The first reading I ever completed for my three-year psychotherapy diploma program was in the summer before starting the certificate (In the UK we get our Postgraduate Certificate before we can progress to the Diploma). I can’t remember what book it was from, but the author seemed very determined to instill in the reader that any trainee counselor was going to need an incredibly strong support system (they called it an ‘anchor’) in order to survive this course. I thought they were being overdramatic. I read this aloud to my boyfriend-at-the-time’s mother and she stated that she expected her son to fulfill this role. He left before he had to, but that’s okay because by then I had my cat, Lucy.
Lucy became my anchor – my cat was the reason I got up to go to work so I could buy her food and treats. She was the only way I began to create any sense of attachment theory. I hesitate to describe her as a transitional object, but I can’t deny that I see myself very differently now than I did at the beginning of this course. I arrived believing I knew everything but was secretly terrified of having to sit with someone face-to-face instead of over the phone (my background is in peer support hotline work). What if they didn’t speak? What if I couldn’t help? What if I wasn’t good enough? I am now leaving this program fully aware of – and embracing – what I don’t know; yet feeling much more confident in my ability to sit with a client no matter what is brought – and survive a possible hour of silence with a stranger!
My journey to becoming a counselor began many years before that summer. At age 17, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Fearful of speaking to my parents about it, I took myself off to the general practitioner surgery where I was prescribed Propanolol. The doctor was my mother’s own doctor when she was pregnant with me and thus he had always treated me as an extension of a family friend. By just giving me some pills, he managed to cement my idea that I was broken and needed to be fixed. It was only after I hated the pills (initially I hated the idea of them, but then I disliked the way they made me feel) that he suggested I look into counseling, which ironically made me feel even more broken. I didn’t know anything about counseling then, other than what I’d seen in films about psychoanalysis and that scared me. I made the appointment over the phone in my friend’s bedroom and ended up sneaking out of school every week for eight sessions of CBT – cognitive behavioral therapy.
I’ve been in and out of counseling ever since. My style of therapist and senses of accomplishment have varied, as have the labels I have acquired from different professionals. I’ve stomped my feet every step of the way. I’ve been angry at the system, angry at not feeling heard, angry at feeling that my age prevented me from being taken seriously. I’ve disagreed with nearly every label and fallen out with nearly every therapist. But I can’t argue that they’ve helped get me here. I can’t say they hindered me -just that it’s been an uphill battle. My counseling history has helped me now find therapists that I enjoy and taught me how to feel comfortable in my own practice for my own clients.
I began my course angry with the way the system worked, thinking that if only I could get my foot through the door with a qualification, I could attack it from the inside and perhaps gain a greater understanding about how people fall through the net or get left behind. I could help bridge the gap. I could help make this system work.
I’m still angry and I still want to change the system. However, when I was asked why I wanted to do my course, I originally refused to give this reason, because I thought it would be mocked or seen as naive. Whilst I can still see the possible naïveté in it, I don’t believe I could continue to do this job without that anger, without that strong desire to make sustainable mental health more accessible.
So it’s ok to be angry.
It’s also ok for me to say goodbye to my course. The three years have gone by in the longest blink. I notice in my client work, I’m always aware of making sure it’s okay for my clients to leave at the end of a session; can they return to the real world as their outside selves? I really value the time it may take them to put their outside faces back on and slip back into who they need to be. I’ve done this. I’ve cried my tears. My makeup is fixed. I’m okay to leave.
I’ve said before that I think this course is really more a driving test; I’m only going to learn to drive once I’ve passed. I have a whole new journey ahead of me to discover just what type of counselor I really am, once the reins have been cut. I’m really excited to start.
That first reading was right. This course has been testing and it has completely restructured how I view the world around me. But I think what it’s taught me most is to be my own anchor. Whilst Lucy is a wonderful companion to come home to and ride a train with, it’s me that I take everywhere I go. She cannot physically sit in a therapy room with me, although I can channel the self I provide to her to be the self I try to provide to my clients. But it’s me that I need to be able to rely upon – my knowledge and control of my selves that I need to have faith in. This has been difficult when also factoring in a long-term illness that means my body might not always be able to be relied upon and brain fog is never too far away. But I’ve done it. I’m here.
I’m ready to leave. I’m ready to pass. I’m ready to support my clients through their own versions of this journey. I’m also ready to continue learning in my own way. After seven years of university, I’m ready to let go of the ‘trainee’ title and embrace the ‘professional’ one.