How understanding ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT can heal us from childhood trauma

New video blog uploaded: https://youtu.be/hdb2cVzyzgk

Looking at how understanding ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT can help us to heal from childhood trauma.

When we’ve experienced childhood trauma it can be really difficult to break free from its devastating impact even many years down the line. It might make little or no sense to us why someone who was supposed to nourish and protect us could behave so cruelly, and we may find ourselves stuck in a place of deep anger, resentment, bitterness, pain and confusion.

Whilst this video isn’t a magic-wand solution in freeing ourselves from trauma (we still have to do the healing work which takes time, compassion, bags of self-love and patience) I really do hope that by understanding a little bit about arrested development you may regard it as a healing tool on your journey in the way I have.

With love and light,
Steph
xx

@StephJonesMBACP (Facebook/ Twitter/ Instagram)
www.stephjonescounselling.co.uk

#trauma #mentalhealth #arresteddevelopment #healing

 

How do you support your partner when you both have mental health issues?

Contrary to what some might have you believe being a registered Counsellor and Psychotherapist doesn’t make you any less vulnerable to human suffering than anybody else. I’ve been very vocal about my recovery journey from complex PTSD which I see as something I will need to manage long-term as opposed to eradicate completely (wishful but unhelpful thinking!).

Whilst I’m now much more adept at managing my difficult periods and taking immediate action (self care, reducing commitments, listening to my needs, reaching out) what happens if your usually supportive partner is also dealing with some heavy stuff?

Depressive and anxious episodes in others can sometimes feel triggering if you already have a sensitivity towards experiencing those states. Trying to be an anchor for your loved one when you’re in a dark space yourself can feel frightening and overwhelming. Here’s my top-five tips for riding out the storm together.

1. Be there for yourself

Whilst this might sound counter-intuitive in helping your partner, trust me, it’s not. As the old saying goes, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ and it’s essential that you find healthy ways of getting your own needs met without depending on your partner. Draw up a list of good friends you can talk to, reach out to a group, a wider mental health community or therapist if you can afford it. This will help you in the long-run by allowing you to hone your recovery independence skills and help prevent your relationship from falling into co-dependent habits.

2. Set reasonable expectations

When you can hardly get out of bed in the morning it’s fairly unlikely that you’ll have the energy to invest in your shared responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, shopping or planning. When both of you are struggling it can help to co-write a list of key essential tasks that need doing and mutually agree responsibilities, essentially playing to your strengths as a team. But never expect more from your partner than you’d be able to give yourself. If neither of you can manage your responsibilities think creatively – shop online, ask a friend to help with chores, contact a volunteer or caring centre, ask a neighbour to walk your dog. Every. Little. Helps.

3. Show up for your partner

Although you might not have the energy to speak or even think clearly, you can still show up. Cuddles, hand-holding, a surprise cup of coffee, running a bath, hair-stroking – these are all non-verbal ways to show you care and that they’re still in your heart. Sometimes simply being quiet together can be just what the other person needs – no stressful conversations, no trying to ‘fix’ things, just being present.

4. Team Black Dog

Feeling at rock bottom can seem like the loneliest place in the world. Being at rock bottom together means that you already have someone to empathise and share your experience with. Try taking conversations in turns using this active listening technique:

  • Person A shares what’s going on for them
  • Person B listens and clarifies what they’ve heard
  • Person A responds to person B’s interpretation (making it even clearer), and finally –
  • Person B clarifies again and asks how you might work through this together.

Then swap over and repeat the exercise.

This method can really help to deepen an empathic connection and perhaps even allow you to come up with some positive solutions.

5. Remember, This Too Shall Pass

When you’re in the thick of it it’s difficult to keep perspective and remember a time when the relationship wasn’t as hard. You might even find yourself questioning your partner or blaming them for your unhappiness. Remember that their current negative feelings aren’t who they are. Write down the things you value about them the most. Own your own emotions (it’s OK to be hurting) without judgement and try to hold on to the fact that this period will pass – it isn’t how it is, it’s just how it is now.

@StephJonesMBACP

What love feels like to someone with depression

Written at the worst of my struggles and something I’d like to share with you now- Steph, August 2018.

As I Google my way around the internet searching for conclusive answers, my anxiety increases tenfold. How do I know if I love my partner? Strangers posing such desperate questions are answered by other strangers as though they are the gospel according to factual truth.

For the record my boyfriend is the best thing that has ever happened to me.

He is gorgeous, kind, sweet, 100% there for me and contributes an incredible amount to our relationship. I on the other hand am really struggling with depression and fairly fucking useless. If I’m not raging at him for not taking the bins out, or crying like a mad woman in the kitchen because his innocuous supportive comments feel like the end of the world, I am predominantly numb and incapable of feeling joy.

Yesterday whilst searching the internet (it has a lot to answer for) I came across Byron Katie’s ‘The Works’ which is a strategy based upon self-enquiry. I watched a session in which the client had incredible revelations and seemed lighter – lifted – clean. It only made sense to try this out with other aspects of my befuddled life so I asked myself a question – do I love my boyfriend?

The first question of the process is – is thistrue? My stomach dropped and I felt confused. How can you know if you love someone? The second question, do you absolutely know that to be true? felt like maybe I didn’t know at all. If I couldn’t answer the first part how the fuck could I answer an incomprehensible question at greater depth?

You see, the thing with depression is that it robs you of all positive feelings. You feel numb, ghost-like and can’t trust anything you experience with your five senses. Thankfully he understands just how much it hurts me not to be able to answer this kind of philosophical existential musing in my current state and doesn’t seem to take it personally.

As the question crashed its way through my skull it unleashed my pure-OCD (based upon relationships, confession and reassurance) which has been lying dormant for some time. It’s a bit like two fairground mirrors facing opposite each other, their reflections bouncing and stretching into infinity – do I, don’t I, do I, don’t I….?

I get lost in the concept of what love even is. What is it? If it is a feeling and you can’t feel do you have it?

The thoughts that arise when I ponder this question fill me with feelings of dread, sorrow, guilt and confusion. Suddenly my brain comes to a complete stand-still. It’s like my mind has literally jammed with trying to compute this impossible equation. No. More. Storage.

Only one internet stranger flung a logical inflatable rubber ring into the sea of my neurosis – if you didn’t love him you wouldn’t care.

In relaying all this to him I realise that he can still see me even when I hold a completely distorted view of myself and reality. He reminds me that only yesterday we were happy but that’s a world away from me now as I plummet down the eternal mind helter-skelter exhausted with rumination.

If I had asked the questions: who do I want to be with in another 50-years, whose arms would I like to die in, who offers the best and most healthy relationship I’ve ever had, who is your soulmate, who do you fancy the arse off? – the answers would all be unequivocally HIM.

But the absence of reliable feelings unnerves me and puts even the strongest of connections under intense scrutiny.

My only experiences of ‘love’ have been around longing, pain, drama, obsession, infatuation and loss. I can feel all of those things – a bit like my microphone doesn’t really pick up noise until it’s over-the-top intense.

The intrusive thoughts battle against any firm arguments to support my belief that I do. In fact, the gremlin on my shoulder is telling me that it’s all just a complex lie and that this entire article itself is a bullshit self-denial.

The result of this daily mind ping-pong? It makes me want to push him away – for both of us. On one hand I don’t want him to have to put up with me when he deserves someone who can freely experience and give love. And for myself, I have a core belief that I am destined to be alone, not right for anyone and incapable of healing or experiencing positive feelings. And to not be with him would surely mean freedom from all the questioning?

And these are the stories that depression and anxiety feeds us.

That we’re not good enough, not worthy, genius manipulators and all the other bunch of crap it throws at you on a daily basis.

Although to talk this kind of difficult stuff through with your partner might feel like the worst thing in the world, it might help them to better understand where you’re coming from and enable them to separate out you from the depression.

No one asks to feel depressed and living with the guilt of not being able to feel love when you can’t feel any form of happiness or pleasure is not a bundle of picnics. My advice when you want to ask the question? Don’t.

If you’re not in a healthy place, it’s very unlikely that your insight is going to be a reliable witness (unless of course your partner is a complete tool).

Asking existential questions about the meaning of love whilst struggling with a mental health condition is as futile as asking what the colour four is, and unless you’ve got Synesthesia or are tripping on acid you’re only likely to go further down the rabbit hole.

Time to Talk

Someone asked me the other day what time of clients I worked with- whether it was people ‘just’ dealing with problems in their relationships, jobs or families, or whether it was people who had ‘mental health issues.’

What is the distinction? Is there one? What is ‘being well’ and how do we define it?

There seems to be some confusion as to what mental health actually is. So let’s put this in simplistic terms.

We ALL have mental health, just like physical health and it exists on a sliding scale.

If you’d sustained a physical injury you would need time to heal. Willing your bones to knit back isn’t going to have much effect. Similarly if you’ve sustained a psychological wound – a loss, a pain, a shock, a stress factor, an environmental change- your mental health will need time to process, reflect, find acceptance and heal.

It really isn’t any different.

The problem in society is that we can’t SEE the mind. We look at others and think, ‘Well, they LOOK fine’ without being able to experience their inner pain. Let’s face it unfortunately modern society is geared around productivity- governments contribute vast sums of money into the system in order to support individuals struggling with mental health issues, but why? Out of the goodness of their hearts? Because they’re full of integrity and compassion? No, because people who are struggling are not able to contribute to profit generation, in this sense mental health is a ‘problem’ to be dealt with.

Clinician ‘experts’ focus on treating pathologies; human beings are given labels and diagnoses which pigeon-hole them into treatment ‘pathways’. Understanding what brought the person to that current state of being is typically undervalued- CBT for example isn’t particularly interested in listening to the underlying meaning of how you came to be in this moment, it’s more interested in looking for ways to ‘fix’ your mindset- to turn your negative thoughts into more healthy, positive and ordinary ones. But what if your negative thoughts simply reflect reality, that your life and environment are difficult and painful?

Animals caged up in zoos suffer psychological disturbances- consider the pacing tigers, the birds which over-groom and pull out their feathers- when we cannot live how we want to live, we become stressed, ill, anxious and depressed. It could be argued that these are natural responses to hardship.

But the system demands that much of our natural response anxieties and depressions are reduced to false red flag triggers which must be psychologically reconditioned and banished. Medication largely helps abate the internal anguish by numbing out the power of the triggers and re-balancing depleted serotonin levels. But what happens when the flag ARE real? When you’re skint, in diabolical housing, have poor self-esteem or little motivation to go on because every day makes you feel utterly worthless?

The NIMHE Guiding Statement on Recovery talks about, ‘changing one’s orientation and behaviour from a negative focus on a troubling event, condition or circumstance to the positive restoration, rebuilding, reclaiming or taking control of one’s life.’

But this begs the question- how much control do people have over their own lives? Through no fault of their own, millions of people find themselves in dire socio-economic circumstances leading to deep unhappiness and poor mental health.

Carl Rogers, the father of Client Centred Therapy, talks about the internal struggle of incongruence- that is, by not living in accordance with your true self this leads to all kinds of psychological conflict. For the most part poor mental health doesn’t arise out of the blue, it’s typically linked to some unexpressed or unprocessed part of yourself.

Today we all have a golden opportunity to talk about how we feel, to share our stories, our fears and hopes, and bite back at those who suggest you can ‘think’ your way out of mental health struggles.

Telling someone to ‘think positive’ when they’re in a dark and scary place is as bloody pointless as asking a diabetic to control their insulin by mind power alone.

Yes, we can all do things which will support good mental health and get endorphins whizzing around (exercising, socialising, eating well, moderating toxic loads on your body) but let’s be realistic and stop heaping blame and shame onto the suffers.

Smash the stigma and raise the empathy stakes, we’re all human and deserve compassion and support

#TimetoTalk

A therapist with mental health issues.

This blog was originally posted in January 2018 and later published in the BACP’s professional journal magazine (March 2018) – Therapy Today

Expert by experience

Steph Jones argues that personal experience of mental health problems can add to a counsellor’s skills

I was recently thumbing through a back issue of a psychology magazine and came across one of those ‘short interview with a therapist’ articles. The therapist in question had only decided to retrain after he reached retirement age; his motivation was, he said, to ‘give back to society’. As I continued reading, I felt more and more unsettled. The interviewer asked, ‘Have you ever been in therapy?’, to which he replied, ‘No, I’ve never needed to be.’

This spun me back to a lecture on my own counselling training course, where our professor uttered these words, now permanently etched on my brain: ’Never trust a therapist who hasn’t had therapy.’

In my late teens and early 20s I struggled like hell. I grew up in a single parent household, and my mother battled (although mostly in complete denial) with alcohol. Sofa-surfing and jobless by 17, I found drugs, boys and alcohol were fun alternatives to escape the crushing pain of abandonment and rejection (Mum left me for a violent and abusive man who shared her passion for alcohol. Both are now deceased due to their addictions.)

I remember my early childhood as being a very confusing time. Mum would lavish me with love and attention, but fly off the handle for no particular reason. She would talk to me like an adult friend after she’d downed a bottle of wine. I had absolutely no boundaries. I was obsessively washing my ‘contaminated’ hands by age seven, a latch-key kid by nine, and hauled into the GP’s surgery aged 10 by my hysterical mother demanding to know what was wrong with me. She later gave me hell for not showing the GP my ‘real behaviour’.

I first went for counselling when I was 25 and had accepted that, although my life was by then relatively stable, something didn’t feel quite right. My counsellor (a trainee CBT practitioner) didn’t seem all that interested in my journey of abuse and neglect, my presentation of emotional instability, attachment issues, no confidence or self-worth, major depression, anxiety, frequent panic attacks, dissociative states, some self-harm, impulsivity, maladaptive behaviours and evidence of substance abuse. Instead we focused on what he deemed to be the main problem: why I didn’t have the confidence to talk to a guy I had a crush on.

It wasn’t until several years later that I had 21-sessions of cognitive analytic therapy, through an IAPT service, with a kind, funny, attentive and authentic male counsellor. Each week I would pour my heart out as we did ‘the work’. Together, we painstakingly collaborated in trying to make sense of my life and helping me learn the art of self-acceptance. I screamed, I got angry at him, I wept in grief and anguish; I projected all the unresolved dysfunctional toxic material from my relationship with my mother into our dyad, and he held it securely, compassionately and patiently. He made me realise (much to my initial resistance) that I was in a relationship with an abusive narcissist (I was), and that I was making excuses for his terrible behaviour because I could understand where his pain came from: ‘Jones knows her onions,’ my therapist said.

One afternoon he remarked that he thought I’d make a good counsellor, and I admitted that I’d previously looked into it but hadn’t pursued it, ‘because… reasons’. At that moment, I realised all my ‘reasons’ were in fact fear-based excuses, and within the next few years I had qualified, with a postgraduate diploma in counselling and psychotherapy on a BACP-accredited university course. I worked 60-hours a week to achieve my goal, and burned out on several occasions, collapsing under the strain of the essays, and feeling incredibly alone. But I stuck with it. All we trainees did.

Through the mill

Over the years, I have had around 70-sessions of counselling of different types with different practitioners: some good, some bad, some bloody awful (one therapist told me that he communicated with aliens to help him in his practice). It may seem like a gross over-generalisation, and I know many skilled counsellors who have travelled the academic route, but, in my experience, those that have been bang-on-the-money in terms of their awareness, observations, communication style, interventions, empathy and guidance had all been through the mill – they had lived the syllabus; they spoke from a place of core wounding and subsequent healing.

What is that about? How does my own mental health experience shape me as a professional? What exactly is the special ‘thing’ that I bring into the counselling relationship to help the work? When I attempt to solve this riddle, I realise just how difficult it is to quantify. But maybe that’s the point – it is almost impossible to capture in words an intuitive skill that extends beyond the five recognised senses and is, therefore, in the eyes of science, situated somewhere in the realm of Woo-Woo. Isn’t this part of the problem – that, in our Western culture, we seek to dissect and label all we see in order to ‘understand’ though our limited senses? A shamanic culture, by contrast, would take interconnectivity and acute empathy as a given, without the need for any scientific research to make it ‘real’ or true.

This is my humbly offered attempt at an answer. I believe pain and suffering allow us a glimpse of the truth. I’m suggesting that, when you’ve experienced a high degree of pain and suffering in your life, you naturally cultivate a wider emotional spectrum.

Perhaps, at a biological level, this is about having an over-stimulated sympathetic nervous system, and learning to manage this effectively enough (adapting) so that the world is no longer perceived as a constant threat. I sometimes visualise this as a kind of variation on the window of tolerance – that, when you’ve done enough work on yourself, a hyper-aroused state can be cultivated so that your senses become cat-like, useful, and not just unpleasant.

Could it have something to do with the brain’s mirror neurons – could therapists who have personally experienced mental health issues simply be picking up on strong and familiar subliminal clues, even before the client has verbalised their concerns? By this same token, having been to the depths of despair yourself might suggest that your transference receiver is already finely attuned to the suffering experience – a bit like a sniffer dog checking for explosives in an airport check-in queue.

This exquisite sensitivity used to frighten me – I used to consider it a ‘weirdness’ and try to hide it away from others, but I now regard it as a magical power in my counselling toolkit. To put it another way, therapy is hard work, my experience of mental health issues has given me the tools to be an empathic badass, and you don’t learn that in class.

Two-way street

My decision to write this article was met with some concern by one of my peers. ‘I’d feel really uncomfortable disclosing that, Steph. What if a client read it?’ Their comment (although well-meaning) highlights something that I think lurks in the background of our profession. Many of us come to the work as a ‘wounded healer’, yet there seems to be a tangible undercurrent of shame and embarrassment at the mere suggestion that we were (or are not) ‘100% mentally healthy’. I know countless practitioners in the caring profession who pour themselves into helping their clients but secretly cry their eyes out in the bathroom over lunch. But we’re fine, aren’t we? Nothing to see here, people – just dust in my eye.

I’m not suggesting for one moment that we ‘reveal’ ourselves, ‘warts and all’, to a client (of course, boundaries are critical), but that we use appropriate self-disclosure, and that we seek support to understand our feelings of shame or inadequacy when anyone (client or colleague) ‘finds out’. The more we dismantle the concept of the ‘expert therapist’, the easier it will be for our clients to trust us. In the words of another peer, ‘Vulnerability helps even out the power imbalance a bit more.’

I once worked with a highly-regarded doctor who had been through a great deal of psychoanalysis to deal with his own childhood issues. He talked about how his experience enabled him to ‘feel’ the psychological pain in another person, and really ‘lock into the source’. He believed this made him a better clinician, and we often talked about how whatever happens in the patient–professional transaction does so at a level of meta-cognition – an unspoken communication that says: ‘I can see you’ve been there too.’

But it’s not pain-by-proxy, that’s for certain. I am deeply and consciously aware of whose material is whose, and have a passionate and curious supervisor who works with me to help ‘sift out the lumps’. Nor is it about personally identifying with their experience (the all-unhelpful, ‘Hey, I know how you feel’), or an unprocessed desire to heal vicariously through the work.

For someone who is lost in the dark, perhaps it provides comfort that their therapist has not only been into the darkness but has come out the other side. There’s a famous quote from the film Good Will Hunting that seems to encapsulate my point. During an intense therapy session, Sean, the therapist, says to Will, his client: ‘So, if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling, seen that.’

High empathy is beyond the observed, assumed or inferred. It is beyond cognition – it is existential, intuitive and instinctual.

No shame

When a client walks into my office I am not assuming the role of a perfect professional. I am flawed, just like everyone else, and I am honest about that. In retrospect, every ‘Eureka!’ moment in my own personal therapy arose from the therapist spontaneously disclosing their own private pain, and so demonstrating to me that this pain could be overcome through blood, sweat and tears. They were the proof, and now I am. Of course, we ‘wounded healers’ are never fixed. Life-long, hard-wired patterns of negative behaviours and processes do not vanish in a puff of smoke just because you’ve got a string of letters and qualifications after your name. In times of stress my pure-O OCD will make itself more apparent. I like to nip this in the bud by visualising a bloody big red stamp smashing out the thought and then making myself a cup of tea. These days my anxiety has become a manageable and endearing shyness (even though I’m viewed by others as a fun-loving extrovert) and my severe numbing depression gives way to occasional low days (I self-care the shit out of low days).

I have learned to accept my past, overcome the stigma and shame, and not let it define me or my future. I am now a very happy 38-year old, with an incredible partner and a fluffy feline familiar. I let go of what doesn’t serve me (jobs, friends, situations), and I practise what I preach.

I would personally be extremely cautious of any counsellor who hadn’t sat in the client seat at one time or another. It offers a world of valuable insight to integrate into practice. A client whose therapist claims ‘I’ve never needed therapy’ should perhaps have a good long think as to whether they’re the right person for them. For me, that comment smacked of ‘them and us’, which certainly does nothing to equalise the power imbalance in the therapeutic relationship or help reduce the overall mental health stigma. I guess that is the whole point of sharing this piece – to proudly shout that I’m human, imperfect, messy, authentic and bloody good enough.

About Steph

Steph Jones is a BACP registered counsellor and psychotherapist supporting individuals and couples at her private practice in Stockport, Cheshire. She is a former Executive Board Member of Mind Manchester, and a radio presenter, musician and journalist. She writes for a number of wellbeing publications, is currently working on a book, and lives with partner Mike and Ziggy the cat.

 

Do you remember your first time?

I was recently reflecting on the different approaches used by counsellors in their initial consultation session. For the client this first meeting may be massively anxiety-provoking. Perhaps they have only communicated with their potential therapist beforehand via email or text and are so filled with things to say that everything rushes out at once!

It has to be said that first meeting can often leave you feeling as though you are going on a blind date!

I come from a counselling background of mandatory form filling, monitoring, and evaluation and often found myself abandoning organisations’ protocol in order to really listen and engage with the person sat right in front of me. Although there is certainly importance in building up a bigger picture of my client’s difficulties I often feel the approach of, “please answer questions 1, 2 and 3” could mean that the real answer gets entirely overlooked. That is, if I try to direct you to what I think might give me insight, we might end up setting off in the wrong direction!

What can I expect in my initial consultation? What do I say and do?!

Since that first meeting is usually slightly shorter I would recommend going in with a broad overview of your difficulties. Remember, it doesn’t matter if you forget anything important in the initial session- there are no right or wrong answers. Therapists are not like doctors and we aren’t listening out for a list of ‘symptoms’ in order to medically ‘diagnose’ you and prescribe a form of ‘treatment’. The process is more about working with your feelings and getting to the root of your problems.

Ask questions.

Feel free to come prepared (carry a list of questions and ideas if that helps) so that your therapist can help clarify things for you. A good therapist should be happy to answer any questions relating to their experience, qualifications and practice and you will be able to get a ‘feel’ for them too. Does it feel right? Do you feel comfortable with them? Do you feel unsure or rushed? Are they open or defensive, warm or clinical? Do you feel valued or unimportant? These are all incredibly valid gut reactions which can help inform your decision as to whether you’d like to work with them going forward.

What are your goals? How will you know when you’re finished in therapy?

It’s a good idea to have at least a vague notion of what this might be for example: I’d like to feel more confident, I want a better relationship with my partner, I’d like to feel less angry. By understanding and setting some goals it can help to steer the process but remember – sometimes clients come into the therapy room thinking they want to address one issue and as the layers peel back they realise the issue was really something else all along! I review regularly with all my clients to see if they feel on-track and are happy with our progress. One important thing to note is that sometimes it can feel as though you are ‘stuck’ in therapy- like you’ve hit a glass ceiling and things feel stagnant. That’s something to discuss together and can actually bring up very valuable material- it certainly doesn’t mean ‘it isn’t working!’

Find out about the process.

In my consultation sessions I might talk a little bit about our boundaries, confidentiality, session arrangements and frequencies, note-taking and ethical policy. As there is no obligation to sign up on the day I give all my potential clients a copy of my standard counselling agreement to take away and read carefully- if they wish to come back they can complete and return it on the first agreed session where we will revisit it and make sure it is understood clearly.

Be yourself! Warts ‘an all!

This isn’t a job interview and you don’t have to do anything other than be yourself. I have had many clients who ‘prepare’ or ‘rehearse’ what they plan to say in a session, only to realise that all that goes out the window when you’re deeply in the moment! Take some deep breaths before you come in and try to relax as much as you can- we’re here to help you, not make you feel worse! Be as honest, open and authentic as you are comfortable being- that will go a long way in moving the process along- and above all, trust in the process.

Good luck with finding the right therapist for you.

Steph x