This Friday night I can’t wait to catch up with Julie*, the most familiar person in my life. For three years, Julie has been there for me no matter what. She has congratulated me when I’ve been successful and seen me through the bad times, too – like the failure of two important relationships, a bullying boss, depression, and more. Julie knows me better than I know myself. And that’s why, on my precious weekends, I’d rather hang out with her than anyone else. I just wish she didn’t charge me £50 an hour for the privilege.
Julie is not a friend in the regular sense. She’s my therapist. Once the exclusive indulgence of troubled Californian rich kids or overworked New Yorkers, Brits are now just as likely to employ their services. One in five of us** has consulted a counsellor or psychotherapist at some point for anything from boyfriend trouble to anxiety.
Of course, many people desperately need help after suffering a trauma, but for me and many others, it’s about having someone who’ll let me harp on about my problems, no matter how big or small, because the older you get, the fewer people want to hear them.
In my 20s, my friendship circle loved discussing the ins and out of all our lives – and we could have gone on for hours offering advice, a shoulder to cry on or a bottle of wine to share.
But, at 37, try having a meaningful conversation with your best friend about life’s biggies in Starbucks with her toddler bawling because he’s teething.
Renting an ear
Some people may accuse me of being selfish. But I’d argue I’m simply aware of my own need, which is to be listened to. Julie is my professional confidante who I turn to when things go wrong. And I’m happy to pay for the privilege rather than burdening my social circle.
“People don’t always have the time to listen any more,” admits psychologist Nadine Field, clinical director of Psychologyonline.co.uk. “With so many things going on in their own lives, it’s unrealistic to expect them to prioritise other people’s problems above theirs, hence why therapists can become so important.”
My own introduction to therapy came in my early 20s when I started having panic attacks at university. I’d always found it difficult to relax and, as a student surviving on little sleep and a poor diet, I found it impossible to switch off. Studying drama, the adrenalin served me well most of the time. But one day I was trying to sleep and my heart suddenly started racing and pumping so loudly it was as if I could feel it in my eardrums.
I couldn’t breathe properly, and it took five flatmates to calm me down and stop me shaking. The university counselling service referred me for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which teaches coping mechanisms, such as breathing techniques.
I found the sessions comforting and reassuring. And, even though we didn’t talk in detail about my feelings and anxiety, I found that the attacks began to subside.
The second time I went for therapy was after I turned 30 in 2004 and had just taken up a job as a writer in Australia.
It was exciting to be so far away from home on a new adventure, but I was also miles away from all of the people I really loved. Starting again was overwhelming.
With my anxiety level building, I became worried the panic attacks would return.
At the same time, I’d also started a promising relationship with John*, 34, the creative director of an advertising agency, and wanted to be careful I didn’t ruin it. I was always the life and soul of a party, flirting with everybody, but I wanted John to fall in love with the real, quieter, me.
So I went back to the doctor and again I was sent for CBT. But this time, it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t looking for a “practical” solution – I wanted to talk about me: the Catholic guilt that meant I never fully let myself go, and my default setting as the oldest child to always want attention.
I wanted to find out why I behaved as I did, rather than finding ways to cope with it.
The sessions with my new therapist – who specialised in talking-based counselling – were enlightening. She let me be open and talk until an issue revealed itself. She taught me that whenever I had an anxious feeling I was to challenge the thought behind it.
For example, if I was out at a gig or club, the anxiety might flare up and I would realise I was worried about being dependent on a lift home and not being in control of when I left. Challenging that thought, I knew I could jump in a cab if I needed to, and if the worst that would happen was getting to bed at 3am… then, so what?
It was a relief to be able to talk openly about how I felt about life, including a few things I wasn’t proud of – such as a relationship with a man who was enagaged – without being judged. Having a designated time each fortnight to chat meant I gave myself space to relax and have fun the rest of the time.
But, after six sessions, I was running out of issues. I lamely offered: “I saw a really pretty, skinny girl when I was out last night and I felt a bit jealous.” In an ideal world, my therapist would have wrenched the tissue box from my clutches, and yelled: “Man up!”.
Instead, she courteously accepted my payments and booked me in for the following week, and the six weeks after that until I reached a natural conclusion.
My problems were no longer huge, but it was reassuring to have a constant and neutral presence to guide me carefully and professionally through. My relationship with John eventually petered out, but I’d found the counselling experience so enjoyable that I’ve seen therapists since to help keep me on track – an MOT for my mind, if you will.
But it certainly hasn’t been cheap. Apart from the sessions at university, I have always paid my own way. To date, at roughly £50-60 a session, it has probably cost me up to £2,500.
Often I’ve gone without luxuries, such as new clothes, to afford it, but – as I’ve learnt through therapy – “things” don’t make you happy, after all.
Even when there were times I was running low on issues to explore, it felt good to invest in my mental wellbeing.
And it seems the Government feels the same way. It is currently investing £400million in the expansion of psychological therapies across the UK, in an attempt to combat the fact that those who suffer mental health issues die on average 10 years earlier than people who don’t.
But while therapy can be a lifesaver to those in distress, is there also a danger that those not in urgent need are psychoanalysing themselves too much?
Nadine Field argues that there are occasions when therapy might not actually be appropriate: “If a client says: ‘I’ve been in therapy for years’, or that they’ve read a lot of self-help books, and nothing has helped, you have to ask if there is the motivation to change.
“We are not in the business of wasting our time, or their money, so we might ask them to consider why it hasn’t worked before, and if it is the right time for therapy.”
Despite all this, I’m still a fan of the couch and think it’s a positive thing.
At the moment, I’m dealing with a relationship crisis and instead of saying to my partner of 16 months: “Let’s sit down and work this out ourselves,” I searched for our nearest Relate counsellor.
We’ve both agreed it’s the best chance of repairing what was, at first, a beautiful relationship. Thankfully, he sees therapy as something assertive and empowering, not emasculating.
Julie, my personal therapist, remains an enigma to me. I don’t even know if she’s ever been in love or had her heart broken. What I do know is that all my sessions with her have paid for some great haircuts over the years!
But for me, it’s been worth it. However, once my current relationship issues have been dealt with, I’m going to spend some of my hard-earned cash elsewhere, for once – starting with a big party for my friends. Ladies, bring a bottle and get ready for a grumble session.
“I thought therapy was self-indulgent – until I tried it”
Charlotte Ruhle, 29, a senior events executive from Harrogate, had therapy to help her get over a break-up. She says: “When my parents sat me down in January 2010 and suggested I should have therapy, I was shocked. ‘Really?’ I asked. ‘Am I that bad?’ The word ‘therapy’ sounded too American, and it almost felt like my parents were staging an intervention to help me sort my life out.
After all, I’d only been through a break-up – it wasn’t as though I had a mental illness. But my three-year relationship had ended six months before and I was still depressed.
After speaking to a colleague who’d been to a psychotherapist and couldn’t recommend it enough, I decided to book myself in for some £65-an-hour sessions.
My therapist wasn’t exactly the mother figure I’d had in mind. She was quite distant and barely spoke, but that forced me to talk, and it was amazing what came out.
After the second session I realised it wasn’t self-indulgent and I wasn’t a phoney for talking to a therapist. I had just been proactive about finding a solution. As the weeks passed, my therapist taught me how to change my mindset and stop ‘catastrophising’. She helped me remember that I wasn’t stupid for embarking on a relationship that ended, and I learnt to value myself again.
Quickly my friends started saying I looked really well and seemed more like my old self. But not everyone was so supportive. I kept it secret from my colleagues, but when I eventually told my boss, he scoffed as though he couldn’t believe I still wasn’t over the split.
But I felt like a weight had been lifted, and after three months I felt like I was back to my old self. I’d recommend it to anyone.”
Do you need a therapist?
It can be difficult to know when to ask for professional help, but if you answer yes to any of these questions, speak to your GP or contact the British Psychological Society (0116 254 9568 or Bps.org.uk).
*Do you experience uncontrollable crying, a total lack of motivation or other signs of depression?
*Is your anxiety so intense that it’s stopping you from doing the things you normally enjoy?
*Do you notice that your relationships, work or family life are affected by your mood, anxiety or irritability?
*Are you using drugs or alcohol to cope?
*Are you grieving as a result of the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship?
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