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Why Coping Is Overrated: How Therapy Helped Me Through My Mother's Death

10/05/2017 10:48

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Not a lot of people know this, but back in 2012, I harboured a dirty secret.

Every Wednesday lunchtime, for about a year, I sloped off from my office desk, alone. Away from the shiny soulless glass buildings of Canary Wharf, towards the fishy world of Billingsgate Market, and the little bobbing private narrowboats of the marina.

I would check behind me before making my way down the steps to the water, like a private detective, or an unfaithful spouse. And then I'd board one of the houseboats.

An hour later I'd re-emerge, heading back to work as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. But it had. Because in that hour, on that boat, I had been with her: My Woman On The Boat.

And no, it wasn't a lesbian affair. She was my therapist.

Hmm... Therapy. Counselling. Psychoanalysis... Meh!

Don't get me wrong. I'd always thought going to see a counsellor could be very worthwhile for someone. I just couldn't see how it would help me.

I mean, wasn't therapy just for people who didn't have friends they could talk to? For folk who had trouble opening up, processing stuff, understanding themselves?

Well that certainly didn't apply to me. Oh no, siree! I had friends I could talk to, friends so close I considered them family. And I've always been pretty sorted thanks very much - open, self-aware, emotionally intelligent - oh and of course, modest.

Nope, as far as I was concerned, therapy applied to other people's worlds, not mine.

But the truth was - I was struggling, and the little voice inside knew, I just didn't want to admit it.

Confessing I can't cope has always been my particular shade of kryptonite. I'm proud to be capable, sorted, strong. That's my thing God damn it! I'm the one who's always okay, can handle anything, rolls with life's punches and then gets up cracking a joke.

And I'm also a bit of a control freak - I rarely ask for help. I never stop for directions. Oh, and I'm always right.

But enough was enough; I was going under.

When Mum got her out of-the-blue terminal diagnosis the year before, I just got on with it. It was the only thing I could do. I just managed, did what I needed to do, became who I needed to become, for her.

But underneath it was all silently whirring away: the shock, the trauma, the injustice that my mum was losing her life, and that I was losing my mum.

I was one floundering daughter, with no clue which way was up. It was like being caught in an almighty wave. Having that moment of panic of which direction to swim. Except it wasn't just one moment, it was continuous.

Then, add to the mix, six months later - my partner of almost ten years, upping and leaving - effectively a divorce. Another crushing wave. Another onslaught of loss, grief, anger. And another chunk of my identity missing.

I was completely lost. I didn't know who I was, let alone how I felt.

And then these three words saved me:

"I need help"

For three small words, of one syllable each, they didn't half pack some punch. Just admitting it to myself was an enormous relief. It almost felt better right there, without doing anything about it. The waves still crashed into me, knocked me about, directionless, but I realised I could still breath. And I could still ask for help.

I took the first three counsellors I found operating near my office and sent them an email.

All of the replies said the same thing: "yes, I can help you", "yes, I have availability", "yes, I can do weekday lunchtimes".

But only one of them added words to this effect:

"I do need to inform you however that I operate my practice from a houseboat and that I have a small, but affectionate, dog. If that doesn't put you off, please do let me know"

Put me off?... Hmm, let me see: houseboat; dog; small but affectionate.

It was a done deal. I'd found her - my woman on the boat.

That first appointment I was riddled with nerves. Who was I supposed to be? What was I meant to talk about? I had no idea.

She went through a list of questions:

Had I ever been clinically depressed?
Had I considered ending my own life?
Was I on any sort of antidepressants?

No.
No.
No

I felt like such a fraud. What was I doing there? I didn't have any real problems! My habitual self gripped on tight, trying to keep that control, to stay 'strong'.

But then slowly, week by week, I started to trust my instincts - a little more each time - and eventually I gave in and let her guide me.

She allowed me to open up, to at last voice some of the things I'd locked away, all in the name of being capable and strong. I managed to express the inexpressible.

She taught me how to manage my feelings - those intense almighty waves that from nowhere would suddenly consume me. I learnt how emotions didn't need to be held on to, or built on, and that I could choose to experience the waves, have them wash over me, and then let them pass.

They still crashed into me, made me unable to breath or know which way was up. But the trick was not to struggle and instead to trust the wave to do its thing and let it pass, the way waves do.

Grasping that one simple idea changed everything. It liberated me from the almost constant stream of noise and pain that I felt inside and allowed spaces for moments of lightness and sometimes, even joy.

I practised it whenever I wasn't with my mum - in the office, on the commute. I became quite the Jekyll and Hyde, regularly in tears one moment and then laughter the next. Dipping in and out of the waves as they came at me.

Oh and as for the dog - his name was Frosty; a Labradoodle and indeed, both small and affectionate. In fact so affectionate that when I cried he'd lollop over to me, concerned, and then plonk his bottom on my feet.

Every Wednesday I'd arrive back at my desk after lunch with red swollen eyes, smelling of dog and feeling a little less lost.

I still struggle with it - almost five years on from Mum's death - this idea of staying 'strong'.

But I now know that real strength is partly about letting yourself be vulnerable.

It's about admitting you need support.

And most of all: it's about asking for help.

To read more from Angela Brightwell, visit www.funnymatters.co.uk

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