carry it, dear Liza, in what?

In a bucket, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry, In a bucket, dear Henry, dear Henry, in a bucket.

But there’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza, There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, a hole

——

It occurred to me that this song is actually a pretty good analogy for anxiety and depression. 

Not being able to sort things out yourself, asking for help but not taking it, circular arguments justifying the position of stagnation. Helpful advice from people that sometimes actually doesn’t help or is turned aside (sometimes with good reason, sometimes not). 

In the lyrics of the song I always felt I could sense the growing frustration of both characters as Liza’s advice is constantly thwarted and Henry’s problems aren’t accepted.

When we speak up about our fears and restrictions sometimes we don’t want help. We want acceptance. Helping can (intentionally or not) sound like “can you just be better so I don’t have to deal with this please.”

Not all the time.

But sometimes.

And the helper doesn’t get to choose when.

It can be agonising for the one struggling if the helper is someone they care about as often we don’t want to upset or offend them by being negative about their well meaning offer.  We want them to be reassured that they are in fact helping us, so we try and hide the fact that we are still in the same place. This all takes yet more mental energy.

Then it gets complicated.

Acceptance says, “yes this is rubbish and you’re still worthy of love and attention and time.” Sometimes help can be given after enough acceptance. Sometimes not. Sometimes acceptance can even condone the state of doing nothing. There is no perfect list of instructions here.

There wouldn’t be a song if Liza sat down and said something along the lines of, “wow, stupid bucket, that sounds really shit, shall I put the kettle on?”

But maybe that’s what Henry needed.

Easy to forget

It’s easy to forget how powerful the grip of anxiety is.

How despite all the measured deep breathing and rational calm talking, it refuses to lessen it’s grip on both mind and body.

How it feels like a spear through my chest. A physical weight and pressure in the centre of my chest both external and internal, through to my spine. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it feels like a balloon slowly expanding and taking up the space where my heart and lungs should be, making it hard to breathe.

It’s easy to forget how laboured my heartbeat can get at times, feeling like a knackered horse struggling to get up a hill, it’s erratic beats doing nothing to soothe and reassure.

It’s easy to forget that the words in my mind at this time aren’t real. Aren’t based in fact, but are my own fears and insecurities reflected back to me. They swell in my throat making casual socialising almost impossible to navigate.

It’s easy to forget that we can find evidence to anything if we look hard enough. Easier to accept the words spoken so passionately and evocatively. Best protect yourself against what is to come… it’s hard to keep fighting against the words when the physicality accompanying them doesn’t fade…. surely if your rationality and logic was correct you’d feel better by now….? And so it goes on.

Times like this, the dark and scary part of the ride we are all on, just hold on, remember to breathe and wait. Just breathe, that’s all that’s required today. It doesn’t last forever.

But it’s easy to forget.

Reset

I feel as if I have a reset button at the end of this week.

I’ve not planned past Friday (bar a few obvious essentials of having care and food).

I have vague thoughts of getting health and fitness back on track – motivation became subzero in the last few months. I’ll have to think about finding somewhere else to live and ponderings of rediscovering the “me”ness of me. But that’s all they are. Vague thoughts. The planning and execution of which will happen after Friday. After the big red button is pushed.

Any scifi/fantasy watchers out there will doubtless have seen a storyline involving the wrong version of a character – maybe the timeline got corrupted, maybe a transporter beam went awry, they got pulled in from a parallel universe or a spell went awry – and we as viewers know that this version is wrong, that for order to restored, for everything to be right again this character needs to be replace by the correct one – by the end of the episode the reset button will be hit and the wrong character will be replaced by the one we love. Then all is right with that world again. We know this. We expect this. We root for this.

But for the “wrong” character, all they know is they exist and they have to die. They may or may not agree with that, they may or may not know. But they stop existing.

This is the only way I can explain how I feel this week. Of course I know that I’m not going to stop existing. Surgery and general anaesthetic is scary but I don’t have a not going to wake up again fear. That’s not what this is, and I don’t mean to overdramatise things. But I do have a weird nebulous existential feeling that on Friday everything changes. I will go to sleep that afternoon. I will wake up sometime later that afternoon and everything will be different. I will be different. Irrevocably changed. There is no putting back what is taken (not that I want it anyway, it’s defective and needs to go).

The me that exists now, typing this, will not be the person who returns home at some point next week.

And as much as I have literally signed up for this. It’s an existential fear that just won’t quit.

See you on the other side…

 

 

Toddler brain

My anxiety can often be like a toddler having a tantrum.

I write this in full acknowledgement that I’m not a parent. But I’ve been around enough toddlers to see them melt down over the most random of stuff. And my anxiety does that too.

Unsurprisingly my anxiety is in storm force mode currently. It’s whirling around trying to find something to focus on. It’s amazing what you find when you’re looking for it.

Thinking of my anxiety symptoms like a toddler has helped me develop coping strategies.

1. Logic and reason. I can see parents shaking their heads already. Yes. This rarely works. But it’s always worth trying first. Acknowledge what’s going on and what’s being felt. Make a show of checking for monsters under the bed. Acknowledge not finding any. The reasons why we are safe. Sometimes it works. I can talk myself down. Often it doesn’t and we move on.

2. Love and hugs. Treats. Blankets. Time off. Bubble baths. Wine. Whatever this is for you. Yes it often involves spending money which sometimes means it can’t be done. It involves time which we don’t always have. If you can, give yourself a treat you won’t give yourself a hard time for later. Totally guilt free. Get cuddles from someone who won’t try and fix anything. Talk to yourself to find out what you need and deliver it. Be your own nurturing loving parent. After all we still love our toddlers even when they are throwing a tantrum and sometimes cuddles stop the tantrum. And sometimes they don’t.

3. Distraction. Ooooh shiny! Mindless TV, games, craft projects, books. The trick is something entertaining and engaging enough to keep the attention but not difficult or stressful. Again they his takes time which sometimes we don’t have so…

4. Time out. Sometimes we just have to get stuff done. We’ve tried everything else and it’s just not working and the job has to be done, the bills have to be paid. Sometimes I have to put my anxiety on a virtual naughty step and just let it cry it out. Breathe through it, wipe those sweaty palms and do the job. Later, when there’s time, there will be a prize. And it can be anything you like (that is feasibly within your ability and budget to get) because you’ve had to tough it out.

This are my coping strategies. Yours may vary 🙂 these work for me. They don’t go in order. I don’t go from 1-4. Often I know which one to pick but sometimes I don’t. Sometimes a tried and tested technique fails. Sometimes they all fail. But only sometimes. Like with toddlers, consistency is important, following through is important. Don’t promise yourself a treat and don’t deliver. Don’t have a treat then give yourself a hard time over it!

The toddler in our heads may not grow up. But at least it won’t become a teenager!

Mental Vs Physical

Two recent events got me thinking.

Event 1 – I gave up the driving lessons due to the anxiety attacks they were causing.

Event 2 – I twisted my ankle.

Why is it so much easier to look after ourselves, and to let it be known that we are in need of looking after, when it comes to physical pain? Why is it so much harder with mental or emotional pain?

Admittedly sometimes and for some people it still isn’t easy and I know many who will push themselves past what is sensible and not let themselves rest and recover (not to be confused with those that push and find themselves more capable than previously expected, that’s different, I’m talking about those that don’t stop then fall over seriously broken).

With my ankle, there was a clear visible sign of hurt, for a while I simply couldn’t put enough weight on it to walk and I felt grateful rather than guilty that a friend travelled over to lend me a crutch so I could get about easier. I had to cancel some plans, and although I didn’t like having to do so (the timing sucked!), I didn’t feel guilty about it.

When it came to giving up the driving lessons, I gave myself a hard time. I’m not someone who gives up easily (any more), and having experienced the pride that comes with achieving something once thought out of reach, I am happy to work hard to feel that pride again. I know now that my anxiety is not an indicator of my ability. Having taken a long time to get to that realisation, it’s one I cling to. Nowadays, I intensely dislike my anxiety getting in the way of what I want and I’ve been known to pursue something simply because the thought of it causes anxiety (the tandem skydive I once did being a prime example of this, technically it was to raise money, really it was because the thought of it caused a panic attack so I decided to do one just to show my anxiety who was boss).

However, although I knew that technically I could continue with the lessons and eventually pass, I realised that I simply wasn’t willing to allow that much anxiety into my life. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, it was that I didn’t want to.

At the moment I have other things that I wish to give my attention and time to, not to mention a job I care about that I need to be on top form for, and the level of anxiety I was experiencing for 24 hours before the lessons was getting in the way of that.

I came to that realisation after I gave up the lessons however and spent a fair few days feeling like a failure and being grateful for my ever loving and supportive circle of friends understanding me and telling me what I needed to hear.

Now that I pride myself on overcoming my anxiety, my self-image took a knock when it felt like anxiety had won. It took a few days of mulling it through, talking it over with some friends to realise why it was absolutely the right decision for me and to be okay with having made it.

Look at the difference in those two paragraphs! There is a need to explain, to justify perhaps, with giving up driving. The paragraph about the ankle is essentially saying – yeah, hurt ankle, got some help, couldn’t walk for a bit, didn’t push it.

I can’t seem to say the same for a hurt nervous system. It’s not treated the same by people around us. We’re expected to push through, carry on, just be stronger. Yet few would advise someone to keep running that marathon on a twisted ankle we can’t put weight on. Is it just that there is no visible sign to point to?

Maybe one day we will get there, in the meantime, see if thinking of your mental and emotional issues as physical ones helps. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. It helps me at times.