Wendy Woolfson

Open Up

There can be a lot of fear and misunderstanding surrounding counselling and therapy. I’ve spoken to many people who are afraid to get help because they think they will have to share every little detail about their lives, and that’s not the case. Here, I will talk about it from my perspective with a little of what I’ve learned. Although don’t take my word alone for it, do your research and ask other people what it was like for them. Anyway, I’ll briefly tell you about the different experiences I had and where I ended up.

When I was twenty-eight I had my first mental break; I was in a bad way and I knew I needed to see a therapist, and fast. I didn’t know how to find a good one so I opened the yellow pages as this was before the internet had properly developed and we still used phone books to find each other. I flipped it open at the therapist/counsellor section and stuck my finger on the first one I saw and I phoned them. As it transpired, he was a hypnotherapist, and he was quite good but I didn’t get into anything deep with him and I couldn’t open up, I just wasn’t ready. However, I did take away a key learning from him, that I could question my beliefs, and that has continued to serve me very well to this day, and most importantly, he guided me back on track again so I could carry on with everyday life.

The second time I saw a counsellor I was thirty-eight, and this was a year after my first son was born. Looking back, I clearly had post-partum depression as well as whatever else was going on for me. I went to a well-known counselling centre and had about ten sessions courtesy of the NHS. I talked about all the things that I thought were causing my problems but by the end I felt like I hadn’t made much progress and was still as depressed as before. They couldn’t offer me any more sessions and so it was left at that. It had been productive in that I had the chance to air some real issues to someone who didn’t know me and have them validated, but he was unable to move me past it.

Finally, I hit rock bottom once more, which was just six years ago at age forty-six, and again I self-referred to the same counselling centre who, after ten sessions, then referred me on to a trauma specialist where I was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). I was fortunate to receive this support on the NHS and it lasted for three and a half years. My therapist was amazing and I’m going to outline why, so if you’re looking for a therapist it might work as a guideline for good practice, something I hadn’t fully experienced until that point.

For the first nine months she focused primarily on my self-care, this was due to the trauma I had experienced and the mindset I had developed, I really didn’t know how to look after myself and tended to prioritise others over me. I came very low down on the list of things that were important, and that was not good for my mental or physical health.

As we approached the nine months mark my ability to recognise my own self-worth had opened up my mind, and I started to have flashbacks and remember things I never knew had happened. It was very disturbing. This was a huge turning point for me and one that my therapist navigated with great care. I was a mess and deeply traumatised and triggered. I barely knew how to function at times. Interestingly, my job helped me stay afloat at that point for a few months, as the routine of work was useful, and then I took some sick leave when I got too overwhelmed. What was important during those months of early disclosure was that my therapist was extremely careful not to put words into my mouth or make any suggestions or allusions to anything that might have happened to me. This was necessary, as I had so few memories, I had a hard time believing any of it was true and that I had made it all up. However, she was able to piece it all together and make sense of it for me which was crucial. This does not mean she made up a story from what I told her, it means that as an objective, professional listener she could see more clearly what had happened from the evidence that I gave to her in different ways including dates and locations etc.. This proved to be critical as I improved and started to look back on it all and I could clearly see it was all my own narrative and fully authentic. For someone with few concrete memories that was essential.

It was a profoundly hard time but she held an objective and compassionate space. She never crossed boundaries or tried to be my friend, something I’ve experienced and seen from other counsellors. She could draw me out when I became too internalised and empathised in a way that made me feel genuinely heard and validated. She was completely authentic in her approach and never tried to be something or someone else. She respected my wishes and worked hard to help me recover and I will be eternally grateful to her for all of that.

She held that space for me so beautifully and walked me towards a gentle ending ensuring I had covered everything I needed to. There was no stone left unturned and I knew I could ask her anything and be completely honest. I told her things that no-one else knows and I will take to my grave. I had, and still do have, absolute trust in her. When I saw her for the last time I was ready to leave. I left with a feeling of freedom and happiness that I never knew was possible.

During therapy I learnt how to laugh again. I learnt what peace meant. I became a different person and it opened me up to a whole new world of possibilities. I learnt how to live again, instead of just existing from one day to the next, always ruminating and drifting in and out of fight, flight and most often freeze. I live a completely different life inside my head now and it’s a place of peace and absolute freedom. I have renewed confidence and high self-esteem. I even experience a gentle joy, something that had always eluded and confused me.

I could say much more but I hope this brief account is of some help to anyone who may be looking for support. Talking therapy isn’t for everyone, especially for young people as they are usually still too close to the time when the trauma happened. Often we need some distance before we are ready to process, and there are different levels of processing as I think I’ve illustrated here. I was not ready to do the deep therapy work in my twenties or thirties.

Therapy takes time and a lot of patience. It can be hard work, and at times I wanted to give up, but it was worth sticking in, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it saved my life.