As I walked through the park that first day, the sun was shining. The flowers were opening their petals and the birds on the shimmering ponds were nesting. Some parents were already tending to their chicks, caring for these delicate lives, teaching them, guiding them in their new beginnings.
The beauty and fragility of life all contained in these gardens, as a microcosm… but what lay ahead in my intensive foundation course on counselling and psychotherapy? Whatever it was, just felt ‘right’, from the start, that anything was possible, that I belonged. The casing, the setting, the framework: nurturing, relaxing… therapeutic.
I was to realise quickly just how important this was. As an advocate for nature being fundamental for mental health, it would have been an entirely different experience in the city, without the calming backdrop of Regent’s Park in which to process the often difficult feelings the course brought up – for myself directly, and what I felt from others.
Let ‘The Work’ begin
With the ice breaker question on our hopes and fears for the course, our answers were often versions of the same theme: our insecurities.
- What if we’re not good enough?
- What if we don’t step up to the mark?
Some participants had impressive career backgrounds – my insecurities whispered to me. But they’d left as they felt called towards this path. I felt this to be a commonality. That the subject of psychotherapy was a calling. It facilitated making connections.
I wondered where my place would be, as a mature student. Did part of me crave a return to student life as I’d known it 30 years ago, in the rebellious, carefree… young, crowd?
On the first day, I felt slight resistance to women who were talking about their kids. Perhaps I wanted this course to be just about ‘me’, to shrug off my parental responsibilities for a few hours each week. It took barely a blink to realise being ‘me’ did not exclude any of my parts, nor roles in life. Other mothers quickly became some of my favourite group members. One, in particular, probably younger than I am, adopted me like a parental figure. She was caring and nurturing, almost instinctively knowing how much it meant when she bought me coffee and carried it into the lecture room while I ran an errand. Perhaps she was responding to my mention, in group sessions, of how at times I’d missed being looked after.
In the afternoons, we practised therapist ‘skills’. Necessarily, that meant us being therapist, client, and observer, alternately, and then giving feedback.
Skills – As therapist
The skills sessions were a privilege to be part of. From the first session, being the therapist felt intense and tense. To sit opposite somebody, look into their eyes, try and communicate, without words, that you are present just for them, with them, in their pain, is a unique and special experience.
One ‘client’ said afterwards that they were unaware of how they felt until it all came out, and that I have a ‘kind face’.
The stories are often similar but with a personal slant: the classic mother, juggling and comparing herself to others, thinking she’s not good enough, and that she ‘should’ be ‘better’.
Certain insecurities the client brought up, experiences and feelings I also have, triggered my own insecurities. As the course progressed, so did my awareness of when this occurred, as I learned to ‘bracket’ my own stuff. Just when I’d think I’d got bracketing in the bag, someone would relate their story and the similarities with my own would feel so intense I would physically feel it – in my chest, a ball in my stomach, like I was holding something in.
I wanted to reach out and hold so many of ‘my’ clients, particularly younger women who reminded me of my daughter, or of my younger self. The instinct was to take them in my arms and rock them, tell them that everything would be all right, they were doing fine, and were just about as perfect as anybody else, exactly as they are.
I wanted to at least pass a tissue. Until it was pointed out this might disempower the client and make them feel it is not okay to cry, in the moment when they need to feel that it really is okay to express their deepest emotions through tears.
They always cry.
Skills – As client
A course participant said to me, in the coffee break, that obviously, in this particular setting, we always hold something back as the client during skills.
I thought, ‘uh-oh, am I oversharing?’
Later, at the end of my session, the same person was kind (they always are). They commended me for being so trusting, and referred back to the earlier comment, saying I’d encouraged them to be more open.
You can never know for sure what another is thinking, but I felt the experience of sharing my secrets to be healing. I didn’t feel judged. I felt a roomful of empathy and support. And I do believe that showing my emotional scars encouraged others to trust in us and to share their own.
Once I tried to open with a different tack (after observing others share on everyday ‘stuff’) and talked about my experience that morning at the train station. I’d become upset as my ticket was more expensive than I’d planned for, and I was convinced the ticket seller was wrong. The underlying issues were my fear of not being able to afford the course, to keep looking after the kids and earn enough… as well as the feeling of powerlessness I found so difficult, faced with a man who held power over me.
Upon reflection, I learned that everyday ‘stuff’ can lead to great learning and self-awareness.
I always cry.
Skills – As observer
I learned so much about just how differently our minds work.
I watched people go from seeming to be ok to really not being in a matter of minutes, just through being allowed to talk without interruption. We generally don’t give space to people, as rather than actively listening, we’re intent on finding the next thing to add to the conversation.
It was fascinating to witness how some people work with imagery and being in the moment. In one poignant episode, someone imagined they could see their happiness, but not quite reach it.
I watched people free associate and project onto their therapist. Once, I felt a real sense of aggression in the air, and I felt uncomfortable for the therapist, but they held the space. The feeling passed.
Our final session of the day was spent in personal and professional development (PPD).
The first session was confusing, awkward, uncomfortable but also warm and fun. Nobody seemed to understand what it was about. Not quite group therapy, but perhaps something akin.
For some, this confusion didn’t dissipate over the 10 weeks, but rather, dipped and heightened. The lack of structure was unsettling. Somebody asked me, didn’t we all feel this way? I shrugged off the question, not wanting to rock the boat. But then, questioned again, I turned it around and asked what this uncertainty might mean to my friend.
Did this help them investigate their own reaction? Maybe.
Was it my way of not wanting a fuss, of keeping everyone happy and avoiding confrontation? Probably.
I realise I tend to see things from multiple viewpoints, as a peacemaker, and to avoid uncomfortableness.
Other group members found the lack of depth infuriating. Were we using humour to deflect from deeper concerns?
Sharing means caring… and encourages more sharing
I found the group to be a safe space and I opened up and shared personal things from the beginning, partly because I had experience with 12-step groups, and I believe in strength in vulnerability. I tried to practise what I hoped would bring the greatest authenticity to the group setting and indeed the whole experience.
Sometimes a little voice told me I overshared. I would acknowledge it and remind myself that I have had a lot of work to do in the past on creating healthy boundaries. To adapt those boundaries greatly for this unique and unnatural format was part of my challenge. I thought a lot about one of the tutors saying that being a therapist is all about boundaries.
Endings – not as I’d imagined
The final day was surreal. My daughter had Covid which meant I couldn’t attend the final day in person. I was devastated, but grateful that the group found a way to ‘tune me in’ via Teams for the final leaving ‘ceremony’, where we all presented a little piece as a parting gift to the group.
I was astounded, and yet not, by the moving contributions. Art, dance, song, heart-wrenching prose and exquisite poetry were extremely special.
And just like that… it was over… and from behind my laptop I watched people trail out, one by one, and leave the room that had become so familiar to me, so welcoming. Some of them perhaps, to leave my life, forever.
Life is beautiful, life is beastly
Thinking back to my final day in the park, I enjoyed watching the coots, ducks and geese, peacefully gliding along the glistening surface of the ponds. But then something out of place caught my eye.
‘Look, Mummy!’ exclaimed a child in its pushchair.
One of the birds, a crested creature, was swimming alongside an upside-down bird. It looked absurd. Were they playing? Mating? Was one bird trying to save the other? Or mourning it? I didn’t understand and approached to look more closely. Horrible! It seemed the crested bird was holding the other’s beak closed, so it couldn’t breathe. The soft underbelly of the poor creature being murdered, showed such heartbreaking vulnerability. Its feet moved in a final feeble attempt to right itself.
Could I help? I glanced around to try and find, what? A park worker? A long stick? Anything to stop this horrific cruelty, this macabre scene that didn’t belong here, in my safe place. My gaze was averted for only a few seconds, but when I looked again, there was no longer any sign of the second bird. Only the first. It looked proud, as if taunting any other to cross it. I scanned the water, hoping to find the other bird, uprighted somewhere, but alas, my eyes couldn’t find it.
‘Let’s go and see the squirrels,’ said the mother to her child.
What does it all mean?
I had gone into class that day jarred from the experience, but I tried to put it aside and listened to the workshop. Still, the horrible image returned at the most inappropriate moments.
In the train that evening I searched for the bird on Google, to discover its breed, work out what it had been doing, hoping for some magical answer that would tell me that its doomed adversary had been okay… perhaps performed some magical underwater sprint only known to the animal kingdom, and everything was, in fact, all good. Maybe if I couldn’t find a kinder explanation, I could at least label the experience, put it into a box, and make sense of it.
I noticed many parallels in real life, and through my learning on the course. Human beings try to make sense of things, in a world which, arguably, has neither actual reason nor rhyme.
Life is full of promise, hope, incredible beauty. But there is also death, destruction and cruelty. Just as my special, calm place was spoiled by the shock of being witness to suffering, we cannot be certain of anything.
Beauty and beastliness co-exist. Some things cannot be fixed.
Perhaps the acknowledgment that nothing in life is sure, can be encouragement for us to do the best we can, to appreciate what we do have, in every moment.
Thank you for reading 🙏🏾💚✨
© Eilidh Horder, all images my own.