I was in group therapy from June last year to this March. That’s nine months. Long enough to have a baby – which, I hope, will be my next nine-month project.
When I joined the group, it was in quite a state of upheaval. Three members had left (one abruptly), two newbies had replaced them, and things had only just resumed after GT being on sick leave. I felt that because of this, it took a long time for the group to ‘gel’ and for me to see any benefit. So today I’ve been surprised to find this gem in my description of the very first session:
One thing that really struck me was the various comments made about the importance of looking at things from an emotional perspective as well as a rational one. That emotions aren’t and shouldn’t have to be rational. That it can be dangerous to have too rigid a view of yourself, of your issues or of what caused them. This all seemed to tie in with something I feel is very important at the moment – that any framework I hold for recovery needs to be flexible. Figuring what helps and what doesn’t, how my problems developed and how I can move on from them, is very important but it’s even more important that I stay mindful and pay attention to how I am now, to what is helping now. Fixed ideas about my illness and about recovery are very comforting because they help me feel in control but what happens when that framework doesn’t, in fact, quite fit? At best it chafes and at worst it shatters.
What a very timely reminder! I don’t agree with GT’s view that “rationalising” is an unhealthy defence mechanism, I think it has its place, but mindfulness and listening to my emotions whether or not they make sense is going to be very important in the way forwards.
In my write-up of week three, I discussed how issues I thought were buried and gone were in fact preventing me from participating:
I knew the group was unstructured, but I’d envisaged it as something established, pre-existing, alive that I could slot into. Instead, it feels like something we all have to forge from scratch. I hadn’t realised how much I was counting on this. I hadn’t realised how much I still feel the need, in new social situations, to observe for a while to make sure I don’t do or say anything ‘wrong’. By and large, this doesn’t cause me too many problems but it’s making the group feel impossible. I ended up zoned out for a lot of yesterday’s session and couldn’t believe it when GT said the 90 minutes were up already.
This is interesting on several counts. Firstly, it illustrates the way the group environment can magnify mental health or relationship issues – which is supposed to help you work on them, but was one of the reasons I decided to leave. Secondly, it highlights how difficult it was for me to engage with the group, and thirdly, for all I’m not sure I agree with the approach, I learned something useful about myself here. In many ways, the past year (including the assessment sessions) has been a process of me learning to what extent I still find it difficult to trust people and feel I need to protect myself from them, and that’s one of the main things I want to work on now.
Learning to trust is a theme I expanded on in my post about St Philip and Harry Potter. There’s too much good stuff in there to pick out any one quote, but if you haven’t read it already, I recommend the whole post. Read it. It’s got Harry Potter in. You won’t regret it.
In August, I described how much better I’d become at coping with conflicting needs, which I attributed to the therapy and/or my recent mindfulness practice:
In the past, these kinds of conflicts have involved denial. For example, suppose I found myself needing to take on more work and earn more money, but also feeling really exhausted. In the past, I would pretend one of those needs didn’t exist. I would either push through my exhaustion, possibly making myself ill in the process, or I would bury my head in the sand about the money issues and overspend on top of not earning enough. Likewise, if there were multiple things I needed to do and I didn’t have time and energy for all of them, I would convince myself it was possible, I could do all of them, and ignore my need for time off and rest. This doesn’t lead to an episode of depression every time but it does set up a bit of a vicious circle where I yo-yo between neglecting one need and neglecting another.
Over the past week or so the conflict I’ve been facing is that I need/want to earn more money so I can better support my partner financially when she loses her job, but at the same time, the whole situation is actually making it harder for me to work. I’ve prayed about this and I can see that money is not the most important thing right now. My partner needs emotional support more than she needs cash in the bank, and I need to take care of myself so that I don’t make everything worse with another five weeks of sick leave.
Meanwhile, the last session before the summer break gave me an interesting perspective on my ‘inner critic’:
Group Therapist referred to the authority voice that’s within us all, the harsh, controlling voice that, in my case, tells me I’m not good enough and pushes me to achieve more and more. He said we think that voice is coming from a place of strength, but actually it’s weak. I immediately found myself thinking about bullies being cowards. When that voice is at its worst, when it makes me feel really bad about myself or pushes me to the point of illness, what is it if not a bully? And if it’s a bully, doesn’t that make it a coward? CBT taught me to ignore the voice and look at things more rationally, but now I feel as though I finally have some proper ammunition (“You’re just a coward!” is a pretty good comeback). And the idea that strength might have more to do with accepting myself, warts and all, than with the pursuit of perfection is also a helpful one. Trees can be felled and uprooted in a hurricane, but reeds only bend.
The idea that I ‘bully myself’ turned out to be one of those bees in GT’s bonnet that he repeated so often, I stopped paying attention to it. Indeed, for the past couple of months I’ve felt that GT was completely wrong, and that my inner critic’s intentions are good – it’s misguided, but something I developed to protect me from getting hurt as a result of doing something ‘wrong’. So it’s refreshing to look back and see a different perspective. Whether I like the bully metaphor or not, I have to agree that the voice is coming from a place of cowardice, of fear, and that strength has far more to do with being able to live with my flaws.
During the summer break, I realised that while I’d got so much better at coping with episodes of depression (there’s an earthquake metaphor there which I love), my experience of “not being depressed” hadn’t changed much in a decade:
It still feels like one endless, exhausting struggle to stay on top of things. I am ruled by to-do lists and never seem to have enough time for the things I’d really enjoy – and this is persisting despite all my best intentions and all my mindfulness practice during my last episode. There’s a part of me that doesn’t believe working too hard makes me ill, that thinks my depression is purely a brain chemistry issue and the relapses will always come, but even if this is the case, my perfectionism is still stopping me from having the life I really want.
That’s something I’ve been working on a lot over the past few months.
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This post is an unfinished symphony because I’ve realised that trying to summarise a year’s worth of therapy, and everything I learned from it directly or indirectly, is not how I want to spend my blogging time. It’s a mammoth undertaking (much more so than I thought it would be!) and it’s draining me. I already know what I did and didn’t get out of therapy and where I want to go from here, even if I find that hard to articulate. I’ve decided to publish what I’ve written anyway, in case it’s of interest to me later or to others, but now I’m going to refocus my blog on moving forwards.