CBT in hindsight

After my pretty dire and incredibly unhelpful experience of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), which I related in my last blog post, CBT for RD… WAPOS!, I reached the logical conclusion that what I’d been subjected to probably wasn’t actually kosher CBT at all.  That confusing mix of very basic common sense, preposterous suggestions, and u-turns which Theresa May would be proud of was so ridiculous that I wondered why I hadn’t smelt a rat previously.  I concluded that the counsellor had been so bad, it was highly likely she wasn’t even properly qualified.  Out of a sense of somewhat morbid curiosity, I decided to do a spot of research in an effort to find evidence which supported my conclusions.

First of all, I turned to my friend Google.  I thumped in the counsellor’s name, and sat back with the expectation of being informed that there were no results available.  Instead, Google informed me that she had a variety of degrees in Psychology, including a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from a very reputable university.  I checked a few different sites and found the information to be consistent.  I was baffled.  How could a person with this level of education and specialism in various areas of psychology have given me such farcical advice?  Plus, if she was intelligent enough to have completed a doctorate, why had she not realised that I would have already attempted all the obvious solutions for myself, before seeking help?  I was perplexed.  Perhaps she thought I was stupid.  Or… perhaps this meant that CBT was aimed at people who were unable to think for themselves, I mused.

In order to test out these theories, I rang an old friend who works as a CBT practitioner for the NHS.  She asked me to explain what the counsellor had discussed with me and the various theories she’d explained to me during our sessions.  I obliged, and – much to my surprise – my friend punctuated my recital with verbal nods of approval: “Yep, yep – that’s right – that’s classic CBT.”  She seemed unsurprised that I hadn’t got on with it, suggesting that I had already been biased against it before I started, and hinting that my tendency to overthink things meant that I wasn’t a good candidate for CBT.  This didn’t really help matters as it simply led me back to my earlier assessment of it.  During this conversation, I also received the distinct impression that people for whom CBT doesn’t work are generally regarded in the trade as ‘awkward’, and having only themselves to blame for either being predisposed against it or for not engaging with the process sufficiently.

After this, I decided to just crack on with things as best I could and rely on the methods of support I’d built up for myself.  I didn’t even think about the whole sorry saga again until a recent conversation with another friend who practices CBT alongside other forms of therapy.  Interestingly, she likened CBT to putting a sticking plaster on a gaping wound.  She told me that it simply isn’t effective as a long-term solution as it’s far too simplistic and doesn’t deal with whatever the crux of the problem might be.  She said that the over-simplification of CBT is compounded by the fact that, generally, only six one-hour sessions are offered to patients and obviously this isn’t sufficient to deal with what are often long-term, ingrained, and highly complex issues.  When I told her of how the counsellor I saw first praised me for having lots of coping mechanisms in place and then thoroughly confused me by telling me that I had too many different coping mechanisms, she was horrified.  She said a good counsellor should never try to take away someone’s coping mechanisms.

In hindsight, if I’d known all this beforehand, I wouldn’t have ventured down the CBT route as it certainly made things worse.  Part of me wonders if I was just unfortunate in being matched with such an unbelievably useless counsellor.  I do think the experience could have been vastly improved if she’d demonstrated even a hint of understanding and/or empathy regarding even just the basics of eye problems.  With this in mind, I’m curious to hear how one of my eye buddies gets on with a course of counselling offered by the RNIB.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will be far more useful and effective.  In retrospect, I should have put a stop to my CBT sessions about half way through, by which point it was obvious that it was exacerbating my difficulties.  But, like a deluded idiot clinging on to the rubble of a poisoned relationship, I just kept going in the hopes that things would improve.  I also wonder, looking back, whether there was anything she could have really done to help me anyway.  If she was genuine in her comments early on that I already had a lot of support mechanisms in place, perhaps she should have simply told me at that stage that she couldn’t improve on what I was already doing to help myself.  Fortunately, I’m usually fairly resilient and after a few weeks of feeling low and fuming about the whole thing, I picked myself up and ploughed on as best I could.  But it did make me worry for people who perhaps aren’t able to do this.  I can see how such a cack-handed approach to mental health could quite easily have the effect of pushing over the cliff someone who was already teetering dangerously close to the edge.

Note: Since publishing CBT for RD… WAPOS!, two friends who are CBT therapists have contacted me about it.  One said that what I experienced definitely wasn’t CBT, and the other said that it was proper CBT but could have been more sensitively applied.  These are both intelligent people whose opinions I value, so now I really am baffled!  However, if there’s one useful thing I’ve learned from the experience, it’s this: for anyone embarking on CBT or any form of counselling, a) don’t assume that the counsellor necessarily knows best, and b) don’t be afraid to question them or to stop the sessions if they’re making things worse.

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