I am often asked “What is counselling like?”, and my answers often seem inadequate in giving a true sense of what an incredible journey counselling can be.
Here is a piece written by someone taking that journey. Let’s call her Sarah (all names and places have been changed to protect anonymity and this is reproduced with ‘Sarah’s’ consent). Sarah came to counselling after the death of her father. This was written just before our second to last session, after a year of therapy.
A Year in Therapy
With the fish held firmly in one hand,
Take hold of the spine and pull.
The skeleton will come away
And the fish will be turned inside out.
I don’t really want to go.
Scared, scared of strangers.
Don’t want to be known.
I don’t deserve help. Other people have it worse than me.
The Doctor said so. He knows what’s best.
Face said it all, “I have just had a breakdown at work,” the words unsaid, superfluous.
He: “Would you like time off?”
(Says The Goblin, “you are using your father’s death as an excuse to doss work. Wicked girl.”)
He: “I am signing you off. And you ought to self-refer for counselling.”
Leave it to The Automaton.
Google maps, calculate walking time,
I’m going, even if I pretend otherwise.
January sunshine – my favourite
High Holborn: sharp corners, sharp colours
Chancery Lane: seedy, dirty, bleached bright.
Grays Inn Road: Book Shop (familiar), a shop selling mirrors: some are out on the street.
Ugh, is that what I look like when I am not paying attention?
Bloomsbury: Regency garden squares, lovely in the January light.
A grand Catholic church, columns and steps.
Cold fingers shake, light a candle, touch base.
Three candles, I decide.
14:55 sharp, leave the church and present myself
Downstairs and round
Ring the intercom, stare at the floor. Nerves.
You: “You must be Sarah,” and a broad, open smile.
I suppose I must be
Though The Impostor accuses me, “there’s nothing wrong with you, go home.”
The Automaton smiles back and nods.
You: “Wait through there a minute, I’ll come and get you.”
Perch. Observe children’s toys, boxes of tissues, lever arch files.
You: “Would you like to come through?”
I: “Thank you. Where should I sit?”
You: “Just as you like.”
And so it begins.
I am the fish. Innards flipped outwards by your gentle prodding.
You touch something, a thread, a string
And something moves a very long way away.
At first I recoil, unused to feeling fresh air on that memory, that thing, that bit of me.
I am de-boned, seen, known, inside out
All roads, it seems, lead to grief. Spread out through the capillaries of my fabric - nothing is unaffected.
Catharsis is a while in coming: first you have to break my head open.
Like a walnut, unyielding, hardened by unresolved grief and not wishing to be known, all that suppressed emotion.
Get over the guilt – I am allowed to be here. I do need this help.
Get over the block. You: “Do you think I’ll judge you if you speak in monosyllables?”
Get over the fear: If I start crying I will never stop.
Recognise The Impostor, The Goblin, The Automaton. See them.
I wonder what you see.
A person in need of help?
You see everything of course. Compulsively picking my nails, wringing my hands. Tense.
You see when I can’t meet your gaze. Not just away but averted, evasive.
I don’t mean to be.
A month, six weeks, roundabout,
I’m not reticent any more – I look forward to our sessions.
Thursdays, my routine. Drop everything, church, three candles, 14:55 sharp, present self.
Offer you things to look at, threads to pull.
You have found my buttons, my triggers.
Now, like lavatory paper kicked down a hallway, everything unspools, uncontrolled.
"Over there," I feel like you're saying, "you know the answer already, maybe look in that direction."
Gentle kick, back out of the door, brain food for my walk home.
Notebook, don't forget the notebook. Write it down.
I am a tree.
When great-aunt Catherine died
An extreme prune – not pleasant
But part of the natural order of things. I was still tree-shaped.
Likewise my old Nan, "happy as a pig in shit sweetheart," she said from what she knew was her death bed.
When Scott died a large healthy branch was ripped off. Now the place where the branch used to be is scabbed and scarred, and I picked it, didn’t let it heal.
Daddy’s branch is the biggest and heaviest. It fell with a crash and the wound in my trunk is smarting, there he lies next to me, shocking, visible, taunting, still in full leaf but beginning to wilt.
I will heal. I am still a tree. But that bit will always be delicate, sore, scarred.
What I didn’t realise … when Derek died, it was like
When Daddy ran over a medlar sapling with the ride-on lawnmower.
We stood it up, bandaged it with anti-bacterial rooting powder, and it survived, albeit with a somewhat twisted trunk.
Sudden, early, violent deaths … they batter and damage the tree though it survives and is recognisable.
Embrace the twist - you're allowed it.
I have a well
Daddy has died. That much is apparent, though it still surprises me every day.
Our family is half-decapitated – the absence is almost a presence: is that what a ghost is?
The gap he has left is a huge hole. An abyss.
Don’t fall in.
Instead, build a wall around it, make a wishing well, make a feature of it.
Go to the well, make it a place to be, to contemplate, commune, complain.
Draw from the well. What would Daddy do?
Leave the well sometimes. It’s ok.
I'm glad you're a nice person - imagine
What a horrible person could do to an inside-out fish.
In fact, sometimes I'm not sure you're real -
Child-like, stripped down and opened up, I imagine
That you're like a music teacher:
You exist only in this room, for my benefit,
Like the people in the telly who come alive when you switch it on.
Seeing you in Tesco's would blow my little mind.
Remember, also, how I've developed a taste for pain.
Forged by hot teenage tears and tantrums
I took my shame and anger out on myself, "so as not to harm others." Though, of course, I managed that as well.
Now I don't self harm any more, I just get tattoos.
And write and draw
And now, I go to counselling.
Groping for words is painful.
Good pain. I'll keep it. Use it in the future, when
You, the teacher, are no longer there reminding me.
Demonstrably feeling my struggle - reflecting it even. See: it IS real.
Keep many things.
Things you've said, instructions you've dispensed,
"You’re allowed to enjoy your memories."
"You're allowed to be happy."
"That sounds difficult."
"It's ok not to be ok."
"There is no right way."
Now, as predicted, two weeks to go
Denied the end of the road till now. Can't see it: not there.
Or am I better, just don't want to be?
In any case, it's ok.