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  • Writer's picturePaul Matthew

"It's Going to be one hell of a story" - Overcoming adversity as a Therapist

Updated: Feb 21, 2021

I love American Football, I always have, it occupies my Sundays for half the year, I first saw the New England patriots in 1999 and I haven’t looked back but this post isn’t about American football.

In 2017 the New England Patriots were losing by 25 points just before the last quarter of the Superbowl.

On the bench, in between plays, Julian Edelman, wide receiver for the Patriots kept saying “It’s gonna be one hell of a story”. The Patriots, somehow went on to come back and win the game in overtime.

What Edelman said, stuck with me. I try to look at the moments in life when the odds seemed insurmountable and use them as experiences, once I’m at peace with them, in my work as a therapist.

I thought long and hard about this blog post. I think it was what I had planned on saying when I first considered blogging on the Harmony webpage but this is a huge chunk of my personal life. However, A client said to me this past week that what they liked so much about me as a therapist was that I was real and as part of that I hope this story can serve as one of three things:

· An understanding for therapists who maybe haven’t had these experiences, what it’s like for someone to go through it.

· A beacon for therapists to own their experiences (providing they have processed and are at peace with them) as qualifications in their own right to work with some clients (though it is important to also understand that each experience is different and understanding is different from projecting our experiences onto a client).

· For people considering or going through therapy to understand that everyone goes through some of these things. We all fall sometimes.

Some time ago, several years after taking my first step into a counselling department to work, initially as an administrator, I was completing my MSc. With just a module or two to go my life had already changed so much since starting it.

I wish sometimes I had a time machine. Not to make any changes to my life, I know I wouldn’t be who and where I am now if it wasn’t for my experiences. If I did have that time machine, however, I’d like to meet the me in the pictures from ten, five, even two years ago. It’d be like meeting a friend, but a very different person. The thing is that we change as we grow and experience what life throws at us. Sometimes, we grow in directions we would never expect. Sometimes we experience things we never thought we would. Sometimes those things take our lives in directions that we couldn’t even begin to consider those years before.

Studying to become a therapist changed my life and despite the (at times) difficult story I’m about to tell you, I am so grateful for it. I sometimes feel like I owe my life to it. Before becoming a therapist, I had no direction. I was quite happy with what each day threw my way but I was missing something. I loved my job as a musician and wasn’t all that fond of administration, HR or any of the other ‘day’ jobs I did alongside music. I was married, I owned a nice house, things were ‘fine’.

Just before I started my studies, I was made redundant from the day job I was in. I was still counselling one evening a week and quickly found another day job that drove me to the limits of what my mental health could take. These two experiences led me to see a therapist to work through my anxiety.

Seeing a therapist helped me realise something else. I was depressed and I also wasn’t happy in my Marriage. Studying to become a counsellor had changed me. I really felt like I had grown off in a different direction to my Wife and so we separated, and then a year or so later, divorced. It really wasn’t easy, breakups almost never are, but that’s not the subject of this post.

So why mention all this?

Well, I’d already been through so much as I completed my therapy training. It felt at times like being on a rollercoaster without being strapped in and I was about to go into the loop.

I was still living in my marital home trying to sell it when I found out I had Cancer. You explore a lot of things when you get news like that. It hits you like a train. I collapsed in a street in a small highland town called Aberfeldy on a trip with some friends. I had noticed the lump some time before and was on antibiotics from my GP who thought it might be an infection. It was that moment in Aberfeldy that shook me. I couldn’t get up. I was sitting on a street in Aberfeldy unable to move and petrified.

Thankfully I was saved by a pub employee who drove me back to my cottage, I got a scan within a few weeks. No part of me really expected to actually have cancer. I thought maybe some sort of infection or hernia. I took no one to the appointment, I went alone, parked my car, then the bottom fell out of my entire world.

They didn’t say the word Cancer straight away. They moved me from room to room, until a specialist nurse and a surgeon came to see me. I was then told. and dragged around the hospital for several hours for scans. I was looked after by some of the most empathic nurses and doctors I have ever met. It was 9pm before I got home, drained and exhausted at the end of the day.

When I first heard the news, all I thought about was my clients. I had around 5 clients at this point at a service in Dundee and with a University counselling service. I felt like I was letting my clients down and honestly that’s the thought that prevailed the whole day, evening and for days after. The “I HAVE CANCER” thoughts didn’t hit me for days.

It was a huge learning experience for me to learn when to look after myself and stop counselling for a while. It really is unfair on the client, and unethical, if you aren’t able to fully be there for them and I’m glad I took the time off that I did. I needed to put myself first. That may sound silly but initially I had in my head that I’d have the surgery then come back a few weeks later. Thankfully the service managers knew I hadn’t processed the news and suggested leaving until I beat cancer. I don’t often move appointments these days but I do know now, when I am not able to be an effective therapist, whether I’m ill or having a hard recovery day. I make a point to plan in rest points during my day.

The surgery recovery was sore, I couldn’t walk very much. I struggled to do much more than watch TV in a practiced, unmoving position. I did however make it to a lecture or two.

It took me about half an hour to get up to the lecture room and I squirmed in pain through the whole lecture (sitting up was not something I could do well for several months). I felt about 80, it was an optional module which was mostly 4th year undergraduate students. The lecturer was very helpful but I felt so old (despite only being in my early 30s) and useless. Part of me wondered in that moment if I would ever make it through my degree. If I’d ever get to set up in business as a therapist, or build my perfect therapy room. It was this moment, a few weeks after surgery that the daze I had been living in really hit home.

I was working for a few days a week in a café at the time, to accommodate my studies and client load, while I finished my degree. They were honestly the most supportive bunch of people and so understanding when I had to leave to get treatment and then leave properly when I couldn’t physically return due to the surgery. The physical work was too much for me after the surgery and I never got back to where I was before that, my new normal has taken some getting used to. I still visit them from time to time (pandemic allowing), and they will all have a special place in my heart for just how supportive they were. To this day I still miss the jokes in the kitchen with the head chef and the rest of the staff. Each moment like this was a sign of my life never being the same again.

Then I found out I had to get chemotherapy. A gear switched in me. Instead of worry and doubt, I had one thing to focus on. Finishing that degree. I had been through so much already, I was not deferring, I was going to get this finished. My fellow students were so helpful, messaging me weekly, daily, sometimes and sending me lovely keepsakes.

The staff at the University responded to my every email asking about lectures I had missed or questions I had about assignments. They went out of their way to check on me when I did make it back into the University. Having a goal whilst trying to beat cancer was so helpful.

Finishing a degree while on Chemotherapy was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I’d definitely say it was something I had to do. It gave me something beyond the mess that was cancer to have laser focus on.

Chemotherapy still affects me, and I haven’t had any for over a year now. I wake up some days like I haven’t slept. I don’t work full time and I carefully manage my client hours to suit what I know I can do as I slowly build them up. At the start, brain fog, nausea, aches, pains and severe tiredness were just a few of the things I had to deal with while trying to get essays done to a standard that I would be proud of. I did 10-20 minutes of work a day because that’s all I could manage and I managed it. Each A in an essay was a middle finger to cancer and when I completed my final project I cried. When I saw the certificate, I cried again. I sat for hours just looking at the certificate through a flood of tears, I could finally admit to myself just what I had achieved against all odds.

Cancer doesn’t go away when we get the all clear. There’s still the fear that it’ll come back, there’s still the after effects of chemo and the person we are after beating cancer isn’t necessarily the same person we were when we started. It’s helpful to bear that in mind when helping clients going through long term illnesses like cancer. Chemotherapy can also affect fertility among other things and each client’s journey with cancer and long-term illness is different.

I went almost straight from getting the all clear, to pandemic so I’ve been locked in my house for the best part of a year, but I know that having cancer gave me a fresh understanding of my priorities. It made me a little more fearless in some places and a little more patient in others. It taught me that life can trip us up while we’re still on our knees from the last blow and despite all that we can still get up. It also gave me an invaluable perspective as a therapist. Cancer made me take a step back from the lifestyle I used to lead, working any hours available to me, whether that be in the band, a day job or counselling. Work/ life balance was often hard to maintain. The step back also helped me truly dive into reading, when I could, thinking about who I was and could be as a therapist. Perhaps most important of all, it strengthened my motivation more than ever to be the best therapist I could be and to help as many people as I can in the knowledge of how lucky I have been to still be around to be able to help.

Cancer can be a lonely, exhausting experience and is often the last experience we have. I am so proud of every one of you who is fighting or has bested cancer or been there for a client or loved one who has had cancer. Sometimes as a therapist you are the one true person someone fighting cancer can open up to. That’s a huge responsibility but if you’re a therapist and worried about working with long term illness, like every other presenting problem, clients want to be heard and understood.

Since beating Cancer, I started Harmony offering private counselling and Psychotherapy, and I continue to work for a few other places as a therapist. I don’t know what post-pandemic life looks like for me but I know I am doing what I am meant to be doing and with the perspective that the last few years has given me, I know I am up to the task. It is, now, ‘one hell of a story’.

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