Until 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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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?