The Therapy Diaries 6: The University Years

Writing in Notebook

I recently brought back The Therapy Diaries – looking into my experiences of the different forms of therapy I’ve had over the years. In the last instalment, I wrote about the long waits and numerous assessments I had before I finally had my CBT for OCD. However, today, I’m going to rewind a little – my third and final year of university. We all remember how much I loved uni, right? (Side note to any new readers, that was 100% sarcasm as you will soon find out) I’ll explain.

So, one of my Therapy Diaries was on my experience of EMDR for my emetophobia, which I had through the student health service during the first few weeks of my third year at uni, and we then skipped ahead to hypnotherapy which I had prior to my wedding. However, in between these two things (or rather, closer to the EMDR), I did four weeks of ‘group therapy’ as part of my counselling module, during which time we were advised to keep a ‘therapy journal’ that documented what happened in each session and how we felt. While it was advised and not required, I was still full steam into my mission of “go above and beyond so you get a first” (spoiler alert: I didn’t get a first), so I jumped at the chance to document my thoughts and feelings of each session, jumping right onto the self awareness train.

It was when we were packing to move house a few months ago that I discovered all of my old uni work. While 90% of it went straight into the recycling bin – I personally would have loved to burn it but in the words of my husband it was “a bit over dramatic” – I had a quick rifle through my assessments and came across my therapy journal, which I’d actually forgotten about. Reading through them, I realised two things –

  1. I’m a stubborn, intolerant little shit who 100% would have made a terrible counsellor.
  2. There was some good content here regarding my mental health that’s still relevant now.

So, what did I do? Obviously I gathered up some of my finest quotes and memories from these sessions and put them into a blog post.

Therapy Diaries 6 - The University Years

Now, before we go into the meaty-ness of these journals, I feel I should start with a little disclaimer:

Of course a lot of what was said in these sessions is not my story to tell, and I’m well aware of the confidentiality issues around that. As a result, I will not be disclosing information from any of the stories told by other members of the group or any details that could identify anyone. Any actual quotes from my journals only refer to my own thoughts and feelings on what went down. The point of sharing this is to reflect on my own mental health issues that were (as I now realise) bubbling away under the surface, and to address my thoughts on them in the present day.

What Was Group Therapy?

Ah, group therapy. If you’ve read my post on breaking up with psychology, you’ll know that when I was at uni, anything with the word “group” in instantly filled me with rage. However, group therapy didn’t sound like too big a deal, and it was something we’d touched upon fairly frequently throughout the counselling modules anyway. The idea behind it was essentially to get us building upon our self awareness. Each week, we’d sit in a circle and the session would be led by our tutor, who would often give us a task to do that might be used in a therapy session. There were around 25-30 of us in the group, so it was a big-ass circle. The therapy journal we were advised to keep would ultimately help us to write our yearly “reflective statement” which was part of our final grade. The first half would be sort of ‘check-in’ where members of the group could share pretty much anything – it could be something really trivial like what we did at the weekend or something personal and how we were feeling about it. You could share as much or as little as you were comfortable with, and generally this portion of the session would flow from there. We’d then have a short break, and the second hour would be participating in a therapeutic task. The first session was all about setting the ground rules – you wouldn’t have thought a simple task would have caused so much debate and would take up virtually the full two hours of the session, but fuck me, that’s exactly what it did.

Session 1

Ground Rules

Setting the ground rules was largely based on confidentiality, but there were also practical discussions regarding lateness, toilet breaks and even seating. Cue a very painful and frustrating two hours where I had to bite my tongue for a majority of it. 

Now is a good time to point something out – I may seem like a feisty little bitch on my blog with my various rants and such, but to people I don’t know that well, I’m rather timid. I’d much rather sit on an opinion and let it stew rather than voice it and potentially be challenged. Let’s just say in this case, I was VERY grateful for the therapy journal.

Toilet Breaks

Believe it or not, this was the rule that genuinely took the most time to establish. People had so many conflicting opinions over it – saying that being made to wait until the break or at the end of the lecture was “unfair” – bearing in mind the longest we’d have to wait would be an hour. I was essentially sat there on my high horse, thinking that we were grown-ass women mature enough to know that before going into a two hour seminar, it probably wise to go to the toilet beforehand. The rule eventually established was that you had to wait for the break, unless you were going to be ill – obviously I highly endorsed that rule. 

At this time, I didn’t have the problems with my stomach that I do now – sure, I’d get an anxious bit of nausea quite frequently, but I’d never need to run to the loo as a result. If I were to approach the situation now, I’d perhaps be a little bit less bitchy over the whole thing, because I know what it’s like when you HAVE to run to the toilet. I didn’t know the reasons why people weren’t happy with waiting for the break – they could have been in the same situation that I’ve been in over the last year or two. The moral I guess is that I shouldn’t have been such a judgemental bitch – a common theme that you’ll soon notice in this post.

Latecomers

It happens at every university on every course, you’ll have those folk strut into lectures and seminars anything up to an hour late. During the group discussions in the years before, there’d been one or two incidents where a member of the class would be telling a personal and often quite emotional story, and someone would barge in loudly declaring their bus was late (funny enough, it was always the same people). Anyway, as this was being treated as a proper group therapy session, our tutor felt it was important to establish some rules around lateness. Again, this is one that I got a bit lairy about (when I sat down at my laptop in the privacy of my own flat later that evening). 

It was discussed that latecomers would not be allowed into the lecture full stop, but some had reservations about that because of buses being late and so on. However, this did not fly with me as a valid excuse (I know I’m not painting a very nice picture of myself here…)

Basically, my campus was over an hour’s walk from my flat. Each day during first year, I would walk the 20 minutes to what was my husband’s campus to get the bus. The bus would often be packed AF (what would now be a major covid nightmare) and on multiple occasions it just wouldn’t stop because there were so many people already on it. I don’t care to count up the hours I spent standing in the freezing cold/pouring rain waiting for buses, but it’s certainly a large chunk of my life I will never get back. However, I hate being late for stuff, so I would always leave more than enough time to catch the bus, and in a lot of cases, I’d end up on campus an hour early. Even when I passed my driving test during second year, I would still get there a good 45 minutes early purely because I knew how much of a ballache the traffic was. At the time, in my opinion, if you wanted to be there on time, you’d make the effort. 

This is a difficult one as I kind of feel the same now, but I feel slightly more sympathetic to those who protested, as I know that sometimes despite your best intentions, things can still go tits up.

Rule Breakers

There was also a lot of discussion around what would happen to anyone who broke the rules – mainly the confidentiality side of things. A few people suggested excluding them from the group which I didn’t think was a bad shout, while one or two others suggested sitting them in the middle of the circle and the other members of the group could question them about it. Soz, I didn’t realise this was a witch hunt. At the time, I thought this was quite a cruel way to go about things – the overall aim was to create a safe space, but if you broke any of the rules you’d be severely interrogated. It didn’t make sense. Looking at it now, I think that it still would be quite a cruel punishment, but on the other hand, if someone had gone round spreading something personal that I’d shared in confidence, I’d maybe want to punish the shit out of them. I don’t know, I’m in two minds. Eventually, it was decided that we could question anyone who broke the rules, but they wouldn’t be forced to sit in the middle of the circle.

Signing the Contract

This particular part of the session sticks with me, mainly because of how angry I felt during it. Our tutor drew up the contract based on what we’d discussed, and then passed it round the circle for everyone to sign. It got to one member of the group who said she felt uneasy about signing it because she “didn’t like to live by rules.” What? Following rules and regulations is part of being a therapist hun. 

I remember the irritation around this being for a number of reasons – the fact she was reluctant to sign it when the rest of us had kind of made it seem like she wasn’t taking things seriously. Additionally, I got on my high horse again with the opinion that we’re adults – sometimes we have to follow rules we don’t like. Casing point, I don’t like wearing a face mask when I go out, but I do it because it’s the rules and it’s the courteous thing to do. It just felt ridiculously childish. Again, I sat in silence and passive aggressively wrote this down in my journal when I got home.

Introductions

Now that we’d spent over an hour establishing the rules, the ‘therapy’ part could begin. We had to go around the circle saying who we were and why we were here. I went with “I’m Amy and I’m here because I made a pact I wouldn’t skive any lectures this year.” What can I say? I was just being honest for a change. Next up, we had to share a fact about ourselves, and for this bit, I’m going to share an extract from my actual therapy journal:

“Normally the first thing I can think of is “I have a vomit phobia” – if I’m to describe myself on paper that’s not going to be shown to anyone. It’s much different in front of real people. Given the response I normally get – “no one likes being sick” – I’ve simply stopped telling people about it. Two members of the group plus our tutor (also my dissertation supervisor) are aware of my phobia and how it affects me, and I mentioned it very briefly during our group session in the first year. It’s normally the first thing I tell people because it’s such a big part of me. Before Christmas, I underwent EMDR and we established that one reason why I can’t seem to let go of the distress and disgust associated with my experiences is because I don’t want to let go of the emetophobia. I’ve suffered with it for 15 years and it has become a huge part of my personality and my life, so therefore, to me it’s a key fact about myself.”

So, with that in mind, what interesting fact about myself did I share?

“I like puppets.”

Reading through my notes on this now, I wonder if I would have told them about my OCD. Obviously, I’ve told all of you about it, and it’s something I talk about quite openly. However, it’s much more different in person. I can’t see if you’re rolling your eyes and wondering if I really have OCD or if I’m just a bit of a germophobe, so in a way it’s easier to do it through this platform. I don’t know, perhaps I would have told them after a couple of sessions, or perhaps I wouldn’t have told them at all.

Transitional Objects

While time was running out as a result of setting those bloody rules, we still had time for our first task – to choose a transitional object. A transitional object is a term often used in child development – referring to physical items that “represent an extension of the child’s primary caregiver.” It could be a comfort blanket, a cuddly toy, that sort of stuff. They can signify the love and care given by a parent or a loved one, which provides comfort for the child, but this can actually apply to adults too. Medals signify a person’s hard work and determination, while photos and treasured gifts can signify that a person is loved and appreciated.

Our tutor brought in a box of what was essentially a mixed bag of items – it contained stuffed animals, basic kids’ toys and general knick knacks (I’m grateful that I wasn’t fully experiencing OCD at this point). We each chose an object that we’d take home with us for the duration of the group therapy sessions, and we then had to share with the group why we picked it. I went for a small stuffed bunny rabbit toy. The reasoning I gave was simply “because it’s cute and I like bunnies.” For fuck sake. However, over those few weeks I realised that there was probably a bit more to it than that.

Okay, so I picked it because it was small. In a way was that a representation of how I was feeling with everything going on in my life at that time? I was feeling massively overwhelmed by everything – uni work and my determination to get a first, my job that I was now working more hours in to save up some money, coming towards the end of my degree, having no spare time etc. I was certainly feeling small myself in comparison to everything else going on. What I also considered a year or so later was that this little rabbit toy reminded me of Snoozy – my childhood cuddly toy who I’d had since I was 5 and still have now (she sits on my bedside table). For years, Snoozy was who I cuddled when I felt scared or sad – she (yes, SHE) was that source of comfort that never failed to make me feel better. Was this little bunny I’d chosen a representation of my reluctance to grow up? It would certainly make sense – with this being my final year of uni, I was growing ever closer to entering the real world and growing up properly. BOOM – how’s that for self awareness?!

It’s worth mentioning that I originally planned this to be a one-off post as part of my Therapy Diaries series. LOL. After writing and re-reading my notes on the first session I realise that a) that’s not possible, and b) that’s not fair on you. So, I guess this will be turning into a bit of a sub-series, which I’m going to call The University Years. I doubt that each post will be an individual session – I may combine them, I may not. Either way – you’ve got a few more posts of my neurotic, passive aggressive ass enduring these sessions. Yay!

Featured image by Green Chameleon on Unsplash.

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