Interview With Phil Stewart

Counsellor In Training

Phil’s wedding (2004)Six years before he fell ill
(Author’s narration)

My last blog article saw how Alex Flower has become a successful tattoo artist and lino print maker, whilst coping with several chronic health conditions. This month I interviewed Phil Stewart, who has been unwell with M.E. for eleven years now, and is currently training to be a counsellor. I was particularly interested to hear Phil’s story as I hope it will be an inspiration for other people with M.E. who might be considering their next steps career-wise.

Falling ill with M.E. has been life changing for me, even though my symptoms are only classed as being ‘mild’. I had to give up my full time job, just at the point when I had been promoted and I was ready to start focusing on my career. Prior to that I had spent many years working part-time, to fit in around family life, for which I am very grateful. Following my diagnosis, I have gone back to working part-time and my career ambitions have been put on hold. I work mornings, in a quiet space at home, and rest in the afternoons. This routine enables me to manage my symptoms (for the most part). According to M.E. Action:

75% of those affected (by M.E.) are unable to work

ME Action

So I really am one of the lucky few and I feel it is always important to remember that.

Now that I have been working for a year, I am starting to wonder whether it might still possible for me to develop a meaningful career, now that I’m living with a chronic illness. I wanted to find out more about Phil Stewart’s experience of M.E. and, in particular, to learn a bit more about how he manages his training, whilst living with a chronic health condition.

computer desk laptop stethoscope

1) Can you tell me about your experience of M.E. – when you were diagnosed/what your main symptoms are? 

I was 34 when I got M.E. The first signs are etched into my brain from when I was dropping my daughter off at school, and as I was coming out, I had this overwhelming urge to lie down on the grass outside as I had no energy whatsoever. I got home and was in bed for pretty much 4 months solid. I was a black cab driver and had to re-finance as I couldn’t work at all. That was June 2010. I was terrified. A few months earlier I had septic tonsillitis, which I thought was the infection that started it, but when I think back to when I was 6, I was hospitalised by a stomach infection and I remember lying on the floor with the same feeling and symptoms. With the lack of knowledge around M.E. it interests me as to whether it is something that may have lain dormant. It took a lot of visits to the GP and each time he would ask, “And how are you feeling in yourself?” He was perplexed and was trying to brush it off as depression.

Eventually I became slightly better to the point where my symptoms began to fluctuate. In 2013 I had an awful crash and was lucky to see a young locum GP at the surgery who had a little knowledge of M.E. and fortunately had not become close minded and was empathic. She pushed for a referral and in 2014 I was diagnosed by a letter. I didn’t even see a specialist. I went to the M.E. clinic in Liverpool which was horrendous. Their first words in a group information setting were that they were the experts, but they didn’t know much. Great. After being unable to attend the next group session because I was so ill that I couldn’t drive, never mind walk the huge distance from the car park to the unit, they warned me when I called to tell them that if I did that again, I would be referred to my GP. Very understanding. I never did see anyone one-to-one as promised for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Graded Exercise Therapy. Now I know this to be a blessing in disguise.

For the next 5 years I managed to work part time but couldn’t do much else. Looking back, I pushed myself too much and have deteriorated to a moderate level. Now I struggle to walk much and have to be very careful of what I do because of post exertional malaise.

2) When did you decide you wanted to be a counsellor and what inspired you?

Driving is difficult for me so in 2017 I decided to go back to college to retrain to become a counsellor. There are a few reasons that I looked into counselling. Being gaslighted and disbelieved with a chronic illness, having a son with autism and seeing the despicable way he has been treated by medical professionals and society because of an invisible condition, and fate.

Black Cab

I picked a passenger up who was the head counselling tutor at my local college. We were talking and she asked how long I had been a taxi driver. I told her I was fed up with it but I never really knew what I wanted to, and she said that I had a nice way with people and had I considered counselling. I thought about it for a while, and in the April of the next year, I had a passenger and we were travelling down the motorway. A man jumped off a bridge that I was passing under and I had to swerve out of the way. After a couple of weeks being traumatised, I decided to apply to begin counselling in the September. I knew that I couldn’t go back and save him, but if I could help just one person, then that is what I must do.

3) What training is involved? 

I hadn’t been in education for 22 years, since I dropped out of doing an English degree as it wasn’t for me. To lend a phrase from my son, I was anxieted (a mix of anxious and excited that he invented – which we warn him not to say to teachers!) but the first year was mainly skills, with a bit of writing each week by keeping a journal. The second year was more theory and I struggled a little more, but nothing like the third year which I have miraculously just completed. The intensity has really ramped up and involves a lot more reading, which has really taken its toll. 

In March I failed my recorded evaluation and it knocked me for six.  I had to carry out 6 half hour counselling sessions which were recorded, transcribe one and write an evaluation. I had missed a lot as I was struggling to concentrate.  After each session, I was pretty much in bed for a few days after. I had to be honest with myself and reflect on my suitability to carry on. I emailed my tutor to let her know that I was going to have to leave, as much as it broke my heart. I really want to help people but I want to be proficient and safe, as it is a huge responsibility.  Kindly, my tutor wanted me to stay and offered more help because of my health. It has opened my eyes to realise the importance of self-care.

4) How do you manage the training in terms of your M.E.?

After my wobble, I carried on and have found it slightly easier due to being able to take notes in skills sessions and having extensions on deadlines. Self-care is massive for me and I meditate for 10 minutes before each session which helps me to concentrate, focus and just to be in the moment.

I have tried my best to watch what I eat. I crave sugary, starchy foods feeling like I’m hungover, which I know that many other people with M.E. are similar. Even though this doesn’t cause my symptoms, it doesn’t help. It also affects my self-worth. I have always struggled with my weight and have been like a yo-yo over the years. I am an emotional eater and my tutor in my first year who specialised in addiction thought that I had a food addiction. I have tried to get help for this as it does have a detrimental effect on my life, but the GP doesn’t know anything about referrals for binge eating disorder. I think that people see it as being greedy and the help is harder to come by compared to anorexia. Both are eating disorders that people need help with.

I try now to cut out chocolate, which is my downfall! I don’t drink alcohol as people with M.E. know that we become intolerant to it. I am really trying to take better care of myself. It doesn’t do much for my M.E. but it does help me to stay more focused and positive. If I want to help others, I need to look after myself first and foremost.

Phil and his son Dylan on Bournemouth Beach

5) Do you think your experience of M.E. enriches your skills as a counsellor?

I definitely believe that my experience of M.E. enriches my empathic and compassionate qualities. Since I have engaged with people on Twitter from last year, you can feel the high levels of empathy from the M.E. community. I think that because of the lack of belief, treatment and care, we understand the importance of helping each other. Who better to empathise than people who live it on a daily basis?

I have always been very sensitive since I was a child and had empathy, but my health and my experience of my autistic son have helped to increase this. I despise injustice and want to help people who feel that they are left out of society because they don’t conform to the norm. I believe that diversity should be embraced.

6) Do you have any advice for other people with M.E. who might be thinking about embarking on a training course? 

For any others looking at starting a course at college, I would say, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I tried to get on with it for too long to the point where it broke me down and I nearly quit. Don’t be ashamed or too proud to not ask for reasonable adjustments. Also, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Be kind to yourself if you struggle and try to enjoy it as much as possible.

Looking to the future…

I am now just about to begin my placement as I have to carry out 100 hours. It is my final year from September, and I am a little anxious as to how I will cope not only having college work and exams, but trying to balance this with counselling “real” people. I will have to make sure that I don’t overload myself and work as it suits me, maybe with some online or telephone counselling. I work as a voluntary advocate for The Paul Lavelle Foundation a couple of hours a week. This is to help men who are suffering from male domestic abuse. I love helping there and so need to make sure that I don’t take too much on.

I know that when I do qualify that I will only ever be able to work part time at best. It’s frustrating, but I am grateful that I am hopefully able to do this. After suffering poor mental health since 40, questioning what I have done with my life, hopefully now I can make a small difference by helping people through the difficulties and complexities of life. It is certainly helping me, and I would go so far as to say it has saved me. I now feel that I have a purpose.

Phil would like to thank @Dan_Wyke and @AnnyWeatherwax for their invaluable help and support in relation to his training. Wedding photo and Bournemouth Beach photo used courtesy of Phil Stewart.

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