This is long and in no way an essential read. It’s just the backstory of how I find myself here.
I’ve always struggled with my mental health. Anxiety and depression have been almost constant companions since my teens, albeit to varying degrees: sometimes barely noticeable and at other times totally debilitating. I’ve seen various counsellors over the years but never really got anywhere with them.
After spectacularly falling apart following a bereavement I was allocated a year of psychotherapy in the NHS. I was told there was quite a waiting list (turned out to be 2.5 years!) so in the intervening period between being put on the waiting list and actually getting therapy I saw a nice ‘tea and sympathy’ counsellor, privately, who quickly told me that she ‘didn’t have the skills’ to really help with my issues (that did wonders for my self-esteem I can tell you!).
I kept going for a year anyway because I needed to talk to someone even if I couldn’t work through the deeper issues with her. She helped me with my feelings of loss about my dad which enabled me to get back on with my life to an extent.
When I finally got the letter to see my current therapist, I’d just about patched myself together with my trusty rubber bands and chewing gum. I was functioning ‘fairly’ well: I’d moved house, gone back to work after 17 months off sick, got pregnant with my first child, indeed I’d pretty much forgotten that I was waiting for therapy as I was caught up in all that life, work, and pregnancy brings!
How could it take over two years to see a trained psychotherapist anyway? I guess if I had have shown my doctor, the psychiatrist, and the community mental health teams how bad it really was for me when I was at my lowest then things may have moved more rapidly, but I was terrified of being sectioned or something. I played everything down at the time and just picked myself up like I always had done in the past, not really dealing with anything and just running away from my issues. Idiot!
I’d sort of resigned myself to continue living this sort of half-existence – accepting that I would suffer regular periods of depression and anxiety; that not feeling good enough and like there was something fundamentally wrong with me was just my personality type; that I would never really be happy and I would continue to use restriction of food, too much exercise, and self-harm to cope. I guess I felt that I would have to carry on with the show in the way I always had done and accept that this is how it is for people like me and maybe this is what life is really like. I doubted if anyone could really help me with what seemed like a lifetime of cumulative traumas and crap coping strategies.
I’ve always been a private, reserved, and introverted character and even during my breakdown nobody knew about any of these feelings I carry inside because what I had always presented to the world was a confident, in control, high-functioning adult. It’s served me well, to an extent, but it’s taken a ridiculous amount of energy.
When I first met my therapist in 2012 I liked her instantly although I doubt she would have known because I was really resistant and guarded. I spent the first 9 months of therapy weighing her up and not really talking to her. Sure I spoke, but not about the real issues, not my well-guarded secrets. I didn’t even mention the eating disorder I have had for half my life, or the fact I self-harm until three sessions before the end of the therapy!
Trust is a huge issue for those of us with attachment wounds. Although there was certainly part of me that wanted to get better and heal, I just couldn’t risk really letting her in. I didn’t want to show my vulnerability. I didn’t want her to know how messy it was underneath my cool exterior. I didn’t want her to confirm to me that I was ‘beyond help’. I didn’t want to identify with all my broken parts or admit that they were even there. I essentially sabotaged the therapy – not because I was being difficult, but because there is a part of me that is so battle ready that it serves to protect me against any intrusion. It used to ward off the enemies but somewhere along the line it also got caught up holding off the allies too.
But, as is so often the case with therapy, one day I was blind-sided, something massive shifted, and my defences crumbled. I didn’t see it coming. I don’t know if it was the realisation that time was running out, or what, but suddenly I felt like I couldn’t survive without this woman. I needed her like I needed air to breathe. She really mattered to me. I missed her between sessions in a way that made my stomach ache. I had become deeply attached to my therapist.
This should have signalled the start of something good, right? A flood of positive and connected feelings? Well, it didn’t because my brain doesn’t work like that, unfortunately. Feeling dependant and needy triggered a huge amount of anxiety. It re-activated some really deep-rooted fears that I must have buried somewhere back along the line. All of a sudden I became aware that she was going to leave me right at the time I needed her most. She would be gone. I wouldn’t see her anymore. It was beyond overwhelming.
Now that I wanted to tell her what I had been holding in my entire life there wasn’t time. I felt like I was going to disintegrate. I was also really embarrassed that I had somehow got so emotionally reliant on a professional (ugh!), someone who could never be what I suddenly felt I lacked. I’d spent my whole life avoiding getting close to people in order to not get hurt and here I was fixated on a therapist. I wasn’t just fond of her in a ‘we work well together’ kind of way, it was as though some really primitive, young emotions had surfaced, I loved her, and I just didn’t know what to do about it.
How do you explain to someone that you feel like you are empty inside and have a bottomless pit of need that only they can fill? That you need/want them to hold you like a small child and soothe you even though are a fully grown adult? How can you express that when you know there is no chance of it ever happening? How do you cope with the huge sense of rejection and abandonment if you ever manage to pluck up the courage to ask for that and then get a refusal even though it is just protocol not to touch/hold?
It’s beyond painful because it is a child’s needs that are coming up and the inner child that feels the massive hurt and rejection. The likelihood is that this is all replaying something that happened in the past: not being held, contained, seen –essentially being emotionally abandoned. I didn’t know anything about transference back then and so struggled against my feelings, too ashamed and embarrassed to talk about them.
I still find it all a nightmare but at least I sort of know what’s going on and that I’m not completely mental for having these intense feelings towards my therapist. I also know now that these issues are the very things I need to bring into session and work through! It’s easier said than done sometimes and part of me wants the ground to open up and swallow me when I start to talk about how I feel about her. I wish my adult censor would leave the room sometimes to allow the little ones space to talk.
Anyway, back to the first episode of therapy… She realised how difficult things had become for me as I started to share my story, though I never told her how I felt about her which was really what was hurting me the most at the time. Somehow she managed to extend the therapy for a further three months but even that wasn’t enough time. This kind of deep-rooted trauma and all the coping strategies you build up to survive don’t just repair in a few sessions, in fact maybe not even a few years. It takes a huge amount of commitment from both client and therapist to do this kind of work and it’s not easy. In fact this is probably the hardest work I have ever done.
Time was ticking away and before my final session I had sent her a rather long email. It was like I had taken a dose of truth serum and let a lot out on the screen. It was weird, the whole time I had been in therapy it had never occurred to me to Google her or try and discover anything about her. It was almost like she only existed in that room. I think it’s a bit like when I was a teacher and kids I taught would see me in the real world and do a sort of double take.
Desperation had kicked in as the end of therapy drew near and that’s when I searched for her online. It turned out that she also worked privately and that’s how I got her email and asked if she would see me in private practice. She agreed but said there would have to be a three month break between the NHS setting and her private setting. Argh.
Even though I planned to meet in three months, I was absolutely devastated leaving my final session. I didn’t show it. I’d sort of shut down and put on my ‘it’s fine’ face in order to cope. I just walked away and didn’t look back. I’m not sure if I even said thank you. I’ve never been good at endings. I’d rather pretend that they’re not happening.
The idea of a three month break was just too much. I’m rubbish at therapy breaks! (more on that later!) I started having really graphic, distressing nightmares and sunk into a pit of depression. The nightmares lasted a couple of months and then abruptly stopped following a dream. I was in a lake, swimming in the dark, about to give up and drown myself when my therapist pulled me from the water onto a boat, wrapped her arms around me and held me tightly cuddled up in a blanket. She told me that I didn’t have to do this anymore and that I was safe.
My partner was not supportive of me having more therapy and it caused a huge row. ‘How much therapy does one person need?’ I was just oversensitive and needed to move on and be thankful for what I had now. The past was in the past. I knew then that I wasn’t going to be able to see my therapist again, no matter how bad I felt. I would have to just carry on as I always had, only knowing now that help was possible and that I couldn’t access it.
Life moved on again, things were ok, good even, but as always the good times were punctuated by periods of anxiety and depression, not eating, over-exercising, and occasionally self-harming. And then when my new baby was 6 months old I got diagnosed with cancer having been misdiagnosed for the previous two years with other conditions. I was too young for cancer, apparently! I had an enormous tumour and my life turned upside down.
I spent 9 months battling the cancer with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I lost my hair but I was one of the lucky ones and kept my life. It was the most terrifying experience to be faced with the reality that I could die and leave my children without a parent before they’d even started school. A couple of months after completing treatment I fell apart. I just couldn’t manage anymore. Cancer was the straw that broke the camel’s back and my partner told me then that I needed therapy. PRAISE BE! So that’s what I did. I was back with my therapist within two weeks. What a relief.
If you’ve made it to the end of this, well done. I’ll try and be brief in the future.