This is my first ever blog. I’m a forensic psychotherapist, which means I work in prisons with offender patients, people who have transgressed and broken the law, usually with devastating effect. I’ve been doing this now for 30 years. For an offender that would be a life sentence.
Every day I go to work not knowing what the day will bring. This was also the case recently when I was training a group of therapists in London. Here’s what happened:
My colleague and I had completed delivering the first half of the training and stopped for lunch consisting of a cold buffet. The delegates and trainers were talking together about the morning’s events and catching up with each other at which point a young woman came into the room asking to speak to a therapist. Assuming she had an arrangement with a clinician, given the venue houses private therapy rooms, I pointed her in the direction of the administrators’ office. As it was a weekend professionals meetings were taking place including one for private practitioners in the room next door.
The woman went to the office. The administrator quickly returns explaining that the woman had told her she’d escaped from her violent partner yesterday and slept in a doorway overnight. She had bruising on her face, said she felt suicidal and had been turned away by the police and the nuns. She had only a couple of bags of belongings and no money. One therapist spoke to her and told her to make an appointment for Monday; another therapist shared food from lunch, hot drinks and a settee for her to sleep on for the afternoon and agreed on an impulse to give her a bed for the night. Having slept and eaten she felt better, contacted a friend and left.
What she wanted was refuge and a sign that someone cared.
If you were one of the therapists what would you have done?
This is more of a rhetorical question as no one really knows what he or she would do until faced with the dilemma but I wanted to write this by way of an introduction to my world.
I don’t intend writing much about my life as a therapist as therapy is an anathema to many whose cultural perspective in dealing with personal issues does not necessarily entail paying to speak with a stranger on a regular basis, and may consider the best therapy is to talk through issues with friends and family. Psychotherapy is very much a Western ideal developed from the psychoanalytic ideas of Freud (Austrian) and Jung (Swiss) who placed free association, i.e. saying whatever comes into your thoughts, at the core of the exploration of the mind.
I won’t go into the whole theoretical machinations of the psyche but needless to say its complex as psychoanalysis places value on the conscious and unconscious drives of the individual influenced by upbringing and lived experience. A famous anthropologist stated ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and I agree with this premise. I place value on family, relationships, community and society and see the individual as a component of the whole. We all belong to each other and we all effect each other by our actions.
The point of my opening story is that I was the therapist who offered my home to the woman who told me she had run away. I didn’t give it a second thought, largely due to the unexpectedness of this issue and my being in the middle of training. However, my response was as a fellow woman, not as a professional. I was surprised at how easily and quickly I offered her basic support and the train fare back to my home without a second thought. The other therapists participating, who knew what had happened, said I was brave, others stupid. In hindsight I was relieved the woman had left and had no need of refuge but I was also interested in my reaction and saw I had automatically responded with compassion and intelligent kindness, not because I’m a therapist but just because that’s me. I would certainly want the same to happen to my friends and family if they found themselves in the same awful predicament.
Anyway, life happens when we are living our lives and we can’t predict every potential occurrence but in todays society more and more unexpected and uninvited happenings are taking place everyday from young women being kidnapped and held hostage as sex slaves, who got up that morning thinking they were just going to school like any other day. Gay clubbers just going out for the night socialising with friends found themselves brutally injured or indeed dead. A female MP got up this morning went into work to hold a surgery for her constituents’ as normal but was shot dead as she left her office. No one expected these atrocities as they started the day. If they did no one would leave their homes. I guess that’s the same for the woman who sort sanctuary in the building where I was teaching and I certainly wasn’t expecting her.
I admit I felt good about myself afterwards, as I had managed to follow my instincts and done something useful, this being my intention as a therapist and as a person. I’m just saying what’s the point of living if we can’t be useful to others whilst remaining open to the potential of the unexpected? Another rhetorical question, but one that may spark a debate.
Cathryn Johns has worked in forensic and mental health settings for the past 30 years pre and post qualifying in art psychotherapy. Kate is an educator, author, editor, supervisor and most recently qualified in NHS Leadership.