Teenage counselling

I have pretty much always despised the colour yellow in all its shades and variants, but I guess I was always a bit of a cynical little kid too.

Even with my skewed fringe and grass stained pinafore, I look back and realise that from an early age I was never truly content with myself. It’s true to say we live in a perilous age in which society seems to gain from our lack of self-acceptance, but at a time in which my household television only played a mere four channels and my parents still owned the Nokia 3310, there was no social media to strip me of my self-esteem. There wasn’t some televised higher power to point the finger at.

There was, however, high school; where all your dreams and aspirations, and that baby smooth skin you took so much for granted, go to die. Hellfire and acne aside, I had the yellow room. It was the sacred place I trekked to, to confront all my fears, to become one with myself, etc etc inspirational poster talk. My local counselling service was probably a good ten minute walk from my front door if I power walked it, which I didn’t, but that isn’t to say I wasn’t eager to get there.

A few months prior I had sat across from my new consultant as he diagnosed me with an illness that sounded made up, but explained my being agonisingly exhausted for years. Whilst going through a tedious list of symptoms he then preceded to ask me if I ever suffered from anxiety. I wasn’t sure; I told him that whenever I entered a room full of people I immediately thought everyone in it hated me. After a while, he suggested that I needed medication or counselling; I chose the latter begrudgingly and so began my thirteen weeks of hour long therapy sessions.

I was far more than a paranoid teen dying for the jovial day when my peers would finally embrace me and I would become a fully-fledged member of the ‘Six Chicks’ (13 Going on 30 reference). I had an unhealthy longing for perfection and a consuming fear of failure. I wanted the entire experience to be over with as quickly and as painfully as possible, almost like that vaccination you always dread getting before you go on holiday. The ends justify the means. And for an answer to my problem, I wanted that to. In the yellow room I came to realise that I had spent my childhood trying to find endless ways to mask how terribly fearful I was; fearful of expectations, failure, friendships, change and more often than not just walking out the front door in the morning.

I had been adamant when we first began to talk about my childhood that I wouldn’t allow this perfect stranger to tear something priceless to me apart, to remain resolute in my belief that I had had ‘the happiest childhood ever’. Sure, it wasn’t all picket fences, swing sets and Macaulay Culkin. There was the big house, the forest seconds from our door and all the wonderful memories that were intertwined with it all, but it wasn’t perfect. It took years for my two struggling immigrant parents to achieve this seemingly whimsical existence; they’d earned it. Financial problems arose sometimes, but never lasted. We had struggled and we had our worries but we had always been happy.

There was, however, the fact that since the age of seven I had been having intense surgery to correct the disordered growth of my legs; a small stick in the works. Talking about the physical and emotional pain that came with being wheelchair bound for months, trying to mask this all with a smile to make it easier for everyone else started to create a massive blemish on all this ‘happiness’. After a few sessions, my childhood years slowly unravelled before me, looking less and less rose tinted. Trying to look okay to the world didn’t mean that I was okay.

Counselling forced me to turn thoughts into sounds. Voicing experiences to someone who doesn’t get paid to maliciously scrutinise every problem you’ve faced or all the delusional beliefs you possess makes you feel less alone with your fears. I always spoke my mind relentlessly and said I cared little for others opinions, but now I could put away this façade I had tirelessly worked to maintain and be me, fears and all. I could accept how desperately I lacked self-esteem and start to sift through the messy contents of my own head. Something that had seemed frightening began to soothe my fear.

I would arrive every Saturday, we would sit across from one another in somewhat oddly shaped and rather uncomfortable seats,  and my counsellor would always begin by asking me how my week had been. I appreciated this uniformity; always knowing what to expect. I appreciated the fact it didn’t matter how I responded either: I could reply in the most pessimistic and unenthusiastic of manners, I could offload in any way I preferred and know that I wouldn’t receive worried looks or exasperated eye rolling for being so downtrodden. It was a place to vent all those thoughts that weren’t pretty enough for the outside world, but were well placed in the yellow room. The room would fill over the hour with my worries, but it was a comfortable space.

My goal was to always be as honest as I could be with my counsellor. I felt that those thirteen weeks would be a waste if I wasn’t going to not only be open minded but also be open with what I felt and thought. I had to let my counsellor in if this was going to work. Of course, no matter how great the trust between us grew and how at ease I felt there were still some memories which were often hard to voice; I decided to begin to write these things down and allow my counsellor to read them during the session. Soon it became more than just a way of communication but also something I was drawn to during the week when I had things troubling me. I’d reach for the notepad at the end of the day and let loose; the openness of my counselling sessions made me able to realise when something was not okay, when I had to voice a concern.

The thing that always baffled me about counselling was just how much I laughed during those sessions; counselling was not as painfully miserable as I’d imagined it to be. There is a lot of stigma that paints it as tedious, and stark, but it was a place of warmth. The sessions made my anxiety easier to deal with, bit my bit, week by week. For a treatment plan that seemed frightening and unknown, it did exactly what it said on the tin.

The last session I handed my counsellor a yellow envelope; a letter was a shy way of me saying that turning up to that first counselling session was probably one of the very best decisions I’d ever made. I’d stopped feeling like just another anxious teenager; it became my illness, and with that ownership, came an element of control. I learnt not to fear my own weakness or failure and not perceive my anxiety as either of those things. I think to myself how truly bizarre this taboo that surrounds our perception of mental health is, the shame we or others can often feel towards such an essential aspect of our wellbeing. Anxiety isn’t my best friend, but we’re working on it.

Illustration: Alessandra De Cristofaro