It’s Mental Health Awareness Week this week so I thought I would do a couple of blog posts along this theme, sharing my experience and knowledge of mental health and therapy. If this isn’t your bag, feel free to ignore, but also, if you think it’s helpful, or remotely important, feel free to share with others who might feel the same. Thanks.
There still sees to be a bit of a stigma about talking to a professional amongst certain people in the UK. Some people seem to imply that you must be “crazy”, “a bit wrong”, have “loads of serious issues” or, that you are a bit weak, certainly weaker than them, they manage just fine without needing to talk to a stranger, thank you very much.
I call fear and nonsense and maybe an unhealthy little dose of pride. People are often fearful of that which they do not understand.
I have integrative therapy with a lovely lady called Debby every two weeks and I have done so for almost a year now. I just talk about whatever I want to talk about for fifty minutes and we explore why I react in a certain way, why I think or feel like that. I am better for therapy not because anyone around me is doing anything differently but because it has furnished me with a greater understanding of my feelings and reactions to things that have happened in the past or are happening now and I can now choose to respond to them or view them in a different way.
Therapy can be hard; you are working on your understanding of yourself and changing and growing in the process. That can be scary – self-examination leading to change and growth requires a willingness to be vulnerable, to explore parts of ourselves or experiences we might prefer to keep under wraps.
Some people seem to think that therapy is a bit self-indulgent unless you have “real issues”. I get that. It’s something I struggled with at the beginning, I mean, I am a very lucky, very privileged middle class white woman with no mental health diagnoses, a happy marriage that is a partnership, a loving and extremely close family and lots of friends. What could I possibly need to go to therapy for?
That little judge-y voice in there – the way I talk to myself sometimes – that’s part of me I don’t like very much. It is something I have explored with my therapist – why do I place such high expectations on me and my behaviour, why do I feel I need to subscribe to “should’s” that I would never prescribe to others?
Ann Voskamp writes in her book The Broken Way:
“If we all listen long enough to the voices about who we should be, we grow deaf to the beauty of who we are.”
I just adore that. You might be telling yourself that you are defined by something that happened to you, or that you “should” feel a certain way about your experiences or your situation. You might feel that you have expectations to uphold, a role to play. You might feel completely unable to do that, that you are useless at the roles you are playing and you might be feeling very alone, very fearful and be believing lies about who you are and who you can be.
“Harry Potter: Professor? Is this all real? Or is it just happening inside my head?
Dumbledore: Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
For a long time I lived in “should”. At first, that was fine, no real cracks were showing, I was firmly along a path in a career that was wrong for me, telling myself it was right. As time went on that charade started to catch up with me, it’s very draining living a false life. It lead me to become very anxious, to lose my voice, to retreat into myself as protection and to react with fear, something that was very unlike me before.
I tried to ignore and supress or swallow my “negative” feelings, not just about my career choice, but any negative feelings about any aspect of my life – I couldn’t quit, I shouldn’t be angry (ever), I always overreacted and I should never feel sad, it was all my fault, I was handling everything wrong and I just needed to TRY HARDER.
I won’t go into the grisly details of this period of my life but needless to say, I was not myself and I certainly was not living my best life, nowhere remotely close. I became a bit of a shell of myself to be perfectly honest – putting on a brave face to acquaintances, distancing myself from all but those closest to me and never being truly honest about how I was feeling. During this period my anxiety was at its worst: I had heart palpitations and a mild panic attack and so I went to see my GP to explain how I was feeling as a first step.
My GP was really good, I know that isn’t everyone’s experience, but they gave me time and listened and didn’t make me feel silly for crying. The GP offered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy on the NHS – which is strategies to change the way you think and behave. This can be really great and very helpful but for some people it may not be enough and a talking therapy either alongside or instead of CBT may be preferable. I didn’t take up the offer; I just knew that my anxiety was largely being caused by circumstance and I needed to make some changes to improve that, which I did. I will say though that it was the first time I had someone completely impartial listen to me say how I was feeling and they didn’t try to fix it with platitudes but accepted it and suggested some help – that for me was liberating. I felt as though my feelings had been validated and that someone had acknowledged that the situation needed to change.
With thanks to my incredibly supportive husband (then fiancé), family and friends (shout out to the Berlin crew who were there at one of my lowest points), I was able to start to accept how unhappy and anxious I had become and make some changes (including quitting my job and starting therapy). Since that time I am so MUCH happier, more secure and less anxious and I’ve found my roar again. I am more “me” because I have learned to feel my emotions, not supress them and because I have a greater understanding of myself.
Talking to a professional is completely different to talking to family or friends. A good therapist helps you to see yourself more clearly, because you work towards being more you when you are with them. Therapists listen, they do not judge and they do not give you advice. They might provide you with tools to use or a different way of thinking about something but they do not tell you how you should think or feel (I did quite enough of that by myself). I have found that sometimes it is so helpful to have someone completely impartial empathise with your feelings and your experience, your truth, it has certainly given me the confidence to become more accepting of myself.
If you are feeling a bit lost, a bit scared or just sad talking therapy can be really beneficial. I would say however, that always, your starting point should be talking to your GP, they will be able to talk through options with you, and if you are asking for treatment on the NHS will be the gateway for that.
I know that therapy can be a scary and daunting world to navigate and as such I will be compiling a little blog as a “signpost” to help navigate the world of therapy a little later this week. For now though, if you feel like you need some help, even if you’re telling yourself that you shouldn’t – please ask for it, I know it’s scary to ask for help, we live in a culture that promotes self-reliance, but as Dumbledore says to Harry:
“Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it”.
We might not be at Hogwarts (sadly) but I do believe that Dumbledore was onto something here (“Great man Dumbledore”), so always, always ask. Please.
*Please note that this blog is based on my own personal experiences and any opinion is my own*
**Harry Potter quotes are from The Deathly Hallows by J.K.Rowling and in my (not so humble) opinion an awful lot of wisdom can be found in Harry Potter, so if you haven’t read it – get on with it**