Moment of truth

Something happened at my home group last night and I wanted to reflect on it, because, although it was just a moment at the beginning of the meeting, the sort of moment that might pass me by on another occasion, it impacted the meeting for me. I was standing near the tea counter and two meeting regulars that I don’t feel close to, G and P, approached to join the queue. At times with both of them I have experienced a sense of not being liked; whether the dislike is real or not isn’t as relevant as the fact that it stays in my head when I see them, because they remind me of my past, that all important shadow that follows me around. That said, in recent months the previously intense awkwardness I had with them has lessened somewhat, to the point where I can feel quite neutral about them on a good day. Yesterday I was feeling relatively neutral, not expecting anything to happen, when I witnessed the pair of them get into an altercation of sorts.

G is an old man who has always had a very acerbic manner that most people take as endearing, whilst with me in the past it was enough to make me storm out of meetings on occasion. P is a highly sensitive soul, easily offended and often quite frosty at the beginning of a meeting, which has gotten in the way of me being able to engage with him in a meaningful way for most of the time I’ve known him. Until now, having lumped them both in the category of people not to be entirely trusted in my mind, I wouldn’t have expected to be in a situation where I’d take one’s side against the other. Except something unusual seemed to happen last night, with them both being in extreme moods that would inevitably bring about a clash. G said something tart to P about the cold weather, P took great offence and, in my direction, whispered loudly, ‘why don’t you go fuck yourself, G?’

If this had happened five years ago, I’d have jumped immediately to P’s side in the matter, as I was very angry with G about this time five years ago over something abrasive that he’d said to me. If this had happened two years ago, I’d have been on G’s side, as I was angry with P for being angry with me over my momentarily insensitive behaviour on a street corner. Since it’s happening now, I didn’t know what side to take. And I noticed how odd it was to find myself in this position, not being the victim of the incident but a neutral bystander. P’s potty mouthed aside left a charged atmosphere in the room that only I could sense, because no one else had heard it, and I could have been unhappy with P for bringing the tone down in such an unnecessary way. I could have gotten annoyed with him for being so childish, just as I could have gotten angry with G for being his usual unthinking self. But within an hour, once everyone was sat down and we were in the midst of the sharing, both of them shared heartfelt things that showed they were trying to be present, to put anger behind them, although no direct reference was made to what had happened earlier. Through more of my own private reflection I’ve recognised that the whole thing could only have impacted on me because of my past, the way P swore bitterly in my direction reminding me of the tirades that mum used to yell at no one in particular when she was angry at some external agency, somehow forgetting but also knowing that I was there listening. It’s interesting.

*

Today in class we had to practice making eye contact with each other. The horror! We were learning about gestalt therapy and this is all about staying in the here and now with the client, focusing entirely on what the client is doing so as to bring feelings into the awareness. During a morning exercise we were paired up and told to sit facing our partner, with whom we had to maintain eye contact for as long as possible while we described how we felt. It was as awkward as it sounds. The notable thing is that I assumed I would be the only one who really struggled with it. Afterwards when the others shared back about how it had been they all talked about hating it just as I had. So another example of me not being unique in my struggles.

In my ongoing reflections I’m seeing the different types of trauma state that happen to me in the present and the different parts of the past that they originate in. For example, the trauma I went though last Friday whilst waiting for mum to come home isn’t the same as the trauma I had last night when I heard P swear in the meeting. That might seem obvious, but previously I think I would have tried to lump it all under one big trauma category called ‘the past’. It’s only this year I’ve learned that there wasn’t one big thing that happened in my childhood that made everything difficult from there on in. Different things happened at different ages. Last Friday I experienced the fear of a nine year old who can’t find his mother; yesterday I experienced the fear of a five year old whose mother is angry at the world and doesn’t know what to do about it. I can be more specific about what’s coming back to me now when I regress into these states; they are all different shades of the same palette, which is childhood.

Tomorrow our tutors are meeting with the counselling centre to hopefully resolve these issues that have kept us from seeing clients the past few weeks, so fingers crossed there will finally be movement by the end of the week. Someone jokingly remarked in class this afternoon that it’s a bit like Brexit, the way it’s dragged on, and it has really felt like that at times. But the tutors feel hopeful about having their concerns addressed and I do too. Apparently the manager who was dragging her feet a few weeks ago and inadvertently causing all these problems has left the centre, which was ironically reassuring news to hear today. The moment of truth is just on the horizon now; whatever happens, at least the waiting game is nearly over.

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Frantic

With my worries about the placement temporarily on hold, I’ve had space to fret about other things again. I should have had a nice week. It’s half term, meaning there was no college this week; I’d taken an extra day off work, so that I could relax after the weekend and get on with the essay that’s due in a couple of weeks, meaning I’d only be at work two days this week and essentially free the rest. I managed to write the bulk of the essay in the space of a day, so I was left with plenty of free time in which to do that relaxing. It was much needed after the weekend and all of last week’s panic, I tell you. It should have been a better week. Today my sponsor invited me to see a wonderful exhibition in town; I would experience some fine culture and spend the day in spiritual company. When I got home in the evening, tired and satisfied, it was all marred by the unusual absence of my mother.

She had been out last night seeing a friend, which is unusual enough. To find the flat empty two nights in a row is unprecedented. Being half term, it’s her week off too, so technically she must have the time and the energy to do the social things that she religiously avoids the rest of the time. But for as long as I’ve known her, a busy social life has never been a thing for her. Yesterday was the first time this year that she went out to do something purely social. I’d had no warning that she would be out yesterday, and no warning today either. It all seemed very strange.

I went to my room and tried to get on with a normal evening, watching history docs online and ‘relaxing’ as best I could. As the hours passed, this got harder and harder to do. I get my anxious character from my mother, and I worry about her as much as she worries about me. Not knowing where she was, my mind was given to all sorts of harrowing scenarios. Any normal son might have just picked up the phone and called her, but she rarely keeps her mobile phone switched on; even if it had been on and she’d answered, I wouldn’t have known what to say, for looking silly and worrying enough to call her. This paradoxical scenario kept me in a bind until 11pm. By then, my mental state was beginning to dissolve. I had only ever known her to be out later than this once before, when she went to a work Christmas party about five years ago. Clearly she wasn’t at a Christmas party tonight, so I couldn’t think what on earth would be keeping her out so late. I regressed into what seems a natural state for me, utter childish hysteria. As has happened so much lately, I experienced clear memories of a similar childhood experience surfacing. Memories of a night in 1992 when we were staying at the house of her closest friend at the time, and they decided to go out partying. I lay in bed at 11pm, looking at the digital clock on the side, listening for the door downstairs. I hadn’t been left on my own there, the friend’s husband was there theoretically taking care of me, but it was my mum I needed. I managed to work myself up into such a frenzy that I got sick.

The same thing was happening today, twenty-six years later, and I was powerless to stop it. Adult logic couldn’t win out any more. I decided that I would call her if it got to 11.15pm; as I decided I imagined a vivid scene in which she doesn’t pick up, leaving me with no other way to get hold of her and spending the night lost in this limbo; waking up tomorrow to find her still not back, having to call the police.

Finally just after 11 I heard the key turn in the door. She came straight to my room to apologise – she knew I’d been worrying about her without having to ask. I couldn’t admit to her that I had been absolutely frantic, instead I tried to pretend that I was ok, which didn’t convince her. She told me she had been at the funeral and wake of a former work colleague, and then she went to bed looking guilty about it. Had I told her it was really ok, she had nothing to apologise for, she’d still feel bad, because that’s our relationship. We need each other to be ok at all times, otherwise something is wrong.

It can’t last. I don’t want to live like this any more. Something tells me the only way to get over this is to keep having nights like tonight. Should she start to develop more of a social life and do this more often, gradually it will get easier not to fall into such a frantic state. I can’t see any other way of it happening. God, I dread to think what it was like for her when I was 19 and going out clubbing for the first time. Much the same, I imagine.

Progress…

Instead of responding to our concerns and making life easier for everyone, the placement manager has agreed to have a meeting with the college authorities next week. So us students remain temporarily withdrawn from the placement, in limbo; but I feel better anyway. Prior to the weekend I couldn’t stand the uncertainty, which is never a comfortable place for me to be in; and I wasn’t sure whether to attend the weekend training or not. My peers were determined to go regardless of the current situation, having paid money for it, and I was told by all parties that I should go too, as it would be experience I could put on my CV (and a huge waste of money otherwise). I avoided Friday’s supervision as instructed by my tutor, so now it was clearly a serious situation for the centre. I had no idea if I would even be allowed to attend training the next day, or if they would see me and think I was being controversial in turning up. All of which goes back to beliefs I picked up at school, beliefs about the trouble you can get into when you challenge authority. I was sure I had caused so much trouble for them, and that me being on the premises would hugely offend them (even though I’d paid a small fortune for the training!)

When Saturday morning arrived I felt surprisingly ok, and I went to the training. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to spending an entire weekend in the place where I had experienced such recent trauma; but I knew that not going would be me effectively withdrawing myself from the placement, and I’d told the tutor that I would wait until the outcome of their meeting next week for that. Going to the training, I would at least be able to keep hold of my place there, just in case the meeting does resolve everything. It seemed it would be easier just to go, since I couldn’t completely make my mind up yet on whether I wanted to stay in the placement or not.

The training was to take place rom 10am til 5pm on both days, and there was a lot to get through. As soon as it started I realised that I should have had this training before I ever saw clients. It was all about how to carry out assessments, how to contract, how to identify and manage risk, how to conduct short term therapy: the kinds of things I didn’t know and felt so lost about two weeks ago when I had to see four new clients in four hours. Clearly I would have felt a lot more confident with the training in place, and many of my peers who hadn’t seen clients yet said that they felt a lot more confident about it afterwards. From more than twenty peers present at the training I gathered that my experience had been unusual: no one else had been given four clients on their first day. For some reason I had been thrown right in at the deep end without a life belt. I decided that the whole thing must have been down to some administrative error slash incompetence, because nothing else could explain it.

Despite the long hours the weekend passed quickly. To begin with I was probably not all that engaged, and I made less effort than I normally would to connect with people I didn’t know. On Saturday morning I didn’t know whether I wanted to keep my place at the centre or not; I probably dissociated in the room as a result. By the end of the weekend, when I was beginning to feel better about the placement again, I was managing to connect with some of my peers in a real way, and I could be glad that I had gone. The panic I was in last week has all but passed. All that needs to happen now is the manager meets with my tutors next week and agrees to the following:

  • limiting my hours
  • ensuring that future trainees are properly trained before they see clients

I would like to keep my place at the centre. The clients I saw before will have been allocated to new therapists now, which is a shame, but my time slot will soon fill again with new clients, and I am no less ready to work with clients than I was a month ago. It would be far easier to stay where I am than having to start from scratch and look for another placement. I may not like the manager’s cavalier attitude to her volunteers’ welfare, but I can probably put up with it to an extent if next week’s meeting goes well. The experience I’ve had so far has been unfortunate, and I hope not to repeat it. It certainly isn’t the start to the therapy career I was hoping to have. During it at least I could speak up and put my needs first, with my head held high.

Catch 22

My college tutor spent all of Monday trying to get hold of the placement manager, to no avail. I received email updates from the tutor through the day, all increasingly apologetic as it became clear that the situation wasn’t going to be resolved any time soon. By the end of the day, she and her superiors had decided that there was nothing left for it but to withdraw us from the placement temporarily until it’s resolved. This really set the cat amongst the pigeons: all of us on the placement would have to be withdrawn, and my peers were not the least bit happy with the news. It couldn’t have come at worse time for us. We were supposed to be going to the centre this weekend for assessment training, which we’ve already paid for; and in class today we were due to be recording our practise sessions for our first official assignment. Anxiety levels were already high enough; now they were through the roof.

The amount of emails and whatsapp messages exchanged between us through Monday evening and all day Tuesday were enough to drive me bonkers. The crux of the matter is that my peers have not had the same bad experience of the placement as me yet; they haven’t seen clients yet, they don’t expect to be given four for ages. If the college isn’t going to allow us to proceed with it then the money we’ve spent on the weekend training will go down the drain. An email that one of my peers composed to the tutor on Tuesday explained in great detail her anger at the handling of the matter. They shouldn’t be penalised for something that’s happened to me; this was really the last thing they needed to happen this of all weeks. Although the peer had told me that she didn’t see any of this as my fault, her reaction to the news put me in the spotlight, and it was deeply uncomfortable. It could have been the mid 90’s: like I’d just told the teacher that I was suffering at school and gotten someone into trouble, which made me instantly unpopular with everyone.

Through this experience I have to consistently remember that I have the right to challenge authority now, that it won’t get me into trouble with anyone, even when tempers appear to be running high and there are aggressive emails concerning my actions. It is hard to be consistent when there is a negative script playing non-stop in your head, keeping you up at night and driving you to a state of panic. On Monday and Tuesday both nights I woke in the small hours with the same catastrophic thoughts tornadoing around my brain. I’ve gone too far, I’ve pissed people off, I’ll be kicked out of the placement and it will be humiliating. The worst thing isn’t so much losing the placement, it’s more the humiliation. In those moments when the head literally won’t shut up and my heart is beating hard and I can’t sleep, it couldn’t be any more reminiscent of my life in the 90’s.

If it weren’t for the recording assignment I wouldn’t have gone into college. I would probably feel distracted by my problems all day, and it would almost certainly be awkward seeing the angry email sender. Thank God for good tutors: as soon as we were in she got us together for a chat to clear the air. She told us we could go to the training this weekend so that we don’t end up wasting the money spent; otherwise she would like us not to continue seeing clients or attending supervision until the college’s concerns are addressed, and her calm, reasonable tone seemed to diffuse the tension. We could go to our recordings knowing exactly what was going on and that the college had all our best interests at heart.

By the end of the day the college still had not had a response from the placement manager, which I find totally baffling. As time goes on it looks more and more like feet dragging to me, and apart from anything else I think it’s rude. Sadly it’s not the first time in my life I’ve come across a difficult manager, and I suspect it won’t be the last. For my sanity, I sincerely hope this is resolved by the end of the week. It feels like we’re in limbo, with this thing hanging over us that won’t go away. I know I can’t just give in and go back to accepting their mercenary behaviour; but I am desperate not to have to leave the centre and the three clients I’ve currently got. It is a quandary that I’m going to have yet another sleepless night over, I’m sure. Somewhere on the other side of London there is a manager with the power to send one email that will sort it all out instantly. I’d love to think that tomorrow will be the day.

A break in the clouds

On Wednesday people kept telling me ‘it’s not your fault’. The situation I’m in, the pressure I’ve been put under: friends and teachers wanted to persuade me that I had done nothing wrong, and I have every right to put my needs first. Unfortunately no one ever said that sort of thing to me when it mattered the most, at school, at a time in my life when I was under non-stop pressure to repress my burgeoning needs. It’s far harder for a child to ignore the negative messages than it is for an adult, and after being exposed to it for so long it became a part of who I am. So now when someone incredulously tells me that of course I should be putting myself first because I am of value, it is at odds with what I have always believed deep down.

We learned all about introjected values, conditions of worth and the self structure last year – a cohesive theory that explains perfectly what has happened in my life. I can’t say that knowing about the theory hasn’t had any impact on me; I have seen some shift in the inner narrative and have begun to make positive changes as a result. I wouldn’t be on this course pursuing this path if I hadn’t. But the small daily challenges that you continue to face are always there to remind you that it’s never over; there’s never a point when the past is just the past.

With everyone intensely interested in my well being on Wednesday I spent the day feeling like I was in a fishbowl, with the whole class peering in. I knew that I seemed stressed out and therefore my inner feelings, those things I’ve spent my life so carefully trying to hide, were on show, a deeply uncomfortable experience for me even now after ten years of AA. It was a very tiring day. But thankfully the verbal support was turned into real action at the end of the day by our lead tutor, who has offered to intervene with the counselling centre on my behalf. It took a day or two after that for the relief to really set in, but by Friday I was definitely seeing a drop in anxiety for the first time all week.

In therapy Friday morning we got to the heart of the matter as per usual. Having felt rather confused at the beginning of the week as to what I really wanted and needed from my placement, I could now have clarity about it. I needed to cut down from four clients; two or three at the very most on a Sunday would be manageable. It was daunting but not as terrifying now to imagine saying that to the centre. To my therapist I could say with conviction that I had been taken advantage of, and that I wouldn’t put up with any more of it. I never got the chance to stand up to the authorities at school, but I could certainly do it now in this present situation.

By Saturday I felt almost normal again. Although my tutor had not managed to speak to the placement manager on Friday (she was off sick) and although this meant that I would be seeing four clients again today, I could rest assured it would probably be the last time. The tutor was adamant that the situation would be sorted out next week, one way or the other. I would either be given less clients or I would be leaving the placement.

Some anxiety then remained about having to face four clients in a row once more, and the resilience that would require, but it was still much more of a normal Saturday for me. I could enjoy a good lie in, and I could head to the meeting in the evening, see some friends and get some fellowship hugs. Unlike last Saturday I had no big errands to run. All of which helped massively.

When it got to today, I was given cause to wonder if I was witnessing a higher power intervention, as two of my clients cancelled at the last minute. I would therefore only have to see two clients, with a good two hour break in between. This was much more the kind of day I’d expect to have as a brand new trainee therapist, the kind of day my peers and tutors at college are saying I should have. One of the clients has decided not to come back, which means if I stay there I’d have three ongoing. I could do three; it’s better than four back to back. The tutor is going to speak to them tomorrow and propose this to them.

I might say I actually felt good as I went in this morning, knowing it would be a far easier week than last week. With both clients I could be truly present and person centred, which is what I was there for.

So now I’m just waiting to find out whether the centre will allow me to stick to three clients or not. It would be so easy for them to agree to it, given that one of the four I started with has just pulled out and I now have this free slot. It would be a real shame if they decide to be stubborn and refuse. On my second week there I feel that I’m beginning to practise real therapy. Today was so much more like what I imagined I’d be doing than last week, it’s almost a miracle to think I managed it at all after last week’s debacle. With the two clients I saw today I can sense the makings of a therapeutic relationship, though we’re still a long way off from real trust and warmth, I know we’re getting there. To have to stop now and find another placement, start all over again would be such a huge pain. I can’t tell my higher power what to do, but I really hope it gives me a break on this one.

Too much and not enough (part two)

I have a lot to get off my chest tonight – and I feel guilty about it. The child’s tendency to assume culpability for difficult feelings runs strong in me, I don’t want to admit them to myself, God forbid I should admit them to anyone else. So I feel guilty about the fact I’m struggling with this placement. I saw my first four clients on Sunday, back to back, with barely a minute to breathe in between each one. I feel guilty for finding it difficult, I feel guilty for thinking that I don’t want to see four clients in one morning. I feel a shudder whenever I imagine telling the centre that I already want a break, to consider whether this is the right thing for me. Because of that enormous sense of responsibility I’ve said nothing to them, just got on with it and hoped for the best. When I would have been enjoying my regular lie in on Saturday, I was running about the place trying to print all the paperwork and get things ready for Sunday. All the printing alone took hours, and I had to go out to the shop halfway through when the printer ran out of ink. That’s why it wasn’t a fun day; why I couldn’t face the meeting in the evening. I was exhausted, and numb, and waiting for some miracle insight that would make the panic all go away.

When it was time to go on Sunday morning, I still didn’t have that insight. Nothing about what I was doing seemed ok, but I was committed now, I had the responsibility to my clients. I couldn’t give the child any comfort as I went through the ticket barriers in the station and walked into a group of teenagers, who were all on their way to having a great day. They were standing in front of the stairs and didn’t seem to want to move, it was all very funny to them. Their needless laughter at the situation reminded me of a tremendous selection of moments at school, when being laughed at was my daily reality. I sank further into my child self, helpless out there in the world without mum to hold my hand.

I don’t think I can ever forget that morning. Walking into a room, becoming a therapist and seeing clients is like stepping into a parallel universe. I should have been better prepared, I shouldn’t have been so terribly unsure of myself; clients need an emotionally strong therapist who will be able to hold them. I could barely look at the first client as I ushered her into a warm, windowless room where I would be sitting for the next four hours. I don’t know why I offered to shake her hand, it’s not something therapists normally do – was I trying to cover my nerves with over friendliness? Probably.

How very, very strange it is to be on the other side of the therapeutic relationship. Twenty years ago this month I started seeing my first ever therapist. Since then I’ve seen, I don’t know, about fifteen different therapists. I’ve received all types of therapy, from person centred to gestalt to psychodynamic to cognitive behavioural. I’ve gotten very used to being a client. As a therapist you take on responsibility for your client’s well being. You are theirs for the entirety of that fifty minute session; your feelings, doubts and struggles don’t matter during that time (Well, they may matter later on during supervision, but with the client you have to become a vessel of empathy, focused on what the client is feeling in the moment. This takes great strength.)

For four hours I couldn’t be myself. I guess I could loosely describe the person I became as a therapist. For most of it I managed to do all the right things. I smiled, nodded, actively listened, asked apt questions, filled out all the forms. Each client came with a different set of unexpectedly complex problems that will take weeks or months to sift through. The hours, strangely enough, passed quickly. When it was over I couldn’t quite believe it was over. In the instant that I could go back to being myself, as I left the centre, I felt relief, especially when I got outside and found it was the first spring like day of the year. Life was still going on, the world hadn’t collapsed. I had survived.

All of this may give the impression that I hated Sunday. Hate is a strong word. When I got home I knew I was emotionally drained, my head was spinning with confusion over how I was going to work effectively with four clients every week for the next undefined amount of time. It wasn’t a hateful experience like my first day at the bank, but it wasn’t anything like what I imagined real client work would be. I imagined client work would be challenging, but I imagined it would also be rewarding, and fun at times. This wasn’t rewarding or fun. If I’d had less clients, if there had been more support from the centre, it probably would have been a closer experience to what I’d hoped and expected. It’s a shame that it was none of those things.

I looked forward to going to work on Monday just because it would be a return to my normal routine, to my life away from the counselling centre. In comparison to Sunday, Monday would be an absolute doddle, I was sure. What an odd thing to be able to say about Monday, don’t you think?

Let’s face it, I have an easy day job. I’ve never been particularly challenged by the things I’ve had to do at the charity. Yes, this time last year was stressful when I never had anything to do. But that’s changed; on the whole now there’s enough to keep me going of a day. It will certainly never be too much. I wish I could feel that way about my placement. Somehow I’ve been convinced that it has to feel like too much, that’s just the way placements are, they’re doing us a favour by giving us this opportunity. Suddenly I’m being told that it shouldn’t be that way. It’s a voluntary job – I shouldn’t be being worked into the ground.

Sadly as the week has passed I’ve felt the panic slowly rising again because another Sunday is just over the horizon. It’s hard to even say exactly what it is I’m panicking about, after all I’ve proved I can sit in a room and listen for four hours, I’ve just done it. I suppose it’s the nagging sense that just sitting and listening isn’t what I’m there for. I am meant to be building a relationship with these people and empathising with them, encouraging them to change their lives. I know I can do that with one or two people, I don’t know if I can do that with four all at once, four people with very complex needs. Especially in an environment where I feel I’ve been forced to do it, otherwise I’ll get into trouble.

I talked the other day about what this brought up in terms of my past trauma. There is such a paradox here in what’s really going on, I think. I know I’m not back at school, and therefore I can cope with what’s being demanded of me; but the hands off, chuck ‘em in at the deep end approach of the centre is similar to what was done at school (literally being chucked into the deep is one of my worst traumatic memories of the place). It’s not all in my head – and just because I can cope doesn’t mean I have to. More and more I’m experiencing the truth that this shouldn’t be about coping.

The interlude at work and the newcomer meeting last night didn’t last long enough to really take my mind off the main problem. I needed the meeting to be as stress free as possible, and of course on the week when I need to just get through it and not stress about it, I found it stressful. A new co-secretary was needed as the current one’s year is now up. I expected there to be at least one eager volunteer when it was time to elect someone, it’s always found secretaries easily in the past. No one put their hand up when the job was offered out at the end of the meeting, and it looked like I might be doing the job on my own, just what I need, until one of the old timers reluctantly offered to step in temporarily. The position will be announced every week until someone permanent can be found (good luck with that).

It isn’t my responsibility to take on all the meeting’s problems, but given the week I’ve been having, I took home yet more worry over something I can’t control. My anxiety disorder just loves to pick up worries. And it was going so well with this meeting.

For the second week in a row I didn’t particularly fancy going to college today. I knew everyone was going to be interested in how Sunday had gone, and I knew they would all be annoying and tell me I’d taken on too many clients. I could somehow guess that the whole day would end up being about this one thing, and I was right. It started in the morning when the tutor announced her shock at my client load to the whole room. ‘That sounds unethical to me,’ she said, which just made me feel even better about it.

The excitement has all but gone out of the journey for me. I’ve rushed too quickly into client work, just like I rushed too quickly into that bloody job at the bank, I’ve shot myself in the foot and now I find myself in a situation that I can’t get out of as easily as I want to. Whatever I decide about this, I have to give my clients three months notice, because I have a duty of care to them, I can’t just leave. People didn’t seem to realise this today. It was all about my needs, my self care, my journey. In the afternoon, the group conversation kept coming back to it, again and again, and I got so tired of hearing about it, I almost went home. At 4pm when our PD tutor arrived I faced having to explain the situation to yet another person, who was bound to have an opinion that they would want to express. I’m grateful for the support, don’t get me wrong, but after an entire day of being told it’s unethical and I shouldn’t be in that position, when unfortunately I am, it’s exhausting. No one could just give me an easy solution to my problem, because there isn’t one. Whatever way I go from here, it will be hard.

If I accept that my colleagues and tutors are right and I shouldn’t be seeing so many clients, it means I have to be honest with the centre and face possible consequences. They could take it badly; they could shame me, like the teachers at school did when I had to express my needs. Shame is what it’s all about. I can’t take the shame.

It doesn’t bode well for the future of this placement, does it? I mean, how can I seriously support any of my clients when I believe I will be shamed for asking for support? Luckily, at the end of the afternoon the tutor took me aside and admitted grave concern about what the centre is doing to us. She said that they’ve worked with the centre for a number of years and their practices appear to have changed recently, because new trainees have not been forced to see four clients back to back before. ‘Professionals don’t see four back to back,’ she told me. News to me. She’s offered to write to the centre to express those concerns, and at this moment, it seems like the most sensible step for us to take. Going to the centre’s management by myself would have been a challenge too far, I think; feeling I had to manage this all by myself was in fact a fallacy. I have the college behind me, at least – and for a short while this evening, there was a tiny break in the clouds, with not so much guilt.

Too much and not enough (part one)

One of the longest weekends of my life has passed. Chronic fear can slow time down; I was in abject terror on Friday. With two days to go until my first client session, I was trapped in fight or flight mode, with no way out. The most interesting thing I’ve learned in therapy this year is that I relive my school experiences in the present day, that it is always with me and colours virtually all of my experience. I always knew that it had a significant impact on me, that it affected many of my adult relationships. But I wasn’t aware of the mechanism, or the depth to which it goes in my daily life. As I faced a two hour supervision session on Friday, and then my first ever clients on Sunday, my self between the ages of five to sixteen took over. I became numb, unable to access my present adult self as I faced the world, desperate though I was to step out of the trauma and feel some of the reassurance that comes with adult objectivity. I simply had to surrender to what was happening inside.

In the morning, before the supervision session that I wasn’t looking forward to, I had therapy. I was expecting my therapist to tell me what everyone else had told me, that the counselling centre was asking too much of me, four clients is too much for a new trainee. Hearing it would only make me feel worse, like I was being pushed into a corner. When he learned that I would be seeing four clients, and that I was visibly panicked about it, the therapist told me very clearly that I have agency, I can say ‘no’ to four and ask for two or three, a number that I’d be more comfortable with. The advice would be of no help whatsoever. I had already committed to seeing those clients, I believed that it was far too late to ask for breathing space and the thought of angering the centre was unbearable.

‘I know how hard it is to imagine putting your needs first, because this reminds you of school, where you were never allowed to challenge authority figures…I know you’re fifteen years old right now, terrified of rocking the boat and getting it wrong…I know you don’t feel that your needs matter, that you will get into trouble for expressing them…’

My therapist said all of that, and in the end I felt so beaten that I didn’t know what to do. It couldn’t have been a worse time to experience these doubts. Up until Friday, I had been ok about seeing four clients – not thrilled, but ok – now I knew with some certainty that the centre was asking too much of me, and I was only going along with everything because I was anxious not to offend them.

Despite knowing all of the above, I couldn’t promise my therapist that I would speak to the centre about cutting down my clients. I could only concede to expressing some anxiety about it when I got to supervision. The centre will provide us with some supervision every two weeks. Not enough to fulfil the requirements of my course, which is why I’m looking for an external supervisor (another need not met which I daren’t express to them).

As I travelled to my first ever clinical supervision, I was almost sure that I would crack and end up resigning from the placement. My only prior exchange with the supervisor that I was about to meet was a terse email exchange, in which I asked about the hours and got the least helpful reply imaginable. If in reality she proved to be as unsupportive as her email tone, I would know that the placement couldn’t last and I would simply have to leave, put it all behind me. This would, needless to say, be a complete disaster, the last thing I need at the moment. All through the journey to the place I thought I was going to school, to face certain doom. This is not a normal way to respond, something kept telling me; but I couldn’t stop responding in that way. The trauma had been activated.

In the trauma mind state I can’t respond to other people normally. Whoever they are, whether I know them or not, I will see them as threats. As I arrived at the centre and met my supervisor and small supervision group, I instinctively took a seat in a corner and adopted a cross-legged, arms folded position that was designed to make me as invisible as possible. I did it without thinking – I couldn’t have done anything else. I could say little more than a cursory hello to the people around me, who would spend most of the next two hours conducting the supervision without me.

Supervision is a forum for the therapist to present their client work and seek advice and guidance from the supervisor, a more experienced counsellor, and their peers. Since I hadn’t met my clients yet I had nothing concrete to share, so it would have been natural to spend a lot of the time listening, but I could barely even do that. The other members of the group all already knew each other, which would exacerbate my feeling of being an outsider at the best of times. Each member had the benefit not only of the supervisor’s input, but their peers’ input also, as everyone was willing to share thoughts on each other’s cases. In a better mood, I could have shared my thoughts, even though I had not seen a client before myself – I’ve been in training for over a year, I certainly know the theory, though you wouldn’t have known it on Friday.

Our supervisor, B, who turned out to be helpful and supportive in ways that her email tone wasn’t, tried to bring me into the discussion more towards the end, asking me how I felt about Sunday and whether I had any questions. I had a million questions, of course, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask them in case it made me look a fool. This is how it would have been at school, you see. And though I had every reason to believe the group would listen and support me, though I knew it was just a past memory making me feel threatened, I couldn’t break out of that memory. It still seemed like too much of a risk.

And this isn’t just a one off occurrence – the same thing has happened at the beginning in every position of responsibility that I’ve had. When I took on the commitment last year at the Tuesday meeting it happened (it still does to an extent); when I went to work at the bank two years ago it happened; seven years before that in my first job at RG, it happened. What links all of these situations is that they remind me of school in some way – responsibility, having to get up in the morning, doing something I don’t want to do, being accountable and in the regular presence of other people I can’t automatically trust. The more similar the situation is to school the more it triggers off this mind state; the harder it is subsequently to break out of it.

This weekend I understood that mechanism more precisely than I’ve ever understood it. I knew what the triggers were: responsibility and obligation to spend lots of time around people I don’t know in a place I don’t know, the need to ask for support and the fear that it won’t be provided. When I left supervision, I’d say I felt a small reprieve from the panic for a few hours. My supervisor had proven to be an ok person, some of my questions about the practicalities of the placement had been answered without me asking them, and I could recognise that an old script was playing in my head, one that had no relation to the present.

That evening I was due to give the chair at the West London meeting. Knowing that I’d be amongst familiar, trustworthy faces helped to keep the reprieve going. I would use the opportunity to talk honestly about my current predicament, and I would be reminded once more of what a gift AA can sometimes be. It was the best thing for me to do that night and I knew it. When I was there, I could be persuaded that I am resilient enough to cope with the demands being placed on me at the counselling centre; I could look back to what I coped with at the bank and before that at RG, and realise that I’ve survived far worse than what I’m going through today.

I could go home on a bit of a high and say: fair enough, maybe I should feel more supported than I do, maybe four clients is too much, but come on. I’ve proved time and time again that I am resilient.

I would have loved that feeling to carry through to Saturday and then, ideally, Sunday. Annoyingly I woke up at 3 in the morning on Saturday, like I have done virtually every morning for the past few weeks, and it was impossible to get any more real sleep after that. Now that I’m essentially going to be working on Sundays, Saturday is my one rest day of the week, so it would have been nice to get a good kip in this Saturday and enjoy a proper lie in. By 8am I had to give up on that idea. All I could do was lie there and mull everything over endlessly. Eventually I got up at 9, much earlier than I normally would on a Saturday. It was to be an unhappy start to an unhappy day. Losing my one possible lie in of the week wasn’t fun. For other people 9am is a lie in, I know, but for so long I’ve adored sleeping in until 11am or later at the weekends, because it’s my time and I can do what I want. This Saturday, I felt that my time wasn’t my time any more, it was someone else’s time, a hateful thought to have on a Saturday.

I drifted through the day, thinking mainly about one thing as I tried to complete some chores. A meeting that evening would have been advisable, but for the first time in months I broke my normal Saturday routine and stayed at home in the evening. I simply couldn’t face being numb and distant around people in Soho. The idea of going to the meeting, making an effort, with just hours to go until Sunday, was too much to hold in my head that night. Fellowship, working the steps, sharing, trying to be spiritual, it all felt too much at that moment.