If you’ve watched Series 2 of After Life lately, you may have an idea of what counselling is like. Thankfully it’s definitely a comedic take, excruciating to watch and unbelievably unprofessional, which makes it utterly hilarious. And I can’t say I found my counselling that hilarious, awkward or unprofessional – thankfully.
There is a boldness to the men opening up and speaking about their real lives, because talking and opening up to someone you don’t know, about some very deeply felt personal pain, is not easy – even when you like talking as much as I do. A common misconception is that counselling is just about talking – and yes, in part, it is. But it’s also so much more than that, which is where After Life’s counsellor fails quite spectacularly. So if you don’t like the thought of talking deeply to a stranger and worry the counsellor might give you bizarre advice and tell you their own problems, read on, I promise that’s not what a good one is like!
One of the hardships of divorce (and of course there are many) is that loss of a companion. The irony is that they are the one person whom you most want to talk to, and the one you are least able to. I was, as everyone ideally is, married to my very best friend – it seems strange to say that now as we’re total strangers, but back then it was true. So when that best friend and I split up, I didn’t just lose a husband. I lost my confidante, the one who understood me with a look, and who could unravel an entire back story behind a word or half finished sentence. Perhaps you find when you talk, they don’t say what your heart yearns for them to say, or they listen but disregard your emotions and utterances to focus on their own happiness. Where there was once understanding, intuition and compassion, the conversation just doesn’t quite fit as it used to.
So when we separated, I decided to get counselling. This wasn’t the first time – I had also had counselling at college, working through the death of a close and much loved relative and coping with a sense of failure.
This time around, I decided to get counselling for a few reasons:
- I wanted to emerge from this process healthier than I went in, regardless of what the outcome ended up being, and I thought counselling might help.
- I wanted help to see the way forward and to work through the many issues that were cropping up.
- I didn’t want to bore all my friends all the time with all my problems: maybe that wasn’t how they felt, but I was acutely aware of this.
My desire to not bore my friends over the continual angst and anguish of my heart, meant I felt counselling was worth investing in. I was paying someone to listen. People would have happily listened for free at length, and did, but I felt justifiably able to talk for so long, entirely about myself and my problems, when I was paying someone to sit with me. Counselling can be expensive but I chose to see it as an investment in my mental health. I was fortunate that I could afford it (although I checked with my ex to ensure the joint account was happy to fund £60+ sessions). There are also places to go to get counselling for free (such as your GP), or at a subsidised rate (often provided through places like churches, although there is no requirement to be a Christian). The cost/benefit analysis I conducted meant it was worth the sacrifice for the convenience and help.
It made sense because I knew that however I was going to emerge, in whichever direction that happened to be, I wanted and needed that to be as a healthier me, rather than one crippled by the variety of problems and issues that the situation threw at me. This is not to say I am now a 100% sorted individual! I’ve returned to talking therapies, as my local authority calls it, for post-natal support. Some of the styles of support I found didn’t work for me in the context so I took the bold step of asking for different support. Sometimes it has required tenacity simply to get hold of it, and major frustration when I just wanted someone to talk to, and it’s really difficult when you feel like you’re sinking, but it’s worth pushing on for the support.
I chose to have Christian counselling to enable me to talking freely about my faith which lead to my counsellor being someone who knew my family. I would not say this made it easier. In fact, I think not knowing the person at all and being able to be totally anonymous and therefore say whatever you want and need to is infinitely preferable. Even with a slight knowledge of one another from the past, the counsellor did not know the current me. Truth be told, I barely felt I did. In the same way as with a friendship, we both had to invest time in making this relationship work, formalised though it was. This is a good reason to give counselling a few sessions before making a decision about whether to continue. As we got to know one another a little more (or she got to know me a lot more), I was able to open up more, helping me to gain significantly in each session as she was able to draw on things I’ve said before.
I ended up meeting the counsellor in my own home, because, frankly, I was too chicken to go into town to their office in case I bumped into someone I knew. I will never know whether the familiar surroundings made it easier or harder to talk – it certainly made it easier to kick off my shoes and curl up on the sofa, but perhaps the neutral space would have given me space to offload in a different way.
You get as much out of counselling as you put in. I believe if you’re willing to share willing to share thoughts, events and emotions, you come away with infinitely more. While talking is important to share these things, counsellors can hold a mirror up to your way of thinking about those scenarios, which may be painful but can also be hugely enlightening. It encourages you to think about new questions and ways of looking at situations. It can challenge your assumptions and world views you didn’t realise you had. It can give you strategies for thinking about and approaching emotions and situations that you might otherwise not have experienced.
There is often a fear that counsellors will judge you, but that’s not at all true in my experience. These people became counsellors to help people see their way forward, not to critique life decisions. They might challenge you on why you make a particular choice, but this is to encourage you to think it through, rather than to condemn your decision making. You will probably feel quite, or even very, exposed, but then being exposed making those decisions with a wise and trained ear is maybe better than a rash choice made alone at two o’clock in the morning, exposed to Facebook.
Did I cry? Yes, but it’s not compulsory. I just happen to have a desire to cry when faced with emotion.
Did I sometimes hold things back? Yep, I just pondered them alone when I reflected on their questions. I’m not recommending this, but I definitely did it.
Did I talk about things I thought I’d never talk about with anyone? Also yes, and now I talk about them much more with closest friends.
If you’re looking for someone to give you the answers, I would suggest that counselling isn’t it. If you want to be gently challenged and begin to think things through for yourself, then invest. If you need to not feel like you’re boring your friends, invest. You don’t have to be Shakespeare, or an eloquent speaker, you don’t even have to like talking – just open up about one thing you don’t mind talking about so much, and see where the conversation takes you…