I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a counsellor – certainly as soon as I knew what a counsellor was. Perhaps it began in my early teens, when I was referred for my first bout of therapy? My older sister was still living at home when she became a social worker in a children’s home and I became aware of the world of ‘helping’. She gave me a basic grounding in the teachings of Freud, and being of a Jewish background; our humour often refers to neuroses and analysts (as well as ‘mothers’ and ‘guilt’ – ever popular themes) – so the concept of therapy was ‘in the air’, as it were…
Of course, in retrospect, looking back on my childhood, my weekly visits to the local psychiatric hospital where my Grandma lived weren’t entirely ‘normal’; seeing drugged up patients wandering around the grounds aimlessly, accompanied by burly nurses, whilst I waited in the car for Mum to collect Grandma, probably isn’t high on the wish list of childhood memories. But it isn’t a horrible memory – the hospital wasn’t a place I was scared of; I was intrigued by it. Mum would never let me go inside the building with her, so as soon as Grandma set foot in the car my questions about the place would start. I used to ask her all about it; what did it look like? Who else was in there? What did they do all day? Grandma always answered me, slowly and patiently; she quite liked talking to me about the place. I think she simply enjoyed being able to talk and feeling that she was being listened to, actually. Although Mum had her round every week, it was clearly a matter of duty, and whilst Mum would carry on with her activities through the day, I would spend most of it sitting with Grandma, playing next to her whilst she either talked to me or dozed in her chair. It became clear to me that I was a good companion for her; she was more animated around me than she was with anyone else, and the weekly visits continued into my early adulthood. As a teenager I would take boyfriends over to meet her (at the care home she was later moved to) on Sundays, and we stayed fairly close until she died, suddenly of a heart attack, shortly after my son was born. She liked me; quite an achievement because she really didn’t like much in the world. Maybe because I never knew her before her depression struck, and so I accepted her as she was[jl2] , without any frustration at the loss of who she used to be, before she was hospitalised; something the rest of the family found impossible to do…
I suppose my early, instinctive counselling skills developed there. I know that if I ever managed to get Grandma talking, I felt a sense of achievement; Mum was always pleased with me, and Grandma seemed to be a little bit happier for it, so that was good, as far as I was concerned.
Throughout my teenage years, the intuitive ‘helping’ seemed to develop; I am quite introverted by nature, and come from an extremely extroverted family, full of performers and high achievers. I couldn’t compete, and really didn’t want to, in terms of attention – so I found my natural role evolved into being ‘the one on the sidelines; observing and supporting’. I became drawn to the ‘bird with the broken wing’ (as my Mum used to say)[jl3] – forming friendships with people who I felt ‘needed’ me; my best friend (who is still my best friend now) was diagnosed as bipolar in her late teens; my first serious boyfriend was a teenage alcoholic, and many of my friends at that time struggled with other issues; from domestic violence to drug abuse. I was the steady, solid, reliable (relatively) sober one; ready to ride in the ambulance with them, or accompany them to the abortion clinic, whichever was required of me; more often, simply to sit with them and just be there while they talked through their problems. I remember very consciously thinking, at the time, that the last thing these people needed was to feel judged in any way, for feeling upset about what was going on in their life, and as such I used to try not to ever interrupt or mention myself in conversations with them, intuitively understanding that they needed this time to talk about themselves and their lives.
Of course, I had my own issues at the time – but in typical ‘me’ fashion, they were buried deeply, only coming close to the surface when I reached my first ‘crisis’ point at the age of 18 whereupon failing my a-levels quite spectacularly, I owned up to the anorexia that I had been hiding for the last few years, and went into my first bout of counselling. It was just a short course; 6 weeks of what I now know to be CBT, but I was grabbed by the simplicity and common sense of this ‘therapy’. I immediately recognised that this process was close to the thing that I had been unknowingly doing for other people all my life! Not only that, but maybe I finally had an idea of what I could do with myself – all my peers seemed to have such a clear idea, and I had none whatsoever!
When I went to my careers advisor and told her what I wanted to do with my life, as you can imagine, she laughed! It probably did look quite ridiculous – a virtually embryonic, painfully thin, sick looking mess, who was quite obviously failing at life, saying ‘I think I can help other people deal with their problems’ even though I was very plainly not dealing with my own… “Most people become counsellors much later in life, after they have had a bit of experience of the world” she told me, smiling all the while. I was mortified. I recognised how I must have appeared to the woman; a young naïve looking middle class girl who couldn’t have lived much. She didn’t know that I had spent the weekend before that meeting holding her friend’s hands and talking her down through the night on a bad acid trip, petrified about calling the police or taking her to hospital, even though she was vomiting uncontrollably; or that the weekend before that, I had found myself dialling 999 after finding my boyfriend’s Dad unconscious with a bottle of whisky and a bottle of pills by his side. Who could have?
Instead, she advised me to do try something ‘similar’ – mental health nursing. The local university was offering a very good course; there was a good bursary available, so I would not be a financial burden to my parents (who were struggling at the time – my Mum’s business was in the process of being closed down), and with this being something my whole family seemed to be really keen on me doing, I found myself enrolling on the course, ready to start in the following academic year. In the meantime I upped my part time hours to full time, at the job I had held down for the last few years in my local record shop, and I set about trying to become independent from my parents – aware that I was another stress in their lives at what was already an incredibly stressful time for them anyway. I left home and took a small flat in the centre of town with my boyfriend, and enviously watched as most of my friends left town for universities around the country.
So I started the training – it wasn’t for me. I quickly realised that I was neither physically nor emotionally ready to become a nurse – and not only that; it was just not what I really wanted to do. I ended up continuing to work in retail, and life continued for me; I got married, had two children, continued to not deal with my anorexia, and continued feeling at a loss regarding my direction in life.
It wasn’t until the kids were starting at school and nursery that I decide to take action regarding my career options again, and at the ripe old age of 28, I enrolled on an introductory counselling course. My world was blown apart – this was it – I finally felt that I was good at something, and was interested in it too! I studied for a further year, and loved every moment of it, even though I quickly became aware that my husband didn’t love my being on the course in the same way that I did. Maybe it was the way my perception of the world, and everyone in it, seemed to change? Maybe it was the thought of me being unable to work, and therefore contribute significantly to the family’s finances, for another 4 years while I qualified? Maybe it made him reflect on his focus in life more? He was working at the same company he had been a part of since his teenage years, and having a young family, he felt trapped there- perhaps there was a part of him that was envious of me, having a new future open up to me, when he didn’t feel any possibility of having the same? Either way, I felt the pressure, and the guilt, and even though I enrolled on the next year of the course, I quickly dropped out; stating ‘financial’ reasons. The disappointment in me, myself, was huge.
More time passed – again, I returned to retail. I was good at it, even though I hated it, and it ‘kept the wolves from the door’ financially. After another few years, my Boss announced his retirement to the company, and approached me, wondering whether I would be interested in taking the business on? After much deliberation, I decided that I would; it seemed like the only possibility our family had for any future where we could be any better off than we had been for the last ten years, and so I did it. I reopened the shop as my own new business, taking on a team of seven.
The next few years are an exhausted blur. On to early 2010 – The shop was reasonably successful; it was hard work, but it did work. Just. The kids were coming up to ten and eleven, and the transition to secondary school was looming. Unfortunately there weren’t enough available places at the school we wanted for my daughter, and a lengthy appeal process began, with me taking on that task (as well as working full time in the shop and coping with the recession that was starting to really bite) My husband; never one that anyone could describe as ‘the cheeriest of souls’ seemed even more depressed than before; withdrawn, really, and though I didn’t want to admit it, we were over. The writing was on the wall when he began an extremely inappropriate relationship with a much, much younger member of my team at the shop. She was my friend as well as my employee, and when I found out I knew our 13 year marriage was well and truly over. He left the day after my daughter started at secondary school (which incidentally was not the one we had been appealing for).
The fallout was huge, and it was my job to handle it, and I did, for the most part. I made myself incredibly busy – a switch seemed to go in my head, when he left; I called it the ‘superwoman switch’. Suddenly I had to be not just the best single mother in the world, but the best business woman, the best friend, the life and soul of the party, the best web site designer, the best bookkeeper – you name it, I had to do it, and do it well! I suppose there an element of avoidance there. But I thought I knew what I was doing – I think I secretly liked the pain and exhaustion I was starting to feel. I was getting really thin – something I have always loved, as it made me feel that I was in control of something in my life whilst so many other things were spiralling out of my hands. The recession was getting worse, and the business was not looking as if it could stay in it’s current guise, so I took the decision to open a second shop in st albans – where my family and old friends lived, and where I knew the secondary schools were better. It was my intention to eventually close the first shop, and move me and the kids to st albans to live. I knew I was pushing my workload too far, but I went for it anyway, seeing no other way of getting the kids out of the terrible school they were stuck at, and me out of the house that had been the setting for the awful last few years of my marriage.
It was too much; the whole family cracked and fell apart. My daughter, always a Daddy’s girl, was furious with me for everything that happened. She blamed me for her father leaving; she hated the school she was in; she hated me working all the time, and it seemed to her that her father and his girlfriend (that had recently moved in with him) were having way more fun than we were, so she decided to go and live with them.
My son and I were devastated – it felt as though we had just about held it together through the last year of turmoil, but his loss was just pushing us too far. Depression engulfed everything, and to make matters worse, my body finally gave up pretending to be ok, and I collapsed with severe internal bleeding. Crohn’s disease was diagnosed shortly afterwards.
So my husband was the first to go, then my daughter, then my health, and as a result of these – the business too, I was in no fit state to run two shops, and my doctor told me so, firmly. I had to slowly de-construct. Remove all the poison from my life, and try to get back to a place I wanted to be. I closed the business, sold our house and used any money left over to pay off what I could. I had virtually nothing; just me and my son, staying in a spare room at my parent’s house.
It took me a while, but getting rid of everything and being left with nothing was what I needed in order to make me stop and reassess my life. It was, after all, MY life – even though it had not felt that way for a very long time. Slowly I started to rebuild; I found a place to live, found a good school for my son, went through the medical treatment, and focussed my energy on getting my daughter back into our family unit.
It was at this time that my family and friends approached me with the idea of returning to counselling. They knew how much I had enjoyed it before, and I think that seeing the dark place I had been in, they knew that I needed to do something; something for me. Something to give me something to do, something to give me a hope for the future, something to get me out of the house, something to keep my brain working, something that could even help me resolve some of my issues, and hopefully, something that might just help me re-engage with my life.
I was scared; I had no idea how I would finance it, but my Mother really kindly put up the money for last year’s course, and for that I am indebted. I am hoping that the government are going to help me with this year’s studies.
As for re-engaging – this is the thing I have found the hardest about training. Counselling training, as well as learning about psychological theory, is a journey of self-awareness. As you have read – my life pattern has been one of avoidance – even though I love to ‘help’ people. I am quite sure that one of the reasons I do so is to avoid dealing with my own problems. I am very good at distracting myself, and will always try to, whenever possible. During last year’s course, I managed to steer an entire month long CBT module away from myself so completely that I took no part in any personal CBT! This year I am being really, really firm with myself, and forcing myself, face on into the depths of me – hence this long, long piece, which I have struggled with writing so much. I can’t count the amount of ‘breaks’ I have taken, the ‘slamming’s down of the laptop lid in frustration, the cups of tea I have made and the cigarettes I have smoked, all to distract me from writing just this one piece! But I have done it now, and laid myself bare, for my own self-examination. How will I feel as I read this back?
Oh, and by the way, in case you are wondering my daughter came back – nearly a year ago. We are now a small, dysfunctional, family unit. Just like any other