My Story (So Far) Pt. 2 | How Therapy Turned My Life Around

[Disclaimer: The aim of this blog post is to tell my experience with honesty. Therefore, some content may trigger an adverse reaction. If this post is beginning to upset you, I advise that you please stop reading it immediately and talk to your support team. Content and Trigger Warning: Depression, Anxiety, Self-Harm & Suicide]

I'm going to start this post with a cheeky plug and recommend you also read "My Story (So Far) Pt. 1" here, for those of you that haven't read it already. Shameless, I know, but this should give you a bit more insight into what lead me to attend therapy in the first place... Enjoy!

I suppose the first place to start would be my first encounters with counselling in general.

I had trouble making and keeping friends in school, this is not new information to you if you've read my previous post (if you haven't read it yet then seriously?! I plugged it and everything), so in both primary and secondary school I remember having meetings with teachers in order to sort out arguments amongst friendship groups... And though this is a regular occurrence in schools, it's an important one as handling it needs to be done right.

Yes, children squabble over "nothing important", but actually those arguments and fights are very important in those children's lives and so teachers may actually become the first "counsellors" they encounter (outside of their own parents or guardians) that help them navigate their emotions.

Looking from the outside into an argument between children or teenagers runs the risk of viewing the events with an "I know better" attitude. Of course an adult does know better, that's why kids go to adults for help in the first place, but to treat the situation with frustration and dismissiveness by saying "I don't care about your childish bickering" is to say "I don't care about how this is affecting you".

Unfortunately this happens a lot to children and it's easy to see why, but it means that very early on a lot of children are taught, from one person or another, that their feelings don't always matter. This is why any adult in the presence of children becomes a "counsellor" in the same way they become a "play mate", "protector", "cook", "nurse" or "maid" etc. It is part of the role of raising and caring for kids and handling situations like these is a crucial part of their emotional development.

Of course, I didn't look at it with this perspective when I was younger. I know now that looking after children's emotional well-being is a literal mine field and whilst I don't believe that my teacher's failed me it does help to look back on everything that happened and know that it wasn't anybody's fault. Children argue. Shit happens.

Every argument, every resolution, every consolation and every assumption is a lesson that is learned, and sometimes we as children learn the wrong things.

I learnt along the way, somewhere, that everything that was happening to me and the way that I was treated was my own fault.

"Obviously they are saying/doing X thing(s) to you because you did Y thing to them!" "What did YOU do to cause that?" "They said X? They aren't lying though" "I can't blame them for saying/doing that" "If you hadn't done/said/been X then they wouldn't have done/said that to you"

Yes, maybe some of those statements were fair; a tough-love sort of attitude to fixing the issues. Really though, this doesn't always work and rarely actually fixes the issues in question, it just passes the blame.

I don't believe that kids should be wrapped up in cotton-wool or that they shouldn't be made aware that actions have consequences, of course they should, but when statements like these are not backed up with reasoning, support to put it right, logic and really hearing what is being said, then children's minds tend to fill in the blanks.

For example, if Child A is being nasty to Child B because Child B said something to upset them, then both children need talking to. Child A should be taught appropriate ways to express their upset that don't resort to name-calling or violence, whilst Child B is given a lesson in empathy so that they understand consequences and can make better decisions when interacting with others.

Yes, Child B needs to learn how their actions and words can negatively affect others, but this doesn't give Child A a free pass to be mean and although their reaction may be understandable it is not excusable. Without guidance Child A will grow up to believe that it is okay to react to being upset or angry by causing others to also be upset and angry too. If Child A's action are justified by an adult (like in the [above] quotes I heard growing up), then Child B may also start to justify the behaviour of others that are mean to them, become hyper-aware of other's emotions at the sacrifice of their own or even develop a complete lack of empathy altogether. Neither of the outcomes for Child A or B are healthy.

If someone is repeatedly told that their actions are causing others to treat them poorly and that poor behaviour is justified or enabled, then they will not always see this behaviour as "bad"; becoming desensitised to violence against them, or automatically blame themselves for other's actions at all times regardless of whether it is their fault or not. This is what I believe happened to me in hindsight.

I still feel like I struggle socially, though I've become much better at hiding it. I always second guess every interaction I have with other people and worry that I've upset someone without realising it. And if I do upset someone I worry what their reaction will be. I have also been in an emotionally abusive relationship, whereby I justified their shitty actions, partly because I didn't always recognise when their behaviour was shitty and when I did I just assumed it was my fault.

Like I said, the way adults interact with and teach kids is so important and will have a knock-on effect into their adulthood. This is not meant to scare anyone into thinking that if they say the wrong thing they will fuck up their child (although there is always a chance of that happening) but to get you to recognise the influence that you have, in both positive and negative ways.

When I stopped asking for help

I very clearly remember the day I formed the belief that adults would always help me if I needed it... in Primary School I was being pinned up against the wall by a group of bullies and a teacher came out and stopped them. I remember feeling so grateful and safe in school because of her and knew that someone would always be there for me.

I also very clearly remember the day that I lost faith in that ideal and disengaged from getting adults involved in what was going on. After spending many years believing that getting help would be the best solution, in Secondary School it dawned on me that this might not be the case. There had been a few smaller incidents that made me start to question just how much the teachers would be able to fix what was happening, but this situation stopped me opening up to them at all.

I was in Year 8 (about 12 years old) and was arguing with my friends about how I knew they didn't actually want to be friends with me and were just pitying me. Dramatic, I know.

At this point in time I was showing signs of undiagnosed depression and this was seeping into the relationships with those around me. It caused turbulence to the point where I was unknowingly self-sabotaging my friendships through negative thinking and paranoia. I was not much fun to be around and this day in Year 8 saw a climax to this toxic state I was in and the escalation of my mental illness.

I will not go into the finer details of this event too much right now, as this is a significant event in the adoption of my self-harm coping mechanism and is something that I want to explore at a later date.

Following this argument I remember a conversation with a teacher as she tried to control the aftermath. A one-sided account of events from another girl in our group alongside my inability to communicate thanks to a dissociative state, resulted in this teacher lecturing me about how I should be treating others better, how I need to be better if I wanted to have any friends at all and would continue to be left out if I acted the way I did. I absorbed every word she said and agreed with her. I needed to be better.

In her mind what she was giving me was sound advice, but her message was warped by my depression to become a lecture in everything I wasn't. I wasn't nice enough, wasn't easy to be around, wasn't good enough. In reality it wasn't that I wasn't inherently a bad person, I was just sick. My depression was in the driver's seat and how I was acting was not me at all, but I and everyone else around me thought it was.

Teenagers have a way of being "dramatic", but that's just because most of the situations they are encountering are completely new to them. First heart breaks, first breakups, first real arguments, first encounters with rumours or bullying and most teens simply don't know how to deal with it and will need help to get through it all, even if they wouldn't want to admit it. To an outsider events like these seem overexaggerated, but to me this felt very real, and very heart-breaking. Throw depression or anxiety into the mix and the result can be devastating.

Half of all mental health problems are established by the age of 14 and 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in any given year (source: Mental Health Foundation) which shows that there is far more at play here than just hormones and squabbling. The issues concerning teens and young adults can have serious effects on long-term mental health and well-being.

This argument (and how it was handled) was a pivotal moment in my school life that resulted in me closing off to others to hide this side of me, refusing to ask for help and developing a self-harm coping mechanism to deal with the shame I felt about who I was.

I needed to be better. The reason people treat me the way they do is because I'm not better. People will leave me if I'm not better. People secretly don't like me and wish I wasn't around. I'm not good enough and everyone else sees that too.

My views on therapy

All of those were thoughts that followed me from that point.

I believed that getting anyone involved in my issues would result in blame towards me, so I just started assuming everything would be my fault so it wouldn't be a surprise when it was again confirmed to be true. I didn't need others blaming me when I already blamed myself so there was no point asking for help.

Also, if anyone tried to help and instantly saw me as being the one at fault, then they may even refuse to help me at all.

After that day I did start to gravitate towards a different group of friends, one that was healthier and didn't instil me with nearly as much anxiety. But those thoughts were always there and I was always desperate to make myself as likeable as possible to avoid the rejection I would receive if I was just myself.

Over time my self-harm coping mechanism became a regular occurrence because I didn't know how else to deal with these thoughts and felt like I was rightfully punishing myself for being the bad person I thought I was.

My first introduction to the idea of therapy came from my mother after she found out I was self-harming. I had always hidden it and I thought she would be angry with me if she found out. This wasn't the case, but I closed off when she tried to engage with me. I was defensive and I don't believe my mum really knew how to deal with it. Let's face it, how many parents would? She did the best she could; was kind and compassionate and did not shame me or shout at me or get angry.

She did however give me an ultimatum; either stop the self-harm on my own or she will be sending me to therapy. Although she did not mean it to be, this sounded like a threat to me, like therapy was a punishment I would receive if I didn't behave myself. I came away thinking I had to change my habits or I would be shipped off away from home to a stuffy old man who would sit there and tell me how everything was my fault and I just needed to be better! "Is it really so hard for you to be better, like everyone else?!" I could hear him saying in my mind.

Of course, this was my imagination filling in the blanks. The only things I knew about therapy were what I had seen on telly; an older man staring over his glasses, judgingly analysing you, making notes as you talk about your innermost worries and then he sits back in his chair, sighs and proceeds to tell you all that is wrong with you. This sounded like hell to me, and was probably my depression scaring me so that I did not get the help I needed.

So I lied. I didn't have the strength to give up the self-harm as it had become one of the only ways I was able to cope and process everything around me but I didn't want to go to therapy either. I told my mum I would stop on my own, but in reality I just became much better at hiding it. I did try; the thought of mum finding out I didn't stop both upset and terrified me, but I couldn't.

I became adamant that therapy would not help me and it would cause more harm than good.

Let's give it a go?

It was at university where I officially got my depression and anxiety diagnoses. Although I loved what I was studying, being surrounded by new people in a new city with pressure to do well took it's toll. I was referred to the university counselling services. I knew I needed help; my self-harming was getting worse and I was getting suicidal thoughts, and I had matured enough to recognise that I needed to give it a try, despite deep down thinking it was pointless.

It didn't go as well as I'd hoped. You are only given 6 hour-long sessions, after that you are referred to an NHS team off-site. I think I expected it to be a bit more helpful; I thought there would be more guidance coming from my counsellor but it was really just a space to vent. On top of this my counsellor went on holiday half way through our time together so I had to repeat the first 3 sessions with someone else.

Don't get me wrong, access to these services is invaluable and will help a great number of people that need a safe space to talk with a friendly face. Every variation of therapy serves a specific purpose and this was not the service I needed, my experience with the university counsellor made me see that. I had seen the potential that therapy had for me and saw that no blame was thrown around in these sessions, contrary to my beliefs. So I decided to go to the off-site NHS service.

Although I'd realised that my preconceived ideas surrounding counselling/therapy were not entirely accurate, it didn't stop me from feeling terrified when I went for my first CBT appointment. What if they think I'm beyond help? What if they think there's nothing wrong with me at all? What if once I start digging further into my mind I don't like what I find? What if they believe me to be just bad person who just needs to be better? What if they did blamed me after all?

This service was more helpful, but again you are given 6 hour-long sessions and then you "see how it goes". I never felt like an hour is long enough when you start to delve into how your mind works. Questions are asked, feelings are unearthed and emotions are running high, then your time runs out so you are given a worksheet and sent on your way. I struggled to open up to this particular therapist, and that happens sometimes, but I'd managed to talk about my suicidal thoughts and my anxiety and we had started to break down my thought processes so I could see how it could progress into something worthwhile over time.

Unfortunately, I missed one session as I got my dates mixed up and because of this they discharged me. I had no phone call to chase as to where I was, just a letter through the door. Apparently because I didn't show up I "didn't require their services anymore". I was shocked, and thought a phone call would be mandatory (if not courteous) if the patient is showing signs of suicidal ideation? What if something had happened to that patient and therefore a reason they couldn't make it in?

I get it, mental health services are stretched, but I DID need to go. I broke down crying after I received that letter. I felt completely alone and abandoned and it was all my own fault. The discharge and lack of follow up felt uncaring, and for all they knew I could have been dead.

Why bother?

I carried on alone after that. I was on anti-depressants but without other treatment to compliment them my situation was not going to improve. Some people need both a mix of medication and talking therapies to see improvement, others only need one or the other, but at the time my particular case needed both.

And just as a person can show improvement using a mixture of techniques, a person's mental health can deteriorate for a number of reasons as well. 3rd Year stress, job hunting, moving to a new town, starting a new job and a break-up, all one after the other took a huge toll on me. I was told "I love you, but it's not worth it" i.e. being with you is not worth dealing with your depression. I was living alone, in a strange place with inadequately treated mental illness, no support network close-by and now the new belief that I was not worth it. Not worth saving, not worth the effort, not worth supporting, not worth fighting for, not worth anything.

Why should I fight for myself? I couldn't answer that question.

When things started to repeat themselves in my next relationship I knew that I couldn't continue feeling this way and once again dragging others into my mess. So I started looking for a way out. I didn't do it because I decided I was worth something, I just wanted to feel better.

I sought out private therapy this time. I knew I would be waiting for months if not years to get help through the NHS and I didn't think I would last that long.

I knew I would die if I didn't. When you get to a place that low, the only place you can go is up, or in the ground.

Everything changed

My therapist's name was Ian. He wasn't stuffy and wasn't that old. He didn't wear glasses. Yes he made notes, but he was listening. He didn't tell me all the things that were wrong with me, instead he focused on how we can make the situation better, not how to make me better. He was kind but honest, fair but empathetic. He was different to the last therapist I had and I could talk him much more easily.

Rather than CBT, the therapy I received from Ian was more Humanistic. It uses a range of techniques to aid self-exploration and enhance well-being. It helps you look at your life and issues from a range of angles to increase self-awareness and understanding.

We started by talking about what I wanted out of our sessions together and turned those wants into goals. We talked about what brought me there and then started to work our way backwards to find the roots of my thinking. We challenged my current thought processes using methods that I still use to this day, establishing new ways of processing information that were more objective. I had always struggled to see things outside the lens of my depression, but Ian helped me do that for the first time since my teens. His fair analysis gave me a view of the world I could trust besides my own; one without my own bias.

I went there to feel better, not because I felt I was worth fighting for, but that was something that I learnt along the way. He helped me see that my depression was a separate entity to myself and one that can be challenged and defeated. He helped me see that I don't have to be perfect to be valuable, and he helped me see that other people's opinions of me do not matter as much as my own (though I still have to remind myself of this one).

Eventually I wanted to get better as a big fuck you to people who said I wasn't worth it, to people who blamed me, to people who didn't think I could do it. I wanted to show them that they were not there for me when I needed them and therefore they had sit and watch from the side-lines as I became everything they thought I couldn't be. Spite is a very good motivator it seems!

Lessons I learned

Every child is different which means that every approach should be tailored to those children, not a one size fits all "it didn't do me any harm" attitude. Therapy is the same, I needed to find the type of therapeutic approach that suited me and my needs in order to get the best out of it.

I have since learned that as a child I didn't have any control over the actions or emotions of others, but grew to believe that I was to blame for them. This realisation has helped me massively with rebuilding my confidence and strength when it comes to standing up for myself. I believed I deserved all the shit that happened to me, when in reality I was not responsible for the actions of others. They have a choice of how to react to any given situation, the same way that I have a choice of how I deal with it.

Looking back on your story makes you realise that no event in your life is in isolation of itself. Every unique circumstance always leads to another, so when I relay my first experiences of counselling they may not be seen as significant if you look at them in isolation. However, everything adds up to create a bigger picture, or assumption, in your mind. Looking back helped me see this bigger picture and makes sense of this unique sequence of events that lead to where I am today.

I believe that I met Ian at the right time to create real change in my life, but I also believe that there were many occasions where an earlier intervention would have prevented the need for me to meet Ian in the first place. Maybe other things in my life would have worked out, and maybe I would have gone on to achieve so many amazing things if my self-confidence wasn't shattered so young. But I'm here now and I fully intend to make up for a lot of lost time.

That's the thing about about depression you see, it changes you and how you act, then makes you feel believe its because you are the bad one, not the illness itself. It makes you feel ashamed of who you are, when you aren't really being yourself at all. It's insidious and cruel. It cannot be trusted; it's soul purpose is to break you down piece by piece and then take you down when you feel you have nothing left. It lies. It tells you that you aren't good enough when in fact, depression is the one using your own feelings against you. It robs you of your youth, your identity, your time and your potential. But it doesn't have to be a death sentence.

Therapy saved my life, and even now 5 years later I would have no qualms going back to therapy if ever I needed some extra support. It is not just a last resort anymore, but a key resource for creating a better life for myself. When it is done right, suited to your needs, consistent and empowering then it becomes invaluable.

If you are in need of urgent help, please use the resources below Samaritans Helpline - https://www.samaritans.org/

Mental Health Foundation - https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/your-mental-health/getting-help

NHS information regarding general mental health - https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/

NHS information regarding access to urgent help - https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/get-urgent-help-for-mental-health/

Mental health advice tailored for men - https://www.thecalmzone.net/help/get-help/

Mind Charity - https://www.mind.org.uk/need-urgent-help/

How Mental list of apps and online resources - https://www.howmental.com/resources

Rethink Mental Illness - https://www.rethink.org/aboutus/what-we-do/advice-and-information-service/get-help-now/

Turning Point - https://www.turning-point.co.uk/services/drug-and-alcohol-support.html

Alcoholics Anonymous - https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/

If you feel you are in immediate danger, please go to A&E.