After months, maybe longer, of deteriorating mental health, I finally admitted that I needed professional help and went to see my GP. My partner came along with me, holding my hand and doing the talking as I sobbed, only managing to utter the word 'sorry' at regular intervals.
My sympathetic doctor gave me a prescription, a sick note and the details of the health authority’s self-referral psychology service – the first stop for people in the area wishing to access mental health treatment. When I rang up, I was immediately slotted in for an initial assessment; only trouble was that the appointment was in four weeks. I quickly made the difficult decision to go private in order to reduce this waiting time. I wanted to see someone within 48 hours, not 48 days. How hard could it be to find someone both suitable and available if I was willing to pay for the privilege?
It turns out very difficult indeed, and six months down the line I can see that I paid an emotional and mental price for my naivety and lack of knowledge. Unless you are professionally involved in mental health services and/or have lots of experience of therapy, how can you decide what kind of support is right for you and your situation? What will help you – and what may actually hinder? Over the months since I realised that however skilled and caring the practitioner, the wrong kind of treatment can generate as much anguish as it soothes.
The signs of how challenging finding the right therapist would be were there from the start only I chose to ignore them – or perhaps in my anguished state I didn’t actually notice them. I turned first to welldoing.org but found myself wandering aimlessly around the site. I didn’t know what kind of support I was looking for; I just wanted someone to talk to. The options that came up sounded amazing and one in particular gave me a flickering of hope. Forty miles wasn’t that far, I reasoned, before admitting to myself that the thought of driving anywhere in my current state was daunting.
While a search on the BACP webpages threw up some names that were geographically closer, selection was still tough as I had no other criteria to use. Practical considerations such as distance to travel or cost are of course important to consider yet they cannot outweigh the therapist’s specialism – a lesson I’ve learnt since.
In the end I chose a woman who had good qualifications and a picture that I liked. I secured an assessment the following day and returned the next week for my first session. From the outset, she was very clear that she was a counsellor and that alone was the model she used. There would be no homework, as in other kinds of talking therapies. I admit, ever the dutiful student, I was a little disappointed by that but I didn’t foresee that would be a problem. Actually the lack of structure and sense of process turned out to be big difficulties.
The counsellor took a Rogerian, person-centred approach, thus each session was self-directed. I would open by talking about how I was feeling at that moment and we would go from there. When the 50 minutes were up there was no pressure to book in for the following week. I always did though; I so desperately craved a space to talk through what was going on inside my mind.
I got a lot out of the appointments, and I put a lot into them too. I invested so much energy in that hour that I’d come out exhausted whatever time of day it was. Having excavated emotionally raw material from my past, I would get home overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings still to process; after one particularly gruelling session I spent the entire evening on the sofa just staring into the middle distance, not speaking.
I put this response down to the particular hurt I’d discussed but gradually began to wonder if counselling provided the right container for my needs. From my own previous experience and from talking to others, I knew counselling was great for dealing with a specific issue or trauma, offering a safe space to work through it. What I needed, however, was an arena in which to talk about my whole life as well as my particular way of seeing the world. I didn’t want to discuss one thing; I wanted to discuss everything.
My concerns were confirmed by the crisis team who visited me when my mental state went further downhill. Whilst respectful of my counsellor and her undoubted care and skill, they advised me to suspend my appointments. They felt the sessions might be turning up memories and emotions that couldn’t be sufficiently supported in a counselling context. Deep down, I knew that they were right.
Since then I’ve had further therapeutic interventions with great success, as I’ve written about on this site. Now I’m moving into the next phase, awaiting more specialised therapy (group and individual). The difference now is that I’ve made choices based on the guidance of a professional team. As individuals we may be the ultimate experts about ourselves but we are almost certainly not so knowledgeable about the therapy options available to us and the effects that these might have. As a result it is essential that we ask questions, ask advice and ask ourselves and others whether the choice we make is going to be right for us.