Oscar Grant III – Mission Iam – Viktor Frankl

FRUITVALE

MICHAEL B. JORDAN stars in FRUITVALE

Recently I watched Fruitvale Station the movie (June 24th 2016). A few of my friends Gromyko Dumuje and Thomas Keenan mentioned the story a few years ago, and how it invited them to feel, sad, angry, disappointed and frustrated. I had held back on watching the movie because I was not looking forward to experiencing some of the identified feelings myself.

In short, I was surprised that I was swept away by how I felt in relation to how Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of a young man who was attempting to turn his life around and how his efforts were ultimately halted. I came across Michael B Jordan in the film: Chronicle and was spell bound by his relaxed affable nature in the movie. The next notable appearance of Jordan for me was in season four of Friday Night Lights. I am to write a piece on the effect that Friday Night Lights had on me. B. Jordan’s acting was notable as Vince the quarter-back. His human struggle were immediately identifiable and I applauded his successes and bemoaned his disappointments and failures.

I had not realised that he also was a character in The Wire called Wallace. There is much I had forgotten about the Wire apart from Season 4. The story of the group of young men whose lives all went in various surprising directions. The Wire was the ultimate experience of creating a TV script that leapt out from the screen and stole hearts. Season four of the Wire was the first time I came across the term Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). Which could be a pre experience of personality disorder in teens. Treme was the next TV show that held me in it’s rhythmical and complex sway. FNL has been the latest story to fully captivate me. The story telling and character portrayal are movie calibre in quality, complexity and delivery.

Oscar – Mission

Getting back to Fruitvale and what touched me about the story, was me recognising the similarity of Oscar Grant’s story and a young man I worked with in a London Prison. Mission Iam (Not the man’s real name) was a 25 year old black male who grew up in London but was from another city in England.

Mission Iam

Mission was a footballer and enjoyed playing football (Soccer). At the age of 12/13 he was scouted by a large London football club and placed on their player pathway to access good coaching, regular football games, nutrition advice, support with homework and possible pathways to playing with a premiership team.

I met Mission in my 2nd year at the London Prison I volunteered at 2011-2012. At the assessment meeting Mission stated that he did not want any psychological help and that he was fine as things were. He had recently been in a fight with another male who had since been moved to another house-block. He was shaken, and visibly stirred by the event. Mission appeared to be trying to adjust to life in the prison, and also to the fact he had been in a physical altercation with another and that his life at our point of meeting appeared bleak. I agreed to not ‘therapize’ Mission and check in on him within a week.

Pausing to reset

The decision to pause support and give chance for Mission to re-evaluate if the support was needed was useful. When I returned and checked in with Mission he appeared a little more settled and ready to begin in some therapeutic endeavour. He expressed that he was feeling stressed and that talking with someone about it, he may find useful. It is possible that being non-committal offers possible clients engaging in therapy, an out if the therapy does not resolve the identified concerns. They then can say that therapy didn’t work and will not allow themselves to be too disappointed with the end result. We agreed to meet for 6 weeks with the possibility of review and extension if necessary of more sessions.

The lull of the street

Mission described how he had been taken into custody and of elements of his past. He talked about his footballing career. At the age of 15 being a difficult time to negotiate the draw of the street or playing football. The tension to maintain both due to relationships away from the football pitch Mission found impossible.

Invitations to chill with friends and associates, and be into what they were into, he acquiesced to. He shared during a therapy meeting that a choice to follow friends ultimately was his largest mistake. He started not attending football practice, talking back to his coaches when he did attend, and his football playing suffering as a result. The people he was around were into moving drugs and also smoking weed. Mission had also started to use and found that football was less appealing than being around friends and associates and making fast and easy money. Football appeared to be the longer route to gaining the success he felt owed to him.

Background to Mission

Mission grew up in a single parent household. He lived with his sister and a parent. The pressures of living in London and witnessing how hard his parent was working to make a hard life liveable appeared to make his decision to make money quickly more appealing than staying in school and attending to his football career. Mission had a number of negative experiences with Police which could have been viewed as a wake-up call which he was unwilling to answer. The excitement of one game appeared to have been replaced by the thrill and risk in another.

Choice

Similarly to Oscar (Fruitvale) who appeared to have come to a realisation on his own and had tried to turn the corner on his past. Mission was aware that the former life he had lead was over. Mission talked about how he would like to be when he was released. He thought about the people he had been spending time with in the last few years. Not one of these friends/associates had visited him in prison. Moving cannabis and weed and getting paid, Mission now thought was not worth the risk for himself and for those he was connected to including his parent and his sister.

Self Iso’

During our 3rd meeting Mission described in a poignant and charged way that he had stopped his girlfriend from coming to see him. He was not sending out any more VOs (Visiting Orders) making it almost impossible for her to schedule a visit. His intention was to end their relationship and sit out the time he had left in prison by himself. His parent and sister were also vetoed from attending the prison.

Mission appeared to be self-isolating in order to minimise the impact of not being able to live with those he cared about. I have witnessed this act a number of times and the consequences of self isolation were short lived and did not deliver the desired effect of stopping the anxiety and reducing the sense of stress in relation to thinking about those who remain in the community.

The Charge

We discussed the reality of what he was facing and what this may mean for the people in his life. Mission was being held on suspicion of carrying a firearm with intent, possession of illegal substances with intent to supply and driving offences. If found guilty Mission was facing 2-6 years of life in prison. Mission maintained his innocence and shared the story of how he was caught by the Police. The arrest sounded painful, provoking of a fear response and highly embarrassing.

The officers who arrested Mission believed him to be carrying a firearm and were armed themselves. After a chase through the streets of a Southwark neighbourhood, Mission was dragged over a wall, pinned to the ground, his arm was brought up behind him whilst the arresting officer knelt his full weight on Mission’s shoulder. Months after the arrest, his shoulder back and arm were still causing him much pain. Studies have shown that extensive periods of pain management lower a person’s mood and can increase their likelihood of developing mental illnesses like depression.

Mission’s Identity

In Mission’s case his low mood after being arrested and hurt at the scene of the arrest, detained and entering custody, facing the possibility of years of incarceration was escalating a number of negative associations for him. By Mission removing people from his life, he was attempting to jettison the feeling aspect of himself. Wrapped up with what Mission felt needed to be held away from him, was a felt sense of who he was. We could call it Mission’s Identity: The who he really is. By denying those he cared about access to him and he to them, Mission could be seen to be arresting his emotional development. By engaging in therapy there was a chance that the attempt to move into a primal state of being could be averted.

Oscar’s frustration (Fruitvale) was witnessed three times during the movie.

  1. The prison scene: where the other prisoner expressed anger after a space infringement was unknowingly crossed. Oscar feeling violated on his turf by a known aggressor in a place he did not want to be in. His mom being present to witness him be verbally abused she also being verbally assaulted. Oscar attempted to stand up for himself in the only way he knew how. Shouting and looking to stop the words from causing further harm. Oscar tried to get at the other prisoner. This act cost him the visit. As he was physically restrained and his mom walked out on him. Adding further hurt to the harm caused by his own actions – Abandonment.
  2. When back in the community Oscar attends his former work place and asks his manager to give him back his job after he had been fired. This scene is coupled with Oscar showing a customer his ability to help another by giving her his grandmother’s recipe for fried fish.
  3. The fatal scene on the train ride home after the New Years celebration where the guy from the prison is also on the train. It get’s ugly quick. However no guns are pulled at this point.

Complex – simple

Those who are incarcerated attempt to split themselves into smaller more manageable versions of themselves. Mission was on his way to achieving a simpler version of himself that would be able to manage the prison system and all that it threw at him. Meeting me gave him a chance to check through things again.

Oscar and Mission shared a number of similarities. They were both brilliant young black men. Who had ideas of what living well meant to them in the contexts of their young urban lives. They both attempted to provide for themselves and their loved ones, by the means they found available at their disposal.

Both Oscar and Mission held views of themselves and of the world around them that included breaking laws and being aggressive. Their reasoning could be as a result of the experiences they had whilst growing up. Both men came from single parent homes, poverty appeared prevalent for both males. Opportunities to move beyond the circumstances of their families appeared to have been derailed either by themselves or by circumstance. On some level I could perceive that both Oscar and Mission had been beaten by an unforgiving system that was intent on further stripping both men of their dignity and self-respect. This being the case they made choices that affected their civil liberty, their lives and the lives of others.

Recognising the gap in the wall

The point of change for Mission arose as we entered the 4th meeting and he asked if there could be any meaning to his life. ‘Like what is my life about now? More of this shit? I’ve had it with prison and with being in here.’ He asked if there was another way it could have been or could be as he could not see it. I asked if he read, and then told him about Viktor Frankl the Viennese Psychiatrist, Philosopher, Psychotherapist who survived concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Mission seemed genuinely shocked and intrigued by the story of Logotherapy and Frankl’s’s ability to rise from a very dark moment in history. I believe that what hooked Mission was hearing a story as bleak as his and identifying himself with an internal revolution. I told him about what I remembered from the book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ and wondered if he would like to read it?

I doubt that I have ever been more surprised or pleased to share a book! I read the book with a general interest as to how a man who nearly died in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia could at the end of the war return to his native Vienna in Austria and accept that people he knew may have turned him and other Jewish people over to the German authorities to perhaps die. His wife, mother father and unborn child all died at the hands of the Nazis.

Logotherapy

When I read ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ in 1997 the concept of acceptance was a distant thought, compassion even more remote. On passing the book forward to Mission I was gaining ground on acceptance and compassion as a concept was also being closely followed. The book was a catalyst for me in seeking change and for providing me with answers to an age old ache ‘Who am I and what am I to do with the who I am?’ I was able to fashion meaning from another’s wisdom and insight: Viktor Frankl. In passing the book forward I was attempting to assist another reconstruct themselves with a picture of a young disenfranchised man: in a new progressive light.

I was to meet Mission for a 6th appointment a month after the 5th appointment had taken place. I called in to the houseblock’s control room to check that Mission had been invited to stay on his spur for the appointment. I was told that he had gone to court and had been released from there. I tried to hide my joy but I am sure it was witnessed by the officer at the control desk. I was happy that a young man who had made some unwise choices would get a second chance. For the remaining years I worked at the prison I did not see Mission return. I can only hope he is doing well and I wish him a peaceful journey

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.

An Open Letter to Dr Powell

WT 6I was positively affected by a lecture in 2015 given on the subject of Science, Spirituality and Psychotherapy. So much so that I decided to write to the person who presented a thoroughly engaging talk about the links between Spirituality and Psychotherapy. *((additional comments not in the original letters))

30 April 2015

Dear Dr. Powell,

I attended the summer conference on the subject of Science, Spirituality and Psychotherapy at University of Greenwich. The conference space was held by yourself and attendees discovered that you have practiced as a Psychiatrist, Psychotherapist and now as a transpersonal  therapist (Clarkson). You described that your aim is to treat the whole being of the person you work with, including spirit.

Before I attended the conference I read the 3 short articles that were sent ((to gain understanding of your work)). Each of the readings gave me the chance to gain an understanding of your experience of working in a spiritual way with clients.

I enjoyed the accounts of helping bereaved clients using drama therapy to begin grieving. What I gained from your work also was that you appeared to accept clients ((where they were in themselves)) and the process they may have become stuck in.

During the conference which was well attended, I noted the expression of cultures that had accessed spiritual healing as a way of supporting people around the globe. I was keen to hear of traditions of spirituality that ranged from Aboriginal peoples in Australasia, South America, Central America and Africa.

I can remember a key moment working with a counsellor a few years ago ((2009-2010)) where I mentioned my fathers country of origin and stated as if out of nowhere that if “I had grown up in my fathers village I would have become a healer”. The statement both shocked and brought to me an awareness of my origins and that of my attraction to counselling. Working as a therapist has been a way for me to practice supporting people in a westernised way without readily acknowledging my history, culture or county of origin. ((Ghana))

The conference invited me to observe the content of what was expressed and how the lecture was not able to embrace all of the spiritual traditions from around the globe. I feel intrinsically that the African continent and the various traditions that began from there including art, science, and spirituality are not often acknowledged. My point is that members of the African Diaspora as well as other Spiritual traditions including Australian Aboriginal and Maori traditions have also contributed to the landscape of spirituality and could also be acknowledged for their contributions to this fascinating field of Science, Spirituality and Psychotherapy.

I thank you for a great day of learning and for sharing your fascinating path of how your journey with spiritual infused psychotherapy continues. I am expectant of a tipping point for science to acknowledge that the tools used to measure the ever expanding universe are as nought compared to the instruments that we all possess within ourselves.

Yours sincerely

M

((Dr Powell’s response))

15 May 2015

Dear Michael,

I’m glad you found the day at Greenwich useful.

I very much agree with you that in the West we have neglected the rich healing traditions that have existed for so long in other cultures and which could profoundly enrich our own culture were we less insular (and less wedded to scientific materialism).

I have learned much from indigenous sources (in my case especially from South America, and from China (Daoism)).

Thinking of Africa, I am reminded of the powerful impact that Malidome Some’s book ‘Of Water and Spirit‘ made on me when it was published 20 years ago.

The problem of social attitudes is not easily overcome. I wrote in the paper ‘Furthering the spiritual dimension of psychiatry in the UK’:

‘Current mental health science is largely dismissive of pre-scientific reality as ‘primitive’ and ‘animistic’. For instance, the shamanic view of ‘spirit’, which has informed cultures as far apart as Northern Asia, Mongolia, the Inuit, North American Indians, the tribes of the Amazon Basin, the aboriginal culture and in Europe, the Celts, is these days of interest only to medical anthropologists (to mental health science). Yet contemporary psychiatry shows the same indifference towards the major faith traditions of today. This becomes more intelligible in the light of Gallup surveys which show that while 80 – 90% of the general population believe in God, or a higher presence, only some 30% psychiatrists and psychologists do so!

There were many avenues that we could have explored at Greenwich and I would have welcomed you voicing the transcultural aspects in the open forum. But perhaps these occasions simply serve to encourage each person on their own unique journey. I hope so. Thankfully, material realism is not able to suppress the intuitive human spirit that knows there is more to life than science alone can ever reveal.

Thank you for your kind remarks.

Best wishes,

Andrew

((My reply to Dr Powell))

May 2nd 2016

Hello Dr Powell,

A year has sped past and I am yet to reply to your generous email.

Can I first apologise for the late reply to the email. The reasons for the tardiness are two-fold.

1, I was surprised by your content and the open nature in which you addressed my points. I had expected a different – more defended response and was taken aback with how you viewed the psychological profession and cultures that were outside of Western systems of thought and being.

2, I had hoped to make use of your reply for my blog. What you have offered is richer contextually than I could have anticipated. I would like to use our dialogue in my blog. Would you give permission for me to do so? My reasons for wanting to use your response would be to support dialogue in the otherness of counselling and psychotherapy that I am growing in my awareness and feel is important to share with others.

To explain a little more about me and my background. My Mother was Guyanese, My Father was Ghanian both now deceased. I ((can recognise)) am from the new and old worlds simultaneously. I once reflected with a counsellor I worked with a number of years ago, if I had grown up in my father’s village in Ghana, I could see myself having become a healer/shaman/doctor/medecine man . At that moment a sense of otherness became known where once it had lain dormant.

I came into the world of therapy by taking a circuitous route. My first degree was in Interior Design. After completing the degree I spent a number of years lost figuring out how to overcome my mothers death, she died in my 2nd year of my University degree. ((I was to work out)) beginning a life in London, trying to make a career out of a number of different roles including as a coffee barista, pizza delivery ((driver)) and youth worker.

Finding an element of myself in the young people I supported, I invested time and energy in being an effective youth worker and youth project manager. Later I trained to become a Basketball Coach which led to me becoming a learning mentor and then a counsellor. Looking back on this journey I think of it appearing straightforward. The truth was all of the occurrences happened as a result of chance encounters, or chance conversations.

My point is that it feels that there has been a gentle pull to walking this path as opposed to a few others. I think of Mr Some’s journey and his teachings/conversations with his grandfather who shared with him at the age of 4 how difficult his future was going to be. I felt I could relate with Mr Some’s grandfather identifying that Malidoma is to bring to the new world elements of the old world, and to the old world – the magic of the new.

Hearing you talk and working with my current supervisor has helped me to trust in the process of counselling and the wonderment that arises in those quiet still moments. Scot M. Peck’s book A Road Less Travelled which I read over 15 years ago, helped me to recognise that life can be a rewarding challenge – at times one is just aware of the challenge.

Since our last correspondence, I have attended a number of interesting seminars including 2 workshops on dreams at Greenwich University. The event in February I found enriching and supportive, both trainers had an engaging open perspective to their work and interactions with the delegates that had attended were interesting and filled with energy.

The latest training I have attended was in relation to a CBT approach in working with PTSD and Trauma affected clients hosted by the British Psychology Society, which furthered my understanding and interest in working with those who have experienced a number of significant life events. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book which I read in January 2016 ‘The Body Keeps The Score’ has really helped me to fully appreciate that an integrative approach to working with those affected by trauma can recover with skilled intuitive support.

I appreciate your reply of last year and apologise ((once again)) for my very late response.

Be well

M

Dr Powell responded a day later and a dialogue with him and my supervisor is continuing to grow my felt sense of otherness, Spirit, within my counselling practice.

Baking: Failure – Success

The Journey into Counselling 2014-06-01 10.39.03

In May 2015 I presented my counselling journey to 3rd year students who were coming to the end of their MSc in Therapeutic Counselling at University of Greenwich. I was invited to speak with the students by the then course director Victoria Alexander.

Since completing the course in 2012 I had wondered if I would ever receive the esteemed call to present my counselling journey to students. Speaking as an Alumni, I imagined would be a mark of success. It was – but not in a monetary sense. I had, at last, arrived as a mental health professional and that was worth acknowledging in the least for myself. From completing the course, it had taken 3 years to get to a point where I felt I had ARRIVED.

When I was a 3rd year student I looked forward to meeting alumni who had completed the course before me and listening to their stories. In 2011 I was expectant of listening to personal stories that would inspire me to have incredible success as a counsellor.

Pinpoint moments

During my time on the Greenwich course there were a number of moments that stand-out. My Interview with John Lees, the first day of the MSc course, attending art therapy/drama therapy experiences, realising that I had adapted from one approach of counselling – person centred, to being an integrative counsellor. This event happened during my second year of the MSc and I will write about Laos (not the clients name) in a later Blog.

Other memorable moments include; my first counselling client that attended their appointment. I practiced in a GP surgery in SE London. My 2nd counselling placement at a Prison and my first client once there. Failing a submission piece during the second year of the course and having to repeat a piece of work and resubmit, oh the shame! Entering the 3rd year of the course, engaging in a difficult conversation with a lecturer – John Nuttall on a delicate issue, completing year 3 and looking towards the top of Canary Wharf Tower on an evening in June from where I live in Lee, and whispering to myself we’ve done it, acknowledging the support of my wife throughout the three years.

The presentation

With the group of students met in 2015, I shared the beginning of my journey as a youth worker – basketball coach, which lead to me becoming a learning mentor and then to the world of counselling.

I spoke as though there appeared to be a plan, but that would be me being presumptuous. The path to become a counsellor opened up the further I travelled along its over grown route. With each move there appeared to be a logical next step which developed, honed and remodelled my sense of enquiry. The book by Scott M. Peck A Road Less Travelled highlights the difficulties and treasures of working in the field of psychology. I happened to read the book at least 10 years before I began my training.

Creative practice

At the end of my presentation a number of questions were asked in relation to what life is like now as a counsellor/mental health practitioner. I was able to share that for me as a professional the experience is of being creative. I shared that I had attempted to bake and bring to the presentation a sourdough bread. The bread was to be used as a symbol. Sharing the growth and development of the journey I had undertaken. I was asked by a student ‘what the lack of being able to produce a bread represented?’ My response was for them ‘to think about my lack of bread and get back to me.’ In truth I did not have a good enough answer and used wit to escape the students question.

Bread = therapy

I have been working on my sourdough culture for a little over three years. It began when I received a book for Christmas by Dan Lepard the ‘Hand Baked Loaf’ in December 2011. I bought a few Kilner jars and started as Dan had suggested. I found it difficult to throw out much of the leaven on the 6th-7th day as he suggests, but overcame my reluctance to discard hard won yeast for the greater good of the bread. The yeast culture has been successful in helping me to produce a range of breads, pizza bases, focaccia and pain aux chocolate in the 3 years I have been baking in this way. I have also had a number of failures where the leaven has not produced bread that has not risen or has not had the aeration (big air holes) that a good sourdough should have.

Getting it wrong

A better response to the student’s question of my failure to produce a bread for the group, could have been to discuss the reality of failure or of not being successful when making interventions or assessments with clients. Whilst failure is an uncomfortable experience the effect of not reaching a particular point with a client can also be useful in providing information.

Getting things wrong can be of use for a therapist. I learn the strength of the alliance between me and the client, and the resilience of the therapeutic engagement. In most cases there is a point for reflection. “Was that interpretation useful now, for them?” “Would a senseate reflection be of use here, how did that story go, could it be of use, now?” I also get to refocus, so as to aim interpretations close to the person’s growing sense of awareness most of the time.

The other outcome is the person being supported finds a way forward which informs them of their resilience and that their counsellor doesn’t have all the answers!

Sharing concepts of not getting it right in therapeutic encounters with clients, with the student in question, could have helped to deliver the analogy of not producing my bread. ‘My bread is similar to working with clients, I don’t always get it right. With time, patience, be willing to accept the failure (lack of understanding, miscomprehension, miss timed interpretation) as a reason for the therapeutic work at times missing the mark, and continuing to offer support for successful outcomes.’ This is what I would liked to have said.

The future

Continuing after a mis-step in the counselling contract can result in a better result in therapy. For me and sourdough breads the aim is to create great artisan breads like those at Gails Blackheath, Brickhouse Bakery, and E5 Bake House. Alchemy occurs in therapy and can be achieved with bread.

I am glad that I have pursued the effort of crafting a good leaven that will produce great bread. Without the many failures I could not have appreciated the inevitable successes.

Belonging v Fitting In

Confusion 2015-05-25 15.32.10

There are many reasons that I have wanted to write a regular blog. Mostly to share a perspective on things I experience from bewildering and conflicting perspectives. These perspectives include myself as a thinker, a past time of mine since I was a young man.

  • A black male psychotherapist, three words that cause me to pause and reflect on the meanings that are associated with each and how these three words interact with each other and with the social fields I come into contact with on a daily basis. I suspect a blog about being a black male psychotherapist is to be written in time.
  • Being a father of 2 young black boys the responsibility I am presented is to support their development in being able to simply just be. With Janelle Monáe’s Hell you Talmbout I recognise that my involvement with my sons’ lives is of primary importance and one in which I am invited to be an educator, coach, listener, artist, co conspirator, chef, journey planner and Doctor. Ta Nehesi Coates speaks and writes well on this subject in his book Between the World and Me.
  • Some of the other roles I engage with are; as a member of a mental health organisation working alongside probation and with service users, as a husband, as a lover of jazz, a reader, a former interior designer, youth worker, comic book reader, movie goer, longboard rider, podcast listener, basketballer and coach, friend, walker, facilitator and multiple sclerosis sufferer. This list is not exhaustive and there are probably at least 5 or more subjects I could add.

Fitting in, Belonging

For this blog I wanted to discuss an awareness I sensed but hadn’t fully brought into full consciousness until I came across it whilst reading Brené Brown’s ‘Daring Greatly’. One of the concepts she was able to describe was a simple concept of either fitting in or belonging. At the time of reading ‘Daring Greatly’ in Oct – Nov 2015 I was experiencing what it meant to either ‘belong’ or to fit in.

2014 into 2015

Working for a large organisation with a group of people one knows vaguely who each have slightly differing roles and responsibilities to yours, there can be points when you are offered a chance to either fit in, or if lucky to choose to belong. When I joined the organisation I attempted to go with the flow and fit in.

Fitting in often does not cause great offence to others ‘no boats are rocking’. Perhaps in oneself the effect is of losing grip on what is important – oneself and one’s reality. Losing sense of oneself can be unsettling and what could be worse is not realising that your way is lost until you are saying and doing things that you don’t recognise.

In December 2014, I left an experience of belonging to a staff team in a high security prison and joined the organisation I currently work with in January 2015. The mental health team I left consisted of Psychiatrists, Social Workers, Nurses, Counselling Psychologists, counsellors , an EMDR counsellor who was also my line manager and supervisor, Occupational  Therapists, and counsellors on placement.

HMP Belmarsh’s mental health team was a robust co-operative, co-ordinated group of professionals that met every week to discuss mental health referrals. It took me 2 years to get used to the quick fired nature of the referral process and dissemination of potential clients to departments within the mental health team. In the last 2 years of working at Belmarsh I gained a sense of how valuable these differences amongst the mental health team were as Social workers would have a different perspective to Psychiatrists or CPNs another opinion to Occupational Therapists and counsellors to counselling psychologists.

With these differing opinions in relation to treatment options, barriers for individuals seeking treatment were overcome and mostly resolved. The experience I had was of belonging to a staff team who were willing to work together for the greater good of those seeking mental health support. I was able to recognise that differing viewpoints can be supportive rather than only negative, that can appear to slow or block progress.

A reminder

Whilst training as a counsellor 2008-2011 I had experiences that were of not being able to neither fit in nor belong. I was one of a few minority ethnic people on the course and one of only 3 males that completed year 1. Struggling alongside 18 other students on a bewildering counselling MSc course, I would have thought would generate a sense of belonging or camaraderie. My experience was that of being outside of a group of people who were able to exist in a quasi-understanding of fitting in with each other.

I made a choice in October 2015, which was supported by Daring Greatly, that fitting in was not going to be how I operate whilst working with others. Belonging was a better coat to wear. I had been in a number of previous working experiences pre Belmarsh were belonging was a part of the fabric of the organisation.

Currently I find myself reminded of my training to be a counsellor and the discomfort of attempting to fit in amongst a student populace that I was to belong to, but was different from.  The knowledge of being an outsider from a group is not a new one and has the possibility of offering me an internal conflict which can lead to personal growth.

Reality

The reality is that the experience of belonging or fitting in will repeat in whatever work context I find myself involved with. The interesting thing for me is that I will attempt to gain a sense of belonging wherever I work. The cost of attempting to fit in I find too great. It’s the experience of not sharing your perspective on subjects you care about, of fearing that you will be ostracized by people you work with, finding that you stand out and being uncomfortable with this.

Belonging

Being amongst a group of others I would find it important to relate and talk about any number of subjects on a number of different levels and not be judged or ridiculed in my sharing. Depending on a person’s background and family of origin the aim could be to gain a sense of belonging similar to that of a family system. Perhaps without some of the negative aspects of a family group. For me it’s about the feelings that come with the experience of recognising that one belongs. Which feels very different to fitting in.

I would liken belonging to hearing a favourite song by chance whilst out doing something innocuous. The song I would be happy to hear would be Ooh Child by the Five Fairsteps and something like love spreads throughout your system like you’re in a hot bath.

My experiences of belonging are many-fold, for example attending my first BAATN mens group and mentioning that unlike Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man I WAS being seen and heard by the group, and that I also belonged. Coaching basketball in a number of settings was the epitome of gaining a sense of containment attachment and belonging for every team I coached and for all that attended. My sense of the Experiential Group even though I was the facilitator, I felt part of the group not apart from it, lastly, when my family get together we express our love in volume but each member receives that warm bath feeling…

Belonging.

Endings and New Beginnings

2015-07-05 14.47.16In September 2015 I began facilitating a group of year 1 MSc Therapeutic Counselling Students at University of Greenwich. My role was to sit with 11 students in something called Experiential Group.

Group Aims

Perhaps explaining what the group is to do and the aim of the Experiential Group would help to frame what I have enjoyed about the experience and why I am sad to see the group come to a close. The Experiential Group is essentially the last component of 4 or 5 sections of training to be a counsellor. Other training providers and universities may have a range of different modules for training counsellors. At the University of Greenwich the course is comprised of; Theory, Skills, Case Discussion and Experiential Group and this was the running order of the day when I attended 2008-2011.

In Experiential Group, members discuss topics that have arisen in the course of the week and share these with the group. The space is infused with dynamism, ideas, emotions and rememberings . My role is to sit amongst the group, and notice what is happening in the room and offer insights and reflections for reflection and application to the conversation. It is a role that I feel is as challenging as that of an orchestral conductor without a pre-designed, pre-aranged outcome or destination.

Facilitate?

At the first meeting in September 2015, the group asked what my role was, ‘Like what do you do?’ I smiled in response and did not offer much as an explanation. The 11 members of the group as one, looked perplexed, as if I were holding back some valuable information. I eventually offered that I facilitate the space.

Different yet the same

I can reflect on joining my experiential group in 2008 with 15 unknown people in the room and feeling at odds with 2 conflicting ideas. The first was that my previous counselling skills course at Morley College had offered a similar collective learning experience but was termed either a check in or a check out. The ‘Check ins’ were at the beginning of the course and the ‘Check outs’ came at the end. I had some knowledge of what the experiential group was about. But did I? Really?

Framing

I can remember in 2008 that I wanted to suggest we check-in and check-out. This would have given me a frame to work within for every group meeting. It may have provided others with a ‘have to’ which could have been prescriptive and not as comforting. Great for me, perhaps not necessary for everyone else. After attempting to make check-ins a part of our experiential group meetings the idea was phased out after 2 meetings. At the time I was not happy about this phasing out but looking back I can see the reason that check-ins were moved past.

The second thought at the time was, there are other people here and they may know more about counselling than me so I should listen and follow their lead as I don’t want to make myself look inept and out of my depth.

Growing Awareness

Looking back on my need for structure then, I can witness a need to control and pace things in a measured way. What happened with this year’s year one students, was apart from time boundaries there were little imposed rules for the group to hold on to. They managed well with little to guide discussion or rules for the group.

The purpose of the experiential group as identified in an article in Therapy Today (Peer supervision and collaborative power) , which is not in the course hand book but a suspicion on my part, is to grow the counselling experience and the counsellors awareness of self and other in the 28 x 1 hour appointments. I have found this group process remarkable, confusing, frustrating, hilarious, as a way of engaging student counsellors works to hone inherent skill development.

Differences

It works because of what each member brings to each meeting. There are differences of opinion, differences in thought, seeing aspects of counselling and psychotherapy in a wide number of perspectives, a collaboration of suspicions, they share successes and failures, difficulties are offered as talking points for the group to reflect. The aspect that makes me wryly smile is that the energy of the room sways and motivates discussion in surprising ways. Pop culture and Pop psychology is often used to hang uncomfortable and indigestible components of counselling and psychotherapy on. Humour was often used to smooth away the cracks that appeared in a discussion that encountered difficulty or a differing opinion.

Appreciation

The group then use the experiential group and components of the course as well as their placements to write 2 professional logs. The professional logs are informed by personal notes taken throughout the year. These notes observe how each participant has used/observed themselves and material from the course in describing themes relevant to them, their progression on the course and relating this to skills, placement (counselling skills application), case discussion and the experiential group. With each professional log, students grew their awareness and their roles as counsellors in each particular setting they practiced their skills in. It was a privilege to sit amongst the group and witness these nano changes, that were in fact gargantuan.

My excitement wanes as I acknowledge that I won’t have this 1st again. These 11 students go on to year 2 or elsewhere to continue their journey in a way that is outside of my knowledge, experience and guidance.

With this said, I am invited to look at what lies at the horizon and begin my walk toward this…

Bon chance.