This is personal. And private.
I don’t like to talk about it because I think it’s a sign of weakness and because I know most of the people around me are worse off and less lucky than I. And I don’t like to complain.
Plus it’s a bit self-indulgent, not to mention pricey. But it’s you, and I trust you, so I’ll fess up. Even though we’re friends, and friends should be there for friends, and friends should be enough, I’ve been seeing someone behind your back … a counsellor. That’s right, I’m having my head shrunk by a certified professional.
I’m from one of those ‘we don’t get sick in this family’ families. We are an armour-plated bunch of concrete drinking, cement-pill popping, ‘harden-up’ and ‘give-it-a-rub’ tough nuts. If you can’t cure it with a-cup-of-tea-and-a-sit-down it’s obviously all in your head. And that’s where it should stay. Moaning was meant for a natter with a neighbour or a chinwag with a gal-pal. Paying someone to listen while you whine? Check your privilege!
I used to lean on my mates when things went pear-shaped. But they had lives to live and their own stuff to deal with. They didn’t need my worries on top of their own. Mutual understanding didn’t factor because my plate was full. I had no more to give to me and mine let alone take on them and theirs.
Three years ago I saw a counsellor almost by accident. I meant to go as part of a story I was writing for this very rag: deep-dive reporting, immersive gonzo journalism. But then the counsellor in question asked me how I was.
The series of locked gates I was living behind flung open and I told her. Afterwards, I sat in my car for an hour trying to shove everything back inside before picking up the kids from school at 3pm. Us mothers can have full mental breakdowns, as long as they happen between 9 and 3 on a weekday during the school term.
To keep the black dog at bay I tried to apply the remedies laid down by my tūpuna: sleep, water, a brisk walk, sensible food. And as much as – in theory – sharing worries halves them, it can also double them. Empathy can amplify, exacerbate and accelerate the issue so the woe you had refuels in the retelling.
Besides, most of my friends have no real idea what they’re talking about, and limited actual mental health experience beyond their own. Most of their advice comes from watching Gilmore Girls. Only two have studied counselling and neither of them have finished their qualification yet. My mates mean well, but like me they have no expert knowledge to back up their helpful suggestions.
This year I was back in front of the counsellor after one of those friends asked if there was anything useful she could do for me – post a particularly dark patch – then offered to gift me a couple of sessions. I swallowed the last of my pride and said Yes.
It’s not that I’m bonkers. I get up in the morning, get dressed, make eye contact, know how to look like I’m smiling, cook dinner for my children, show up for work. But until recently I didn’t sleep, I was grinding my teeth, I couldn’t digest anything, I struggled to make meaningful connections with most people and avoided those who know me too well. I felt greyscale and muted, anxious and on high alert, sad, lonely and hopeless.
Counselling is expensive. It costs much more than an escapist novel, almost as much as dinner out with a loved one, twice as much as a bottle of Laphroaig, certainly more than most other distractions from worry. And one session isn’t enough, you need a decent series, so write off a grand with no promise of a ‘cure’. I know only one person who has ‘graduated’ from counselling. For the rest of us ‘doing the work’ is a long-term project.
But because I am my project, it’s priceless, invaluable and worth every penny of my girlfriend’s money.
Mental health is personal and private and it’s hard to talk about but we must. Like a recovering alcoholic or a revivalist Christian, now that I’ve found it I’m a fervent ambassador for its benefits.
My counsellor has helped me translate my world for myself. She has given me ways to decode the signs and micro-gestures particular to the relationships I’m entwined in. She’s scolded me for self-indulgence. She’s helped me articulate an accurate picture of what’s troubling and what’s a triumph.
She’s never told me what to think, what to feel, what to do. She doesn’t project her own experiences onto my narrative; and she doesn’t me-too and redirect the spotlight. She’s let me explore, rant, grizzle, puzzle, crow about what’s been happening around me. Every now and then she’s let me off the hook, or called me out when I wallow in worries that are not my own. “Not your circus, not your monkeys,” she’s said, giving me mini-mantras to live by. She’s tooled me up so I can be myself and get through the day. She’s told me I don’t need to be armour plated, that armour is too heavy to carry around, that a shield is enough.
And sometimes she’s said that what I really need is a good night’s sleep, a decent feed and a quality catch-up with friends.