My counselling classes became the highlight of my week, getting to know a reasonable cross-section of people from my area. Women outnumbered men, and there were not people in their 60s and older, but otherwise there was a fair amount of diversity. The teaching of the course had to be covid adapted to ensure safety as far as possible. That meant some mask wearing, distancing, tables and chairs disinfected before the class, and a one way system around the building.

We got used to checking-in, in a big circle at the start of each class. Sharing where we were at, how we were feeling and what had been going on for us. We also got to practise little sessions of counselling each other, taking it in turns in small groups. It requires being open with strangers and in some ways you may experience a fast-track of getting to know each other. To do this course at any time could be transformative, including the accompanying regular journals and a couple of essays. In a pandemic and a lockdown, it was heightened, because we were spending more time with each other, than many of us were with our families and other loved ones. During the Autumn term the course occupied me substantially – practically, emotionally, even spiritually. I mean I engaged on a pretty deep level, probably because I am familiar with being open in performances. As well, unlike most class members, I wasn’t working much nor do I have a family to look after, so I had a lot of space and time for the course. I never missed a class, and I enjoyed learning about the theory of counselling and history of its development, really appreciating being able to borrow books from the college library.

The course teaches some useful ideas and techniques, about how to listen and respond; how to improve one’s empathic connection with others. While some of that capacity is innate, it can be developed. I think the course could be helpful for many many people. I discovered during my time on the course, that several of my friends had done it, or a version of it at some point in their lives. Some had pursued it further, all the way to become counsellors, but most had simply found it useful personally or towards other vocations. I could see why. In a small yet profound way, it can teach you how to do some therapy on yourself. It could help you notice issues you weren’t so aware of, and re-assess your self-image, perhaps with an openness to development. It can subtley alter the way you relate with others, in a positive way.

This was all very good stuff and for a few months I thought how fortunate that the pandemic had afforded me this opportunity I would otherwise not have considered, and which turned out to be so fruitful. Our class were blessed to have a very sweet tutor who made us all feel so welcome and that she was interested in us. At least that was my experience, and such an attitude is exemplary of what we learnt to call ‘unconditional positive regard’, a required element of being an effective counsellor, according to the person-centred approach.

The teacher is very important on a personal level with this course I thought, as in the students’ journals and essays, they must open up about intimate aspects of their lives and personal histories. These things are not revealed to the other class members necessarily, but the teacher holds the whole class together. It was a very special experience, and I realised I found it healing because I had not felt so comfortable or ready to open up at university or drama school. So my last experience of education was not so ideal. With drama, similar to counselling, you do have to get on with the other students for it to work well. They are not subjects you develop particularly in isolation. Except perhaps for downtime in between, absorbing what has been learnt.

Sometimes I compared notes with my friends who’d studied counselling before. In what ways were their courses similar to mine, and what had they found difficult? In respect of the latter, one artist friend who’d gotten far further in the training than I, observed acutely, that as an artist her responses to case study examples given on the course, were not always what was considered correct. Her vision was perhaps too wide, when a more selective perspective may be sought to usefully apply counselling in our society.

Ethics are a set of guidelines and some rules; and I too struggled with taking on some of the practice. The confidentiality breach which requires breaking the confidence of a client because they mention certain elements of danger or illegality, for example, means that some people living outside the law, may never reasonably open up to a counsellor. They might simply have been born into that predicament, but then they are easily trapped there. I remembered coming across such characters in my past, and their absolute fear of social services. It’s not an easy issue to resolve; there has to be safeguarding for a lot of good reasons. But I couldn’t help identifying with those isolated on the wrong side of the law. Perhaps my empathy was not the right sort?

It became apparent that taking such a stance may not be helpful, and possibly made me less relateable to other class members. On the other hand, talking about the issues, opening up that conversation was valuable for us and I felt supported. Level 2 is just a very beginning towards counselling so I had a lot more to learn. After Christmas it was all online and the transition felt awkward for me. I easily completed that first level (oddly number 2), but found building trust and further connections really challenged online, so decided not to continue. It had been an extremely valuable, precious encounter that would stay with me. For now, however, I felt called to return to art, and the garden!

I have been writing that my first performance was 12 years ago. That’s not strictly true. On my drama school course, in 2004 I created a 20 minute piece as a final project. It was in a way, a very early version of  ‘Growing Roots’, drawn from the same material. It had even involved an ex-boyfriend of mine from the time of the narrative, so that he could tell some of his story too. I think I probably wanted some solidarity, because it felt scary and brave to be so open at that time. I do have a recording of that show somewhere, but it’s one of those things I find cringey to watch now! I was still so relatively early on in my processing of the events I was describing. Some things just take years.

Just now I watched a documentary film by Benjamin Ree called ‘The Painter and the Thief’. Two paintings by a Czech woman artist – Barbora Kysilkova – living in Norway, were stolen from a gallery. When the thief is caught, she gets to know him and develops a friendship. He becomes her muse, and she gets to know something of the mind of a junkie to the extent that both grow considerably from their bond. His ways were familiar to me; he reminded me of people I used to know. Seeing the film I identified strongly with the protagonists. It made me think – after writing this post it seemed to encapsulate my feeling – I would rather be free as an artist to build friendship or artistic connection where I am drawn to with whoever, than have to operate by the rules of the confidentiality breach. There are other ways too in which one may have to curb potential friendship in a counselling relationship, in order to be professional. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that (or ever will be). I feel like, because of who I have been, I must keep myself open, and not attempt to consent to a system of rules that could crush part of my spirit. I think that sounds harsh, and there are lots of amazing artist-counsellors out there, and counsellors who know how to negotiate these straits without compromising their soul. But for me that’s what I feel for now. Very likely, if the course had stayed in the classroom, my experience would be quite different.

On the course I reflected about how I have had therapy a couple of relatively brief times in my life. It made a difference in a gentle way, and when I was in my final year at drama school, it did support my stability. At this time it was part of a sort of informal package, because it took place at a centre which held a women’s day on the same day. Fortuitously I didn’t have a class that day and was able to connect with lots of more diverse women than at college, in a healing, supportive environment. I think that aspect helped just as much as the counselling itself, but for sure the counselling was a backbone.

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