“Do not let the memories of your past limit the potential ofyour future. There are no limits to what you can achieve on your journeythrough life, except in your mind.” Bennett’s (2016) words resonate with me when I think about my ownexperience of therapy. At the start ofmy therapeutic journey I was crippled by depression and the bright future that,as a young girl I thought was inevitable, seemed to be as impossible to find asthe end of the rainbow.
As a small child my life seemed idyllic, I was naive to theugliness and destruction within the world. I had a supportive family, who appeared happy and my memories of thistime are filled with love and affection, close friendships and the confidenceto take on the challenge of new experiences – I was in every way, securelyattached (Bowlby, 1997).My mental health began to deteriorate at the age of 14, ayear after my perfect world had collapsed following the breakdown of myparents’ marriage. My Mother and I spentsix months sofa surfing, often separately, she spiralled into depression and myonce close family appeared to be falling apart. I do not remember anyone asking how I was during that year, I learnt to burymy own feelings, ignoring them the as best I could.I experienced what DSM-V (2013) would diagnose as a Majordepressive disorder, I struggled to function on a day to day basis, losinginterest in all that I had previously been passionate about.
Several theories of depression have been put forward, Beck,Rush, Shaw and Emery (1987)argued from a cognitive perspective that the onset of depression is related toloss which triggers negative schemas developed in early childhood as a resultof adverse childhood experiences, criticism or bullying thus creatingdysfunctional negative thoughts of ourselves, our world and our future; thecognitive triad. Due to my positiveexperiences during early childhood I find it difficult to subscribe to thistheory.Based on my own experience of parental conflict I am morepersuaded by family systems theory which advocates that dysfunctional familyfunctioning and structure, witnessed by events such as parental criticism,divorce or bereavement, can lead to the onset of depressive symptoms. I believe that during my parents’ marriagebreakdown and eventual separation I became triangulated, as described by Bowen (1978),forming a coalition with my mother against my Father and consequently became anactive participant in their discord. Benson, Larson, Wilson and Demo(1993) suggested thattriangulation can have a detrimental impact on adolescent’s mental health andrelationships, a theory which Buehler, Franck and Cook (2009) supports, going on tohighlight a link between triangulation and internalizing problems such asanxiety, depressive affect, and withdrawal. Looking back at my experience I can see howall these symptoms impacted on my life, and I am becoming increasingly aware ofmy vulnerability to regression if I don’t prioritise self-care.
My GP referred me to a Psychiatrist, I remember dreadingappointments as they did little to provide me with the sense of beingunderstood or empathised with that I so desperately sought. My difficulties continued to escalate until Ifinally decided that life was too hard and I took an overdose whilst at school. Following the overdose my Psychiatrist made thedecision that she was not the right person to be working with me, the news confirmedmy belief that I was unimportant and reminded me that the adults in my life hadbecome unpredictable and failed to hear me. Positively, her decision meant that I started to work with a newcounsellor and quickly felt a stronger connection. Looking back at my experience of therapy Istrongly believe this to be the primary factor which enabled me to work successfullywith her. I relate to Mark Prever’s beliefthat he was more able to build a therapeutic alliance with young people when hewas “able to remove issues of power and authority and bring some quality andmutual respect to the relationship.
” (Pattison, Robson and Beynon, 2015 pg.173). These dynamics gave me the confidenceneeded to share my thoughts and feelings openly and honestly and begin toheal.
Indeed, Muran and Barber (2010)noted that of all the factors which can influence treatment outcome, thequality of the therapeutic alliance is the most reliable predictor of success. My therapy was person centred and provided me with a spacewhere I felt heard and understood. Forthe first time I sat with someone who did not appear to view my thoughts andfeelings as trivial but something that was worthy of us spending timeconsidering and processing together. Carl Rogers (1959) person centred approach represented asignificant shift from previously advocated approaches, such as psychodynamic,which believed the therapist was the expert within the therapeutic relationship. Instead Rogers argued that thetherapist’s primary role is to providethe client with a supportive and empathic environment in which he can explorehis own situation, without the therapist’s interpretation, and grasp his innateability to be the master of his own healing. This approach to counselling enabled me to see that I was capable andworthy of making my own decisions, essentially, I learnt to trust myself.After a year of therapy my counsellor informed me that shethought I was well enough for us to finish our work. Those words rang through my head like achurch bell.
That time had become mysafety net, a safe space which enabled me to face the challenges of lifeagain. The thought of that coming to anend was crippling, a fear undoubtedly sparked by my experience of loss andabandonment by my Father (Many, 2009), and reinforced by the loss of safety Igained from being in a therapeutic space and relationship (Zilberstein, 2008)Coming out of therapy was difficult but I was able to see abrighter future again and although there were days when I struggled, my motherprovided me with a secure base from which I was able to find my confidence toface challenges again. Despite the strong relationship with my Mother I had driftedfrom my Father, something I never thought would happen during my earlierchildhood and days of being a “Daddy’s girl.” Despite all the progress I had made during therapy I could not let go ofthe anger and resentment I had for him and eventually that pain became too muchto bear and I cut him out of my life. Again I was employing my tactic of denial, and I was oblivious to my ownknowledge that this had not helped previously. I missed my Father dearly, but my inability to confront my feelingsprevented me from trying to rebuild our relationship. I always believed that it would happen oneday and that enabled me to carry on with life.
But one day never came, it was cruelly and unexpectedly taken away. The pain that followed was unimaginable, Iwas not only grieving the loss of my Father but the loss of opportunity torebuild a relationship with the man I admired as a child, the opportunity forforgiveness and the chance to tell him I loved him. I spent the five years that followed trying to ignore theemptiness that my Father’s death left, and although to the outside world Iappeared confident and happy, inside I was a mess.
I became scared of letting people into mylife for fear of losing them, lost my self-confidence and stopped allowingmyself to explore the world, convincing myself that I would fail. I never accessed counselling to process mygrief, consistent with the view that bereavement interventions achieve very lowlevels of efficacy compared to the majority of other psychotherapeuticinterventions (Jordan & Neimeyer, 2003), however, the long term impact ofmy distress was causing me to relive some of the depressive symptoms Iexperienced as an adolescent.The turning point came when I was able to access clinicalsupervision with a psychotherapist as part of my work and together we were ableto chip away at the walls of protection I had put up. She helped me to see that I was allowing myexperiences to limit my future and that if I could continue to break down thewalls I could refocus on the future and shape the life I really wanted. This represented a time of excitement andopportunity and the first question I needed to answer was, “what did I want thefuture to look like?”As a family support worker I have developed a passion forworking with the most vulnerable and traumatised families and I wanted to usemy own experiences to become better at my job. I certainly subscribe to Barnett’s statement that “perhapspain is a necessary part of the process of becoming a therapist and maybecounselling is more than something to be ‘learned’?” (2007 pg.262), and whilstmy role was not that of a Counsellor, in many respects it required the coreconditions Rogers (1959) outlined, in order to support families to achievepositive outcomes.
My work within safeguarding children became, and continues tobe a crucial element in my healing process, and my own experience of trauma hasgiven me a deep understanding of how things can go wrong in families. Certainly, the value of personalexperiences of mental health difficulties has become recognised within policy,supported by research and increasingly promoted in practice (Repper, 2013) It is easy to becomeagitated with a child that is destructive and abusive or judge families whenyou are presented with a case of neglect or abuse, but my past has enabled meto always start with one question, “why”. Why does a child behave the way they do or why is a parent not able toprovide their children with the care they need. This understanding also enables me to haveempathy with the most challenging of children and families and strive toprovide them with holistic support to help them make positive change. For several years my role fulfilled my desire tosupport people, however; as I engaged with more training and broadened byunderstanding of trauma I have often felt frustrated about the lack of support availableto children and their families. I havecome to realise that parenting work and wellbeing interventions offered throughearly help and safeguarding processes, although helpful at the earliestpossible stage of a problem developing, are often inadequate, and cannot meetthe complex needs that many families present with.
Darlington, Feeney and Rixon (2005)highlighted that parental mental health is a factor in up to 42% of childprotection cases throughout the UK, Europe, Australia, Canada, and the USA. Through my own work I have witnessed 17children removed from their parents care in the last two years. Parental mental health was a factor in allcases and sadly in some of those cases I have seen parents being unable toaccess therapeutic input recommended through the court process due to a lack offunding. Recent statistics highlight that 10% ofchildren aged 5-16 have a clinically significant mental health illness (Public Health England, 2016). The mental health of our children and theincreasing demand on specialist mental health services is glaringly obvious andthe impact of that is seen every day within the education sector. There is increasing pressure on schools toprovide preventative and early intervention to children, in fact the Educationand Health Committee (2016-17) has told the education sector that it has afront line role in promoting and protecting children and young people’s mentalhealth and well-being. However; this call for action has not beenaccompanied by the training and support needed to do this safely.
No one would expect a counsellor to do theirwork without training and supervision but that is exactly what the Governmentis asking of schools, and whilst I acknowledge that educational settings are ina prime position to identify and support children with their mental health, thecurrent situation means that often that work is ineffective and only delayschildren accessing the specialist support they require, in fact only 25%of children who need treatment receive it (Public Health England, 2016). Taking all these factors into consideration I feel an unableto meet the needs of the children and families that cross my path on a dailybasis and consequently I feel an overwhelming desire to use both my personaland professional experience of trauma to better support those that need it.As Jamison writes: “So why would I wantanything to do with this illness (talking of bi-polar disorder)? Because Ihonestly believe that as a result of it I have felt more things, more deeply;had more experiences, more intensely; loved more, and been more loved; laughedmore often for having cried more often; appreciated more the springs for allthe winters; worn death ‘as close as dungarees’, appreciated it and life more;seen the finest and the most terrible in people and slowly learned the valuesof caring, loyalty, and seeing things through” (Jamison, 1996, p. 218).