Notes from 6 months of counselling
On Friday the 9th of March, I finished about a 5-6 month period of counselling sessions. I started them with the aims of tackling some anxiety and negative emotions I had experienced for a long time, and by the end (and at the time of writing) I felt profoundly happier, with many of my problems feeling, to a large extent, dealt with.
This was something that, until fairly immediately before I did it, I had never really taken seriously as something that I would ever need.
Though I never questioned its effectiveness for others, I always pictured it as something that was for other people – for more serious problems than my own. I never would have stated that I was in a ‘bad enough’ state to warrant any level of counselling for my problems. This is, of course, nonsense. I didn’t realise – or want to accept - that counselling can help with many problems – however major or minor.
My strategy, up until recently, had been to try and deal with things pretty much entirely by myself - by endlessly ruminating and philosophising about them. This was just my ego, not wanting to admit that certain kinds of issues best respond to certain kinds of help, and often that help can be external.
So I’m writing this with the aim for it being the kind of article that would have convinced the me of a year ago, or even earlier, to take counselling seriously as an option. This piece has the secondary purpose of just recording some of my thoughts about the whole process.
Nothing traumatic is mentioned here. The piece will be more about how the process affected me, the people around me, and my thinking – this should be fine and safe for anyone to read.
This book was given to me back in early 2016, by someone who knew me better than I realised. I had spent a few days with them towards the end of 2015 and had felt utterly disconnected, quite unexpectedly. I didn’t really understand it at the time. They suggested to me that something might be up with me internally that I should look into. The word ‘depression’ was mentioned. Looking back, I didn’t think about it further than I had to. The experience messed with my head for a few weeks, but I put it to one side. I absorbed myself in the busy lifestyle of Cambridge and ignored it.
I saw them again later in 2016, when they made me promise to seek out some help - to get it checked out - even if to get reassurance that my mental health was fine. I promised, though again, at the time, I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. In retrospect, my actions caused a rift between us and upset this friend of mine. It hadn’t just affected me.
Cue the next 12 months, where, plot twist, I become less mentally and emotionally healthy. This happened due to a mix of factors, associated with work, physical health and personal life. My base level of happiness dropped fairly significantly.
So after exactly a year later - in 2017 (though it would have been more storybook if it was a year and a day) - I contacted the friend who I had made the promise to, and had been so perceptive all that time ago. We arranged to meet, and I told them that, essentially, they were utterly on the money.
They gave me the warmest, kindest I-told-you-so smile I’ve ever seen. I grinned.
I told them that, come September, I would be in a single location for an extended period of time (my work had me travelling constantly, with less assurance for long-term routine). This would allow me to seek out help that would be consistent and long term. And this is what I did.
Counselling, at least for me, was essentially talking to someone attentive. Sure, they were a third party – totally removed from anyone I knew, and that made a huge difference. But it occurred to me very early on that the act of listening attentively, and taking interest, is something that everyone does with their loved ones. This therapeutic exercise – confiding in friends for advice, empathy and just having people listen is one that just seems like an inherently human thing.
We’ve all seen the stereotypical psychotherapist couch where the patient is lying down, staring at the ceiling talking about their problems. The classic line of understanding current traumas and issues in terms of childhood experiences might give someone a level of cynicism about the whole process. I’m sure these sessions exist – and I did indeed talk about my childhood – however this was simply because it’s important to talk about your childhood to someone whose job it is to try to understand you completely and who has never met you before. My sessions weren't about 3-6 year old me. They were about current me, and my life today.
Also I sat in a normal armchair. There was no ceiling-staring.
To the cynic, or to the unconvinced past me – if you’ve ever found talking to someone or confiding in them helpful in dealing with something, then counselling might be helpful to you too!
My sessions took place weekly, and lasted about an hour. Going in, I was pretty clear with what I wanted to get out of the sessions - I had felt a few flavours of pervading negative emotions for an extended period of time, and I didn’t want to feel that way anymore. I was lucky enough to click with the first counsellor I met – I was immediately at ease, and found it remarkably easy to speak honestly and forthrightly about issues that were concerning me.
It wasn’t that my counsellor gave me advice as such - it was more that they asked great questions, or told me when it seemed like I was being overly harsh on myself. One of the most healing things that the counsellor said to me took place after I had spoken at length about an area of my life that had been giving me concern for a long time. They remained silent until I finished, and simply said “well, that sounds like quite a lot”. I replied “hey yeah! It is quite a lot isn’t it?” As dumb as it sounds, simply having the validation that this was at the very least worth discussing immediately made me feel a little better about the situation. As you may have guessed from the start of this article, I had dismissed my concerns as 'not serious enough' for a while. Taking them as being serious because they were affecting me, and realising that was OK, was probably my biggest step in all this.
It took a few months for me to - as silly as it sounds - notice the effects, but by late January/early February I was feeling much happier than I had felt in years. It helped me deal with, and examine, a lot of negative thoughts that I had held. Really, it just helped me be a lot kinder to myself.
Healing and happiness are non-linear. I still have the odd bad day or few hours, where I feel much like I did when I began the sessions. But they’re fewer and far between. For the last few sessions, I walked in feeling like I didn’t have much to talk about, starting the session with the phrase “So everything is going great….” I had come with a problem and that had now been dealt with. Not only did I feel better, but I felt I had the tools and resources to make sure I remained that way. In addition, I had another personal goal to work on, which was something that I felt would give me more satisfaction with my life.
And I will have bad days again, and extended bad times. That's only human, that's how life is. But that's OK, and I'll face them more constructively next time.
It seems almost silly – the whole process took just under 6 months. Had I done something like this much earlier, I wonder how I’d be different now. But hey, amor fati.
The way I think about it now is simple mental hygiene. Dealing with your stuff and anything toxic that is bothering you is a good idea. I think of it as the mental equivalent as brushing your teeth – a trivial activity if done daily, but one that can lead to serious issues if neglected. Right now, my mental hygiene feels pretty good - but it's something I'm going to be taking care of for the rest of my life, much like every morning and evening, I will brush my teeth.
Tl;dr message for past me: Counselling can just be talking to someone. If you’ve ever felt better after talking to a friend, or someone who cares, you can benefit from it (and I know you have). The problem doesn’t need to be particularly ‘big’ or ‘serious’ – counselling can help with a range of problems – if it bothers you then it’s worth addressing. If other avenues you’ve tried haven’t worked, counselling is at least worth looking into. It may not help, but it might do. Sometimes it can help with problems that solitary thinking and ruminating won’t solve – to think that you can philosophise your way out of your issues on your own is just ego. It’s not weakness to need to talk to someone.
And to the person who gave me the book - thanks again.