The New Normal

Me Black and WhiteUntil very recently, I had never attended any form of counselling in my life. I was rather proud of the fact; to get to my age and remain largely mentally intact was a real feat. Not that there’s anything wrong with therapy, of course. I would never decry its value. And in my role as a medical professional, I would recommend it to anybody who I felt needed it. But for me, divulging your innermost feelings and angst to a stranger was a complete no-no. For me to admit I must put my hand up and ask for help with something I ought to be able to deal with myself felt shameful (yes, to me it was shameful). But that was then, and this is now. And desperate times call for desperate measures.

As you know, my father died at the end of last year. And this opened up a big old can of worms; that ‘can’ being the death of my sister five years previously. Suddenly my five-year-old coping mechanisms stopped being effective. Suddenly, things that I could handle in the past seemed to be getting on top of me. But instead of hitting the antidepressants hard (not that I’m decrying their value either, I just didn’t want to mask my emotions with drugs), I was determined that burying my feelings deep, deep down was still definitely the way to go. But bereavement counselling kept being suggested, and reluctantly, one day I agreed. After months of negotiations, emails sent back and forth, being unable to make any of the appointments offered (which was partly down to me looking for excuses to get out of it), June came around and finally I found a time and day I could attend. Or had no choice but to.

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A lot of people will tell you therapy is great; it’s a chance to vent all your spleen. But I’ve never actually wanted to vent. Well, I have, but I do it in this blog. Up until now, you have been my therapy. And you didn’t even get paid to listen. Ha-ha-ha *maniacal laughter*. You see I can express my emotions in the written word – but rarely verbally. My vocabulary simply fails me when I try to talk about something emotive. Therefore, I’ve always been of the school of thought that if you don’t talk about a problem, then it didn’t really happen. Genius, right? But the thing is, bad things did happen, and compartmentalising those things – shutting them up in a box – just didn’t seem to be working quite so well anymore. Trivial instances were becoming big deals. That deeply buried angst was manifesting itself by affecting my physical health; grief was finding a way out. It was simply time to talk – way past time.

The bereavement therapist’s name was Paul. I don’t think I’m jeopardising his anonymity by saying that – there are a lot of therapists in this world. And some of them are called Paul. This one was too. I won’t tell you his surname…because I don’t know what it is. We started out by discussing why I was there, and instead of making a gag like I wanted to such as, ‘hang on, isn’t this KFC? I only wanted a boneless banquet. Sorry, I must have got the wrong door’, I told the truth. The deaths. The suffocating anxiety that is blighting my life. The knowledge that the worst thing in the world has happened and can therefore happen again. The unquietable worry when events are out of my control. Being anywhere but within my own comfort zone. All of it. And Paul was very good at asking the right questions, prompting unexplored thoughts, and listening intently.

Dad

What I wasn’t so keen on were the long and awkward silences. I would construct what I felt were nicely worded and rounded sentences, phrasing an emotion in just the right way – for somebody as verbally strangulated as me – and sit back and wait for Paul to reply (or perhaps stand up and burst into applause at my eloquence, that would have been nice). But he would just sit and nod, and wait for me to say something more. But there wasn’t any more. Now, I’m the kind of person who can’t stand an empty silence, so this was torturous for me. I’m the kind of girl who will fill a stilted lull in conversation at all costs – with an inane question or a stupid joke. But inane questions and stupid jokes don’t belong in the world of bereavement therapy. And I’d already told him all there was to say; embellishing further seemed impossible. But this, I presume, is what counselling demands.

I’ve attended two of six sessions so far, and I think a notion I am going to have to dispel from my head is that therapy will solve all your problems. I guess that is why I’ve avoided going up until now; people died, and no amount of talking and crying will bring them back. But Paul says bereavement counselling is all about ‘the journey to acceptance’. The journey to accepting what he calls ‘the new normal’. The old normal was a world with my sister in it. The old normal was a world where my father (who I didn’t respect very much, and I hadn’t spoken to in five years) was still around doing his thing – albeit having very little to do with me. But the new normal doesn’t contain those people. And I must acknowledge that. And as is the natural order of things, other people I care about will die, and I need to learn to come to terms with Lynn’s passing before that happens. So why can’t I? It’s been six years now. Paul says I am brave for putting my hand up and asking for help, being the ‘hard-as-nails’ person I was (my phrasing, which he repeated). But I don’t feel brave. I feel weak, if anything.

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Paul says I have been carrying one too many large stones, and the little pebbles on top have just tipped me over the edge. He and I have established that I am sad (obviously), and I am angry too. I’m mourning two deaths, I’m feeling guilt over my lack of forgiveness towards my father, I’m grieving for a family that has imploded – my sister who was the glue that held it together has gone – or maybe I’m grieving for a family that never really was. And perhaps my coping mechanisms are unhealthy (I suggested that, not Paul, he said I dealt with things the only way I knew how). I pretend the deaths never happened. I don’t think about the people who have gone. At all. I’m horribly good at it. I pretend those people never existed. Yes, never existed…I’m admitting that for the first time. It’s awful. It’s cowardly, because all of us wish to be remembered when we’ve gone. But that’s what I do, because it’s easier that way.

Me in CarI can’t say I much enjoy bereavement therapy. It’s not something I look forward to on a Thursday afternoon. I’d far rather sit in a coffee shop and eat cake (that always makes me feel better). On counselling days, I must always ensure I’ve worn waterproof mascara. I always leave with a red nose (I’m not an attractive crier). I make sure I bring sunglasses to hide my puffy eyes from passers-by. And just hope I didn’t park my car stupidly far away from the office because, like I say, I look super-weird whenever a few tears have been shed. But I hope it will be worth it. I hope it will help me make this journey to acceptance, or at least send me on my way. I don’t like ‘the new normal’. I’d much rather have the old one back. But this is the normal that I have been given and there’s just no changing the way things are, so I may as well learn to roll with it, right?

 

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35 thoughts on “The New Normal

  1. I absolutely do not agree with the concept of ‘the new normal’! Bereavement, like any major change in life, is a process of adapting to a different direction. I’m not sure I even believe in the concept of ‘normal’ because although we all share one thing: humanity, we are all different and that variety in all its seething, colliding, wriggling mass is what makes life such an infinite joy.
    Bereavement makes you grow up – fast. And most people aren’t ready for it. What we forget to do is to cry, and that’s why so much of counselling involves crying, weeping, howling and gasping until we’re ready to wash our faces and carry on. Don’t worry about it; it’s normal.
    Lastly: the silences during the sessions – you are not alone in finding them disturbing, trying to fill them up, trying to avoid them. Have something you can focus on during those silences – a flower, a star, whatever. Just let the silence embrace you while your last few sentences hang in the air and you grow comfortable with them. I think that’s what it’s all about in the sessions.
    You are NOT alone, Adele. There are many, many of us out here. Just shout… we’ll hear you! Hugs…

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    • Thanks Pru. I’m not sure what I think of the concept. I couldn’t have tolerated it six years ago, but denial hadn’t been helping. I guess it doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as you talk about it. 😊

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  2. I hope you’re feeling better now! Personally, I think therapy and meditation help in such cases. I would never recommend drugs to anyone. But that’s not the point here. Your mental health is important and you should take good care. xoxo

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  3. Reading this brought tears. I know it’s very difficult to cope with situations like this. Therapy definitely works. Although I haven’t had any but I am sure venting out our feelings do bring down the grief. You are a strong woman. God bless you Adele.

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  4. Reading this post on the same day as reading “All of Me”,(today is catch-up-on-Adele’s-life-story-day) confirms how much we as bloggers use our blogs to vent and share pieces of our inner selves.
    I too have shared thoughts and feelings through my writing that I cannot share “in real life” – sometimes I don’t even know the feeling is real until I’ve written it down.
    We all deal with what life throws at us in different ways. I tend to use the ostrich approach – I stick my head in the sand and hope it goes away.
    It works … but only for a while … more often than not, having my head in the sand means that the “thing” gets the chance to go around and bite me on the bum!!

    I have a friend who is a counsellor and she described it to me like this:
    When we don’t deal with our issues it’s like trying to hold a balloon under water. We can hold one or two, maybe even a few, (if we’re really flexible and use all our limbs) but sooner or later a random balloon plops up to the surface and then we have to push it down again. In the process we unintentionally release another. Our struggle causes ripples in the water and these ripples make another balloon plop up to the surface. We land up exhausting ourselves; trying to keep all of our balloons under water. However, when we deal with an issue and finally let it go, it’s like a helium balloon; once you let it go it’s gone for good.

    You are very brave and very strong. To consciously drive to a place and attend a session that you know is going to bring pain is very brave. It takes immense inner strength to deal with things.
    It is easier to ignore them – not healthier, but easier.
    Big hugs xx T

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  5. Writing is certainly as forceful a therapy as I know and you write it very well. Knowing that someone (and often not those closest to you) is reading is a wonderful feeling. I think we need to air those innermost dark things in some way and to have multiple ways of doing it can only be a good thing (or to up your writing ante and focus on one!). Lovely blog, as ever. x

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  6. ‘Awkward silences’ is a similar tactic used by the Media when interviewing. They count on people filling the uncomfortable pause, often slipping up and divulging information they normally might not have. Sounds like a similar tactic in therapy.
    Glad to hear you took the step. The post was wonderfully written, as always.

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  7. The anger, the silence, the tears…and finally the acceptance. As I told you before, I know exactly how you feel. Apart from similar experiences, it’s right! Coming to acceptance is the only way probably to find our cool. Death leave a mark on the people who live making it difficult for them to move on. But, we have a choice to stay still or to live for those who want us more in their life. For yourself who deep down want to live. You need to bury the old feelings and let go my friend. It’s a good thing that you began the journey in the road to acceptance. It’s not going to be easy. Hang in there and one day it will definitely help.

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  8. Interesting reading Adele. I lost my dad just over six weeks ago and am debating whether to go to bereavement counselling or not. When my mum died seven years ago, I just basically cried for almost an entire year and didn’t feel bad about it. The end result was that I moved on, always missing her but able to accept that she wasn’t physically here any more. My dad’s passing seems different somehow, and I am wondering whether it is because we had more warning (by only three weeks, but I knew that he wouldn’t see the year out as he was stuggling with life generally) or that I have other distractions that are kind of keeping things at bay. I wasn’t working when mum died but I am now (and have a demanding job), I have just bought a house that needs some work doing on it and I know I need to get them done sooner rather than later, and that the boyfriend is not being as supportive as he was when mum passed away (and if he keeps on with his current attitude, he will soon by the ex-boyfriend, even after nearly 14 years). I’m not sure that I’m ready for counselling yet, but I’m not shutting the door on it. I will see how things go over the next couple of months and see how I feel then. It was really helpful to read this – thank you for taking the time to write it.

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    • Hi Julie, only you can know if you are ready for bereavement counselling, and from experience, it’s a hard decision to make. It’s taken me a long time to get around to this, and I felt guilty for needing it because my relationship with my father was so poor. But a loss is a loss, and it’s brought up so much that was never dealt with over my sister. If you feel the need to speak to somebody at some point, I think I’d recommend it. After the first session, I wasn’t so sure, but something struck a chord with me after the second. Anyway, after resisting for six years, I’m not one to give advice, but look after yourself – this is a tough time for you. xx

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  9. After the death of someone close, people very often try to offer these comforting words: “Think of all the memories you shared!” Well, yes, there is some comfort in that. What I have trouble shaking? The memories I will no longer buld with that special person no longer in my world. I don’t know if bereavement counseling addresses that, but it seems to me that it should.

    Excellent article, Adele.

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    • Thanks Laura. You’re right, letting people ‘live through their memories’ seems such an empty thing to say. But it’s time to come to terms with this – six years of burying this has affected me badly x

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  10. There’s so much I want to say. So much I feel I should say. And so much I think maybe I shouldn’t say. It’s difficult to know which is which.

    I’ll begin by saying first that I’m a little (well, more than a little) dismayed that I “think” I didn’t know about your father’s passing. Surely this can’t be true. I must have known. We must have talked about it or at least I must have said something to you along the lines of expressing my deepest condolences. I truly am very, very sorry for all your pain, Adele. That related to the death of your sister and father. I’m sorry if I am not being sensitive enough. I’ve lost a number of people myself (including my father). But there’s never anyway any one human being can truly or fully appreciate the trauma experienced by one. It’s really all an approximation. The possible “advantage” that people like you svc i might have over certain others is rooted in our relatively shared experiences.

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  11. This said, I’m not big on therapy either, although like you I won’t begrudge anybody else for engaging it. Different people on different paths may need different things. The way I look at it (and again, this is strictly and solely my own personal view – not at all a reflection on or judgment of your choice), I have a hard time reconciling myself to opening up to a total stranger who, let’s face it, is really only sitting down to listen to us because they’re getting paid to. I’d much rather talk to you, Adele, about my deepest, darkest secrets and pain than somebody like that.

    I think essentially you and I might be on the same page here. But again, I support your personal need to walk this path. Maybe it’s exactly what you need aa this point in your life now. I’m not sure I’m in any position to say and it’s not my place anyway.

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  12. Death is so shocking because it is a direct contradiction to what everything in this world (in our lives) propagandizes: we’ll live forever, don’t worry about tomorrow because it’ll take care of itself, everything will be all right in the end because that’s what we’re told to believe from childhood, etc. But there comes a point in all our lives when the hammer hits and we truly realize we are all going to die. And that’s scary because our own death doesn’t just mean we will one day have to say goodbye to a favorite car, childhood momento, cushy job, or whatever, but everything we know (and think we know) in this life. It also of course means that it’s inevitable that we will have to say goodbye to others who leave before us – leaving us here in total shock and displacement (“What the hell just happened? How did forever just change on me without my permission? Where the hell am I suppose to go and how the hell am I supposed to be expected to carry on without somebody that has been part of my whole world identity since forever?).

    For myself (and others), I can say having a personal relationship with God definitely helps to answer these questions and face these challenges with hope and peace. But I am fully mindful that others (and perhaps yourself, Adele) have an especially hard time accepting this as a course of action. Before I turned 18, I didn’t have God in my life as I do now. I still remember very clearly what it’s like to face the world without Him. It’s hard. It’s sometimes cold and terrifying, particularly in moments or during events like what we’re talking about. I wish I could wave a magic wand and “poor” make everything instantly better for you – solve all your problems right now. But the truth is no one can except you. Or more accurately, God. The choice is and always will be yours how you want to live…which direction you want to go. God has given us all the gift of free still to choose to go right or left, up or down, forward or backward. He could force everything. But He doesn’t operate that way. He helps, but He doesn’t pull our strings like a puppet master. He gives us every tool and resource (including self-awareness and a conscience, not to mention His grace) to make the right decisions. But He still leaves it up to us to choose right from wrong, good over evil, truth or a life defined by self-deception and lies. True love and loyalty (such as the kind He desires) only means something and works if it’s freely embraced, not forced – much like human parents want their kids to respect and obey them because they love and trust them, rather than merely have to because physical might and the law says they have to. God is like this with us.

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  13. Anyway, I’ll end here by saying that, whatever your choices are in life, Adele, I’ll always love and respect you. And whatever your feelings or opinions of me are, I’ll always be here for you as a friend…ready and willing to support you any way I can.

    Please forgive any typos and grammatical errors. ❤

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  14. The same thing happened to me last year, Adele. I lost my mother 5 years ago and never had the chance to properly grieve. My coping mechanisms failed, and to make a long story short, I decided to go to therapy. I tried to avoid it, like you but it became inevitable. Now, I am also experiencing the new normal. I understand and send good thoughts to you.

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