Journal posts 22 and 23 ( a week missed, off sick); march 11th 2013

It felt like I had been away from college for a very long time; it had been half term, and then I had been ill, so I was pleased to be back, despite not feeling quite one hundred per cent recovered. I was relieved to see everyone, and feel that they weren’t too let down by my not being there last week – everyone seemed incredibly understanding, none more so than J, our tutor, and so on check in my first tears of the day were spilled, as she made sure that I – and everyone else in the room- acknowledged just how awful the last few weeks had been for me. Oh, there is nothing like feeling a bit sorry for myself to get the waterworks flowing, and it seemed that today was going to be one of those days that examined my ‘life deficit’ in even more detail, prompting even more tears. Still, painful as it is, I am doing it, I am not shying away as I used to (although I do still try the odd trick, to get out of owning up to my upset – not because I don’t want to face it as such, but because I am embarrassed at how much crying I seem to do in our sessions). This last time last year, when we were studying our CBT module, I managed to avoid being the ‘client’ for the entire process! Nothing like that is going on any more, and I feel proud of myself that I am facing up to my stuff in a much more congruent way these day, even if I am, erm, ‘soggier’ for it…

We continued after check in with a quick recap on the work they did last week – the concept of working at ‘relational depth’ in person –centred counselling (meaning ‘A sense of connectedness and flow with another person that is so powerful that it can feel quite magical. At these times, the person feels alive, immersed in the encounter, and truly themselves while experiencing the other as open, genuine and valuing of who they are.) Developed by Dave Mearns and Mick Cooper, the idea is that the core conditions are not simply ‘tools’ that are used, that they become an integral part of the counsellor, the very principles by which we work from, enabling this work to take place at ‘relational depth’, where change can happen, where communication does not skim over the surface, but is used to facilitate movement from deep within. A hugely powerful concept, and to me, the essence of person centred counselling; something that couldn’t possibly be attained without congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathy being at its heart.  In my experience, the very best work that we do with clients is when it comes from the soul, and to touch someone’s soul, requires you to access your own. To me, it is reminiscent of those late night chats with your best friend, after a bottle or two of wine, where the real truth is revealed and dissected; pored over and pounded. We counsellors want the conversation to reach that level (but in a clear headed state, where the content can be remembered the next day!) Clients interviewed after  reporting back as having achieved this, have said they felt it was; Empowering and useful as a catalyst for change, that it lessened painful feelings; that there was a positive effect on the therapeutic process, a deepening and  equalisation of the relationship, greater trust in their therapist, and that they were more able to vocalise their innermost thoughts and feelings;  that from that they gained a sense of connectedness to their own selves, greater self-knowledge and understanding and acceptance and that with that they felt more able and powerful to move on and break their patterns of thinking, and enjoy better relationships with others.

Powerful stuff. This led on to this week’s subject – ‘the divided self’; the idea of sub-personalities, as written about by John Rowan (‘Discover your Sub Personalities’; 1993, Routledge, London). Immediately, this sounded very Jungian to me – akin to ‘personas’ and ‘archetypes’. Sub –personalities are pieces of the whole of the overall personality, which have a life of their own, beliefs, thoughts, feelings, intentions and agendas. There’s the rebel and the martyr, the seducer and the saboteur, the judge and the critic and a host of others, each with its own mythology, all co-existing within a person.  Counsellors must recognise these facets within both us and our clients, and understand that one of them has a story to tell. Each one views the world differently. Each one interprets the events of life differently. Which ones control behaviour, thinking, and choices? Attention needs to focus on those that constantly provoke, react and attack. They are hurt and angry, wounded and in need of healing, if there is to be any inner harmony.

This was both incredibly hard and incredibly easy for me to get my head around, simultaneously.  I am bipolar; I naturally exist in extremes – I am very well aware of the inner conflicts within me. I got the concept in a heartbeat, but when we went on to do a survey that measured our sense of self, in terms of pluralism, my results came out completely opposing everyone else’s in the room, and that made me extremely upset! For a bipolar person to be okay with themselves, they have to be comfortable with that level of multiplicity operating within – it is all right, they are all a part of me, and coexist within me; I have to accept myself as being multiple and opposing at times. It doesn’t mean I don’t know who I am – quite the opposite; I know exactly who I am, a person who exists in extremes (when not properly medicated, anyway).

We were asked to identify five inner sub personalities, and share them with the class – I couldn’t possibly get it down to less than eight (I could have named hundreds) they were; dreamer, healer, vulnerable child, perfectionist, muse, clown, explorer and rebel. I would say that these are the main ego states I flit between. I could go on to describe how, but it would take all day, and may well be enough for a book, not a journal entry!

The morning ended with a creative realisation, where were asked to firstly focus on a part of our body, then to associate a symbol with that part of the body, then to full imagine that symbol as being alive and real, and to have a conversation with it. Here is what I managed to remember and jot down of mine;

(I had focussed on my stomach and imagined a warm, soft, red heart.)

Me; Love, how do I feel about you? You have deserted me.

Heart; No, I haven’t – you have love all around you, Ungrateful Girl – your family, your friends…

Me; But I want more than that. I want romance, to feel safe, protected and warm, again

Heart; Maybe you could have these things if you made yourself open to them, and ready.

Me; I can’t do that, I got too damaged before. When I lost you before, and lost my family along with you, I broke beyond repair.

Heart; you’ll never be like you were before again, but you can still be ready for me.

Me; How? What do I need to do?

Heart; Take risks again…

 

Wow! Yet more powerful stuff, and more tears. It was lunch time straight after that, and I needed the break. I felt exhausted and a bit ill again – probably from the strain of it. I can’t remember a morning where I had been more present and focussed, for ages…

We watched another skills video after lunch, filling me with more dread about showing mine next week, and then it was the process group; lovely process group. Actually, this week wasn’t so bad. I was really trying hard to be attentive and alert, but as often does happen, the conversation at points drifted into boring drivel. When it was alive though, it was really honest, brutal and raw – and it was  for these moments that I tried to stay with it ( the trouble is with my brain, particularly after a bout of illness, and some  new mind meds that are still settling, it goes off, and it takes all my energy to bring it back, to re-engage with myself, let alone those around me, at times), and so I tried my best to participate with the others, experience them fully. I found myself pulling them back to the here and now at various times – there was much anxiety about the future being talked about; about the exam, about next year, about completing this year and where it will take us, how we will manage. I couldn’t handle it; I was going there too if I wasn’t careful, so I kept  on bringing it back with, “but we’re here, now..,” and “what would you say to a client who told you that?” and it felt pretty good to do that. It was exactly what I would do when working with a client (and probably in my outside relationships too).  I chose not to share in the anxiety though, I didn’t want to, not just to show empathy – I mean of course, I do have fears about these things, but to actually try to empathise, more than I already do, could definitely push me over the edge into anxiety, and mania, somewhere I can easily end up anyway, without taking silly risks that I know could take me to that place!

The final part of the day, the supervision section, another part I often struggle to make it through –often being quite emotionally exhausted by that time of day – was another very conscious effort from me to stay alert and participate fully. A fellow student was sharing his experience of counselling in a drop in centre; his frustration when a client didn’t turn up, and his struggle to keep boundaries in place with a centre that is new to having counsellors working there. I have first-hand experiences of these issues, and through being thrown in at the deep end somewhat, have learnt some valuable lessons and strategies that could be useful to him, so I tried to share them with him. I think he took them on board; I was very aware that he was feeling quite defensive about it – again, just as I had during my first group supervision session, and so I tried to be sensitive, yet constructive with him by offering him suggestions of techniques that have worked for me and sympathy to his situation. (Normative and restorative, perhaps?) I hope he was okay with it; I think he was.

So, to finish the day off, a quick run through of the last essay we had to do, with a fellow group member who feels she is struggling academically at the moment. I told her “I am no expert but I can show you how I went about it,” and she seemed to be appreciative of that. It made me feel good to try to help. My inner healer, rising up again for fulfilment…

 

journal post 17; monday 21st january 2013

Today was a snow day. The weather had turned, the schools were shut, it was impossible to get cars moving out of the side roads, and so I reluctantly had to accept that I would not be attending college on this day. To be truthful, to have an enforced day of rest was probably a bit of a blessing. I was quite exhausted, having spent a busy week getting my new counselling placement organised.

I am very pleased to say that I have committed to working two days a week at a Young Person’s hostel –  assisting clients aged between 16 and 25 by providing them with accommodation, and expecting them to participate with the helping services provided within the building, of which there all sorts of activities and support available – counselling being one of them. These kids present with many different situations; there are young mothers living there, ex-offenders, drug users, orphans,  victims of dysfunctional families and abuse, mental illnesses and learning disabilities, to name a few of the obstacles up against these clients. I think the only assumption it would be fair to make about the work will be that no two days will ever be the same!

On my initial meeting with the service manager , I was immediately grabbed by the challenge of the work, and very pleasantly surprised at how well we seemed to ‘click’ and understand what our task together was going to be in this capacity. I suppose you could say, we straightaway realised that we were reading from the same page! He is also a trained counsellor, and firmly believes  that the key to success in the work of the hostel is by dealing with the mental health of the clients – the trouble that he has had in the past, though, when trying to provide counselling services, is that of engaging the client. He currently has two other counsellors working there, also on placements, who are working to a traditional counselling model – one of pre-agreed contracts, firm boundaries regarding venues, times of sessions and durations, and both have reported back with frustrations about the clients not sticking to the contracted arrangements; taking mobile phones into sessions, arriving late – if at all, not engaging with process generally. Carl Rogers stated that in order for any counselling to be successful the client must be in psychological contact with the therapist; put simply, these clients are not!

T (the manager) and I discussed how we felt the service needed an ‘in-between counselling service’; one where the clients could be gently acclimatised to the process involved. With these clients, some  have never experienced any real kind of boundaries in their lives so far, for one reason or another – they kick against rules purposely and instinctively. For most of them this is their first home of their own, and they are testing out what that freedom means to them; many don’t get out of bed till late, many struggle with working or attending college, with paying their bills, and the day to day drama that being any adolescent involves, let alone a traumatised adolescent (which of course, most of these clients are – how they came to be living at the hostel).

Ellen Noonan’s book ‘counselling young people’ (Routledge, London) which, although drawing heavily on the ideas of Klein and Winnicott, also puts forward the idea that adolescence can be seen as a period of mourning – an extended grief, made more complicated by fluctuating hormone levels and the fact that there seems to be nothing tangible on which to base the focus of the feeling of loss. Even in a non- traumatised young person (and the people surrounding), there is a natural denial (the 1st stage of grief, in the Kubler-Ross model, as we all know) that the end of childhood is something to be mourned. Anger, bargaining, and depression are common reactions to be seen in young people as they go through this; they are forced into change and growth, often against their will, and the lack of control they experience will often push them into a mind-set and behaviour that appears confusing and unfathomable to those around them, often leading to even more problems than they began with.

If you consider this myriad of trauma which presents to every teenager, even those with the most ‘normal’ and ‘understanding’ of upbringings – consider how very hard it must be to be facing this when coming from a ‘dysfunctional’ background; coming out of care, being kicked out of the family home because Mum has a new boyfriend (horrific I know, but it happens),  perhaps a strict religious family that can’t cope with the teen’s newly discovered homosexuality, or as already mentioned – drug abuse, alcoholism, the list goes on and on… These kids really, really need the psychological support that counselling can offer them – sometimes the ones that can’t stick to the terms of the counselling agreement are the ones that may even need it the most – and my discussion with T was about how the service needs to be made more flexible, in order to give these kids a chance to make use of it.

We agreed on a strategy, which is perhaps a little unorthodox, in terms of the traditional counselling placement, where I will set up a new ‘drop in’ counselling service; a clinic type operation, advertising my availability between certain hours on certain days, and inviting clients to book time with me as and when they feel they are in need and/or able to attend. In order to promote this service, and really let the clients know what counselling is for, and about, I will try to get to know the clients a little better; perhaps knocking on their flat doors and introducing myself, asking questions where I try to ascertain what kind of counselling service would suit them – would they like me to come to them? Does the thought of a whole hour seem daunting? Is the idea of sitting in a room with ‘what is essentially a stranger’ to begin with seem frightening? How can I bridge the gap between these kid’s lives and the traditional counselling format? Once I have feedback, T and I can design a counselling service that serves the clients more effectively.

Exciting? Hell yeah! I was itching to get cracking straightaway, and did so, with amazing results almost immediately! I can’t express how happy I am with how the placement is working out; the clients are fabulous, the rest of the staff support team are fabulous too, and I feel completely at home there already; totally valued, totally respected and a real sense of validation from the work that I have done there already. There have been learning curves (don’t expect too much in the way of non-pre-arranged client contact before midday – they are all still in bed!) But overall, the response to the service I am offering has been positive, and in only a few weeks of being there I have already completed many valuable counselling hours.

So as you can see, although the Monday college session was missed this week, there has still been lots and lots of hard work going on – and so much learning, and joy gained from this learning, too! The pleasure of being taken out of my own head, and into someone else’s for a few hours during the day, has been phenomenal!  I have loved the work, really REALLY, loved it; Affirmation that despite all of doubts in my own abilities, I think I have made the right choice in this path. I really do.

Journal no 12; 6th December 2012

Check in today was very emotional. Only a few of us had made it in again, and it triggered feelings of anger and resentment that I have already mentioned were present a few weeks ago. Whether it was because there were so few of us and the room felt more intimate or the fact that it was just the time for it to come out, there was a lot of upset and frustration erupting first thing. Again; not mine.

Whereas the other group members were feeling anxious and worried about the general workload, and this was fuelling their feelings of rage toward the others who once again had not made it in, I was not sharing this feeling; This year, I have made it my priority to be up to date on my written work, as last year I fell behind and this caused me huge anxiety. Not that I am in any way smug – I am behind on my placement hours, as the counselling placement that I had originally planned fell through, and I know that I am going to have to probably take on 2 placements (more if I can) in order to make up the required hours. This is a huge worry to me. But it did mean that, although empathic to their situation, I did not share it. Instead I was in my own little world, getting nervous about a placement interview, that I was going to that afternoon.

In fact, because of the interview, I had to leave the workshop early, and only managed to take part in one exercise before my departure; a self-study on how we all cope with crisis in our own life. We were asked to think about how our capacity for coping was affected – our capabilities in  decision making, taking care of ourselves, controlling our emotions and thinking straight – how we got through the crisis; what helped? Our own personal resources that we drew on, and finally what the crisis has taught us about ourselves. How have we changed as a result?

I had to leave before we had a chance to talk through it all together, but I spent most of the car journey to London thinking about it (mainly to keep my mind off being nervous, to be honest). In light of the tearful check in, the theme for the day had become one of ‘self care’; understanding our own limits, how important it is for us as counsellors to know when or if we are approaching a crisis moment. Burn out is a very common issue for many in this industry, and the BACP make it clear in their ethical guidelines that a counsellor has a duty of care to the self as much as to the client. After all, if the crisis point were to be reached, clients would end up being let down as well as the self, and that would result in double the fallout.

I feel that I have only very recently brought myself back from the brink of a precipice as far as anxiety fuelled meltdowns go. In fact, just a couple of journals back, I probably sounded quite manic and perhaps even a bit unhinged with it. All it takes, when one is carefully balancing all of their balls in the air (as we all do in life), is for one or two to suddenly get a bit out of synch with the others and before we know it, things are unmanageable all of a sudden. This is a very useful lesson for the counsellor to remember; if necessary, juggle with fewer balls until you are fully confident that ones in the air are bouncing in a good, strong rhythm – do what it takes to keep the rhythm steady, for the fallout when they have all been dropped is greater than losing one or two; As counsellors we are in a position of great responsibility and pressure at times; we have to take that seriously and safeguard ourselves and our clients.

Ironically, my major crisis point in my life (the big one, that I had been thinking about when doing the exercise, not my mini meltdown last week) was the turning point for me that put me back on the road to becoming a counsellor; it took a dramatic turn of events to make me stop and re-evaluate what my existential values really were. What was important to me? What did I need? What could I not survive without, and what sort of life did I want to live, bearing these factors in mind. The upshot was that I closed down a previous chapter of my life, and gave myself a period of enforced rest, before embarking on the next chapter; This one(this links well to the next exercise that I know the others did that afternoon – a ‘road map’ of their lives so far, tracking the decisions they have made so far, and where they could have gone instead, had they chosen a different pathway)

On reflection, even though I probably hadn’t fully processed and dealt with my crisis when I jumped back on to the ‘counselling train’, I can wholeheartedly say that it has been the focus of the course, the therapy that runs alongside it, the self- awareness and reflection that it has brought with it that has got me through and helped me to deal with my traumas. Of course, I know I am not fully there yet, but I know that I am a different person because of these events and this course of action that I have chosen to take,  to deal with them.

I just hope that the interviewers I met with on that afternoon saw all of the learning that has gone on within me, and judge me to me capable of helping others, as I have been helped by this process.  I feel that I have come such a long way on the journey, I don’t want to stop, or lose my pace! Fingers crossed…