Reflections and Questions
Twenty years have past since this particular episode in my life. Reading it now I find I have as many questions as answers. I realise that there is more to the story; that it is more complex and that it certainly didn’t end on the light note of the last chapter. There is the story of how I survived the period of unemployment that followed my resigning from my job; I have never worked in formal employment since. My viewpoint about some aspects of what I went through has changed or still has questions hanging over them. So in this chapter I would like, in so far as I can, to address some of my doubts and questions.
One thing I would like to clear up from the start, is the suggestion that there was some form of sexual abuse in my infancy. I now feel confident that there was no such abuse. In Chapter 5, I alluded to the fact that some of the individuals in the support network around me were themselves survivors of abuse. At the time, there was also a lot about this subject matter in the media and this was also accompanied by a fair amount of hysteria. People seemed to be seeing it everywhere. I now consider that, in my vulnerable and desperate state, I allowed myself to be led along this path by well meaning individuals.
Now that last sentence leads me quite neatly into my first question. Which is about the whole concept of – Belief. I was born in 1950 into a post war working class family. At that time both family life and society, including the education system, were authoritarian and patriarchal in their make up. The idea of thinking for oneself had effectively been suppressed for quite a few years. The collective consciousness was, obey one’s betters and – one’s betters – were seen as those in authority. The world had not long come out of a War when anything other than that attitude would have spelt disaster. So I grew up in a household where thinking for myself was not encouraged. I developed a firm “Belief” in those who were apparently older, wiser and more educated than I. Since most of the world was in the same boat these belief systems were, quite benignly, reinforced by the institutions of society throughout my infancy, childhood and early adulthood. It seems to me that only in the 1960’s was this complete acceptance of authority really challenged. At that time I was entering adolescence; an emotionally confusing time for anyone. Sadly, the dependable older, wiser and more educated people in my life let me down quite badly at this point. There was no information I could access and no adult I could turn to that didn’t shuffle uncomfortably when I broached the subject of anything even vaguely emotional. Worse still, there was a plentiful supply of misinformation flying around; particularly from my peers. As a result I became increasingly withdrawn, anxious and depressed. My mother took me to the family doctor, who prescribed a nerve tonic. When this didn’t seem to work I was referred to a psychiatrist who prescribed tranquilizers and antidepressants. This regime continued, with some variation and little success, over the next four years or so. Because my working life was impacted by my condition, I was eventually referred to an Industrial Rehabilitation Unit where I was assigned a social worker who was to have the most profound affect on my life thus far.
Around this time (late 1960s, early seventies) the mental health system was in turmoil. New radical thinking was being put forward by some people and there was a backlash against traditional methods of treatment for individuals who were deemed to be mentally ill. My social worker took me under his wing and introduced me to the philosophies of the radical Psychiatrist R.D. Laing. Much of this writing went over my head but one book in particular affected me; the book was, “Mary Barnes, a journey through madness”. Mary Barnes was a diagnosed schizophrenic woman who eschewed traditional psychiatric method in favour of working through her condition with the help of a therapeutic community. Now I wasn’t in the same boat as Mary but something about her position chimed with me. What if my problems simply needed to be worked through in the presence of some compassionate attentive human beings? That if there was a natural recovery process, then might the medication be interfering with that. I took the decision and threw my pills down the toilet.
Needless to say, there then followed several months where I was variously depressed, weepy or anxious or occasionally angry. My social worker bore the brunt of this for a while before realising he had bitten off more than he could chew and steered me towards a couple who, as a business venture, had set themselves up running a variety of psychotherapeutic workshops and courses. They recommended a peer to peer form of counselling; a course of which, once completed, would enable me to tap into a network of people who had trained in the same skills. Thus neatly taking the load off my social worker. I then spent the next twenty plus years (off and on) as part of this network of people, as I used the skills I’d learned to help me navigate my way through life.
Now, at this point, I would like to try and address my question about belief. I find that at sixty two years of age I’m starting to reflect on these early years and wondering if, rather than thinking for myself I was simply shifting my belief from one form of authority to another. In my desperation to get better, feel better, make sense of life, was I still falling into the trap of believing in people who appeared to be more knowledgeable and a greater authority than I? Was I allowing myself to be drawn into believing in a process, that ultimately I did not need to put myself through? Was I at some level the architect of my own misery and pain?
I think it would be useful to give an overview of the counselling model that I got into at the time. It seemed simple and straightforward enough to me. Stating that as infants and children, humans were vulnerable to being hurt, that while being hurt our thinking shuts down but that we have natural processes to enable us to heal from that hurt. These processes were observable in the form of crying, laughing and raging or tantrum. The theory stated that damage was done to our rational thinking if these natural releases of emotion were interrupted and not allowed to run their course. The cumulative effect of preventing this emotional release over subsequent hurtful events in the individuals life, could prevent the individual from functioning well and thus living their adult life to the full. The counselling training provided the skills to reach back to the hurtful event and to permit the healing process to continue uninterrupted thus freeing up one’s rational thinking.
It all seemed to make sense to me at the time; there was a neat kind of logic to it. However, looking back now I find that some things didn’t quite add up. At that time in my life, there were some situations that I did not function well in. Situations where I felt anxious, frightened, confused and sick to my stomach. I went into my counselling sessions looking for clues from my past that might have some bearing on the feelings I had in the current situations. Sure enough, with a little judicious digging around in my past memories, I could find something and usually ended up crying up a storm for the rest of that session. The problem was that although I finished the session with a tremendous sense of relief bordering on elation, I would still end up with the same negative feelings when confronted with similar situations again. The argument seemed to be that it could take hours of counselling in order to begin to feel some form of change and thus progress in one’s life. It seemed that there was no quick fix. Well, the initial training course wasn’t particularly expensive, the cost was even on a sliding scale dependent on income. After that the sessions cost nothing other than a commitment to meet up with someone (usually weekly) who had learned the same skills and counsel them for an hour and then swap roles while they counselled me.
Over time though, I gradually developed niggling doubts about the effectiveness of what I was engaged in to make the changes in my life. So I have to look at what else I was getting out of this activity and I think that what I find is quite telling. At that time I was pretty fearful of life generally. I felt lonely, isolated, confused and anxious. Here was a network of people who were prepared to accept me as I was. People who didn’t judge me, who were friendly and caring and in some ways similar to myself. There was also an organisation and a structure to the network. There were written guidelines to adhere to. Something that felt solid and dependable. All of these things to a large extent were missing from my day to day life. Why wouldn’t I want to stick it out?
Occasionally the accusation was levelled at the network that it was a Cult. I have to admit that to an outsider looking in, some aspects of the network and the actual counselling were probably quite Cult like in their appearance. Some of the methods and techniques used, may have looked like some form of brainwashing programme; particularly if one had no prior knowledge of the theoretical model that the activities were grounded in. From my perspective though, I never felt there was any real concern or suspicion about Cult-ish behaviour. I was never pressured into handing over money. If I drifted away for awhile, no one pursued me to bring me back into the fold. If, as sometimes happened, another person became a little overzealous in their counselling of me I either ignored them or, if they persisted, avoided them. I didn’t feel a need to sell the idea’s to friends and relatives, in fact I kept it very separate from other aspects of my life. I viewed the theory and techniques simply as a kit of tools that I used as an aid to living in the world around me.
The question I feel I have to ask myself is: Was it really necessary to work through all that pain and distress or was it simply the case that I had come to believe that this was what I had to do in order to heal and take control of my life?
An effect known as the Placebo effect is well known amongst medical and scientific researchers. Put very simply, some individuals with a particular medical condition are given a dummy pill as treatment. However, they are told that the pill is a medication for their condition. In a significant number of cases this deceit is enough to engender the belief that the medication will work in such a powerful way that the condition is alleviated or even cured. So was my belief in the process I had adopted having a similar effect to a Placebo; giving me some form of temporary relief from my everyday anxieties and stresses but not, in reality, changing very much at all at a deeper level?
It seems to me now, that for a very long time after the initial distress around Susan had subsided, I still struggled with getting close to women. The same fears came up, the same clumsiness, the same sense of desperation. A fundamental mistake I also continued to make was in assuming that women were somehow the more rational gender and that the problem was solely mine.
It took several years before I ever felt comfortable being on my own for any length of time. I gradually began to feel more relaxed in my own company, spending time indoors listening to music or radio programmes (I had no TV) or engaged on some project. I seemed to be “Desperately Seeking Susan” less and less. I began to feel more relaxed in the company of women without feeling the pressure of needing to take things to another level. However, to this day, I cannot put my hand on my heart and swear that this was down to what I worked through in my counselling sessions and not merely down to the fact that I had simply just matured into this position.
ADDENDUM. (January 2017)
So where does all this leave me? More recently, I have reconnected with the peer to peer network I was part of all those years ago; partly out of curiosity, but mainly out of need.
Over the last couple of years (2013 to 2015) I had felt the need to see a private counsellor. There were some issues that I was struggling to resolve by myself. While this private counselling was useful, I found it to be little different from the peer to peer counselling that I had experience of. There was however, quite a difference in the financial cost and given that I did not find the one too qualitatively different from the other; it seemed to make more sense to go for the less expensive option.
At this point in time, I am still curious and questioning about what it is about this whole thing, that we refer to as the counselling process, that is workable and effective. There are probably many schools of thought as to how the human mind (as opposed to brain) works. However, for me, there are two that are key. One is that mind is vulnerable to being injured but also has the ability to repair itself. The other is that mind is plastic and has the ability to reprogram itself. Both of these are viewed as being under the conscious control of the individual. The former seems to be the underlying principle behind peer to peer counselling. That is, that the individual needs to somehow review an original distressing incident in their life, while at the same time working through any feelings they may not have had the opportunity to resolve at that time. The end result of this action being that they not only feel better but also that their thinking is also clearer. The latter school of thought seems to work from the current situation in the person’s life rather than reflecting on the past. That is, examining what is actually happening in the present moment and how effective the person’s behaviour is in managing the situation. Once analyzed, a programme of behavioural changes are put together to aid the individual in moving to a position of thinking and feeling differently.
My own thinking is that the two methodologies go hand in hand. That there is nothing wrong with examining the past and working through any feelings that may arise as a consequence. That it can also be useful to examine how the thinking and feeling from the past may be affecting one’s current behaviour, then using that information to help make any changes one deems necessary.
Putting aside method and technique, my thinking turns to the actual relationship between the two (or it can be more) people in the counselling contract. Some people feel that this relationship is in itself a cop out; that it’s somehow an avoidance of turning to family or friends. This is fair comment but I simply don’t agree. There have been many occasions in my life where it simply seemed inappropriate, unfair or unworkable for me to off load with the attention of family or friends. It always felt more workable to me, to have a third type of relationship that didn’t have the level of intimacy or attachment as family or friends. It forms a useful environment where one can talk, think about and explore many things on a personal level, that it doesn’t seem workable to do with individuals one shares other aspects of one’s life with.
One of the key most workable factors of this counselling relationship is that it is kept separate from the other two. That is to say, while I am perfectly happy to mix family with friends and vice versa, I keep the counselling relationship out of that arena; so there is little risk of a breach of that other important factor, confidentiality. This in turn increases the level of confidence and safety that I can bring into the contract, both for myself and for my fellow peer counsellors.
I will never really know if everything I worked through was necessary or not. I have a sense now that it doesn’t really matter; since I can’t go back and do anything differently, it simply was as it was. However, hindsight truly is a wonderful thing; as reflecting back on my experiences of everything I went through at that time, has helped me to better understand the very precious and vulnerable nature of the relationship that exists between client and counsellor. I’m much, much more careful about how my behaviour may be interpreted and I am more mindful of what anyone may be projecting onto me. In short, I’m a more cautious counsellor and client.