Ignored Song

apathy-moses

First They Came …

In Germany, first they came for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist; And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist; And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew; And then . . . they came for me . . . Martin Neimoller

Why Prisons

I was asked at a family barbecue why I pushed so hard and worked for the men and women who found themselves involved with the criminal justice system in England. My answer was simply that they could quite easily have been me.

I was introduced to the quote above by a friend, GK, who currently works in a prison. My friend is a conscientious committed counselling psychologist. They introduced the quote a few years ago. ‘They came…’ was a poignant reference to the work we were engaged with as counsellors at this London Prison. The men we supported with members from the mental health team could not be forgotten.

Recognition

There were moments in my life where had things continued; joining a gang, engaging in destroying public property, fighting other boys on the estate, I could have found myself involved with the criminal justice system and possibly have spent time in prison. I spent 10 years living on a well known housing estate in North London and wrote about aspects of it in my MSc research paper called ‘A Son’s Journey’.

‘The block of flats I lived in consisted of a series of box-like structures in close proximity to one another. This layout created a feeling of overcrowding and compartmentalisation and it was these features that I found repeated in the prison which is meticulously divided into cells, landings, communal areas, canteens, house blocks and corridors.

The lack of open space and privacy felt all too familiar. My block was an open tiered construct. It had covered corridors that one had to travel along to reach the domestic spaces in the building. On the ground floor of the building, there were shops and businesses which created an insular feeling, there was little need to travel off the estate as your immediate needs could be met in this ‘city’ within the city of London. In this regard, the estate also resembled prison, in that it felt like a separate entity, quite apart from the rest of society. ‘

A Son’s Journey May 2012

An Almost Experience

In some way my working experience of prison, working with service uprisons-obsoletesers, probation, police and the criminal justice system offers a chance for me to balance the disparity I find myself involved with. I recognise that I am an outsider but with a quasi-experience of being an insider. One of the reasons that the quote has continued to live and breathe in me could be acknowledging the truth of the quote. ‘And then.. they came for me.’ The quote references the indifference or the apathy of the person who has written. There is almost the suggestion that there would be no-one left to stand up for them.

In training to become a counsellor/psychotherapist I had not thought that I would ever begin to work with a group of people that were so low on society’s pecking order as those who had been sentenced to serve time or several terms in prison. Working in prison was the furthest thing from my mind when I began training as a counsellor in 2006.

Plight of the young

Between 2009-2010 my counselling experience was going well at a Drs Surgery in South East London where I had held a placement for just over a year. I had thoughts of opening a private practice and working with the general public with one particular area of specialty: Young People from backgrounds similar to mine. Inner City, low socio-economic incomes, poor educational attainment. The idea was to complete the MSc course and then gain a few years experience working in the field and then begin a small private counselling practice for myself.

Gotcha

A list of other placements were made available to students at Greenwich University in the Spring term of 2010. I nogotchaticed a prison placement. Initially my thoughts were that I would not make a good prison counsellor (self-doubt), or that I wouldn’t get many clients that would want to work with me, and I wasn’t going to apply (denial). I discussed my prejudices and fears with my life partner. The effect of which increased my curiosity about engaging with a forensic population. Making the application was straightforward then came a few months of waiting. I sent a follow up email to the lead counsellor of the prison, AW, who enquired about the initial email.

An invitation followed and I met with AW and 4 other interested volunteers in July 2010. After the initial meeting an opportunity was granted to walk the prison grounds. The size, scale, height of the perimeter wall, and security measures of the prison did little to lower my excitement and fear of walking into the complex. We were shown to various house blocks, the education department, the hub at health care, workshops and the counselling office HQ. My initial assumptions of seeing Hannibal Lector character, chains slinking along the ground in a menacing way did not happen. The group of 4 would be volunteers were introduced to a regular working prison with prisoners moving within it as regularly as people traverse through life whilst in the community. I witnessed nothing strange and little alarmed me.

I had walked into and out of a prison and had actually ‘liked’ the experience. It wasn’t as bad or as frightening as I had imagined. It was in fact much like the housing estate that I had grown up on. A similar modular, organised block form building that reordered space. I understood the function and physical presence of the prison. For me this recognition was my in.

I came away from the experience wanting to give time to the people who were imprisoned there. I also wanted to acknowledge a gnawing suspicion that my imagined incarceration could only be released once I had served my time, completed good pieces of work with the men there and learned some valuable life lessons. I believe one of the most important lessons was about freedom. If a person is unable to perceive that they are free. Also is equipped with the tools to make a positive impact in their life and the life of others. Being released to the community could be an uncomfortable challenge that a person can feel ill equipped to manage. It is possible they might return to prison a number of times until…

Divingdeepsea-diver-suit

The main learning I took from the 1st prison encounter was, men who ‘came away’ were not too dissimilar to people I had supported in the community. The main difference was the setting. If I could get past the idea of working in a prison and what that may mean then I could literally work anywhere. I started working at this London prison in October 2010. It took roughly 4 weeks before I could walk in through the front gate of the prison and not have my heart beat double time.

I managed to develop a number of self-checks to ease myself into another way of being whilst in the prison. My 1st mental trick I adopted, was to imagine myself entering a compression chamber and on leaving the prison entering a decompression chamber. Both stages allowed me the chance to get ready for the environment I was moving into. The idea enabled me to contextualise myself to the new spaces I was about to come into contact with. Like a deep sea diver I was able to situate myself both in and out of the prison.

The deep sea diver idea was also like having a suit of armour to manage the pressures, pushes and pulls of prison life. Mentally removing the suit on leaving I found that I was no longer carrying stuff I had no right to carry beyond the prison gate: stories I had encountered, past histories of discomfort and pain, uncertainty about the future, disillusionment about being away.

I learned that each space within the prison had it’s own vibe. Each house block, education department, workshop, gym facility, training room and areas within health care held it’s own unique energy and texture. The energy of each facility of the prison then had an effect on all that came to use these different spaces. For example when in the education department I found myself to be quiet and tentative in excusing a service user from a lesson. In workshop I found myself to be assertive and loud when asking a service user to access a therapeutic encounter. The aim was to engage the person I was to work with in a way that showed that the service had not forgotten them. It was like the counselling service helped people to recognise that they were not ‘disappeared’ or ‘forgotten’ as perhaps they might have fears that their family, friends and society as a whole had.balacne

‘First they came …’ Reminds me of the interconnectedness of humanity and that if we are to make successful cohesive advancements in our respective communities for the betterment of all, then all should be remembered and involved in reconstruction even those who have the ‘ignored song’.

The Artist

jm-basquait

Jean Michel Basquait

An early memory from primary school, was of drawing frequently. I loved drawing, painting, sculpting and running sprint races. I had dreams of becoming an artist. I knew nothing of art or of the art world then.

Risk

I remember sharing with my mum in year 3 that I wanted to become an artist and she in her infinite wisdom, said something along the lines of “Artists don’t make that much money.” Re-remembering this experience I’ve come to realise a few truths,

  1. The aim of life, in my mum’s world, was to make money. I would add she was not materialistic, more a pragmatist.
  2. Becoming an artist was a dreamer’s activity (guilty as charged – I was a dreamer, what child isn’t?), and as a result could not be for me. Our world (mine, my mothers, my sisters) was made up of hard realities.

To give context – the time I had my epiphany in year 3, was in the late 70s and money was scarce. We lived on a council estate in North London and didn’t have much. We lived on the top floor of a block of flats. Often the lifts did not work as a result of vandalism, and the council not repairing them. Aged 7 I had thoughts that I could engage in an artistic career. Earning a good living was not an issue I had previously thought much about. In my mother’s view of the world money was a constant concern.

Everywhere we could see was a panorama of concrete. Mum worked as a nurse. Dad was between two worlds. London and Ghana. He worked as a civil servant, and a representative of a Ghanaian political party. He was often away in Ghana for long periods of time. Life from my mum’s perspective was a disillusioned experience, difficult and practical. There was little space or time for the aesthetics of art and appreciations of creativity.

tangmereThe conversation about becoming an artist had a profound effect on my idea of what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I was to have further conversations with my mum about what I could do with drawing as a profession. We came across Architecture as a possible profession that utilized my creativity but could offer me a long and productive career. I imagined what life as an Architect would be like; Drawing buildings and spaces in a range of techniques, using different perspectives to show my vision. I knew little of the technicalities of what being an architect was, but knew that drawing was a part of what an architect did. I wanted to do that. Draw!

Fast forward to September 2016

There have been a number of experiences I’ve had over the past couple of months that have helped me to begin crystallising my identity as a counsellor. One of those experiences was watching a show called the Chef’s Table. The first episode in this series on Netflix observed a man by the name of Massimo Batturo a famous chef in Italy. I was able to witness a remarkable journey. Massimo’s transformation is so different in places to my own story. The multiple successes and failures so rich and complex that in parts his story resembles my own. So much so that I could see myself on his vibrantly filled exuberant passage . A light that I was unaware of, switched back to on for me. This illumination was a warm pleasant and welcome surprise.

Waiting for me

As I have travelled along this path of becoming a counsellor/psychotherapist I have looked for moments that could take me home, to a warm embrace from my life partner, to a large bowl of pepper soup by my elder sister, to a big A-ha moment where I recognise like in moments of de ja vu that I have been here before, or that I remember a particular profound and beautiful experience: such as witnessing a colleague break into a smile after tasting a slice of one of my home baked loaves of bread. Moments like these are not lost on me.

chefs-table

With Massimo I recognise the inner child and the sense of wonder at the world and all that there is in life to uncover. I feel the same way about working as a counsellor/Forensic Mental Health Practitioner for Together for Mental Wellbeing and as a visiting lecturer at Greenwich University as an experiential group facilitator. The feeling of discovery in each of these moments I will describe as like that of a prospector or an alchemist finding gold. The gold I am looking to uncover with a client or a group is their light switching to on – when they say “I can see it now!”

For Massimo hiding beneath his grandmother’s table as a boy away from his brothers teasing. Watching her cook and learning from her, started for him a journey of innovation within the field of cookery and chef mastery that honed his craft like few others before him: his gold. Chef’s table observed his travels and uncovered his passions, the struggles and how things began to coalesce in his life once he returned to Modena. Happy accidents like dropping a lemon tart started in him a journey of exploration-to find the thing! (My words not his). The ultimate, the zenith in his mastery of cooking experience.

Enter art

Massimo and Lara Gilmore visited art galleries in New York at which Massimo was indifferent to. He made me laugh as he described the pigeon piece which in one moment an installation changed Massimo’s idea of himself, arts and his life’s work.

Completing my G.C.S.E.s and leaving secondary school I went to an art college in Wisbech. I attended with the view of completing a spatial design BTEC course. My view of becoming an artist had changed to that of becoming an Interior Designer. My wish to become an architect changed as a result of a conversation with my secondary school’s careers advice service. The conversation observed my lack of mathematical skill that would be necessary for becoming an architect. The careers person also observed that I was good with my hands (even though they had not seen me in Design Technology). Becoming a carpenter would be an equally rewarding career. This conversation disillusioned me further and invited me to think in terms of achievable goals. My final shift of career paths was to become an interior designer.

This from a boy who grew up on a ziggurat in North London. Attending art college was fantastic. It brought me into contact with new ideas, a wider group of artistic people, art history, photography, set design and a new appreciation to design in my life.

I knew little of the arts before I attended Isle college. I was invited to think about composition, texture, light, colour, depiction, balance, true representation, balance, organisation and frame. I developed an affinity for landscapes and fell head over heels for J.M.W. Turner’s work my favourite piece being the fighting Temeraire.the-fighting-temeraire

I believe my trajectory on this psycho-therapeutic path has been pointing me to a distant experience: Art. Massimo helped me arrive at this realisation. I had wondered when and if this moment would ever arrive.

What next?

I feel that the next part of my journey is already unfolding in unpredictable and thought provoking ways: Walk and Talk Therapy, Baking Therapy, Basketball Therapy. Often the work of a counsellor/psychotherapist bursts with so much life, complexity, colour and difficult experiences clients share. The effect of which can be fractious jarring and uncomfortable. The work can also be heart-warming, hilarious and humbling.

By viewing my work with clients as a canvas that is an ever changing palette of colour and texture I feel that I am closing the gap between where I am within the profession of psychoanalytic thought and my original goal of becoming an artist. The work then is a compositional piece that lives, breathes and carries itself forward in new and exciting ways long after we have stopped working together, with it’s many layers and qualities continuing to develop, separate, coalesce and define the self. I am attracted to the living art of working in a way that explores the unimaginable, bravely and without compromise.

The prospect of living and working as an integrative therapist holding an idea of myself as an artist could be seen as a threat to what came before, however I am witnessing a sense of discovery to approaching my work as a collaborator to a human canvas that is ever changing.

When asked who I am, my answer…

 

…I am an artist,

 

…I became what I was meant to be…

 

…eventually..

 

…Poetry.