Walking up a flight of beige stairs, my heart beat in triple time with every step, I could feel nausea settling deep into my stomach. I can turn back now and just pretend like I never contacted them, I thought as I stepped closer and closer to the waiting room. I wanted so badly to turn around and go back to the library, hide behind my university work, and push down the anxiety and depression. But, before I knew it, I was knocking on the door of the receptionist, and announcing myself:
“Hi, I’m Adrienne. I’ve got an appointment at 2pm.”
The receptionist smiled, passed over a clipboard with an information sheet, and asked me to fill it out and wait on one of the seats, while my counsellor finished up with her previous person. I took the clipboard, my hands shaking, and found a seat closest to the door. There was someone else waiting for their counsellor. I smiled curtly, and looked away to focus on the posters and leaflets around the room, blue-tacked onto the plain white brick walls. I didn’t want to be here, but I knew I had to be. I wanted to leave, but a weight held me down, making sure I didn’t.
It felt like hours had passed, when really it was only a few minutes, before my counsellor came in and said my name into the air. I smiled at her and she signalled me to follow her a little down the corridor to her room.
That would be my place of solace for the next few months.
It was a friend who introduced me to the idea of going to the counselling. She knew I was going through a hard time again at university. My anxiety and depression were getting the better of me. I was in my first relationship, and the beginnings of it falling apart were beginning to show. I was leaving parties early to walk home at night. I was in the middle of a flat-share argument. University work was piling up and up and up, and my self esteem was going down and down and down. Everything was collapsing around my ears.
I was lost. I felt I had no one. I felt I had exhausted my support system. Like in my previous blogpost on Samaritans, I needed someone who didn’t know me. I needed objectivity.
So, standing in our mouldy kitchen, cradling our cups of tea and coffee because it was too cold to sit in our living room, my flatmate said: “I’ve started attending counselling up at the university. You should give them an email and try it.”
I found the email address for the wellbeing services and sent along an enquiry. Within a few days, I was asked to come along to an introductory session the next week. I remember an immediate sense of dread hitting me. I was getting some help. Finally. But, having spent years and years repressing my poor mental health, I was scared of what was going to happen. Similar to my experience with Samaritans, I was scared of being vulnerable.
However, I knew that when push came to shove, there was no chance I could turn this down. I didn’t know when I’d get taken again. I knew how precious a commodity mental health help is. And this being my second breakdown I needed someone to speak to. I needed to figure this out.
My introductory session lasted 30 minutes. I remember there was a soft, artificial smell of lavender, which would automatically set me at ease in my following sessions. I was so incredibly nervous. And my counsellor knew that. Counsellors know you are nervous. They know what goes on in these sessions. They know the general script. You may not. I didn’t.
This introductory session was to help me figure out what I thought about counselling and why I was there.
It gave my counsellor the chance to get me to know me generally, and then get to understand why I came to her. I came to her because I was struggling with university, my anxiety, and I wanted it all to stop. I wanted her to give me ways to make it stop. I don’t want to be stressed anymore and I want to stop crying all the time, I said to her within the first 15 minutes. She soon made me realise that part of counselling is exploring the why’s, not the how to’s.
Because that’s the thing with counselling, and something I didn’t expect: a counsellor, a therapist, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or whoever it is, will not just tell you what to do. You are a vital and essential part of your journey to recovery. If you do not understand your core beliefs, your reasons for why you feel the way you do and why you have learned to cope the way you do … then some breathing techniques are going to be absolutely useless to you.
Additionally, similarly to how I felt with Samaritans, I found it startling that the counsellor allowed me to talk without interruption. There was a lot of silence, because I was waiting for her to jump in with advice in the first few sessions. I was waiting for her to add in her opinion. But that’s the thing: they need to know more about you before they can add in their opinion. They need to understand where you have come from. It is not their job to jump in with solutions straight away, because those solutions may not be tailored to you if they have not heard what is going on in your life. Not every problem needs to be solved right away, particularly the big, messy ones. The opportunity to talk is something I had to adjust to. I had to force myself to talk. I was filling the silences with everything in my life. This is a technique they perform to get you to empty out your emotions and your frustrations and your thoughts. And it is uncomfortable. But so is mental health. This feeling is temporary and shall pass. You just have to roll with it. You just have to talk.
So, that’s what we did the first couple of sessions. I talked and talked and talked and she listened. The smell of lavender drifted around the room and the timer for the session ticked on. She and I got to know me. We explored my family, my relationship with parents and peers and all its dysfunctional parts, my relationship with myself… And this helped her to help me to understand why I would freak out at the slightest hint of failure. It helped me to realise I held onto criticism throughout my life and let it play into my self-esteem and self-worth. And the interesting thing was it helped me to open a dialogue with one of my parents; one, in which, I avoided talking about my emotions, in a proper way, with. I was able to see the issue after the high intensity emotions cleared and this meant I could address this issue and thus open a new area of discussion with this parent and help them to realise how they had hurt me and how the other parent made me feel too. My counsellor was aware that I could address my emotional difficulties with one parent, but due to some particularly difficult reasons, I was unable to get to that level of communication with the other. This was a recognised barrier that my counsellor knew was difficult to break and therefore helped me to get around it in a way that would ease my poor mental health. A good counsellor should know your boundaries and your barriers and will try to help you get through or around these barriers in a way that is more adaptive than your current methods.
The second time I attended counselling, my counsellor was familiar with who I was, but she still had to understand why I had come to her for a second time. It had been around a year. I was there because I was having an extremely difficult time in a relationship, my anxiety was way worse, I was being bullied by someone in my social circle, I was isolating myself, the list could go on. Some of these problems were explored in the first round of counselling but had featured in different ways. So, she spent a session re-familiarising herself with my difficulties, and then began to help me speak through what was going on in my life at that point.
A few sessions in, I had attempted to complete suicide, and I told her. Because she felt to be the only person I could tell without judgement even though I was suffocating with shame. She spoke this through with me and we reflected on the impact of my suicide. I remember crying for one of the first times outside of my bedroom, because she told me how much I mattered and how much my death would affect others – more than I thought. And, while I still struggle to believe I am wanted and that I matter, it startled me to hear that my counsellor would have been affected if I had taken my own life. I had never thought of that. Whether this was the right thing for her to do, I don’t know, but I appreciated it. It felt different to be sure that someone was in my corner and helping me to find my voice. I can’t usually speak about my emotions and how I think and feel with family and friends because I feel guilty and stupid, but with my counsellor I felt like I was speaking to a blank canvas who was there to soak up my words and then use what I created to help me see what was going on; giving me the support I really needed at that time.
Most counselling sessions typically last for a few months, which is largely to do with the funding and waiting lists; particularly in universities and with poor mental health becoming a very common factor in today’s society. I went to counselling for around 2-3 months at a time. Thankfully I did not have to wait long each time, but I know that is not the case for many people. Counsellors and wellbeing staff are never annoyed that you have returned to receive more help. They understand, or they should understand, that poor mental health can be chronic for some, and 6 weeks of counselling does not undo the damage of years and years of maladaptive coping strategies. So, they will try to fit as much as they can in the time that they have with you.
Some people don’t enjoy counselling, whether this is due to a bad counsellor, or their sessions being terminated due to waiting list demands. However, I would encourage you to go again. It may be different the next time. If it’s not, then this method for mental health is not for you.
Counsellors are objective support systems in your life that you allow you to talk about what has happened and what is currently going on. It can be really hard to cope sometimes and you sometimes need an extra pair of ears to listen. I don’t often like talking to others who are close to me because of trust issues and feeling like I’m a burden. I will offer bits and pieces, but with counselling I was allowed to offer all of me, and that was really something.
There should be so much more funding in counselling. Large, extensive waiting lists shouldn’t be there. There should be more expansive and better funded mental health resources in general. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get their help. You have a right to help and you have a right to have a voice and sort through your difficulties. You have noticed you are struggling and now you deserve the help that is available to you.
I am grateful for the counsellor who helped me when I was in university. I always will be.