It’s Saturday and I’m sitting at the front of the bunch with another guy, shielding the 15 or so cyclists behind us from the wind as we peddle along.
“How you doing, Gideon?,” my wind-shield companion asks, “Still taking the tablets I hope?”
This guy then goes on to explain that he – not too much older than me, and certainly as fit – also has a daily intake of pills, I think for blood pressure. He too has a little plastic box that gets opened every morning, along with his box of muesli.
It’s Sunday, it’s windy and I’m sitting on the front (again) explaining, in the boring way I do, about my brain tumour, my seizures and my drug intake, to a guy I’ve never talked to about it before.
“Oh, I had a heart attack a few years back,” he replied, this guy again not much older than me, definitely fitter and definitely stronger as we headed into the wind again. “Been on the pills ever since.”
Everyone, it seems – even the fittest of us – are on something. Day in, day out, many of us are taking something that, one way or another, is helping to keep us alive..
For me, it’s most obvious because if I stop taking the pills, I have seizures. I’ve not much choice but to tell those I’m cycling with what I’m ‘on’.
For others, I think my sharing gives them a space, perhaps a little permission, to admit too that their otherwise fit bodies aren’t, well, always up to scratch.
In that spirit, there’s another thing that I’m ‘on’ that we – men certainly – don’t talk about much, and thus I have no idea how many of us are in the same club.
Whether you call it counselling, or therapy, talking or something more technical, the very idea carries with it something weak and irregular, like there’s something missing or broken.
You don’t have to be crazy to have counselling, but it helps. Etc.
I decided to ask my doctor about counselling about six months after my brain tumour diagnosis, because everyone kept telling me how well I was dealing with it. Sure, I’d have wobbly moments, and get a bit down when the seizures were bad or I felt particularly tired, but in general I’d taken my diagnosis head-on and not come out too bruised.
Was I, I wondered aloud to my doctor, missing something? In denial? Suppressing feelings that would come back and bite me on the arse when things really took a turn for the worse?
The first thing this doctor did was to ask if I wanted anti-depressants.
No I definitely didn’t want happy pills – have you seen the length of my prescription list? – but perhaps I would like to see a counsellor. Call it an insurance policy. Have a delve around in there, make sure I’ve got my bases covered.
I’ll be honest. The hospice we’re involved with hooked me up with a counsellor, and we didn’t click. I felt they were going through the motions, so I followed suit. We left it, after the initial assessment, feeling it wasn’t going to work for me.
But the sessions with my GP-referred counsellor were different. I won’t write what we talked about, but every three or four weeks, talk we did.
I wanted to talk through my diagnosis, my seizures, the impact on my life, my family, my future, and with someone who I didn’t have to worry about upsetting.
With friends, there’s always going to be a personal impact to what you say and what new information you have to share. You can talk honestly, but there’s an unconscious need to tailor it to who you’re saying it too. You have to consider their feelings, how they’ve reacted to things before, and whatever is going on in their life too.
Of course friends and family will say you can talk to them frankly and that they will listen without comment or judgement. And of course, they really mean it too. But you can’t get the personal element out. And nor should you. That’s why they’re called friends.
I can talk to my wife, but she too needs someone to speak to who is coming to this thing afresh. Someone who doesn’t already know all the issues, who isn’t trying to protect her, who doesn’t have their own spin on it.
And anyway, we get both get bored with the brain tumour talk.
With a counsellor, they are there to ask and to probe, and then to sit back and listen. I know not much about my counsellor, and that’s the idea. I can talk selfishly. About myself, my thoughts, my fears, my joys, without worrying about how what I say will be taken.
I won’t pretend I’ve come to some deeper understanding of my condition, or myself for that matter. The light hasn’t gone on, and you won’t find me surrounded by joss-sticks and chanting mantras any time soon.
But I’m now pretty clear that I’m not in denial, and that this diagnosis isn’t going to explode on me when I least expect it.
I have talked through some difficult issues, and I do feel better about them than I did. But I’ve also smiled a lot, chatted about unrelated stuff, felt reassured, listened to, respected and valued.
Being ‘in counselling’ is not really something many of us would admit to. But I bet there are many more of us than you might think.
I’m happy to share it here because I have found it helpful. It’s not been revelatory or life-changing, but I’m glad I did it and I think I’ve benefitted.
I share it here because by doing so, I hope I’m giving other cancer patients and their families ‘permission’ to consider whether it might work for them, or to tell others that they’re doing it. But also because I think there really is nothing to be embarrassed about.
I take pills to prevent the seizures – and apparently just about everyone else takes some other drug for some condition or other – and we’re all happy to talk about that once the subject is broached.
Counselling is just another type of pill, for another type of ailment. So, what’s the difference?
I had six one-hour counselling sessions, plus an initial assessment, after a referral from my GP. That meant – like my massive prescription list – it was free at the point of need, paid for by the NHS. My wife chose to go through our local hospice, which also provided six sessions for free.
(We agreed that we wouldn’t discuss what was talked about in each other’s sessions.)
When the time is right, we’ll also get free family-sessions from the hospice to help our children understand what is happening.
Many of the larger UK cancer charities make counselling referrals, provide counselling themselves or may help pay for private sessions. You never know unless you ask.