For Louise O’Sullivan, returning to counselling in her 20s uncovered years of unprocessed trauma and an avalanche of fears and anxieties that ultimately stemmed from a bereavement she experienced as a child. Here she explains why counselling is a worthwhile investment and the importance of finding the right therapist for you …
As I sat down the new counsellor ran through some questions. I rambled nervously about why I was there, a recent break up I was struggling to deal with. When I came to a natural stop she asked, have you had counselling before? I explained that I had for bereavement mostly when I was much younger. As soon as I mentioned the death of my father and a break up, she indicated my issue was more likely about my Dad than an ex. It seemed an alien concept to me that they could be linked, and I was really taken aback by it. I never would have made the connection particularly because I was adamant I had dealt with the loss of my father. To realise and understand that I hadn’t was a bombshell. I was blindsided.
My first experience of counselling was when I was 14. My Mom brought me as I was ill with what we later discovered was serious food poisoning known as Campylobacter. Prior to that diagnosis she feared that the issue might be psychological and thought it would be beneficial to sit down with a counsellor to distinguish if there was anything of concern going on. The therapist chatted to me and by the end of the session she was happy that the illness was purely physical. A year later I returned to the same counsellor. By that point it had been three years since my father died. The week of my twelfth birthday he suffered a massive heart attack.
The magnitude of experiencing something like that so young meant I couldn’t process it for years and at the three-year mark I was only scraping the surface. At that time one of the main issues I struggled with was the fear that I had somehow played a role in his death. I recalled one evening when my parents were in the kitchen, I was watching television and that was the moment I realised they wouldn’t be around forever. As children we see our parents as invincible beings but when you make that connection and understand their mortality it’s very daunting, especially for a child. That was three weeks before my Dad passed away so my initial memories of counselling were around deconstructing that cycle of magical thinking whereby, I believed that any negative thought I had would happen. The counselling helped but after a few months I’d processed as much as I could at that point. I was too busy trying to be a normal teenager and I stopped the sessions.
As I progressed through my teens and early twenties, I fully believed I’d dealt with the loss of my father. I spoke openly about him almost boastfully declaring how ok I was with it. In hindsight I understand it was a way of coping. To a degree I was still stuck in a sense of numbness. I’d moved to Castletroy to attend University of Limerick which was a whole new experience and although it took a while to find my rhythm there, I loved it.
After graduating in 2011 I moved abroad and taught English in Thailand but returned home in November 2012. Three months after I had a realisation. I was deeply unhappy. I wasn’t looking after myself and other than blaming a break up and cutting ties with an ex-boyfriend, I had no idea why I felt the way I did. I’d just turned 24 and chose to return to counselling, but I decided to try a new therapist. I can still remember my heart pounding the first time I knocked on the door. What followed was the beginning of one revelation after another for me and the making of who I am now.
Patterns in my life became much clearer and I had to get used to the fact I was the common denominator.
Within that first session, things began to make more sense. The epiphany moment was when I understood that there was so much more to what I was processing. I was sad about the end of an important relationship but behind that sadness lurked years of unprocessed trauma and an avalanche of fears and anxieties from the bereavement. To be honest, I was relieved. Now I knew why I was struggling so much. I attended weekly sessions for about eight months. It was a big undertaking, but I knew it was important to heal old wounds and ultimately help me live a happier life. Some sessions were intense, others more like a chat, but there were times when I’d walk back to my car stunned by what had emerged.
The revelations seemed contradictory. I couldn’t understand why I’d made certain decisions but once I had room to digest them, I could see it was correct. Patterns in my life became much clearer and I had to get used to the fact I was the common denominator. One such pattern was in my romantic relationships. I tended to go for people who wouldn’t or couldn’t commit in some way. I’d assumed I was just unlucky but eventually I saw that the decisions I was making were leading to these often painful patterns. It was quite difficult to accept and acknowledge I’d played a part in some of my own hardships.
The death of my Dad at age twelve meant the main male figure in my life was gone and the importance of the relationship between a father and daughter is hugely influential. Your father is your first male role model and because of that loss my brain believed that this was normal, that men leave. Of course, it goes without saying that death is a completely different circumstance but that didn’t matter. How romantic partners left varied, but they always left, and I had chosen them. It took a long time for me to break that pattern. Even after gaining that invaluable knowledge sometimes, I made the same mistake again. Catching my decisions early enough to break that cycle became a focus for me.
After eight months I was leaving to teach in Prague, so my sessions stopped. I returned to appointments when I was home for Christmas and when I moved back home in 2014. Through the next few years, I went on to have some very painful sessions. I revealed emotions in myself I didn’t know existed; some I couldn’t even identify. I had to sit with the uncertainty and discomfort. Carefully, my counsellor got me to a place where something identifiable would emerge – a memory or a feeling. I’d always reach conclusions myself when prompted by the right questions which I found fascinating. Revisiting the night he died, the funeral, the missed occasions and thinking of future ones he won’t be at, was excruciating and at times unbearable. However, I knew what I was doing was needed.
Sometimes the physical release was indescribable. There were moments when I felt the tears couldn’t emerge from my body quickly or forcefully enough. To sit in front of someone at your most vulnerable, bearing secrets you didn’t know you had and emotions you couldn’t describe is humbling. Nevertheless, I could see the jigsaw fitting together. That was deeply satisfying and motivated me to continue, to keep learning until I got to a place where I know so much more about who I am. The sessions spilled into other areas of my life over time like my confidence, self-esteem, work life and friendships. Self-esteem is something I struggled massively with, but I knew if I was going to commit to getting the most from counselling, I needed to be fully open and tackle whatever arose.
As years went by I had longer periods between sessions, but I felt continually more empowered by what I was seeing in myself. I grew in confidence, learned to implement healthy boundaries, to recognise and identify emotions, look after myself in multiple capacities, understand why I felt certain ways and that enabled me to make decisions that were best for me. Those choices weren’t always easy but the more I trusted my instincts the more positive outcomes I began to reap. It was remarkable.
My experience with counselling has been life changing and I’ve become an advocate for it. Although at times I felt I was having an outer body experience from the emotional intensity, the result has been worth the discomfort. What I’d most like to emphasise is if you’re new to counselling and try a therapist but feel the connection isn’t there, don’t let this deter you. Too often we have one bad experience of counselling and dismiss it. Over time I learned that once you find someone whose approach you like it will be a far better experience. You need to find the right counsellor for you.
Counselling takes commitment and isn’t easy but once you learn the skills you need for whatever your circumstances are – it’s an invaluable investment. I continue to have online sessions now. It could be months between appointments, but I find it helps me stay grounded, recognise when I need a moment to myself and undoubtedly contributes to my overall wellbeing.
By Louise O’Sullivan
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