I’ve got a lot to talk about today!
One word to describe therapy on Friday morning: heavy. Childhood and my relationship with my mother were on my mind, for the third week running. I sank deeper yet into the feeling of hopelessness that surrounds this subject, allowing my sixteen year old self to speak for me. “I can’t cry because what’s the use in crying? No one will listen.” I experienced a real regression into that child state, so powerful I couldn’t access the comforting words that my adult self normally has stored for such occasions. I simply let it all go. One may be left wondering how this is helping me. Those unfamiliar with the therapeutic process may expect me to have moved past the darkness now. If I were receiving standard cognitive behavioural therapy on the NHS I’d have been given ways of not sinking so cleanly into the past. Instead I am delving deeper every time I see my therapist, making myself feel greater anger and sadness as the weeks go by. From what I’ve read and what the therapist has said about it, I understand the need to do the digging in long term therapy. The facts are that I suffered a trauma as a child, I am stuck in that trauma because I was never listened to as a child, and now that kid wants to be listened to. When I am digging it’s never clear how far I’ve got to go, whether this is it or whether there’s still more to reveal. The process doesn’t seem to be about reaching the end. It seems to be about giving myself the space to keep going.
I left therapy feeling bereft, knowing I wouldn’t see him for another two weeks as he’s on holiday this week. It felt like I’d been picking at my core with a spoon: all the deep, dark fears were exposed and just sitting there. It would have been all right if I could have gone home to lie down, but I had to stay out. I would be leaving London for 2017’s second residential retreat with my counselling classmates later on the same day. I’d known about the weekend for months but I hadn’t thought about it very much until the time arrived. I had my suitcase with me and I would be getting a lift nearby from one of my classmates. I had a few hours to kill, so I went to sit in a cafe in the nearby area where my sponsor happens to live. I texted him and he came to meet me, and we sat together for a couple of hours, keeping the conversation light on the whole. I treated myself to an American style lunch of waffles with bacon and maple syrup, knowing I’d reached my target weight after months of being strict and I could afford to treat myself. The time passed and soon I was getting into a car with two of my classmates.
I sensed a mixture of feelings in the car. We were all most likely looking forward to getting out of the big smoke; to being back in the relaxing, quiet countryside setting of the retreat run by nuns where we had been six months ago back in the spring. At the same time we all knew we were going to be stuck there for two days, with little time to ourselves, and that we would be expected to share authentically and openly some of our deepest feelings. The weekend was sure to be packed full of experiential exercises where we got into groups and talked as if we were in therapy. We’ve been told plenty of times that this whole thing of authentic self disclosure is crucial for the level that we’re at. There can be no holding back. My car pooling buddies were tired on Friday, like me, and they just wanted to relax.
We arrived at the retreat in good time and found our rooms. I was glad to be in the place again, full as it was of good memories, until I got to my room and saw the window crawling with cluster flies. My immediate thought was: when will I ever be free of damned flies? I remembered a previous nightmare experience with cluster flies when I lived with D three years ago. They come in through air vents in the winter because they like the warmth, and they always gather on windows. I had to kill about six of them before I could sit down and rest. I managed to cover the room’s air vent with some tissue, and I didn’t see any more flies on the weekend.
It wasn’t a good start to the trip. I immediately knew that it wasn’t going to be like last time. Back in the spring I had a much bigger room, and the sun was still shining well into the evening, and I knew my classmates much better. The group was different this time so it was bound to be a different experience. I would just have to make the most of it. Once I was sure I’d gotten rid of all the flies in my room, I went down for dinner.
One of the great things about the centre where the college puts us up is the food. I enjoyed a filling shepherd’s pie with vegetables and talked to some of my colleagues about my nerves for the weekend ahead. Straight after dinner we were ushered into our first experiential exercise. We’d been asked to prepare a map of our lives, something visual that represented us, which we would talk about to the whole group. Everyone had taken the task seriously; some had gone to great artistic lengths to map out their lives. I had gone through a debate of what to include on my map and what to leave out. In the end I had decided to include everything, because I knew it would be dishonest not to, and there was nothing I had to be ashamed of, despite feeling shame. On an A3 piece of paper I’d outlined a large country with eight different counties and a river flowing through the middle. My counties are: sexuality, alcoholism, music, reading, walking, London, counselling & psychotherapy, and travelling. These were the important areas of my life as far as I could tell, the areas that I needed to talk about. I quickly realised that I had never shown all of them to anyone at the same time before. Some friends may know about some of the areas, while other friends may know about other areas; no one has seen my whole life in that way before.
I had the most difficulty in including my sexuality and my alcoholism on the map, so I knew those were the things that needed to go right at the top. I could only include my alcoholism knowing that there’s someone else in the group who has also done the twelve steps. It’s a shame, but if I knew I were the only one I may not have put it on there. Putting it on there knowing I wasn’t alone was hard enough. I had never talked to my classmates about AA and recovery before. You hear so much in AA about anonymity, and the preference for keeping it ‘within the rooms’, something that’s easy to do and doesn’t cause any harm. I’ve done that for ten years because I’ve never needed to share that part of my life with anyone not in the rooms. But when it comes to a map of my life, how could I leave it off? It’s the centre of my life today.
I couldn’t go first during the exercise, I had to wait until at least half the room had spoken before I could get up and talk about my map. There were definite echoes of an AA meeting as I sat there in the circle listening to others speak with great honesty about their lives, wishing I had that confidence. Eventually I had to get up and talk, and I managed to say everything I wanted to say; but I was bothered by an incredibly dry throat that made it hard to speak at some points. I realised that this has happened to me quite a lot recently, especially when I’m talking honestly about myself. It’s happened in therapy a couple of times, it’s happened in AA. To the group it might have sounded like my voice was cracking with tears. I had to apologise and explain that I wasn’t crying, I just had a dry throat; although the truth is that this must be more than just a dry throat, it must be psychological. Why else does it only happen when I’m talking about something difficult?
The exercise was profoundly moving and inspiring, and we all came a little closer in the process. However, by the time it had finished at 9.30 I was exhausted and I needed to take myself to bed. I slept ok that night, better than I expected to. Saturday morning was due to begin with yet more tears and self disclosure in the group, as we were asked to pick a picture from several dozen that had been laid on the floor. Most of the pictures were of childhood toys and books; our job was to pick one that resonated with us. I picked a photo of an Etch-A-Sketch, the must have toy of 1991 that I begged my mum to get me for my ninth birthday. We were all to explain what our picture meant to us. So I spent five minutes talking about a lonely nine year old in his bedroom, escaping a mundane daily life with his Etch-A-Sketch drawings. When others were talking about their pictures there were tears galore, but since I can’t cry in public, I remained dry eyed and fairly calm. I noticed the classic voice in the head saying things like “stop talking!” and “you can’t say that to them!” Afterwards I felt guilty about the things I’d said, like I had brought the mood down with my truth. As if no one else had shared anything just as painful and dark! The exact same thing happens every time I share in AA, so I can know it’s not really true that I need to feel guilty. But I did wish that for once the feelings would just go away.
Our schedule for the day didn’t have any outdoor activities on it, unlike the residential earlier in the year. Understandable, given the fact it’s November and not April. But despite being cold on Saturday it looked like a nice day anyway, and many of us were itching to get outside so we could experience the calming effect of nature. There seemed to be so much work to get through it was tiring to think about by lunch time.
At dinner I began to feel a bit normal again, knowing there couldn’t be any more deep and painful exercises for them to put us through. After dinner we had a night of fun to look forward to as someone had organised a quiz. Whilst waiting for the quiz to start we all sat in the TV lounge watching Strictly on the BBC, and it was a lovely half hour, bonding over this my favourite TV show. Strangely enough it felt a bit like Christmas as a kid, when you all sit there in front of the TV, laughing and chatting and feeling excited. When the quiz started we got into teams, and one classmate inhabited the role of compere extremely well. We were bombarded with questions about general knowledge and popular culture, something I knew to be my forte. I was able to impress my teammates by answering nearly all of the film and music questions correctly. And these weren’t easy questions!
It was by far the most fun I’ve had all year. On Friday I was complaining to the therapist about how I never had fun as a child, and that’s what’s so sad about it. Well, here I was having fun just a day later, knowing that I can experience today what I missed out on as a kid. I was my real self all night, not just in showing my extensive pop culture knowledge but in laughing constantly, feeling completely safe amongst friends. This is one of the definitions of spirituality, I think.
When Sunday came naturally there was sadness in the air about having to go home, back to the real world. In our last session one of the tutors gave a speech about what we have to look forward to in a counselling career. I wish I could have taped it, it was so relevant to the general mood. She talked about the fact that as counsellors we have to keep working on ourselves forever, there never is a final point where everything is fixed and perfect (I already knew this, but it was good to hear her say it). It’s all about the journey!
She mentioned the reason why the self work is important, that we do it not just for ourselves but for our clients. She said that as a counsellor you will often not know what to say to your client; you may occasionally feel completely stuck and that anything you say could damage them further. Finally she emphasised the point that counselling is not about fixing people (again, something I knew but also something I need to hear more of because I can still forget sometimes!) If you have a client who comes into therapy not being able to see tomorrow, and if you can help them to get just a glimpse of tomorrow, that’s enough. If you can give someone some hope, that is enough. The client’s whole life doesn’t have to change while they’re in therapy, all that’s needed is hope that it can change.
The speech brought us all down to earth and gave us reassurance at the same time. For weeks I have struggled to bring myself to therapy, knowing every week that I’ll probably spend an hour feeling horrible. Yesterday I was reminded that this horrible feeling is the real point of therapy, this is where the work is meant to take place.
As we left the centre I could say that I didn’t feel awkward with anyone in the group, and I came home with a warm, open feeling in my soul. I had shared a significant life experience with eighteen other people, I had bared my soul, and I had no anxiety about the future any more. I was comfortable in my skin; I could feel love for the world, for a while. This feeling was bound to pass, because all feelings do, but while I had it I could enjoy it.
I realised that the last time I felt this way was when I returned home after my first week at university, back in 2001. Having had such wonderful experiences away from home that week, I could return knowing that my life had changed and that I never had to go back to the misery of childhood again. I could see this place with different eyes because I knew I wasn’t trapped by it any more.
One thing that’s crystal clear to me is that I have to leave London as soon as I can. When I finally get to start the career of my choosing it can’t be here. I’ll live anywhere, I just don’t want to be in this big, loud city any more. Being in the quiet countryside for two days makes you realise that the noise in your head isn’t all you, sometimes it’s this place too.
The lethargic, heavy feeling I kept experiencing in the past few weeks I’m sure was partly down to boredom with the constant activity and noise. For a very long time I could forgive London for all its faults, but as I grow and change I begin to realise that my journey is taking me somewhere else. I’ve stayed in London for too long and my soul is calling out for me to break away.
When I woke this morning the last thing I felt like doing was going to work, so I called in sick and gave myself a day to recover. I don’t feel bad about this – I was very tired when I got home yesterday and a day of recharging my batteries isn’t going to harm anyone. It’s not like I have a massive pile of work waiting for me at the office. I can be kind to myself today without any sense of guilt.