We’ve all seen the films. A brightly decorated room filled with a mismatched bundle of quirky people who don’t seem to have anything wrong with them beyond bold choices of clothing and accessories. Not to mention the cute yet misunderstood boy across the room, making eye contact as he launches into elaborate speeches about the meaning of life. And we mustn’t forget the group leader, who either becomes a mentor to the protagonist or is a bumbling figure who tries too hard.
I think I knew deep down not to expect this, but that didn’t stop me from hoping for it. I guess the prospect of actually confronting my problems (for real this time) in front of a group of strangers couldn’t bear thinking about.
I was nervous. I know this because I remember setting off with half an hour to spare in case I had trouble parking and I picked the skin on my fingers until they bled, which meant I had to sit with my hands hidden under the table, staining my coat to stem the bleeding as everyone made their feeble introductions.
In the first session, there were about eight of us. The session took place in a plain but clean room in a doctors surgery in the suburbs with a tiny car park that forced most people to parallel park on the main road. Every time someone flushed the downstairs toilet, the sound rattled though the walls and everyone would jump and laugh nervously.
Three people led the sessions, all NHS professionals with lots of experience. I have to say, they were fantastic. They mastered the balance between sympathy and professionalism and guided the sessions carefully to ensure they were beneficial for everyone. As for the other people in the group, you could have written a novel about each and every one of them. They seemed mind-bogglingly ordinary at first; I wondered how on earth we all got here.
We weren’t allowed to talk about specific experiences that led to our referral to ensure nobody was triggered. We spoke only about coping mechanisms and hopes for the future. This was a massive relief; I didn’t want to expose such intimate details about my life to a group of strangers and I certainly didn’t want to hear theirs. What if mine sounded pathetic in comparison? What if they judged me? What if they didn’t believe me? What if I got emotional? However, even talking about coping mechanisms and hopes for the future was an intimate experience, and I got to know these people in the strangest way. I didn’t know their last names, or how old they were, or what they did for a living, yet I knew that several of them dealt with severe anger issues, another ate lunch alone in their car, another hated her boyfriend, one hated social services, some suffered from panic attacks, others were incredibly shy, one had the most amazing tattoos, and so on. It felt strange telling these strangers that meditation often triggers panic attacks for me, or that my main driving force behind my recovery was my fear of letting my family down.
Week after week, I’d drag myself out of bed, parallel park on that awful hill, make myself a mug of strong coffee, eat two custard creams, and discuss which coping mechanisms worked best for me that week as I dealt with my daily triggers.
After seven sessions, it was over. It felt abrupt, but I was startled to realise that I was ready to be discharged. Nine months after my referral, they had given me the treatment deemed most suitable after my numerous assessments, it was my turn to put it all into practice. We signed small cards with words of encouragement for each other – ‘you’ve just gotta get that fight in you!’ ‘Keep using the 54321 method!’ ‘Thank you for being so understanding.’ ‘Your friends and family are lucky to have you.’
I’ve never been good at goodbyes, so opted for an inappropriately bright tone of voice as I said, ‘Well, good luck everyone!’ Then I scurried back to my car, took ten deep breaths, as they taught me, and drove away.
It’s not like the films, but I was discharged from the entire service two weeks later, and haven’t been back since.