a chat with a clinical psychologist

August 2012

I was back at home. The London Olympics was on. The sun was shining. The flurry of post-discharge activity and regular visits from district nurses had slowed. Life was good – not quite normal but definitely good. I looked in the diary ‘Thursday 9 August – clinical psychologist@RMH, Sutton’. Shit – why did I book that appointment ? Why did I weaken when I was in hospital ? I’m fine now. There’s nothing wrong with me. Of course, I felt down in the dumps in the hospital. Who wouldn’t – being cooped up in there for 7 whole weeks, feeling like crap and unable to walk.

I immediately thought about cancelling the appointment but thought better of it. What harm could it do ? What else had I planned for Thursday – nothing ? Maybe it would help.

So I went along to the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton and navigated to the Psychological and Pastoral Care Unit which is adjacent to the Children’s Day Unit (I always find rather upsetting to see young people with nasal drips in being wheeled around in wheelchairs). Anyway, a young lady introduced herself to me and our session began. I did most of the talking, taking her through my medical history from diagnosis through chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy, surgery and up to the current phase of ‘post surgical recovery and recuperation’.

She occasionally interjected and asked a question or provided some reassurance. I faltered at the normal sections (telling my kids, telling my folks, how supportive my wife had been). She seemed mildly interested in my coping strategy. I told her that I found inspiration and hope from people who had battled cancer and won – or at least were in remission. I also told her that, whenever I felt sorry for myself and could feel myself feeling down, ‘you only have to walk around here or look next door [Children’s Day Unit] to find poor people much, much, worse off than yourself’. The lady gently replied, almost in a whisper; ‘So you find it helpful to look at people who have conquered this illness and you also look at people in less fortunate positions to give yourself a boost’. That sounded rather callous, cold and unfeeling which really wasn’t what I meant. I never meant ‘Hey I may have my problems but, look, I’m much better off than that poor sod’ and felt mildly ashamed when she appeared to interpret my words in that way.

At points, our session did feel worryingly reminiscent of a comedy sketch that sort of reinforced some of my worst fears and preconceptions about ‘counselling’. For example. when I was trying to describe the mental anguish of sharing the news with our teenage children, I just dried up. I paused, I couldn’t get the words out. I knew what I wanted to say but I couldn’t utter the words. I leaned forward in my chair – ‘Sorry, I’ll be OK – sorry’ and put my head in my hands. Finally, I gathered my composure and muttered ‘The TV advert gets this bit right – the worst moment, in all of this, was telling my children’ and, as always, just as in hospital, just as I knew they would, the emotional floodgates opened, triggering yet more meaningless apologies to a lady who looked young enough to be my daughter.. Once again, she leaned forward, looked sad and waited patiently while I took a few moments to dab my eyes, have a sip of water and get my shit together for the next section. Before I could do so, she helpfully observed ‘Yes – now I can see that telling your children was a very emotional and harrowing event for you. Even the memory of it, a year afterwards, is still very emotional and raw for you. Why do you think that is ?’

Well – the answer is bloody obvious. The exchange reminded me very much of the legendary doctor program in Emacs; M-x doctor

I am the psychotherapist.  Please, describe your problems.  Each time
you are finished talking, type RET twice.

I just keep crying all the time

Why do you say that ?

I feel so unhappy

Are you unhappy often?

Yes. Every day

Earlier you said you felt unhappy?

Yes. I have a serious illness.

Maybe your life has something to do with this.

Possibly. I do love pork pies and beer

Do you drink a lot of beer?


Can you elaborate on that?

I like a drink when I’m watching football. What of it ?

And so on and so forth. Repeat as necessary.

Our session ended rather abruptly. I had finished my tale, reached the present day and my 50 minute session was up. But, hang on, wait, she hadn’t really talked yet. I hadn’t received the miracle cure. What was I supposed to do now ? Were these feelings of low self esteem and survivor guilt normal ? Did I need prozac to numb the pain ?

‘Well, you seem to be in a much better state of mind than when you made the appointment. Now you’re on the system, you can make another appointment and you will be seen much quicker. But unless you feel strongly, I’d say we don’t need to schedule a regular, ongoing appointment’.

So that was that. I had been man enough to accept I needed help. I had had a session with a clinical psychologist.

Did it help me at that time ? Not really.

Would it have helped seven weeks earlier when I was on the edge of despair in hospital ? Possibly.

Did I learn anything new ? No.

Would I seek help more readily next time ? Yes.

Would a session with fellow bowel cancer sufferers with real-life experience have been just as beneficial ? Probably.

Would I run across to the ward asking for details of the next Bowel Cancer Support Group meeting ? No, of course not.

Of course, I think deep down, my resistance to obtaining help (or even medication) was really related to the fact that I was already taking a plethora of pain-killers, antibiotics, assorted pills as well as blood thinning injections. My main aim in life was to wean myself off all of this medication in an effort to gradually make a return to some sort of normality. Having a regular, scheduled meeting with a clinical psychologist – even if it was helpful – would simply have been another emotional crutch, another dependency which I would inevitably have to sever myself from in due course. Subconsciously, I think, I didn’t want to establish such a precedent and leave myself with more baggage that I would surely and inevitably have to discard and learn to live without.