All Posts in Men’s Mental Health
In his first video post, author and TalkLife ambassador Tom Pollock writes about a day in the life of an eating disorder. (more…)
TalkLife ambassador, author Tom Pollock, demystifies therapy – writing about his experiences, and how therapy has helped.
A year ago this month, I rang the bell beside the back door of a terraced house in London. It was just getting dark, the street was quiet, and I remember looking up and down it and thinking three things:
Do the people that live here know what happens inside this house?
This is only ten minutes from my flat. I might see someone I know?
I hope I get let in before anyone I know sees me.
A couple of seconds later, the door opened by a short, middle aged blond woman. “Tom,” she asked, and that one syllable was all she’d say for the next twenty minutes. I nodded, and she led me to a small room that contained an armchair, a sofa and a clock. She took the armchair, I took the sofa. I watched the clock.
She watched me.
She waited. In her line of work you get very good at that.
The ticks of the second hand shaved almost two minutes off both our lives before I started talking about my mother.
Meeting a psychotherapist for the first time is like going on a blind date. I’m nervous, and a little hopeful, I find myself counting down the minutes to it, while also thinking up every conceivable excuse to put it off.
Also like a date, I find that I really want to impress the person opposite me.
Except, instead of wearing an outfit I think shows off my arms, I try to impress my therapists by going straight for the tough stuff. Right out of the gate, I’m gabbling about how my mum died and how I eat way too much because I’m scared I can’t stop, and how I exercise way too much because I’m scared of what I’ve eaten and on and on, in this breathless verbal stream with about a million “ands” and no punctuation.
I tell myself that this will impress them with my frankness, but I know what I’m really doing is building my case. “This is why I need help, doc, validate me.” I want to get better, but first I want someone to tell me I’m sick.
I’ve seen five different shrinks in my life, each time because I was hurting badly enough that just carrying on wasn’t an option any more, and each time, the single thing I was most scared of was that they’d shrug, and in an oh-so-sympathetic voice they’d say, “that’s life, kid. It’s hard. Man up and deal.”
They never have.
I ran dry on about twenty minutes. The new therapist nodded once, and then did what any medical professional would do, took me back to the beginning. She had to build a history.
Therapy is weird. My microwave’s had longer relationships with leftover lasagne than I’d had with this woman, and I was telling her things I couldn’t tell my best friend. Therapy is also mysterious. At least it can seem that way, it’s hard to put your finger on how it’s supposed to work, and how long it ought to take, and it’s next to impossible to compare your experience to anyone else’s, as everyone else’s are – for very good reasons – private.
The problem is, that when a medicine is weird and mysterious it can be intimidating, and when it’s intimidating and unclear how it’s supposed to work, then the path of least resistance is to assume it doesn’t and never give it a chance.
So I thought I’d share a bit about what therapy’s like for me, and why I keep going – hopefully demystify it a bit.
The first thing is, it’s incredibly useful to be able to talk to someone who isn’t otherwise in your life. I don’t need to worry about uncomfortable silences over dinner with my therapist, or what she’s thinking in bed, or submitting work to her. Our relationship exists along one axis: I talk, she listens, she asks me questions and helps me find patterns.
Those patterns are the second thing. The most common bit of feedback I had on last month’s piece for this blog were from young men, who experienced the same symptoms as I had: but either realised very late, or had never realised at all that it might be an eating disorder. Like me, they knew something was wrong, but the way we’d been socialised and brought up made it next to impossible to name, so we worried at it like dogs at stitches.
Like I said last time, I would have been the last person in the world to recognize my bulimia if a psychiatrist hadn’t diagnosed it, but the sheer fact of knowing that’s what it was, gave me some idea of how to start managing it.
The third thing my therapist does, is help me remember.
Before I went into therapy, I never would have believed how easy and how ordinary it can feel to supress a memory. The term sounds all spy-thrillery, but there’s nothing mysterious about it, you have a memory that hurts to think about, so you just don’t.
My mum died of cancer in 2005. A year or so earlier, when she initially relapsed, I felt incredibly guilty and I didn’t know why. I went into counselling at uni, and in my fifth session I finally remembered.
When I was fourteen – around the time she was first diagnosed – I was too scared of the bullies and my first set of public exams to go to school, so I faked being sick.
For a year.
I faked throwing up, I faked passing out: I pretended insomnia that gave way to real insomnia. My parents weren’t idiots, they knew I didn’t have the symptoms I said I was having, but there was very little they could do in the face of my obstinate insistence I was telling the truth. I dragged them all over them place, to god knows how many doctors. I put them through Hell. And then I didn’t think about it for six years.
The relief of remembering, and being able to apologise to my folks for it, which I’d never done, and to let go of the secret that everyone knew anyway, was pretty much indescribable.
Therapy can be hard work, and I often leave a session wrung out, but I haven’t once felt as bad since I started going, as I did before I first rang that bell.
A longtime fan of science fiction and fantasy, Tom Pollock has spectacularly failed to grow out of his obsession with things that don’t, in the strictest sense of the word, exist.
He has his master of fine arts degree from Sussex University and also holds a master’s degree in philosophy and economics from Edinburgh University.
Tom’s travels have taken him everywhere from Scotland to Sumatra, but the peculiar magic of London has always drawn him back.
Books: Our Lady of the Streets, the City’s Son and the Glass Republic on Amazon.
If you or a loved one is struggling with depression or another mental health issue, please talk to someone. Here’s a list of help lines and professional contacts.