Suzanne Foster Counselling Counsellor for Battersea, Clapham & Balham

August blog

'I had convinced myself tht being brutalised as a boy had done me good'

Perhaps the only negative legacy of my life-changing therapy is an abiding belief that people who would benefit most from similiar treatment are the people least likely to believe that they might. I know this beause I used to be one of them. Until relatively recently I subscribed, quite sincerely, to the school of thought that sees vulnerability as weakness and suffering as character forming. Worse, I would passionately contend that early experiences of mental and physical pain had helped me develop a robust and resilient personality - the kind of personality, I believed, that you needed to navigate the vicissitudes and casual cruelties of newspaper offices and, later, the worlds of TV and radio.

Would I ever have sought help solely for my own benefit? In my work as a combative radio phone-in host. I would argue honestly and often that a healthy character could fight its way out of any situation, argue its way out of any problem. Weirdly, it worked for years in many ways, but I had subconsciously convinced myself that being brutalised as a boy had done me 'good', that it was perfectly normal to spend your entire life with your fists up and your armour on and that it was possible to argue, cajole and debate your way out of any negative situation. I thought it was perfectly normal to wake up every morning with a bolus of what I now know to be anxiety in the pit of my stomach, and that it was prefectly natural to spend every day chasing the adrenalin hits that would temporarily quieten its gnawing presence.

When one of the people I love most in the world became catastrophically and, it seemed, irreversibly ill, I realised pretty quickly that this was a problem my personal toolbox was spectacularly illl equipped to fix. In fact, my tried-and-tested tactics for tackling troubles were making the situation worse - and finally admitting this to myself constitutes what was probably the most difficult moment in my life. When my wife suggested I try therapy, I was so broken and desperate that I agreed immediately. But I did so very sceptically, more I think now, to allow myself to claim that I as 'trying my best' to be better, than in the expectation of any actual improvement. If she'd suggested that coffee enemas or drinking horse's milk might help, I would have signed up for them too.

And so I approached my introductory consultation with a heavy heart and next to no hope. I was James O'Brien, broadcasting bruiser and destoyer of the slickest politicians. Therapy simply wasn't for people like me and, besides, there were no traumatic skeletons in my closet. Being adopted as a baby by the best mum and dad anyone could hope for had marked me out as specail and wanted in a way that unadopted children could never be. Being sent to a boarding school near home at the age of 10 - and one 200 miles away three years later - was an act of love and sacrifice by parents who wanted me to benefit from advantages they had never enjoyed. How could this walking, talking 'success story' possibly be a 'victim' of anything?

And then, sitting in a little garden studio in London, I began, at the gentle urging of a warm and wise therapist, to think about the abandoned, beaten boy I had once been. I baulked at the description and told her so. 'If we decide to work together,' she said, 'you will soon be talking to your younger self and telling him that he's safe now, that you will look after him'. On the surface, I still found this a perfectly bonkers notion but somethingh must have shifted, because, just a week later, with a cushion playing the part of 13-year-ol me, the floodgates opened and my life began to change.

To my profound shock, I came to understand that I had been so desperate to protect myself from the pain inflicted on me by monks and teachers that, even before puberty, I had started to surround myself with a complicated framework of denial and weaponised debate. I had thought this framework was 'me' and had buried my authentic self beneath an aggressive, arrogant and often angry carapace. As we began working to shed it, every single apsect of my life improved and, remarkably, continues to do so.

Extract of article by James O'Brien an award-winning writer and broadcater. His first book, "How to Be Right - in a world gone wrong" (WH Allen), won the Paliamentary Book Award for Best Poliical Book by a non-politician. His latest book, "How Not to Be Wrong: the art of changing your mind" (WH Allen), was recently released in paperback.
Article pub in Therapy Today: July/August 2021/Vol. 32/Isssue 6

March blog

Therapy gave me a greater sense of purpose

Finally, after the best part of 10 years, I had a name for the battleground of thoughts and rapid mood transitions that were my daily cross to bear - bipolar disorder. Throughout my 20s, I suffered bouts of depression and anxiety, with no one able to identify the cause of my emotions or teach me how to manage them. At this time, both the medical and the cultural attitude to towards mental health was unrecognisable compared to today.

CBT was my first experience of therapy and, while I learned a few basic coping techniques, I found it largely unhelpful. I was not able to effectively access the underlying issues that needed to be brought to the surface through this therapy, so my mood transistions remained the same.

Once I was finally diagnosed with bipolar by my local NHS mental health team, the fear, confusion and stigma towards my condition manifested in a long period of isolation. The shame and embarrassment I felt towards my diagnosis kept me gagged. I continued to find myself lost in the system, where I'd have an assessment and then have to wait a year to be referred. I sought out alternative therapies, but I felt worse, not better.

Finally, my GP referred me for 12 psychotherapy sessions, and so began my journey to recovery. Talking therapy allowed me to do just that - talk. I was drowning on the inside and had felt so bottled up because I was so isolated in what I had been experiencing. Through my therapist's support, I was ale to return to certain parts of my life where I'd suffered trauma and to recognise that what I'd made 'normal' to cope with was, in fact, far from normal. We explored and addressed a common running theme of bullying I'd experienced all the way from primary school to the workplace, and how if affects me now in my daily life and friendships. We would speak on a range of things that were lef by my own thoughts and fears. I always left feeling relieved. To speak with someone who listened without judgment and provided the guidance I craved meant that, somewhere along the line, I began to comfortably settle into my mind, filter through my psyche in a more empowered way and accept my diagnosis.

Two years after that initial course of talking therapy, I came out publicly about living with bipolar disorder. This was a direct effect of implementing what I'd learnt through my sessions, where I'd found that, in hiding my condition, I was in essence preventing the recovery I had pursued for so long. I'd denied myself the pride of recognising the battles that I'd faced and a chance to rewrite the rulebook that made me think I was a terrible person because I have bipolar disorder. When I came out, I felt more empowered than I ever had. The volume of loving and encouraging responses I received revealed to me that I hadn't given myself an inch of credit for all my contributions to my industry and my community throughout my career, despite secretly batling with my condition. I was becoming the person I was supposed to be.

The voice I gained through therapy also gave me a greater sense of purpose once the pandemic hit. It gave me a path to speak directly to those living with and managing bipolar disorder during such a challenging period. My passion for charity work and bringing more attention around the condition led me to become an ambassador for Bipolar UK - a national charity dedicated to supporting people with the condition and their families and carers. It felt like a match made in heaven because I was able to be who I am, boldly and empathetically.

I live and breathe the view that there is life after diagnosis. Therapy taught me to look at the world differently; that a diagnosis doesn't have to feel like a dark cloud or negative label. In fact, it can be the opposite - proof of how powerful, strong and fierce you really are. Without therapy, I would not have exited the roundabout and found the road forward to understanding myself, my triggers and my behaviours better. It has been a real honour to build 'Leah 20'. By becoming more open and speaking aboout my life with bipolar disorder, I realise I am not defined by it but, instead, have learned from it to shape me into the person I am today.

Leah Charles-King is a multi award-winnng TV and radio presenter with more than 20 years in the entertainment industry. Leah is Bipolar UK's latest ambassador and uses her influence on social media to spread awareness of mental illness.

article first published in Therapy Today:March 2021:Vol. 32: Issue 2

February blog

'I swapped addiction for therapy, conscious behavioural choice and self-care'

Walking the Thames towpath, I caught up with a man I assessed, given that I was hypervigilant, to be bigger and stronger than me. When he glanced back, I sensed he was also hypervigilant, I intuited that he was a survivor too.

'If I wanted to sneak up on you, I'd wear a different jacket', I said, rustling as I walked. We chatted and walked together most days from then onwards until he left London. We shared that we were marijuana addicts. And we shared about our abusive childhoods.

Carl conquered his addiction largely through determination and an intensive 12-step programme - me eventually, through therapy, albeit indirectly, as a by-product of recovery from the effects of trauma caused by childhood sexual abuse (CSA).

Addiction, I believe, is an escape - escape to a 'safer' place; escape from being with the thoughts and feelings that are overwhelming and too hard to be with. Addiction is perceived as a safe exit. You think you choose it, but eventually it chooses you.

There is some debate about whether it is better to cut out the addiction first or cut out the cause. I didn't specifically address my addictive behaviour in therapy, but through the sessions I became aware I used marijuana to numb feelings of intense anger or hopelessness, and that my addiction to gambling was about creating excitement and re-exposing myself, ultimately to shame. Through therapy, I dealt with the underlying issues, the root of all being the trauma of CSA.

Therapy was about understanding cerebrally the effects of the trauma, accepting the construct of a family that perpetuates and hides abuse by disabling the child's (my) emotions, and learning to be with and dissipate intense anger, shame, guilt and lack of trust and self-worth. It was also understanding and choosing to work on my need to generate safety through a complex array of behaviours that were often destructive and no longer served me, and a seemingly endless wilderness of other interwined stuff, all deeply rooted and emeshed with addictive behaviour. Addiction was my antidote, I swapped it for therapy, group therapy, body work, conscious behavioural choice and self-care.

From age17 to my breakdown at 53, I always had marijuana in my lif. Oh, the relief of the first smoke - I was forever trying to get back to it. It became my constant companion.

The impact of events including deaths and the inability to get work, as well as lack of purpose and a suffocating sense of doom, became stronger as I became weaker. The constant belief that it was not if but when I would kill myself came into sharp focus. When my surrogate younger brother took his own life, the devastation that followed caused me to vow not to, but a GP I sought help from claimed I wasn't depressed. I stepped up the addiction, chain-smoking three joints first thing in the morning.

Moving to London as a way of gathering hope, I managed to drop the drugs for two years - a stretch for me. Visiting a GP there with an arm problem, I sobbed as I got up to leave, and she asked if I wanted to talk to someone. I conceded that I needed to. For a year, an experienced therapist in the process of changing her modality joined what became my odyssey of recovery. I saw another therapist for a year after that. Different styles - dictated, it seems to be, more by the therapist than by the method. I focussed on the positives from each experience in order to recover. Now I am free.

Recently I spent an afternoon staring a a photo online that I had never seen - a school photo when I was 14. I couldn't truly define what I, that boy, was thinking and feeling. There was grief in that, like the passing of an acquaintance - the addiction. But change happens. It is possible, I am no longer that 14-year old boy and, similarly, I am no longer an addict. I have moved on.

Article written by Gregory David. Gregory is a well-travelled nomad. Having lived in many places, including Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Kuwait,Gregory is currently living in London and is compiling a booklet of stories by male survivors of childhood sexual abuse and is interested to hear what therapists would find useful to hear from survivors.
[email protected]

Article first published in Therapy Today: February 2021:Vol:32:Issue 1

November blog

The Process of Becoming


'Let me try to explain what I mean when I say that it appears the goal the individual most wishes to achieve, the end which he knowingly and unknowingly pursues, is to become himself.

When a person comes to me, troubled by his unique combination of difficulties, I have found it most worth while to try and create a relationship with him in which he is safe and free. It is my purpose to understand the way he feels in his own inner world, to accept him as he is, to create an atmosphere of freedom in which he can move in his thinking and feeling and being, in any direction he desires. How does he use this freedom?

It is my experience that he uses it o become more and more himself. He begins to drop the false fronts, or the masks, or the roles, with which he has faced life. He appears to be trying to discover something more basic, something more truly himself. At first he lays aside masks which he is to some degree aware of using.

In his attempt to discover his own self, the client typically uses the relationship to explore, to examine the various aspects of his own experience, to recognise and face up to the deep contradictions which he often discovers. He learns how much of his behaviour, even how much of the feeling he experiences, is not real, is not something which flows from the genuine reactions of his organism, but is a facade, a front, behind which he has been hiding. He discovers how much of his life is guided by what he thinks he should be, not by what he is. Often he discovers that he exists only in response to the demands of others, that he seems to have no self of his own, that he is only trying to think, and feel, and behave in the way that others believe he ought to think, and feel and behave."

Extract from On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers pub: Constable, 1967

October 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.

September blog

'The presence of gentle masculinity was crucial to my finally realising I didn't have to run away anymore'

For a long time, I sought out and avoided men in equal measure. My relationship with my father had never been good and this was compounded when I started having sexual relationships. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I had completely lost my trust in men.

Unsurprisingly, this didn't made my relationships improve. I would doggedly pursue the most avoidant men I could find and still feel surprised when they avoided me. I was so terrified of being abandoned that I would dare my partners to do it anyway - a horrible game of emotional chicken. I wasn't completely without self-awareness, and I knew there were deep problems with my relationships and the way I saw the world. But there was some reality to how I felt - I wasn't stupid or without grounds men had harmed me, why would I trust them?

So, when I decided to go back into therapy in my late twenties, I was ure I would work best with a woman. I felt safer with women, I reasoned, so it made more sense. Working with a man would only have added resistance to a process I knew was going to be difficult anyway. Could I talk about trauma with a man? I couldn't imagine it, and that was enough to stop me considering it as an option altogether.

I was serious about the work I wanted to do, so I spent some time shopping around, surfing websites and emailing questions to ensure I found the right fit. My first meeting didn't go well. The therapist and I clearly had different outlooks, and I experienced her tone as irritable. Perhaps I was being irritating, but it still felt wrong. Back at my computer that evening I cam across another profile that appealed to me, even though he was a man, I sent a message.

What developed, in the end, was the most profound therapeutic relationship I've ever had. On some level, I'd always known the equation in my head of 'men equal harm' was simplistic, but I hadn't quite got to the point where I really believed it. The fact that this therapist was a man helped, not hindered. Here was a man who was gentle, who listened to me, and who was as far from harmful as you could imagine.

I also started unpicking more of my assumptions around my family history and the reasons behind my dysfunctional relationships and disorganised attachment style. There was no doubt that my relationship with my father had been deficient - I barely saw him and when I did, it felt distant and disappointing - but in my head, he'd started to take on disproprtionate importance.

Maybe that was down to the fact I didn't want to take responsibility ('my relationships are bad because my dad wasn't there for me'); maybe it was because I simply didn't like him as a person and found that hard to bear. His mother, like me, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so there was always a murky feeling around that legacy, too. Plus, there was that pop-culture, warped echo of Freud: I had 'daddy issues', didn't I?'

Working with a male therapist, and one around the same age as my fathr, softened some of these broad-stroke assumptions. I found I didn't feel as bad as I thought about the fact that our relationship was bad. Actually, maybe there were other members of my family who had affected the way I moved through the world in a less obvious, more pernicious way?

Before I started the therapy, I was worried about what I'd project and how it would colour the work. To my surpise, though, I didn't see my therapist as a stand-in dad at all, and I realised that my relationships didn't hae to permanently mirror that dynamic either.

Some of what worked was inherent to therapy itself, of course going to the same place at the same time every week and knowing it was somewhere I was safe and would be listened to. It's easy to romanticise these relationships, and I'd never want to simplify that therapy was some magical process in which my trauma was simply exiced like it was nothing. Some things you like with forever.

Acknowledging the harm that had been done to me over the years seemed impossible with a man. But it turned out that the presence of gentle masculinity was crucial to my finally realising I didn't have to turn away anymore.

Emily Reynolds is a writer from London. She works at the women's mental health charity Wish, is a trustee of the National Survivor User Network, and is studying for a master's in psychosocial studies at Birkbeck, University of London

Article first published in Therapy Today: September 2020:Volume 31: Issue 7

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