Tuesday 2nd October 2018. A mature (more mature than me ….), bespectacled consultant gynaecologist, donned in white with latex gloves, with the now requisite nurse chaperone in attendance, gently teased his fingers where no man has put his fingers for quite some time now … No more than 30 seconds; that’s all it took.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush (I presume there was no pun intended ….). You’ve got cancer.”
For fuck’s sake Cancer – will you just do one. Quite frankly, this is so damn unfair on my children. Fourteen years ago they had to live through their dad’s prostate cancer. Who the hell has prostate cancer at 41 years of age? In the UK that’s just 3 men per year in the 40-44 age bracket. Pretty special huh? With grandad and great uncle having had prostate cancer too, it was pretty clear that there was some genetic element in this cancer. My bright, then thirteen year old, son realised that this may in the future affect him too.
At the age of 25, Joe began PSA testing. Everyone knows outcomes are better if we catch the bugger early. Being vigilant was the key. And he was vigilant. He had his PSA checked again around his 26th birthday. Before he reached his 27th, just 6 weeks before his wedding, some shitty, unjust, cruel twist of biology dealt him his cancer blow. No – not prostate cancer. For Joe it was testicular cancer. Now testicular cancer is much rarer than prostate cancer, but it is a cancer of young men. In the age range 25-29, there are 386 cases diagnosed a year in the UK. Crucially – survival rates for testicular cancer are very good – 98% five year survival.
So 2017 was a pretty shit year for Joe – though there was an amazing wedding! There was surgery and gruelling chemo. It was tough too for his sisters, his wife, his grandparents, his dad, me and the others who care about him. You feel helpless when the person you love has cancer. You want to take it away from them – and you can’t. You just have to be there and watch them suffer.
2018 was going to be a great year. In January Joe was told that the chemo had been a success – onwards and upwards. Yet here we are, just eight months later. In keeping with family tradition – another fairly rare genital cancer!!
I have vulval cancer. Only 1339 cases a year in the UK; only 102 a year in women in my age bracket (55-59). Now I’m no statistician – but what are the odds of this shit run happening in one family? “Unlucky” doesn’t quite cut it.
To be honest, this hasn’t sunk in for me yet. I left my appointment on Tuesday, accompanied by my sister, broke the news to my mum and dad, bought chocolate, a new duvet, went to the pub, and had the best night’s sleep I’d had in ages. The anxiety with which I had been riddled for weeks just lifted – I now knew what I was dealing with. But my thoughts then turned to my children. How the hell were they going to cope with this again? I know we will all cope, but I would give anything to spare them the anxiety they will experience as I go through whatever treatment I need to kick this fucking disease into touch.
Venting, shouting, raging, writing – these are my coping mechanisms. Mute me in your feed if you don’t want to hear about the sorry state of my lady parts, or my anxiety, my lack of courage or existential crisis. I’ve been on some unpleasant, challenging journeys in my time, and know this will be the most challenging yet …
You can find out more about vulval cancer here and here .
Last night I went to bed seething over the ignorance and bigotry of Andrea Leadsom so publicly outed. I did what I am encouraged to do … I didn’t over-react and engage my mouth before putting my brain in gear. I slept on it. Well, slept is a gross exaggeration. I tossed and turned and tied myself up in a duvet.
My anger arises from my experience in working with children – hundreds of children. Children who have been damaged. Some damaged by the actions of their mother; some damaged by the actions of their father. Many damaged by similar ignorant, unfounded societal beliefs as those espoused by Andrea Leadsom – that men are inherently dangerous by virtue of their gender.
I awoke considering whether doubling the dose on my blood pressure medication was a good idea – but I came down on the side of therapeutic writing. Here goes …
Dear Ms Leadsom
I was extremely disappointed to read your comments in the press that employing men to work with children puts children at an increased risk of abuse. Sadly, I meet such ignorance on a daily basis. The misconception that men are inherently a danger to children permeates my work. I’d like to introduce you to some of the children I have worked with.
Jack is eight years old. He hasn’t seen his father for two years. Well, that’s not quite true. He has seen him – in the supermarket, at the football, driving around town. When he does see him, his mother encourages him to shout such niceties as “Fuck off you wanker” and to throw stones at his car. Jack’s mother has alleged that his father physically abused him and his siblings. She doesn’t just allege this, she tells her children this on a daily basis. She tells them that daddy doesn’t love them, that he can’t take care of them, that he abandoned them, that he hurt them. She tells everyone – the schools, the social workers, her friends and family, her GP. She posts it all over social media. Jack can’t recall his dad hurting him – but it must be true, because mum says so. And mum wouldn’t lie would she? And his dad isn’t around is he? It must be true. And he isn’t allowed to come to the school is he? So he must be a really nasty man. But Jack’s dad did not physically assault Jack. It is another year before Jack’s father is fully listened to. Another year before he is believed. Another year before Jack and his brother and sister are moved to his care because of the persistent, ongoing emotional abuse they have experienced in the care of their mother.
Then there is Elsa. Elsa is eight years old too. Elsa tells me she is sad, that she doesn’t have many friends. When I ask her about her father, Elsa becomes fearful and anxious. She tells me she hates her dad; she wishes he never existed. He hurt her when she was a tiny baby she tells me, he threw her down the stairs. Elsa doesn’t see her father very often. He left the family home four years ago and has been in the Family Court ever since trying to secure regular time with his three children; Elsa is the eldest. Elsa has seen her father just twelve times in the last four years. Their time together has always been supervised. Each time she sees him, Elsa’s mother quizzes her in the minutest detail. What has she eaten? Where has she been? What did she do? Who was there? Did daddy touch her? Where did he touch her? Did he put his hand down her knickers? In the past four years Elsa has been subject to four police and Social Services interviews to ascertain whether her father has sexually assaulted her. Each time her mother raises an allegation, Elsa is prevented from seeing her father. Elsa’s dad doesn’t know how much longer he can carry on going back to court. He is heavily in debt. He earns minimum wage and has racked up a legal bill of £35,000. He is scared to be alone with Elsa and her siblings now. He is scared to play with them. He asks his partner to change nappies. He is fearful every time he gives them a cuddle. He doesn’t know how much more he can take and he is fearful of the long term repercussions for his children.
Jackie is thirteen. Her attendance at school has plummeted – it is now below 75%. Jackie’s dad is concerned. On social media she is writing about her sexual activity, her sleeplessness, her referral to a psychiatrist, hearing voices, her paranoia, her lack of friends, her-self harm, her mother’s mental health, her alcohol and drug use, staying out all night. Jackie’s dad informs the school of his concerns. The school have concerns too. In fact, they have been holding meetings about it for the last six months. They didn’t include Jackie’s dad because Jackie’s mum told them there was a Court Order in place denying him contact. There isn’t. Jackie’s father contacted his daughter’s GP about his concerns. The GP refused to discuss Jackie with her father, he needs Jackie’s permission. Jackie’s permission is not forthcoming and her GP refuses to place any of her father’s concerns on Jackie’s records. Jackie’s father contacts Children’s Services. They investigate and agree that Jackie is a Child in Need. They don’t bother to communicate this to her father, they don’t keep him updated. Jackie and her father had a great relationship, but Jackie was not allowed to tell her mother that. She was not allowed to tell her about the things they did together. She was not allowed to talk about her father. Jackie’s mother often cancelled “contact” for no apparent reason. Jackie never stayed with her father overnight or spent a Christmas, birthday or Fathers’ day with her dad. Jackie never went to her paternal cousins’ birthdays or weddings. Jackie’s mother would not allow her father to telephone her, or her to telephone him. When Jackie got her first mobile phone, her father asked for her number so that he could call her and text her. Jackie refused – her mother had said “no.” That was two years ago, the last time her father saw Jackie.
Men are not an inherent risk to children, Ms Leadsom. The perpetuation of such a belief in society impacts on an objective assessment of evidence and allows the actual abuse of children to remain undetected and unchecked. The fact is SOME ADULTS present a danger to children – perhaps their own child, perhaps other children. This risk is not specific to the gender of the perpetrator of harmful or abusive behaviours.
Dr Sue Whitcombe
HCPC Registered Counselling Psychologist
I’ve struggled for some time with a wish to speak out, to raise awareness of the plight of the children with whom I work – not just in academic circles. These children are at risk from the response and the behaviours of their teachers, their doctors, their child minders, their social workers – the legal process. Far too often, there is a discriminatory response that mothers and women are less likely to be a danger to their child than their father is. This generalised, prejudicial belief puts individual children at risk; it causes psychological distress which can last a life-time.
Encouraged by the words of the Vice President of the BPS, Jamie Hacker Hughes, at the recent Division of Counselling Psychology conference, I am finding my voice. There is an inherent difficulty for me in how to speak out whilst maintaining the confidentiality essential in the work that I do. The vignettes above, are of course not individual children; they are composites of the hundreds of children I have worked with over recent years.
I’m not sure if writing this will have the personal therapeutic effect I hoped for when I stumbled, tired out of my bed this morning. If, however, this challenges the ill-informed, discriminatory and prejudicial views of the likes of Andrea Leadsom in some small way, I’ll take that as progress.
My resolutions for this year were minimal. Having ended an arduous 2014 in a state of exhaustion, my commitment to myself was to take time for me –one day a week where I do NO work. I have taken to “pottering” with a little difficulty – the decision to switch off seems much simpler than its execution. Spending my days with distress, trying to launch a business, juggling tasks and ideas – how am I supposed to just switch all that off? I know – why not scout the “What’s On” section for some ideas?
So yesterday I dragged myself away from my laptop to Middlesbrough Town Hall to watch Yangchin, a musical ensemble playing instruments from around the world – £3 plus coffee and cake. Not my usual thing, but in the spirit of adventure (about as adventurous as I get), I adopted the “why not?” attitude.
As I sat with my friend before the event drinking coffee and eating cup-cakes, I felt myself become heavy with thought and emotion. Giving myself time “off” seems to have had the effect of allowing those existential thoughts to creep in – my life, its purpose, my accomplishments and failures, my relationships. On reading the program I noted that this ensemble was a group of children and young people – aged 10-18. Almost instantaneously, I became quite overwhelmed and tears started to well. Thoughts of old age, ill health, death, loneliness jostled for prominence in my mind.
I realised that I was starting to anticipate my “empty nest”. My assumption had been that I would relish the freedom and opportunities brought by living alone. But over recent months, as my 17 year old youngest has become more and more immersed in her friendships, I have begun to feel side-lined, almost superfluous to requirements. My logical brain tells me this is the way it should be. I have been a good mum, prepared my children for life. They are independent, resilient, confident in their individual ways; they know that I will always be here for them if and when they need me. Emotionally, I feel rejected; abandoned.
As the tears continued to prick, and thoughts whizzed around my head, I desperately tried to compose myself – the performance was due to begin. A few deep breaths, focus, calm down, this is ridiculous…… By the end of the first couple of bars I was sobbing uncontrollably. The thoughts, emotions and reflections were unstoppable.
Music is important to me – more than anything else it has the power to influence my mood. I have an eclectic taste, but I am not knowledgeable or snobbish about my music. Paul Weller’s “Hit Parade” was the soundtrack of my recovery from depression. The music that Yangchin played touched me in a way that I cannot express in words – I know only that I was overwhelmed with emotion. Yet it was not just the music itself, it was that it was being created by these young people. The music, the performers, my existential thoughts, the work I do – all melded together and overwhelmed me.
As a mum, I had been to many such an event to watch and support my three children. Many a day at dance lessons, competitions and shows. Chess competitions, tennis lessons, gymnastics, orchestra, choir, guitar lessons, kick boxing, football. I can remember vividly my son’s first try – playing out of position in the backs; and my daughter’s too – scored from a driving maul from beyond the 22 yard line. I remember my tears at my daughter’s first dance solo; my anger at the parents on the side line as they heckled my son refereeing his first football match at the age of 16; the incredulity of my friends when I gave up tickets to a Who gig to watch my daughter swim 25 metres in a race that she could never win. I have such amazing memories – I am so, so lucky.
As Yangchin’s music continued to move me, thoughts of my fortune were juxtaposed with thoughts of misfortune of the parents I work with on a daily basis. Parents who do not see their child perform music, dance, play sport – who may not even know what their child’s interests and hobbies are. Parents who would give anything to freeze on the touchline to glimpse their child at football training; to watch their child’s performance as the third sheep in the school nativity; to experience the anxiety and pride as they crack riding without stabilisers for the first time.
I had just about stemmed the tears by now, but the thoughts of parenthood snatched away and denied were still swimming around. Perhaps it was the acknowledgement of how privileged I feel to have had the opportunity to be a mum and how easily that special relationship can be stolen. The loss, the isolation, the loneliness of alienated parents dominated my thoughts when a young performer, Natasha Graham, took up her guitar and performed a piece that she had written herself – Shadowman. I have no knowledge of her inspiration for this piece – but in me it stirred such deep emotion and thoughts of my impending empty nest alongside the emptiness and loss that parents apart from their child inevitably feel.
As we left Middlesbrough Town Hall and stepped into the dusk, the huge, soft, fluffy snowflakes danced around us and settled on our hair. Our footprints meandered behind us as we took selfies and giggled, just like two children. Does snowfall not always take us back to our own childhood? It had not been the afternoon I had anticipated. I’m not even sure it fulfilled my need to “switch off”. But it is an afternoon for which I am immensely grateful. It reminded me of how lucky I am to have such amazing memories. Whatever the future holds – they will always be there to sustain and fortify for me. It reminded me that I am on a path I choose to follow – even if I did not seek it out, much as the families and people I work with did not seek out their path.
Thank you Yangchin. Never underestimate the power of music and your talent to move and reach that which cannot be expressed in words.
London, 10th July – the eve of my second Division of Counselling Psychology conference – my first as Dr Sue Whitcombe, no longer a trainee. The pre-conference hype promised much. A veritable feast of renowned keynote speakers, an enticing menu of topical research and some tasty workshops.
The buzz was already palpable in the balmy Summer evening. An informal get-together at Tate Britain followed by some food and drink in a local hostelry provided a great opportunity to both re-acquaint and meet new colleagues before the formal conference opening. Paul Gilbert’s keynote address was inspirational, striking a chord with my own personal philosophy. A compassion focus seems so natural, so innate to me, in enabling the people I work with to address their self-blame, their helplessness. Helping them to understand that much of what they think, do and feel is not their fault. Empowering them to take responsibility to “be the version of themself they want to be” is the essence of what it is to be a counselling psychologist. We see individuals, with a shared, evolved biology but with unique, subjective, contextualised experiences. The applause which filled the auditorium seemed to confirm that Paul’s insightful and amusing talk, similarly inspired the other delegates too.
With six parallel streams running this year, some difficult choices needed to be made. I heard plenty of good chit chat feedback about the pluralistic therapy for the treatment of depression symposium and the post-traumatic growth following bereavement paper, but my choice was mindfulness and parenting followed by Jason Robinson’s paper negotiating adult family estrangement through time. For me, Jason’s paper is indicative of the innovative work now being undertaken by some counselling psychologists and trainees. His grounded theory of the process of estrangement enabled us to begin to step into the shoes of those who become estranged. Similarly innovative work disseminated at the conference were Jill Mytton’s clinical perspectives on how cults can harm people; Claire Stubbs’ work on psychological therapies supporting young men to overcome adversity and develop resilience to reoffending and poster prize winner Anna Kaufman’s exploring the experience of treatment for female problem gamblers.
It is in areas such as these where our commitment to social justice, a theme which featured explicitly in this year’s conference, can have a great impact on clients who typically have not been able to access such expertise. Baroness Hollins spoke too of social justice, inclusion and empowerment in the field of learning disabilities, rightly raising the spectre of the golden ticket – that much sought after NHS post in complex mental health. Yet, how much more impact can we have in working in the community, whether with those with learning disabilities or populations which may not “qualify” for, or come to the attention of, traditional or statuory services?
Whilst not necessarily innovative, there were some welcome novel additions to this year’s conference including the Cafe Psychologique, where the place of spirituality and religiosity in
therapeutic practice was explored, the conference BBQ and salsa night, and the Pecha Kucha session. In the space of one hour, 8 presenters attempted to convey their diverse research findings to a packed conference room – each deploying just 20 powerpoint slides over a strict 6 minutes and 40 seconds. Moitree Banerjee showed everyone how it should be done as she expertly disseminated the findings of her meta-analysis on engagement in mindfulness-based interventions. My own attempt to convey the powerlessness experienced by parents who had been subjected to parental alienation could definitely be improved upon, and definitely will be following Moitree’s masterclass. I particularly enjoyed the Pecha Kucha experience and believe that it has the potential to have great impact, especially when used to disseminate to non-expert audiences; I hope it will be a feature of next year’s conference too.
My reflections on the conference would not be complete without reference to Tanya Byron’s rousing public lecture which encouraged us, in some part, to turn the clock back to the 1970s and give our children the childhood we had. On reflection, I think I did manage to partially accomplish this and I can at last acknowledge that my parenting was “good enough”.
Hand on heart, I can honestly say that I was inspired by this year’s conference. I will take away many of the innovative experiences as I embark on my new venture to make an impact on some of the social injustice that is evident in my research findings. A big pat on the back to the conference organisers 🙂