I’m in trouble again at work. Of course I can see the funny side of the ‘Scary Art Teacher’ incident, as can my colleagues, but unlike them I can’t get the serious side. I am reminded of the words of my O-Level English teacher who once told me in front of the class that I had ‘a moral link missing’. Perhaps she was right. I have recounted the tale of my latest escapade to several friends and the thing is that for a millisecond before they smile reassuringly and raise their eyes to heaven, a fleeting look of shock passes over their faces. A look which fills me with gnawing unease.From their reactions I sense that I have been inappropriate, so I assume a familiar role once again as the bad-ass teacher, sailing close to the wind, a loose cannon, a ‘character’, a wildcard, one to watch. Not that anything terrible happened. The Deputy Head spontaneously said that she knew there had been no malice in my flippant remark, and she couldn’t even help but give me her special knowing smile as she tried to reprimand me. It’s just that I’m tired of this low-level unsafe feeling: it’s like I’m constantly fighting with the family within to keep still, keep quiet, and let me get on with the job in hand.Since my enrolment in the School of Hard Shocks, I have come to realise that there’s one thing in life that’s almost as bad as living in constant fear of another person, and that’s living in constant fear of yourself. This fear is by its very nature unseen and silent, and underpins every situation: will I say the wrong thing, will I do the wrong thing, will I shrink and freeze, will I panic and flee, will the water level rise to the top this time? Not only does this death-by-risk-assessment systematically stifle the spontaneity out of living, it’s also doomed to fail. Even the most proficient trigger-dodger gets caught out just when they least expect it, often when they least deserve it, and almost always when they least need it.

Right – enough self-pity. Let’s look on the bright side. Although it’s definitely not socially acceptable to offload the trials of self-regulation onto your next door neighbour, or even your closest friends for that matter, fear not, for help is at hand. Up and down the country there is an army of purple and beige clad heroes specifically trained to tend to the troubles of the traumatised, to dredge the distress of the dissociative, to heal the hidden horrors of those who hurt the most. Known as ‘therapists’ they can be quite hard to spot as generally they are hidden away in small rooms with IKEA armchairs and optimistically-coloured walls. They emerge once an hour for short bursts of ten minutes’ teabreak before retreating once again to their cosy dens to continue their noble crusade.

How to find one? Well, I believe it can be tricky. I say ‘believe’ because, to be honest, I have little experience in these matters. You see, I didn’t find my therapist. Ok, ok – my ex-therapist, my old (no offence, Sheila) therapist, my previous therapist, the therapist I used to see. No, one day about 18 months ago I was sitting in a blue room with two sofas, and Sheila came in and found me.

I have been able to create and indulge in this fable-like beginning (much more preferable to thinking about the ending) for two principle reasons. Firstly, Sheila came for free. And secondly, I didn’t choose her. In my mid-twenties I once did a 12-session course in Yoga which quite frankly frustrated me beyond belief. It didn’t hurt enough, I didn’t move enough and I didn’t sweat enough. And as for the last relaxation bit … Come on, this was meant to be exercise. So when the time came for us to sign up again I told the Yoga guru that it wasn’t for me. No, she corrected me, it’s just that the time wasn’t right. With a serene smile she whispered enigmatically, “When the student is ready, the right teacher will appear.” Well, I like to think that’s what happened with me and Sheila.

Now being creative goes with the territory, and the truth is that arriving in the blue room with the two sofas was altogether a more desperate, drawn-out, and degrading experience than gliding gracefully into an incense-filled Yoga temple aged 50 or whatever age it is that pretending to be a cat on a Yoga mat is more appealing than a good run in the mud. Eventually the Catholic Safeguarding Advisor decided that I may need some ‘support’ while my family was torn apart against my wishes. She referred me to the Therapy Centre, three months later the NHS did the same, and I experimented with a gamut of maladaptive coping strategies whilst sitting on a waiting list for almost nine months.

It was well worth the wait. For me there is definitely a magical side to therapy. I mean how magical do things get? Every Monday for an entire year I drove across the city to the blue room with two sofas and there she was – a stranger, the best therapist in the world sitting there waiting for me. And I mean everyMonday – she never cancelled a single session. It’s not even as if I had to work hard at ensuring she’d be there – I didn’t have to ask her lots of questions or be entertaining. I didn’t have to do anything at all.

But the really magical thing is the way in which all the most meaningful changes happen without me noticing. We never really talked about my toxic obsession with the Safeguarding Advisor. It’s just that one day I realised that I had gone for 3 whole hours without thinking about her. We didn’t ever focus our attention on stopping my criminal activity. It’s just that one Monday morning I decided to go for a run after therapy instead. And I certainly never had any intention of getting attached to Sheila, and even congratulated myself on how well I was avoiding it, until the time came when we had to discuss The End.

Ah yes, The End. Well, actually the way it worked out was that there were two ends. The Therapy Centre give everybody who is assessed as treatable twelve months of free therapy. Twelve months is a long time, long enough for me to think that The End would never really happen, or at least long enough to make it worthwhile dissociating the knowledge that The End would inevitably have to happen. So I threw myself into the therapy thing and spent a good nine months attending to the business of initially being suspicious of Sheila, realising she really was on my side, beginning to trust her a bit and finally coming round to the idea that together we could work towards significantly improving my mental health. A therapeutic alliance was formed. Things settled down. And then we had to start talking about The End.

From the moment the E word was first uttered, all hell broke loose inside. Whilst I could fully understand and accept that the twelve months would soon be up, and was determined to manage the ending with dignity and gratitude, my other parts simply weren’t coping quite as well. My youngest part was petrified at the prospect of being abandoned and cried inconsolably pretty much all the time. My twelve-year-old part had never really come to fully trust Sheila and was making wild plans to show everyone just how little we really did care about losing her. My eighteen-year-old competent part was bravely trying to keep the others quiet and assure both herself and them that there would be a way through all this. And then there was the new part – Clown – who popped out in front of me, continuously laughing and sneering at the fact that I had been stupid enough to believe that things really could get better.

As 28 July grew closer Meera, my Care Co-ordinator, decided it was time for a meeting at the NHS psychiatric unit to ‘explore’ what might happen to us next. The Clinical Director of the Therapy Centre had written to my psychiatrist to request that the NHS find funding for me to continue seeing Sheila, as that was clearly what I needed for some time to come. As we all fully expected, she wrote me a letter to say that would not be possible because they have their own psychologists who could provide ‘appropriate treatment’. She also added a sentence to say that if I had attached to one therapist, I would be able to attach to another.

At the psychiatric unit it all went wrong in the waiting area at Reception. It always starts with the taxis. I watch the patients arriving by taxi, helpless and bewildered, and I begin to fold up inside, reducing in size, shrinking further and further into myself, and backwards towards the walls.

A large beige man appears with Meera and leads me to one of those small rooms that punctuate my life, but this small room feels different, like a trap. I don’t want to see Mr Beige’s face, so I scan the floor instead. Eventually I rest my eyes on his broad, flat sandals. I startle when he speaks, despite his therapist’s voice. My eyes travel up his beige linen baggy trousers, up his beige open-necked canvas shirt, and that’s when I see it – the ponytail.

The sight of the ponytail distracts me from his question, so he repeats it.

“Can I ask you how you are feeling towards me at the moment?”

I have no idea who he is, other than ‘Ivan’, and I don’t know why he’s here.

“So, it’s all about you then?” I hear my younger self say.

I’m irritatingly impressed with his recovery of the situation. He asks me about Sheila, what it is that I like about her, what kind of therapy we do, so I tell him that she talks a lot (it means I don’t have to), she hasn’t cried so far, and I can’t run rings around her.

Then he looks straight at me with misleadingly empathetic eyes and asks if I run rings round Meera, who is about 25, lovely in every way, and hence no fun whatsoever to run rings around. I shake my head. He reminds me of the therapist with the long plait, the one who asked me if I’d like him to attend the birth of my son. As seems to be the way with those meetings, nothing was decided upon, but I left with a powerful sense that I hadn’t seen the last of Ivan the Ponytail Man.

I often consider myself to be a naturally lucky person, which can be one of the perks of dissociation. I even feel euphoric from time to time. I mean, out of all the people I could have married, I got to marry Jack. Out of all the places I could have ended up working, I ended up at Luddenbridge High and so I could continue, but let’s face it, other peoples’ luck stories soon become nauseating. So, I’ll just tell you this one …

We had been talking about The End for about four sessions and had come to a familiar impasse. Sheila seemed determined that I should be angry with her about The End. I really didn’t want to let her down, but try as I might I could not locate a single angry feeling. It got to the stage where I even seriously considered faking it, just to shut her up. The only feeling I did experience was one of dread. In order of rising severity: dread of having no therapist and returning to my pitiful pre-Sheila state; dread of having a huge new hairy beige therapist with a flippy floppy ponytail; dread (approaching abject terror) of having to have some kind of emotional farewell.

So how lucky was I when I arrived at the penultimate session, feeling inadequately un-angry, and Sheila announced that someone, somewhere, somehow had found some extra funding, and that we could have an extra six months of therapy. Cool turquoise relief flooded my body as it sank in: no abandonment, no ponytail, and, most importantly, no potential tears torture. Clown popped up straightaway to remind me that I would have to go through all this again in six months’ time, but he went straight into lockdown storage. Right, now everyone was happy: me, Sheila, the NHS … The great Cathy Le Roux luck had struck again. So caught up was I in this whirlwind of intense excitement that I had temporarily left the blue room, and Sheila for that matter, which seemed a little ungrateful, so with a great deal of effort on my part, I managed to voice a flat-affect ‘Thanks’.

Over the subsequent four months the changes were much more noticeable to everyone, though not always 100% pleasing to me. I took more risks in therapy, and allowed most of my ‘parts’ to play an active role, which was liberating for all of us. I remember making a paper poppy with one of my Beaver Scouts and realising that I was in the moment, absorbed in the task, enjoying his company, the plastic screen having momentarily disappeared. I became less rigid at work, more relaxed and playful in my teaching, planning less and experimenting more. The resentful mechanical voice telling me it was time to hug my children disappeared, as I felt the old pre-freeze surges of spontaneous affection and needed to hold and inhale them, to be with them. Then one afternoon I was sitting on the sofa with my six-year-old daughter, not doing anything in particular, and she suddenly looked up at me and told me for the first time in her life that she loved me.

At times my emotions were so intense they winded me and frightened other people. There was a parental complaint about me at work and I discovered by accident that seven of my colleagues were told about it before I was (“We’re only trying to protect you, Cathy.”) As soon as the classrooms cleared I exploded with rage, storming up and down the corridor, swearing at the top of my voice, demanding to know exactly who had been told and why, and reducing my Head of Department to tears.

Life hurt a lot. The pain crescendoed on Christmas Day which I spent wandering the streets of the local city, torturing myself by looking into strangers’ front rooms. It was just like old times. For five hours I walked through the deserted city parks in darkness, wondering if I would come across others like myself, becoming a new part, Ghost, who could glide up the middle of the city’s main roads, immune to danger.

Separated from my defences, the world was too vivid, too raw and I couldn’t seem to escape it. Nor could I access the skills I needed to cope. As I reeled around this new place, the date for the final session was ever-present: 26 March. I became fixated on the exact number of therapy minutes left, terrified of the moment when my life-support machine would finally be switched off. Those around me were so nonchalant and oblivious, that I felt deeply ashamed of my fear and kept quiet, silently stifling the rising panic inside. Could nobody see that I was living on borrowed time?

I once won a competition to climb the highest mountain in Poland. I was on an expedition, and there was an organised race – whoever arrived at the foot of the mountain first would get to climb it, accompanied by a guide. I was so focussed on the challenge of the ascent, that I never stopped to think how I’d get back down again. When I made it to the summit the conditions were wild, and I was told that I’d have to abseil down quickly. I had never abseiled before and funnily enough I found it hard to trust the process, so I froze to the spot and refused to move. The guide explained calmly that we would die if we stayed there much longer and that he had no alternative but to push me over the edge. I would be fine, he assured me: I would survive.

I felt that to a certain extent I had climbed the therapy mountain and now the rough stuff was happening on the summit. I was being bashed about by the crazy winds of my freshly-released emotions, I was disoriented, I was exhausted, and one way or another, come 26 March, I knew I would be pushed over the edge. And it was with this level of acute anxiety that I came face-to-face once again with Ivan the Ponytail Man.

Meera had been trying to fulfil her coordinating role for many months, so that something, or even just a plan of something, would be in place by the end of March. They had six months to play with after all, but unfortunately nobody else shared her sense of urgency. With the excruciating memory of our last meeting with Ivan, she suggested that this time I might like to bring Jack along. I still didn’t really understand who Ivan was – Meera told me he was a therapist and a doctor, but not a psychiatrist – and why it was that he was involved in my case. Still, this time it would be different: I was (apparently) saner, I was stronger, and, having had six months to get his act together, at least Ivan would be able to tell me my post-Sheila fate.

I started to fold up in the car on the way to the psychiatric unit, and by the time I entered the trap-room I had resorted to rhythmically digging my key deeply into my hand. Ivan asked me if I was feeling the same way I had felt the last time we met. I nodded. He reassured me that we wouldn’t be talking about anything difficult today, which made me laugh. He then proceeded to tell me how useful ‘gaps’ in therapy are – it’s a great opportunity for consolidation, we need to take it away from time to time just to see how well you cope etc – as if this ending had been a carefully managed intervention, instead of the harsh reality of the funding simply running out. At least when the guide pushed me over the edge of the mountain he had the decency not to smile.

The water level started to rise: I was beginning to struggle. He asked me how therapy with Sheila had been useful, and for a fleeting moment it crossed my mind that maybe if I tried hard enough I could convince him that funding more therapy with her really was the most economical and logical solution, but by now ‘Don’t Talk’ had appeared on the scene and I was incapable of putting up the fight. I looked across at Jack, who told him that I had ceased all criminal activity, and seemed to have a more realistic view of the world. When Ivan asked me if all this was just too painful, I nodded gratefully. He then explained the ‘plan’. The best-fit for dissociative disorders was the team that treated PTSD and anxiety. I would be referred to them, and would be called for an initial assessment. He had no idea how long this would take. They would then tell me which treatment would be appropriate – if any were at all – and it might only be a very short piece of work. There would almost certainly be a waiting list, but again he could give me no timescale.

By now I was having to swim vigorously just to stay on the surface. Sensing my despair, and the tangible frustration of both Jack and Meera, Ivan did his best to end on a positive note, but first he had to ask me that question. I gave my routine answer that no, I don’t have the luxury of that option, what with having three children and all. No, I was firmly trapped into life. He smiled and used this opportunity to tell me how well I was doing. After all, I was managing to work, I was looking after my kids, I was even running for heaven’s sake: things really weren’t that bad. In my experience people generally start praising you immediately before they drop you and run. Gasping for air, I choked out my reply: the only reason I had been able to function in this way was because Sheila was in the blue room with two sofas. She held the strings. She was the strong one, not me.

We all fell silent. Ivan said that I looked as though there were many things that I wanted to say but couldn’t. No flies on Ivan. He added that he felt as if he was facing an interview panel. For some reason it was this final throwaway comment that got to me. How dare he. Interview panel? As if we were the ones with the power?! So we did the most powerful thing that we could. All six of us joined up inside, two rows of three, and stared straight at him through the pair of eyes we all share. And into that stare went all the humiliation, the hopelessness and the hurt we feel when people in those small rooms let us down. As if a stare could make any difference …

He sent me a copy of his referral letter in which I am described as ‘low risk’ as my family are “a strong protective factor”. I take it he doesn’t mean my birth family then. With the final therapy session looming, I attempted to prepare for the worst, remembering that although I had survived being pushed off the mountain, I had been cut to shreds and concussed in the process.

I approached the Management Team at work to warn them that a rough patch was imminent. I know you can expect the unexpected at Luddenbridge High, but their reaction was extraordinary. They were horrified that my therapy was coming to an end with no definite plan for the future. They were incensed, outraged, and (I suspect) terrified! I was remarkably calm by comparison, or maybe just dissociated. They were worried that my working might somehow count against me. They asked my permission to send a letter to Ivan the Ponytail Man, and to the PTSD people. So on school headed notepaper they wrote about all the things that have to happen so that I am able to continue working – all the adaptations, the robust strategies, the care. They also referred to my courage and determination, and their fear that I may deteriorate rapidly without adequate psychological support.

In anxious anticipation of 26 March I read up on what goes on in final sessions when therapy is terminated prematurely. Many people don’t show up at all, but that was out of the question for me as Sheila deserved better. I’m no coward, so I would go, but my priority at all times would be to protect my youngest parts from That Pain. I could be brave, tell myself I’ve been through worse. I just had to be strong for 50 minutes, do whatever it takes not to cry, not to be weak, not to feel: somehow I had to ram myself through the grand finale of the ending experience.

In the days leading up to 26 March I was super-brave. The temptation had been to fill every single minute that followed 10.20 am on that day with frenetic activity of an illegal nature. To see lots of people, work to a tight deadline, run a great distance from the school gate, and sprint back to it by 3.20 pm. But I didn’t: precisely because of the progress I had made in eighteen months of Sheila. I decided to leave the rest of the day free. I don’t know how I might feel, how I might make myself feel better – let’s just wait and see, and take it from there. Unthinkable even six months ago.

I was two-dimensional in that final session. I can remember very little about it, as in many ways I wasn’t really there. Sheila asked me who was attending, so she understood. She gave me a card and asked me to read it in front of her, but none of it got through to me. I was just a little nonplussed by the sudden blurring of boundaries.

At the end I stood up and left her office exactly as if I’d be returning a week later. I got into my car and drove down the hill to the ‘five minutes to go’ roundabout, thinking about all the Mondays I had stopped there, my heart racing and my stomach churning, simultaneously wanting and not wanting to go to therapy. It was all over – I could let go now. I carried on through the city centre with tears streaming down my face. I needed to concentrate on the road, to get home. Sheila always finished each session by telling me to drive carefully …

I sat on the sofa overwhelmed with sadness that I hadn’t been able to say goodbye. I thought about the things that we loved in Sheila – her sturdiness, her deep growly voice, her irreverent humour, her strength. I loved the way she was so un-therapist like – the way she talked so much and gave advice and taught me about life. Though there were always very clear boundaries, she wasn’t afraid to break the rules. I especially loved her cockiness, the way she said, “Don’t worry about me – I can look after myself!” and “Don’t try to look after my feelings!” I once asked her if she had performance-related pay to which she replied, “Unfortunately not!” I used to hear her before sessions laughing in the room beneath her office and think she must be great to work with.

More Sheila catchphrases passed through my mind – “Notice that I’m here” and “What do you notice is happening inside your body?” – the things that drove me mad. Scenes of the most memorable therapy sessions flashed before my eyes as if I was somehow releasing them, giving them permission to come out now that we were safe: the session after I was diagnosed, the one after I was arrested, the time I pretended my mother was a cushion.

My four-year-old part had secretly been getting very fond of Sheila. She found her funny and safe at the same time. The saddest thing of all for me is that she never got the chance to meet her. Maybe she would have done in another six months’ time.

A week ago I had my initial assessment with the clinical lead of the PTSD team. Another small room, another ponytail, another psych. I had been told to expect it to last for two hours. We spent the first ten minutes trying to establish exactly how Dr Ivan had become involved in my case, but to no avail. When asked to describe my history with mental health services, I suddenly felt so tired that I had to rest my head on the back of the armchair. “Well, when I was twelve …” I barely had the energy to talk. The man listened for about fifteen minutes and then took me by surprise. He leaned forward abruptly and said that was enough. He told me that Dr Ivan had been very concerned about me, and had requested that I be seen as soon as possible by him as clinical manager. He said that they could help me, that I was in the right place, that I would be offered long-term psychotherapy over a number of years, and that this would happen soon.

Too good to be true? Well, we’ll have to wait and see. Meanwhile life without a therapist goes on … Wish me luck!