CHANGE

It was nerve-wracking, going it alone.

After twenty-odd years working in university counselling services, leaving the education sector felt huge. A glance at the personal timeline would reveal almost the entire length connected with education in some form or another. Kindergarten through school, several stints at uni, first Student Services jobs, Counselling, lecturing… Who was I if I wasn’t attached to an institution of learning?

It was time to find out, though I didn’t exactly go cold turkey.

Resigning from the University Counselling Service was a much-needed wrench—it was several years since I’d been happy there as micromanagement undermined the excellent work we used to do with, like, the actual students. But I kept the teaching gig at another uni for several more years until the absence of any sense of appreciation or satisfaction ground a resignation out of me.

And that was the point at which I realised I was now, despite the pretensions inherent in my professional title, a small business. A very small business.

So I sent out letters of introduction to a score of doctors in the vicinity of my modest consulting room and waited for the referrals to flow.

Which they did not.

In fact the only General Practitioner who invited me to visit was so odd I concluded she invited me in just to talk to another living soul. After a slightly bizarre conversation, during which she continuously fingered a medallion at her throat and made eye contact precisely zero times, I muttered an excuse about an imminent appointment and beat a clammy retreat. Walking back to the office, I wondered what sort of referral would come from such a practitioner. None did, so I needn’t have worried.

Someone said having a website was important, so I knocked up a basic one using the application that came with my computer. Bought a domain name and waited for clients to ring the number. A couple did, but not many. Was my home-made website just too basic? To impersonal?

A second version followed, where I made myself a little more visible. After all, as a humanistic therapist, it seemed reasonable to offer something with a touch of personality. I even knocked up a list of presenting issues I thought might help overcome the natural reticence about seeking help that we all have. It was an A—Z of issues. Should that be issues with a capital Ish? Don’t know, I rather loathe the word. But I do know that starting with topics I was personally familiar with got me three quarters of the way through the alphabet.

When it was done I was satisfied enough. A few inquirers mentioned it when they rang and I’ve since seen remarkably similar lists on the (much flashier) websites of other psychotherapists, so perhaps it tapped into something, even though what I was really saying was, “We can talk about anything that’s troubling you.”

Anxiety
Behaviour change, including substance issues and gambling
Communication and relationships; Connection; Creativity
Depression
Effecting Change in your life
Family of origin; Feelings
Grief and loss; death and bereavement
Health: chronic health problems; Ageing
Intimacy, Closeness
Jealousy and trust
Knowing yourself better
Life changes, transitions, crises
Mood swings; lowered mood
Not knowing, confusion, lostness
On-going personal development
Perfectionism; Procrastination; Parenting
Questions of meaning (and loss of meaning)
Relationships; Relaxation
Stress; Sexuality
Transitions and ageing; Trauma and recovery
University: adjustment and success; Study and Motivation
Values and priorities; life choices
Work-Life balance; stress
XYZ. . . anything else that feels important!

The practice did build to a satisfactory size, mainly due to former clients seeking me out and a handful of doctors who seemed to like the way I worked (or were convinced by their patients it was worthwhile). I’ve never updated the website, and it shows. That’s fine, I’m not seeking clients. But if I did review the content, I reckon I could reduce it by about 90% and the ‘issues’ list to only one letter.

Based on almost thirty years of practice, this is what it boils down to.

What do people want?

To feel happier; to be deeply heard.

What do you do?

Try to be with the person opposite me as fully and authentically as I can.

Connection and happiness. Is there anything else?

EYESIGHT TO THE BLIND

I was thrown out of Melbourne’s signature university as a direct consequence of my skill in accumulating ‘F’ grades. That’s not ‘F for Fail’—though it certainly is well below the plimsoll line of the Good Ship Success—but the F at the end of the series A – B – C – D – E – F. It doesn’t go any lower.

Most of those fails were not surprises. One exam I spent the first fifteen minutes (the ‘lock-down’ phase when no-one is allowed out) writing Lou Reed song lyrics in the exam booklet. If the subject had been 20th Century Literature I might have got a few marks but in fact it was a Maths paper and the examiners were evidently not fans. For a later exam I apologetically signed my name at the bottom of a blank page. It was a Monty Python reference, but once again the audience was unmoved.

The real crunch came at the half-way point of the final exam: Ocular Anatomy. Part one of this test was a series of microscopes set up around the benches of the lab. Each instrument had a slide containing a cross-section of some part of the eye. The sixteen students in my Optometry cohort sat around the benches writing about what they saw down the microscope and moving themselves and their exam booklet to the next slide when a bell rang.

Ding! Move to the next microscope. Scribble scribble… Ding!

Next slide… More frantic scribbling. All very Pavlovian.

Now I referred to sixteen students a moment ago and indeed, that was our number. But only fifteen were scribbling. One was moving from station to station with a blank exam script and a slightly worried frown, wondering what all the pink squiggly things were. Even then it did not really dawn on me that I was in trouble. It was more a nagging sensation that all was not well. Breathtaking blindness.

The light-globe moment—and it was a 150 Watt flashlight—occurred during the break, as the Professor explained to us how the second part of the examination would proceed. The oral part of the exam. The exam where you walk, on your own, into a room with three Professors and they ask you questions about Ocular Anatomy. Out loud.

They are going to ask me questions. I will not have any answers… No answers AT ALL.

Crackling sounds of scales falling from eyes.

Houston, we have a problem.

“Exc…” I cleared my throat. It was dry and scratchy. “Excuse me Professor, but I won’t be participating.”

I glanced around the group. Didn’t really make eye contact with anyone, though I noticed that several mouths were slightly ajar. My smile was an unconvincing grimace. “Good luck,” meaning goodbye.

I walked out of the building and into late Spring sunshine. Stared at a well-tended garden bed, slightly dizzy and faintly nauseous. Saw flowers but felt pit-of-stomach blues. Then I walked out of the University of Melbourne and down Swanston Street.

drawing-of-an-eye-with-parts

Feature image: “One” by Alex Grey