When I had finished my general nurse training in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda in the ’80s, I went on to train as a mental health nurse in a very progressive psychiatric hospital in England.
At the end of that training, there was an opportunity to apply for a three month paid secondment in the hospital psychology department working as a junior therapist under supervision.
I had already had a student placement in the psychology department and I had loved it. The psychologists were a mixed bunch. Brian was a total behaviourist. Paul was completely psychoanalytical. Chan was eclectic. There was also a sex therapist and some others who I don’t remember as clearly. I recall using CBT though.
I submitted a written application and then I was interviewed. To my absolute amazement and sheer delight, I was the successful candidate. As far as I can recall, my time was divided between all the psychologists and they each gave me at least one client to work with.
I remember working quite a bit with clients with fears and phobias, such as agoraphobia. I had to design and implement programs to help them overcome their fears. Some of my work involved visiting clients in their own homes and traveling with them on public transport, or even accompanying them on outings in their own car. I remember one lady driving anti-clockwise around a very busy roundabout when I was in the front passenger seat. This was a very anxious moment for me as well as for her.
Another lady had a fear of spiders and I was helping to do a desensitisation programme with her. I was supposed to accompany her to a local zoo and let her see me hold some kind of large spider, possibly a tarantula, but I chickened out!!! I wasn’t very helpful to her – was I?!
Seriously though, what I did learn, as I helped several people overcome their fears and phobias, is that severe anxiety/emotional distress is self limiting.
When triggered, the difficult, unpleasant feelings will increase dramatically and will feel incredibly uncomfortable.
However, those difficult feelings will eventually peak and then they will begin to subside again.
Little did I know that one day I would be using that knowledge to talk myself through difficult situations, in the same way as I once accompanied agoraphobic clients around Croydon.
Not because I’ve become agoraphobic, but because after such a major trauma as the illness and death of a child, so many places trigger such strong emotional reactions, that I now need to be my own therapist so as to prevent myself from having no-go areas in my life.
I think that the first time that I became aware of myself doing this, was last year when I was at our local hospital for another reason and I spontaneously went back to the Sperrin Oncology/Haematology Outpatients Department on my own and sat for 10 minutes opposite the seat where I once sat with Leah. I write about this here.
The next time was a bigger challenge. It was the week of Leah’s one year anniversary. I was in Belfast. I entered the foyer of Belfast City Hospital, went to the cafe on the ground floor and ordered a cup of steaming hot cinnamon milk, which had been my staple diet while Leah was dying. I then went and sat in the nearby eating area, where I had sat on many occasions during Leah’s final two and a half weeks.
My heart was beating very fast, my vision was blurred, blood vessels were pounding in my ears. I silently prayed for help and reminded myself of what I used to tell my clients in Croydon all those years ago – these difficult feelings are self-limiting, they will peak, but then they will start to subside.
Sure enough, within about 10 minutes I was starting to feel calmer.
I know that it will be easier the next time.
I also had to put it into practice at work recently. A mandatory annual training update was scheduled to take place in the South Wing of our local hospital. I work in the community, so my inservice training is normally community based – not this time unfortunately.
The South Wing houses the Sperrin Oncology/Haematology Ward where Leah had two admissions, as well as housing some other departments.
Just parking in the nearby carpark is often enough to have me in tears, never mind walking through the doors AND down the very familiar corridors. By the time I had found a seat in the training room, everything within me was screaming “get out of here, go home, you can’t do this”.
One of my work colleagues asked me something and I looked at her blankly, unable to focus on her words or their meaning.
Inwardly I just kept praying for help and reminding myself of what I knew – the difficult feelings would peak, then they would subside. Admittedly, by the time that had happened, I was so exhausted, that I struggled to concentrate, but at least I showed up.
It will be easier the next time!
Back in the office a few days later, someone asked me something related to what had been discussed at the training. I looked at her blankly and said “Was I there when that was discussed?” Then we both burst out laughing! You have to have a sense of humour too!
Don’t worry, this is training that I attend on a regular basis, I will have other opportunities to update my skills and knowledge.
I have shared the above experiences in the hope that my story might be of help to somebody else, struggling with similar issues, for whatever reason.
Next month I’ve a short trip to Bristol planned, along with my two daughters, to do the Shaun the Sheep Trail in Leah’s memory. The Shaun in the City project was announced while Leah and I were in Bristol in 2013. Leah and I discussed our plans to come back for it and we promised to bring her younger sister Miriam. Leah looked forward to coming back as a tourist instead of as a patient.
Even booking the tickets for this was very emotional. Everything we do will be emotionally loaded and will trigger so many memories – Belfast International Airport, Bristol Airport, my planned visit to Bristol Children’s Hospital, retracing our steps in so many different ways.
However, I just know that it’s the right thing to do, it’s all part of the remembering.
As I write this, a song by Chris Tomlin keeps playing in my head.
It’s called Whom Shall I Fear (God Of The Angel Armies)
I know who goes before me
I know who stands behind
The God of angel armies
Is always by my side
The one who reigns forever
He is a friend of mine
The God of angel armies
Is always by my side
My strength is in Your name
For You alone can save
You will deliver me
Yours is the victory
Whom shall I fear
Whom shall I fear