At the end of my first year at university, I remember a group of us thanking one of our lecturers for teaching us that year. A bearded man with warm eyes and rosy cheeks by the name of Dr Atkin just laughed. ‘I haven’t taught you anything; you’ve done it all yourselves’. Wow, I thought, that’s radical, and also lovely. He was right though, and as soon as he had said the words the penny dropped. He had guided us through 20th century literature sure enough: Larkin, Beckett, Hughes, Heaney, Auden, Eliot, Woolf, followed by Graham Swift and Kate Atkinson- but we had made the connections ourselves; fused the concepts and drawn our conclusions. It was a revelation of a year in so many ways: living away from home for the first time, pursuing a subject I loved. Grown-up life, or so I thought.
Having that conversation in the Vicarage lecture room (a perk of going to a small university in a historic city) that day was the first time someone had flipped an idea back at me which really made me think about internal growth. Over the next three years of my degree I came across academics who shored-up Dr Atkin’s initial comment: lecturers who let us have free reign to explore and learn for ourselves. I wrote about the life of Wilfred Owen in my newly acquired Spanish tongue, and devised my own study of femininity in the works of Emily and Charlotte Brontë in an English module. It was a long way from reeling out essays on the presentation of Fanny Price that I had been so accustomed to at A level and it led to me becoming a resourceful learner, as opposed to accepting something I had been ‘told’.
It’s not surprising then, that once my undergraduate years were over, I missed the satisfaction of ‘learning’. In the years following, I signed up for a Spanish conversation class; I took beginners’ German and creative writing night classes alongside 50-somethings who were looking for a resurgence of education in their midlife. Eventually, and after much toing and froing, I enrolled on an MA in English Literature. It was something that I had longed for, and something I hoped would give credence to my love of the subject, and would be a springboard for greater things. Maybe one day I might gain a doctorate like all the academics I’d connected with during my BA. Somewhere deep inside I was also looking for validation. Someone (an academic to boot) to say, ‘That’s right, you’ve got it! That’s exactly what DH Lawrence intended to convey…’ Only it didn’t work out like that. I was working full time in a mindless admin job and rushing to seminars using flexi time, then hitting the library after work and at weekends. I was enrolled at a red brick university with a huge student population and busy academics who had neither warm eyes nor rosy cheeks.
The straw broke for me one day part-way through a lecture by a rather terse academic with a reputation for taking no prisoners, who warned that anyone who wasn’t familiar with a particular research paper had might as well leave. I hadn’t read it, or at least I wasn’t as familiar with it as I should have been for his liking, and I was terrified he was going to pick on me to answer some obscure question any minute. During a short interval I eyed the exit sign and made a run for it, my heart pounding as I desperately escaped down the fire escape to safety. A few days later I gave my excuses and withdrew from the MA. I was beyond gutted; studying at postgrad level had been something I had longed for for a long time, but I just didn’t feel good enough.
Around the same time, I began some counselling through work. It was about 4 years since my sister’s suicide and although I wasn’t struggling with bereavement per se, all sorts of other issues were weighing me down. This time another doctor got me thinking, Dr Adams: a sage and unassuming psychotherapist in his 60s who made me tea with milk from his mini fridge, spoke in a measured tones and was unafraid to let the air between us fall silent when occasion had it. Over a year or so he began to help me look inwards to find some answers to the things that were leaving me exhausted. I began to realise I didn’t need to do so much to feel like I was doing ‘enough’, and learned to draw boundaries over my time. And as if you hadn’t already guessed, he did all this without ‘telling’ me a thing. I am just really stressed, I have all these things to do and have to be in three places and I just don’t know how I am going to do it, I might say. ‘Do you have to do all of those things? Which do you think you’d be least worried about not doing?’ Oh yeah, right. I see. It was so simple, and yet it changed my outlook on so many things. If I felt I had done enough, then I had done enough. Worrying about it was a wasted emotion. Of course, saying something is easier than putting it into practice, but it was a new tool in my armour and for the most part worked for me for the next ten years or so.
Fast-forward to this spring and I am in a small white-washed room in a rabbit warren of a converted mill-turned office block. Sat opposite me is a bearded man with rosy cheeks and a posture that says he wants to understand. This time he is not a doctor (academic or medical), but a bereavement counsellor who is talking me through the formalities of how the service works. I am nodding and maintaining eye contact, but inside I am saying, Ok, say what you like but I am not coming back. It has been a convoluted journey here involving GPs and self-referrals and waiting lists. When I got the call to say a slot had come up, my initial reaction was to make my excuses and turn it down. I couldn’t tell you why, but I suppose it had something to do with 38 years and 3 significant bereavements. A bit like putting off a dentist appointment for some work you suspect is going to cause you particular pain, getting myself to bereavement counselling was something I knew I needed to do, but just didn’t want to start.
Something happened in that hour that made me feel cleansed by the time we were finished. Despite my inward protestations, I had stayed to the end of the session and told him with genuine enthusiasm that I would be back next week at the same time, and I have been back faithfully every week since. This man has legitimised my feelings without once giving me a sympathetic smile; listened to my irrational fears without ever telling me to snap out of it. Put simply, it has been the best thing I have ever done for myself. Just like my lecturers and my previous counsellor did before, my counsellor has helped me explore resolutions within myself to things that I felt and believed to be true. Every week he has said something that has instigated a change in my thinking. Just because you feel something, doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s ok not to forgive someone. You have a right to be selfish. Your actions reflect your principles. All of these things and more have helped me adjust the way I think and allowed me to let myself off for things that have harangued me for a very long time.
We are two-thirds of the way through our time together and in just over a month it will be over. I have been mentally preparing myself for this closure for a few weeks already. It’s hard to explain, but if you know me then you may know I enjoy routine, and this one of straight-talking therapy which sometimes throws up physical symptoms, followed by a high energy blast at the gym, has been something that has brought me physical and mental calm. Losing this routine is something that I will miss, but will remember with gratitude for a long time.
And much like the conversation in the Vicarage almost 20 years ago, I want to find a way to say thank you to someone who has opened up a new avenue in me; a tin of sardines that up until recently had no key. As yet I have not found my own words and so, as in so many other important occasions in the past, I am reminded of someone else’s: Wordsworth.
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
A ‘philosophic mind’ is something I have longed for after taking the blast from several close traumas. To put my experiences to bed so that in time they become part of the fabric of my life, as opposed to defining moments. And with a plenty of practice, it looks like I might just get there.