Therapy has helped get me to where I am today, or most importantly where I was on Saturday and Sunday – playing in the sea with my partner, just a short drive from our new coastal home, thinking I absolutely love my life and I couldn’t possibly feel any happier.
It hasn’t all been down to therapy, but therapy has really helped.
Of course, it doesn’t always feel like this, as my friends and blog readers know only too well, but it feels good more often these days than it has done for a very long time and when it does, it’s important to acknowledge all the ‘work I’ve done on myself’ and to try to use my journey to help others take steps towards happiness by writing about it here and in my soon-to-be-finished (I hope!) book.
My therapeutic journey began in my early 30s after something prompted me to start to confess to my friends that I had very strange eating habits. I wouldn’t eat anything all day and then as soon as I poured a little bit of cereal into a small pot of yoghurt, an uncontrollable urge to binge gripped me and I couldn’t stop eating until the entire box was gone.
I’d been doing this all my life – secretly bingeing on food then doing anything I could to get rid of it, usually running for miles or taking back-to-back aerobics classes. The cycle went like this: starve, starve, starve as long as I could; binge, binge, binge on as much food as I could stomach; shame attack; hide; run, run, run; starve, starve, starve; binge …
For years, I chose to ignore it. I did it, but I didn’t think about it. It was part of me, but not something I wanted to own up to or was even aware of on a conscious level.
But that shifted after I hit 30, as I got ready to leave Brazil to move to London to start a job working for Reuters in parliament.
Most of my friends didn’t know what to say when I told them about my odd eating habits. They laughed along with me and were as bemused as I was. The first therapist I saw – in Brazil – wasn’t sure how to address my crazy food behaviours either, although he began delving into my past, opening a Pandora’s box (the lid definitely needed to come off and would have done, sooner or later).
One friend, though, knew exactly what it was all about. A recovering alcoholic, who’d been sober and attending recovery meetings for years, had lunch with me in London when he was passing through. I told him how I ate, how I couldn’t stop and how confused I was by it all and he suggested I attend a support group for compulsive overeaters, anorexics, bulimics and food addicts.
When I got there, it felt like I’d come home. These women, and a few men, sat in a circle in a room beside a church in Notting Hill, were sharing my story. They said how they went from store to store buying bags of food, pretending they were having a party, and then went home, shut the curtains, switched off the phone, ate everything in sight, then hid the evidence as best they could; how they ate when they were full and their stomachs hurt; how they ate food that was off or that they didn’t like; or how they put themselves in danger, bingeing when driving.
I’d done all this. I’d found my tribe. I was no longer alone.
My first therapist was a specialist in eating disorders and in the illness many experts agree lies at the root of eating disorders and other addictions: codependency. I went to see her for a good number of years and she helped me learn to eat normally and to manage my fear, anxiety and insecurity in healthy ways, rather than with food. I left when I felt I was no longer progressing with her. After my dad died, I saw a bereavement counsellor for a year or two – she helped me through that devastating time, but she could only take me so far. After that, I saw another therapist for a while, but, looking back, we weren’t the best fit, although it took me a long time to realise it and to have the courage to leave. Then, a few years ago, I began seeing my current therapist, whom I’ve been seeing ever since.
That’s a lot of therapy. And a lot of money. Is it worth it? Why do I do it? And is it not self-indulgent, all that talking about myself?
Sometimes I think it’s all of those things – too expensive, not worth it and self-indulgent.
But most of the time, I see how important it’s been in my progression from a self-harming, workaholic who was afraid to be herself or speak her truth, at work or at home, and who was so scared to love deeply she kept finding fault in men or running away from them, into the woman I am today – content in a beautiful relationship. Other things have helped – addiction recovery meetings, mindfulness and my rediscovery of the faith I had as a child. But therapy has challenged me and moved me forward hugely, particularly in the area I most wanted and needed to change: romantic relationships.
My therapist helped me see that I always found something wrong with the men I met, felt attracted to the unavailable types or pushed the good ones away because I was afraid of love, commitment and intimacy. He helped me commit to letting down my guard, to trying to love wholeheartedly and to staying the course. He helped me work through all the reasons from my past why I feared love and commitment. He helped me see love and commitment are a choice, and as I choose, the more the love grows.
And he’s helped me stay on track when I’ve had my wobbles since I committed to my relationship. Often, I’ll return from therapy and make amends to my partner, realising I’ve said something mean or behaved in a way that might push him away if he were a less patient and forgiving man. Now, I try to remember to look at my behaviour when I have the urge to point the finger at him, although I don’t always get it right.
My therapist has also got me to a place where I don’t need to see him as often – I can rely on myself much more and the other support mechanisms I’ve found – friends, support groups, prayer, meditation, sea swims etc. He’s talking himself out of a job, at least with me.
I’m not ashamed to say I go to therapy or that I’ve been going for many years. I don’t see it as a weakness. In fact, I see it as something to shout about.
We’re not all the same. What’s right for me isn’t necessarily right for others. I see that. But particularly in the area of love relationships, I believe the right therapist can be a great help. He or she can help us look at ourselves, do the work on ourselves and understand that the problem isn’t always with the other or that there isn’t necessarily an absence of eligible men or women in our world. He or she can help us explore our self-sabotaging behaviours that may keep us single or wreck our relationships. He or she can help us change the way we relate to our partner or the person we’re dating so we don’t push them away or cause the relationship to combust.
As for the expense, yes, it can be costly and not everyone has the funds. But for me, it’s always been an obvious choice, worth prioritising over most other things, worth sacrificing other things for.
I wonder if therapy, provided you get a good therapist, is a bit like swimming in the cold sea.
You’re not going to feel like it at first. You’re going to stand on the shore, looking at it, shivering, maybe dipping a toe in, then yanking it out. But once you’re all the way in, you’re always going to feel the benefit. You’re always going to look back and think that while it was painful at the start and you were wary of the experience, it was totally worth it in the end.
You’re never going to regret it.