‘No, I’m okay I think, I don’t think I need counselling. Thanks for caring enough to suggest it though. I appreciate it.’ There will be more than one person reading this who might remember me saying that to them. Others will remember me saying, ‘I’ve actually had a lot of time to process this stuff on my own and it has been good for me.’
I knew for a long time that I needed some help. I had got so caught up in my own negative thoughts that I was regularly spiralling in private. I was sure I was holding it all together in public. I was not and more and more people started to suggest I talk to someone. I eventually had a significant panic attack in a meeting and decided that enough was enough. I needed to overcome my own nervousness, embarrassment and fear, and get some help
I could not put a finger on one thing that caused the decline in my mental health and that made me nervous about calling to arrange an appointment. The reality was, my illness was down to the fact that I’d failed to process a lot of things for a long time. I had plodded on with a mix of stubbornness, denial and a stiff upper lip. Nothing ruins your mental health quite like trying to be stoic does.
The morning after that panic attack I dropped my son off at his nursery school and pulled into a car park to call the number of a counselling agency. I held my phone in my hand for 25 minutes before I called the number. I can remember sweating with nerves. It took a monumental effort to make that call. When I did eventually call, I can recall the weakness in my shaky voice as I explained why I was calling.
I am telling you this because I think that is a lot of people’s experience of seeking help with their mental health. There is a tightrope to walk between knowing you are ill and need assistance, and the fact that admitting that will make it all seem even more real, and that in itself is terrifying. In my experience of that reluctance to make the call, there was also a real sense that I might get it wrong, or I might not actually be as ill as I felt. I feared that I would lose control of the conversation and end up being forced to address things before I was ready. I found a hundred reasons to talk myself out of calling until the reason that meant I needed to make the call was getting out of hand.
Ten days later I pulled up in a different car park and walked into a waiting room. My name was called and I sat down opposite a small woman of about 50. My first thought was that she looked kind. She had a quiet voice and I was really aware that she moved very deliberately and gently. The room was plain and the seat was one of those leather tub chairs from Ikea. Her chair was different. I asked her if that was deliberate. It wasn’t, she hired the room.
I remember as I sat down I couldn’t stop thinking about Tony Soprano. I laughed to myself about the way that my mind works and then the first session started. It was nothing like I expected it to be at all.
The first five minutes were basic introductions, who I was, what I did for a living, etc. It was the type of thing you talk to someone about when you’re sitting next to them on a flight and they haven’t taken your earbuds being in as a hint. It was a very relaxed conversation.
Then, without missing a beat the counsellor asked me why I thought I should get counselling. Her voice didn’t change, her demeanour remained the same. She somehow managed to make the question as unintimidating as the previous questions had been.
‘I’m falling apart and I need help. I don’t love myself. I think I have little to offer and the things I do have to offer, I believe that nobody would ever want.’
I winced a little at my honesty. I didn’t expect to open up that quickly, so I told her that.
‘Wow. I didn’t think I’d be that open. You’re good at this,’ I said.
‘I guess you are more ready than you thought you were,’ was her reply.
Over the sessions I had in that room I talked about things I’d never talked about. I remembered the details of events that I had long forgotten but could still remember the pain of. It was good to talk. It was good to get things out of my mind that had been rattling around in there for a long time. It was liberating to acknowledge my complete lack of self-worth out loud. It felt for the first time that naming that would have no negative consequence.
At some point during the second session, I realised that I wasn’t actually having a conversation with the counsellor. I was talking to myself. She was there just to guide me as I spoke to myself about who I was, what I was afraid of and how much I was hurting. I spoke and I listened. I gave words to feelings that had never been spoken of before and as I did I came to know myself better.
I would begin to talk about something and the counsellor would wait for a natural pause and then draw me back to a phrase or sentence that I had said. She would ask me to explain what I meant, or would ask a question that caused me to think about that phrase from another angle. These questions allowed me to uncover things that I’d hidden under defence mechanisms and denial.
She didn’t once ask about my father.
I would be sent home with work to do. I have already mentioned the creation of a practice of self-affirmation. It felt so hard at first but it worked. I would be asked to consider how I could say no to things I didn’t want to and was supposed to say no to at least three things per week. I failed for two weeks in a row. I was asked to be honest with certain people about how I felt about things.
Everything I was asked to do, with the exception of the affirmation practice, felt very natural and normal to me. A lot of it was common sense advice that I had given to other people. The hard part was putting it into practice or believing that I was a person who needed to hear that advice.
At the end of each session, I would say thanks, shake her hand and go and buy a coffee to drink on the drive home. On two occasions I spilled it over my jeans.
Nothing I was asked to do was weird. I didn’t at any stage feel set upon or under pressure. I didn’t feel trapped or cornered. My greatest fears about counselling were all shown to be unnecessary fears. It was nothing like what you see on tv. It felt really normal and comfortable.
The common wisdom is that it can sometimes take a while to find a counsellor who feels like a good match for you. It is important that there is some kind of chemistry between you and your counsellor that enables that natural and free-flowing conversation to occur. I was very fortunate that the first person I spoke to I felt was really suitable. That may not happen though, you should try a few if the first one doesn’t feel like the right fit. This is common practice and counsellors will be used to it. You don’t have to worry about offending them. It would be frustrating for them if you went with them and it didn’t work because you were not the right fit.
If you’re aware that you need counselling and have fears about what it would be like, I can reassure you that it is not something to be fearful of. I am also very happy to answer any questions about this via twitter @davemagill. My DMs are always open. If talking to me about counselling puts your mind at ease just enough to go and talk to someone then I am more than happy to talk.
This is a chapter from my book The Voices That Haunt Us. It’s the story of my life with mental illness and what I’ve learned. You can find it on Amazon.