Over the last three or four years I’ve undertaken a couple of different rounds of psychotherapy. I liken the experience to that of spotting constellations in the night sky.
That’s probably the result of the goal I stated when going in to the first round: I’d like you to help while I take myself apart, try to understand how I work, and then put myself back together again.1I’m trying to connect the dots between who-I-once-was and who-I-am-now and find causal influences.
As I’m sure you can imagine: with an opening statement like that I needed to contact a few different therapists before I found one who was compatible with my aims2. But then, I was always taught to get three quotes before hiring a professional.
It’s that “connecting the dots” that feels like constellation-spotting. A lot of the counselling work (and the “homework” that came afterwards) has stemmed from ideas like:
This star represents a moment in my past.
This star represents a facet of my identity today.
If we draw a line from one to the other, what does the resulting constellation look like?
I suppose that what I’ve been doing is using the lens of retrospection to ask: “Hey, why am I like this? Is this part of it? And what impact did that have on me? Why can’t I see it?”
When you’re stargazing, sometimes you have to ask somebody to point out the shape in front of you before you can see it for yourself.
I haven’t yet finished this self-analytical journey, but I’m in an extended “homework” phase where I’m finding my own way: joining the dots for myself. Once somebody’s helped you find those constellations that mean something to you, it’s easier to pick them out when you stargaze alone.
1 To nobody’s surprise whatsoever, I can reveal that ever since I was a child I’ve enjoyed taking things apart to understand how they work. I wasn’t always so good at putting them back together again, though. My first alarm clock died that way, as did countless small clockwork and electronic toys.
2 I also used my introductory contact to lay out my counselling qualifications, in case they were a barrier for a potential therapist, but it turns out this wasn’t as much of a barrier as the fact that I arrived with a concrete mandate.
I’ve been having a tough time these last few months. Thanks to COVID, I’m sure I’m not alone in that.
Times are strange, and even when you get a handle on how they’re strange they can still affect you: lockdown stress can quickly magnify anything else you’re already going through.
We’ve all come up with our own coping strategies; here’s part of mine.
These last few months have occasionally seen me as emotionally low as… well, a particularly tough spell a decade ago. But this time around I’ve benefited from the self-awareness and experience to put some solid self-care into practice!
By way partly of self-accountability and partly of sharing what works for me, let me tell you about the silly mnemonic that reminds me what I need to keep track of as part of each day: GEMSAW! (With thanks to Amy Blankson for, among other things, the idea of this kind of acronym.)
Because it’s me, I’ve cited a few relevant academic sources for you in my summary, below:
Taking the time to stop and acknowledge the good things in your life, however small, is associated with lower stress levels (Taylor, Lyubomirsky & Stein, 2017) to a degree that can’t just be explained by the placebo effect (Cregg & Cheavens, 2020).
Frankly, the placebo effect would be fine, but it’s nice to have my practice of trying to intentionally recognise something good in each day validated by the science too!
I don’t even need a citation; I’m sure everybody knows that aerobic exercise is associated with reduced risk and severity of depression: the biggest problem comes from the fact that it’s an exceptionally hard thing to motivate yourself to do if you’re already struggling mentally!
But it turns out you don’t need much to start to see the benefits (Josefsson, Lindwall & Archer, 2014): I try to do enough to elevate my heart rate each day, but that’s usually nothing more than elevating my desk to standing height, putting some headphones on, and dancing while I work!
Understandably a bit fuzzier as a concept and tainted by being a “hip” concept. A short meditation break or mindfulness exercise might be verifiably therapeutic, but more (non-terrible) studies are needed (Vonderlin, Biermann, Bohus & Lyssenko 2020). For me, a 2-5 minute meditation break punctuates a day and feels like it contributes towards the goal of staying-sane-in-challenging-times, so it makes it into my wellbeing plan.
Maybe it’s doing nothing. But I’m not losing much time over it so I’m not worried.
During my 20s I gradually began to suffer more and more from “winter blues”. Nobody’s managed to make an argument for the underlying cause of seasonal affective disorder that hasn’t been equally-well debunked by some other study. Small-scale studies often justify light therapy (e.g. Lam, Levitan & Morehouse 2006) but it’s possibly no-more-effective than a placebo at scale (SBU 2007).
Since my early 30s, I’ve always felt better to get myself 30 minutes of lightbox on winter mornings (I use one of these bad boys). I admit it’s possible that the benefits are just the result of tricking my brain into waking-up more promptly and therefore feeing like I’m being more-productive with my waking hours! But either way, getting some sunlight – whether natural or artificial – makes me feel better, so it makes it onto my daily self-care checklist.
Acts of kindness
It’s probably not surprising that a person’s overall happiness correlates with their propensity for kindness (Lyubomirsky, King & Diener 2005). But what’s more interesting is that the causal link can be “gamed”. That is: a deliberate effort to engage in acts of kindness results in increased happiness (Buchanan & Bardi 2010)!
Beneficial acts of kindness can be as little as taking the time to acknowledge somebody’s contribution or compliment somebody’s efforts. The amount of effort it takes is far less-important for happiness than the novelty of the experience, so the type of kindness you show needs to be mixed-up a bit to get the best out of it. But demonstrating kindness helps to make the world a better place for other humans, so it pays off even if you’re coming from a fully utilitarian perspective.
I write a lot anyway, often right here, and that’s very-definitely for my own benefit first and foremost. But off the back of some valuable “writing therapy” (Baikie & Wilhelm 2005) I undertook earlier this year, I’ve been continuing with the simpler, lighter approach of trying to no more than three sentences about something that’s had an impact on me that day.
As an approach, it doesn’t help everybody (Zachariae 2015), but writing a little about your day – not even about how you feel about it, just the facts will do (Koschwanez, Robinson, Beban, MacCormick, Hill, Windsor, Booth, Jüllig & Broadbent 2017; fuck me that’s a lot of co-authors) – helps to keep you content, and I’m loving it.
Despite the catchy acronym (Do I need to come up with a GEMSAW logo? I’m pretty sure real gemcutting is actually more of a grinding process…) and stack of references, I’m not actually writing a self-help book; it just sounds like I am.
I don’t claim to be an authority on anything beyond my own head, and I’m not very confident on that subject! I just wanted to share with you something that’s been working pretty well at keeping me sane for the last month or two, just in case it’s of any use to you. These are challenging times; do what you need to find the happiness you can, and hang in there.
This is the first in a series of four blog posts which ought to have been published during January 2013, but ran late because I didn’t want to publish any of them before the first one.
2012 was one of the hardest years of my life.
It was a year of unceasing disasters and difficulties: every time some tragedy had befallen me, my friends, or family, some additional calamity was lined-up to follow in its wake. In an environment like this, even the not-quite-so-sad things – like the death of Puddles, our family dog, in May – were magnified, and the ongoing challenges of the year – like the neverending difficulties with my dad’s estate – became overwhelming.
In the week of his death, my sister Becky was suffering from an awful toothache which was stopping her from eating, sleeping, or generally functioning at all (I tried to help her out by offering some oil of cloves (which functions as a dental contact anesthetic), but she must have misunderstood my instruction about applying it to the tooth without swallowing it, because she spent most of that evening throwing up (seriously: don’t ever swallow clove oil).
Little did she know, worse was yet to come: when she finally went to the dentist, he botched her operation, leaving her with a jaw infection. The infection spread, causing septicæmia of her face and neck and requiring that she was hospitalised. On the day of our dad’s funeral, she needed to insist that the “stop gap” surgery that she was given was done under local, rather than general, anasthetic, so that she could make it – albeit in a wheelchair and unable to talk – to the funeral.
Five weeks later, my dad finally reached the North Pole, his ashes carried by another member of his team. At about the same time, Ruth‘s grandmother passed away, swamping the already-emotional Earthlings with yet another sad period. That same month, my friend S****** suffered a serious injury, a traumatic and distressing experience in the middle of a long and difficult period of her life, and an event which caused significant ripples in the lives of her circle of friends.
Shortly afterwards, Paul moved out from Earth, in a situation that was anticipated (we’d said when we first moved in together that it would be only for a couple of years, while we all found our feet in Oxford and decided on what we’d be doing next, as far as our living situations were concerned), but still felt occasionally hostile: when Paul left town six months later, his last blog post stated that Oxford could “get lost”, and that he’d “hated hated 90% of the time” he’d lived here. Despite reassurances to the contrary, it was sometimes hard – especially in such a difficult year – to think that this message wasn’t directed at Oxford so much as at his friends there.
As the summer came to an end, my workload on my various courses increased dramatically, stretching into my so-called “free time”: this, coupled with delays resulting from all of the illness, injury, and death that had happened already, threw back the release date of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest update to Three Rings. Coupled with the stress of the 10th Birthday Party Conference – which thankfully JTA handled most of – even the rare periods during which nobody was ill or dying were filled with sleepless nights and anxiety. And of course as soon as all of the preparation was out of the way and the conference was done, there were still plenty of long days ahead, catching up on everything that had been temporarily put on the back burner.
When I was first appointed executor of my dad’s estate, I said to myself that I could have the whole thing wrapped-up and resolved within six months… eight on the outside. But as things dragged on – it took almost six months until the investigation was finished and the coroner’s report filed, so we could get a death certificate, for example – they just got more and more bogged-down. Problems with my dad’s will made it harder than expected to get started (for example, I’m the executor and a beneficiary of the will, yet nowhere on it am I directly mentioned by name, address, or relationship… which means that I’ve had to prove that I am the person mentioned in the will every single time I present it, and that’s not always easy!), and further administrative hiccups have slowed down the process every step of the way.
You know what would have made the whole thing easier? A bacon sandwich. And black pudding for breakfast. And a nice big bit of freshly-battered cod. And some roast chicken. I found that 2012 was a harder year than 2011 in which to be a vegetarian. I guess that a nice steak would have taken the edge off: a little bit of a luxury, and some escapism. Instead, I probably drank a lot more than I ought to have. Perhaps we should encourage recovering alcoholic, when things are tough, to hit the sausage instead of the bottle.
Becky’s health problems weren’t done for the year, after she started getting incredibly intense and painful headaches. At first, I was worried that she was lined-up for a similar diagnosis to mine, of the other year (luckily, I’ve been symptom-free for a year and a quarter now, although medical science is at a loss to explain why), but as I heard more about her symptoms, I became convinced that this wasn’t the case. In any case, she found herself back in the operating room, for the second serious bit of surgery of the year (the operation was a success, thankfully).
I had my own surgery, of course, when I had a vasectomy; something I’d been planning for some time. That actually went quite well, at least as far as can be ascertained at this point (part three of that series of posts will be coming soon), but it allows me to segue into the topic of reproduction…
Because while I’d been waiting to get snipped, Ruth and JTA had managed to conceive. We found this out right as we were running around sorting out the Three Rings Conference, and Ruth took to calling the fœtus “Jethrik”, after the Three Rings milestone. I was even more delighted still when I heard that the expected birth date would be 24th July: Samaritans‘ Annual Awareness Day (“24/7”).
As potential prospective parents, they did everything right. Ruth stuck strictly to a perfectly balanced diet for her stage of pregnancy; they told only a minimum of people, because – as everybody knows – the first trimester’s the riskiest period. I remember when Ruth told her grandfather (who had become very unwell towards the end of 2012 and died early this year: another sad family tragedy) about the pregnancy, that it was only after careful consideration – balancing how nice it would be for him to know that the next generation of his family was on the way before his death – that she went ahead and did so. And as the end of the first trimester, and the end of the year, approached, I genuinely believed that the string of bad luck that had been 2012 was over.
But it wasn’t to be. Just as soon as we were looking forward to New Year, and planning to not so much “see in 2013” as to “kick out 2012”, Ruth had a little bleeding. Swiftly followed by abdominal cramps. She spent most of New Year’s Eve at the hospital, where they’d determined that she’d suffered a miscarriage, probably a few weeks earlier.
Ruth’s written about it. JTA’s written about it, too. And I’d recommend they read their account rather than mine: they’ve both written more, and better, about the subject than I could. But I shan’t pretend that it wasn’t hard: in truth, it was heartbreaking. At the times that I could persuade myself that my grief was “acceptable” (and that I shouldn’t be, say, looking after Ruth), I cried a lot. For me, “Jethrik” represented a happy ending to a miserable year: some good news at last for the people I was closest to. Perhaps, then, I attached too much importance to it, but it seemed inconceivable to me – no pun intended – that for all of the effort they’d put in, that things wouldn’t just go perfectly. For me, it was all connected: Ruth wasn’t pregnant by me, but I still found myself wishing that my dad could have lived to have seen it, and when the pregnancy went wrong, it made me realise how much I’d been pinning on it.
I don’t have a positive pick-me-up line to put here. But it feels like I should.
And so there we were, at the tail of 2012: the year that began awfully, ended awfully, and was pretty awful in the middle. I can’t say there weren’t good bits, but they were somewhat drowned out by all of the shit that happened. Fuck off, 2012.
Here’s to 2013.
Edit, 16th March 2013: By Becky’s request, removed an unflattering photo of her and some of the ickier details of her health problems this year.
Edit, 11th July 2016: At her request, my friend S******’s personal details have been obfuscated in this post so that they are no longer readily available to search engines.
Edit, 26th September 2016: At her request, my friend S******’s photo was removed from this post, too.
You know how when your life is busy time seems to creep by so slowly… you look back and say “do you remember the time… oh, that was just last week!” Well that’s what my life’s been like, of late.
There was Milestone: Jethrik and the Three Rings Conference, of course, which ate up a lot of my time but then paid off wonderfully – the conference was a wonderful success, and our announcements about formalising our non-profit nature and our plans for the future were well-received by the delegates. A slightly lower-than-anticipated turnout (not least because of this winter ‘flu that’s going around) didn’t prevent the delegates (who’d come from far and wide: Samaritans branches, Nightlines, and even a representative from a Community Library that uses the software) from saying wonderful things about the event. We’re hoping for some great feedback to the satisfaction surveys we’ve just sent out, too.
Hot on the heels of those volunteering activities came my latest taped assessment for my counselling course at Aylesbury College. Given the brief that I was “a volunteer counseller at a school, when the parent of a bullied child comes in, in tears”, I took part in an observed, recorded role-play scenario, which now I’m tasked with dissecting and writing an essay about. Which isn’t so bad, except that the whole thing went really well, so I can’t take my usual approach of picking holes in it and saying what I learned from it. Instead I’ll have to have a go at talking about what I did right and trying to apply elements of counselling theory to justify the way I worked. That’ll be fun, too, but it does of course mean that the busy lifestyle isn’t quite over yet.
And then on Tuesday I was a guest at the UK Bus Awards, an annual event which my dad co-pioneered back in the mid-1990s. I’d been invited along by Transaid, the charity that my dad was supporting with his planned expedition to the North Pole before he was killed during an accident while training. I was there first and foremost to receive (posthumously, on his behalf) the first Peter Huntley Fundraising Award, which will be given each year to the person who – through a physical activity – raises the most money for Transaid. The award was first announced at my father’s funeral, by Gary Forster, the charity’s chief executive. Before he worked for the charity he volunteered with them for some time, including a significant amount of work in sub-Saharan Africa, so he and I spent a little while at the event discussing the quirks of the local cuisine, which I’d experienced some years earlier during my sponsored cycle around the country (with my dad).
So it’s all been “go, go, go,” again, and I apologise to those whose emails and texts I’ve neglected. Or maybe I haven’t neglected them so much as I think: after all – if you emailed me last week, right now that feels like months ago.
As a trainee counsellor, I’ve had plenty of opportunity of late for self-analysis and reflection. Sometimes revelations come at unexpected times, as I discovered recently.
I was playing the part of a client in a role-play scenario for another student on my course when I was struck by a realisation that I didn’t feel that my “counsellor” was able to provide an effective and empathetic response to the particular situations I was describing. It didn’t take me long to spot that the reason I felt this way was her age. Probably the youngest in our class – of whose span of ages I probably sit firmly in the middle – her technical skill is perfectly good, and she’s clearly an intelligent and emotionally-smart young woman… but somehow, I didn’t feel like she would be able to effectively support me.
And this turned out to be somewhat true: the session ended somewhat-satisfactorily, but there were clear moments during which I didn’t feel that a rapport had been established. Afterwards, I found myself wondering: how much of this result was caused by her approach to listening to me… and how much was caused by my perception of how she would approach listening to me? Of the barriers that lay between us, which had I erected?
Since then, I’ve spent a little time trying to get to the bottom of this observation about myself, asking: from where does my assumption stem that age can always be associated with an empathic response? A few obvious answers stand out: for a start, there’s the fact that there probably is such a trend, in general (although it’s still unfair to make the outright assumption that it will apply in any particular case, especially with somebody whose training should counteract that trend). Furthermore, there’s the assumption that one’s own experience is representative: I know very well that at 18 years old, my personal empathic response was very weak, and so there’s the risk that I project that onto other young adults.
However, the most-interesting source for this prejudice, that I’ve found, has been Nightline training.
Many years ago, I was a volunteer at Aberystwyth Nightline. I worked there for quite a while, and even after I’d graduated and moved on, I would periodically go back to help out with training sessions, imparting some of what I’d learned to a new generation of student listeners.
As I did this, a strange phenomenon began to occur: every time I went back, the trainees got younger and younger. Now of course this isn’t true – it’s just that I was older each time – but it was a convincing illusion. A second thing happened, too: every time I went back, the natural aptitude of the trainees, for the work, seemed to be less fine-tuned than it had the time before. Again, this was just a convincing illusion: through my ongoing personal development and my work with Samaritans, Oxford Friend, and others, I was always learning new skills to apply to helping relationships, but each new batch of trainees was just getting off to a fresh start.
This combination of illusions is partly responsible for the idea, in my mind, that “younger = less good a listener”: for many years, I’ve kept seeing people who are younger and younger (actually just younger than me, by more) and who have had less and less listening experience (actually just less experience relative to me, increasingly). It’s completely false, but it’s the kind of illusion that nibbles at the corners of your brain, if you’ll let it.
Practicing good self-awareness helps counsellors to find the sources of their own prejudices and challenge them. But it’s not always easy, and sometimes the realisations come when you least expect them.
I mentioned back in October that I’ve returned to education and am now studying counselling, part-time. I thought I’d share with you an update on how that’s going.
The short answer: it’s going well.
I’m finding myself challenged in fun and new ways, despite my volunteering experience, which has included no small amount of work on emotional support helplines of one kind of another. For example, we’ve on two occasions now done role-play sessions in which the “helper” (the person acting in the role of a counsellor) has been required to not ask any questions to the “helpee” (their client). Depending on your theoretical orientation and your background, that’s either a moderately challenging or a very challenging thing – sort of like the opposite of a game of Questions, but with the added challenge that you’re trying to pay attention to what the other participant is actually saying, rather than thinking “Don’t ask a question; don’t ask a question; don’t ask a question…” the whole damn time.
It’s an enjoyable exercise, and works really well to help focus on sometimes-underused skills like paraphrasing and summarising, as well as of course giving you plenty of opportunity to simply listen, attend to the helpee, and practice your empathic response. The first time I did it I was noticed (by my observer) to be visibly uncomfortable, almost “itching to ask something”, but by the second occasion, I’d cracked it. It’s like climbing with one arm tied behind your back! But as you’d expect of such an exercise, it leaves you with far more care, and control… and one enormous muscular arm!
Amidst all of the “fluffy” assessment, I was pleased this semester to be able to cut my teeth on some theoretical stuff, as a break. The practical side is good, but I do enjoy the chance to get deep into some theory once in a while, and my reading list has spiraled out of control as each thing I read leads me to find two other titles that I’d probably enjoy getting into next. I’ve recently been reading Living with ‘The Gloria Films’: A Daughter’s Memory, by Pamela J Burry, whose existence in itself takes a little explanation:
In 1964, three psychotherapists walked into a bar. They were Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis and Fritz Perls. They had a few drinks, and then they had an argument about whose approach to psychotherapy was the best.
“I respect you both deeply,” began Perls, “But surely it is clear to see that your rejection of Gestalt therapy is rooted in your attempts to pretend to be accepting of it. It is clearly the superior approach.”
“You don’t need to get emotional over this,” said Ellis, “Let’s just go back and find the event that first inspired your prejudice against my rational emotive therapy, and re-examine it: there should be no doubt that it is the best way to treat disorders.”
“It feels like you’re being quite cold to one another,” said Rogers, father of the humanistic approach, after a moment’s pause. “I wonder what we could do to explore this disagreement that we’re having… and perhaps come to an answer that feels right to us all?”
And so the three agreed to a test: they would find a subject who was willing to undergo a single therapy session from all three of them, and then it’d be clear who was the winner. They’d film the whole thing, to make sure that there could be no denying the relative successes of each approach. And the losers would each pay for all of the winner’s drinks the next time they went out to the Rat And Bang, their local pub.
Now that story is complete bullshit, but it’s far more-amusing than any true explanation as to why these three leading counsellors were filmed, each in turn, talking to a client by the name of Gloria – a 30-year-old divorced mother of three concerned with being a good parent and how she presents herself to men. I’ll leave you to find and watch the films for yourself if you want: they’re all available on video sharing sites around the web, and I’d particularly recommend Carl Rogers’ videos if you’re looking for something that almost everybody will find quite watchable.
Gloria died fifteen years later, but her daughter “Pammy” (whose question about sex, when she was nine years old, gave so much material to Gloria’s session with Carl Rogers) wrote a biography of their lives together, which was published in 2008. The focus of “The Gloria Films” was on the therapeutic methodologies of the practitioners, of course. But Gloria herself was intelligent and compelling, and I was genuinely interested to get “the rest of the story” after she left that film studio (made up to look like a psychotherapist’s office) and got on with her life.
Hence the book.
And so hence, my example of how I keep reading (or in this case watching) things, which lead me to find more things to read, which in turn give me yet more things to read.
It’s actually a qualification I’ve been looking at for several years, but it’s only recently that I’ve lived somewhere even remotely close to somewhere that it’s taught: while there’s a lot of counselling theory that can be learned by distance learning, there’s naturally a lot of hands-on counselling practice that demands a classroom or clinical setting, and for that… you really do need to be within reach of a suitable school.
Not that Aylesbury‘s exactly on my doorstep. It’s not even in the same county as me (it’s just barely over the border, in fact, into Buckinghamshire). And this can make things a little challenging: whereas many of my classmates walk or cycle in, I have a special little dance that I have to do every Monday, in order to make my study possible.
I arrive at work early, so that I can get out of the door by 4:30pm. I then leap onto my bike and pedal furiously through Oxford’s crowded afternoon streets to the East side of the city. There, I lock my bike up and hop into a borrowed car (more about that in another blog post), pick my way out between the growing pre-rush-hour traffic, sprawling 20mph zones, and deathwish cyclists, and hammer along the A418 in order to get to class for its 6pm start.
Three hours of theory and roleplay later (as well as a break to eat a packet sandwich), I’m back on the road. It annoys me more than a little that now that I’m not in a hurry, the roads are usually clear and empty, but it’s a good excuse to crank up the volume on Jack FM and enjoy the ride back through the villages of East Oxfordshire. Back in Oxford, I pick up my bike and cycle home: I’m usually back before 10:30. It’s quite a long day, really.
So what’s it all for? Well: ultimately, if I stick with it, it leads to a Certificate in Counselling, then to a Diploma in Counselling. If you take that and couple it with a stack of distance learning modules, it adds up to… well, this Foundation Degree in Counselling, perhaps.
But that’s not what you wanted to know: what you wanted to know was, “What are you doing, Dan? What’s wrong with the degree and career you’ve already got?”
But also, it’s about the idea I’ve always had that a good mid-life crisis ought to benefit from planning: it’s too important to leave to chance. And I’ve been thinking that a career switch might be a great mid-life crisis. The social sciences are fun, and while counselling might not be exactly what I’m looking for, there’s some doors opened by studying it. With less than a decade before I’m 40, and with part-time study being an ever-so-slow way to get things done, I’d better pull my finger out.
Doubtless, I’ll have more to say about my course as it progresses, but for now, I’m just glad that it’s half-term week, which means I get a week in which I don’t spend my Monday running around like a headless chicken… and I get twice as long to finish my homework.