As far as things go, my life is going pretty well at the moment. I have health niggles that I’m dealing with and I am living in the political landscape of the United Kingdom so I wouldn’t say I’m 100% – but in the grand scheme of my life to date, I’m good.
I live with my partner and our four cats, have a brilliant circle of friends, a job that I love and my family are all doing well. I’ve definitely had worse periods and, as cheesy as it sounds, I really do count my blessings every day. I’m so lucky to live the life that I do and I try to not ever take it for granted.
All of this being said, I still booked in for a mental health MOT recently. And this is pretty much what it sounds like: a session with a counsellor to check in – just like I do with my dentist, but for my brain.
As good as life is, I have generalised anxiety disorder, a history of trauma and have experienced depression on and off throughout adulthood. Staying on top of my mental health wherever I can feels as essential to me as regular dental appointments and GP checkups.
And it turns out I’m not actually doing as well as I thought I was...
During my appointment it turned out that, well, I’m not quite as thriving as I’d like to be. I spoke with my counsellor about my current concerns which include an upcoming surgery. The surgery is major but still low-risk and I’ve had a similar one before so, on the surface, I feel fine about it.
But as we weaved through conversation and discussed my thoughts on the surgery and the expected recovery time, I realised I’m actually really quite scared. Not of the procedure itself (I’ll be asleep), but of the unknown surrounding it. I hadn’t been addressing these fears because, to me, they felt useless. I can’t control the unknown, I won’t know what’s happening until it is happening, so why worry?
I tried in vain to get the counsellor to laugh with me about how silly I was being. It’s a safe procedure, I’ve wanted it for a long time and compared to the eight years I’ve been waiting for treatment, the six-week recovery time is nothing. It’s a blip. I’m being dramatic.
But instead of laughing with me or rolling her eyes, my counsellor said: “You’re allowed to feel whatever you feel without wrapping it in shame.” She added that shame seemed to be something of a comfort zone for me, as it is with many people. I rely on humour to deal with difficult life experiences and shame is an ideal tool for my punchlines. But it’s not ideal for my self-esteem or self-care at a time when I should just be being kind to myself.
We explored the anger I feel towards the diseases I have. My frustration at how long this surgery has taken to be approved. That I’ve been struggling with my health since I was 12.
I cried. I did not expect to cry. This was just a check in.
I also unearthed the truth of why I choose shame and jokes: I want to protect my loved ones from knowing how I really feel. They’ve watched me get more unwell over these years and the vulnerability is a little too much for me so, like many people, I choose jokes.
This is actually very common and according to Psych Central, it’s considered to be an “emotion-focused” coping mechanism which aims to manage or reduce stressful emotions.
Speaking to Patient UK, Claire Brummell, an expert in human behaviour, said this can be helpful in navigating trauma but only if we’re addressing what we’re actually feeling.
She explained: “Dark humour is a tool that can be used to great effect while navigating some of the difficult times in our lives. However, it can also compromise our healing further.
“As with most coping mechanisms in life, it’s how you use it that makes the difference.”
She offered the example that we might go out drinking following a relationship break-up, which there is nothing wrong with. But becoming reliant on alcohol for escapism and comfort is when a problem arises.
Likewise, dark humour can be funny and uplift our spirits, “but overdoing it to a point where we push people away and refuse to accept what we’re going through, that can cause issues”, Brummell added.
I’ll admit, my approach has only been using humour, really. However, my counsellor reminded me that I am loved, safe, treasured, and don’t need to be softening any blows for my loved ones. They’re here because they want to be.
This line of thinking is backed up by professor and expert in vulnerability, Brene Brown who said in her book Women & Shame: “We desperately don’t want to experience shame, and we’re not willing to talk about it.
“Yet the only way to resolve shame is to talk about it. Maybe we’re afraid of topics like love and shame. Most of us like safety, certainty, and clarity. Shame and love are grounded in vulnerability and tenderness.”
The appointment left me feeling like a weight was lifted off my chest
I will be honest. Talking about myself for 80 minutes made me feel very uncomfortable. I like to think of myself as being an open book, but when you talk to a counsellor, you can’t usually fool them into just accepting the surface-level ‘I’m OK’ that you’re used to offering people.
I felt uniquely vulnerable, as if I’d given all my secrets away in a short 80-minute session.
But I also felt free. I’d been carrying the weight of my fears without even realising it and trying to protect people who had never once asked me to do that. I felt like I wasn’t as alone, as I’d been telling myself I was.
Will I keep going for counselling now that I’ve opened that door? I don’t know, but I’m glad I gave myself the MOT that I clearly needed. Turns out, I am more complex than I was ever willing to admit.