Monday, 18 April 2016

My Mental Health Treatment Journey Part 2: Therapy

This is the second part of my mental health treatment journey all about therapy. Make sure you check out part one about medication here.

Like taking medication, I was very reluctant to go to therapy. I think I was around fifteen when I went for my first therapy consultation and I was very self-conscious. I was worried that someone I knew would see me go into the mental health section of the hospital and tell everyone I was mad. Back when I was a teenager mental illness was still a very taboo subject that had a lot of misinformation surrounding it. There was no Depression, Anxiety, PTSD and OCD known to my friends, there was just sane and crazy and nobody wanted to be associated with the mad girl.

That first therapy appointment was a bit of a disaster. Back then I didn’t have a diagnosis and just assumed that I was depressed. My GP had referred me to the children’s mental health services at my local hospital and I remember being very nervous. This was the first time that I’d ever told a stranger my story. At the end of that appointment the lady I’d poured my heart out to for the past hour basically told me that she wasn’t really qualified to treat me. You see, what triggered my mental health problems was being in a mentally and physically abusive relationship with a boyfriend. I was essentially a child with a grown up problem that that particular therapist had no experience in handling. After weeks of getting my hopes up and psyching myself up to tell someone, I was sent away and told that I would need to see an adult psychologist. Sorry.

I was on the NHS waiting list for a good six months before a letter came through with an appointment to see a therapist at the big doctor’s surgery in my hometown. The only problem was my mental health problems had gotten so bad at that point that I could no longer leave the house never mind go to a place near where trauma had happened to me. After months of waiting I’d hit another dead end. I remember overhearing my mum on the phone to our doctor in tears begging him for help “She can’t go, I don’t know what to do” she whispered into the phone. He said that if I “refused” to go to the appointment there was nothing more he could do. Even my doctor didn’t understand that I desperately wanted therapy but I physically could not leave my house.

Deciding to take matters into our own hands, my mum found a local domestic violence support group who we got in touch with. They said they could send a support helper to our house for weekly appointments. I was so relieved to find someone who could help me. At the time a lot of mental health professionals had stopped doing home visits because of safety reasons (so I was told time and time again) so I couldn’t believe I’d found someone who not only had dealings with people who’d experienced domestic violence but who could also come to my home so I didn’t have to go out.

A couple of weeks after contacting the group a lady was sent to my home to learn more about my situation. I explained about how I was in an abusive relationship and how that had triggered some sort of depression. I was so hopeful that day but again was left disappointed. The lady didn’t seem to know what to do with me. All of her information sheets she gave me to read were about women who were married or have children and not for a teenager like me. At the end of the session she suggested making an appointment for both me and my ex to talk about the abuse because she wanted to hear his side of the story. The last thing I wanted was to see my ex again after finally breaking away from him. I had a huge panic attack and when she left I spent the rest of the afternoon in my bedroom in tears. I can’t explain how disheartening and lonely it feels to get knocked back time and time again when it comes to something so very personal.

With another road blocked off to me I went to see a new doctor who wanted me to get a proper diagnosis. A couple of weeks later I went to the mental health building at another nearby hospital to get assessed by a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with PTSD, Anxiety, OCD and Depression. It felt so good to finally know what was wrong with me. I went back to my new doctor with my diagnosis and explained to him about what I now knew was my Anxiety and PTSD making it impossible for me to go to places locally that triggered panic attacks and flash backs from past abuse. He was really understanding and referred me to a quiet little practice an hour’s drive from where I live.

Once again I was put back on the waiting list and this time it took eight months for me to get an appointment. By this point with no treatment for over a year I had untreated PTSD, crippling Anxiety, OCD and Depression. I was basically a recluse whose days consisted of debilitating routines and safety checks that could go on for hours. On that first appointment I had to share my entire back story again and was so scared that I would be turned away and told there was nothing they could do for me. At that point I was desperate for help. When she started talking about the type of therapy she wanted to do with me and asked me to make another appointment with her I burst into tears. I was just so relieved that I’d finally found someone who could help me.

The NHS gave me 24 appointments with my psychologist and she decided to treat me with CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) a type of therapy used to stop a cycle of negative thoughts and create positive associations with things that scare you. Having CBT is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I constantly had to face my fears and challenge myself. I described the fear I felt to my family as feeling the same way they’d feel if they were put in a cage full of lions. We focused most of my sessions on treating my OCD which was probably the most out of control at that point. It was incredibly difficult and I didn’t enjoy it one bit but I slowly noticed myself getting better and started to find things easier. I’m pleased to say that as I type this my OCD is now pretty much completely under control.

I was so disappointed when my 24 sessions were up because in that time I’d managed to tackle all of my little fears and was now ready to move on to the big stuff and we hadn’t even begun to treat my PTSD. I was advised to take a break from therapy for a while and put the new strategies I’d learned from CBT into place on my own. Both my psychologist and doctor thought that I’d really benefit from some counselling which at the time I wasn’t ready for. I knew that counselling was going to involve talking about the past and I’d just got to a point where I was starting to feel better and build a new life for myself. The last thing I wanted to do was to look back to where I started. I wanted to move forward and was determined that I could do so and I did. I spent a few years out of therapy putting the things I learned from CBT into practise in real life situations and continued to move forward on my own with the help of medication.

Last year I got to a point where I felt like I’d got as far as I could go on my own and now I needed some more help. I’d started to build a solid new life for myself and felt strong enough to look back. My doctor said that what I’d been doing was putting a plaster over the wound which fixed it for the moment and stopped it from getting worse but it was now time to take the plaster off, go in and clean it up and stitch it together properly so that it could finally heal.

Going to counselling was one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. I managed to find an excellent private counsellor. I didn’t want to have to be put on the NHS waiting list again, this time I wanted to do treatment my way and be able to have as many sessions as it takes. She knew my financial situation wasn’t great and so she very kindly charges me half her usual rate. Her house is in the middle of the countryside it’s so peaceful and I love going there. Together we’ve looked at my past and how that affects my present and how my PTSD being left untreated for such a long time made it dangerously worse. I trust my counsellor completely and have started taking my biggest steps in treatment under her gentle guidance.

For me, timing with counselling was everything. I think you can have the best counsellor to talk with who gives the best advice but unless you’re in the mind set where you’re ready to put the work in and be uncomfortably honest, you won’t get the most from it. It’s hard work and it’s so easy to miss an appointment or to hash over the truth. I know that if I was to start counselling back when I’d finished my CBT I wouldn’t have opened up in the way that I have now and said the things I needed to say. I was like the person who desperately wanted to be thin but didn’t want to do the diet or exercise to get there, it just seemed too hard for me back then, I wanted immediate results and none of the hard work. With therapy, unlike medication, the hard work is ultimately down to you. It’s difficult and leaves you feeling like your heart has been scrubbed raw some days but my god is it worth it.

If medication is my shield then therapy is my battle plan. It’s knowing what areas are going to be difficult so I can prepare, it’s knowing my strengths and putting strategies in place to get through the hard times. Now I’m at a place where I have my shield in hand and my battle plan in the forefront of my mind. The war inside my head is not over but I’m in the midst of it now and I’m not alone. I have trusty allies by my side and confidence in knowing that when the battle is over and the dust has settled I have a future waiting for me on the horizon and it’s one worth fighting for.

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