Therapy for the self

Dark clouds form on the horizon that I’m looking towards, then move quickly towards me; they are getting ever so near. Terror is threatening to take over my evening, because I face a task tomorrow which promises to remove me from my comfort zone. I agreed to help one of our home support teams at the hospital on Fridays for the next six weeks, because I was running out of things to do in my day job, my manager suggested the idea since they really needed the help there, and it seemed good for my career development. As I might have mentioned, it’s not the first thing I’d want to do for work, and as the day has approached, my doubts about this new aspect to my role have gathered steadily. I don’t know what they’re going to ask me to do tomorrow, but it seems likely I’ll be assisting pensioners who’ve just come out of hospital, settling them back into their homes as that’s essentially what the service does. I don’t see them just asking me to help with admin work in the office. There’s a crisis in the NHS and they need as much as help as they can get with moving people from hospitals, back into the community. When I agreed to the idea of doing this once a week, it was easy to focus my mind on the positives – I’ll be doing a great service, if I get it right. With the first day looming, I’m getting sucked into visions of all that could go wrong. The idea of going into these people’s homes, actually trying to help them, seems quite alien to me. I don’t see myself as an adult with common sense in this situation, I see myself as a child that will stumble and fail and end up humiliated. Right now, the childish part of me, the part I’ve spent the past few years trying to coax some self belief into, is shaking with fear at what I’m being asked to do.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I get into these states about once or twice a week. There’s the chilling vision of a terrorised life unfolding in front of me, one where the cycle of worry about a situation followed by relief when it’s over repeats forever. Devil’s advocate may think it will be better after I retire, when I’m no longer challenged by the general responsibilities of having a job. But knowing myself as well as I do, I’d say my mind will continue to find something to worry about on a weekly basis when I’m not working. It did last year when I was on my ‘mini-retirement’. This isn’t just worrying, it’s an addiction to stress. One gets sick of it after a while. I don’t want to be this way for the rest of my life – why should I be?

Freud saw hysteria – his term for anxiety among many other mental health complications that could present to therapy – in terms of regression. Under pressure we regress to stages in our lives that we didn’t successfully evolve from. Although many of Freud’s theories have been debunked, I see a lot of sense in this general interpretation of what he said.  Situations that involve a responsibility – work being the most common of these – reliably bring about a type of regression, with the same anxious reaction in me.

  • I’m asked to do something I don’t know how or don’t want to do
  • A button is pressed somewhere and I revert to the outlook of a three year old
  • I see nothing but failure and punishment ahead of me
  • My whole experience of the world is clouded by doom, I lose myself and struggle to get back

I got stuck in that thinking due to a trauma that I couldn’t help, when I was thrust out into the world of nursery as a three year old. Somehow an emotional strength failed to develop in me at that point, which would allow me to see myself as capable of coping under social pressure.

For a long time, the natural response from the part of me that knows this isn’t right has been to debate, argue and reason with the fear. It’s like trying to use adult reason with a child that’s very upset: it never works. Even though as an adult I may be fully aware of my ability to handle responsibility, once the button is pressed and I’ve regressed emotionally, I have split into two, and no logical argument can shift that sense of doom. It may come and go as I distract myself with different activities, but it’s never entirely gone.

Meditation has been the only thing that seems to slowly, gradually get through to my terrorised inner core. Years of steady practise has just about convinced me that accepting the terror is the only answer. As I start to meditate and deliberately ‘let go’ of the fight against my troubled thoughts, the regress button that’s been pressed seems to lose its power. In giving up the fight against the fear, the urgent sense of doom falters and fades.

This act of surrendering is something that needs to be practised constantly – literally every minute of the day. The cynical streak in me finds it hard to trust that something so simple can be the answer to my problems, so I keep tripping myself up and returning to the problem. I have such a powerful tendency to fall back into fighting mode, which leads to more tension and anxiety. This tendency is one that’s been allowed to run riot since I was a child. At the moment, having meditated on a regular basis for the past few years, it still feels like I’m wrestling for control of a steering wheel that has a mind of its own when I try to step back from my thinking.

When I wake up tomorrow I’ll remember after a few seconds that I have a day of challenges ahead of me, and the fear will jolt into action. I’ll need to be very vigilant about keeping hold of the steering wheel for the rest of the morning. In the present, separate from the past and the dark stream of thoughts leading to it, I can do nothing but sit next to the crying child and be loving, patient, empathic. In counselling classes I have learned about showing empathy to clients – not advising or rescuing or arguing with them, simply being there alongside them, surrounding them with care as they find their own way of healing. I need to do the same with myself. As I show empathy for my traumatised inner child, as I stop analysing and arguing and start to accept its pain and suffering, it heals.

A balancing act

On Saturday my worst nightmare happened – I offended someone. It happened during a triad exercise in counselling class. I was supposed to give them constructive feedback about their use of counselling skills; every week we’re dedicating more and more energy to this task, and we’re all supposed to be there to learn from the feedback that we receive. I decided to be honest and tell them that some of the things they had said in the role of therapist jarred with me; there was American corporate speak where there should have been empathic listening. I couldn’t quite get my words out before they were asking me what I meant, and what I suggested they should have said instead. The retort threw me, and I was immediately silenced. Well that’s it, I’m never telling that person what I really think again. The incident sat heavily with me for the rest of the day, even after the class was over and I knew my colleague had probably forgotten all about it.

It didn’t take much work to figure out that my sense of shame came from a deeper place than the trivial thing that had occurred. It was the visceral aversion to stating my honest view when it goes against someone else’s; the shame I’ve always felt about confronting people. Telling someone I don’t agree with their approach to an important task goes against my people pleasing grain, so I was taking a big risk when I decided to speak up on Saturday. The minute it appeared to backfire on me I got far more badly burned than the situation probably warranted.

My friends in the personal development group were kind and supportive when I brought it up in the discussion. The fact I was able to bring it up may itself show a certain amount of growth – I’d instinctively want to hide and say nothing in these situations. They could tell I was off when I walked into the group at the end of the day, I could tell they could tell, so I thought it better to be honest for a minute and hope for the best. Which gave them the chance to be supportive for a while, which was nice. The lady I’d offended isn’t in my PD group, luckily, so I didn’t cross any boundaries by talking about it. By opening up then I suppose I released some of the toxic shame into the atmosphere, and I went to the evening meeting feeling pretty normal. Hours later when I got home it still troubled me, though. I’d told someone the truth; I’d used my authentic voice. How dare I?

*****

On Friday I’ll be heading out of the office to help one of our hospital services for the day. Back in November I shadowed one of them for a day, this time I’ll be working there for real, one day a week until the end of March. It was my manager’s idea, when I told her I didn’t feel like there was enough to do in my present role. When she suggested going out to the hospital to see our service users once a week I wasn’t thrilled by the idea – I found the day I shadowed the other service highly stressful – but I didn’t feel like I could say no. I don’t feel I have that kind of relationship with this manager yet – there’s a distinct lack of trust there. So I’ll be going to the West London service on Friday morning and I’m sure I will be bricking it. It’s already colouring my week, tinting everything with a subtle darkness, reminding me of what’s coming.

Although, to be fair, if I wasn’t facing a hard day out of the office on Friday I’d probably still be anxious every hour of the waking day. I think it’s become my natural state at work. If I’m not nervous about certain challenging tasks I’ve been given, or not having enough to do, I’m nervous about my awkward relationship with P, who’s fine when she’s in a good mood and tricky to deal with the rest of the time. When she’s in a good mood and we’re getting on well, usually I’m just waiting for her to go again. I daren’t get used to the thaw in relations on good days, just in case it’s snatched away from me again.

Thanks to all the self examination I’ve done, I realise that this, like everything else I regularly talk about, goes deeper than a simple working relationship. As a kid I felt abandoned by my mother during her bad moods and current situations like this play those unconscious memories like an old record. I’m trying really hard to remember that during the working day when P’s said something that sounds unfriendly and I’m close to crying. It’s not about her, it’s all me.

We will continue to have our ups and downs but I hope ultimately it will be ok. Similarly I hope the general paranoia and the fluctuating workload will be something I get used to and learn to manage better. For the past couple of weeks I’ve had a heavy workload with some research projects that the manager gave to me; I know that from tomorrow things will quieten down a lot since the research is now finished. It may go back to being dead again for a while. I hope and pray I’ll remember the tools I have at my disposal, like meditation, silence and letting go, when the waves of fear sweep along again as they inevitably will.

It seems increasingly realistic to expect that I will be able to go part time in the future and dedicate time to a counselling diploma, if the average amount of work continues at this pace. It would seem petty of my boss to refuse to even consider a request to cut my hours, when she doesn’t work every day and when I can never expect to have five days’ worth of work to do in a week. The question is no longer so much whether I have an evil boss who’s going to try and stand in the way of my future, it’s whether I can reasonably afford to carry on with the training. The diploma course where I’m currently studying costs £4,000. I struggle to keep my finances balanced as it is on the full time salary I’m being paid. Going part time will just take another chunk out of my savings, and things could become really challenging.

I can’t solve this dilemma tonight. There are too many variables involved that won’t become clearer until later in the year, when it’s time to make my mind up. By then I’ll have had a few months to hopefully save and improve my bank balance; if it hasn’t improved by the summer, or if it’s gone down thanks to all the holidays I’ve planned, then it will be more difficult to justify forking out for the course. It’s still what I desperately want to do, but I need to live in the real world.

If I decide that I can’t afford to do the course this year, what then? Will I stay in my current job for another year and work hard to save even more, avoid all holidays until next year when applications open again? It will be September 2018 by then, I’ll be nearly 36, another interminable year will have passed by and I might find that ultimately, it’s impossible to ever save the kind of money I need.

I have a fine balancing act to keep up this year, between prudence and living my life.

Questions and answers

With what’s been going on in the political world recently, I have been glued to the news apps on my phone, thinking constantly that I need to get off them and stop giving myself a headache. It’s easy to feel angrier by the day about what’s happening. I don’t know what the answers are; it seems to have little to do with my life, but at the same time it has to do with everything. Every day as soon as I wake up there’s the temptation to switch on the phone and find out the latest news from America, because the universe currently seems out of balance and I need to know when it’s been restored. I can get ill thinking about it. Whilst the universe’s equilibrium remains off kilter I find it hard to meditate, to clear the buzz from my head. When I’m trying to create silence in my head the noise keeps pulling me in, thanks to this need I have to keep checking on it, making sure it’s all right.

We’ve just passed week 4 of the counselling class – unbelievable it’s week 4 already! – and I am as committed to qualifying as I was in the beginning. In fact I think I’m more committed than ever. The class isn’t too challenging, yet, but I know I’m getting a lot out of it. I’ve had the same feeling in the past during other academic exercises, such as when I was learning French a few years ago: the feeling that I am doing something worthwhile and completely for me. It adds something to my life that a 9 to 5 office job can’t.

A month into the course I’m closer to some members of the class than others, but that’s all right. I got the opportunity to speak about it in triad work yesterday – the part of the day where we act as client and therapist. I told my ‘therapist’ about my doubts regarding some people I’ve never spoken to in the class, because we have to bring something real to the practise, and as she practised her empathic listening skills on me I came to the conclusion that I can’t pressure myself to make more friends there. We’ve got six months; things will happen of their own accord if they’re meant to.

I am fully committed to the idea of continuing to the next level of training, level 4, which will take another two years and qualify me to practise as a counsellor. I knew it was what I wanted to do at the start; having begun to study the profession at a higher level I’m even more determined to carry on. The thing that stands in the way is not the cost – I’m lucky enough to be able to afford the fees now, for which I’ll always be grateful to RG – it’s my current job. I can’t see it being easy to persuade them to let me cut my hours so I can study counselling at diploma level. The college I’m studying at now is where I want to continue, because they have really good tutors and facilities, I like the place, but it doesn’t seem to run diploma classes on weekends, only weekdays. This year I found out diploma class is on Tuesday. It could be any day of the week next year, I guess depending on the availability of rooms and teachers, so I wouldn’t even know what day I’d have to take off work until the start of the course. It would be the same wherever I chose to study. I don’t mind what day of the week class is, but my manager might mind.

As soon as I tell my manager I want to switch to part time working so I can study for a qualification in counselling, she’ll know that my heart isn’t really in my current job. I sense that she is the type of person to question and suspect her staff’s dedication to the team. Although since she started in January I have done everything she’s asked and have worked as hard as I would in any job, I don’t feel like she really trusts or believes in me. She has approached me a few times to point out flaws in my work; and whenever I want to take a day off there are questions about it. The manager we had before Christmas, K, was much better at building trust and I never felt that I had to justify myself to her. Ironically, the current boss only works four days a week, as she just had a baby and stays home on Fridays to look after them, so I shouldn’t have to worry about requesting a similar change to my contract, right? Not that we’ve ever talked about it, so I don’t really know what her reaction will be, but I just get the impression she won’t see my desire to make time for studying in the same way.

Though there’s no time for regrets, I really wish I had been firmer in the beginning about sticking to part time hours! If it was still the same manager, then she might be sympathetic to my wishes, given that I had Fridays off when she was around and it sort of worked out. Now it’s a new team and they’ve gotten used to me being there every day, I’m paranoid about rocking the boat.

There’s been more work to do recently, so it’s not as dull as it was a few weeks ago, which is something. I still think I’d be justified in saying that I could do this role four days a week instead of five. I can only wait and see what they say. I already know that I will have to face having that conversation at some point – I can’t ignore what I know I want to do with my life. If they won’t let me change my hours, I guess I’d have to consider leaving, it’s that important.

Working through it

I finally renewed my swimming membership at the weekend. I had been meaning to do it for months, after cancelling it a couple of years ago when I thought I didn’t have the time to swim any more. I really missed swimming when I wasn’t going, and I’ve been to my favourite pool in central London every week for the past few weeks. It’s only when I got in the pool for the first time after my long break I realised how out of shape I’d gotten. Since then I’ve gradually built up the stamina to manage twenty lengths, which is good, but nowhere near how many I used to manage in one session. The price of membership has gone up a lot in recent years, but it’s sure worth it. Swimming has become my favourite healthy hobby – one of the few I actually like.

I’ve been going on Sundays when it’s quietest in the pool. P usually goes to the gym in the same leisure centre at the same time. For the past couple weeks we’ve been meeting up for dinner afterwards. Re-establishing the tradition on Sundays has been fun, so far. I like the food where we go and it’s been good to enjoy P’s company for the first time in many years. I’m clever enough now to know not to do it all the time; I think we’ll stick to every other week from now on.

All we ever seem to talk about at this time of year is going on holiday. Most years we’re planning our summer holiday to Spain around this time. We were at it again on Sunday, discussing whether to blow a load of cash on a December trip to Cuba. P’s wanted to go there for ages and, for a short time I thought I could afford it. That was before I remembered I’d be paying a huge fee for the next level of counselling training, should I continue to that level (and I have every intention of doing so). I need to be sensible; I can’t afford any big holidays to far flung exotic locations in the next few years. I’ll still stretch to the usual European summer city breaks, though, which makes it a little less sad.

I’m getting on much better with P than I have in a long time. He is still who he is – but it’s become much easier to accept him and his ways recently. It’s easier to look forward to future holidays with him, now that we’re more independent of each other. Our annual tradition of going to Spain is once more a cherished event in the year, one that wouldn’t be the same if I did it alone. It was always nice to know I had someone to travel with; for a time I got too over involved in his life and it spoiled things.

On the subject of finances, P thinks it would be unwise for me to stay in my current job for more than a year, since I’m having to pinch the pennies so much. He’s probably right when he says I should be earning far more at this stage of my career. I’m on the wage of an eighteen year old shop assistant. The trouble is, my job isn’t very difficult (which is why it proves so unsatisfying at times), and I’ve chosen to be there. I knew what I was getting into when I took it. I thought I wanted the easy life, job-wise, for a couple of years while I studied for my counselling qualification. Little did I know how stressful an easy job could be.

Despite how little I’m enjoying the job on a daily basis, I still strongly feel that I should give the charity at least a couple of years. I can’t face going through another job search this year. Even though the new job hasn’t turned out to be as perfect as it seemed to be in the beginning, I’m working for a globally recognised name, it could be a good stepping stone to something bigger, and I never know what might happen in two years.

After leaving P Sunday night I immediately began to dread the return to work on Monday. Even though I could predict what was going to happen at work – nothing much – I was distressed by the thought of another uneventful week with little responsibility, stuck in an office with my colleague P, a person who clearly doesn’t like me for some reason. I knew I had to manage my feelings about her, as it was getting out of hand. Monday morning as I dragged myself out of bed, I wished I didn’t have to be an adult for the day.

As expected, there was next to nothing to do at work at the beginning of the week. Many would remind me how lucky I am to have a job that’s so non-taxing. Yes, it’s fun to be able to spend time on facebook at work, but this week it seemed so stupid, sitting there wasting time when I could have been at home studying. I have so much studying to do for my course it’s ridiculous, yet I highly doubt I’d be allowed to get my text books out at work, even though it would be a more valuable use of my time.

Some storage space in the office needed clearing, and I’ve essentially spent the week stood by the shredder, destroying old office receipts and invoices that we no longer needed. I enjoy shredding as much as the next person, but on Monday and Tuesday the monotony of it made me seethe. I had to ask myself: is this really where I’m meant to be right now?

Middle of the week a psychodrama was beginning to erupt in my head. I had been marked off sick last Thursday on the online HR system that we use, and my manager was having trouble ending the sickness record, so it still showed that I was off sick, nearly a week later. I understood that it could affect my pay for the month if she didn’t manage to close the record, so I was understandably approaching a state of panic. I’d spoken to HR over the phone a couple of times, they were adamant that they couldn’t close the record, only my manager could as it needed her sign off. I was furious, and in the end I had to risk upsetting my manager by telling her what to do. I’d found the guidance online for the procedure; I allowed myself ten minutes of debating whether to send it to her, or whether to let the debacle carry on until payday. Going for the latter option may have been satisfying in the sense it would show the stupidity of the system and my manager’s incompetence. I’d have grounds to really throw a tantrum then. But I chose the first option, sending her the guidance and waiting for her to close the bloody record. It haunted me that a very similar thing happened last year at the bank when I took a day off. And I thought nothing that stupid could happen again!

That night, even though the situation was resolved, I was thinking about it last thing before I went to sleep. The next morning, my first thought was also about work. Never a good sign. Although one problem had been resolved I still faced the prospect of P’s apathy towards me. While I’d been panicking about the sickness record not getting closed, the resentment against her had bubbled inside me poisonously. As is always the case when I’m stressed about something external, resentment will always seem worse at those times. I have to think about the words of Victor Frankl, who said that an insult can hurt far more than any physical pain. I feel insulted by my colleague, the injustice of it really rankles. Reading about the philosophy of someone who was imprisoned in a German concentration camp, however, makes it rankle a little less.

Today things were a bit better. I had slightly more to do other than shredding, and P was being nice, for once. I realised that it must be down to the concerted effort I’ve made all week to be extra polite, to smile kindly when I’ve felt the most vicious. I found out that I may get to spend one day a week out with our social care services, visiting people in their homes and helping out in a genuine way. It would make life a lot easier for those services, and it would break up my week at the office, which may become stagnant otherwise. I’d be a nervous wreck when I’m due to start the work, but I’m aware it would look good on my CV, and it would certainly chime with the eventual career path I want to take.

I’ve started chatting to my old friend P by email at work again. We used to exchange emails during the work day all the time when I was at RG. It was a nice time filler, sometimes. I think it could be again, if I don’t take him too seriously. When I explained about some of the difficulties I’m facing he did his usual devil’s advocate thing, starting sentences with “well, at least…” I used to hate that so much – it seemed unjust to always be told to look on the bright side. Now, maybe I can just take it with a pinch of salt, know that he’s well meaning.

The power of knowledge

Having thought it would be a pain to do without my normal Saturday lie-in, I was happily up by 8.30 and out of the door by 9.30am, to get to the first of the year’s counselling classes on time by 10. The excitement of finding out what lay ahead of me far outweighed any tiredness and anxiety. I wasn’t nearly as nervous about meeting a new group of fellow students this time around as I had been last time. I just wanted to get on with it. Getting on with it became the theme of the day, as I discovered the secrets of what was in store; all the work and personal commitment that was to be required. The group at this level of study is much larger than the group I started with in September: twenty of us are embarking on certificate level counselling, which could have left me with doubts about how well we would end up bonding as a group. Most of the day’s exercises forced us to move around and work with as many new faces as possible, so that by lunchtime I’d talked to half the people in the room. Although natural nerves about opening myself up to strangers lay beneath the surface, they weren’t that great, and I was quite pleased with my over all performance. There is of course something of a performance about this kind of thing – although one of the training’s aims is to get us to be more authentic as people, I think we’re always going to strive to present our ‘best’ selves in a new social setting, whether that’s really us or not. Regardless, I thought that part of the day went well.

There was a lot for the tutor to pack in to the day, much of it concerning the structure of the course, the assignments we’ll be required to complete. We only got to touch on counselling theory for a brief window in the afternoon, with a closer look at empathy and empathic listening. Although we didn’t get much theory on the day I felt that the whole set up was bound to improve us as trainee therapists, nonetheless. Throwaway comments from the tutor here and there pointed us towards better understanding of Carl Rogers’ congruence, empathy, and self actualisation among other things; as did the tutor’s whole demeanour, which was that of the archetypal experienced psychotherapist. Warm and human, highly analytical and honest. We all knew what we were aiming for.

At the end of the day we were split into two groups and sent to different rooms for an hour of ‘personal development’. This was the part of the training I’d been looking forward to the most, as well as the part I’d known the least about. It seemed we were going to get an hour as a group to discuss anything we wanted. A facilitator would guide the conversation gently, perhaps posing questions about how we felt and what we were learning. Other than that it would be our space to use as we wished. Although the group of ten that I ended up in formed randomly on the spot, later on I didn’t think that fate had put me with those people by accident. They were the people I’d spoken to the most in the day; in the short space of six hours they were the ones I’d grown marginally closer to. I suspect that I wasn’t the only one to secretly feel that way.

The real purpose of personal development group (or PD as it will from now on be known) remained unconfirmed to the end. We were left to guess, essentially. Anyone who’s trained as a counsellor in the past may read this and think: wait till you’re at the end of the course. I expect it will become clearer in time, though I already think, knowing a few who’ve already been through the process, that it’s designed to boost our authenticity with each other. In a small room with nine other fellow trainees, all of whom are there for the same reason, in time I’m bound to get to know them better, and I’m bound to want to share things with them. The tutors may want to watch as our barriers come down, see how long it takes us, whether it leads to genuine bonding and whether it seems to change us, whether there’s conflict and how we overcome it. I was thinking vaguely along these lines during the hour on Saturday and I was excited to start moving towards that ultimate purpose, which made me open my mouth and share more than I normally would in a group setting with strangers. I couldn’t help thinking of AA (where I would be later that evening) and how it encourages a similar personal journey. I may have gotten over excited and interrupted others in the group a couple of times. At one point the group was talking over each other so much the tutor had to ask us to slow down. With no rules guiding us we ended up having a rather philosophical discussion on the subject of change. Whether it’s necessary for us or not. Some of the talk got a bit spiritual, which I wasn’t expecting at all. My preconceptions of some in the group fell away entirely during the course of the hour. A young girl in a full burqa more than proved her assertiveness in the discussion. Previously it’s possible some had looked at her and wondered at her reasons for being there, but by the end of the day it was clear that she was cast from the same mould as everyone else.

We were given long reading lists to take home. I know I’m not the only one with questions about how I’m going to manage the next six months – there is so much work to do. I remain on the excited side of the spectrum on this, just. There’s no doubt that I am studying a topic that fascinates me, and that this is what I want to do with my life. But with a full time job to balance at the same time, I foresee some long, difficult nights ahead. It would only be natural to wonder at what I’ve taken on.

The subject matter takes me back to university, to my Psychology degree, which turns out to be a good grounding for the path I’m now on. Having made a brief start on some of the reading this week I’m hearing bells ringing, all of it seemingly in the vein of the stuff I used to read ten years ago. The course is a training in person-centred therapy, technically a departure from the broad study of psychology I did at uni, but reading so much about the human mind and the formation of personality I can’t help but see where it’s all going. Person-centred psychology may differ from psychoanalysis or behaviourism on how it views human motivation, but I think they all meld together as the pursuit of understanding of humanity and wellness. I love the feeling of being back in an area that interests me. Although it will be hard, I fully intend to succeed on this.

Confronting the past

Nothing that I’ve come across in my studies on counselling has explicitly suggested that I need to do any of these things:

  • look specifically at the problems in my relationships
  • respond to people in a more grown up way
  • erect boundaries around unacceptable thinking and behaviour

However from the moment I started studying this subject I got a strong feeling that I needed to change, become more authentic (congruent as Carl Rogers would put it), and it seems that certain important things have stemmed from that vague notion. I’ve always seen change as a positive factor in my life, from a young age and especially from the beginning of my sobriety; but in counselling lessons it’s become even clearer what I need to do to effect the necessary changes, even though no one has said it. From a starting point of authenticity I naturally begin to understand where I’m going wrong in life and in relationships.

I was back at college yesterday for the start of level 3 training, which is essentially the six month access course I’ll need to complete if I want to go on to the full professional diploma. Last year’s introductory course was just a taster; now the real meat of the training begins. Keeping in mind that I was about to embark on what will surely be a challenging and life affirming course, on Friday night I was finally ready to introduce some reality into my relationship with my mother, and set a very firm boundary about what she can say to me regarding my diet.

I tried to set the boundary with her last week, when I asked her to stop knocking on my door to check whether I’d eaten that day. There was still one more boundary to set, though. Her fears that I may be eating too little had been allayed, but her strangely concurrent fear that I was eating too much hadn’t. It transpired that although she was now sure I was eating every day, she wasn’t sure that I was eating anything nutritious. On Friday her eyes turned to my stomach, which has remained stubbornly round for the past few years, and she asked whether I was planning to go to an exercise class soon.

This may sound like a strange question, given that we’ve never talked about exercise classes before, but I knew exactly where it was coming from. I went to my room, pondered the situation for a few minutes, then decided that I wasn’t going to bite my lip any more. She’s hinted before that she thinks I’m overweight, and she was hinting it again. I wasn’t prepared to put up with it.

“Do you think I’m still overweight, then?”

“Yes, I’m sorry, but I do.”

I couldn’t believe her audacity! If I were actually overweight she’d have a point, but I’m not! My tummy sticks out from certain angles, but I know I’m not fat. She doesn’t seem to grasp that a man in his mid thirties isn’t going to be as stick thin as he was in his twenties. Throughout childhood I was skinny; the sad fact is these days I’m just slim. To her, that means I’ve put on weight, I’m eating too much crap and I’m going to get diabetes.

“I don’t ever want to talk to you about this again. I’m thirty-four, I’m not a child any more. I’m not having you tell me what to eat, it’s not fair!”

“Oh, well, if you want to get diabetes and die then fine. I won’t bother you any more.”

I could have stopped there; normally I’d baulk at the confrontation. It’s been an incredibly long time since we had any serious discussions of this nature. Luckily we haven’t needed to until now. I was shaking and every part of me wanted to give in, to avoid upsetting her, but this was too important, it needed to be said.

“But I’m not going to get diabetes! OK I eat sugary snacks once, maybe twice a week as a treat. Everyone does! You do! I don’t tell you what to eat, do I? It’s not fair. It’s just not fair.”

“I said it’s fine! I don’t care any more.”

She’d had enough of listening to me. She was angry and I could tell I hadn’t really changed her mind. I left her to mull it over. Somehow I’ve acquired the skill of knowing when to back off. I went to my room, glad that I’d said my peace for once. I know my mother very well; I knew an old pattern would play itself out. She’d sleep on it, and she’d start to feel guilty; by the next day she wouldn’t be able to take the cold atmosphere any more and she would apologise. I felt terrible putting her through that; every part of me wanted to go back and tell her I was sorry for being sharp. But I knew if I gave in it would have all been for nothing. I needed these new rules in our relationship to stick. I couldn’t give an inch – I had to get her to see me as an adult capable of making these decisions for myself. Everything I had said to her was true and fair. When it comes to food, I’m too old to be dictated to.

Sure enough, on my way out to college the next morning she came and apologised, promised not to bring the subject up any more. I nearly pressed the point further by kindly reminding her that I hadn’t smoked, drunk or taken drugs in nearly ten years, that I was probably healthier than most people my age, but I didn’t say anything. I kissed and hugged her and agreed to put it behind me.

Recently I’ve noticed this tendency to react to difficult and stressful situations like a child. Yesterday it occurred to me I do that because deep down in the core of me I never believed I was really an adult. These bad dreams I’ve had since I was a teenager about going back to school, they terrify me with the message that my adult life hasn’t really happened, that it was all an elaborate dream and I’m still stuck in the misery of an unfree childhood. Doing things that an adult would do, like confronting my mother about unacceptable behaviour, must be the only thing that will convince me I am an adult, capable of doing the things that scare the child in me.

When I baulk at the confrontation it’s because the inner child is scared she won’t love me any more, that she’ll kick me out. The adult remembers that she’s highly unlikely to kick me out, since we’ve recovered from much worse arguments in the past, and even if she does kick me out I’ll be all right, I’ll have places to go. If she really wanted to throw me out on the street there’d be nothing I can do about it. The confrontation about food would still be worth having.

What’s clear is I can’t keep living by the old rules, where I gave into that fear all the time. It’s the same in all stressful situations involving other people and their feelings about me. The truly authentic, adult me will face the world and its opinions fearlessly, because I’m worth sticking up for.

The future on hold

After thinking about it for a few days I realised I can’t afford to move out of mum’s place this year. Even the most favourable rate that P could offer me would be too much, given how much I have committed to financially this year. I’ve got an expensive training course in counselling coming up as well as a two week odyssey to America in the spring. When I’m back from America I’m sure it’s not going to be the last holiday I go on this year. I saw P on Sunday after we’d been to the gym / swimming separately, and I broke it to him that I was having second thoughts about our plan. Having known me for a long time he knows what I’m like when it comes to changing my mind about things, so he wasn’t too disappointed. The chances are, in a few years when I’ve finished my counselling training (and I really intend to complete it) I’ll be in a better position to rent again, and P seems content to wait and save up for a bigger place in the meantime. Maybe another few years of cultivating the boundaries in the relationship will do us good, so that if we do end up living together it will be that much easier. I face at least three more years of living with mum and the challenge of keeping in place those boundaries – I think I will just need to accept being stuck here for now. Something tells me it will be worth it in the end.

It’s been a dead week as far as work is concerned. The managers know there isn’t enough work to go around in the team, and there doesn’t seem to be much they can do about it. In our weekly team meeting on Tuesday the primary response was a shrug of the shoulders, as if to say it’s not their fault. By yesterday I was so mind numbingly bored I began to feel ill with the strain, and I had to take today off as I couldn’t face going in. I’ll go back tomorrow – at least it will be Friday, a day when no one feels guilty for dossing about. Seriously, it’s becoming a joke how much of the last couple of years I’ve spent in jobs where there’s never enough to do. I feel like my higher power must be trying to send me some kind of message, but it’s hard to know what it is sometimes.

As well as the boredom of being stuck in a small office with nothing to do for eight hours, I needed a day away from my colleague P, who has been even moodier than usual this week. The other day every time I said something to her she looked at me as if I’d murdered somebody. The persistent cold front coming from her side of the office drives me insane, no matter how spiritual I might try and be about it. I’ve meditated and prayed on it, I’ve spoken to fellows in AA, and I know her feelings about me are unimportant, I know I’ve done nothing wrong – nothing seems to lessen the pain of being subject to her disapproval when I’m there. I can name so many colleagues over the years with whom I’ve experienced the same thing; in all cases it always blew over eventually, whether because the person left the job, or because whatever was going on in their life causing them to be cold ended, turning them into a warmer person. Thinking back to past colleagues who’ve surprised me by turning out not to hate me helps only a little in this situation, because of my illness’s tendency to assume that what I’m going through now is the worst, most difficult thing I’ve ever been through, completely different to anything before.

We have a new manager starting this week who seems very nice. She’s planning one to ones with us next week and I really want to ask about cutting my hours, going back to part time hours. There certainly isn’t enough work to fill five days of the week at the moment, and it’s not clear if there’ll ever be. While I’m living at home and not paying rent I can technically afford to return to part time work – indeed in the beginning it was my intention to stay on a part time contract with them permanently. With things the way they are I can’t help feeling as if switching to full time hours was a mistake.

If only I hadn’t booked that trip to America, I could switch back to part time now and probably still afford to cover the counselling studies I have planned for the next year. If only I’d waited for the US election results, after which I’m sure I wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic about booking the holiday.

The problem is I have strong urges to travel everywhere now. Already I’m thinking about next year’s holidays. Part of me is tempted by Thailand. I’ve never been anywhere so exotic – it would be a dream. With all that in mind I don’t know if changing my contract is really the wisest thing. I think I should give it at least a few months, wait until I get back from the US and see how my finances are. That would be the most sensible course. Whether I’ll follow it is anyone’s guess.