Dr. Alex Fox BACP
(British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy)
MA (Hons), MSc (Eng lit.), Pg Dip (Couns), MSc (Couns), PhD (Eng lit.)
I thought I'd share with my potential clients my story about why I became a therapist. Please take this story as a precis of a much longer one, but it should hopefully give you a sense of what motivated me to enter this profession.
Like many therapists, my decision to undertake counselling training arose from a life-changing event, which altered how I defined myself. Before this happened, I had saw myself as an academic, as I trundled predictably along the path of working on completing my PhD (in English literature) and after that, I would try, so I thought, to secure a lecturing post. In retrospect, this path I moved along had already started to seem unsuited to me, as I knew on some level that, strange as this may sound, my future felt planned, yet not planned by me. Little did I appreciate at the time, I had, like many of my clients, lost authorship of my life, as I acted out a role that I no longer wanted to play. I didn't articulate this to myself directly, but I needed a future no longer scripted by a lazy and too limited vision of myself ('smart', 'intellectual', 'academic').
What then happened, as challenging as it was, constituted a homecoming to myself. A close friend had felt suicidal for some time, but he announced one evening that he intended to take his life later in the week. I couldn't say I felt surprised by this disclosure-depressive feelings sap away at our lust for life-but what he said left me speechless. I understood the importance of words at that moment, but also how difficult, perhaps even impossible, it would be to say 'the right thing'. Not often are we called upon to act as a defense lawyer on behalf of life itself.
Much as I would wish to make out that I had said something 'transformational' that evening, honesty prevents me from doing so; after all, real life conversations seldom lead to instantaneous change, no matter what the guru of the moment might proclaim. Nevertheless, even though there was no sudden shift in intent and in mood, I did a simple, yet uncommon thing: mired in his pain, he sat, so to speak, at the bottom of a dark, dank well and I joined him there to hear what he had to say. Despite feeling great despair, he wanted, I imagine, what he said to matter, to impact at least one other person, and I sat there to bear witness to what he thought was his ever-lasting pain.
Fortunately this conversation did not come to any sudden conclusion, as my friend made the tentative decision to not end his life anytime soon. His sense of futility did not convince him as much as before, even though he still clung to the notion that his despair told the truth and would not betray him. Essentially, he had put existence itself on probation, and I realized that, if I worked quickly and determinedly, I might have a chance of helping him to remove the question mark placed after the word, 'life'.
Many months ensued where I helped him understand how his despair had emerged from the life he had led, and he was then able to reject a way of life rather than life itself. From our informal work together, he had come to realize that his vision of a good life depended on the choices he made, and the perspectives he held, as I helped him see that his own emotional pain was not bewildering, anomalous and fixed, but rather it was understandable, relatable and changeable. Previously his dark feelings had assumed the character of stubborn truths, but my willingness to empathize with his perspective, while gently challenging the dogmatism of his pessimism, contributed to him making one of the biggest decisions anyone can make.
After the real-life drama had reached its end, and the many tears that had been cried (his and mine) had subsided, I too came to an important realization: as one story concluded, another was about to begin. In the midst of helping him, I had quite naturally expected that I would exit stage left from my pseudo role as a therapist, and move on with my life. However, once that period ended, I found myself confronting a quite different prospect: contrary to what I had imagined, I realized I had experienced that period, with all its malign uncertainties and tribulations, as rewarding and above all else, meaningful. How could I possibly make sense of this?
As I tell my clients, we should not seek definitive answers to who we are, lest we lose the capacity to revise our lives for the better. In that spirit, my (current) answer rests upon the idea that life had set me an exam, and passing it required me to draw upon aspects of myself I had never given myself credit for before. I came to recognize that helping another human being in pain called upon not only my marked capacity to understand myself and others (a trait much exercised in my psychoanalyzing of character for my PhD), but also that I possessed an unusual ability to empathize deeply with others' suffering. Realizing this, I felt that a Gordian knot had come untied, as I had resolved the problem of finding a career that brought together many of my abiding interests: my fascination with psychology, my enjoyment of working with people and helping them, and my determination to understand myself more deeply too.
While I was completing my PhD at Dundee university, I enrolled on Abertay university's counselling programme for their four years' Masters course. I can always remember working with my first client at Insight counselling service: an elderly gent walked in and within two minutes started to sob and I thought to myself, 'This is no dress rehearsal'. I can recall the panic of wondering how to reach out to this old man in pain, because at that moment, I saw myself as possessing the unearned title of 'therapist'. This fear quickly subsided, though, when out of necessity I appreciated that he wanted me to be a human being first and therapist as a close second and at least I could do the former! That day taught me a lesson, one that has stayed with me ever since: our clients want us to be knowledgeable, they want us to be confident in our role, but they rarely want us to be so sophisticated that our humanity is obscured. Indeed our talent for technique should never eclipse our ability to connect with our clients.
If working with that client constituted chapter one, my training had many other episodes that light an otherwise darkened path to my becoming a counsellor. My work with Insight counselling service, for example, taught me the virtues of short-term therapy and how best to get a quick yet vital sense of the client's problem so that you can help them in ten or less sessions; likewise, my work at Abertay's research centre showed me the benefits of long-term counselling, as I had the privilege of helping clients explore at length longstanding issues. As a result of these different, yet complementary experiences, I am not doctrinaire about short-term or long-term counselling; it all depends on what the client wants from therapy.
At this stage in my story as a counsellor in Harley street, how would I now describe it? I believe that since I started this journey, I possess much more knowledge and confidence than I did at the beginning and I have helped many people, yet nevertheless I still see a family resemblance to that rookie face from many years ago and that's a good thing. In my opinion, no matter how talented, experienced and knowledgeable a therapist may be, we can never evade the fact that our work as counsellors starts somewhat anew each time a new client walks through the door, as our facility with technique must still take its lead from the living breathing individual sat in front of us. Indeed, if my client is to benefit the most from the therapy, my expertise must join itself with a beginner's mind, so that the work we do together escapes the fate of becoming another textbook example.
If I can offer any conclusion at this point, it would only be that I can provide no definite conclusion: after all, my story as a therapist can never end as long as I continue to co-write, again and again, with my clients the story of the therapy room. Pat summaries indeed do no justice to that coupling of client courage with therapist expertise, as good therapy, in my view, resists generic explanation. For my potential clients, then, let me end my story with an invitation: please read the various sections of my website to discover how I can help you and how others have been helped before you start a new chapter in your life.