Generous Hearts

I am now 6 months into being entirely self employed as a therapist, and facing some new challenges as we are all hit with the current pandemic. I have set my fees for therapy at a rate that I believe reflects my experience and specialisation, with some flexibility for those on lower and limited incomes.

I do realise that I serve some of the more oppressed communities that we have in society, people who struggle with mental health, with managing to work for all sorts of reasons, and who sometimes have to fight for their right to exist at all. I have a few clients, in relatively stable life circumstances who pay a good fee for their therapy. However, recently several clients have told me that they are cancelling all future appointments because they are struggling to pay rent and bills. Some are losing the income they had because of COVID 19.

This makes me sad on many levels.

I wish that quality and long term mental health care was available for all in need, free at the point of need for those who cannot afford it, just as it is in some European countries, and just as physical health care is in the UK. It isn’t, despite many politicians making promises.

I wish that society was more equal, people more open and accepting of difference, and therefore the worrying levels of poor mental health especially in LGBTQ+ communities wasn’t the reality that it is.

I wish that I had independent means, and could provide therapy to anyone who needed it on a pay-what-you-can-afford basis. I can’t, because I too have to pay a (small) mortgage, bills, travel, care for my dog…

I wish that I knew how to solve the mental health crisis that we have in the UK.

I wish I could believe that any future government will keep its promises…


Many of you know that I lived for 18 years as a self-employed missionary, relying on the generosity of family and friends to provide for my needs. I am re-imagining a similar system, but this time to provide for a few of my most in-need clients.

I have set up a separate bank account, into which generous hearts around me might make deposits.

I commit to using that money entirely for subsidising clients in difficult circumstances. They would pay half the lowest rate I charge at the moment, and the account would pay the other half – for fortnightly therapy sessions – for a maximum of 6 months per client. Any interest earned would stay in the account.

Generous hearts could pay in one-off gifts as they are able, or monthly by direct debit.

I won’t be able to offer any information about who is being supported, for reasons of confidentiality, and I would need to ask generous hearts to trust me in the wise and responsible use of the money. I can offer periodic information on figures raised, numbers supported etc.

I have appointed a couple of trustworthy people to whom I will be accountable for my decisions and to whom I will give complete access to my financial affairs, to keep this above board. If you would like to talk to them or ask them any questions, I am happy to put you in touch.

I have considered using Patreon, or one of the on-line giving schemes, but they all take a percentage cut (understandably) and I would prefer 100% of the giving to go direct to help clients.

The bank account is in my name, JM Russell, RBS account no. 00155743, sort code 832804

Please don’t feel obliged to give – we are all at different places. No gift is too small (or too large!), and it is my commitment to you that it will only be used for the purposes described.

On behalf of some of the more vulnerable in our society, thank you so much.

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Well, yet again I have been confronted by a client!

I don’t mean that they have ‘taken a pop’ at me; I mean that in conversation with a client I found myself confronted with my own ‘stuff’. (‘Stuff’ is a technical term in the therapy world. It refers to anything that forms patterns of behaviour, usually ones that are somehow problematic or cause difficulties).

So the ‘stuff’ that was challenged yesterday was my reluctance or my difficulty to trust that friends really like me, or that they aren’t my friends because they somehow feel sorry for me, pity me. So there. I have been honest with you. Although having said that I do expect that those of you who know me well may already have seen that, or sensed it somehow anyway. Perhaps I am not revealing anything that you didn’t already know.

The long and short of it is… that I am confronting myself with the message that enduring patterns of behaviour really only change when we decide to change them. We usually don’t feel like changing them, after all we have been practicing them for a very long time. They usually have some form of payback for us – like ‘protecting’ us from our fears, making us feel we are ‘safe’ – when all they do is keep us living as we have always lived.

The real risk is change.

Change is scary. Change is difficult. Change doesn’t always come easily. Change is deciding to think about something differently; not practicing the same old same old and expecting a different result. After all (as the saying goes) that would be madness!

So I am deciding to change. Yet again, I am deciding to do life differently. To live more connected to others, and to live positively.

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Do I ‘enjoy’ being a therapist?

Friends often ask me “Do you enjoy being a counsellor?” It is a question which usually leaves me lost of words – it is one I don’t know how to begin to answer. What does the word ‘enjoy’ mean?

Do we have ‘fun’ in the therapy room, and spend the hour laughing and joking? Um, no. Not usually. Yes, there are smiles, there are moments of sharing a ‘funny’. But I couldn’t describe therapy as fun.

Do we breeze through the session, sharing experiences we have in common, telling stories? Um, no. Yes, there are points of connection but I couldn’t describe therapy as having a cozy chat.

Do we share philosophical or intellectual ideas around fascinating and absorbing themes? Um, again no. Yes there are moments of profound insight, but I couldn’t describe them as ground-breaking new concepts.

Do we solve the world’s problems? Um, I wish! Yes, we do sometimes find a way of looking at an intractable stuck bit with new eyes, but I couldn’t describe it as “putting the world to rights” as my childhood friend and I did on the swings in the park, when teenagers.

So do I ‘enjoy’ counselling? In that sense, no I don’t. It’s not an enjoyable occupation.

But I find that I grow to love my clients in a sometimes brief but intense way, that just doesn’t happen with friends. For an hour each week, with each client I am solely and intently focused on their world and on their experience of it, putting aside anything that might prevent me being right in their world alongside them. I don’t ask for anything for myself in that time; I am there to “commit myself fully and unconditionally to their process of change and development” (Val Woskett in “The Therapeutic Use of Self” 1999). I couldn’t do that without love, or if I had any resentment for the demands it makes on me.

Loving in this way is absorbing, moving, fascinating, sometimes shocking and painful, and yet at the same time affords some of the most meaningful interactions that I ever have. To be offered the opportunity to love someone in that way is an absolute privilege.

Do I enjoy my job? Um, not really.

Do I love my job? Um, profoundly.

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Being me

I was given a gift the other day; it wasn’t a belated Christmas gift, it was completely unexpected, came from people I barely knew, and I only noticed it after I had left the givers to go home. The gift was from a group of people, some of whom I had met once before, some of whom were almost strangers.

We were attending a course together, a day workshop for therapists working with clients of diverse gender and sexuality. We had some experiential learning about different kinds of intimacy, some discussion around current models of sexual functioning, and a presentation of the tutor’s research findings amongst people who might describe themselves as asexual (those who don’t experience sexual attraction). We had some laughter, some serious moments, some thought provoking ones, and we ended the day with a ‘fishbowl’ role-played therapy session as participants and observers.

The gift was this… There are parts of me that I keep under wraps, perhaps not hidden, but I am definitely choosy about who I let in. These co-learners with whom I spent the day gave me the space to be me – all of me – at least all of the part of me that I normally keep to myself, the asexual part of me. I came out slowly, one step at a time, testing the waters cautiously, and then with more courage. By the end of the day without noticing it I was ‘running around the room’ with gay abandon. I didn’t any longer have to be careful, or watchful to see how others were reacting to me. If I was angry I said so respectfully, if I was upset I let others see it, if I felt understood I whooped excitedly.

I cannot remember a time when I could be me with quite so much freedom. I felt affirmed, held, contained, allowed, validated, and not because I conformed, but because there was space and acceptance for difference.

I don’t know when I will meet those same people again. I doubt we will all be together again in the same place, ever. But for those few brief hours I could be me, all of me, and it was wonderful.

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Difficult stories

Sometimes when I listen to my clients’ stories, one catches me by surprise. Recently I was caught off guard when, in the last 10 minutes of our time together, at the end of the sixth of six contracted sessions, my client spoke up and spoke clearly, saying “perhaps I should tell you about this, perhaps this may be relevant”.

What followed was one of the more distressing accounts I have yet heard, understated and yet so alive in the room – an account of abuse, pain, confusion, fighting back, and yet ultimately aloneness. I am not the first person that this client has told, this was no secret, but I am the first person who has a professional responsibility to respond somehow to the story.

How do therapists respond to things that took place twenty, thirty, forty years ago? We can’t change anything. We can’t alter the circumstances or the context in which the events took place.

We can hold; metaphorically (and sometimes quite literally) the teller needs to be held, to be told they are safe, that those things aren’t happening to them now, that they have done an amazing thing and have survived to tell their tale.

We can listen; what happened in the past to a young person may need updating into adult language for the present adult to truly make sense of what they experienced.

We can explore; yesterday’s events have an effect on how we live today, and on how we perceive what is going on around us. Strategies we developed then, which served to keep life manageable or even survivable, will have a different result now, and we may appreciate help to revise these strategies, one step at a time.

And at the close of each session we need to attend to our own selves, to notice how we have responded internally to what we have vicariously experienced with our client. Has it touched on anything from my own story? What feelings has it spawned in me? Am I feeling sad, angry, disgusted, enraged, violent, defeated, relieved, anxious, bored, exhausted? What do I need next?

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The process of therapy

Therapy is sometimes a long slow process. Maybe I am a slow learner.

I think today the penny has dropped – you can’t rush the process, no matter how much you want to. The process is a thing all of its own, and will only go at its own pace. If I try to provide the answer for a client, then the chances are they will dig their heels in and not budge anyway. If someone tries to do the same for me, then even if I know they are right I still can’t ‘get it’ at a deep and lasting level.

So my word for today is stay close to your friends, but don’t try to change them, or change their life for the better. That is their job.

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Asking for help

Asking for help is a really difficult thing to do. I have discovered this amazing truth in the last few weeks as I have been hopping around with a broken ankle. I always told people it was difficult, but now I know that it is!

Negotiating everyday life with one foot in a cast and using two crutches has thrown up significant challenges. I leave my glasses (without which I can’t read) upstairs and I sit down to write a letter. Do I ask someone to go and fetch them for me, or do I go myself, a venture which will take rather more time and no small amount of energy. Until now my m.o. has been to try not to ask anyone to do for me that which I can and ought to do for myself. Right.

Part of the dilemma is that the people around me I have been asking are my parents, both in their 80’s. I like to think that when I normally stay with them I help out as much as I can, and cause the least disruption possible. Not this time.

I arrived the day after Boxing Day with my left leg in a backslab plaster that I wasn’t even supposed to rest on the ground, let alone hobble on. I had fallen for a second time and bruised my coccyx. I had a streaming cold. I felt sore and miserable. In the wee small hours of that first night, when all good children are fast asleep, I woke to try and clear my sinuses, and as I blew my nose copious quantities of blood issued forth. It went everywhere and I could do nothing. My pillow, my face, my bed and even my hair gave the appearance that I had been the victim of some frenzied attack. I felt helpless. Useless. Powerless to help myself. And so reluctantly I called out pitifully “Mum. Mum, are you awake”. It was all wrong. I was as embarrassed as any four year old who had just wet the bed. I felt guilty. I felt frustrated and very cross. I should be doing this for them. 

But I guess sometimes it is more blessed to receive than to give. Sometimes.

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Making it all better

I have to make a confession. As a therapist I have this almost overwhelming temptation to try to fix things for my clients; to try and make them better. There, I said it.

I say ‘almost’ overwhelming because I would never actually do that; I am a good counsellor.

In some ways it feels unfair; to have compassion and empathy, to have the patience to listen as long as is needed, and then not to be able to give my answer or solution feels almost cruel. It’s as if the gods or the therapy police have set the whole thing up deliberately to frustrate me or to test my resolve.

Of course, I know the reasons why a good counsellor doesn’t give solutions… it’s to do with empowering the client to find their own solutions, yada yada… and I do believe that, really, I do. But it’s just so hard to hold my tongue.

I sit with someone in their distress, or someone who is utterly stuck, and everything inside me is screaming ‘it shouldn’t be this way’. I know how it should be. We should all be happy. No-one should have to live with grief, pain, confusion, abuse,  bereavement, loneliness, bullying, rejection. Whose fault is it? Who can we blame? The parents, the government, the children, the bankers, the teachers – always the other.

But there is something intrinsically human about brokenness. We hate it, all of us, but we can’t avoid or sidestep it. It is universal. Having broken my ankle I feel my dependance on others. I need help. I can’t reciprocate quickly. I owe someone something. And I feel more human in my vulnerability. And still I hate it. I want to be strong, capable, efficient, dependable, wise. Is the solution to have the Hollywood happy ending, the easy healing? Or is the world a kinder, gentler more human and healing place when we see one another and allow our true selves to be seen?

A young man with (I guess) mental health difficulties is walking in and out of the coffee shop as I write. He has come in about fifteen times now, each time getting closer to the serving counter. Is is goal to buy a drink? Is it use the bathroom? I want to jump (well hop with crutches) up and offer help, but how patronising is that? What is it like to be him, I wonder? He is mumbling fragments of sentences. Is he aware of people watching him? Does he go home and feel ashamed because people look at him wherever he goes? Is he lonely, isolated?

And I realise that it is I who wants the solutions so that I don’t have to go on watching the other’s pain.

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I just don’t know

There are many things I don’t know.

I don’t know how to persuade my dog to stop ‘playing’ with possessions in my absence. In the last couple of months he has destroyed a pair of glasses, a video played remote control, a wicker-work waste bin, two pairs of sandals, and chewed through (another) lead because he objected to being outside a cafe when I was inside. I do know that he is a dog, and that dogs need to find things to do when they get bored or lonely, and that they don’t understand the nature of the object with which they are ‘playing’. It appears that what is mine is his also.

I don’t really know how to be in a world in which every person I pass in the street is an individual, with hopes, dreams, fears, history, loves, secrets. I feel almost overwhelmed by the intersection, no matter how fleeting, of one life with another in passing moments of connection. Looking out of the window of a well-known multinational  coffee chain, on my second cup of coffee (free refills), human beings saunter or stride past. Some are alone, some in groups, pairs, families of all descriptions. None are unimportant, none are to be discounted. All would be fascinating to meet and know. I am glad that we have been given the capacity for love and relationship, and glad that we have the capacity to limit how many people we can see inside.

I don’t know how to help create a world where all are accepted and enabled to flourish, no matter their gender, or their sexual preferences. I do know that I want all to flourish without shame or needing to hide who they are.

I absolutely don’t know what parliament should have decided this week in the vote about airstrikes in Syria. I do know that I am glad that we aren’t sucked in to another conflict in another country, with more deaths. I also know that I am at a loss to know what else we, in fact what I, can do to help the people of Syria who are caught in the out-workings of citizens trying to resist an abusive regime. I wish it were easier, like sorting out playground scraps. I wish I knew.

I do know, however, that I am glad I am alive. If I weren’t alive then I wouldn’t have reversed into my neighbour’s car last weekend, and I wouldn’t have the repair bill to pay. That sort of thing happens when you are alive, no matter how careful you try to be. If I weren’t alive then I wouldn’t be angry at injustice and pain. If I weren’t alive I wouldn’t feel the pleasure of my dog licking my hand as he curls up in the crook of my knees with his head on my leg. If I weren’t alive I wouldn’t feel the exhilaration of singing in a choir that can make fabulous music.

This I know.

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Just because…

So I am back to all the normal routines: getting up, walking the dog, eating, working, walking the dog, catching up on all sorts at home, sleeping, getting up, walking the dog… Just because Summer School is over, does that mean I should go silent on this blogging thing again? No, you aren’t going to silence me that easily!

Something has changed. I have renewed energy and motivation and even vision. Client work this week has taken on a fresh feel. I have a ‘special offer’ for the summer months of up to 6 weeks counselling at half the usual price. That has drawn some new work. I will offer the same from September to Christmas for GSD (gender and sexual diversity) clients, in order to gain some experience in that field. As I always say, there is only one way to get experience. I feel I have begun to find my voice too. Writing each day last week provoked me into deeper reflection. I’m still not sure what I have to say, so please bear with me while I discover.

A couple of months ago I began to ask myself (and others) what sex is for. I mentioned that last week on this blog. For so many years it was all so clear to me… sex (and by sex I mean intimate sexual behaviour between two consenting adults) was a particular kind of intimacy reserved for one particular relationship, and no other. At best it was something for two people who had made a life commitment to each other, and nobody else. Perhaps deep down I still think that is the best. However, that is not how 95% of people see things, and something has shifted deep down inside me. I don’t any longer want to be someone who tells others what they should and shouldn’t be doing. That is for them to decide. I do want to be someone who listens and helps others live life to the full. I want to hear how others do life, and enjoy the diversity and variety that is this world rather than be the thought police. In that sense being sexual  can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean.

Some of you might not agree. Some of you may be saying ‘hallelujah’, ‘at last’!

I guess too I am looking at this almost from the outside. Being asexual gives me a different perspective. I hear what others say rather than experience it first hand. I imagine, and observe, and see the enormous variety in meanings that people make for themselves. I am in awe of the richness of it all.

I am on a journey. Perhaps I should rename this blog ‘talkingaboutthejourney’? No, it is what it is. I am who I am. You are who you are. To remain unchanged is to be dead.

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