When I first sought help for my mental health issues at 16, I was shocked to find that the psychiatrist I saw was a horrible and nasty cow. I expected that she would be nice to me as I was suffering and all; sadly this wasn’t the case. As I was only 16 and lacking in any self-esteem or assertiveness skills, I let it go and filed the experience under ‘more shit that’s happened to me.’
I never went back and it took me another 3 years to pluck up the courage to ask my GP for help again. This time I was referred to a male psychotherapist. He was altogether more agreeable but unfortunately I was only assigned a couple of months worth of appointments before I was released back into the wild. All he ever really said was ‘how does that make you feel?’ but I appreciated being able to chat and discuss how things made me feel.
I wasn’t sure what to do after this as I was still prone to awful depression and thought I had exhausted all my options via the GP. Luckily, when I got to University I discovered that the campus offered a free counselling service. I was amazed when the woman I saw was friendly, helpful AND insightful. Not only did she patiently listen to all my shit, but she drew diagrams on a white board about feelings, processes and behavioural patterns. For the first time ever, someone was able to present the contents of my head back to me in a way that made sense. She was big on ‘inner child’ therapy and had me drawing pictures and writing letters to myself with my non-dominant hand. It was fun!
I used to love going to see her and learnt a lot about myself during her sessions. Then she told me she loved seeing me too but we had to finish the sessions because of ‘transference’. Her transference had manifested itself in her having motherly feelings towards me which she had raised in her supervision. I told her I didn’t want to stop coming because it was really helping me and she burst into tears.
It was a less than exemplary situation but at least she had the self-awareness to flag up the issue and be honest about her own reactions. It’s just difficult to know what to do when your counsellor is sat in front of you crying her eyes out. From this experience I learnt that counselling was definitely something I wanted to pursue with somebody else, although I’d have to watch out for unwittingly acting in a daughterly fashion.
After graduating University, I sought help from a young persons counselling agency and spent nearly 2 years seeing a guy who was only a couple of years older than me who was on a work placement as part of his Diploma. Again it was very helpful and I felt that I was gaining a lot of insight into my problems. He was very focused on coping mechanisms and I was delighted one day when he announced that my coping skills ‘surpassed those of anyone else he knew.’ The problem here was that I’d started to see him as a friend. I think he saw me in the same way and would tell me a lot of information about himself, his life and his own feelings. He allowed me to get close to him and I didn’t realise at the time that this was entirely inappropriate. Things got worse when he told me he had been on a hypnotherapy course. He asked if he could demonstrate what he’d learned and I trusted him, so I said yes. The practical upshot of which was that it wasn’t hypnotherapy at all but some sort of weird, esoteric trance-inducing practice which brought on a massive anxiety attack. I would have let it go as it was one bad experience in 2 years of seeing him, but unfortunately his other clients complained and he was dismissed.
I was starting to see that receiving successful and appropriate professional help was a bit of a minefield.
From here onwards I gave the therapy a miss and relied on my highly acclaimed coping skills. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, all was well until my Dad popped his clogs prematurely and I had to take my place again on the mental health referral merry-go-round.
I then spent a few months with an NHS counsellor who at best could be described as useless, pointless, ineffectual and boring. I swapped her for another one I found myself through a women’s centre. She was a lot better but also ended up in floods of tears one day after ‘connecting deeply’ with what I was saying.
It was all getting just a little bit tiresome. At this time, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was now being hailed as the new therapy du jour so I asked to be put on a waiting list for this instead.
I waited and waited and waited before getting 6 sessions with a man who was very nice but didn’t do much. He told me it would be a mistake to work on in-depth techniques as my problems were so ‘deep rooted’ that I needed Cognitive Analytical Therapy instead. I’d never heard of this but allowed him to refer me to the waiting list. Apparently it is long-term analysis that takes 12-months and you get to grips with all your current issues by going back into your childhood for answers. I must admit my heart sank when he said this as I thought I’d done the childhood stuff in my University inner-child therapy. I was pretty sure my current problems were entirely connected to my Dad’s death. But when you are feeling vulnerable and have waited an eternity to see someone, it’s difficult to know what’s best. He told me I’d only have to wait 6-8 weeks for the CAT so I hung on.
6 MONTHS later ( why can’t they just be honest about the length of time these appointments take? ) I got my appointment for what I thought was Cognitive Analytical Therapy. The therapist was a no-nonsense woman who was very confused that I thought she practiced CAT as she was actually a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist. She told me that her organisation didn’t offer CAT and the last therapist was completely wrong to think I could get it! After a short heated interchange she told me she’d have to report him and I agreed wholeheartedly. She assessed me and agreed I didn’t need CAT anyway and that my problems were related specifically to my Dad’s death.
I saw her for a few months and cannot praise the CBT therapy highly enough. It helped massively. In many ways, it was more helpful than anything I’d experienced before as it was so practical and gave me the tools to be able to think about things differently. It appealed to my sense of logic and reason and suited my way of thinking. Of course the therapist wasn’t perfect. She could be cold and officious and wound me up by asking which items I would like to put on the ‘agenda’ each week, but at least there was no boundary crossing, crying or other inappropriate nonsense. I learnt a lot from her and feel that CBT techniques have permanently re-wired my brain.
I don’t know whether I had extremely bad luck with my earlier ventures into therapy, or if these experiences are relatively common. I often wonder how different my life would have been if the psychiatrist I saw at 16 had been better, but I suppose it doesn’t work like that. Therapists are human too and subject to the same flaws as the rest of us. My only regret is that I wasn’t confident enough at the time to speak up or complain about some of the ridiculous scenarios that came my way. Despite the difficulties though, I did manage to achieve a lot of insight and self-awareness into my problems. I’m glad I kept going and asking for different types of help as eventually, I did manage to find the right support.
Laura’s Top Tips for navigating the minefield of professional help
1) If you are unhappy with anything your therapist says or does, SPEAK UP. If you don’t feel comfortable saying it directly to them, then ask to speak to the manager of the organisation or complain in writing.
2) A therapist is not your friend/mother/anyone else in your life and if they start acting as such, it’s time to end the sessions and move on. The sessions are yours, to talk about your issues and not theirs. You will never see them again after the sessions end, so make sure they keep to their professional boundaries.
3) If your therapist cries in front of you, that is their problem not yours. If it makes you uncomfortable, say so. Remember therapists are human too and may be affected by what you say, but you always have the right to let them know how it makes you feel or walk away.
5) Therapist don’t always have all the answers. Don’t expect them to completely ‘fix’ you or transform you into a totally different person.
6) If you have given a therapy a good try and don’t feel it’s helping, don’t continue. Ask to be referred to a different person or a different therapy entirely.
7) If you are on a massive waiting list and find yourself struggling, don’t hesitate to call the Samaritans or any of the mental health helplines such as MIND which are available. You could be waiting months, so don’t let things build up and overwhelm you.
8) There are many different types of counselling, therapy and support available. Do your research and see which types seem appropriate for you.
9) Don’t be afraid to ask to see someone’s qualifications and ask about their experience. You are letting them loose on your mind, so make sure their credentials are in order.
10) Remember as they say in the L’Oreal adverts – ‘You’re worth it’ You deserve to have the right help.