Suzanne Foster Counselling Counsellor for Battersea, Clapham & Balham

December blog

'Therapy is a place to heal my mind as I heal my body from cancer'

I was curiously reluctant to have therapy when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer at age 39. I say 'curiously' as I refer people to talking therapy all the time in my work as a GP. I see the benefits - it works. Yet I didn't want to go, not because I ws worried about the stigma or taboo, or concerned that it wouldn't help. I didn't want to go because I didn't want to be a cancer patient and I didn't want to talk about cancer all the time. Of course, that seems rather ridiculous now - I was a cancer patient and I was talking about cancer all the time, whether or not I wanted to be.

My diagnosis of bowel cancer was out of the blue. No one was looking for a cancer and it was as much as a surprise to my medical team as to me. And then things happen so quickly, because time is indeed of the essence when it comes to cancer treatment, and I found myself in hospital having major surgery, with an ICU stay, within a week of my diagnosis. There is no time to process, no time to think, and I put my energy into preparing my three young children, and practical things like filling the freezer.

After overcoming my reluctance, I started therapy within a couple of months of my diagnosis, and during my first session I barely let the therapist get a word in edgeways. She maybe spoke three or four sentences the entire session, as the words streamed out of my mouth. Like the women I see postnatally who have a need to tell their birth story, I needed to tell the story of my diagnosis and everything that had happened since. In my early sessions, I told it over and over.

I have wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember, because I wanted to help and care for people - a cliche, but the ruth. But I don't want to just help and care as a doctor; I do so as a mother, a wife, a friend, a charity ambassador and more. Therapy showed me that I have to also look after me and, importantly, that it is vital - not selfish - for me to do so.

Contrary to the advice to go to hospital appointments with a loved one, I chose to go on my own, because I wanted to absorb the information and begin to deal with it for myself before I had to deal with someone else's reactions. I struggled with other people's emotions throughout the whole of my treatment, and it meant that sometimes I couldn't truly express my feelings. I knew people were sad that I was said. I knew they hurt that I was hurt, so I couldn't keep hurting them more. I also struggled with people's need to be positive, telling me I was strong and brave, reminding me that I was halfway through chemo, I felt their need and I didn't know how to separate that from my own.

But therapy was - and still is - a space, both literally and figuratively (although the literal bit got harder when doing it on the phone, hiding in the bedroom from the kids during lockdowns); a space where my feelings are simply allowed and held be they rage, sadness or pain. It is a place to be held emotionally; a place where there are no expectations or judgments made; a place to allow the release of the flood of feelings that I worry overwhelms others, and a place to be seen simply as myself and not all the roles I play and responsibilities I have.

A safe place - that is what therapy now means to me: a place to heal my mind and heal my body. With cancer, I never felt safe; in fact, even having just had my first set of negative scans and scopes, I do not feel able to trust that I am safe as yet, but for that session, once a week, my mind is safe.

Dr Philippa Kaye is a GP, author and broadcaster. Her newest book, Doctors Get Cancer Too, is published by VIE.
Article first published in Therapy Today:December 2021/January 2022:Volume 32:Issue 10

November blog

'I have removed the sticky residue my experiences left me with

I am a 'yellow sticker' person. In supermarkets, yellow stickers are used to mark a product at a reduced price. The eye catching yellow sticker is securely glued onto the packaging. The product now stands out on the shelf.

In nature, yellow signals warning or caution. Is there something wrong with it? Is it damaged? Is it out of date? Is it worth investing in?

Does it really have the same value as 'unstickered' products? The reality is that there is something different about it - it may have damaged packaging, no box or nearly out of date, so may not last as long. However, before the sticker was applied, was it once 'perfect', valuable and attractive, and could be bought without hesitation or concern.

Twenty yers ago, I was like all the products on the shelf: ordinary, unassuming and unobtrusive. I was accepted in my community and lived in blissful unconspicuousness. Then my world changed. Following a serious illness, my marriage broke down, and I was left to raise our three children. I felt abandoned, vulnerable and lonely, as if my hopes for the future I had imagined had died. I had no box, my contents were delicate and my lustre faded almost completely. Surviving this, alongside the painful and prolonged aftermath, wreaked further damage to my fragile contents.

Overnight, people's reactions to me changed. I felt a wave of rejection, a tangible sense of being visible and judged as damaged goods. I had been gifted, by members of the community, a yellow sticker.

Was I the same woman? Was I still 'good enough', valuable and attractive? I had the same children, I was the same person, I had the same values but, confusingly, people treated me with caution.

I desperately wanted to resurrect hope and opportunity for my family. Therapy offered me a place to explore my sense of being stuck. I had attempted to remove the yellow sticker on my own, but it was clear that removing the glue from my psyche was a huge challenge and I would need help.

I started therapy, and my exhilarating journey of increased self-awareness and self-acceptance began. I realised that it was the feelings that arose from the rejection by my community that had shattered my sense of self. As a result, I became triggered when I heard bigoted comments or witnessed people being disrespected or treated unfairly. I imagine that anyone who is rejected from their community for being different may feel the same. My therapist asked if my lack of trust and emotional turbulence might be related to a deeper need to belong. It was.

It has been through the therapeutic work with my counsellor that I discovered the 'yellow sticker' phenomenon. I realised that my psychological responses to past experiences were preventing me from living the life that I had always hoped for.

Through therapy, I have systematically removed the sticky residue that my experiences left me with. I was able to replace the feelings of rejection with self-acceptance, and an increased connection and reliance on my internal locus of evaluation to once again feel grounded. I have been able to process my pain and referee my existence.

The trust that developed in the relationship with my therapist fuelled new ways of thinking, increased my insight and boosted my courage and confidence. I was able to understand myself better and make some sense of my unrest. It is a human need to belong; it is fundamental and underpins our sense of happiness and wellbeing. I understood that I was the same person after my husband left that I was before. We all deserve to be treated with decency and acceptance and are entitled to a sense of belonging.

I am training to be a counsellor now, and believe that, with therapy, it is possible for anyone to make changes in their life and adapt to life's challenges. There is life beyond the yellow sticker. I hope to be able to help others peel it off so cleanly that it's as if were never there before.

Exract from article by Anna Brooks, a mother and student member of BACP. She was formerly a cardiovascular scientist and teacher but later trained as a family group conference co-ordinator, mediator and restorative justices facilitator. Following her experiences working with families in crisis she decided to embark on a carer in counselling.
Article first published in Therapy Today:November 2021:Voume 32:Issue 9

September blog

'It turned out I didn't really know how I felt about anything'

Lisa's room is relatively small, with shelves of books adorning the back wall and a chair in front of them. Next to the chair are a box of tissues and a small, open bin. Opposite me, she sits down. I look for a second at the bin by the tissues and notice a few discarded used ones. Someone has been here before, crying. That's not me, I think. This will be pretty brief. I explain my situation, that I am struggling to have close relationships without feeling the need to run away, and that I've just turned 30 and I don't want to end up in record shops or at the cricket, alone, at 70, not remembering what happened with the rest of my life. I am in a pretty big band, you see, I try to drop in humbly.

'What is the worst thing you can imagine in your life?' she asks. I don't even pause for thought. My band breaking up is the worst thing I can ever imagine happening. It isn't until the end of the first session that she asks about my past. 'My mum died when I was 17', I say. 'But that was a long time go. I don't really want to go into that'.

In the following months, I return every week to Lisa's. There are all kinds of theories we work through. The memory of my mum smiling through the suffering, not enabling me to vent any kind of suffering of my own, for what could be worse than her illness? Or, maybe worse still, it stopping me from allowing anyone else close to me to voice any suffering at all. The need for me to be 'special' in the eyes of absolutely everyone, alive in all their minds, no option or possibility ever closed - after all, the one person that I was truly special to was gone. That I had replaced intimate relationships, in which there was a chance of loss, with hundreds of tiny, controlled interactions. That we were brothers who never fought or squabbled as there was always something bigger happening, leaving me with a repressed child still inside somewhere. That my identity might have been completely dependent on being a 'good boy', attentive and passive, never disturbing any peace or adding any burden on anyone. That I might be holding onto adolescence because leaving it would mean leaving her. That I might possibly have a more manipulative side, so that I could knowingly use people for my own gain. That it turned out I didn't really know how I felt about anything, I knew how other people felt about things, and I knew to agree with them. And finally, that the feeling surging through my throat, threatening to pour out, was unprocessed grief.

Every week I leave Lisa's almost giggling, as if some knot has been undone. It is a mammoth relief to have a place to at least explore all of these things without the fear of something disappearing, away from judgment: to play with them and then use or dismiss each theory. It occurs to me that my mum might just come back soon and that I'll be able to show her all the stuff I have done.

Close to seven years since my first visit to Lisa's, imagining it then as a sort of GP meeting for a quick cure, I m still in therapy every week. I have learned, in time, to hold with me the conversations we have - the small breakthroughs and workshopping of theories - as I take myself back into the world. We have developed a language between us where, among whatever is happening in my day-to-day life, we occasionally use books, films, music and sport to provoke restless feelings or dormant pains to come to the surface, where they are kneaded out and, although never 'solved' (when is anything?), can eventually be observed and demythologised until they just become a conscious and accepted part of who I am. I think I am still in therapy for that reason - nothing is ever solved, but there is so much to explore over time, that people are complicated and require the space to understand themselves to be so. There is little doubt that, without it, I would have surfed a few seismic life changes far less successfully and would not have developed anywhere near enough perspective or expertise on my own brain to have written my book - which, I only realised in conclusion, has the work of the therapy on almost every page. I am deeply grateful for it.

Article written by Felix White musician and writer. He was a guitarist and songwriter with the rock band The Maccabees, and is the co-founder of Yala! Records, which supports upcoming bands. His first book, "It's Always Summer Somewhere: a matter of life and cricket is published by Cassell (Otopus Publishing Group).
Article first published in Therapy Today: September 2021: Volume 32: Issue 7

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

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