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March 05, 2015 - 1 comment.

Tom Pollock: Meeting my Therapist

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.

Read more: Tom’s first blog, the day my mental dam burst

Author Tom Pollock, TalkLife ambassador

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.

You can read his personal blog here and tweet him @tomhpollock.

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.

If you haven’t heard of TalkLife, it is where you find friends and a place to belong. There’s a huge community of people like you, who understand. Download for free on your Apple or Android device.

January 08, 2015 - 2 comments

Tom Pollock: The Day My Mental Dam Burst

Introducing TalkLife’s new ambassador, author Tom Pollock. Tom is a successful sci-fi and fantasy author who published his books while living with mental illness. This is his story.

From the TalkLife team: We’ll be launching new ambassadors in 2015. Our ambassadors will share their stories with the TalkLife community and beyond, and raise awareness about youth mental health issues. We hope they will inspire you and show that despite life’s challenges, you can achieve your dreams.

Tom Pollock is a great example of this. Rated by The Guardian as one of the world’s best young science fiction and fantasy writers, Tom has written his books while living with mental illness. And he’s sharing his “warts and all” story with you.Â


 

I want to tell you about this one specific Wednesday a few months back. There have been other days like it since, but I made notes about this one, so I remember the details better.

The day started out innocuously enough with a couple of slices of toast and a bowl of bran flakes, but then I had a row with a friend and before I knew it, I’d bought, chewed and swallowed two brownies, a bacon sandwich, a packet of crisps, some carrot sticks and a flapjack the size of the USS Nimitz.  Over the next forty five minutes I added a bag of chocolate buttons, a tuna baguette and a tub of some kind of red and white pudding that looked like someone had pureed a brain and forgotten to pick the skull out. When buying all this, I alternated between a caf, a shop and an oh-so-sweetly non-judgmental vending machine, so as not to attract attention (the guy at the shop was like “Buying for friends?” and I was like “Ha ha yes”).

I honestly couldn’t tell you what any of this tasted like, by the way. Only my hands, my jaw and the prehistoric Lizard bit of my brain were involved, my tastebuds were asleep at their post.

By now I was sweating, my hands were shaking and I had a pounding headache. I drank about a litre and a half of water, and then I went and had lunch.

A kind of mental dam burst during the afternoon, and I carried on in much the same way, systematically eating my way through everything in the house, then curling up in bed, then getting out of it in a panic to go to the shops to replace everything so my wife didn’t find out.

When I’m like this, what’s driving me isn’t hunger, or even the need for comfort, it’s the fear that I lack the power over myself to make a binding decision to stop eating. On bad days I feel I can’t trust myself, any more than I could a stranger.

The following day I wake up early, feeling like an evil toddler is squatting on my chest. The first thing I do is go for an eight mile run.  At lunch time I hit the gym and do push-ups and burpees until want to vomit (but I don’t).

I remember the first time a doctor told me I was bulimic. Ironically, I thought he was nuts, because I haven’t successfully made myself throw up for more than ten years (apparently I have no gag reflex, and yes, I’ve heard all the jokes.). I told him this and he said the purge half of my cycle is handled through exercise. However you characterise it, my relationship with food, my body and the level of control I feel the need to exercise over it, is dysfunctional, I also get bouts of depression, am in weekly therapy, and have been on anti-depressants at various points since I was fourteen.

Okay, fine, you’re probably thinking, but who are you?

I’m a writer. It’s what I always wanted to be, and it’s going pretty well. I published the final book in my first trilogy earlier this year, both of the earlier volumes were shortlisted for awards. My books have been translated, recorded, taught at universities, I’ve been flown out to sign in foreign countries, and in 2013 The Guardian put me on a list of the 20 best young science fiction and fantasy writers in the world.

That’s the thing, the timing. I’ve written and published all my books to date in the four years, not after getting over my mental illness, but living around it.

There’s a culture of silence around mental health, a taboo on talking about your illness that only applies when the part of you that’s ill is above rather than below the neck. This taboo is stupid, dangerous, and it pisses me off. Suicide kills more men my age and younger than anything else in the UK, in large part because most of them never feel like they tell anyone. The only way to change a culture, is to act like it’s already been changed. To talk about openly, like its normal (because it is). It’ll hit a quarter of us this year, chances are it’s happening to a friend of yours at the same time it’s happening to you.

So this is me, talking.

A lot of the time though, when people do talk about it, especially Celebrities, they cast it as a long past event, a dark episode in their lives (“My year of bulimia hell” etc). It’s the dip in their story arc, a single crisis struggled through in pursuit of their inspirational journey.

Maybe that is what it’s like for them, but it’s not what it’s like for me. For me it’s more like a chronic thing, diabetes say. Severity varies from day to day, it comes and it goes, it needs thinking about, and consciously managing, but I can live with it, and live well. I got married in 2013 to a woman I’m crazy about.

So here’s the plan, once a month on this blog, I’m going to write about how that’s been going, stuff I’ve written, read, seen, places I’ve been, and how the glitches in my head have affected it. Sometimes the answer will be “a lot”, sometimes (hopefully usually) the answer will be “not much”, but either way I’ll try to be honest, and if there’s anything I find that’s helpful to me, I’ll tell you.

Over time, a picture should emerge, a pictures of someone living with and around this bug. I hope some of you will find that helpful, and I will too. If nothing else it’ll be a reminder of the thing that’s sometimes the hardest to remember at the bottom of the darkest spiral: that it hasn’t been this way forever, and it won’t last forever either, today might be shit, but tomorrow could be great.

Author Tom Pollock, TalkLife ambassador

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.

You can read his personal blog here and tweet him @tomhpollock.

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.

If you haven’t heard of TalkLife, it is where you find friends and a place to belong. There’s a huge community of people like you, who understand. Download for free on your Apple or Android device.