I’m a late starter, having considered myself not clever enough to go to university at the usual time and consequently trained as a bi-lingual secretary. I started my first degree in English via the Open University in my early forties when my third child was about a year old and graduated when he was five. I well remember sitting up until two or three in the morning when an assignment was due. I had counselling at various times throughout a 20 year unhappy marriage and found it extremely valuable. Eventually I found the courage to leave and decided to train as a counsellor myself, so I did a two year diploma in counselling and psychotherapy at what was then Salisbury College of Further Education. Having qualified I set up in private practice and also got my first experience of counselling in an NHS setting by working one day a week as a counsellor in a GP practice for several years.
I chose to study at the University of Bristol because I lived in Chippenham at that time, so Bristol was not too far away, and it’s a city with which I am familiar, having lived there at two separate times in my life. My mother’s family come from Bristol, so as children we would come with her to visit friends and relatives, and this was always fun, so historically I have happy associations with Bristol. One of my early memories is of riding on an elephant at the Zoo (called Rosie if my memory serves me rightly). The Downs, the Suspension Bridge, the Camera Obscura, Ashton Park – these were all part of the enjoyment of visiting Bristol. Coming back to study in Berkeley Square brought back memories of my first job as secretary to the Professor of French at the University, and that whole area of Park Street, the Triangle and the Wills building. Some years later, I lived in Bristol again during the first year of married life. I had a job as a secretary at the General Hospital. We lived in Clifton, and I remember zooming down Park Street on my way to work, and toiling back up on the way home.
The modular design of the MSc Counselling Studies programme made it possible to fit studying into my life as a single mum and running my own counselling practice. I found the academic environment stimulating, but coming from outside Bristol I felt rather the odd one out amongst the other students, although there was one other student on the course whom I already knew and who, like me, was from Wiltshire. I sometimes use the following experience when working with supervisees, and even clients occasionally, as an example of projection: whilst waiting in a large circle for a tutor to arrive, I found myself idly surveying the group, and realised with a sudden shock that I was mentally criticising most of them - their appearance and mannerisms. This insight helped me realise that my experience of most of the group as unfriendly, cliquey and hostile was in fact a projection onto them of my critical attitude to myself. I resolved then and there to stop criticising myself and become my own ally. Needless to say, this was very beneficial.
The supervision module involved a project to create a design with shells, tissue paper and other materials, to represent our individual understanding of supervision as a journey and this provided an enjoyable contrast to the academic nature of the course.
An important aspect of my time at the Graduate School of Education was my discovery of a cousin hitherto unknown to me. One day I received a receipt for some money I hadn’t paid, and there was obviously some mistake, so I went to see Brenda in the office and she said immediately, ‘Oh, it must be meant for Roger.’ I replied, ‘What, Roger Helyar?’ ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘But not spelt the same’, I insisted, feeling slightly stunned. ‘Oh yes,’ said Brenda again. I explained there are not many Helyars around, and asked if I could send him a message with my contact details. The message was duly passed on, and sure enough, I received a telephone call in response, and found that not only was Roger a distant cousin, but that we were both counsellors! Having Roger in my life has been a real bonus and we are now affiliated in a business sense as well as a family one.
One day we were using Gestalt methods in class to explore aspects of ourselves and each person had to choose a place in the room from which to speak to the group. I remember that one of my fellow students said that she thought I’d missed my vocation and should have been a singer with a rock band! I didn’t really understand why she said this, especially as I have an extremely quiet voice, but the remark served to alter my perception of myself slightly. The MSc programme helped me find my own voice not just as a singer (in a choir not a rock band) but also as a researcher.
My study at Bristol introduced me to research methods and enabled me to explore, via my dissertation, how the medical world views counselling and whether individual medical practitioners are mainly influenced in referring patients for counselling by their own experience of counselling, or lack of it.
The tutor who was most personally supportive to me was Carol Graham and I’m grateful for the encouragement she gave me. Jane Speedy and Kim Etherington gave me a fascinating introduction to narrative research methods and it was a privilege to study the ethics of counselling with Tim Bond.
A few years later, I began doctoral research into this topic, but then undertook specialist training in counselling for eating disorders and the focus of my research changed to that of weight-related hyperphagia, or the practice of eating beyond one’s actual requirements. The Bristol MSc programme certainly inspired me to continue to doctoral level, and in 2006 I gained a doctorate in psychotherapy via a practice-based programme at the Metanoia Institute in London jointly with Middlesex University. I am now planning to do a Post-Graduate Certificate in Counselling Supervision with KRCS in Taunton.
My academic journey has led me not only to find my own voice as a researcher, but to become very comfortable with myself as a practitioner and as a person.