Family & Education

How therapy helped me learn to be 'pathetic'

When Keren David's life was in crisis she knew how to be brave. What she needed was help to be the opposite.


“What would you say,” said the counsellor, “is the opposite of brave?”

It was 1998, a few months after my  baby son had been stillborn. I did not want the counselling offered by the hospital - after all, it wasn’t going to change anything – but I allowed the midwife to put my name down on the waiting list. After all, in the new bleak world of shock and grief and loss that I was negotiating, I had no idea how I would feel in the six weeks it took for an appointment to come through.

When it did, I told the counsellor how I’d been coping. How I’d been brave and taken my toddler to birthday parties and music classes, even though that meant spending time around new-borns and their mothers, even though that hurt like a knife to the heart.

That’s when she asked the question. What was the opposite of brave?  ‘Pathetic,’ was the answer I came up with, an answer weighted with assumptions. “Right,” she said, “I want you to practise being pathetic. Come back next week and tell me how you got on.”

Being pathetic, as it turned out, was a huge relief and just what I needed. I started saying no to invitations and avoiding situations that might be difficult. I allowed myself to cry when people asked me about the baby. And with the counsellor I explored all sorts of other feelings that had arisen. Feelings of failure, feelings of anger, all repressed by an expectation that in times of crisis you keep calm and carry on.

At the end of our allotted six weeks (thanks, NHS) she said, “Well, there’s quite a lot to explore, isn’t there? Would you like me to refer you to a private psychotherapist?”

So, I embarked upon therapy, not really quite admitting to myself that that was what I was doing. Therapy, I’d thought, was for the self-indulgent, self-obsessed rich. The Woody Allen whiners. I justified it to myself (and my husband) on the basis that if I’d been in a car accident I’d need physiotherapy for some time. But for ages I called my sessions ‘counselling’ and if I talked about it, it was in terms of learning to live with loss, rather than the actual far deeper experience of unpicking my emotional life and putting it back together again.

This was ‘proper’ therapy, lying down on a bed, with the therapist sitting behind me. It was a space for thought, a chance to examine and discuss my reactions to everyday life, the choices I’d made in the past and the challenges of the present. It was undoubtedly the best investment I could have made for the future.

Therapy, I believe, saved me from a breakdown at an incredibly difficult time. It made me a better wife, mother, daughter, sibling and friend. It helped me become a writer, and it gave me the tenacity to get published. Every day I draw on insights and strength that I gained through the process.

This might sound a little cult-like, and I wouldn’t suggest that therapy is for everyone, nor that every therapist can offer the transformation that mine did. But, as it’s Mental Health Awareness week, it’s a good time to break that taboo that still exists around mental health. I can never be glad that I lost my beautiful son. But I am profoundly grateful that he gave me the chance to take my mental health seriously.


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