'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
'Something incredible happens when you open up to another human who you click with and who is trained to listen and support'
In recent years, therapy has become a lifeline for me. Therapy has changed and shaped my life in ways that I could not have anticipated. At the time of writing, I have seen a therapist or been in therapy at various points for roughly half my life. That's 18 years of spilling my innermost thoughts to numerous strangers for bouts of various talking therapies for multiple reasons. If this were a marriage, it'd be our porcelain anniversary - a material known for both its toughness and also its fragility. Which I think is fitting, considering the context.
But that's not to suggest it has always been plain sailing. In fact, it's been anything but, I've seen several therapists over the years and it's always been a unique and complex relationship. Some therapists have been great, some less so; sometimes I've been open to the help and support, other times I haven't. And I'll admit it's not until relatively recently that I've felt the real "magical" effects of therapy.
I defintely do not claim to understand how the magic of therapy works. All I know is something incredible happens when you open up to another human who you click with and who is trained to listen and support. As far as I am aware, though, no actual magic is involved in therapy, although at times I am utterly convinced that some kind of sorcery is at play in my therapist's room. I'm frequently amazed by how much better I feel when my emotions and intellect are aligned, and how that alignment naturally occurs through the ongoing process of therapy.
I think one of the things that has made the relationship with two recent therapists so positive is tht they have both consistently shown me over time that they have got my back and that my wellness is their priority. They have been 'Team Jo'. They have acted as compassionate and thoughtful mirrors that I can look into without judgment or fear. And that is not to say they've always let me off lightly. They've been able to gently hold me accountable, allowing me to notice and correct my course when I'm repeating behaviours that have been harmful or unproductive in the past. Having weekly sessions with one therapist for almost three years and the other for just over a year now has meant they have been able to gently excavate my whole life history and remind me of patterns, even when I'm not seeing them myself. Sometimes it almost feels like the relationship is the healing ointment, rather than the words said.
I feel compelled not to understate how hard therapy can be. It's hard to get the courage to go to therapy. It's hard to find the right person who makes you feel safe, emotionally held and comfortable. It's hard to trust the process when progress is slow. It's hard when you doubt yourself, and it's hard when you come away feeling worse than when you went in. It's hard to sit in a small room with a relative stranger and tell them all your raw, uncensored stories - the ones you've never said aloud before, the ones you've never told anyone, maybe not even yourself. The imbalance of emotional exposure is hard to grapple with; they know almost all the worst bits about you, but you know next to nothing about them. Even when therapy is going great, you have a therapist you click with and you're making great progress, it's still bl**dy hard work. Joining the dots and noticing the patterns can be as exhausting as it is freeing. Taking the work from the cosy, safe vacuum of the therapist's room into the harsh light of your real life can be confronting and difficult. Every second is worth it, of course, but boy, it's still hard.
There is no magic incantation to chant, no magical potion to drink so that all my problems will be fixed. But sometimes, I can't help but feel that what happens in therapy is real magic.
Jo Love is a mental health advocate, speaker, writer, podcaster and winner of 'Smallish' magazine's Parenting Amnbassador of the Year for Mental Health Award in 2017. You can find Jo on Instagram @jo_love_and @therapyismagic
Article first published in Therapy Today. July 2020:Volume 31:Issue 6
'My starter therapist was just right for the time; not too deep, a bit maternal and very kind'
Therapy more than changed my life; it's been a vital component of my existence. I've had the privilege of being able to seek help both in times of crisis and in calmer periods when I've simply wanted to work something out with the guidance of an objective, trained professional.
I seem to be almost entirely unembarrassed about this, often merrily informing strangers, 'I'm off to see my shrink.' I do believe that, if you possibly can, being open about therapy is helpful to others. As far as I knew, therapists didn't exist when I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s. Well, it turns out that the odd one did, but along with Indian and Chinese takeaways, tutors, good orthodontics or any of the standards of modern urban life, they simply weren't visible in a time and place more marked by wild pony traffic jams and schools that tolerated illiteracy.
Escaping to London at the age of 18, I fell in with a - to me - glamorous crowd in which serial divorce, celebrity friendships and psychoanalysis were perfectly normal. By the age of 23, influenced by these new friends, I was fixed up with my first therapist, who saw me through serial weeping fits about my mother and, it turned out, kept half and eye on the newspapers because she actually believed my claim that I was going to be a writer. When it happened some years later, she wrote to me, and my memories of her good work came back. She was my 'starter' therapist - just right for the time; not too deep, a bit maternal and very kind. My father died when I was in my 20s and she helped me through that, as did a bereavement counsellor, who gave her services for free when I was wracked with guilt and grief.
I went for almost a decade without help and then, for the first and last time, I did the proper couch analysis stuff. She was Kleinian, strict and boundaried. Out poured my childhood in more detail. If that hadn't been unpacked, aired and analysed, I don't think I'd have become the halfway functioning adult I am. She helped me see the pattern of my somewhat extreme love life, to the point that I was genuinely no longer interested in repeating that pattern.
To me, it really does take someone else to spot, unearth and make you start to see those patterns themselves. Friends can certainly help, but friends are subjective and not paid to open up unpalatable truths. My friends have helped enormously over the years, but a well-trained, experienced professional can, over time, work majic - often subtle, and sometimes in the form of epiphanies.
I've also had an experience of therapy that was not so good and that sent me to yet another therapist to work on the damage it caused. I also have a friend who had a affair with her therapist, which did untold harm and inspired me to write about boundary-breaking in my new novel. Mercifully, such therapists are the exception.
I'm currently seeing - or Zoom conferencing in Covid-19 lockdown - a therapist who has kept me going through a difficult time, has calmly and safely helped and is my weekly prop, however much I don't feel like it. We live in an age in which therapy is not a dirty secret. If they can afford it or can manage the NHS waiting lists, I thoroughly recommend that everyone sees a therapist. It's not navel gazing. It's just a pretty wonderful feature of modern life.
Joanna Briscoe is a journalist, broadcaster and novelist. She grew up in the West Country, and now lives in London. Her sixth novel, 'The Seduction' is published by Bloomsbury on 11 June. Article first published in Therapy Today:June 2020: Volume 21: Issue 5
'I believe that I will be working on myself for th rest of my life, but this is not a bad thing. I have grown tremendouly as a person'
My first experience of counselling wasn't that great. Around 20 years ago, I had recently gone back to my job as a financial controller after having my first child. I was in my office, working on a spreadsheet when the numbers started jumping out at me. I ran into the main office, shouting that the numbers were attacking me. I was sent home and told to see my GP.
I begged my GP to just put 'stress' on my medical records, in case any hint of mental health problems should affect my career. I didn't think to tell him about the neglect and mental, physical and sexual abuse I'd experienced for the first 15 years of my life. Back then, I didn't know it was relevant and I still felt deep shame about my childhood.
My mum had left the family home when I was seven, due to domestic violence. I took responsibility for looking after my siblings, and my dad remarried a neighbour. That was when the physical and mental abuse started. We turned up to school unwashed and hungry, so police and social services were in our lives.
At age nine, I was sexually assualted by someone outside the family. When I was 11, my mum regained custody of us, after my dad was convicted of sexual offences and sent to prison. But she had remarried into another domestically violent relationship. At age 15, I was sexually assaulted by someone inside the family. I now know there is generational abuse within my family on both sides, a cycle that I am determined to break.
I left school and home just before my 16th birthday, went to college, then got a full-time job and studied in the evenings and weekends to qualify as an accountant. Work was my survival response and still is. I told myself to just work, work, work, to build a better life for myself where I would be safe. By 28, I was married with a child and a nice home but, when I should have felt safe, that's when it all unravelled. My brain couldn't reconcile the love I felt for my child and the abuse I had suffered within my family. On one occasion, when I was changing my son's nappy, I suddenly started hurrying. I became scared that people would think I was spending too much time on the task and was 'abusing' him.
At work, I had always kept my head down and got on with my job. I didn't socialise and I certainly did not talk about my shameful, dysfunctional childhood. I did this for 15 years and was successful, or so I thought. With hindsight, the signs of mental and physical distress were always there, showing up in many ways - as isolation, underlying anger, hypervigilance, high anxiety, bulimia, chronic constipation and osteoarthritis.
My GP referred me for six counselling sessions with a general therapist, to deal with my 'stress'. The counselling sessions were all the same. I sat in a chair, the counsellor said very little, I cried my eyes out and left. I hated feeling vulnerable and out of control during those six weeks and felt angry and confused. I thought I could do a better job myself and started to research the impact on mental health of trauma.
Around this time, I took a job as a financial controller at Priory Hospital Hayes Grove, an inpatient mental health facility in Bromley. As I spent time around psychiatrists, counsellors and inpatients, I became aware of the role past abuse often plays in addictions and eating disorders. I was using exercise and holistic self-care strategies to help manage my emotions, and I qualified as a Pilates instructor and health and wellness coach. In 2012 I left my job at the hospital to focus on my health and wellness business. I also started writing a book about my life and the strategies I had used to manage the impact of my childhood.
I thought I was in a good place and writing the book would be cathartic, but it destabilised me and I began to struggle. I knew I needed support, but this time I made sure it was trauma-informed. I found a suitable practitioner who was also a survivor. Because of this, we built a trusting relationship in a short space of time and were able to explore very challenging events in a way that allowed me to feel empowered and grow from the therapy.
That lasted six months. Then, after a break, I started weekly sessions with another trauma-informed therapist who, for the past four years, has continued to help me overcome my sense of shame and anger and develop my self-confidence to get involved with the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, by joining the victims and Survivors Consultative Panel (VSCP). Part of the inquiry is the Truth Project, a platform for survivors of abuse to share their experiences without judgment. We are in control of what we share and can have a say about what needs to change in the systems that have failed us. It's not therapy, but I have worked with other members of the VSCP to ensure it is trauma-informed. This includes ensuring that facilitators are trauma-informed and that survivors who share their accounts feel comfortable and safe when they do so.
The VSCP is consulted on all areas of the Inquiry's work. We bring expertise from our lived and professional experiences, both as survivors and as providers of services, which many of us are involved with on a daily basis. Working in this sector, hearing survivors' experiences and fighting for our rights can be exhausting, triggering and traumatic. I need to be able to offload the impact both from a personal perspective and to prevent secondary trauma. Having trauma-informed therapy enables me to do this work and has also helped me cope with four years of involvement with the criminal justice system, as I fight to bring my family abusers to justice.
My brain can become overhwhelmed because of the chronic toxic stress I have been under since I was a child. I try to remain grounded in the present but my brain often flips between the past, present and future. If I see, hear or read something, I can become triggered. It is crucial to have someone who can help me manage my emotions and untangle some of the situations I find myself in. I can express my feelings and the therapist will explore them with me. I can then process them. I believe that I will be working on myself for the rest of my life, but this is not a bad thing, I have grown tremendously as a person and I am extremely proud of who I am today and what I have achieved.
Chris Tuck is a member of the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. She advised on the development of the Truth Project. She also founded Survivors of Abuse, a charity that aims to empower adult survivors to transform their lives holistically through mindset, nutrition, fitness and stress management. Chris is also the author of Breaking the Cycle, a handbook about overcoming abuse. www.survivorsofabuse.org.uk. Survivors can also find out more about the Truth Project by visiting www.truthproject.org.uk.
Article first published in Therapy Today: May 2020; Volume 31; Issue 4
'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. www.andysalkeld.com. Article published in Therapy Today; April 2020; Vo. 31; Issue 3.
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).