It’s nearly seven years since I attempted to wrestle back control of my life from the entirely unfavourable patterns I had settled into. Excessive indulgence; the blurring of weekends into weekdays; laziness in the extreme; total lack of ambition. I’d carried on in this way for quite some time, despite it being deeply unfulfilling, and if it wasn’t for a romantic interlude, I could really have tested the limits of aimless living and contrived idleness even further. Thankfully, I didn’t, and so I threw myself into learning, an all-round healthier lifestyle, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). All positive things, but the latter was the most intriguing. Hardly surprising, you might say, that CBT stood out from the riveting alternatives, but the sweeping changes the triumvirate instigated have always stayed with me, taking on an almost mythical quality in the story of my life, and just as every hive has its queen, so my trio has its outstanding member.
CBT requires patience from all sides. A very patient and tactful woman, my therapist put me at ease right from the off. With the pleasantries out of the way, an overview of CBT very thoroughly explained, and a verbal agreement that I’d give it a fair go, we proceeded to dance. Well, I was the only one dancing, but I was dancing with myself, so ‘we’ is still the appropriate pronoun.
Here I was, face to face with a stranger, who also, as I would later find out, just so happened to reside in the locality I spent my formative years in. I had come to talk; I was paying to talk; and yet I talked a talk so unlike talking that it was more jive than gibberish, flamenco than phonetics.
The room was really small – tiny, in fact, and it was my one gripe with her setup that we were sitting just fractionally too close to each other for my liking. Cavernous is another term I could use to describe her space, for though our surroundings were economical in square footage, it somehow at the same time felt like we were inextricably linked and left abandoned at the epicentre of a vast wasteland with no hope of escape for just over an hour. No cat-swinging, yet ample room for my evasive waltzing.
We proceeded through the first two sessions in this way, me skirting around the deeper issues, she probing gently yet doggedly, seeking to elicit some – any – insight into the underlying problems. Far from being a waste of time, these early exchanges were most helpful. I suspect it’s quite common, this somewhat cautious familiarisation or meet-and-greet stage of a therapeutic relationship, especially where a personality like mine at the time would be concerned; namely, reserved and reticent to reveal sensitive information – although I’ll tell you anything after a few beers! So on we went, laying the groundwork for what was to come, and we spoke a great deal about my history and what I thought had lead me to CBT.
The thing I found easiest to say was that anxiety was a problem for me. If I recall correctly, I think I probably blurted it out before we’d known each other for five minutes. This was progress of sorts, of course, but if you call the builders and refuse to tell them any more than that your house is broken, you’re unlikely to be satisfied with the end result. Details, precious details, are what separate inferiority from mediocrity, and mediocrity from superiority. And so continued the dance, quick-stepping from the vague to the opaque, before pirouetting into an elusive and tangoing narrative.
How did the anxiety manifest itself? Did certain stimuli trigger it? What, if any, were my coping mechanisms? To all of which I answered – at least during those first couple of sessions – that it was an ongoing, non-specific, all-encompassing anxiety, which neither waxed nor waned, and certainly wasn’t linked to anything I found difficult to talk about. As much as I was prepared to admit was that there were: no known reasons for me to be anxious; no deep-rooted insecurities eating away at me and making me feel smaller than a micro bacterium; and no inexplicable feelings of self-loathing and shame driving me round the bend every chance they got. If I were to put it another way, it was a bit like presenting at the doctor’s with non-specific pain and hoping they’d sort it out with one wave of a magic wand.
Despite my reluctance to divulge the true nature of my problems, we ambled our way through my tale of discontent, and smidgens of progress were made here and there. Scratching the surface in this manner, we uncovered a few breadcrumbs along the way, until finally I said I was having problems with anger. Except I wasn’t, having problems with anger, that is, but it was the only linguistic cloak I could think of to couch my inner turmoil in at the time.
This idea that I was angry was teased out a little. Having no other choice or information to go on, my therapist ran with it admirably, but I imagine she smelled a rat. Phased by little – a vital quality in someone involved in the talking therapies – she absorbed all I had to say and never batted an eyelid, the wind from which I would have felt anyway, what with us sitting so close together. I rabbited on a little more about this anger, even though the charade began to tire me out. Strangely enough, and considering I was inadvertently misleading her, it was still therapeutic.
It heralded the beginning of a new era, I suppose, and for all my beating about the bush, at least I was starting to communicate my difficulties to another soul. In between those early sessions, and still to this very day, I ask myself if it is or ever was anger, and I’m entirely satisfied that it wasn’t. I’ve gone the whole psychoanalytic route with myself as well, seeking to establish if it was anger of the unconscious variety, but no plausible reasoning could I find in support of that particular theory. And we all know anger when we see it, so you probably intuitively know why I knew that that was not the source of my anguish.
It was a convenient front for a time, though, temporarily covering over the real problem and preparing me for the grand unveiling, which, like all exhibitions, doesn’t just happen over night. Back then, and sometimes still now, weaknesses or vulnerabilities in any form are things I’d rather not be associated with, and for me, anger doesn’t qualify as a weakness. Unbridled anger, now that’s a different story, and fortunately I’ve never been the hotheaded type. But yes, anger was a good trench from which to operate while I got things straight enough in my head to actually tell my therapist what the main problem was.
Obviously, I was deceiving myself as well as her. And what’s more, I was deluding myself, or at least I was according to the predominantly Western and occasionally damaging ideals of strength and individualism, of unrelenting courage and self-restraint, of extreme stoicism. All necessary in their own way, but these are things that must be used in moderation, selectively, carefully…for to live according to them and them only, is to live a life deficient in many of the qualities that so enrich our existences and set us apart from beings of less complex compositions, qualities like the ability to share experiences, empathy, altruism, compassion; not unique to us by any means but enriching beyond compare.
So I deluded myself in a kind of paradoxical way in that I had admitted weakness and found myself sitting face to face with a therapist, yet I was keeping up quite a front in our sessions by not admitting to anything which I believed to be a weakness. Catch-22 or what!
I’ve overcome my aversion to weaknesses now. Pretending they don’t exist, or being ashamed of them, is of no great use. We must own our every facet, our unique set of tools, however blunt or worn they might be.
I think it was the third or fourth session by the time I let down my guard. Until then, no blood had my stone of an ego yielded, but when it finally happened, it was like the fire hydrants in the movies, with truth gushing forth from every orifice and erasing all the talk of anger in one fell swoop.
And no, I won’t go into it now. Full disclosure isn’t always necessary, and I think the point stands alone: admitting to my primary problem was, shall we say, a little on the difficult side.