Level-Up: Part 42
SPOILER: This post gets a bit ‘Californian’ in places. I apologise and will return to Wales by the end of it.
In a couple of weeks I’ll be having my last counselling session of this second batch. The counsellor’s asked me to start thinking about how we’re going to wrap it up, what I’ve learnt about myself and my physical illness during the process, any final topics I’d still like some guidance on and what I’m going to do to keep up my good work. I may return to those things here after the final session if I feel it’s appropriate to discuss some of them publicly. But first, a little uncharacteristic bragging.
Even if you don’t know me personally and only know me because you happened to stumble across this blog series, you’ll probably have realised by now that I don’t really do bragging. I certainly don’t indulge in repeating praise. But my counsellor said some things about me this week that floored me. They made me feel so good about myself and for once I felt able to agree with her. Maybe the fact that I, albeit reluctantly, nodded my head in agreement is one of the process’ biggest successes.
She called me a ‘dream client’, which seems both an unusual compliment and little overwhelming. I mean, you could assume that if you’re a therapist’s dream you must be so screwed up that they can’t get enough of fixing you, but that’s not the case. What she meant (and I’m using her words here) was that I commit myself completely to being better, in a way that a lot of people can’t manage. I’m authentic. I don’t walk in there and make excuses for myself or try to hide. I take responsibility for my actions and feelings, even if they’ve been negative. I make notes between sessions so I don’t forget anything. Most of all, I work hard and reflect on everything in the name of improving. In the name of getting even further away from the destructive thought patterns that caused so much damage in the past. And I guess that’s what all counsellors want most – someone who engages fully with the whole purpose of attending. Someone who can spend an hour answering “How does that make you feel?” honestly without trying to dress it up. And to puff myself up a little more, the counsellor I had last year said much the same things.
Just typing that last paragraph made me wince. Some of those plaudits made me feel a little sheepish because they’re not really choices I make. They’re just elements of my personality I don’t think I could change even if I wanted to. And she acknowledged that probably one of the reasons I’m an effective writer is that I deal well with expression and have a skill for empathy, so that carries forward into a setting where I ramble about feelings for 60 minutes without pausing for breath. Which sounds bizarre considering I’m fairly private, but there’s a difference between sharing your thoughts and letting the world look in on your most private business.
Ultimately, though, this process has just been a lot of hard graft and will continue to be so long after the sessions end. I don’t think it’s that obvious to many people how hard I’m working to be the best person I can be while managing this illness. Most people can’t see it first hand and a lot of it is just stuff I navigate internally, both emotionally and physically. Whatever the reason for going to counselling, never let anyone tell you it’s easy. Even the more positive sessions can make you crash for a day or so afterward. It’s tough, and just agreeing to give it a try takes a lot of courage. There hasn’t been a single week where I haven’t sat breathing deeply and drumming my fingers on my knee waiting for the counsellor to appear in the waiting room and call me through to her office.
To get the most out of the opportunity – to have waited four months to be called on the NHS means it really is an opportunity – you have to make that time count. In an ideal world I would wave a magic wand and have my physical illness disappear. I fantasise about it, but that’s never going to be an option, so my best shot at happiness comes from putting the work in and learning how to deal with the limitations it puts upon me better. I’ve said it before, but this illness and handling it on a day-to-day basis is built on shifting sands. Some days I just play symptom roulette and it changes by the hour. This week, for example, my balance was so off that my brain perceived that I had one leg longer than the other. That happens randomly, you know, just to spice things up a little. As soon as I think I’ve got it figured out, it changes or I have to deal with a new setting or situation. That uncertainty and unpredictability is so frustrating. All I can really control in the fight against letting it rule my life is how I react to it. That’s a continuing challenge.
During Part 36 I talked about how completing 50 walks to the coffee shop, measured with stamps on my loyalty card, had felt quite flat, even though everyone gave me a huge round of applause for hitting the half century milestone. I used one of my counselling sessions to bring it up and we came to the conclusion that I was repeatedly trolling myself. A hundred people could tell me they were proud of me, but that one voice laughing at me (my own) cancelled the good stuff out. It was as if someone was sat on my shoulder telling me my efforts weren’t good enough and that I was a loser for thinking that something as simple as walking a few streets to a coffee shop and back was any kind of achievement. It was something to be proud of, but I was still comparing my life now to the life I had before I became unwell four and a half years ago. Subconsciously, anything less than that was pointless. What I had to do was catch up with everyone who’s been on this journey with me and start reframing my achievements based on the fact that I am now living as a disabled person.
This weekend I cashed in my sixth Coffee No.1 loyalty card. That makes 60 walks there and back since I started collecting the stamps back in the autumn. This time I felt much better about it. I resisted the urge to troll myself. I allowed myself to feel proud, because that’s 60 times I pushed my body to do something that makes me feel really poorly in the name of not letting the illness win. The troll was still there, but every time it piped up I tried to brush it off my shoulder.
Counselling isn’t the soft option. You don’t just push a button and make everything better. What it does is give you the tools to be better, and it seems with this issue in particular they’ve just started chipping a way through the years of self-deprecation. If you take those tools, work hard with them and keep flexing the muscles needed to make them effective, they will make a difference. The real trick is using them without a supervisor telling you which to pick up and when. But I’ll never stop wanting to be better, and with the threat of returning to a place where chronic illness controlled my life and made me persistently angry always waiting in the wings, I’d better keep ticking the ‘works well without supervision’ box.
Every Sunday I record my health achievements and discoveries for the week here. To find out why I decided to start doing this, you can read an explanation in the first post of the series here.