The Talking Cure - Does It Work?

28th August 2009

Sophie Everest [Dip.Counc.] shares some personal experiences

“Why should you care?” My client stared at me belligerently, her hands clenched on the tattered armrests of the old chair on which she sat.

“I don’t even want to be here.” Her gaze shifted to the window, unable to meet my eyes.

We both knew she was lying. Week in and week out, without fail, she would sit in the chair opposite me and gainsay her attendance. The only sessions she had missed had been as a result of a night spent either in a police cell, or passed out on her bed.

Client X was an alcoholic. She had been using alcohol and other mood-altering substances since she had been beaten and raped by her stepfather when she was eight. Ending up in an institution, which has since been closed down, she had gone from one abusive situation to another, and things had pretty much continued in the same vein for most of her life. Marked out as a victim from the very start, Client X was struggling to break out of this role and create a new reality for herself. It wasn’t easy. Mistrust and defence formed the basis of her personality, and it had taken me the best part of a year to get to the point where she could begin to tell me the truth about her past or allow me to witness her real feelings.

I could have spent many more years working with Client X, and having to leave her was one of the hardest things I have done in my career as a counsellor. She had been abandoned by everyone that she had come to trust, and the fact that I would some day do it too, had been one of the first real fears that she had communicated to me (albeit as an aggressive accusation).

It hadn’t been my choice to go. The drug and alcohol agency that I had worked for since qualifying in 2000 had been taken over and the new management had decided, for financial reasons, to close the counselling facility and focus on the more practical side of addiction treatment. As the time for my departure approached, Client X’s attendance grew erratic. When she did turn up, she was sullen, aggressive, angry, and sometimes even intimidating, although I never felt truly threatened. I knew what was hurting her, and all I could do was to try to weave our parting into the therapy… to make it a loving departure, with goodbyes properly said… to give her the experience of a ‘good’ ending, rather than yet another abandonment.

To be honest, I’m not sure how well I succeeded. I left her my mobile number – I’ve had it for years, and because of my profession, it is vital that it remains unchanged. I let her know that although I was no longer working with her, I was still contactable, still caring about her, still “giving a s**t” as she so succinctly put it.

Its been four years since I said goodbye to Client X. I’m now in private practice, working with a very different client base, but I got a text from her recently, saying that she was clean and sober. I replied immediately, telling her I was proud of her, and to keep it up. Was she telling the truth? I sincerely hope so, but even if she is not, or if she should relapse, the hope is there; her desire for what she says to be the truth. Each time she goes into detox, each time she achieves a few weeks or months of sobriety, she builds her experience and increases her chances of succeeding. My hopes and encouragement go with her, always.

Client X is an extreme case. Most of the people with whom I work now can hold down jobs, drive cars, interact with others and maintain at least the external appearance of coping with life. What goes on under the surface is, of course, another matter. You cannot make someone feel better by comparing their troubles to that of someone worse off then they are. Everything is relative, and perception governs experience. While one can feel sympathy, or even empathy, for someone whose misfortune seems worse than yours, ultimately you are not living their life and can only relate fully to your own.

As a Person-Centred counsellor, I believe that each new client must therefore be encountered as if they were a blank canvas that they are going to paint for me. I endeavour to be free of preconceptions, judgements, assumptions or prejudice. I control my instinct to try to be clever – not filling in the blanks, making intuitive leaps, creating links or adding two and two. I let the client do that. Ultimately it is their discovery that matters, not mine. Salvation on a plate has no value; it simply reinforces the belief that their ‘saviour’ is indispensable, and the aim of a good counsellor is to work towards becoming unnecessary, not to foster dependency. This must be their victory, and I merely the medium through which this was achieved.

Counselling is not for the faint-hearted. Self reflection, emotion, confrontation are scary concepts for most of us, but the pay off can be immense. Literally life-changing. We spend so much time worrying about others, scurrying from one task to another, stressed and isolated, living day-to-day, relating to those around us on a surface level, and never taking the time to recharge ourselves or to wonder why we are prey to our responses; we don’t question where they came from and whether or how we can change them.

Counselling provides a quiet space in which the mind can untangle itself. The counsellor’s job is to provide the client with a safe, intelligent, caring environment that allows the client to explore their own inner landscape with an experienced and non-judgmental companion.

For some, a single session may be enough. For others six, ten, 20 or 30 hours can produce results. Some clients stay in therapy for years, others come and go as and when they feel they need a little support through a rough patch. The client decides what works for them. I am just grateful that I can be part of such a life-affirming process, and encourage anyone considering therapy to give it a try. You have nothing to lose but your problems.

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