So the past couple of weeks in therapy we’ve been looking at my part in the problems I’m experiencing. For years I’ve wanted to be part of a permanent friendship group – to feel more like I’m taking part in life and not just in the sidelines. Yet I definitely resist opportunities when they come along, so my part in the issue is that resistance, that pushing against vulnerability. My therapist is not a practiser of the twelve steps, but he has specifically asked me to look at ‘my part’ a few times, maybe because he has heard me talk about it before and finds it important. His challenging on this is gentle and empathic, as all therapeutic challenging should be, but it is challenging nonetheless. And I find myself getting more and more annoyed with him every week, as the questions get harder.

Why would I resist true friendship, the thing I want most in life? Because being a friend means being honest sometimes, and I have always found that very hard. The last thing I want to do is bore or frustrate people with my negativity; sometimes unfortunately all I can be is negative, because sometimes that’s how I honestly feel. It causes a dilemma, which I have long dealt with by simply running away from the problem. This same problem occurs everywhere in my life – in AA, at college, at work. It’s the reason I often feel tired and distant at college now, the reason I get so frustrated with AA meetings. Every week I want to open my mouth and say something real, but I feel I can’t because it’s negative and it might offend someone, so I sit and stew instead. Gradually I am driven away from the group to the point where I don’t feel like I’m really there, even though I’m sitting there. This has happened again and again over the years, it’s not just a recent thing. It’s very painful, and I become angry about it, which then makes it even harder to participate. Eventually I become invisible, like I did at school, and I lose friendships that might have started but couldn’t.

None of the above is my fault, or anyone’s fault. It’s just something that happens; something that I feel I have no control over, though I can control if I try really hard. When he’s listening to me express the anger my therapist reassures me he’s not bored or frustrated by it at all. He can empathise; I feel genuinely heard. But the reality is that all people outside aren’t like that. For me to be my ‘real’ self in a situation like AA without the fear of rejection, I’d need to know that I wasn’t going to be judged by anybody, and I know I’m not always going to get that perfect empathic response. So most of the time now I sit through meetings saying nothing. It’s all or nothing for me. Sure, there’ve been better times in the past when I have managed to get through that fear and care a little less about the people who may judge me. But for the best part of the past ten years, I have tortured myself over this repeatedly. This desperate need to share and connect with the group against the terror of being rejected for my honesty.

Today the therapist suggested practising what I’d like to say to AA to the empty chair opposite me. Just two weeks after we covered the empty chair technique at college, I was using it for real as a client. It took me some minutes to gather my thoughts and work up the nerve to speak. In fact for a moment I had almost the exact block that I have whenever I’m about to share in a meeting. But eventually, miraculously, I turned to the empty chair and spoke. I spoke about my anger at meetings, my long held anger at not receiving the same level of support that I used to get when I was a newcomer; how hurt I was when no one contacted me during the two years I was out of the LGBT fellowship, how much of an outsider I still feel in most meetings, and how angry I am at not being able to share all of that because someone might find it negative and unnecessary.

It is as clear as day to me that I need to be sharing these things in AA. I need to keep saying them until the power is taken away, whether that takes weeks or years. If I carry on sitting in meetings saying nothing, it begs the question of what I’m doing there, doesn’t it? Of course it’s better for an alcoholic to be in meetings than out of them, even if you’re sat at the back saying nothing, but I’m not getting all I can out of meetings any more. I’m drifting again, just like I’m drifting at college, and since I can’t afford to leave, I have to face what’s stopping me from fully participating. The therapist reminded me that I won’t please everyone, no matter what I do, so I may as well start talking in meetings again. He’s right. I wish I could be funny, witty, erudite and memorable like all the people I envy in meetings, so that I could sweeten the negativity a bit, but I know that no matter what I say, even if it offends no one around me, it will never be good enough for my inner critic, who is the harshest critic of them all. So I may as well just open my bloody mouth and talk.


Small improvements

This week in college was great, but I didn’t feel it all the way through the day. It can be a long day, and I commonly feel distant from my classmates when I first arrive there in the morning, knowing there’re all those hours of being in company stretching ahead of me. And I normally spend much of the day feeling tired in the stuffy classroom they’ve put us in. This week was still good because I had a good skills session with my little triad in the afternoon, I genuinely got along with everyone I spoke to, and the learning was interesting as always. But the close knit feel of the group that I was experiencing last year is no longer necessarily there. I think it may have faded during all those problems I was having with my placement, when I got so fed up of all the questions I backed away a little from the group.

I only regularly say something to a few members of the group at the moment. Is that bad? Is it normal? Only to be expected after so many months of being stuck in the same room week after week?

Whenever I’m there, more and more I feel the strong desire to be doing real client work out in the real world, pulling me away from this temporary learning set up. I want to be in this career, actually doing it full time. I don’t want to be in this stop gap situation any more where I can’t earn enough money to do nice things, because I have to study one day a week.

Yet I know that when I am in the career, I will surely be impatiently waiting for another future beyond that. Formal accreditation as a counsellor, becoming a supervisor to other counsellors, writing and publishing books on therapy: all of those dreams will take far longer than two years to come to fruition, if they are destined to happen at all.

For now, I feel stuck, because I am stuck. I only have one client, and it’s not clear when the centre’s going to give me another one. It seems that the secondary branch of the business has far lower demand than the place where I started. Whether that will change or not is anyone’s guess.

In skills on Wednesday afternoon I talked about Sunday, how nice it had been to be in the therapist’s chair again, knowing the bad times with the placement had passed and that I’d survived it all intact. My colleague remarked afterwards that my face had ‘lit up’ when I was talking about it; it was clear to her that I’m on the right path in my career. It’s nice to hear someone say that. Despite the constant sense of waiting at the moment, I can appreciate that things have got better for me this month, and the improved weather that we’re having is certainly helping. With lighter evenings and more suitable temperatures I can enjoy walking in London again; it’s not so much of a slog like it is in the winter. Soon the clocks will go forward, we’ll have the light summer evenings to enjoy and London will slowly come back to life. I do appreciate this time of year.

In good time

By the end of the week I was in that constant waiting state again, waiting for an email from the counselling centre. College had given me the green light to return to them the week before, my time slot had been rebooked for Sundays, so all I needed now was a client. News would come via email; it could come at any time. A client was what I wanted more than anything, not just so I could start building up my hours again, but so that I could be back in that room, doing what I’ve wanted to do for years. Through Thursday and the first half of Friday, as I didn’t hear anything from them I thought things such as: they must have forgotten about me, they must be punishing me for some reason. The negative conclusions are always the easiest to jump to.

Naturally I was surprised on Friday afternoon when I got an email informing me that I had a client to start this Sunday. The news hadn’t come too soon. Now I knew I was going to get back into real practice, I would start building my hours once more; I’d be a real therapist again. Still, there was a chance that the client would change her mind by Sunday. Before we see a client for the first time we’re supposed to call and introduce ourselves, and confirm the appointment slot. This client wasn’t answering her phone, which gave sensitive old me some doubts. I wouldn’t feel completely confident that it was going to happen until I had the client sitting in front of me; and even then I’d be unsure.

Before all that there was supervision in the afternoon on Friday. I’ll have supervision there every two weeks. I’m in a different supervision group to before, in a different building; not that my last supervision group was bad, but the new one seemed ideal to me as soon as I arrived. Everyone in the group was relatively new to the centre, and no one knew each other, so I didn’t need to be nervous about being the odd one out this time. Our supervisor had that classic therapist’s temperament, calm and supportive. At the very beginning of the session he acknowledged our nerves and did his best to put us at ease. We got a chance to introduce ourselves properly before discussion of client work would begin. As only two of us in the group had clients to discuss, we all had a lot of time to say what was on our minds.

Supervision isn’t group therapy, just as PD group in college every Wednesday isn’t group therapy; but it can feel a lot like it at times. You’re there to talk about your clients, but in this you can’t help talking about yourself. You bring anything that’s concerning you in your work, and as a therapist this often relates to the issues your clients bring up for you because they’re close to home. I haven’t done any real client work yet so I had very little to say once that part of the session had begun, but just like last time, it was fascinating to listen to the others in the group as they talked about transference, countertransference and all of the things that being human in the therapy room entails. It made me ever more impatient to start client work again.

I have to say that so far, I’m getting a much better all round impression of the centre this time around. For weeks I dared not think that it would work out so well, while all of that crap with the old manager was going on. For weeks I was so sure that my actions had ruined it for me; now it turns out that standing up for myself may have been the best choice by far.

By Sunday morning I still struggled to let go of doubts that everything would go well and I’d be seeing my client that day. Having had no response from her, the option of cancelling remained open to her in my mind. The centre’s policy restricts us from chasing our clients for a response, and I wouldn’t want to chase anyway – it’s up to the client whether they come or not, as long as they’ve paid the centre. Ultimately, I just didn’t want to have to make a wasted journey all the way down to South London on a Sunday morning.

At 11 o’clock my client appeared on time, and therapy could begin. During those fifty minutes – despite the conversation being similar in nature to all the conversations I had with my previous clients – qualitatively, emotionally, and spiritually it couldn’t have felt more different. In my head I was in a different place altogether yesterday. I was prepared, I was ready; I had the resources to contain the client and do my job. I only had one client to see, so the morning couldn’t have been easier really. It passed very quickly. As soon as I was out I wanted more clients, I wanted to carry on.

The funniest thing is that if I had to say what I actually did during those fifty minutes, I couldn’t. I’m well drilled in what therapy isn’t, and so I can say what I didn’t do (didn’t give advice, didn’t act like a friend, didn’t pretend to be someone else, didn’t hide behind defences). What therapy is is a question that many finer minds have debated over for nearly a century. Yes, I suppose I listened, smiled warmly, reflected back the emotions I was hearing in a kind way, gave the client space to explore what she wanted from the therapy. In short, I did all the technical things I was trained in at foundation level. Above and beyond that, a certain kind of relationship should develop that I find very hard to describe. Trust is involved, and so are boundaries; but it’s not just that. It is a mysterious kind of relationship that exists nowhere else in society. Like a parent to a newborn child, you’re there to nurture the client as they wake and, possibly for the first time, recognise their true feelings. I could try and do that over weeks and months as I get to know the client better but I certainly couldn’t do it in the first session. I did something, though, because the client seemed to leave with a good impression of me.

If only it could happen again next week, but this client’s got holiday booked for the next two weeks, so it could be while before I’m in that chair again, practising. The knowledge that I desperately need those hours doesn’t leave my head; besides, there’s no other job I want to do now. I want to chase the centre to give me more clients so I can fill in the gaps over the next few weeks, but something is telling me to be patient. Something is telling me that I’ll get more clients in good time. I need to remember what happened last time when I had four clients given to me in one go – I certainly don’t need that to happen again. If I’m clever, maybe I could trust my HP and let this take its own course.

Need and want

My most pressing priority of the day is to save money. It’s been a priority for a number of years, but it is perhaps more urgent at the moment because I have so many outgoings that can’t be reduced any further. It’s not unusual for me to have in mind a list of things I ‘need’, such as a new computer, clothes, trainers, another holiday. For now, I can’t really afford anything on my list because of other more crucial expenses, many of which relate to the course I’m on. Someone in class today mentioned the debate that some clients have to go through concerning need vs want. I don’t need a new computer or a holiday as much as I need food, a travel card and therapeutic supervision, and I’ve known how to tell the difference between the former and the latter for years. But that never stops it from nagging at me much of the time, this feeling that I ought to try and just stretch my money a little further, because wouldn’t it be nice to replace this old computer, these old shoes, book myself a short break somewhere nice for Easter.

I can be equally beset with conflict over my diet, which hasn’t fully recovered since Christmas when I decided it was fine to allow myself small, regular treats again. The slippery slope is so easy to slide down, I find, when I’m less than careful. I’ve gotten into the habit of buying chocolate bars again, and I have to have at least one bottle of coke every day now. I’m visiting McDonalds about once a week again, and apart from all the money it costs, I am seeing that waist line creep back up. Sure, I am years away from obesity, it’s not a massive problem by any stretch of the imagination. I suppose it’s something to keep an eye out for. More so for me because of my nature, which is addictive. How easy it is to say ‘yes’ to another piece of cake when it’s someone’s birthday at the office and they’re literally giving it to you on a plate! For a small office, we seem to have an awful lot of birthdays!

More gestalt practise at college today, and an introduction to the two chair technique. I have experienced this as a client before, on two occasions, so I knew what it was, but this was my first exposure to the theory behind it. Basically, the client has something that’s bothering them – their absent father, their wayward child, their anxiety about school, their unrequited love for a neighbour – and they put it in a chair and they speak to it. Of course, there’s nothing really in the chair, you just need to use your imagination. It can be a surprisingly powerful technique, at least I certainly found it be so when I was encouraged to do it. Today I played therapist to a colleague who was angry at their mother. I encouraged the colleague to imagine their mother was sitting in an empty chair in front of them – what did they want to say to her? I think we were both surprised by what came out.

In the group discussion afterwards evidently each person had differing opinions about the technique. Personally I love it – how could I not? I still see how it changed my life thirteen years ago, when I put into words for the first time how I felt towards my father in the therapy room.

Home from home

The snow has gone, life is back to normal, and we can all walk around again without the constant fear of falling over. When such an unusual weather event occurs you are given cause to stop and think how lucky we are to live in what is generally a temperate climate. Yes, it does rain a lot here and we’re not known for our balmy summers, but the weather is at least reliably average most of the time. I do not like very cold weather. I could happily have stayed in on Friday night, the coldest night of the cold snap so far, were it not for the pull of the only meeting left in London that I can comfortably share in. I knew it would be quiet at the west London group on Friday, and so it proved to be. Only six of us were there, giving each of us plenty of time to share our thoughts.

I stopped sharing honestly at both of my AA home groups a long time ago. On Tuesdays, as the secretary my shares are exclusively positive in tone and for the most part scripted in my head before I start. On Saturdays, I no longer bother to try and share at all. I’ve gotten used to the new location of the meeting, but I haven’t come to terms with all that was lost in the move yet. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to love the Saturday meeting again. It’s not that the crowd that goes to the meeting has changed that much, though like any meeting there is always a slow, almost imperceptible turnover in regular attendees. The people who share the most at the meeting are the same as always; the sharing is no more contrived than before. Yet for some reason I find myself incapable of stifling yawns most weeks that I’m there now. I wish I could put a finger on exactly what it is that has changed, other than the location. There simply isn’t the realness about the meeting that I used to love in the old days. The past couple of times that I’ve been there, there’s been a distinct theme on ‘how AA should be done’ in the chairs, and I can’t engage with it. Of course you hear that sort of thing in lots of meetings, but maybe there’s more of it now on Saturdays than there used to be. When someone is talking about ‘how AA should be done’ they’re saying that there is a certain way of recovering from alcoholism which always works; it invariably involves surrendering independent thought and trusting our sponsor with all our decisions; steps four to nine entail blaming ourselves for all our past mistakes and hurt, and we have to be grateful that AA came along to save us from ourselves.

I don’t doubt that anyone saying these things sincerely believes it. I’d be shocked if they truly intended to say that a moral inventory is all about self blame – it’s just how it can come across sometimes. Honestly, I think that some people don’t fully think through the things they’re saying when they share. And the problem is that the theme gets picked up on, begins to run through all the sharing in the meeting, until it’s all you’re hearing. I’m ok with it, because I’ve been around long enough to know what kind of program works for me, but if I were new, without the experience of working with a good sponsor, I’d be in trouble.

I’m thinking of giving the Saturday meeting a break again. Yeah, I’ve been through this before, countless times. Each time in the end I have chosen to ignore the urge to break with the meeting, because I have little else to do on Saturdays, and feeling alienated isn’t always the best reason to leave a meeting that’s been your home group on and off for ten years. But this time the urge feels a little bit stronger than before, especially because there’s another meeting on Fridays now that I feel completely different about, a meeting that seems to fit much more closely the kind of meeting I like.

The six of us present on Friday each shared from the heart – and I mean from the heart – and it’s this kind of experience which reminds me of why I’m in AA. I was nervous as I prepared to speak about my life’s current anxieties, the nerves telling me that I had to share it. I went to the bottom of my feelings and I felt good, real, present immediately afterwards. After the meeting they went for their regular curry. I trudged along in the snow with them, because these opportunities are still too few in my life and my mood was acceptable for the occasion. I could see that meeting becoming a new home group. When I compare that to what usually happens on Saturdays now, it’s not a favourable comparison.

Before I give up on Saturday I need to be sure that I’m doing it for the right reasons. I’ve learnt in sobriety that big decisions always have to be made for the right reasons. I can decide whatever I want – keep going to the meeting or never darken its doorway again, because it’s my life and there are no rules about it – as long as I’ve thought it through and I’m being authentic. This week it feels authentic to say I’m not going to the meeting for a while. I’m not getting anything out of it any more, I will never love the location, and there are probably other better meetings on the same day. I’d just need to find them.

There’s a qualm here about whether I am giving up on that ‘Saturday Soho crowd’ too easily. As I said, it’s not very different to the crowd that always went when we were in the other place. I had plenty of good times with them when we were south of the river. This time last year I was enjoying lots of post meeting fellowship on Saturday evenings. For a time, I never had to worry about being home before 10pm on a Saturday. Obviously, that’s one of the most upsetting things here, the fact that I’m always leaving the meeting the minute it ends and getting home by 8pm nowadays. Being able to go for a meal with friends after the meeting was one of the things I most treasured about it last year. The inconvenient (and ironic) thing about the meeting’s new home is that there are no good fellowship hangouts nearby where a group can find a cosy table easily. It’s ironic because it’s in Soho, the culinary heart of London. I never liked eating out in Soho, everywhere is far too busy and expensive. I’ve tried for years to like it, and I just don’t want to force myself to be there any more. Maybe the fact I did most of my drinking (and had many of my deepest rock bottoms) there gives it too many bad associations.

I should

It’s snowing, the world is cold and pristine. From the comfort of my room looking out of the window it looks stunning. But having to go out and meet my obligations, I find it’s traitorous and hard going on the streets. This is the coldest London has perhaps been in nine years, and I don’t have appropriate footwear. I remember that week nine years ago when a mountain of snow fell on us and everything closed. The same scenario is beginning to repeat itself, as trains stop running and offices decide to give everyone a day off. My own office has decided to close today, which is immaterial to me because it’s my day off. I thought it was a bit of an overreaction when they made the decision yesterday, before knowing how today would actually pan out. It’s been kind of funny witnessing people turn up to work two hours late and leave two hours early, stating as they do so that they should just make all our lives easier and close the office. So that’s what’s been done. We really don’t know how to cope with the weather in this country. I am so looking forward to warmer weather – and to non-slip pavements!

At college on Wednesday, with the first of the heavy snow coming down outside, we learned more about gestalt therapy. We got into pairs and completed the ‘shoulds’ exercise, where we write down our own personal ‘shoulds’ and have the partner read them back to us to examine how it makes us feel. I wrote a list of things I’ve always felt I should be doing, such as being healthier, having more fun and friends, having a boyfriend, earning more money. When my partner read them back to me I knew that it isn’t as simple as saying I should be doing these things, I’ve always known that. But I can see the point of the exercise. When you try it with a client who doesn’t have self awareness and who hasn’t examined their own private assumptions before, it could have significant benefits. If you point out to someone the harm of telling themselves constantly that they should be this and they should be that, of course it will make that person stop and think. Shoulds are a harmful thing we learn in childhood and struggle with in adulthood. It was interesting reading my partner’s shoulds back to him. Once again, I saw the evidence of my similarity to most other people. Many of our ‘shoulds’ were the same.

When I read out the words ‘you should have a family by now’ I felt sad at the harsh judgement in it. I was uncomfortable with even saying it to him. Who is anyone to tell him that he should be further along in his family life? I didn’t know much about his personal life before but I seemed to remember him talking about his wife’s miscarriage a few years ago. I saw that he was continuing to punish himself for it – hopefully he saw it as well.

Waiting game

We were thinking about my mother in therapy again this week. It can often seem with subjects like this that there is nothing left to explore and uncover; then you stumble on another insight that somehow changes thing again. I was talking about my fear of what will happen when mum dies, because that was what had been so terrifying last Friday when she was out unusually late, the thought that she might stop existing and I won’t be able to cope with it. The therapist commented that I am ‘merged’ with my mother, in a way, since it seems that I can’t go a day without worrying about her. You can go deep into attachment theory on this. Essentially the work I have to do in the coming years will involve strengthening these boundaries between us and becoming my own person again – I haven’t been my own person for a long time, and I certainly wasn’t last Friday when I sat here crying as I waited to hear the key turn in the door. This will be hard work, it’s always been hard work. I left the session in a pensive mood, as I always do when we touch on the most important subjects, the ones that don’t have simple answers.

I had already decided I would follow up therapy this week with a visit to the swimming pool, my first in months. I don’t tend to enjoy swimming in the winter, when the water is extra cold and I’m reminded of the cold swimming pool of my school days. I must have a retained body memory of those experiences as swimming in this weather can put a visceral sense of dread in me. I pushed through the dread this week because it’s been long enough since my last visit and I could tell I would feel better afterwards. And so I did. Just ten lengths and I managed to feel amazing again. I went home on an endorphin high, proud of myself for enduring the cold and breaking the morning’s glum mood with healthy exercise.

The high wouldn’t last, but I made the most of it while it did. When I got home I allowed myself to start thinking about the counselling centre again. The situation with the college had resolved itself in a meeting on Thursday between my tutors and the centre; I’d had an email from the college telling me I could resume seeing clients there if I wanted to. The centre has agreed to several important demands: to let us start off with one client and build up slowly to four; to allow us proper breaks in between sessions; to sign all of our paperwork. All of which proved that it had been worth speaking out all along. We had what we wanted; but I couldn’t spend too long celebrating because now I would have to wait for them to give me a new client time slot.

‘Here we go again,’ was my instinctive thought as I emailed them to ask whether my original time slot was still free and waited for the response. My email obsession kicked in, as I checked for updates every half hour on Friday. Not too long after my email the centre administrator did reply, rather nicely I thought, by saying it was good to hear everything had been resolved. She then confirmed that my time slot had sadly been given away, and I would need to wait for a new one to become available. Their other site in south west London may have availability, I’d just need to wait until Monday for that site’s admin to respond once they were back at their desk.

It’s the smallest thing, really – a formality. There’s bound to be availability at the other site, which is newly opened and has less counsellors than the place where I was before. Everything should be fine, God wouldn’t put me through all of that only to let me down now on a technicality. Still, I spent most of Friday and Saturday in deep resentment over my latest predicament. More waiting, more uncertainty – it’s too much. I should be enjoying the feeling of vindication this weekend, instead I don’t know whether I will be able to continue in this placement or not. If they don’t have a suitable time slot for me then I might as well start looking elsewhere. Time is ticking, I have a deadline of May when I need to be in a permanent placement seeing clients otherwise passing the course is going to become increasingly difficult. With that in mind, I’m left wondering what all of that stress was for.

I sank into hopelessness yesterday morning, the same hopelessness that I’ve carried since I imbibed it from my mother at a young age. As that was going on I had moments where I could step back and notice the pattern. In those moments it’s always clear that the only solution is to carry on with the plan. Wait for Monday, wait to hear what they have to say, if it’s not good news then find another solution. Eventually a certain momentum built up with these positive thoughts and I took them outside, on a long Saturday walk across London. I’ve done so much walking recently, despite the weather; it seems I’m walking more at the moment than I would in the summer when it’s nice. A lot to think about, I guess. It’s so unjustly cold at the moment, spring is really taking its sweet time this year. Yet I managed a perfectly good walk of four miles and ended up at the cinema where I saw the brilliant I, Tonya. I could have gone to my regular meeting but I was more in the mood for a film, and my own company.