Wishing you well.

Waking up into a thought can be a refreshing experience. Recently my thoughts ran onto members of the  Experiential Group I had facilitated for 22 weeks. My thought was simply this: I wished them all well. I also wanted to thank all of the group members.

I have described in an earlier blog what the function the experiential group had and what my role was. What I have not given is a facilitators perspective on how the groups development was and why I wish the members that attended well.

1st Meeting September 2015

The first meeting of the group was interesting. They came into a room that was ill prepared for any therapeutic endeavour. Chairs and tables were hurriedly arranged in a heap towards the back of the room. I entered the room and found a seat and sat towards the front of the room. Members of the experiential group came in after me and found a chair and placed it in a loose formed elliptical shape and then took to their seats. Other members were already in the room and either stayed in their seats or chose the lesson change over time to stretch their legs and take time to wander into the corridor and chat with other students. They would return in time for the beginning of the next lesson and again take their seats.

Sitting at the ‘front’ of the group became my habit for at least 5 of the first meetings. I would later change my position in the room which caused slight ripples of discomfort amongst the group. Comments included “why has Michael changed where he used to sit?” Not providing an answer and allowing the group to give reason for the slight change presented them with a new reality of me their facilitator.

Changing something small

Being a mischievous person altering my seating position in the room and not sharing as to why I had moved from the front of the class to the side or sometimes the back of the room gave the students an opportunity to appreciate change within the therapeutic space. Initially I moved as I wanted to test the group. Would moving to the left or right of the front of the room change the dynamics of the room?

The change represented difference and I feel that a number of conversations occurred in relation to the subtlety of my movement. The group responded by discussing differences of opinion about the course, each other, perspectives on race, religion, sex, counselling, spirituality, profession, age, family, the why of this career as opposed to any other. Identities for the group became a little more defined, roles the members played changed from week to week: the information bearer, joker, quiet one, challenger, agreer, arguer, dismisser, lecturer enthusiast, social commentator, pessimist, optimist and realist changed from week to week. Which offered the group a chance to simultaneously grow individually and together.

Time and Timings

There were a number of boundaries that were initially presented as trigger points which the group  agreed on or raged against. The clock on the wall in the space we used was roughly 3 minutes faster than real time (my watch). By the 3rd week I had identified that my start and stop times were out of sync with the clock on the wall and members of the group were agitated by this discrepancy.

I chose to raise the timing of the start and end time with the group to gain perspective on whether clock time or watch time would be best to use for the timing of the experiential group hour. On reflection the group decided that they would like to use the clock on the wall to time the beginning and the end of each experiential group.

By the 4th week the timing of the start had slid to coincide with my ‘watch time’ and so I naturally chose to adjust the timing of the experiential group to allow for a later start. Challenge to the timing of the Experiential Group became a frequent issue in the 1st few weeks of the group being run. No sooner had I either raised my hand or indicated that our time together had come to an end, students were making their way to the door. I found it curious. It was like something had gone wrong with the work. Their exit provided them with an abrupt end to a difficult experience. At times this may well have been the case.

Challenge

Describing the purpose of the experiential group was something I had not spent a lot of time reviewing before the group started. In short I said to the 11 members how I perceived the space could be used and said ‘Welcome to your first experiential group. How has your first day been?’ I was promptly informed that the group had started the course a week ago and that this was infact their 2nd week.

Ah, the facilitator gets it wrong! But can he regroup? Internalised thought

I then said something about the idea of safety and that I wanted to provide a safe environment in which all students could share things in the room and be heard. The other idea that was put across to the room was that they needed to be authentic as their professional logs would be marked on reflection of what they had shared in the room.

Challenges came from the group in terms of not fully understanding the purpose of experiential group, or what my role as facilitator was, and questioning if the material that was discussed would disrupt the fragile new alliances that were being formed amongst the group. I took up the gauntlet and attempted to manage the groups development as I had with other groups I had supported previously, which included the Skype group of counsellors that I met with every month and the various basketball teams I had coached.

Experiential Group as a Catalyst

If a person could take a picture of themselves before joining a group experience and then another at a mid-point of a course and then another picture near the end of the course they may well be able to perceive subtle changes about themselves.

Things like their stance whilst sitting or standing, as they talked and expressed ideas to a group of peers. When being challenged by another on a point, they would not try to slink away and hide nor become defensive but seek an empathic understanding of why the question or challenge came when it did.

The picture of themselves in the last experiential group would present them with their growth. By journeying with peers, subtle and significant changes will have occurred. For me as a facilitator all students appeared to have hewn from the granite of the course an identity of who they were and where their counselling journey was to lead them to next.

Good bye and Thanks

I have mentioned in a previous blog that saying goodbye to this first group of counselling students was bittersweet. We were able to develop a closing experience of the group that seemed to resonate with all members that attended.

At one point my voice cracked as I shared that I was going to give up ‘Fear’ and what I was going to take was ‘All 11 of you’. The closing of the group had been mentioned as an idea roughly 9 weeks prior. It was similar to the ending of the Roda when I attended Capoeira with the London School of Capoeira 1999-2001. A completing of a good dance with fellow capoeiristas.

I considered all I had worked with, as a facilitator of this years Experiential Group, ready to move on to the next stage of their journey, capable of fulfilling their roles as mental health practitioners/counsellors/psychotherapists/students.

My thanks are largely due as a result of the group’s patience, resilience, trust and belief that I could facilitate the room and support the group to hold each other and the issues discussed with sensitivity warmth and compassion.

What a ride! I look forward to my next group of students, going again and supporting learning and development.

I wish you well.

Crystalisation of Identity

From Person Centred Counselling to an Integrative Approach: One Client Inviting Change

Pier and Bridge

A Beginning – Morley College

I started officially training to be a counsellor in 2006. The introduction to counselling course was at Morley College and taught me what Counselling entails. Iain Mendelberg was the tutor and was able to offer a model for the type of counselling professional I wanted to be for clients: patient, wise, honest and courageous.

As a group of trainee counsellors, we were introduced to Carl Rogers and his passage into counselling and psychotherapy. Rogers was closely followed by Fritz Perls and Gerard Egan which gave us a thorough grounding of person centred and humanistic perspectives of counselling.

Freud’s scientific method was often referenced as a starting point that was used to frame our learning. What I gained insight to was from Mr Mendelberg’s calm humorous approach to teaching. His generosity as an educator gave me an indication of what lay ahead for me as I trained – I too could become for those that I worked with a reflective, calm and person centred mental health practitioner. Or so I thought.

On completing the Morley course I took a year out of study. My first son Coltrane, was born shortly after the course ended in June 2007. 1 year later September 2008 I began at Greenwich University on the MSc Therapeutic Counselling an integrative counselling course.

What Does Integrative Mean?

I had little understanding of what integrative meant in the 1st year. Some of the information that was covered in the first term refreshed my awareness of counselling theory from my time at Morley college. The main difference between the Greenwich course I felt was apart from the workload was also the amount of reading material to be digested on a weekly basis and the depth the writing therein went to.

Each article was intricately written, often with intimate insights that frequently altered my perspective of counselling. There was also a general understanding that the reader would grasp some, if not all of the concepts discussed. The first year of the course I found to be a struggle but I worked hard at attempting to meet the requirements the course asked of me including; Placement and application of counselling theory, Skills, Experiential group, Theory, and Personal logs. The requirements life asked of me were a frequent source if inspiration, tension and fatigue and these included; my marriage, fatherhood, work, coaching basketball, amongst a few other responsibilities…

Integration of Perspectives

For the 2nd year of the course at Greenwich in Oct 2010, I was fortunate in securing a 2nd placement at a prison. My first placement was at a Doctor’s surgery in SE London which I was fortunate to be awarded in Aug 2009. My learning as a trainee counsellor I feel was enhanced by both placements as I was able to witness how mental illness is supported in the community and in a prison setting. The significant differences noted were the efforts made by the mental health team in prison collaboratively working together to reduce risk efficiently.

In the community, fast access to mental health support is desirable but not always achievable. Due to the volume of people in GP’s wards. The range of services and referrals to and from specialist support is difficult to meet. Providing treatment for mild to moderate cases of mental illness can take 6 weeks – 8 months to be received. With the advent of IAPT (Increased Access to Psychological Therapy), the idea was to drastically reduce waiting times and be able to support more people in the UK, that experienced depression and anxiety.

Laos – Understanding Integration

I met Laos (not his real name) in January 2011. Laos was a tall, well-built Asian man in his 30’s who repeatedly offended. He was held in custody for charges related to attempting to rob with a bladed article. Laos shared with me the incident in question and much of his life history. Which is to follow.

I worked with Laos for 5 sessions in total and throughout that short time my counselling approach changed. During the 2nd and 3rd appointments an idea formed that person centred counselling did not appear to be touching the core of this man’s particular set of difficulties. I took it upon myself to investigate and develop a psychological perspective to gain an understanding of his formative life experiences and how I could support him more effectively as a counsellor.

Reflecting on my counselling journey it was this choice that changed my perspective on how I practice as a therapist. As an aside I have enjoyed the Kung-Fu Panda series of movies. The 3rd Kung-Fu Panda stood out as a perfect collaboration of contextual realities, concluding with a seminal experience and eventual crystalisation of identity for Po. My light-bulb moment wasn’t as spectacular but had elements of the clarity Po achieved in this movie clip.

Drug Use – An Escape?

Laos reported that he had many change experiences including moving home a number of times across much of Asia, the far east, Australia, Canada and to U.A.E. Laos had begun using various drugs in his teens starting with Marijuana, Heroin, Cocaine and Crack. He mentioned that he had also used amphetamines but stated that he preferred cocaine. With other drugs he reported that it was always a gamble.

Schooling

He described himself as a bright student and that he found G.C.S.E’s easy. Laos said that he started smoking marijuana to celebrate with friends on completing his exams. Initially it was purely recreational. A levels Laos said were more difficult and he changed to the International Baccalaureate. These qualifications he said suited his learning style more. Laos was introduced to harder drugs at AS level and began selling and distributing to supplement his own use.

Laos shared that he and his father didn’t really get on. His father was the main reason that the family moved as much as they did. Laos described his father as strict and the one who dealt with his indiscretions severely.

Life Events

Laos described his mum as kinder and nurturing towards him. His mother died when Laos was in his late teens and he mentioned that for the family it was a difficult time. Laos experienced his 1st Jail term in a Malaysian prison shortly after his mother’s death. He was convicted as a minor of selling and distributing cocaine to fellow students at his school. He reported being in jail for a period of 9 months. He was released early as a result of his father’s connections. Laos described this period as hell on earth. He was away from family for the first time and his mother had passed away. Laos mentioned that his father had practically disowned him for the sense of shame he had brought on the family. His siblings were angry and upset with him. All that he had known was irrevocably changed.

Recognising the inter-relatedness of attachment theory, Object relations, Transactional Analysis, maladaptive coping mechanisms which can support a person in functioning into adulthood. Coping mechanisms unfortunately breakdown in moments of crisis. For Laos these moments of crises were experienced when he was faced with; the mundane and monotonous, significant moments of change or stress.

He had experience of supporting himself by using alcohol and various drugs including marijuana cocaine and heroin. Laos described himself as a binger (someone who used lots of a substance all at once for a few days and then stopping). It was on a binge that he lost track of the amount of cocaine he had left. Laos told me he had finished his supply and quickly needed to make a withdrawal to go and buy more. Laos was between jobs and had low cash flow to buy more drugs. He decided to go to an off license to pick up some more alcohol as his supply was low. This decision and following event lead to Laos’ 4th jail term.

Case Formulation – Speculative Coalescence

My formulation and how I started to identify that I was thinking and behaving as an integrative therapist was informed by some of the reading I was completing at the time. Petruska Clarkson’s 5 Relationship Model offered me a useful framework to recognise where I was – in my journey as a counsellor. A research project titled ‘A Son’s Journey’ written in my 3rd year of the MSc course, found points of Laos experience reminiscent of my journey to adulthood. (I will look to pick relevant points from my research in a later blog post)

Adapting to Change

Laos early attachment to his parents and to his place of birth were affected by a number of significant changes with and to his environment. Moving from one country to another may have affected his realisation of who he was. This sense of recognition would be in relation to having to repeatedly start again from the beginning in a new and different environment. He would have had to form new routines with new classmates, peers, learn new social cues and with each move be socially adapt to the new country. Laos mentioned that he had been moving home and country since he was 3 years old. The moves were a result of his father and the work he was involved with. If the family home was not a wholly warm and nurturing environment Laos could have begun developing ways to look after himself outside of his parents or family’s awareness.

It is possible that Laos did not come forward and share the difficulties he encountered with his family. Any challenges he had overcome at school or whilst playing with peers he may have kept to himself. Perhaps major achievements and triumphs he may have experienced may also have gone unnoticed as well. I wondered if he shared much with anyone. (Self dependency, self reliance)

Growing Pains

As he entered early adolescence he may have found certain peers more appealing and started to associate with their way of viewing the world. Exciting, dangerous, rule bending/breaking, becoming argumentative/aggressive with siblings, parents, teachers and authority figures. Leading him to take ever greater risks, enjoying self-injurious actions and activities i.e. smoking or self-harming, drinking alcohol, tattooing, piercings etc. The difficulty for me as a counsellor is in recognising the difference between the actions Laos reported of his experiences during his adolescence and usual teenage behaviour.

The purpose of the actions as listed could be to give him a chance to gain a sense of belonging or to fit in with others or create a new identity. It could also have offered Laos an attempt to make the feeling of disillusionment of parental let down dissipate or not be as painful. Another consideration would be in relation to Laos’ attachments to others. If we were to observe his relationship to his mum and then her death could his spiralling drug use be in relation to having difficulty admitting to or acknowledge his feelings of loss? The realisation for Laos could be that self-injurious acts may become habitual and destructive.

The interesting thing for me as I sketched through some of these hypothetical realisations was how Laos had attempted to rescue himself or bring about an end to his behaviour. He had not gone to rehab or completed 12-step programmes. Laos being caught, found selling or incapacitated through use of drugs and going to prison put in place a semi-permanent stop to his self-destructive pattern of behaviour. This is not to say that drugs could not be found in prison. But Laos was able to recognise that through his actions he was again locked away for a period of time. It is possible that prison acted like both a punitive and supportive parent at the same time. What Laos was appeared to do by being arrested by incarceration was to learn how to find another way to live without both of his parents. It is possible he had not an internal representation of both parents and sought external controls to manage his behaviour.

Re-evaluating – Re-inventing

Within a longer piece of work from 1 year – 2 years it is possible Laos may have been able to recognise what he had lost as a result of his earlier experiences. The losses could include his sense of identity, self esteem, parental guidance, maternal attachment figure (after his mum passed away), emotional self regulation and self-protective mechanisms i.e. speaking to others and finding emotional support. A therapist could have been able to support him in identifying his current patterns of behaviour and look to establish life affirming behaviours that looked at his dependency on alcohol and drugs to alleviate boredom, anxiety and depression.

Idea-Seeds

My work with Laos was informative for a number of reasons. I learned that I had been able to graduate my thoughts to appreciate a psychodynamic profile of a person’s past. What I was able to offer Laos as a counsellor was a robust level of emotional support and an awareness that there were topics from his past that with the right support he would be able to heal in time. I was able to plant an idea-seed. With good support that idea-seed could grow and I imagine bring about significant change for Laos.

Moving forward this level of reflection has supported me in all aspects of my life, noticing patterns of behaviour with those I support. Identifying personal scripts that clients operate with that limit themselves from engaging in new and exciting ways with themselves and others. My hope for Laos is that he recognises his pattern and with support from family, a partner or a trained professional can find other ways of being that are healthy and life enriching.