I heard some bad news just before going to bed a few nights ago and although I managed to get off to sleep ok, I woke at around 3 am with the issue churning around in my head. Just recently I’ve discovered that you tube has quite a range of videos that are meant to help with insomnia. They seem to be mostly recordings of waves or babbling streams or rain on various types of roof materials. They don’t usually send me back to sleep, but I find the white noise a bit of a distraction to what’s in my head, at least for a short time.

On this occasion I found myself drifting off again and starting to dream what turned out to be quite a vivid and pleasant dream. This in itself was lovely because mostly my dreams are quite disturbing. Those that I remember anyway.

I was visiting a woman friend; someone I’ve known for years. She’s always very warm and welcoming but this time there was the added bonus that she was completely au-naturale, starkers, as the newborn! I was greeted with the usual, apart from the nakedness of course, warm embrace. Throughout the entire encounter I remained fully clothed, and there was no sense of eroticism at all. The main feelings in the dream seemed to be of warmth and comfort, and the sense of delight in running my hands gently over soft warm skin. The whole thing felt rather beautiful and normal.

I guess that my subconscious self had somehow managed to conjure up something powerful enough to replace the anxiety and insecurity I’d been feeling. It seemed to work on this occasion anyway. I just wish I could do it more often, and while I’m awake would be nice too.


In a quiet moment a few days ago, I noticed a feeling. Just something vague in the background. I think some people refer to it as existential angst. So I brought it forward to the front of my mind, in order to examine it more closely. I realised that what it actually was, was fear. As simple as that really,

There’s a lot of it about just now; right the way through our society. It seems to be making a lot of people act rather irrationally. Including me when I’m not aware of it. So I’ve made a decision to bring it forward to my conscious mind whenever I can.

It’s strange really; holding it up to be examined. Because it seems to be in the nature of fear, that it doesn’t want to be scrutinised. Which shouldn’t be surprising really. Who in their right mind wants to confront fear.

I learned a long time ago that feelings are triggered by a combination of present and past events. The trick is separating out the two. The current situation may be a very real threat, triggering our fight or flight response. The problem is, that a lot of the time, what also gets triggered is a considerable amount of feeling from past fearful events. It’s often referred to as post traumatic stress. For some people this can cause a full on panic attack; even in a situation that to some onlookers seems insignificant.

People tend to associate PTSD with some major distressing event in someone’s life. Just something one off and dramatic, like a car crash or a natural disaster. And that often is the case. However, I think that it’s a bit more complicated, longer term and more deep rooted in all of us. You have to add together all the apparently minor incidents in life, right from one’s birth experience. Ok, we may not remember the event, but our mind records the feelings all too easily and well. So that each time we are confronted with another event in our lives that we experience as threatening to our existence in some way, another bit of fear is glued onto the pile.

I’ve counselled people through fear and, like grief, it seems to have it’s own physical manifestations. As they tell their story what seems to manifest first is shaking, sometimes quite vigorously. Although mostly it seems to happen in short bursts. Their hands can also feel cold and clammy to the touch. On repeated telling of the story the trembling seems to die down and then shifts to laughter. Which seems odd until you think what happens when someone is given a sudden mild fright. They usually begin to laugh a few seconds after.

Repeated telling of the story seems to be quite important. Which can be hard, since one understandably would rather be doing anything else but confront our fears. This repeated telling of the story of the event, often brings up other thoughts and feelings. It’s equally important to allow these to be expressed too. So shaking may turn into crying or raging or even laughter. These feelings may seem inappropriate to the counsellor, but they may have some relevance to the client, and that’s all that matters.

The Coffee Machine

My wife likes a cup of coffee in the morning. Just the one at breakfast time. For years she used a one cup cafetiere and this served her very well. It’s just a small glass flask mounted in a metal holder. The lid has a filter mechanism on the end of a plunger, that separates the coffee grounds from the brewed liquid by pushing them down to the bottom of the flask. A simple device that served its purpose. However, she had always coveted one of those coffee making machines on the supermarket shelves. In particular the type that grinds the beans for you and produces a perfect, fresh cup of coffee. The problem was that she never felt she could justify spending what was a large amount of money just to make one cup every morning, her dear husband not being a coffee drinker.

The burden of this dilemma was relieved for her one Xmas, by her daughter buying a machine for her. Needless to say my wife was delighted, and the cafetiere was washed for the last time and pushed to the back of a shelf, where it didn’t take up much space. Which is more than could be said of the coffee machine, whose footprint was about ten times that of the cafetiere. Indeed, it was not much smaller than the average microwave oven. We got it unpacked and set up near a socket in the utility room, as this was the only room that had enough worktop space.

There then followed nearly two hours where my wife and I attempted to decode the instruction book, which appeared to be written in ancient Egyptian pictogrammes. The Rosetta Stone probably would have been very handy. Anyway, we worked out that we had to put the beans in a little compartment on the top. On the side of the machine there was a clear plastic container that had to be filled with water. On the front there was a spout with a drip tray below it that you placed your cup under and on. To one side of this there was a larger spout that swiveled out to the side, which was supposed to dispense a steam jet for heating milk. There was also an instrument panel with buttons and dials and flashing lights that could have come out of an airline cockpit.

We plugged it in and filled everything we needed to and pushed the start button to make the first cup of coffee. Everything went very smoothly but also very noisily, as quiet this thing wasn’t. There was a chorus of grinding, clicking, clunking and gurgling sounds that preceded the production of every cup of coffee. Then, around twenty minutes later, another series of clicking and gurgling sounds as the machine proceeded to flush its pipework through the delivery spout and down into the drip tray. Presumably this action was needed to prevent the pipework from clogging up. However, so much liquid was ejected that my wife decided to leave an empty glass under the spout, in order to avoid the drip tray being overwhelmed.

For a few days everything went well. Until one morning it refused to work, and a flashing light suggested that something might be wrong. Half an hour spent deciphering hieroglyphics in the manual, revealed that the container that held the little pucks of waste grounds ejected after the production of each cup was full, and required emptying before it would make another cup. This necessitated the front being opened up and the drip tray removed before the container could be lifted out. Only to discover that it had collected just three pucks of waste coffee grounds. Now this was puzzling, because there was still plenty of space in the container. We consulted the hieroglyphics again. How did this thing gauge when it needed emptying? Did it know the weight of the little pucks? Was there a light beam that did the counting or some other form of sensor? Try as we might, we couldn’t figure it out. So for the next few weeks, every couple of days or so, the usual mechanical noises were accompanied by a chorus of mutterings and curses as the machine shut down again, and demanded emptying. As it was only making one cup a day, it was decided that it must be faulty and was then duly packed up and sent back for repair or refund. It came back.

Apparently they could find no fault with the machine, but suggested that we might pay more attention to the cleaning routine. A suggestion that really irritated my wife, as she took it personally. So it seemed that there was nothing for it but to persevere with it. And every morning for over two years our breakfast peace was interrupted with a chorus of, grind, click, clunk, gurgle. Followed twenty minutes later with the gurgle, gurgle of the machine flushing its pipes. Also, every few days there was an extra accompanying chorus of muffled hissing, growling and muttered expletives as the machine clicked and clunked but totally refused to gurgle, until the ritual of the emptying of the used grounds container had been performed to its satisfaction. Oh, I’m nearly forgetting, another ritual that had to be performed was the removal of the gubbins, contraption thingy that actually brewed the coffee. It had to be unclipped, pulled out of its housing and then flushed under a running tap before reversing the process to refit it. Honestly I was beginning to think we had the prima Donna of coffee makers. Maria Callas was never so temperamental.

One day fairly recently my wife performed the usual ritual of opening the door, removing the drip tray, emptying the grounds caddy and flushing out the gubbins, contraption thingy and putting everything back again before attempting to make the single cup of precious liquid. Sadly this time she must have done something to seriously piss off the great god Arabica, because, with a resounding click and clunk, the machine refused to function. I checked it over and discovered that it seemed to have jammed up, as the gubbins, contraption thingy was immovable. The machine was out of warranty, so I removed the back and side panels. Only to be confronted by an array of pulleys, cogs, levers and cables that would have been quite at home on the International Space Station. I put the panels back on and pronounced it deceased.

The one cup cafetière was lifted from the back of the cupboard and placed in the sink to be washed prior to being brought back into use. There seemed to be a little smear of kitchen grease on the side of it, and I did a double take, as the smear looked for all the world like a smiley face. With an expression that appeared to be, ever so slightly, smug.


My wife has now given up drinking coffee in the morning.

The Gray Man

I wonder how often I’m noticed? It’s something I’m thinking about and working on just now. I seem to have a knack of fading into the background. I’ve never been at ease in group discussion or anywhere that there is lively conversation going on. I find it really difficult to interject or push my way forward. It’s all too easy for me to simply give up even trying.

It’s funny how these difficulties can be traced back to early childhood experiences. I grew up in an era when it was deemed to be spoiling a child if you gave it too much attention. Although how much was too much was never very clear. I don’t know for sure, and I guess that one can never be sure really, but I have a gut feeling that I was simply ignored a lot. My mother once said that I was a bit “colicky”, so presumably I cried a bit. I can’t be sure if, in those very early months, I was successful in gaining attention for what ailed me by crying. But for the purposes of this writing I’m going to assume I didn’t, and speculate about the effect this might have had on my developing personality.

My gut feeling is that at some point I simply gave up trying to get attention. I’m guessing that I eventually felt I was just wasting energy trying to get someone to attend to whatever need or distress I was suffering. I think I became a quiet child and therefore not an issue for any of the adults around me.

The problem was that this behaviour didn’t just stay limited to my home life. I took it with me to primary school and, presumably because I wasn’t any trouble, I was seated in the middle or more often than not at the back of the class. Whereas the more lively or naughty or even those who were considered the brightest children were positioned towards the front.

And there lies another damaging aspect of this pattern of behaviour I adopted; that the quiet children were often considered to be not very bright. Brighter children tended to be popular and therefore given more and better quality attention than their less fortunate classmates.

I shifted my attention to things that I could research and study on my own. Group learning of any form wasn’t my thing. There were always more confident, forceful individuals who dominated the group. So I gradually drifted towards the edges, and very soon it became almost second nature for me to become invisible.

There were other downsides to this behaviour. It was very lonely for one thing. It could also be risky too, particularly if I was spotted by individuals who felt somehow threatened by my behaviour. So I came in for a fair amount of taunting and bullying. It also put something of a damper on my social skills later in life. I spent a lot of time in bars nursing a glass or bottle all evening, just watching the behaviour and dynamics of other people and groups. The rest of humanity became my Petri dish, and I guess the alcohol served to numb my loneliness.

It’s taken me a long time to work through these difficulties, but I do feel I’ve made some progress. Although I guess I’m never going to be an extrovert.

Where I remain struggling is in asserting myself in certain situations. An example of this would be group discussions that become heated, even in a light hearted way. Often many people will be talking across each other to the degree that I find it extremely difficult to get in on the debate. Sometimes I’ve managed to reel off an entire sentence and the group has carried on as if I wasn’t there. Which leaves me feeling anxious and irritated and even less likely to contribute.

Someone once suggested that I would probably have made a really good hermit. I think they were right.


What is a Gray Man?

“The concept of the gray man revolves around the idea of a person who does not draw attention to himself, who does not stand out from the normal inhabitants of a location in any way. A gray man can move through an area, even through a large group of people, without anyone taking special notice of him.”

On Counselling.

Okay, so more than a few times on this blog I have wanged on about counselling. In particular I have written about the form of counselling I have been active in for a very long time now. I refer to it as peer to peer counselling. It does have two other names that I can’t use because of copyright/trademark issues. So far so very boring.

Now I’ve had a pretty chequered career as far as my relationship with counselling is concerned. So I thought I would try and get some of it down. Given I started this journey way back in 1969*, (perhaps a bit before that) and I am now 71 years old. It feels somewhat, a bit of a daunting task.

Mention the word counselling in any conversation and you’ll get one of a number of responses. Anything from a beatific smile to a yawn with raised eyes. The word seems to be bandied about all over the place now, usually in the form, “you need counselling” or “why don’t you see a counsellor?” or “a good counsellor will sort you out”. Before I go any further, let me correct that last statement. A counsellor of any description or discipline doesn’t sort anyone out. Nor in my experience, for a fair percentage, does the client.

You see, there seems to be something of a rose tinted view about counselling. That with just a few hours spent chatting to a patient listener over a cup of tea and with a box of tissues to hand, that all one’s problems will simply dissipate. Oh I wish. More often than not the process is a visceral blood and snot battlefield; with a terrain to be navigated that is littered with craters, mangled corpses, minefields and unexploded ordnance. And guess what? The counsellor gets to go through all this hand in hand with the client. I wouldn’t mind but the ungrateful so and so’s often resist going over the top, insisting that you go first. Something the counsellor can’t do, for the simple fact that the client is the only one with the map and compass.

Another bit of mythology is that counsellors are special people who have had special training and have gained their qualification. Nah!…complete bollocks. The quality of counsellors can vary enormously, believe me I’ve worked with a few. I also, back in the early 1990s, got myself on to a 2 year diploma in counselling course at a university. That was a real eye opener. I really didn’t rate the tutors, who I’m sure were normally engaged as lecturers on the psychology course. Our counselling practice was with our fellow students and were recorded on videotape. Group work was one evening a week and seemed to be a situation where everyone studiously avoided talking about anything personal at all. There were essays to write and the quality of our progress seemed to be measured according to the answers we gave on questionnaires. The whole process felt to me just too academic and mechanistic. Not exactly conducive to the development of trust and safety. So we parted company after one year.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that there aren’t excellent counsellors out there who many people see as being special individuals. However, if one were able to examine their life path I’m willing to bet that they have had a broad experience of life’s emotional challenge’s. Which they have either managed to process well on the way, or they have been lucky enough to have been able to work through any negative effects retrospectively. So I don’t believe that these individuals are special in the way that we tend to view that word.

Occasionally, not often thankfully, counselling can be a quite literal battleground. I know of someone who set up a men’s support group and ended up being physically assaulted. I have personal experience of being held down on the ground by a group of people. I’ve had a workshop leader, after I’d retired to bed with a migraine, try to drag me out of the bed and back into the group. All the time berating me for letting everyone down. I’ve been taken to one side in a group and told that I was too distressed for counselling; work that one out. Then there was the time a woman I was counselling fainted. Luckily I had some presence of mind and knew what to do, so she recovered quickly.

Not so much now (or so I’m assuming) but certainly in the early days, there were situations where the counselling was closer to individual or group grooming. This usually happened in some of the larger meetings where a visiting experienced leader would either select or ask for volunteers to be counselled in front of the group. This was an activity I was never completely convinced was not so much to demonstrate the counselling method as to make the leader look good. I’m sure there was a certain amount of leader worship around too. I see something similar to this in some tv interviews that become somewhat intrusive as the, no doubt trained, interviewer attempts to squeeze a few tears out of the grieving individual on camera.

There is one aspect of the formal model of counselling, as it stands, that has always bugged me. And that is the separation of the two roles in that relationship. The idea that there is an expert and a lay person. That one person has a set of problems that are uniquely their own and with the help of an expert they can work through those problems in isolation from what might be going on around them. In my view the thing that always gets overlooked in this model is the fact that those two people are also a part of and have to function in a society. A society that will always seek to impose certain rigid constraints on each and every individual within that society.

So how about we give those constraints another name and simply call them – oppression? Just assume for a minute that it was possible for someone to recover their full humanness using a counsellor. How long do we think they would last once they were back out in society as it stands?

Something I appreciate about the network I consider myself to be a part of is the fact that, even as I was starting to explore getting involved back in the Seventies, some people were beginning to see and recognise this stumbling block to human progress. They started to set up support groups for people from particular backgrounds. Groups were established for people who were oppressed because of their class background, their ethnic origin, their skin colour, their religion, their gender. Later, groups were set up for the support of gay and lesbian people, parents, young adults, survivors of sexual abuse. The latter I think initially referred to as – victims – of sexual abuse until they decided that – survivors – was a more empowering word.

All of these groups exist to provide a safe space for individuals from each oppressed group to tell their stories. Particularly the stories of how oppression continues to affect and traumatise them. The fundamental rule in all of these groups is that time is shared equally and that everyone is listened to with full attention and respect. Key to the atmosphere of safety in these groups is that each speaker is not subjected to any cross examination or suggestion of an alternate position or viewpoint. These groups are not forums for discussion or debate. Rather, they are spaces for individuals to end any sense of isolation they may have, and to begin the ending of their sense of powerlessness necessarily installed for the oppression to continue.

*(see, Blog post, Manchester 69)

Then and now.

It was getting close to that time of year, when thoughts turned to burning some poor sod at the stake. Or to be more precise, an effigy burned as a substitute. My friends came round wondering if I’d like to join them collecting wood for the bonfire. I would need something to cut it with. So I went out the back to the coal shed and picked up the axe that was used for cutting our domestic kindling. Then our little gang set off down the local lanes in search of suitable materials.

We eventually arrived at a road embankment that rose up at either side of the lane to a railway bridge. It was decided that this was the place to harvest our fuel. We all spread out over what seemed to be quite a steep slope. I climbed to the top and selected what I felt was the biggest tree I could manage and started to hack away at it. Very quickly I learned that chopping down a tree was not as easy as it looked. However, after several little rest stops it reluctantly keeled over, only to get caught up in the branches of the trees surrounding it. I’d assumed that this giant would come crashing down to the ground like they did on TV. Anyway, after some considerable struggle, I managed to wrestle the thing down the bank and onto the lane. I then simply had to get my prize home.

If I’d thought getting there was a long walk, then I was about to learn another lesson the hard way; that getting this thing home was going to be no picnic. I hadn’t realised that trees could be so heavy. I dragged and pulled the thing for nearly two miles, still clutching the axe. I still remember that I found the sound of the leaves and twigs, as they scraped the ground, quite satisfying. I eventually got it home and, with a great sense of achievement, heaved it onto the bonfire.

So how old was I you might wonder, sixteen, seventeen? Well, I worked it out. I had to have been in the region of five to six years old! Because when I was seven years old I became ill with Rheumatic fever, and by that time we were living in a different place. I have to confess to being a little gobsmacked at this realisation. In particular by the difference in social attitudes to very young children. These days, if a child of five or six was spotted walking along with an axe in their hand, people would be contacting the police and social services.

It got me thinking about all the other things we used to get up to as children; of the level of freedom that we had back then. In my very early teen years, I was given a chemistry set as a Xmas present, but found I quickly became bored with the limits of the contents of the box. So I took myself off to the local library and flipped my way through a couple of books on chemistry. Then a trip to a couple of local pharmacist shops to buy some ingredients. Took them home and managed to mix up some pretty passable gunpowder. I became fascinated with anything I could make that would smoke,smell, burst into flames or go off with a bang. I was a budding terrorist in the making. And all of this was allowed. I whittled with knives, made bows and arrows and spears; even, at one point, buying a kit from an advert in the Exchange and Mart and building a crossbow. Oh, and I ought to mention the six foot Blowpipe I made that could drive a steel dart into a block of wood so firmly, it required a pair of pliers to remove it. And most of all this before I was seventeen.

One would think that my parents might be a little concerned that their eldest boy had such lethal obsessions. But no, not a bit. My mother even happy to indulge my request for a copy of the original Bowie Knife; the thing had a ten inch blade for god’s sake!

Some of the games we played back then would have given a modern health and safety officer a seizure. These ranged from Eivel Knievel type stunts on bicycles, to throwing sharp implements at each other’s extremities to see how close we could get without hitting them. It seemed like anything that risked life and limb was fair game.

Oh, and in case you were wondering; the tree had to have been all of 6 centimetres in diameter. But still, pretty big to a 6 year old.

At 4am

I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time wishing myself dead at the moment. Don’t get me wrong I’m not suicidal. I don’t even consider myself depressed. It’s just that I wake up at three or four in the morning feeling like hell, with the most dreadful negative thoughts swimming around in my head. Often I can’t even recall what I may have been dreaming about, but if I do then it’s probably something pretty grim that doesn’t make any rational sense at all. It will be something like that painting, “The garden of earthly delights,” by Heironymous Bosch.

Then there’s the physical stuff. My whole body feels as though it’s on fire. Every joint and muscle seems to be aching and my head feels like it’s in a vice. And let’s not mention my irritable bowel, (Oops, I just did; so apologies to the delicate reader). If I’d had a drink I’d say I was hung over but these days I barely touch a drop. Honestly if someone came into my room and put a gun to my head I wouldn’t even protest, let alone try to fight them off.

The bedtime routine starts off normally enough. I climb the stairs between ten and eleven, clean my teeth, strip off, (I’ve always slept in the buff, so I can’t understand why I get so hot) read my book until I get drowsy, turn off the light and my head hits the pillow. I drop off fairly quickly and seem to go into a deep sleep. These days my bladder is on a ninety minute cycle so I have to get up for that, but I do drop off pretty quickly after my trot to the loo. Then sometime between three and five is when I start to come round with the nightly misery swimming around in my head.

Occasionally, very rarely I’ll have a really lovely dream. Sometimes it’s so beautiful I’ll practice remembering it throughout the day. Almost desperately trying to hang on to the imagery and feelings. However, it seems to be in the nature of dreams that they inevitably fade away. And I guess one shouldn’t try to live in them anyway. The real world always beckons.

I know what I need to do is shift my attention to something else, but at that time in the morning it’s really tough. Occasionally I’ve got up, picked up a book and read for twenty minutes. Most times that tends to work, but the gravitational pull of the black hole I’m caught in is often just too strong, so I don’t even get that far.

More often than not I will drift off back to sleep. Waking up again between six and seven. Sometime between seven and eight I’ll force myself out of bed. By no stretch of the imagination could I ever be referred to as a morning person. I have the metabolism of a reptile. Which is not good, particularly as I’m married to a bunny rabbit. My spouse hits the ground almost running, not just physically but mentally too. The problem is that, at that time in the morning, my brain function is pretty well twenty to thirty seconds behind any normal persons; so it’s not a good time to fire information at me or ask difficult questions like, would you like toast or cereal?

A lot of the physical distress I have is explainable given my age. At 71 my joints and musculature aren’t going to be what they were at 10 years of age. So overnight everything is going to stiffen up and will need warming up gradually in the morning. The mental fog and general sense of being hung over may be down to a blood sugar issue, and that generally improves when I’ve eaten and had a couple of mugs of tea. Although I don’t rule out the possibility that the state is in some way connected to where my mind has been while I was sleeping.

Now this brings me to a bit of a dilemma, which is, how the hell do I bring my sleeping unconscious mind into my conscious mind? And do I want to anyway, given what I may be presented with? I have heard that some people can control their dreams. I think it’s referred to as Lucid dreaming, where they are able to consciously take over the narrative of their dream and steer it in the direction they want it to go. Now there’s a skill that, at the moment at least, I can only dream about.

Manchester 69

I don’t remember the exact date or even year too well. I’m thinking sometime around 1969 or 1970. It’s a Friday evening and I’ve travelled from Liverpool to Wilmslow in Manchester to attend a weekend course in counselling, or more precisely, peer to peer counselling. This is a method of counselling that it was suggested might best suit my needs.

The course was group based and held in an old Edwardian house that doubled as a family home and business premises. As people arrived they were invited through into a large room which would normally, in a house like this, have been the main living room. In this instance though it had been stripped bare to be used as workshop space. It was warm, airy, light and comfortable. Instead of the usual furniture one might expect in a room like this, there was a plain full fitted carpet and a number of large round bean bags for the participants to sit on.

I think there were about twelve of us there, plus the tutor. We began with the usual round of introductions. Starting with the tutor, followed by each participant in turn giving their name and a little bit of background about themselves. I think there was some form of name game after the intro’s, to help people remember everyone’s name.

The tutor, let’s call him Trevor, then pulled over a large paper flip chart and began his delivery of some theory accompanied with some related diagrams he sketched on the flip chart. I was quite pleased with myself, because I understood it, it all made perfect sense to me. I began to relax a little.

We were then asked to pair off with someone and to spend a few minutes with one person talking and the other listening. After this we were asked to swap roles for the same amount of time. It was explained that this was the basis of counselling in a peer relationship.

There then followed a talk about the nature of feelings and in particular the release of feelings, for the person who was talking, and how important it was that the listener remained relaxed and allowed this to happen. Trevor then began to enlighten us on how we might get in touch with those feelings and how we were going to put some of those methods into practice over the weekend, starting that evening.

Maybe some of the people in that room were familiar with drama workshops and the methods that actors use to get themselves into character, but I was not. We were asked to stand, move to a clear space in the room and act into the feeling of anger. In hindsight and now with the benefit of my own experience, he might have chosen a lighter feeling to start us off with; perhaps sadness or mild amusement.

Anyway, I paired off with the guy next to me and we agreed I would listen first while he gamely tried to reach for his own inner Rottweiler. Trevor called time after a couple of minutes and we swapped roles. This proved the point at which everything began to change for me. The point where my whole life shifted direction.

I stood there for a few seconds, unsure of what to do. Then quite suddenly a loud roar seemed to silence the whole room. NNOOOoooo!!! What the hell? It was coming from me!? I did it again, and this time I noticed something else kicking in. I started to hyperventilate, I felt light headed and my hands were tingling. Trevor, being the experienced tutor that he was, stopped everything and got everyone to sit down again. After checking if my counselling partner, who was visibly shaking, was ok he turned his attention to me. By now my breathing was beginning to settle down and he asked me what I was thinking about.

I was thinking about an incident from when I was about 12 or 13. When, one evening, my older half brother had been left to look after me and my two younger brothers. He’d clearly decided he wanted us out of the way fairly early because he’d invited his girlfriend round and didn’t want us cramping his style. I protested that it wasn’t our normal bedtime and ended up having a row with him about it. I just ended up feeling more angry and powerless as I went to bed. At that time he shared the room with us and I spotted a money box he had adopted to drop his small change into. It was in the shape of a Teddy Bear and made of plastic. It made a wonderful noise when I threw it to the floor. Coins and bits of plastic flying everywhere.

He burst into the room, saw the mess on the floor and blind with rage grabbed my arm with one hand and proceeded to slap me about my body and legs. When he released me I climbed sobbing into bed and for the first time in my life I began to hyperventilate. This was something completely new to me and just had the effect of freaking me out even more. Then, it seemed from nowhere, his girlfriend was at the bedside. She’d obviously heard the commotion and decided to see what was going on. She looked really concerned for me and started to stroke my forehead and make soothing noises, which gradually calmed me down and helped my breathing return to normal.

As I told this story in the workshop I began to giggle, and the giggling turned into uncontrollable laughter. Trevor asked me what was so funny and I just blurted out, “it was a plastic bear!?” and collapsed into hysterics again. Trevor was completely unphased and just kept bringing me back to that phrase, which resulted in more fits of laughter. It was explained to the group that laughter was as valid an emotional release of stress as crying or raging, and that it should be allowed to run its course. There was no need to go looking for anything more dramatic. The deliberate acting of rage was simply the trigger needed to bring the original trauma to the surface where it could be dealt with.

So there it was, I had handed Trevor a gift on a plate. A perfect example of the process he was trying to get across, right at the beginning of the workshop. I’ve no idea what if anything the other participants took away from that weekend. But for me I felt I’d discovered a tool I could integrate into my life. One that I could use to my benefit. After a little more work my stress related hyperventilating faded and stopped. I came to the conclusion that I had simply used it as a means of turning a traumatic situation in a different direction, effectively stopping what was happening. The problem was that it didn’t always work or didn’t have the desired outcome. It had simply become a rigid response that I needed to let go of, in order to free up my thinking to find more creative solutions to life’s brickbats.

Shortly after that weekend I moved to London to do a period of voluntary work. While I was there I picked up where I left off. Attending more classes and workshops and expanding the network of peer counsellors I could work with. I carried on putting the hours in right up to the late 1990s when I gradually drifted away from people and eventually stopped. Until that is, the winter of 2015 when I plugged myself back into the network again. But there lies another story.

Will, AI, get depressed?

I’ve just finished reading James Lovelock’s book, Novacene. He wrote it about 2 years ago and he’s only recently reached his 100th birthday. So as a thinker and author, I don’t think he’s doing too badly really.

The book is about what he sees as the coming age of hyper intelligent machines. These will be created by us mere humans when we have finally cracked the mysteries of AI, or artificial intelligence to you and me.

He seems to firmly believe that AI will take us, the world and the Cosmos into a new age. From the Anthropocene, which he considers began with the invention of the steam engine, to what he has christened the Novacene. He also considers that, once the first intelligent machine is activated, it’s first act will be to reproduce itself and as it does so, the speed and intelligence of each replication will increase exponentially. Until it gets to the point of being so far in advance of its creators that it considers them to be no more intelligent than, say, plants.

Now, all the time I was reading this something was nagging me in the back of my mind. I was reminded of Marvin the android in Douglas Adams book, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Marvin had a brain the size of a planet but was always deeply depressed. So I began to think about artificial intelligence a bit differently. In all the information I have come across about AI, it all seems to be a bit one dimensional. In that the focus seems to be on thought and thinking in isolation. It all seems to be about rationality and logic. The goal seems to be a machine that can think for itself, independent of human intervention.

I’ve always thought that logic is only part of intelligence, and I’m wondering if alongside AI we also need to be thinking about EI, and by that I mean Emotional Intelligence. It’s not something that I’ve ever come across in anything about autonomous thinking machines.

Human emotions are part of the experiential learning curve of life. As we grow up we need to not only feel but also to express things like joy, anger, grief and fear in appropriate ways. We also need to feel the opposites of these feelings so that we may learn the difference. So for example, how will we know we’re happy if we don’t also feel sad?

I may be waxing philosophical here, but is pure logical thought enough on its own for any sentient creature? Is it possible to create EI alongside AI before this hyper intelligent machine is switched on? Or might it be the case that EI can only be developed experientially through the living of a life? Not just brought into existence at the flick of a switch.

Men 1994

Way back in 1994 I had been unemployed for about 3 years. I didn’t blame anyone for this, as it was largely my choice. The system however, requires that everyone of age has to be gainfully employed. Even if there are 20 people chasing one job; which was pretty much the case in Liverpool at that time.

As I was now classed as long term unemployed, the department of employment had to up it’s game. So I was regularly called in and offered one of a number of alternatives to just sitting on my butt week after week; which was the assumed position of the jobless in many people’s eyes. To keep them happy, and off my back, I signed up to everything they offered me. It was a real education, honestly.

I have to thank them tho’, because one of those alternatives proved to be quite useful to me. It was a course in supervisory management. The qualifications at the end of it were bloody useless, but the whole experience was quite formative for me.

The tutors loved me. I was attentive and asked pertinent, sometimes challenging questions. I generally got good marks and comments on my weekly assignments. One thing that did annoy them tho’, was that I did persist with my own style of doing things; I’ve never been a sheep follower.

As part of the course they found everyone an “unpaid” position with an employer as close to the desired career path of the student as possible. However, with me there was a collective shaking of heads and sucking through teeth. I was someone with a carpentry background and I was asking to be placed with a counselling agency. Well, I thought, I might as well make them work for their taxpayers money.

As it turned out the placement officer struck lucky on his first inquiry. It seemed the manager of Barnardos family therapy unit in Liverpool remembered me from a course I did many years before and he asked if I had any qualifications. Of course I didn’t but what I did have was my mental health memoir, which I popped into a plain brown envelope and dropped off personally. It got me in.

The next scene is worth describing as it’s slightly surreal. I’m sitting in a, not unpleasant, room that has a huge mirror set into one wall. I can’t see through it but I’m confident that whoever is on the other side has a clear view of the interior of the room. In the room with me are a male and female therapist, a woman I later learned was their administrator and, looking rather uncomfortable and fish out of water as he was the only one in a suit and tie, my placement officer.

Introductions out of the way, I was advised that there was no way I would be allowed to meet their clients. Which was something I figured anyway. What they wanted was for me to conduct a small research project into the reasons that so few men presented for counselling. Their biggest client base being women and children. If men presented at all, they didn’t stay around for long and invariably dropped out after a couple of sessions. I have to admit I was a little bit flummoxed that people with their background and experience hadn’t figured this out for themselves; the answer seemed obvious to me as I said, “I don’t need to do any research as I know the answer, it’s because men are terrified. In particular men are terrified of risking being vulnerable.” Nevertheless they still wanted me to do the project and I was happy to commit to doing it for them. My placement officer was pleased we’d got a good outcome and couldn’t get out of there quick enough. I don’t think I saw him again after that.

There was one teensy flaw in the whole thing though. The research had to be completed in ten weeks and with almost zero funding or resources at my disposal. Oh, and the only financial reward I got was my unemployment benefit. I went home and after doing some serious thinking over the weekend, I came up with a plan.

I realised that without the time and resources to complete a serious research project, I was going to have to find some way of turning the whole thing to our advantage. It seemed clear to me that what they wanted to achieve at the end was more male clients coming through their door. So I began to think about whether similar agencies were having more success in other parts of the country, and if so might they be willing to share how they were doing things.

They managed to set me up with a small desk in the corner of their staff rest room, where I set up my own home computer and I was away. They already had a database of contacts and agencies up and down the country and enough petty cash to fund a small mailout. So my first task was to draft a short questionnaire. I advised that just four short open questions might get the best response. So we put our heads together to come up with the best options tailored towards obtaining the information we wanted, and posted them off.

There followed a nervous wait for the results to come in, and I was initially disappointed that I only achieved a forty percent return. Until somebody reassured me that it was actually a pretty good result as ten percent was nearer the average for a postal questionnaire that was entirely voluntary. I then spent quite a bit of time reading through every returned questionnaire, with the aim of extrapolating the key points we were looking for.

I think it’s fair to say that because we had allowed respondents to answer the questions in their own way, I hadn’t made life easy for myself. Every answer was different in some way. So the whole process was more like forensic detective work than straightforward analysis of data. To make things even more tricky, some of the responses had been hand written. Probably during a coffee break.

The draft report, which was accepted by the team, was tidied up and a copy was sent out to all of the agencies who had been good enough to take the time to respond. I also kept a copy back to submit as my final piece of work at the training agency. A couple of days later I was called in to a meeting with one of my tutors, where I was told that my report was not a suitable submission as an academic document, as it was not written in the correct style. I was stunned and angry. As far as I was concerned I should have been awarded an A+. I had intended the whole thing to be a marketing tool for men’s mental health services, as there was precious little going on in that field at that time. I had written it in a style that I hoped would draw the reader in and make them want to read more. These people were looking for a dry academic document that at best would have been given a cursory glance or at worst quietly slid into the waste basket. They had completely missed the point. I bid them goodbye and went back to signing on and waiting for the next client review at the job centre. Needless to say, I didn’t get my qualification for supervisory management.

The spin offs for me were worthwhile though. I made a number of new friends and contacts, my social network became larger, I gained confidence in subtle ways that I wasn’t even aware of, and with the support of the male therapist from the unit I set up a men’s support group that ran for nearly three years.