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.

Cult

When is a cult not a cult? A quick trawl of the internet reveals quite a bit of information about them, and to read some of the definitions they could be applied to pretty well any political movement, religion or business model. There does seem to be some agreement though, as to the key things that are needed to build a cult. The first requirement is a charismatic leader. This leader needs to have some form of programme of change as the bait for their potential followers to latch on to. The said followers need to be in a place where they feel there is something missing or lacking in their lives; as perfectly happy well adjusted individuals won’t necessarily take the bait.

Okay, so that definition is a bit of an oversimplification, and the whole subject is far more complex. However, it is something that has fascinated me for a long time because I’ve often wondered if I might have been, or maybe still am, a follower of a cult. So let’s see if I can throw some light on the subject from a personal perspective.

Anyone who has read any amount of my blog will have picked up that I occasionally refer to peer to peer counselling. Simply put, this is a practice where one person gives attention to another for a set amount of time, and then the roles are reversed for the same amount of time. This is something I got into in the early 1970s at a time when I was really struggling with my life. Now by the previously outlined definition, the organisation I got involved with could have been viewed as a cult. It had a charismatic leader and many of the other followers were either needy or simply wanting to experiment with a different way of tackling mental health issues. At the time I even got quite evangelical about it myself, but quickly realised that other people weren’t that interested. I count myself lucky that this period was short lived for me. I somehow managed to separate out the thinking behind the practice from what was going on with the personalities and the organisation. Since that time I’ve been quite comfortable with the knowledge that I’ve managed to stay grounded, and not get caught up in some of the things that didn’t seem right for me.

Some years down the line, I effectively dropped out for a number of reasons. Partly I wanted to test out whether or not I had developed some kind of psychological dependency and thankfully discovered that wasn’t the case. I’d also begun to question some of the ethics in the methodology, and I’ve gradually come to terms with or changed some things in my own thinking.

So why did I find it necessary to reconnect with the network I had effectively dropped out of? Well a few years ago I found myself struggling again, only this time round I decided to seek some professional help. The British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists has a website with a national directory of accredited practitioners. So I checked out a few and settled on one who seemed to be well qualified and experienced. Things went reasonably well and after a number of sessions I was able to move on. Over about four years I saw a couple of other counsellors for short periods. Each individual counsellor had their different ways of working and they do say you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince or Princess. However, it seemed to me that the quality of the attention I was receiving was little different to the standard within the peer network I had previously been a part of. In fact the main difference was that I was paying close to £50 an hour for one way attention. So I took the decision to track down and reconnect with my original network and signed up for a refresher course. I was pleasantly surprised at how much information came back to me and how quickly I was able to get up and running again. Equally I’m not at all surprised that, people being people, a lot of the same problems still exist within the organisation itself. To me, it still has an image problem. For one thing, it still gets accused and attacked as being a cult and to be honest, for a variety of reasons that doesn’t surprise me.

I’ve got to the stage where if one of my peers in the network expresses despair that we’re viewed as a cult; I just turn to them and suggest that if they want to know why people do that, they should take a step back and look at us from a lay person’s perspective. What we do appears to be so outside the frame of what many people see as normal behaviour that, personally, I’m freaked out by it; even after all my years of experience.

The word “cult” carries quite a bit of baggage with it; some good and some bad. In the arts for example, many films, music genres and fashion trends have what is often referred to as a cult following; these are considered fairly benign. However, the term also has its dark side in that it’s also associated with mind control or brainwashing. Usually, this mind control is to the benefit of an individual and or an organisation that has less than the best interests of its followers at heart. Sadly, it’s this darker use of the word that seems to be more prevalent.

For me the word “cult” is simply shorthand for, I don’t understand what I’m being presented with here. It doesn’t look like normal behaviour. It looks weird/creepy/funny/peculiar. Or even, sad/evil/dangerous/bonkers. The briefest of conversations with someone who expresses these viewpoints reveals, for me at least, a quite deep rooted fear. Now fear of what depends on the individual. It may be fear of difference or fear of losing one’s will or any number of reasons depending on the person.

Referring back to mind control and brainwashing; if one thinks about it, isn’t that something that we are all subjected to constantly from the moment of birth? We are raised within a particular framework that is meant to make us secure, functioning members of the society we grow up in. We grow up learning to accept as normal some quite irrational concepts and beliefs. To question any of these is a scary thing for us.  Historically, brutal wars have been fought between societies that considered each other dangerous, because they held different views and values from one another. Religions also have a long history of conflicts with each other.

Currently, the established peer to peer network in the USA is coming under attack and being subjected to a certain amount of Cult Baiting from one particular newspaper over there. I don’t really know the details, it being quite some distance away from life on this side of the pond. I do though, have some thinking about the whole issue of attacks of this kind and how they should be dealt with.

My first thought is that this attack is coming from a newspaper and the media generally don’t necessarily go in for truth or even facts. Their role is to manipulate people into buying their brand of news. Their main interest is in making money. So if a story doesn’t persuade enough buyers to buy their brand of news, it will very quickly get dropped. Given this, my second thought is, do not engage with the attacker. This only adds grist to their mill, as you will be helping them to keep the story rolling and thus making more money at your expense.

I’ve come under attack myself quite a few times in my life. It’s a horrible feeling. There is confusion about where the attacker is coming from, and a strong sense that what is happening is unjustified and unthinking. The pull that I feel is to defend myself, to put them right. However, I’ve learned that this is rarely the correct response. I’ve occasionally been Trolled on the internet. I’ve learned that all these individuals are looking for is attention, and they’re doing it in a very nasty way. My response to them is to deprive them of their oxygen. I delete, block and do not engage. In my view the same response applies to attacks from the media. Turn around, walk away with your head held high and do not engage.

Love

I read out the first chapter of my memoir to my writers group recently. Part of which gives a basic outline of the dynamic of a romantic relationship I was in many years ago. A relationship that didn’t work out too well. I felt at the time I read it that there was an element of risk involved in opening up to a group of people, some of whom might not be able to take on board the story without being able to be nonjudgmental about it. I needn’t have been concerned, as they were quite accepting really. I’m always open to questions though, but when someone asked, “did you love her?” I have to confess I was a little taken aback, and responded, rather glibly, “define love”. I noticed one or two knowing nods from my audience and realised that I had struck a chord here, and a fairly common one at that.

Many people have written on the subject of love for millennia. It’s a subject that occupies a great deal of humanities time and attention, and I don’t think anyone has ever come close to a satisfactory definition of it. Apart from one that kind of appealed to me a very long time ago, and I’ll get to that shortly.

There have been times in my life when I have turned to other thinkers about the subject. One of these people was an artist, poet and philosopher by the name of Kahlil Gibran. He wrote a poem entitled “Love”, and three lines of this poem really hit me when I first read it. They were:

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.

Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;

For Love is sufficient unto Love.

Now, I’d like to look at this thing we call Love from the perspective of this Blog I write. Which is sub-titled, “A mental health Blog”. I’d like to look at it as a mental health issue.

So did I love this woman I was with for ten years of my life; I believe I did. She also professed to love me, but one thing she said to me occasionally was that she wasn’t “in love with me”. At that time I wasn’t sure what she meant, and I’m not entirely clear on the matter now to be honest.

One thing I have learned over time is that we seem to feel the need to put this feeling we call love into categories. So we have something like, mother love, sexual love, puppy love, erotic love, romantic crushes and obsessive love. You name it and we could probably find room for the word love in there somewhere. We even use it to describe what could be seen by some as apparent cruelty, in the form of tough love. Throughout history it has remained an incredibly powerful word, used to excuse all manner of atrocity as much as acts of goodness.

A rock band called R.E.M., (bear with me I’m going somewhere with this honest) were very popular some years ago. One of their best loved tracks was titled, “everybody hurts”. It was aimed at people who were at their lowest ebb emotionally, and was meant to reassure them that all emotional pain had an end to it. The words urged them to hang on in there as, however sad and lonely they felt right now, these feelings would pass and that there were people out there who did care. It’s a lovely song and I would urge anyone to seek it out and give it a listen.

I have a lot of favourite quotes from a variety of sources, and one of them is still quite apt for me as, if not a definition, then certainly a kind of touchstone reminder. It goes, “love is the way anyone would naturally feel about someone, if there wasn’t any hurt in the way.” Now on one level that statement sounds incredibly trite and simplistic, as one only has to look at the current state of the human race, to realise that there’s an awful lot of pain around and precious little love.

For me however that statement goes right to the nub of the problem in regard to understanding love. It’s a feeling that we are born with. One that connects us with other beings like ourselves. Absolutely key to our health and well-being to the degree that we cannot thrive, or sadly in some cases even survive without it. Unfortunately life is not perfect for us. There are joys yes, but also plenty of painful events that lay down a lot of emotional scar tissue. Some of these events are random and there’s not a lot we can do about those. As they say, shit happens. A lot of this pain though, is laid down via a kind of social contagion. Put simply, we get hurt, and if we don’t fully recover from that hurt we risk passing it on to others.

One of the things that I really feel strongly about in counselling is that at its core, it’s not about flashy techniques or methods. More important than anything that might have been learned in some diploma course or PHD, is that sense of common humanity that exists in everyone. As a client I have felt that some of the most profound insights into my own psyche have occurred when I picked up that my counsellor genuinely felt and believed that my negativity about myself had no basis in truth at all. I’ve been lucky enough to also experience this shift from the other side of the fence too. When as a counsellor I have allowed my own common humanity, compassion and empathy to come through and witnessed the person in front of me blossom as a result.

To me this is love. It’s not possessed by special people who are trained to use it to help others. It’s there in all of us. Maybe running in the background for some; but it is there. All we need to do is to practice checking in on it as often as we can and give it the chance to be expressed and heard.

Leadership

I stand accused of being a fraud because even though I refuse to take on the designation and role of leader, my actual behaviour suggests otherwise apparently. So I’m kind of wondering what it is I am doing that is giving this impression. I’ve always had a sense of what is right or correct, a strong sense of responsibility, an interest in new ideas and a desire to communicate those ideas. I like to think I’m a good communicator of those ideas. I aim to care for and think about the people in my life and to help them when I can and when appropriate, occasionally It’s been suggested that I’m a bit charismatic!? I’m not too sure about that last one. I happen to believe that the others are perfectly normal human traits available to everyone to a greater or lesser degree.

A couple of years ago I was approached by someone, who said that they had been giving some thought to my becoming a leader within the network of peer counsellors that I had reconnected with. I was a bit taken aback by this pronouncement and my gut response was to say, “well good luck with that one”, a response which was just as much of a surprise to them. I think what irked me about it at the time was that, at no point was I given any advanced notice about this decision. My input hadn’t been sought. To me it was a thoroughly unworkable way of going about things; for someone else to decide that I was going to, “be” something.

My own past experiences in leadership have been pretty much disastrous; particularly for me. It’s not a role that I would naturally choose for myself, and I think with good reason. I’m someone who feels far more comfortable in the background, I really don’t like being the centre of attention, and as a leader being up front and centre is a key part of the territory. And yes, I do know the advice is that everyone needs to step out of their comfort zone now and then, but it still has to be my decision and my choice. Otherwise it could do more damage than good.

It seems to me that the minute someone is designated, or designates themself, as a leader, it immediately becomes open season for anyone who wants to take a pot shot at them. The shooter may not even have any grievance against the person who has taken on the role. It’s just the office of leader itself that seems to be the target.

So what is this thing called leadership? I think part of the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear definition of the role. Ask six different people to define it and you’ll probably get six different descriptions. Each leader will also have their own ideas about leading.

Thinking about it, I’m wondering who the first leader was that any of us can remember? It was probably a parent or another significant adult in our early lives. Someone we looked up to for guidance, teaching and support. Sometimes they got things right and sometimes they got things wrong. That’s the nature of being a parent; it also seems to be the nature of being a leader.

I consider myself a working class man who also, earlier in life, fell foul of the mental health system. I tend to see those two institutions, the class system and the mental health system as in cahoots. The latter as an agent of the former. I guess a psychiatrist would suggest that was just my paranoia but, as someone else has said, “just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you”.

I’m the first to admit that I have something of an issue with authority. It always seemed to me that leadership, when practised on me, was more about control than a benign form of management. From when I was a dot, bigger people than me were hell bent on trying to shape me into something. Something that was more of an image of what they wanted me to be. Starting with parents and the older siblings in my family. Then I was handed over to teachers, doctors and any other authority figure in society for them to continue the moulding and shaping of my personality. This was the path of, not just my life, but of everyone around me. Eventually I entered the world of work, where the moulding and shaping went into overdrive. Any individual thinking or innovative suggestion was frowned upon, and if I dared to question the logic of any authority, well that was usually met with a firm put down.

So given the models of authority and leadership that have been imposed on me for all of my life, is it any wonder that I’m reluctant to take on the role myself. I’ve no desire to be like any of them. Let alone put up with the flack that would inevitably come my way.