"Sophie.." She turned to face me in her leather office chair. There was an expensive looking creamy-beige pashmina flung across the back of it – it had one of those designer symbols I couldn’t identify but you know it means it’s probably made of wool that’s been spun with gold or something. I hadn’t realised Psychiatrists could be quite so glamourous and was very impressed – maybe I could be this one day. Mrs Coleman had two enormous glinting diamonds in her ears, glossy dark nails and I’m pretty sure she was wearing a Chanel jacket. She had now stopped writing and her whole body had turned to face me, concerned kind expression, hands clasped, Christ, another massive diamond. This wasn't how I had envisioned her to look, I'd imagined someone a bit weird and maybe a bit 'offkey' themselves but this woman was just a massive babe. "Sophie…do you think that maybe you’re only in medical school to please your parents?’. I tensed. No, no – I want this , I want to be a doctor – I want to help people! I went back to college to re-take my A-levels to get this! Of course I want this – I’ve chosen this path, I can’t leave it now. What would I do? I can’t live at home – not now i've left, I’ll die. No, this is for me. Obviously I wouldn't die, but i'd moved out now and wanted it to stay that way.
“No, no not at all – this is definitely what I want to do.” I nodded profusely and responded a little too quickly. I did want to do it - and I had chosen this path. It was summer 2010, I was just about to turn 21 and could barely get out of bed. I’d failed a summer module (‘the stick that broke the camels back’) and had gone down very quickly. I didn’t know what was wrong with me I just knew I needed to ‘snap out of it’ as soon as possible in order to keep my place at medical school. World War 3 had broken out at home in fear at the prospect I might fail and lose my place, so my parents had very reluctantly accepted that their daughter might be depressed. They weren't being mean - they just didn't understand. Depression isn't something my parents generation have always found easy to understand and as far as they could see, I had a lot going for me - and they didn't want me to lose any of it. Hence, here I was, in my preppy navy blue and white blazer (which I really loved – and I think may I still have somewhere), my lilac jeans and a white t-shirt. Small, skinny and barely speaking - sitting in a Psychiatrists office in The Priory Hospital. The light in me had gone out and I felt like the biggest failure on earth. She looked at me, a moment passed, she knew. “Very well then.” before turning to continue writing the report I needed to keep my place and continue my career.
Fast forward 4 years and we are mid-way through my Psychotherapy degree. I’d eventually failed again in 2012, having been shown the door for good this time and was now trying to rebuild my life. One of lesser known elements of Counselling and Psychotherapy training in that it temporarily puts you in an emotional washing machine. It's not like learning facts from a book and applying them - you are your own too and to get to that point you have become radically honest with yourself – about yourself. Any good therapist will tell you its probably one of the toughest (yet most worthwhile) things they have ever endured. I've done my degree but I still have more training to do - which I hope to resume in a couple of years- but personal development doesn't really stop once it starts, even if you step out of the field. I thought I knew myself pretty well and nothing was going to surprise me. Well wasn't I in for a shock.
It was around March 2014, it was a regular day at University. It was grey outside and I was immaculately dressed (turns out this was my way of coping with tough times – everything always matched, hair and make-up were always done – and I was in a real handbag phase at the time - so I weirdly remember the bag I had; a brown leather tote thing that looked good but was really awkward to carry and would hurt my arm if it was too heavy (!).( I know I know - typical woman). Anyway, we were in a group discussion, (I was also wearing my favourite massive dark green woolly jumper) - and I had the previously mentioned murderous bag on my knees. Out of nowhere, tears welled up and something that had been buried inside made itself known. As with a lot of our ‘stuff’, its often there, in the back of our minds ‘niggling’ away, until one idle Tuesday - it comes to surface and we end up in a heap on the floor, ugly crying, mascara everywhere.
"I don’t feel like I’m good enough for my parents anymore..or my boyfriend…or to even hang out with any of my friends…or even to be liked...i’m just not good enough now I’m a failure.." In that exact moment, Mrs Colemans’ words appeared in my mind and I realized I had never forgotten them. She was right, she had known 4 years ago, looking at me sitting in her office, that I was acting in pursuit of my parents approval (even though I knew they loved me), rather than of my own life happiness. On some level - back then I had known too, but fear and reason had enabled me to dismiss it; If I was to admit that to myself, the life change would have been far too big for me to handle.
My life changed that day, green jumper and awkward handbag included. Where previously there had just been a dim lamp in the corner, it was like someone has switched on the big light and lit up the whole room of my life.I began to understand how much I’d tethered ‘being good enough’ for life’s good things; love, affection, friendship, happiness - to my academic and professional achievements. If I wasn’t achieving, I didn't deserve any of those things. It didn't matter if the achievement made me sad, happy, stressed - depressed. As long as I was doing it, I was good enough.
I also learnt another important lesson; sometimes we know the truth, but for whatever reason, we’re not quite ready to face it. This doesn’t mean we won’t eventually but this experience taught me how to be patient with the people in my life who actually know what they need to do – but just cant do it. Just like Mrs Coleman was with me. She had known, at that point in my life, I wasn’t ready to open up my Pandoras box of Things We Do To Gain The Parental Approval We Feel We Never Received. It’s an enormous box for some of us and when you strip it back, some of the most accomplished and successful people in the world only got there in subconscious pursuit of an absent parental love. So she was right, but she didn’t push it on me. Subconsciously I sort of knew - as that has conversation stayed in my mind for years after.
Some people don’t believe in ready, and to be honest I didn’t either. I had a strong loyalty to the ‘just man up and get on with it’ brigade. You get one life, you can't fanny about waiting to be 'ready'. Lifes too short for that. I was really wrong - and probably really hard on myself too. Sometimes you’ve got to give yourself a break, balance it out and realise – you will do it, when you’re ready, so do what you can today.
You'll also give the people around you a bit of a break too. You’re friend who can’t walk away from that guy? She’ll do it when she’s ready. Still in that job you hate? You’ll leave when you’re ready. Sometimes we know the right thing to do, or we have a niggling we know we should do that, but we still don’t. Its like when you’re trying to lose weight and know you should go home and make something healthy with all that green stuff you spent loads of money on and all the ‘Body Coach’ cookbooks you have…but you still go and get a pizza instead? Exactly. You’re just not ready yet. When you are – you’ll commit and dodging the pizza will be easy. So lay off beating yourself up too much, it’s just part of being human.
Pushing someone when they aren't ready - can also just result in pushing them away. I was so scared at 20 of just being depressed - that was enough. I just wanted to be happy again so I could go out and get drunk with my friends and not cry. I didn't want to go wading through my psych and analyzing my childhood. If Mrs Coleman had pressed the issue I would have walked out of her office and never come back.
So it’s all a process (another word that makes me cringe – but at least its better than ‘journey’ URGH.)
I now always say that you will let go, give up, move on, move up, do that thing, face that truth - when you are ready. It’s also the very core of what having compassion for yourself, and other people is really about and I have another post talking about this coming up.
Anyway, that green jumper moment was the 'aha' moment that marked the beginning of huge amount of understanding. The next part was tough, I had to unlearn a whole mind-set I’d be employing for the past 24 years. No way could I have done that at 20, or even 22 yet Mrs Coleman had popped into my head again at that point because this time - I was ready.
Authors note - My parents are incredibly lovely and supportive people and I now have an amazing relationship with them - they only ever wanted what was best - but it was a learning curve for us all and the reason im sharing this is to shed a light on what happens when you get really really honest - its tough to begin with - but its incredibly worth it.