As I came towards the end of my Counselling Psychology MSc research project I fell ill. Not seriously poorly, but a nasty chest infection that wouldn’t shift for nearly a month. I was tired. I was running on an empty fuel tank. I was unable to retain information. My head was so full that I was incapable of communicating with my family and friends, except for an attempted ‘nod’ in their direction, if something, somewhere inside my mind blown brain, notified me that someone was actually requiring me to engage with them.
As my wonderful husband and adult kids attempted to involve me in their lives on various levels, ok, engage with me on any level, I could feel myself looking at them, but not really seeing them, their mouths were moving but I couldn’t really hear anything. My amazing support network of family and close friends had pretty much stopped asking me to go out or see them as they knew how uncomfortable it made me feel to keep saying “sorry, no I’d love to, but I have to work.”
Yes, I would manage the odd night with friends, but I would find myself looking in on the night, a spectator, thinking “I really should be working”. Either that or I would be taking a grateful gulp of my favoured tipple and then have a poorly head the next day, not productive! The gym membership was cancelled; I couldn’t bear to keep paying for the guilt of not going.
All around me lay books, research papers, notes and highlighter pens. I lived in ‘post it’ note city, which at least looked pretty, due to my desire to have these sticky pieces of the inside of my head in coordinating colours! I ran out of a certain colour at one point, a good friend who knew how disastrous this was went out searching for more, in the right colour, and the right size, that’s friendship.
The bag I took to work, the work and job that paid me, always had a text or piece of research that I could try to devour in my break, if I took a break that is. My brain needed more information, I needed more time to fit more in and then more time yet to write a coherent piece of work about it all. What I actually craved for and dreamed about was some form of USB or data device that would come ready loaded so that I could insert it into my brain, process it and then regurgitate it intelligently into my 20,000 words required by a certain deadline.
This won’t be an unfamiliar scenario for those of you out there studying, flogging yourself to produce a piece of work that will hopefully be good enough to gain acceptance and a good enough grade. Just to pass,
that’s what I kept telling myself, “I just need to pass”!
It may not be unfamiliar, to anyone working hard and living as a human being with a family, job and all of the rest of the daily stresses and pressures we have, but then I fell ill, not very ill, just ill.
The first irony is that as a counsellor and psychotherapist I hadn’t noticed I was deteriorating, slowly slipping into a hamster wheel of desperation, getting slower and slower until I fell out of it sideways. It was my husband and sister that collectively sat me down and said “STOP, enough, we need you to still be here when this work is done!”
They encouraged me (threatened me) to sit down for a weekend on the sofa, (“oh, this is the sofa”), watch bubble gum TV, fed and watered me until I started to come back to life.
I did come back to life, and this little bit of self-care, that I hadn’t acknowledged I needed was enough to see the chest infection off, and enabled me to get back to the desk. So the second irony is, and this is the biggie , my research was around self-care. Oh how I laughed - Not! How did I not see this happening?
My research project, “Looking through a Lens of Terribleness” is a small qualitative study with, six participants. It explores the impact on practitioners working with victims and survivors of domestic violence. Social workers, counsellors and specialist domestic violence support workers all took time out to be my participants and bravely share their experiences with me.
Although primarily around concepts such as burnout, vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and secondary trauma, as an antidote to listening and working in a highly stressful role, one of my research questions was around self-care. I asked the participants if they knew what it was, and if so how did they practice it? Their responses were very similar.
Yes, they had an awareness of the concept of self-care. A few participants had also remembered receiving a lecture on it. When I asked them how they practiced self-care, walking in the country side, time spent with safe and supportive friends and family, eating well and exercise were answers across the board. The data from my research also suggested that most of the participants had struggled with this line of work, and interestingly that when it came to identifying this, it was not the practitioners themselves that saw it.
So there lies the rub for me, and hopefully a small insight into my own blindness when it came to looking after myself, hence this piece of writing and my intention and commitment to work out why in the future. What exactly is self-care, how do we recognise it and how do we make it a part of our daily lives and practice, and practice it seems to me is the key. Suffice to say at this particular juncture, self-care it would appear as not something we’re terribly good at ourselves, oh the irony. I can feel a bit of a self-care revolution coming on, watch this space!
Sass Boucher is a psychotherapist and counsellor registered with the BACP and working for a private practice. She has just completed her MSc in Counselling Psychology, and is committed to developing and practicing self-care and in her words "this is still very much a work in progress!"
For further information on Sass Boucher you can take a look at her website here