The following make-believe client experiences aim to offer some insight into the reality of our counselling work. Each story is designed to be representative and realistic, drawing on our collective experience of working with a great number of people over many years.
Confidentiality is essential and so it is not possible to provide true case histories. These stories are not based directly on any of our clients, past or present. Instead they are entirely fictional characters. If someone were to recognise in these stories an aspect of themselves it would only be a coincidence, as many people’s unique life challenges share so much in common.
Click on the client experience to see the full story.
I can be horrible to people, it’s not like me but I find myself viciously snapping and I don’t know where it comes from.
Zoe had been in her current relationship for about six months and was beginning to think it had real potential. Previously she had had a string of short-term unsuccessful relationships. She tends to be attracted to ‘bad boys’. Ben, however, is lovely.
“I yelled at him the weekend before last and I don’t really know where it came from. He was really good about it, saying it was out of character and asking me if there was something else bothering me these days. More than anything it scared me, I felt quite out of control, I don’t want to stuff up this relationship.”
Never having seen a counsellor before, she did become quite nervous before the session. A friend reassured her and encouraged her to at least give it a try.
She had no idea what she was going to say or how to explain why she was there. So, that is exactly what she said and to her great relief, the counsellor said that was quite normal and offered to explain how things would work and to begin by asking a few questions.
Zoe soon felt more at ease. She agreed to continue telling her story for a couple more sessions. She was reassured and calmed to hear that what she was experiencing was not unusual. From discussion of her current situation and her relationship history things were beginning to make more sense. The process of exploring her moods and the triggers for her behaviour was very instructive, leaving her with a greater sense of control, as well as hope for real progress.
Continuing with counselling
She decided that she wanted to go further with counselling, her key motivation being her relationship – wanting to give it her best shot. She agreed to explore further her attitudes to anger and to develop new ways of dealing with it. She also wanted to gain more understanding of her relationship patterns. Ultimately Zoe hoped to gain more confidence generally, being clearer about what she really wanted and more assertive in pursuing it.
While the focus remained mostly on her relationship with Ben, it was useful to reflect on previous relationships and to recognise how her way of dealing with anger logically followed from the context of her upbringing. The process was at times challenging, with strong emotions emerging in sessions from time to time. Paradoxically for Zoe, she felt that setting aside some of her fierce independence and being a little more vulnerable led her to feel stronger in her relationship with Ben and more willing to risk getting more serious.
During her time in counselling, she made a number of positive changes. Significantly, she moved in with Ben. They had plenty of arguments but she felt less threatened by them and more comfortable asserting her needs. Discussing their future, potentially including babies, became possible for Zoe, something she had previously been too fearful even to imagine.
Of course I’m thrilled to be a mother but I just feel so wound up most of the time I just can’t really enjoy my baby.
Sarah explained that the first year after her son’s birth had been ‘difficult’. She was overjoyed at having a baby after trying for so many years but nevertheless felt flat and even numb a lot of the time. She reported that she was often indecisive and was unable to think about what she should wear or cook for dinner. Most simple decisions about daily life were a struggle. In fact getting dressed for the day often didn’t matter because it was easier not to go out. When finally a knowing friend slipped her a counsellor’s card she didn’t need much persuasion to call.
Sarah reported feeling overwhelmed a lot of the time. She wondered whether it wasn’t just the experience of being a mother that was more than she could handle. While she loved her baby she was anxious about him. She felt she couldn’t explain this to her family and friends as it seemed she might seem ungrateful and strange for feeling this way.
The relief of talking with her counsellor and describing how she spent her days seemed to open the way for a more frank discussion of her feelings. She remembered how much she had liked her job and in particular earning her own money after years of studying. Having to live off the allowance her partner gave her was galling and she felt humiliated even though he was a generous person who was happy to support her.
In the comfortable space of the counselling room Sarah opened up about all sorts of feelings she had not acknowledged even to herself. She said she felt accepted and relieved that finally someone knew what it was like to have such mixed feelings. While it was some months later, the guilty feelings did lift and she felt lighter knowing that most people have mixed feelings and that it doesn’t mean there is any less love. She began to arrange things she enjoyed doing and took advantage of opportunities for time without her baby too . It became easier for her to ask her partner for help during the difficult periods and realised he enjoyed and didn’t resent being asked. This surprised her as she had never considered herself someone who could ask for help. It brought her closer to her partner as he appreciated the positive changes in her behaviour. He liked the fact that she wanted him to be with her and that he was such a help to her.
The first time it happened I thought maybe I was having some kind of heart attack. I really believed I was going to die. The next time it was more a fear that I was going crazy.
Rory had moved to Sydney with his girlfriend 18 months previously. His company was sponsoring him. The role was demanding but he was doing well and it afforded them a lifestyle they enjoyed. Rory continued to jog and swim a few times a week and played tennis every Wednesday. He was still health conscious but the drinking and party drugs had become more regular.
“I’m generally a pretty together kind of guy and there’s no one thing that’s really getting to me. Yes, I’m a bit stressed at the moment but that’s nothing new. I know now that what I had was a panic attack and I need to sort it out.”
Rory had never been to counselling and hadn’t imagined he ever would but having had a couple of panic attacks he didn’t hesitate to ask a good friend whose sister he knew saw a counsellor. He then rang to make an appointment. He wasn’t sure what to expect but agreed with his counsellor’s suggestion on the phone to come to a few sessions and give an account of what had been going on and some background information about his family, personal and medical history. He felt some relief simply from making the call and setting out to do something about it.
He found it useful in the session to discuss fully the nature of the anxiety he’d experienced, the circumstances and triggers. He was relieved to hear that it was common and appreciated the strategies he and his counsellor discussed to reduce the likelihood of further attacks and to help should he experience another. Over the coming weeks the anxiety improved markedly and when twice more he felt the onset of an attack he was able to stop it from progressing further.
He soon recognised, however, that he felt on edge a lot of the time and was inclined to largely ‘ignore’ his stress. Feeling that it had now got the better of him he was initially disappointed in himself. He had always counted himself as one who didn’t sweat the small stuff.
Before long Rory began to find it satisfying to reflect on his personal background as well as his present day situation. He could see more clearly the sources of stress in his life and his style of responding.
He could also see the merits of easing up on himself and decided to continue with counselling for another couple of months while he learnt more about how and why he tended to react and to develop new strategies for responding to various situations. Rory found it hard to say ‘no’ to people and even harder to ‘let them down’. He put a lot of pressure on himself and came to see that often what he assumed were others’ expectations of him were to some degree of his own making. He gained better insight into why he made fewer calls home to his family and was able to question his reluctance to go home for Christmas. Likewise he concluded that his longer hours at work and the pub said more about his relationship than he’d admitted to himself before. He resolved to have a conversation with his mother that he’d been avoiding and to plan a holiday with his girlfriend to ‘take stock’. Reigning in the work hours and the partying were also on the list. Rory was under no illusion that he’d solved everything but was pleased with his progress to date. He felt confident to continue on and to return to counselling down the track should he feel the need.
I think I might be depressed
Mike was 52 and came to therapy because he was frequently down in the dumps. He had been married for 29 years and felt there was no warmth left in his relationship with his wife. He and his wife had 2 sons: one was single and living in London and the other was married and working in another city close to his wife’s parents. He had been a successful investment banker for many years and was financially secure. His work however seemed repetitive and without challenge and he derived little pleasure from it. His wife was always busy with her friends, her club and her gardening and other hobbies. Their domestic arrangements were full of routine and he frequently found himself at home alone in the evenings preparing a meal or warming up something his wife had left for him.
He found his life empty and meaningless and when he heard radio interviews with men who revealed their doubts about themselves wondered if he had always felt this way too; he began to ruminate about being inadequate and uninteresting. He pictured himself living this way for the next few decades and couldn’t imagine how he was going to do it. He had thought of himself as indispensable in the firm but realised that uncertain times lay ahead in the financial world and began to worry about his future and wondered if he was going to be made redundant. While financially it wouldn’t be a disaster as the amount of his superannuation was considerable he couldn’t imagine what it would mean for him. He had colleagues who had been made redundant and hadn’t bothered to see how they were managing. He was uncomfortable remembering the stories that had circulated about humiliated colleagues. He found himself drinking too much in the evenings and falling asleep on the lounge. He wondered what all his hard work had been for.
Mike began to wonder if he was depressed. He found it difficult to know where to turn. Rather than revealing himself to the general practitioner he had consulted a few times over the years he started to look on the internet at home in the evenings. At first he wondered whether he should explore the dating sites he heard people talking about at office functions and the few dinner parties he and his wife still attended together. This seemed like a daunting prospect. He was after all still married. On impulse he found himself looking at sites about relationships and decided to ring and enquire about counselling instead.
This impulse resulted in Mike surprising himself by attending therapy and finding what he thought was inexplicable relief from talking to someone who actually listened and seemed to ‘get him’ or at least ‘get’ what life was like for him. He started discovering how many feelings had been suppressed over the years. He realised how he was completely focused on making money and what had started as providing for his family had ended up consuming his whole life. His life had become emotionally empty. As Mike and the therapist explored his options he began to be aware that he would like to connect with his wife again. While at first she shunned his efforts to communicate more eventually she began to respond to the overtures he made. When he suggested a holiday together, somewhere different from where they had been as a family with children, she agreed and together they planned the trip his wife had once spoken of having once the children had grown up. It was a surprise to him but it started a connection that had been absent for many years.
Jim, 40 & Maria, 38
We bicker constantly and most of the time I can’t remember what it was we were arguing about.
Maria and Jim had been involved with each other for 17 years and married for 6 out of those years. They had 2 children of 4 and 2 – a boy and a girl – born since their marriage. They came to therapy because they feel they bicker constantly and most of the time can’t remember what it was they were arguing about.
Jim made the initial call to make an appointment. Maria started the first session by saying she felt like crying all the time and that she didn’t think Jim was very sympathetic to her problems. She said he expected her to be available for him but that he really didn’t understand the hard work involved in raising 2 small children. Jim seemed defensive when he finally began to speak and said he knew how hard it was being a mother but Maria made no time for him. He said she was cold and always tired. They never spent any time as a couple and when he asked his mother to care for the children so he and Maria could go out, she still made some excuse and they weren’t able to enjoy themselves.
When we explored the dynamics of the relationship it emerged that Jim spent a lot of time with his friends and in Maria’s view had not helped her during the children’s babyhood as he always had sporting or business commitments and was seldom available in the evenings when help was needed. She felt resentful of his activities outside the home and admitted that she refused his offers to do things with him out of spite. He said that he had tried in the beginning but it seemed that he always did things with the babies incorrectly and nothing was good enough for Maria. Although he had little time for it, Jim loved cooking and when he’d made an effort to rush home and make dinner, she would have a go at him instead of being appreciative. He increasingly spent more time out. He said he felt unloved and was nothing more than a breadwinner and had phoned for relationship therapy as he was pretty miserable.
They both acknowledged how hard it was to let the other know what was really going on and instead the endless and unproductive bickering had worsened. They saw counselling as a way to directly tackle what felt like a stalemate.
During therapy Maria and Jim also reflected on their family backgrounds, their relationships with friends and previous partners and their expectations of marriage. It emerged that Maria had a father that was very much a homebody and she just assumed that Jim would be the same once her children were born. Even though she was initially attracted by Jim’s gregarious nature it no longer seemed so appealing as it felt unfamiliar to her. Jim said his mother took care of the home and the children. She had not worked while they were growing up and his father came home to dinner and a house that was mostly calm and settled.
Jim and Maria discovered they had not explored the assumptions that each of them made about the home once their children had been born. There had been few problems prior to the birth of the first baby but nothing had been the same since then. In therapy they were able to learn about how children impact on a relationship and realised that they needed to renegotiate their relationship as a family and not just a couple.