Recovery is an Alliance

Ask me who is responsible for my recovery: I will argue that it is irrefutably all down to my amazing therapist. Without him I would not be where I am today. It is an unequivocal fact in my mind. Ask me who is responsible for the progress I see in the lives of my clients: I will argue just as strongly that it is all down to them, their courage, dedication, engagement and hard work.

So ask me with my Both Sides hat on who is responsible for recovery, and I guess I have to conclude that it is both client and therapist. My therapist does have an awful lot of qualities and skills that facilitated my recovery through our coming together. There are certainly many therapists I previously encountered who did not have those qualities or skills with whom I was not able to recover. A good therapist does make a world of difference.

But the client is the one with the power to take the journey or to stand still. They are the one who has all the pain inside of them, and they are the one who knows when the desire for change outweighs the desire to run from all that is ouchie. They are the one who makes themselves vulnerable to a stranger despite their trust being crushed so badly in their past. They are the one who doesn’t give up when it gets tough, who works through it, shows up, and keeps on trying the doing things differently which is at the core of therapy.

When I meet clients, I meet people who believe they are the weakest, most powerless people in the world. I hear them. I felt weak and powerless in their place too. I don’t wish to take away from that experience – it is where they are, it is their reality. What I do slowly try to offer is a little insight from my side of the room. I see the most kickass warriors I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. Staying alive another day is a victory for these people… yet they don’t just manage that, they somehow leave their house, which involves clothes and way too many other humans, and they turn up and talk to me, also another human. For anyone with trauma and anxiety, they’re basically stepping into their idea of hell because they have this tiny but persistent belief that this is the only way left to try for things to get better.

So recovery is an alliance. We often call it the ‘therapeutic alliance’, and my absolute all time favourite quote from Carl Rogers sums up what this means perfectly: ‘In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?’ 

I’m so glad I found this quote at the start of my career. I have been able to focus all of my efforts on providing a relationship that is conducive to change, and very little of my efforts on any ponderings of how I can actually change the client. The client changes themselves. The client is changed by the relationship. Neither of us could do it alone… the change comes about from the experience of things being done differently… from the experience of being respected, valued, believed, heard, seen, and allowed to be. The best and I think only cure for toxic relationships is the experience of a healthy relationship. That’s what therapy provides.

Recovery gets harder before you get better

There’s a good reason for why we bury our feelings. Feelings hurt. Feelings are big, they’re raw, and they often leave us feeling out of control. Burying our feelings is the first step we take to grasping back a sense of control. Burying feelings helps us survive. Burying feelings is not bad. Burying feelings is our best attempt in a bad situation. But one day, we may choose to thrive rather than just survive. One day, when the bad situation is over, the best way then will no longer be the best way now. When trauma ends, new doors open.

And so to move forward you have to look backwards. I know, it seems illogical. You try running towards the future you dreamed of before you were broken, you race ahead again and again, but it’s like the past has got you on a bungee cord and you can only ever go so far without it pulling you crashing back to the place you’ve tried so hard to move away from. It’s at this point you realise that you might have to address the trauma to truly move on from the trauma. Running away isn’t working, so maybe turning towards it and facing it head on may work. After all you’ve looked in every other direction and you’re still here, wounded and bound.

Picking off the mental scab from your wounds is never going to be easy. Dissociation is a powerful tool of the mind, and it’s for our own protection. We distance ourselves from things that are so big that they might crush us. When we reengage with those memories, it is vital that we have ways in which we can ground ourselves in the present, ways to remind us that this is now, we are safe, the abuse is over. When the lid is taken off the past, the same fight, flight or freeze response that initially led us to the mental flight of dissociation will be aroused.

We can run again. Many do. Therapy often takes more than one attempt. For me it took many more than one. There are so many factors that have to come together to be ready to heal. But we can also do something different this time and fight back. We can fight because we are adults now, we are safe, we are free. We can fight the terror of our feelings by rooting ourselves in the here and now. We don’t need to be that scared little child with our heart racing anymore. But to soothe that child that is within us hurting, we first have to let them out. To be able to tell them it’s over, they first have to be able to tell us it happened.

So yeah, at first it HURTS. It’s worse than things were when you were running in the opposite direction to your pain vowing never to look back. But that damn bungee cord never falls off just because we did a good job of running away. The farther we run, the more painful it will be when the cord brings us crashing back. Some people manage to run for half a lifetime. Some only take a few steps before each fall back into the darkness.

But there is another way. We can hold the hand of that hurting child and walk them through the pain, through the sadness, through the madness, and into the present day. We can soothe them and we can save them. We can tell them they were so right to hurt so much, but that the thing hurting them is over, and they are safe. They are ok now. The past will still have happened. But they don’t have to live there. They can come into the present if they want. They can come and smell the cut grass and hear the birds for the first time. And suddenly you will be fully present and fully you in these moments. And instead of a sadness deep inside pulling you away from any acknowledgement of the beauty around you, you – the whole of you – will feel the sunlight on your face and you will smile. Because you survived.

Recovery is not erasure

Yesterday I spoke with my therapist about the incongruence I sometimes feel in my client work when I’m simultaneously trying to hold an offering of hope within the room, but I’m also having one of those weeks where there are more flashbacks, more bad dreams, more of the madness making memories that remind me that healing is not and never will be erasure.

Then I remind myself that it is not incongruous to hold hope so long as I don’t promise the earth when I can only offer a few extra flowers. I have never told my clients that therapy will make it all go away. We will always have our memories, but one day we can get to a point where we can remember without the crushing agony that makes it hard to breathe and death seem the more comfortable option.

Sometimes I get really frustrated at therapy when I’m still trawling through aspects of the trauma which I so wish I could put in a box on a shelf in the deepest room of my memory and move on without. But memories in boxes are what make us ill. I know that talking has been the key to my recovery. I know that my pain is also my blessing because I am now positioned as such that I can support others in this wiggly, messy journey of life. But god, it is hard to accept that healing doesn’t mean forgetting.

While I can’t offer a magic eraser, a cognitive tip-ex, I never doubt that what I can offer is still worth the investment of both me and my clients. When you have lived with the raw ouch, the confusion, the shame and the dirt and the anger and the questions and that bubbling up in your chest the more and more you think about it all… when you’ve lived with that, remembering without reliving is enough. More than enough. To be able to have a memory pop up and it be frustrating rather than agonising is enough. We will never forget. But we can move into a place where memories don’t hurt us anymore.

Forgiveness is not a prerequisite for healing

I don’t know whether it’s because my first experience of therapy was with Christian counsellors, but I always believed that forgiveness was a prerequisite for healing. In fact, that sticking point was the very thing that led to me firing my first two counsellors and finding myself a humanist, person-centred therapist who would hopefully sing a slightly different song.

We often hear that forgiveness doesn’t benefit the person we are forgiving but rather it benefits ourselves. We are told that forgiveness means letting go of resentment, not saying that what the person did was ok. However these adages fall apart when you attempt to vocalise the simple phrase ‘I forgive you’. Breaking it down, what does this actually mean?

Forgiveness is a reparative act. It is saying, ‘you did something which wronged me, but I won’t blame you or hate you for it anymore.’ As such, forgiveness is not something for victims to grant abusers, its something for friends and lovers, those who have not thrown away every right to not be blamed or hated for what they did.

Forgiveness has cropped up for me as a counsellor with clients whose primary concern is to address their anger. Their anger at their abuser spills over into their life and manifests as anger at anybody and everybody –  anger at the people who it is possible to take their pain out on seeing as the deserving recipients of their anger are not accessible.

I suddenly found myself wondering whether I should be helping these clients to forgive their abusers. I have never forgiven my abuser, but something in me was still triggered by being faced with people being so devastated by anger. But then I realised that forgiveness is not the antithesis of anger. I had not overcome my own anger by saying, ‘it’s ok, I forgive you’. Anger is a victim’s right and hate in a victim is constructive because it often marks a transition from seeing themselves as at fault to blaming their abuser. So how do you stop being ruled by anger without forgiving?

Anger can be resolved by acceptance. Accepting you will never get any answers as to why they did what they did, accepting that bad things happen to good people and the world isn’t just, accepting that you may never get suitable justice or revenge. Accepting that you do have to live with the consequences of your trauma through no fault of your own. Accepting that you’re having to embark on a journey of recovery while the life of the perpetrator often carries on as normal. Anger says, ‘its not fair’. Forgiveness says, ‘but that’s ok.’ Acceptance says, ‘its not ok, but I cant change it. So I’ll work from where I am.’



Disclosure is not a prerequisite for recovery

When I entered therapy, I was convinced that the only way for me to recover from my trauma was to finally reveal the most painful and shameful parts of my story to someone in the hope that either A) I convinced them that it was in fact my fault, or B) they convinced me that it wasn’t my fault after all. Now, I have to say that option A seemed the most likely, as it was perfectly good reading books and blogs telling me that the victim is never at fault because of this magical catch-all of being a child, but I was adamant that if someone knew the fact I loved my abuser, that I even loved some of the abuse, then I could finally make them see that the catch-all didn’t catch me. I was a dirty, slutty, inherently bad person… yes I know that’s what all victims say… no that doesn’t change the fact that if you knew MY story you’d think it true.

Now, as a therapist, I see my clients torture themselves to disclose as quickly and as deeply as possible. Some feel they’re wasting my time if they don’t disclose in every session, or from an early enough session, and many feel they will only recover if they force out of their mouths more and more detail in every week. I sit across from them and desperately wish they would stop putting this pressure on themselves – they’re hurting enough. Life hurts enough. Therapy hurts enough. I wish I could tell them that you don’t have to go into every grim detail to recover. Disclosure is not a prerequisite for healing. Just the fact you’re talking about the abuse, or the aftermath, is enough. The trauma is being attended to. You’re doing something differently, and slowly that change will bring about more change. It’s not a race.

In the end I didn’t convince my therapist that I was responsible for what happened to me. He also didn’t convince me that I wasn’t. The change came relationally, as a result of being witnessed by someone with qualities of genuine empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard. That simple fact is what made me realise that I too can be a therapist. Therapy isn’t witchcraft, despite what I initially thought, and it isn’t rocket science, despite it achieving what I first considered impossible. It is someone with qualities which are inherent in them building a relationship with you and with their slow and unwavering support you starting to believe that you are worthy, you are clean, you are innocent. It’s not just some website telling it you, it is a person who knows you and your story. And that gives weight to their point of view.

It wasn’t until part way through my training as a trauma counsellor that I fully surrendered every sense that I was to blame for what happened to me. I realised that I could not sit across from someone and help them to see themselves as free from responsibility, guilt, badness or dirt, if I didn’t also allow myself to believe this. You see, every victim thinks they are the unique case where things aren’t as clear cut, where the shame that has been placed on them is valid. I believe with all my heart that none of my clients will ever be in any way responsible for what happened to them, so how can I go on believing it of myself? Logically, I had already surrendered to the fact that I wasn’t the one to blame. But emotionally I still needed to let go. And so I did. Not because I didn’t still feel dirty and shameful, but in spite of it. I let go so that I could sit face to face with a client not believing one thing true for them and another for me. So that I could sit there with true congruence. So I would not be another ‘do-gooder’ counsellor but someone who was being 100% genuine in how they relate to their clients.

Full disclosure is not necessary for healing. It wasn’t true for me and it isn’t true for you. I actually went into very little detail with my therapist. I detailed the reasons for believing myself at fault, but I never managed to verbalise the horrors of the precise instances of the abuse. And I say managed because it was a challenge I set myself. Week in, week out I tried to force disclosure like it was the magic key to recovery. And then I began to realise that somehow putting words to the unspeakable wasn’t going to be necessary for me to heal. When people say that you get better by talking about it, I think we take this as meaning that disclosure is the only true way to talk about it. This is not the case. Talking about it does relatively simple things… you stand up and say this happened to me… and in that you come to accept it yourself and come to experience being witnessed in that truth. These are powerful enough shifts to bring the earthquake of recovery. I promise.