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.