Before Therapy, I Don’t Know How I Would Have Got Through This Pandemic

Therapy helped me replace my self-loathing with self-compassion, and left me feeling surprisingly able to cope with our altered reality, writes Rob Kazandjian.
Courtesy of the author
HuffPost UK
Courtesy of the author

In the mix of all this illness, isolation and turmoil we’re all experiencing right now, I’m scared of drifting. Not drifting harmlessly like birthday balloons against a blue sky – I’m chatting about a self-destructive drift through the storm we’re struggling to navigate, back towards the darkest recesses of my mind.

Thankfully, through what some might describe as divine intervention, or a proper slice of Donald Duck, I feel far better equipped to cope with what could be an impossibly challenging time than I would’ve done a couple of months back.

See, I’m coming to the end of a course of eight sessions of therapy provided by the superhuman, work-magic-against-all-odds NHS. If we’re keeping it real, these sessions commenced after an obscene year-long wait, off the back of a suicide attempt. I’ve got the Tories, currently ‘putting aside ideology’ and conceding socialism works in the fight against coronavirus to thank for decimating mental health funding in my manor and keeping me waiting.

Nonetheless, I made it to February and my first appointment with my therapist, keeping myself afloat in the interim through a questionable mix of sport and self-medicating. My head was swimming with expectations and worries while I waited to be called in to see ‘Ian’, hoping he’d be more like McShane or Wright than Ian Beale.

“Our first couple of sessions were undoubtedly the most gruelling – fifty minutes of solid crying does take its toll”

Our first couple of sessions were undoubtedly the most gruelling – fifty minutes of solid crying does take its toll. We explored the existential anxiety that has gripped me since I was a child, and considered the healing balm of life’s simple pleasures: warm coffee, music, a good book.

Ian helped me understand that I held a lot of trauma. We traced a line of intergenerational trauma, from my great grandparents escaping the Armenian genocide, my great grandmother’s suicide, my grandfather’s alcoholism and my dad’s gambling addiction, through to me being in a right pickle.

We unpicked the more immediate traumas too: the things I saw and did on the roads as a turbulent teenager. How powerless I felt when my little brother was diagnosed with cancer. How I am grieving the tiny deaths, the ones which my dad suffers every day as dementia steadily spirits away his essence. The injustice I feel while I care for my old man, knowing I’ll never resolve the issues I have with him because of the nature of his illness.

What became quickly apparent was that the compassion I have for other people – my work with vulnerable children and young people, my writing about how dirty this damn world is, and the amount of responsibility I shoulder with my family while simultaneously feeling like I’m never doing enough – is counterbalanced by the distinct lack of compassion I have for myself. My self-criticism often collapses into brutal self-loathing.

So self-compassion and self-care became a mantra in our sessions. Not self-care in the form of large kebabs and a skinful of pints to wash away a stressful week, more lasting strategies for self-compassion. Like, how I can look after myself when facing the situations which generally trigger my flair for cussing myself to the point of annihilation.

“In these harsh circumstances, I know I’m lucky. Our sessions were five deep when the pandemic forced us to switch from face-to-face to telephone appointments”

And this is why I feel an incredible sense of gratitude towards Ian. By subtly guiding me towards not being so bloody hard on myself, I feel surprisingly able to cope with the altered reality we are all living through. I’ve been separated from the children I support. I’ve been separated from my family, for whom I do a huge amount of caring. By posting resources online for those children, I’m doing all I can do – and that is enough. By dropping bags of shopping on my parents’ doorstep, and staring at my dad’s forehead while he wrestles with the complexities of FaceTime, I’m doing all I can do – and that is enough.

In these harsh circumstances, I know I’m lucky. Our sessions were five deep when the pandemic forced us to switch from face-to-face to telephone appointments. During those five exhausting yet ultimately transformative sessions, we established a flow and vibe to our conversations. I learned Ian has great taste in music, casually dropping criminally underrated hip-hop duo 808INK into a brief aside about who we enjoy listening to. He sent me James Baldwin quotes after we spoke about our mutual admiration for the great man.

Probably more important than clocking Ian wasn’t a cultural wasteman was that sitting in-front of him while I bared my soul established a foundational trust, and this meant the transition to telephone therapy was pretty flipping easy. I think I’d have found it very difficult to catch a vibe and build that trust had my sessions commenced a month later than they eventually did, and the corona context meant they kicked off with fifty minutes of crying to an unfamiliar voice on the other line. For me, the physical distance would have undermined the healing power of the great work we did.

Without doubt, this prolonged period of social distancing, struggle and uncertainty will impact our collective mental health, and more and more of us will require therapeutic interventions over the coming months. The Tories had made sure our wonderful NHS was at breaking point before the global crisis, with funding for mental health taking an exceptional kicking.

Now, as Boris and co. scramble from their sickbeds to keep our health service from sinking beneath the weight of an unimaginable crisis, I really hope a good chunk of that £330billion plucked from the heavens is going towards allowing therapists like my main man Ian to do all they can do – and that will be enough.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” – James Baldwin

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