College counsellor, Maggie Smith discusses one of her case-studies. It demonstrates how we can easily lose a part of ourselves and how this can affect our life, even much later on.
Being sad is very frightening, especially if you don’t know why you’re sad. I’m not talking about clinical depression, which can be extremely debilitating. But, honest to goodness sadness.
I’ve had many clients who say they’re depressed or ‘down’ have very good reasons to feel sad, either because of some loss in their lives now or some grief or sorrow from earlier in their lives.
Bereavement is a process which does not simply refer to death, but can be felt after any loss: a divorce; moving away from friends or family; loss of a job or a prospective career; loss of money or health; or even the absence of ‘good enough’ loving, secure and safe parenting support in their early lives.
When we are going through a time of great emotion, it can be a defence mechanism to repress our feelings. Feelings can lie dormant inside us, waiting for a time when we’re strong enough to express them.
If we’re later in a position of more strength and balance, it can be confusing if we’re suddenly beset by anger, sadness or fears that don’t seem relevant to what’s going on for us now.
Jonathan was a young man, dressed in a lot of black, who was becoming increasingly isolated at University.
He hardly made eye contact with me, often looking at the floor. His eyes were inward and lonely, his head, arms and legs all gravitated towards the floor and he looked ‘down’.
He had been sent to me by his doctor who had prescribed medication, but also felt Jonathan needed to talk about his feelings. He had made one or two friends last year, one of whom had recently left University.
He also had a good childhood friend living in his home town who came to stay very occasionally, but he was going out less and less often and was losing his motivation to do his academic work.
At some point, I usually ask clients to tell me about themselves from as far back as they remember, including what they might have been told about their birth experiences.
Jonathan knew that his mother had suffered post-natal depression after his birth and again after his younger sister was born, when he would have been three years-old. His mother recovered fully from both of these episodes and there was no other family history of depression.
Jonathan started to feel depressed when he was16 years-old. He’d felt coerced by his teachers and parents into the direction of taking subjects leading to a law degree.
His father was a senior partner in a law firm and he felt his career was being mapped out for him to follow in his father’s footsteps. Jonathan felt he had “sold his soul” and lost respect for himself in allowing himself to be forced down a path that other people wanted for him.
It took several weeks to discover Jonathan harboured a real passion for dancing and would have liked nothing better than to become a professional dancer. I was astounded by the animated expression and energy on his face when he talked about dancing.
Jonathan was initially reluctant to talk about it thinking that I would be like the rest, seeing it as a ‘no hope’ profession. His parents had put enormous pressure on him to give up dancing during his GCSE examinations so that he would concentrate on his school-work.
He had never really talked through his grief and loss of something, which he had loved passionately from a small child.
He had started lessons by accident when his sister went to ballet and they had needed more boys in the tap dancing class held at the same time.He took to it like a “duck to water” much to his parents’ embarrassment.
Back in touch with himself
Part of his “homework’from the counselling was to find out if there was a class in the area he could join and at least enjoy it in his spare time even if he didn’t intend to continue with it as a profession.
Jonathan had experienced giving up his dancing as a huge loss in his life. He couldn’t face seeing any of his friends from the dance school at home as he felt humiliated at allowing his parents to dictate to him about his life in such a way.
He missed the excitement and enormous sense of achievement he had experienced when he won competitions and helped to arrange shows. He admitted that he often jotted down choreography for certain pieces of music when he became bored with his academic work.
It was only when Jonathan began to express his stored up sadness and anger that he realised how important and real his passion for dancing was to him even three years on. The light at the end of Jonathan’s tunnel of feelings was a determination to get back something he loved.
In fact he found an excellent dance school a train ride away and they were so impressed with his abilities that they asked him to do some teaching.
One of the other teachers with whom he was becoming friends had just set up an innovative new dance group attached to the school. She had asked him to share in the choreography for the group. It sounded as if he was actually very talented and had found a place where his talents were recognised.
He decided to continue with the law degree so that he would always have that to fall back on in case things didn’t work out in the world of dance. The difference was that he decided to have both things in his life and the dancing helped him find more interest in the law.
Jonathan decided, laughing in our last session, “well, if all else fails, I can become a lawyer or business manager for a theatre or dance company”. He looked so much freer and more alive in his face and body once he had reclaimed this very important creative source in his life.
He described the tears he had shed, and there had been many, as having washed him clean and enabled him to start again on his journey out into the world!
Our true selves
Sometimes, it is only by recognising and knowing what our feelings are that we can truly know who we are and what we want in the world. I have always been interested at the information that is contained in the words we use and there is a close relationship between depression, suppression, repression and oppression!
When we suppress our feelings it can feel like making a part of ourselves disappear. I come across many people who during their lives have given up sporting, creative or musical, and other activities from which they once derived enormous satisfaction.
Maybe these were seen as ‘not going anywhere’ particular as regards a career, but if they are our passion, it can feel like giving up our very selves.
Thanks to Maggie Smith, Head of the University Counselling Service, University of Kent, for granting us permission to reproduce this case story.
N.B names have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned.