Circus (noun): A travelling company of acrobats, clowns, and other entertainers which give performances, typically in a large tent.
It does feel as though there’s a circus in my head: all of the frenzy, none of the fun. Picture the furious lion of loss, unsuccessfully tamed by its more rational trainer. The curious spectators in stark contrast to the conspicuously empty seats. The tumbling acrobats – sometimes up, often down – and the clowns with their permanently face-painted smiles. Come to think of it, we even have the tangible tent in our house, as we’ve a home extension underway.
I conjure the scene of a circus, because there’s something that’s been helping in counselling recently, and that’s the notion of juggling.
It’s safe to say, I was fairly cynical about grief counselling, but I was always honest with my counsellor (let’s call her Mary) about that. I just didn’t get it. At the beginning I said “I’m not depressed or suicidal, I’m just sad. I’m grieving, that’s normal”. I wasn’t really sure what the objective was and I was wary of clichés. I just kept thinking “well there’s no point a stranger giving me advice telling me to be kinder to myself, I know that already” and “why should I listen to her? I don’t even know her, or her me. Surely it’s better to listen to the opinions of the friends who I know and value?” I also had the net-receiver guilt; I told Mary that I’m fortunate, I have lots of people to talk to, perhaps there was someone else more in need of the sessions?
Fast forward a few months and I’m a complete convert. We did the first six sessions and she asked me if I wanted another six. “I don’t know Mary, you tell me. How messed up am I?” She decided I needed the additional sessions.
What’s been really good is that she helps me to reach my own conclusions. This has been important because I think if she put the words in my mouth, I would probably be quite dismissive. But her nudging me to get there myself, has been fantastic, like a weight lifted.
It’s also been pretty refreshing to not care for once. I genuinely don’t know if she likes me, or what she thinks about me (especially now she’s delved into the darkest parts of my mind), but it’s so nice to not care. I have never not cared, I’m quite the people-pleaser, so it’s a nice, new feeling – one less thing to worry about.
My buzz words are: priority, favourite, best, plan, goal. It seems I’m wired to compete. High achiever tendencies, apparently. Now I don’t want to do these attributes a disservice, it’s served me well so far in life to have a pushy, critical inner monologue. However, I need to recognise that these traits are not serving me right now. Not when having a baby is my goal and that’s completely out of my control. Not when overcoming grief is the objective, yet dealing with loss is not the neat, bullet-pointed checklist I’d desperately like it to be.
I’m very literal. I like a plan. This grief thing is messy.
Mary: You can’t ignore your grief, you have to live side by side with it.
Me: Ok, I’ve read that too. Nice soundbite, but what does that mean? Tell me, how does that work in practice?
Mary: You need to achieve a balance, being able to live with both grief and joy.
Me: Balance? But balance doesn’t work for me, because if I have happy on one side and sad on the other, does that mean I need to feel numb all the time? If I had a choice I’d rather sad win, because I feel guilty when I’m happy. Or is it a scale of 1-10? Should I be aiming to function between 3-7, no extremes? No despair, yet no excitement? That makes me numb again. See, the concept of balance doesn’t work for me.
Mary: Ok, the idea of balance isn’t working…
Me (interrupting, because I’m an interrupter): What if I think of it in terms of juggling? Juggling I might be able to get on board with. So if I imagine I’m juggling, I know that there are sad balls in the air. Today I might hold a happy ball and tomorrow I might hold a happy ball again, but that doesn’t mean that the sad ones have gone away… I’m just juggling!! It’s still there, the sadness, but I don’t have to feel bad about not holding a sad ball all the time. Is that a way to live side by side with grief?
There’s something about Mary – we get there in the end.
I’m rather proud of coming up with this juggling concept, I like to think she’ll use it with her other patients: No more balancing on the tightrope, bring on the juggler!