Money scares the crap out of me. It shouldn’t really, given that it didn’t seem to be a major issue when I was a child. Everyone around me seemed to manage it quite well. Or at least from my childhood perspective it appeared that way. I’ve always had a morbid fear of debt, of somehow ending up destitute. I suspect this is what drives me to put money away. I seem to have a very simplistic view of economics, ie, I obtain money and I put it away until it’s needed. Which is mostly when I need food or clothing or fuel. It’s quite hard for me to reach into that pot that I’ve put away for anything other than basics and necessities. I don’t seem to take onboard that there is replenishment each month. Which means that what is removed will ultimately be replaced over time. It’s almost as if what goes out is gone forever and will never be recovered. I’ve always found it hard to understand any of the complexities of economics. Things like interest, compound interest, percentages, hire purchase, credit, mortgages, stocks and shares, hedge funds all make me want to curl up foetal fashion in a corner and suck my thumb.

I think that the earliest I can remember coming into real contact with money was when I was about 5 or 6 years old. I was given a toy cash box, very like the one in the photo. I was also given a few coins to put in it, which I think were the beginnings of a weekly amount of pocket money that I was now deemed to be old enough to receive. The concept of saving my pennies for the things I wanted to buy, ie, sweeties, was explained in very simple terms to me.

I don’t think I was old enough then, or maybe just not sophisticated enough, to have grasped the concept of deferred gratification. So the saving habit didn’t last very long. Every Saturday morning I was given my pocket money and it was straight off to the newsagents to buy my sweeties and comics. This must have been a financially blissful period for me as there were no pressures on me to somehow earn my keep at that time. Mostly, things were just bought for me by my parents and the pocket money was simply a bonus, and a bonus that I had responsibility for and control over.

That word control, coupled with responsibility, is key I think to my fear/anxiety around money. It seemed to be a frequent topic of conversation amongst the adults around me, and I think I learned somehow that one had to be careful with it. Apart from some warnings about borrowing, gambling and debt, my dad didn’t really explain anything to me about money management. And as I grew older I think I picked up that there was a considerable amount of anxiety in the adults around me; particularly in relation to money and if they were anxious, it probably meant that I needed to be anxious too. So I think I ended up very cautious and risk averse around the subject.

As my pocket money increased, I began to spend it on more expensive items. A favourite item was a kit from the Airfix model range. These also fed into my practical and creative nature, as some of them could be quite challenging to build. However, as I hadn’t really got into the saving habit many of the larger, more complex kits remained out of reach. These bigger purchases were always made by the adults around me, usually my mum.

I think I did some occasional pocket money jobs in my teens. One of which was cleaning the local bus shelter. The Labour was shared between me and a friend of mine and usually involved sweeping it out and washing the windows. I never had a paper round or anything regular. School work was considered the main priority.

When I started my apprenticeship I was given a weekly pay packet and while initially I was required to hand over some of it to my mum, the habit very soon went by the wayside. There was no discussion or argument about this, it just seemed to be gradually forgotten about on both sides.

For the life of me I can’t remember what I did with the money. I didn’t have a bank account (although I do remember having a Post Office savings book) until a few years later, so I think I was just spending it week by week. Like many of my contemporaries I got quite fashion conscious so I figure that’s where most of it went.

I don’t know why but I’ve always been nervous about buying face to face. Stores and supermarkets were easy, as I just picked what I wanted and took it to the counter. Individual small shops were a different matter. Here I had to deal face to face and for some reason that could bring up a lot of anxiety for me. It always felt somehow confrontational. I remember walking into a small electrical store to buy a cassette tape recorder I’d seen in the window. I walked up to the counter to be confronted by a man who could have been one of my teachers from school days. He wasn’t very chatty or engaging and just laid the item on the counter for me to inspect. For my part, I didn’t really have a clue what to look for or what questions might be appropriate to ask about the machine. It was all I could do to stop myself running out of the shop at that point. I think my embarrassment kept me rooted to the spot, and I duly handed over my hard earned cash and walked out with the cassette recorder under my arm. Now was I pleased with myself at having made my first big purchase? Not a bit, instead I immediately felt an overwhelming sense of guilt, that I had spent all that money on myself.

Over a lifetime, I seem to have come full circle in my approach to money; from being relaxed, naive and unstressed about parting with it, to being anxious, risk averse and almost neurotically careful about it. To this day I am incredibly bad at spending money, and at the other end of the spectrum I am very good at putting it away; of saving it for a rainy day. Of course, it’s never quite rainy enough. I will procrastinate for months about treating myself to anything and even then, having decided it’s a “want” and not a “need”, I’ll walk away from it.

In my teens and later years I never got into chasing money. It was as if the weekly wage wasn’t the most important goal of the job I was in or even of life itself. I couldn’t see the point of doing something I didn’t enjoy just because it paid well; it just seemed a waste of time to me. Of course the ideal would have been doing something challenging and interesting that I got paid well for. But jobs like that seemed hard to find. In fact, through the 1970s to the 1990s, jobs of any description became harder to come by. Labour markets seemed to get more volatile, particularly for someone with my skill base. I went through more than my share of periods of unemployment. Which is something else that teaches you a lot about money. I discovered a level of adaptability I didn’t know I had. It was a case of make do, mend or simply live without. I guess it was these periods that really taught me the difference between a “need” and a “want”.

Death of Pratchett

In March 2015 my favourite author Sir Terry Pratchet died from complications related to Alzheimers. I first discovered his books in WH Smiths in Liverpool. While browsing for something new to read, I lifted a copy of one of his “Discworld” novels off a shelf, opened it at random and started to read. Then I started to giggle…then…chuckle and finally laugh out loud. Embarrassed at this public display of frivolity I quickly replaced the book and walked away wiping the tears from my eyes. I then went back to the shelf for the book, bought it and never looked back.

Over the next few years I read everything of his I could lay my hands on, and then waited impatiently for him to write the next. A few years ago I wrote a little personal homage to Sir Terry. Just a short humorous piece about his death, or rather how i imagined it, as i don’t think he managed to go the way he wanted to; which was sitting in his garden with a glass of something and listening to a favourite piece of music.

If you’ve never read any of his books,then before I go any further you need to know that death figured as a character in many of them. He was very traditionally portrayed as a skeleton dressed in a black hooded cloak and carrying a scythe and an hourglass style timer. Terry always wrote Death’s lines in block capitals, gave him a white stallion to ride on and, for some obscure reason, made him a lover of cats.


Mort D’Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett is in Limbo, having just granted himself his wish to opt out of life when he considered his alzheimers was getting too advanced. However, he’s a little puzzled as to why he is, where he is. Eventually he hears a slow clip, clopping and a large white horse looms out of the swirling mist. As it’s rider dismounts, Terry notices that the horse’s body is steaming and that the animal is also breathing very heavily. He also can’t help but notice that the Rider is dressed rather differently than he imagined but, ever the gentleman, he decides not to comment just yet and holds out his hand to greet his nemesis.

“Ah, Death I presume, I must say it’s an honour to meet you at last, I’ve written so much about you.” Death, a little thrown by this greeting as people aren’t usually pleased to see him, nevertheless holds out a skeletal hand for Terry to shake; an action that produces a rather hollow rattling noise. This causes a brief moment of embarrassed silence before a, – quite literally given the circumstances – disembodied voice booms out of the ether.


This time it’s Terry’s turn to be thrown, but he remains polite and says, “I’m very sorry if I’ve caused you any problem but I’m really not sure what you mean.” Death sighs and reaches for his saddle bags, lifting them down he opens them up to reveal that they are full of large hourglasses. All of them have an amount of sand in one end, which is slowly being added to by a steady trickle of sand from the other end; there is very little sand left in this ‘other end’.


A light bulb went on inside Terry’s head, “ah,” he said, “I think I’m beginning to see. I’ve caused you a problem because I took my own life.”


Terry was genuinely apologetic, “Look, I really am sorry, but you must have known I wasn’t prepared to put up with my ‘embuggeration.” Which was the word he used to describe his alzheimers. “Everybody knew that what I wanted was to end my life peacefully at a time and place of my choosing. Admittedly it didn’t go entirely to plan. I mean, I’d got myself comfortable in the garden with my glass of brandy and Thomas Tallis on the hifi. I couldn’t help that my neighbour had chosen that precise moment to play her Kylie Minogue album. I was just about to pop the pills when the strains of ‘I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky’ drifted over the hedge. Well I could hardly knock on her door and ask, ‘I say, would you mind awfully keeping the volume down, as I’m just about to top myself.”

There was an awkward silence as both of them shifted from one foot to the other while staring at the floor. Terry took a deep breath and said, hesitantly, “Er, while we’re here, just out of interest, how much longer did I have left?”


“And, er, what would have been my quality of life?” Asked Terry.


At this point, Terry began to feel a bit sorry for Death. After all, it probably wasn’t Death’s fault that there was a certain amount of job demarcation in the process of passing over. I mean, if everybody started topping themselves willy nilly whenever they felt like it, the multiverse would be in a right pickle. There had to be a certain order about things. So he said, “Look, I really am sorry, but I really didn’t want to carry on, knowing what was likely to happen to me. So I’m quite ready for you now, really I am, but I’ve been wondering, er, would you mind answering one more question before you do your job?

ASK AWAY. Said Death.

“Well I’m curious.” There was a slight pause. “Well, why are you dressed like that?

LIKE WHAT? Said Death, somewhat indignantly.

“Well it looks like some sort of Jedi Master.” Said Terry.


“Ok, ok, calm down.” said Terry, “I don’t mean to criticise, but you do look a bit like a cross between Darth Vader and er, Yoda?…..I mean….what’s all that about?”


“And the head of Yoda?” Said Terry, raising an eyebrow.


“Ah, I see your point.” said Terry. “But what about your scythe, surely you need something to do the deed?” There was a click, a hum and a swish as Sir Terry Pratchett disappeared in a puff of smoke. A swish, a hum and a click as Death clipped his light sabre back onto his belt.

OH YESSSS. Said Death, with a satisfied smile. BEATS THE HELL OUT OF A SCYTHE.

Frightened 2

I saw my Doctor yesterday. A routine appointment to get the results of  blood tests I had a few weeks ago. It turned out quite positive, in that my prostate, aside from being a little enlarged, was showing no indicators of cancer, and my LDL cholesterol had dropped to 1.6. All in all pretty good news then, and I felt the anxiety I’d had on my way there just lift off my shoulders.

I’ve been thinking a lot about anxiety lately, as I’ve been feeling quite a lot of it it seems. So I speculate about where it might come from and why it’s there at all. It’s curious, but I even feel anxious as I’m writing about anxiety, or any writing at all for that matter.

As a client, in my counseling sessions, I’m sufficiently long in the tooth to know that any negative feelings I may have, more than likely are rooted in my past somewhere. Mostly they just sit in the background until something in the present triggers them, and if I’m not mindful of the difference between past and present then all hell can let loose. Those are the moments when some time after the event has passed, or even five minutes later, I drop my face into my hands and exclaim, what the hell did I do/say that for? The answer being, because I allowed the past to take over the present.

As a counselor however, I’ve learned to be more mindful of the current situation in the life of the person in front of me. I’m not overfond of the self help memes that crop up on social media. Many are just simple truths repackaged as great wisdom. Some at best may be mildly comforting, (and that’s OK), while at worst some just come over as glib or even patronizing.

I’ve learned that unless someone has specifically requested that I remind them of what they were working on, that I simply need to pay attention to where they are right now. Sometimes the current reality of someone’s life can have so much going on in it, that they are unlikely to be able to spend the time exploring anything deeper. Even if that’s where the greatest gains in personal growth might be made.

So a young single mum of two, juggling childcare while trying to hold down two minimally paid jobs and attempting to stay clear of an ex who is stalking her, is not going to appreciate me encouraging her to explore her early relationship with her mum and dad. She would have every right to tell me to fuck off.

Some have; I once had someone let fly at me for attempting to counsel them, which I had assumed was what I was supposed to be doing. I had probably used one of those glib pithy phrases. I realised that I had allowed my anxiety about what was going on for them to hijack my thinking. In a sense, effectively there were two clients in that room, which was never going to be workable.

Getting back to my anxiety about writing. I realised that it goes back a long way. Right back to my school days. In my secondary school years, a teacher called Mr, Brick took us for English language classes. He didn’t know it but he didn’t do a lot for my confidence. He was incredibly critical of my handwriting, amongst other things, so as a result it just got worse. So bad that other teachers began to pile on the negative comments. For many years after leaving school, apart from filling in forms or signing my name, I simply avoided writing anything. I also didn’t get the hang of punctuation and grammar. The whole world of commas, full stops, colons, semi colons, verbs, adverbs, nouns, adjectives, was all so much gibberish to me; still is if I’m honest.

What freed me of at least some of the stress of writing was the word processor. Ok, it’s a cheat of sorts, as I still do very little handwriting. So the problem hasn’t gone away, I’ve just found a way around it. I also still struggle with all the other aforementioned issues around writing.

There is an enduring myth that I probably picked up from a self help book many years ago. It’s one of those pithy little phrases I referred to earlier. It goes something like, “Face a fear and the death of that fear is certain.” They lie dear reader, they lie. Since I started journaling and blogging some years ago, I must have written several hundred thousand words. However, whenever I sit down to write, the same painful feelings surface. Also, whatever reassurances I get from others, “you write really well!” “It’s really good!” “It draws me in!” seems to make no difference at all to the way i feel about it. 

So what is the bit of this puzzle that is missing for me? I think fear of criticism is part of it. Or worse, fear of attack in some form. Laying my work out and open to public scrutiny seems to mean a high degree of vulnerability for me. So I’m recognising that this fear/anxiety I have probably goes back much earlier in my life. Certainly pre school and maybe back to my cot. I’m speculating that I was left alone a lot, even when I was crying. There did seem to be a general attitude around back then, that if you picked babies up too much it just spoiled them. So there were probably quite a few of us who were left to just cry ourselves to sleep.


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.