Suzanne Foster Counselling Counsellor for Battersea, Clapham & Balham

April blog

'I sat in the waiting room, fidgeting, trying not to succumb to the urge to just leave'

Three years ago, I would have laughed at the idea of seeing a therapist, psychologist, counsellor, whatever. What do they know about me? What do they know about what I am going through? What do they know about the pressures I'm feeling in my life?

They're nothing like me. They're not an accountant. They're not a company director. They don't work in a corporate environment. They don't have to deal with private equity models or complex legal documents. They're not a man! (Yes, I thought like this at the time.)

How are they going to be able to help me when they know nothing? I write this now after this exact same conversation with a close friend this morning. Only this time, I was the one advocating that they should speak to someone.

So, did it change my life? I don't know. Did it change my perspective? Without a shadow of a doubt. Three years ago, I was struggling, I didn't want to admit it at the time, but I was. It was a midlife, mid-career, middling existence that I wasn't happy with but wouldn't admit. My marriage - failing without me realising. My career - floundering without me caring. My friendships - falling apart without me being present.

I didn't know what to do and I was scared. I needed to talk to someone but I didn't know where to turn. Talking to people had always helped me to understand, rationalise and accept things previously. Everyone around me was too close, too distant or too distracted. There was seemingly nowhere to turn.

So, I turned to the internet, I searched online in a counselling directory to find someone, anyone, with whom I could talk. I specifically searched for someone who didn't have CBT listed on their profile. I had some CBT previously and it just frustrated the hell out of me. If I could change my response to a stimulus, I would have already done it or at least tried!

I came across someone, a complete stranger. I sent them an email asking to meet and they agreed without hesitation. Awfully trusting. Probably going to be a waste of money and I would be no better off at the end. Why am I even doing this?

Then the fear. I'll turn up, I'll sit down. They'll ask some really probing questions. I'll feel really uncomfortable. Then they'll tell me it's all 'daddy issues'. (Which it is, but that's anoher story entirely...).

I was sweating and nervous. I sat in the waiting room, fidgeting, trying not to succumb to the urge to just leave. And then a complete stranger invited me into a room and asked how I was feeling. Three years later my therapist, my friend (I don't even know if I can say that, but it's what I feel now), still invites me into that same reoom every Friday morning and still asks how I am feeling. It has beome the hour I look forward to most every week.

During one of my first sessions, my therapist said something that will always stick with me. I've passed it on to everyone I've ever spoken to about therapy and to everyone who is even remotely curious. Many people see requiring a therapist is a weakness; that they're not 'man enough' to tough it out. Maybe even that they're a complete and disastrous failure. It's certainly what I thought walking into that room for the first time.

But my therapist pointed out that I had walked into a room and asked a stranger for help. That shows that you have accepted weakness in yourself, embraced your vulnerability and shared it with someone else.

That is bravery, that is confidence, and that is strength. And that is why I will advocate forever that everyone should speak to someone.

Andy Stalker is a chartered accountant and finance director for a tech start-up. His first book, 'Life is a Four-letter Word: a mental health survival guide for professionals (Practical Inspiration Publishing) is out on 14 May. Article published in Therapy Today; April 2020; Vo. 31; Issue 3.

March blog

Sometimes I wouldn't even remember what we'd said, but I started to take notice of how I felt - to name and own my feelings, rather than denying them'

I was taking my turn at answering the phone for my local lesbian network. The call I most remember was from a local psychotherapist, ringing on behalf of a woman who had been referred to her. This woman had kept her sexual orientation hidden for many years and now wanted to break her silence, but was deeply troubled about doing so. 'I've spoken to her,' said the caller, 'and I don't think she needs therapy at all. What she needs is the company of like-minded women. Can you help?

I was impressed by a therapist who might so wisely and generously turn away a potential client, and the call stayed in my mind.

That was the summer my life fell to pieces. My long-term relationship ended suddenly. I hadn't seen it coming and was devastated. Shock, humiliation and grief morphed into a long period of reactive depression. I was 60; I'd already survived bereavements, career reversals and life-threatening illnesses. I thought of myself as emotionally robust, a person who helped others rather than needing help myself. But this was unlike anything I'd experienced before. The remote hamlet we'd chosen as our retirement haven wasn't a helpful place to be living alone for the first time in my life. Days went past without human contact. After six months, I realised that I was not going to get better on my own.

I started by looking for LGBTQ counsellors, convinced that I couldn't share my feelings with anyone outside that community, but they were all too far away. Then I remembered the therapist who had called the helpline and, after days of hesitation, rang her. She invited me to a 'no commitment' first meeting and, one wild February evening, I set out on the hour-long drive through dark country lanes to her house. I got lost, wept, asked the way from a man on a tractor, and eventually found myself in a bright, calm room with the stranger who was going to save my life.

At the beginning of our relationship, I was incoherent and she was just immensely kind. I had no idea what was happening in our weekly sessions except that someone was holding me safely in what had become an unsafe world. As I began to understand the process, I could usually come to a session with something to work on. We didn't always stick to it, but it gave me the sense that I had some agency in my own recovery. I also began to understand that I wouldn't know immediately what we had done or achieved; sometimes I wouldn't even remember what we'd said, but I started to take notice of how I felt - to name and own my feelings, rather than denying them.

My therapist wasn't gay but, of course, that didn't matter at all in the end. She was a woman and she was roughly my age - I hadn't expected that to turn out to be really important. Women in my generation were brought up to consider everyone else but themselves; to put their own needs last. She understood that from the inside. Slowly she encouraged me to consider my own needs and to care to my broken self as I would care for others.

As I began to rebuild my life, I learned to look forward to those long drives - the landscape of the journey became part of my healing - and to the sometimes-challenging conversations that kept me on track. It was two years before she said, 'I think we have done what you came here for.' We decided that we would continue to meet, but less often; a kind of maintenance service rather than an emergency treatment. And that went on until I moved to the other end of the country. Otherwise, I think, I would probably still be seeing her.

That first experience of therapy was entirely positive - so much so that, years later, it encouraged me to look for talking therapy again, to tackle a specific problem. I feel immensely fortunate to have found such a wise and kind mentor.

Extract from article first published in Therapy Today: March 2020; Volume 31, Issue 2. The author, Jane Traies, is a writer, researcher and storyteller who for the past decade has been recording the experiences of the oldest generations of lesbians in the UK. Some of these stories feature in her book 'Now You See Me' (Tollington Press, 2018).

February blog

'Counselling didn't cure me of my personal demons, but it did give me the tools to work through the obstacles in my way'

Asking for and relying on anybody's help has never come easy to me. Incongruence has a price. I had kept a debilitating secret for more than 30 years. I was consumed with a fear of what could happen during counselling and embarrassed by the fact that I needed the help in the first place. I was afraid that counselling would not work. I was afraid of the pain I felt and of releasing it, but I also had huge trust issues. I have always carried the shame of what happened to me but longed to be fixed and really thought it was possible.

The relationship with my counsellor was key. Counselling helped by enabling me to unlock the silence at my own pace. I was heard and believed. I was able to be myself without fear of judgment. I didn't have to pretend. In that space, I was nobody's mum, wife or friend. I could be me. I was able to share things I thought would be unbearable for another person to hear. My counsellor never once made me feel uncomfortable.

During counselling, I realised I had developed several coping mechanisms over the past 30 years. I had separated out the various roles I played, and I put on different heads to switch between each role and to keep each contained. I could be physically in the room but emotionally completely disconnectedd and distant. These strategies helped me to survive, but changing heads was tiring and less effective than I thought. Being disconnected meant I could keep all the roles separate, but counselling helped me see that what I really needed was to be one connected, joined-up person, with a choice.

Counselling helped me to become that functioning person. There will always be triggers and things that knock me off balance, but my reaction is different now. For me, there is no such thing as 'recovered' and 'healing'. Counselling didn't cure me of my personal demons, but it did give me the tools to work through the obstacles in my way. More of me has become available to my family. I no longer use what happened to me as a frame of reference in my life. There have been enormous changes in how I cope wth daily life - real, lasting benefits that I've been able to continue after counselling. I have learnt that coping strategies I evolved during childhood are no longer necessary now I'm an adult. I am now able to look after myself and practise good self-care. I have been able to turn overwhelmingly negative thoughts and feelings completely around. I have learnt to take time out for myself, to relax, be part of the present and not to feel guilty about that.

Through the counselling service I attended, I also had the opportunity to be involved in the research and interviewing process for a diploma in counselling for trauma they were developing for counsellors on working with adult survivors of sexual violence. It was a really useful and fulfilling experience. It gave me a sense of empowerment, positivity and belonging and boosted my self-regard. My past has defined me for many years, but now I feel like I'm worth something: I feel valued for who I am.

Counselling has shown me who I really am. I am proud of me - I often catch myself smiling. I will always be grateful for all the that counselling service gave me. It was a hand to hold at one of the darkest times of my life. I have been able to calm the inner turmoil and find strength to keep moving forward. I am able to stand on my own two feet and feel alive again. I am now living.

The author wishes to remain anonymous. She was a client of New Pathways in Wales.
First published in Therapy Today, February 2020:Volume 31: Issue 1.

December blog

'Working at the hospice helped me to come to terms with my partner's diagnosis more quickly that I would have done without it'

I still remember the day it happened as clearly as if it were yesterday. My partner called me at work to tell me that he'd just been diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia.

I knew that he'd been for blood tests - he'd bee feeling exhausted and having migraines for several months, but I never dreamed that, at 37, he'd be diagnosed with cancer. He was too young. We were too early in our relationship for this to happen. I battled with a lot of feelings in those early stages, including shock, sadness and huge waves of anger about how unfair it seemed.

At the time of the diagnosis, I had just been for an interview for a counselling position at the hospice. Even though my partner's treatment wasn't going to be palliative, I knew that I would be working with people in the hospice who were at palliative stages with their illnesses, and I wondered if I would be able to separate my 'stuff' from that of my clients. I felt in a real dilemma when I was offered the job. Would I really be able to support palliative clients when my partner and I were going through so much in our personal lives?

I felt passionately that I wanted to work at the hospice. I'd done my counsellor training placement at a different hospice, working with bereaved clients, and I'd continued to volunteer there for a few years.

I spoke to my supervisor about my dilemma and whether I would be able to meet the needs of my clients, given my personal situation. I also told my would-be manager about my partner's recent diagnosis. They were not concerned from their own point of view: there would be a two-month induction phase to the new job where I wouldn't be required to see clients anyway. Personally, after the initial shock we understood his condition was very treatable and I felt myself beginning to stabilise emotionally. This window of time before seeing clients and my discussions with my supervisor helped me decide that I would start the job and see how I got on within the hospice environment.

Looking back now, I'm sure some could argue that I wasn't working to BACP's guidelines on self-care by immersing myself in ill health all the time. But I feel that working at the hospice helped me to come to terms with my partner's diagnosis more quickly than I would have done without it.

Growing up, I didn't have any experience of ill health or death in my immediate family and was quite protected from it. Throughout my teenage years and early 20s, I saw ill health as something that happened to older people. I certainly felt invincible in my youth, and I expected my partner to be as well.

Working at the hospice helped me realise the proximity of death with which we all live. My thoughts about my partner being 'too young to have cancer' were soon challenged when I went with a colleague to visit a nearby children's hospice. These beliefs were again challenged when I found myself working with clients who were dying in their 20s.

I have been on an amazing personal journey in the past year while working at the hospice. I have learned the true meaning of the phrase 'Time is precious'. Ilness may fall upon any of us at any point; there's no such thing as fair or not fair where health is concerned. I still feel angry about my partner's diagnosis, but he is living with cancer and we intend to make the most of whatever life throws at us next.

article by Emily Fozard who works as a counsellor in a hospice, seeing palliative care patients and their relatives. She is also a lecturer in counselling at the University of Chester. She is currently studying for for Doctorate of Professional Studies in Counselling and and Pyschotherapy at the University of Chester, where she has an interest in parental conflict. First published in Therapy Today. December 2019; Volume 30; Issue 10.

November blog

'Divorce is like scaling a series of mountains. With the right counsellor, the mountains can become molehills'

I had been with my partner for about 15 years. We have no children. Over time, for numerous reasons, our relationship became more toxic. I realised that divorce was the appropriate option for me; the relationship was no longer working.

Initially I was OK with the process. My work took me away from home, so we didn't have to be in the same town even. However, not long into the proceedings, my contract ended and I had to return to our shared house. At this point, my own stresses and anxieties began to increase. I felt guilty about initiating the divorce and increasingly anxious about what the future held. Being a man, I told myself I could cope. Counselling was what weak people needed, not what Alpha males did.

Yet I knew there were problems. My sleep was all over the place - I would lie awake, churning over possibilities in my head and not really resolving anything. I was increasingly rowing with my family and overreacting to ordinary life events. Minor setbacks would send me into the doldrums; minor victories made me overly celebratory. I could see that I was swinging back and forth across the emotional spectrum and had lost sight of 'me' in the midst of the maelstrom.

My first counsellor was a bit of a disaster. She came froma CBT perspective and I found her approach too prescriptive, too harsh. I felt she took me in directions that were not helpful; that she was trying to trammel my thinking into a very narrow channel, mostly dictated by her own interests rather than what I needed to unpack.

My second counsellor took a person-centred approach. She initially offered video-counselling via FaceTime, and I knew from our first contact that she would be right. She listened, explored and allowed me to work through some of the pain involved in ending my marriage. What I needed was active, reflective support, not to be beaten into submission. This second counsellor gave me exactly that and enabled me to work through the trauma at my own pace.

Before my counselling, I was facing the wrong way in the starting blocks; in fact, I wasn't even sure what direction the race was meant to go in, so I kept running into walls and getting angry that I wasn't making any progress. We are now eight months on. I've progressed from baby steps to huge strides and am now sprinting through the last stages of the divorce process, with the finish line in sight. I wouldn't say I am ready to compete in the Olympics, but things are much better. I am more rational, less stressed, calmer and better able to deal with life's turbulence than I have been in both recent past and the medium term.

In truth, an unhealthy relationship took its toll on me and 'fixing' stuff will take a while longer. I still see the counsellor, but now, rather than firefighting, she is helping me construct a better future from the rubble that is left.

Men tend to bottle things up; we tend to fall back on our own stereotypical expectations of ourselves. It doesn't have to be this way. Divorce is like scaling a series of mountains. With the right counsellor, the mountains can become molehills.

Extract from article published in Therapy Today: November 2019; Volume 30; Issue 9. The author wishes to remain anonymous

October blog

'I wondered what it was like for him, playing with his shoes. So I gently asked him. After a few moments, he looked up at me and smiled. "They were spaceships, he said" '.

Many years ago, when I was a youth worker in a school, I worked with a boy who had been referred to me over concerns about his behaviour. His teachers believed he was 'not fulfilling his potential'. I introduced myself and went over his referral notes with him, and then I asked if he knew what the word 'potential' meant. I was surprised by his answer - really surprised. In fact, it changed my life. 'It's stored-up energy, Mike,' he said.

He had learned this in his science class - that potential energy is stored-up energy.

I had thought I knew what 'potential' meant. But it was only when I heard it described as energy, and was introduced to the notion that energy could already be stored up inside us, just waiting to come out, that I really conneted with its meaning. It struck me as so clearly the best way to describe what had previously been indescribable, yet so familiar to me. At that moment, I began to realise what motivated my work with children and young people. It was my wish to help them grow and make the changes they wanted in order to have a better life. I had trusted, from my own experience, what Rogers tells us - that we all have the potential to change and grow.

I a now a counsellor with children and young people, and I still see our potential as energy stored up inside us. Having this belief can open up so many more possibilities in therapy.

More recently, I had a client who told me some horrific stories about his childhood. There was one incident that stands out for me. He described being regularly locked in a room as punishent, with only his shoes to play with. He was still upset and angry about this. I remember breathing and just being silent. I felt some anger, and also great sadness, and was unsure how best to respond. Then I wondered what it was like for him, playing with his shoes. So I gently asked him. After a few moments, he looked at me and smiled. "They were spaceships", he said. And then he beautifully mimed these imaginary spaceships flying above his head.

I learned from him that day about his resilience, and, indeed, my own; we had perhaps touched on the essence of potential - that is always there, and that, when we look for it, or even just imagine it, it will always find ways to emerge. Both stories still have great meaning for me and continue to inspire me. With every client, I see their potential for growth and change sotred up inside.'

Article by Mike Moss who is a counsellor for children and young people at West Lothian Council. He is also a trainer and has a small private practice offering supervision in Edinburgh. First published in Therapy Today:September 2017:Vol. 28. Issue 7

September blog

'Even though I was working with the "whole" client, these two sides were always in the room'

'We live in a world where these days the 'authentic' self has so much to contend with, including constant bombardment with images and information on social media. As the potential for more and more conditioning surrounds us, is it any wonder that so many young people are suffering with their mental health? I see living an authentic life as the antidote towards this conditioning.

In training, we are taught about the uniqueness of our clients. Yet, in my early years as a counsellor, I started to see a pattern with all my clients. I found this commonality intriguing, I even watched the Gloria Films (training videos of Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis and Fritz Perls counselling 'Gloria', a female client) again, to see if it was there - and it was. Over time, I realised that what I was witnessing was a direct conflict between the 'conditioned self' and the 'true/authentic self'. These two powerful dynamics are pulling the client in opposite directions. The conditioned self wants to maintain the status quo, because it feels safe and familiar, but the emerging true/authentic self is fighting to experience itself. This inner conflict can cause so much anxiety and depression in clients.

I became intrigued by the whole process, because it seemed to me that, even though I was working with the 'whole' client, these two sides were always in the room. They had their own characteristics and needs and I knew I had to acknowledge both. Once I understood this dynamic, I was better able to understand why clients sometimes present in contradictory ways. These contradictions are the result of the 'push-and-pull' dynamic caused by both sides. The process can also create resistance with clients. Hence, a client may take big strides forward, only to revert back to old patterns of behaviour. Fully understanding this dynamic answered so many questions for me.

For instance, why do clients get stuck sometimes? Why do clients sometimes present in a very confused, disjointed way? Now I understand it, I am more in tune with my clients.

The 'push-and-pull' dynamic can swing from one extreme to another, from moment to moment, in just one session, in direct response to the dynamic between the two sides. The disparity and contradictions between the two sides is where much of the therapeutic work takes place. But overall, the driving force behind both of these sides is the actualising tendency. These two sides are necessary as they act as a measuring tool towards self-actualisation. As clients move towards self-actualisation, it is inevitable that they start to live a more authentic life.

Over the last 10 years, positive psychologists have revisited the work of Maslow and Rogers and there is good evidence that being able to live authentically leads us to a happier, more fulfilled life. However, living an authentic life can seem increasingly difficult. That's why, as a therapist, I try to facilitate and enable clients to work towards this. Being part of this whole process is such a privilege; it's the reason why I am so passionate about my work.'

Extract from article by Tracey Revell a person-centred and REBT therapist in private practice. Her passion is helping therapists deepen their understanding of incongruence within clients and how this understanding helps facilitate change towards authentic living. Published in Therapy Today; April 2019: Vol 30:issue 3

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