This girl did: Group Therapy

I think it’s fair to say that this little blog has been somewhat neglected, but it’s not for want of me thinking about it and *trying* to get things done. But if I’ve learned anything from the experience I’m about to describe, it’s that I can no longer afford to beat myself up about that, because I’m learning how to pace.

What seems like months ago now, I flared up. Hard. I’m struggling to remember when the real crash came but I think it was around the new year. I remember being in a notably bad way at the end of January (Tough Guy time), and having to take a step back from any and all forms of exercise, bar bimbling around Dirty Weekend and taking a little trip to Toughest Amsterdam. I remember definitively saying to myself that I was BACK during a Spartan Super in May. So that’s at least 5 months of total meltdown, in which I sought help to get a mental handle on my invisible illness.

Not for the first time, I referred myself through an IAPT service – that’s an improved access route to psychological therapies. I’ve done this before, in my ‘runaway’ phase where I wanted to vehemently deny that there was anything wrong with me. Now, I wanted therapy for a different reason; having accepted having CFS, I wanted to learn to cope.  Coping is something I do relatively well, and I’m usually buoyed by the notion that there are other people in the same boat, so I opted for group therapy for people with ‘long term conditions’.

For obvious reasons, I can’t go in to detail about who was in this group, but suffice to say, the conditions were many and various. Some were progressive, some steady states, some more painful than others, but all chronic and to an extent, life altering. I have been reliably informed by fellow group members that when I first started the therapy, I looked like a sack of shit. At the end of the course, I looked like a different person (except quite fat, which we’ll get into later).

The therapy I received was based on the ‘Tree of Life’ methodology. I wasn’t initially impressed. In fact, I thought it roundly patronising, and I thought I was above drawing pictures in different colours on my tree. We were given A3 tree templates, and over the weeks, we decorated them according to these rules:

  • Roots: Family history, people who have taught me most in life, favourite place, music, books etc.
  • Ground: Where I live now and daily activities
  • Trunk: Skills and Abilities
  • Branches: Hopes, dreams and wishes for the future
  • Leaves: Significant people in my life (alive or passed away)
  • Fruit: The gifts that have been given to me

Honestly, I felt pretty destroyed after the first week, because we worked on the trunk – skills and abilities. We were given a list of suggestions as to what we could write. ‘Active,’ ‘happy’, ‘adventurous’, ‘musical’, and many more jumped out at me, not as things that I was, but things I used to be. Great, a therapy that reminds me of what I have lost. I left the first week more depressed than when I had started.

Over the next few sessions, though I still didn’t have the patience to believe in the method, we were taught to focus on elements of ourselves that were still very much present. Believe me it took a while for me to eke out these remaining positive aspects of my personality, but I did it, because I can’t bear to leave a project half finished.

By the time the final weeks rolled around, we had reached Pritt Stick territory, and were pasting leaves and fruit onto our colourful trees. I had achieved a focus that allowed me to sit cross legged on the floor and pore over my tree – making sure the colours and the story made sense.  Therapists would talk us through the trees each week, and they did acknowledge my guilt, shame and upset at not being everything I used to be. What they didn’t do, is reassure me that I could be *all* of those things again. Instead, they actually helped me let go of my desperation to be my former self, and also took away my unrealistic targets to say, run 5k once or twice a week. It sounds so simple, but I honestly couldn’t see it. Don’t run for a time, they said, just run until you can’t. Run when you feel you can. Don’t spend Tuesday fretting about the fact that you *need* to exercise/play the piano/read a book/write a blog that night. I took their advice, and the moment I felt I could, I ran in the park with the dog. I jogged 3k before my brain felt like it would rattle out of my head, and I had to stop, but the happiness it gave me was worth the headache.

In releasing myself from self imposed targets, I did allow myself a lot of down time. I slept a lot. It didn’t really help me be less tired, but a lot of the time, I couldn’t help it. I also quit my job and sought a new one that allowed me to work fewer hours. The difference is marginal, but has so far made a difference to my wakefulness. The downside of all of this down time is that I put on a significant amount of fat. Not helped by two types of medication that made me ravenously hungry, the lack of exercise took its toll. None of my clothes fit. I felt, and to an extent still do feel, terrible about my body shape.

But my head, for once, is in the game. I am no longer punishing myself or feeling shame and guilt for being tired, and funnily enough, the energy I have expended on that guilt and shame and worry has been pushed into more positive things.

One of my first races ‘back’ was Mud Monsters. I can quite honestly say that the pictures are largely horrific. Yet they remain on Facebook. I’m the biggest I have ever been in those photos. My shirt clings awkwardly to my stomach, and my arms look like HAMS, but the one thing my friends mentioned about them? How happy I look. And if that’s what I take away from 8 weeks of group therapy, then it was time well spent.

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