The Story of Scgary

Unless they happened to bump into each other at QParty, the first time Ruth and JTA met my school friend Gary was at my dad’s funeral. Gary had seen mention of the death in the local paper and came to the wake. About 30 seconds later, Gary and I were reminiscing, exchanging anecdotes about our misspent youths, when suddenly JTA blurted out: “Oh my God… you’re Sc… Sc-gary?”

Ever since then, my internal monologue has referred to Gary by the new nickname “Scgary”, but to understand why requires a little bit of history…

Public transport industry professionals at Peter Huntley's wake
While one end of the hall in which we held my dad’s wake turned into an impromptu conference of public transport professionals, I was at the other end, talking to my friends.

Despite having been close for over a decade, Gary and I drifted apart somewhat after I moved to Aberystwyth in 1999, especially as I became more and more deeply involved with volunteering at Aberystwyth Nightline and the resulting change in my social circle which soon was 90% comprised of fellow volunteers, (ultimately resulting in JTA’s “What, Everyone?” moment). We still kept in touch, but our once more-intense relationship – which started in a primary school playground! – was put on a backburner as we tackled the next big things in our lives.

Training page from the Aberystwyth Nightline website, circa 2004
This is what the recruitment page on the Aberystwyth Nightline website looked like after I’d improved it. The Web was younger, then.

Something I was always particularly interested both at Nightline and in the helplines I volunteered with subsequently was training. At Nightline, I proposed and pushed forward a reimplementation of their traditional training programme that put a far greater focus on experience and practical skills and less on topical presentations. My experience as a trainee and as a helpline volunteer had given me an appreciation of the fundamentals of listening and I wanted future trainees to be able to benefit from this by giving them less time talking about listening and more time practising listening.

Aberystwyth Nightline training in the Cwrt Mawr Party Room
Nightline training wasn’t always like this, I promise. Well: except for the flipchart covered in brainstorming; that was pretty universal.

The primary mechanism by which helplines facilitate such practical training is through roleplaying. A trainer will pretend to be a caller and will talk to a trainee, after which the pair (along with any other trainers or trainees who are observing) will debrief and talk about how it went. The only problem with switching wholesale to a roleplay/skills-driven approach to training at Aberystwyth Nightline, as I saw it, was the approach that was historically taken to the generation of roleplay material, which favoured the use of anonymised adaptations of real or imagined calls.

Roleplay scenarios must be realistic (so that they simulate the experience of genuine calls with sufficient accuracy that they are meaningful) but they must also be effective (at promoting the growth of the skills that are needed to best-support callers). Those two criteria often come into conflict in roleplay scenarios: a caller who sits in near-silence for 20 minutes may well be realistic, but there’s a limit to how much you can learn from sitting in silence; a roleplay which tests every facet of a trainee’s practical knowledge provides efficiency, but does not reflect the content of any call that has ever really happened.

Aberystwyth Nightline calltaking office circa 2006
I spent a lot of my undergraduate degree in this poky little concrete box (most of it before the redecoration photographed above), and damned if I wasn’t going to share what I’d learned from the experience.

I spent some time outlining the characteristics of best-practice roleplays and providing guidelines to help “train the trainers”. These included ideas, some of which were (then) a little radical, like:

  1. A roleplay should be based upon a character, not a story: if the trainer knows how the call is going to end, this constrains the opportunity for the trainee to explore the space and experiment with listening concepts. A roleplay is necessarily improvisational: get into your character, let go of your preconceptions.
  2. Avoid using emotionally-charged experiences from your own life: use your own experience, certainly, but put your own emotional baggage aside. Not only is it unfair to your trainee (they’re not your therapist!) but it can be a can of worms in its own right – I’ve seen a (great) trainee help a trainer to make a personal breakthrough for which they were perhaps not yet ready.
  3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes: you’re not infallible, and you neither need to be nor to present yourself as a perfect example of a volunteer. Be willing to learn from the trainees (I’ve definitely made use of things I’ve learned from trainees in real calls I’ve taken at Samaritans) and create a space in which you can collectively discuss how roleplays went, rather than simply critiquing them.
JTA learning to pick locks during a break at Nightline training
I might have inadvertently introduced other skills practice to take place during the breaks in Nightline training: several trainees learned to juggle under my instruction, or were shown the basics of lock picking…

In order to demonstrate the concepts I was promoting, I wrote and demonstrated a significant number of sample roleplay ideas, many of which I (or others) would then go on to flesh-out into full roleplays at training sessions. One of these for which I became well-known was entitled My Friend Scott.

The caller in this roleplay presents with suicidal ideation fuelled by feelings of guilt and loneliness following the accidental death, about six months prior, of his best friend Scott, for which he feels responsible. Scott had been the caller’s best friend since childhood, and he’s fixated on the adventures that they’d had together. He clearly has a huge admiration for his dead friend, bordering on infatuation, and blames himself not only for the death but for the resulting fracturing of their shared friendship group and his subsequent isolation.

(We’re close to getting back to the “Scgary story”, I promise. Hang in here.)

Gary, circa 1998
Gary, circa 1998, at the door to my mother’s house. Unlike Scott, Gary didn’t die “six months ago”-from-whenever. Hurray!

When I would perform this roleplay as the caller, I’d routinely flesh out Scott and the caller’s backstory with anecdotes from my own childhood and early-adulthood: it seemed important to be able to fill in these kinds of details in order to demonstrate how important Scott was to the caller’s life. Things that I really did with any of several of my childhood friends found their way, with or without embellishment, into the roleplay, like:

  • Building a raft on the local duck pond and paddling out to an island, only to have the raft disintegrate and have to swim back
  • An effort to dye a friend’s hair bright red which didn’t produce a terribly satisfactory result but did stain many parts of a bathroom
  • Camping in the garden, dragging out a desktop computer and extension cable to fully replicate the “in the wild” experience
  • Flooding my mother’s garden (which at that time was a long slope on clay soil) in order to make a muddy waterslide
  • Generating fake credit card numbers to facilitate repeated month-long free trials of an ISP‘s services
  • Riding on the bonnet of a friend’s first car, hanging on to the windscreen wipers, eventually (unsurprisingly) falling off and getting run over
Gary covered with red hair dye
That time Scott Gary and I tried to dye his hair red but mostly dyed what felt like everything else in the world.

Of course: none of the new Nightliners I trained knew which, if any, of these stories were real – that was never a part of the experience. But many were real, or had a morsel of truth. And a reasonable number of them – four of those in the list above – were things that Gary and I had done together in our youth.

JTA’s surprise came from that strange feeling that occurs when two very parts of your life that you thought were completely separate suddenly and unexpectedly collide with one another (I’m familiar with it). The anecdote that Gary had just shared about our teen years was one that exactly mirrored something he’d heard me say during the My Friend Scott roleplay, and it briefly crashed his brain. Suddenly, this was Scott standing in front of him, and he’d been able to get far enough through his sentence to begin saying that name (“Sc…”) before the crash stopped him in his tracks and he finished off with “…gary”.

Gary with some girl called Sheryl and some friend of hers
Scott Gary always had a certain charm with young women. Who were these two and what were they doing in my bedroom? I don’t know, but if there’s an answer, then Scott Gary is the answer.

I’m not sure whether or not Gary realises that, in my house at least, he’s to this day been called “Scgary”.

I bumped into him, completely by chance, while visiting my family in Preston this weekend. That reminded me that I’d long planned to tell this story: the story of Scgary, the imaginary person who exists only in the minds of the tiny intersection of people who’ve both (a) met my friend Gary and know about some of the crazy shit we got up to together when we were young and foolish and (b) trained as a volunteer at Aberystwyth Nightline during the window between me overhauling how training was provided and ceasing to be involved with the training programme (as far as I’m aware, nobody is performing My Friend Scott in my absence, but it’s possible…).

Gary and Faye embracing on a sleeping bag
That time Scott Gary (drunk) hooked up with my (even more drunk) then crush at my (drunken) 18th birthday party.

Gary asked me to give him a shout and meet up for a beer next time I’m in his neck of the woods, but it only occurred to me after I said goodbye that I’ve no idea what the best way to reach him is, these days. Like many children of the 80s, I’ve still got the landline phone numbers memorised of all of my childhood friends, but even if that number is still valid, it’d be his parents house!

I guess that I’ll let the Internet do the work for me: perhaps if I write this, here, he’ll find it, somehow. Hi, Scgary!

Ageism, Nightline, and Counselling

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.

A counselling session in progress.
A counselling session in progress.

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.

The Nightline Association
The Nightline Association, umbrella body representing student Nightlines around the UK and overseas

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.

The Course, Of Course

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 classroom at Aylesbury College where the practical parts (and some of the theory) of my course are taught.

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:

Gloria with Carl Rogers, from the film "Three Approaches to Psychotherapy"

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.

Albert Ellis wraps up at the end of his section of "Three Approaches to Psychotherapy".

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.

And now you’re up-to-date.

Back To School

Next week is half-term. Why does that matter? Because I’m back in education.

Since last month, I’ve been a student again. Not full-time (I’m not falling for that one again), of course, but I currently spend my Monday evenings studying towards a Certificate in Counselling Skills at Aylesbury College.

Aylesbury College. It's actually quite an attractive building, except in the rain.

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.

This is the M40. I don't get to go on this. But that dual carriageway you see going over the top of it? That's one of the few stretches of decent road on my weekly commute to Buckinghamshire.

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?”

Well firstly, of course, learning doesn’t have to be about qualifications. This is a field that I’ve been interested in for longer than I’ve been blogging. Plus: I’m sure that my various pieces of emotional support work, like my work with Oxford Friend, will benefit from the experience and learning that I bring to it.

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.

Trustee In Me

Since last year, I’ve been volunteering at a helpline called Oxford Friend, providing emotional support and information to the LGBT community in Oxfordshire (those who are aware of my volunteering background are unlikely to find this surprising). More-recently, though, I became a trustee of that charity, and that’s what I thought I’d tell you about.

Every helpline and similar service I’ve volunteered with has had it’s… quirks. They’ve all got their own unique personality and identity, their own strange policies and practices, and Oxford Friend is no exception. One thing that I always found unusual about them – and still do – is the peculiar way they differentiate between trainee and “full” members: once they’re done as a trainee and become a full member, volunteers become trustees of the charity.

At first, this seemed like a lot of paperwork with little benefit, but the idea has grown on me a little. By becoming a trustee, you’re becoming responsible for (and liable for!) the actions of the charity, which should encourage one to have it’s best interests at heart (as if that were ever a concern!). It fosters a sense of ongoing shared responsibility, making a charity that’s less like a corporation and more like a co-operative.

It’s only feasible, I think, because the charity is so small: a few dozen volunteers collectively running a helpline, email service, and providing external outreach and training on LGBT issues. It’s a very communal approach to the management of the operation of the charity, and it seems to work perfectly well: they’ve been running for 30 years now! But I don’t think it would work for a larger charity like either of the Samaritans branches I’ve worked with.

I’ll be interested to see if the addition of my unusual name to the record at the Charity Commission goes to plan (Companies House always seem to have difficulty with it!). But regardless: for now, I’m proud to be able to support Oxford Friend and the remarkably valuable work that they do.

Y’know: in my copious amounts of free time.

Talking About Suicide – A Revelation

“Asking about suicidal feelings cannot ‘put the idea into a caller’s head.'” If you’ve ever worked in a listening organisation that will openly talk about suicidal feelings, like a branch of Samaritans or a university Nightline, you’re likely to have heard this said. In virtually every training group to which talking about suicide is first mentioned, a trainee will ask “But if they’re not actively suicidal, might mentioning it give them it as an idea?” And the answer is no.

This is an important part of the work of these – and similar – organisations. While their manifesto may already state that they are there to talk about whatever feelings are on the mind of their caller, it’s still seen as necessary, sometimes, to remind the caller that yes, it’s really okay to talk about anything at all… even about ending their own life. Showing that it’s okay can open the door to really exploring the caller’s feelings and can make all the difference to somebody in a state of suicidal despair.

What I’d like to share with you is the evolution of a certain subset thoughts about suicide.

Talking About Suicide – A Revelation
(or How I Proved Myself Wrong Twice But Still Got The Right Answer)

Up to as recently as five or six years ago I was of the opinion that certain anti-suicide measures were pointless. I’m talking about building anti-suicide fences on bridges (like the Memorial Bridge in Maine), the installation of platform-edge doors on London’s Jubilee Line (mentioned in this article and shown in this video), and the restriction of the number of analgesics like paracetamol and aspirin that can be bought in one transaction, since 1998. I could not understand that this could possibly work. Suicide is almost invariably a pre-meditated act, and so access is removed to one means of doing away with oneself, you’ll simply use another – and there’s no shortage of ways to take your life.

Then, one day, I discovered that it doesn’t necessarily work like that.

Anti-suicide fences can be statistically proven to reduce not only the frequency of suicides at the site at which they are installed, but throughout the region – if suicide were, as I had believed, unaffected by availability of any one particular means of committing the act – then I would anticipate that a comparable, perhaps only slightly fewer, number of suicides would take place. Switching coal gas to natural gas in Britain in the 1960s was linked to a reduction in suicides on the whole (Kreitman, 1976), and only a smaller increase in suicide rates by other means. Similar studies in the US have shown that reducing the availability of firearms reduces suicide rates more than would be expected if the “saved” would simply switch to a different method.

So it turned out I was wrong. Reducing the availability of means of suicide really can have an impact on suicide rates, as if suicide really were a spontaneous thing (“I’m feeling so low… I could just – hey, look, a rope just hanging there; that’s convenient – well, go on then…”). But those who commit suicide often seem to have planned the act for some time before. Some have been known to have repeatedly visited what would eventually become the site of their death for months or even years before eventually taking their lives. Those who throw themselves under trains sometimes keep visiting their station of choice – unnoticed by staff as they mingle in with the commuter crowd – in order to determine where trains travel the fastest and which trains don’t stop at all. This fact has since been used to provide training to station staff in spotting these people in advance – another suicide prevention strategy.

What does this mean for talking to callers about suicide? When I learnt about these kinds of studies, I started to question what I “knew.” After all, if it’s true that passing a particularly high bridge can be sufficient to push a suicidally depressed person over the edge, so to speak, how could I possibly argue that it wasn’t the case that encouraging that same person to talk about their suicidal feelings would have the same effect. After all, aren’t both the same thing: making suicide seem like an acceptable option by making it more approachable – physically, in the case of the bridge, and more mentally paletable in the case of a caring ear who does not disapprove of your right to terminate your own life. This caused me a significant amount of cognitive dissonance (thanks, Changing Minds!) and I had to put a hold on my volunteer work in this area while I resolved it. As I put it at the time, I had “lost my faith” in the process I promoted.

And that could have been the end of the story. But I’m not a fan of unanswered questions in my mind, and I put a great deal of thought into suicide prevention and into talking about suicide.

Eventually I was able to resolve it. For a while, this resolution was simply based on “what felt right”: I came to the conclusion that seeing a bridge and talking about suicidal thoughts and feeling are actually quite distinct: the former is about the means to perform the action, whereas the latter is about the space to express the feeling. This was enough to put me back on track and, ultimately, make me far more comfortable. Later, I came across psychological studies that backed up that belief, like those referenced by the impressively-titled Scientific Foundations of Cognitive Theory and Therapy of Depression, by David A. Clak, Aaron Beck, and Brad A. Alford.

But for a while there, I wondered.

Further Reading

If I haven’t made you do so already, take a look at chapter 4 of Influence: Science and Practice, by Robert B. Cialdini, which I reviewed some time ago. I’m currently reading The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell. Both of these books go into great deal about social proof and contagion and how what happens around us can have a huge effect on how we behave as a society, even leading to streaks of suicide or violent crime. For serious psychology in an easy-to-read and enjoyable format, I thoroughly recommend the Changing Minds website. And if you’re still interested, follow some of my links, above – many of them, combined with a little Google-fu or Wikipedia-surfing, are great starting points for further research.