Out of the shell: A journey with Aly

15 September 2021

This series tells fictional stories of the counselling journey. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience, this story recounts how a young teenager builds her self-esteem and confidence as she explores her gender identity.

Aly’s parents contacted Relate after months of growing concern about their 14-year-old daughter. Over the last six months, she’d slowly retreated. Their chatty child had become more and more silent until she was barely talking to anyone. Where she previously would love being part of family activities, she now refused to leave her room. She wasn’t doing many of the things she used to love and had started struggling with school. Often, the thought of going to school would trigger a panic attack on Sunday evenings. Some days, her parents just could not get her out of bed – she was listless and low on energy. 

Aly’s parents tried many times to talk to her, but nothing worked. It was the GP who recommended Relate Northamptonshire to Aly’s mum as a first course of action. Thankfully, Aly agreed to come to counselling: an encouraging moment for Aly’s parents. It seems that Aly wanted something to change too. 

Initial meeting

At my initial meeting with Aly, I start by explaining to her what counselling is. This is an important conversation. Young people are often worried about how to start talking to me, and who I might talk to about what they say. 

I spoke to Aly about confidentiality. Nothing she shares in the counselling room will be told to her parents or anyone else – unless I am concerned about her safety, or someone else’s safety. 

I also explain to her what to expect of me and what’s expected of her. Many young people come to counselling expecting a magic wand waved to solve all their problems. While, as a counsellor, I bring lots of important and useful things to the room, there is no magic wand. They have to engage with the process, working alongside me to find a better way forward.

I then invited Aly to tell me what life is like for her at the moment. And I leave space – time for Aly to think and put words to it. She is not rushed here; this time is her time.

She slowly begins to open up: “I just don’t want to talk to people”, she says. “I feel sad. Alone. I don’t know what’s happening.”

Being different

As I listen, she tells me how much she hates being in public, particularly at school. She doesn’t feel like she can be who she is. She talks about the rejection and bullying at school for people who are different – and how the fear of that stops her from being herself. Amongst her peers, she feels unable to express or explore her gender identity.

One particular moment she relates is when she talked about joining the football team – which is made up solely of boys. Her friends laughed and teased her about it for weeks.

The picture Aly is building up is one of anxiety, low self-esteem and low mood. There’s also a hint of anger at her experiences. She expresses the feeling that it would be better to be dead than live like this.

When Aly has had the space she needs to express herself, I ask her some ‘silly’ questions, which help us probe into why she feels the way she does.

We talk about how she knows she feels sad and anxious. She says it’s when stays in her room and wants to be left alone. She also talks about panic attacks the night before school. And for her, she just never feels happy – nothing helps at the moment.

Before ending this first session, we talk about her goals for counselling. What does she want to get out of our sessions? 

Aly decides that she wants to feel happier. She wants to feel comfortable being who she is. At the moment for Aly, that feels like an impossible goal. 

Discovering hidden strength

Over the following session, I begin to help Aly understand her life stage and the emotions that come with this season. I’m normalising and validating all Aly feels – it is ok to feel as she does, and it is something many people like her feel.

We also talk a lot about anxiety and low mood: what they actually are and where they come from. Together, Aly and I begin to identify things that keep her feeling low or trigger a rise in anxiety, and the things that lift her mood and calm her anxiety.

Aly begins to understand that she can influence how she feels. The things she chooses to do might maintain a low mood or lift her mood. One thing she realises she’s stopped doing is drawing. She used to draw all the time, and she felt good when she drew. But somewhere down the line she stopped drawing. So we agree a small challenge for the coming weeks: to draw for 5 minutes a day. 

During the week, Aly manages to draw regularly and comes into our next counselling session obviously feeling encouraged. Drawing has made her feel just that little bit happier. And she has done it herself!

I build on this moment of recognition by talking about the other strengths I’ve heard from Aly. It’s important for Aly that she knows what counts as success for her. The fact that, despite feeling low, she gets up, washes and goes to school counts as a win. We talk about all the small wins of her day – all the moments when she does what she needs to do even though she feels miserable. Aly is beginning to see herself differently. She is seeing herself as stronger and more capable than she thought.

Processing anger

As Aly begins to gain some self-confidence, she also begins to face up to and express anger. It quickly becomes clear that her anger is rooted in not being accepted for who she is. She feels like she’s in a shell, and not allowed to break out of that shell and be herself.

When trying to process anger (and other big emotions), it really helps to create a metaphor around it. 

Is it like a volcano? A monster? What does it look like? What colours is it, and what shape? I invite Aly to draw a picture of her anger and explain it to me.

As we unpack her anger, we begin to see that there are some things Aly can deal with now. But there are others that are outside her control. So the question becomes, how do we learn to be ok with what’s not ok?

We talk about accessing different gender-diverse communities who feel the same as her, through services like Mermaids or GIDS. She can learn more about what she’s experiencing and read others’ stories too. Just knowing she’s part of a community will help her cope with what she can’t contain.

Fizz for blood

I also talk to Aly about toxic emotions. We imagine them like a bottle of fizz shaken around. How would it feel to have fizz for blood? It would be horrible, and also damaging to our insides.

Toxic emotions are the same. The emotions aren’t wrong, but if we don’t find a safe way of releasing them, they leave us feeling horrible and damage us inside.

With anger, it can be helpful to destroy things in a safe way to release the ‘fizz’. Aly realises that she could draw some of what she’s feeling, and I suggest that afterwards she could rip it up – not only has she got it out of her, but also destroyed it. 

Learning on the low days

Throughout counselling, Aly has up and down days. She finds this really hard, and her internal dialogue is one of failure. 

I help Aly to reframe her down days as learning days. These days are opportunities to experiment with different things to find out what works. It’s ok not to know – nobody knows; we all have to learn. 

Aly and I decide together that ‘failing’ is success, because it means she’s learnt what doesn’t work. She becomes more and more adept at reflecting on her bad days and figuring out what she can learn from them. 

I begin to see growing resilience in Aly. She tells me in one session about a low day she had. She stayed in bed all day. But when the evening came, she realised that she needed to get out of bed. Aly got up and watched a film with her parents. We talk about what a huge step forward that is: she had the strength to choose differently.

Ending well

As we come to the end of our counselling sessions, we revisit Aly’s goals. She can see that she feels happier. Although she still feels awkward about dressing the way she wants, she feels less afraid than she did. 

And Aly has made a huge decision: she has signed up for the football team next term.

I work with Aly on a timeline of her journey, mapping out where she started to where she is now. It’s a tremendous difference! I ask her how she did it – what thoughts did she give up and what habits did she pick up? 

As Aly and I discuss her journey, she is learning that she is the champion of her journey. It is her actions and choices that have brought about this change. And because she’s done it this time, she can do it again, whenever she runs into another stumbling block. 

I also make sure Aly knows where she can go if she hits crisis point. She puts numbers in her phone for services such as No Panic, YoungMinds or Papyrus. And she knows that she can come back to us too in the future.

Aly realises that she will still have wobbles and down days. But she has so much more self-confidence. She is empowered to deal with her emotions and feels that she is ok with who she is.

This fictional story is told by Toniiae, a Relate Northamptonshire counsellor specialising in children & young people.

The teenage years bring many ups and downs as young people explore who they are and work out who they want to be. Issues such as gender identity and sexuality can play a part in their journey, and for some teenagers, can bring emotional and mental health struggles. Counselling can make a real difference, helping them build resilience for both now and the years to come. Read more about the service we offer or contact us today to book counselling.

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