How I got into counselling
After a fantastic opportunity to study for seven years with the Open University I graduated with a degree in Science and Technology. During this time, I worked as a laboratory technician then had two babies. In fact, for two of my exams I was allowed to sit them at home, one whilst breast feeding my son and then whilst very close to giving birth to my daughter. In between I had even managed to attend a Summer School leaving my son for a whole week- something that was incredibly hard. When my daughter arrived, I was rung by my OU tutor asking what I had got. I said I had got my degree but she was more interested in whether my baby was a boy or girl! Sadly, my marriage ended shortly after I lost my mother who had been so supportive in my ambitions and dreams. She was a vital childcare asset to me whilst studying and working towards my first degree and afterwards when I returned to work after graduating.
Subsequent to graduating I studied to qualify as a Further Education tutor then on an Institute of Management course. From there I went back to work part time as a market researcher then as a community development worker, Job club leader and finally a PA to an MP running his constituency office. The latter three jobs brought me to the awareness that there were many damaged and vulnerable people who benefited by being heard and listened to.This was in tandem with realising I was in an abusive marriage and choosing to go for a divorce and become a single parent with financial responsibility for my two beautiful children who were unsupported by their absent father.
I embarked on counselling training. First it was counselling skills then counselling followed by a Diploma in Counselling at the College of Ripon and York St John then affiliated to The University of Leeds, who awarded my degree, now a university in its own right. This was a wonderful experience working with fellow students, learning skills, but most of all beginning to understand myself. It was a time of self discovery. I also embarked on regular personal therapy where I unpicked every part of my life and my psyche. Even then I wasn’t able to use my training in the way I had envisaged, I managed to train as a volunteer for Cruse Bereavement Care and also trained as a Supervisor through them, and latterly at Hallam University where I was on a Certificate in Supervision course. At this stage most of my work was volunteer counselling.
What did I do to find work as a counsellor?
My paid jobs included being a Centre Manager for Women’s Aid. This was funded initially by a National Lottery Grant, and followed up by various grant applications which I submitted. I actually achieved a second Lottery grant for another three years but chose to leave then. I was a Community Volunteering Manager for The Miscarriage Association, then a National Development Manager for Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide. My first real counselling job was for the NHS setting up a counselling service in prisons.This was an initiative to afford prisoners access to counselling in the same way as they would if living in the community.It gave me the opportunity to work with an abuse agency, Fire in Ice, who visited the prisons offering specialist abuse counselling to abuse survivors. My training placement was with an abuse agency working with male survivors who were in prison so I had a natural affinity to the work of Fire in Ice.
From the counselling coordinator role for the NHS working in prison I moved to a Primary Care Counselling Service as Manager for Counselling and Psychotherapy, managing a team of counsellors who were working in GP practices in one of the most socially deprived area of the country. In addition to managing the team I also had a clinical case load. I worked with a diverse client group, the unemployed, single parents and clients who did not identify as having English as a first language. This necessitated working with interpreters and with cultural norms and traditions that were very restrictive for the client group. It was very challenging but also very rewarding.
As an aside I recall going for a curry after work in an establishment which was like being in someone’s home. Whilst enjoying the curry which was one of the best I have ever had, I shared the experiences of working in this area of the city with a colleague. Sadly, when I left the café, I found my car had been broken into and my leather jacket stolen. I had to drive home with a broken window and without my jacket! A very sobering experience. Sadly, this job came to an end when I was asked to insist that our counselling team work in a way I felt unethical. So, I went with my gut and resigned!
Fortunately, a few months previously I had been asked to go to India to deliver training to an NGO together with a training manager from Cruse. The two-week trip proved to me that we were trying to train a team on how to support the bereaved using a methodology that did not fit with the cultural and social beliefs of that particular community. It was a sobering learning experience which proved to be a route to my future.
So where did I go from here? I had no job and no desire to work for an agency with whom I was at odds! I also had the luxury of having no dependents or commitments. Freedom!
My Indian experience
So, I contacted the CEO of the NGO in India and offered to work for them as a volunteer. They agreed! And offered to support my application for an entrance visa. I had an opportunity to use this as a way forward. I had some money to support myself. So I flew to India, found accommodation and started working in tandem with a Social Worker at a Child and Family development centre.
Our project was to work at a local children’s home attached to a church. There were 21 houses each having a House Mother and a group of ten children ranging from babies to teenagers all living together. These House Mothers depended on the church for employment as they had very insecure backgrounds and the role provided them with a home and an income. The children lived as a family unit. They attended the local school alongside other children from the community. Their whole existence was focused on attending school, studying and fulfilling household chores within the children’s home. We set up a Focus group for the House Mothers who were dependent on the home for their livelihood and accommodation. The pressure to succeed in ensuring their house children did well was so hard. It meant they were actually transferring that to their charges who really never had chance to play. The children were so polite, well dressed and well fed, unlike many children in the local community. The outcome of the project was that the Housemothers were offered a counsellor. I did not apply for the post because I felt it needed someone with the same cultural background. However, I would have loved to work with these women long term.
The counsellor who was appointed had been working in the local HIV centre. I had the privilege to visit it and to see what staff support was needed. Unfortunately, one of their patients had committed suicide and because of unfounded fears was left hanging from the building for a considerable time. Also, they were unable to bury him in the church yard due to fears of catching the infection. This was very traumatic for staff and the family and taught me so much about stigma in the Indian community.
Another activity I was privileged to take part in was the local AA meeting. I had met a barman on my regular visit to the bar where he worked. He told me he had just come out of a detox programme in Mumbai. Strange job for a recovering alcoholic! He ran the group every Sunday morning in the local church hall. He invited me to come and speak to the group. I accepted saying I would only come to listen and learn. Sure enough, on the first Sunday I was picked up by motorcycle! Never ever having been on one it was a hair-raising experience without a helmet! At the break the group had chai but presented me with a bottle of coke. I asked why! The Barman said it was my regular order when I stopped off at the bar. They passed round a cloth bag for donations towards the refreshments. I put in far more than anyone because the chair cost a couple of rupees but the coke considerably more!
I told them if they would like to invite me again, I was really happier with sharing their delicious sweet chai! I went again of course and learnt so much from their life stories and recovery. Also about the tremendous sense of belonging and the way they all integrated despite their different faiths and beliefs. Also about my driver who subsequently fell off the bike and had to be transported to meetings as a passenger with his leg sticking out in a plaster cast! I think I might have had a lucky escape. I also attended the international AA conference in Margo which has speakers from across the globe. What a great day and experience. I am still in touch with my Barman who subsequently married, had two lovely children, set up his own business and had his wonky front tooth fixed. What a story of recovery and sobriety. I do not subscribe to the 12-step programme but learnt so much from these guys. Whilst in India I studied for a Masters in Psychotherapeutic Studies by distance learning via Sheffield University.
As well as this I was privileged to attend a CBT training course with staff from the NGO. The trainer kept asking me what we did in UK. I kept responding I would tell him at lunchtime but wanted to learn what they did in India first. Every day we went to the local café for thaali’ and the tutor remarked that I looked like an Indian, dressed like an Indian and ate like an Indian but why did I not drink their filtered water served in stainless steel tumblers! I was known for carrying two litres of bottled water everywhere! The highlight of my year was being invited to three staff weddings, one Christian, one Muslim and one Hindu. We all went in the mini bus singing along the way and I even learnt to wear a Sari. Birthdays were also celebrated with great fun. Loved it. Regrettably I came home at the end of the year to visit my family and was diagnosed with leukaemia so couldn’t return to be a volunteer again although I had several visits back to see all the lovely people I had met.
Finding a job back home
My house had been rented out to a Zimbabwean family whilst I was away so I took up residence in my friend’s spare room for a while until I secured a job with an EAP down south. There I lodged with a wonderful landlady who became a really good friend. The job was a baptism of fire as I started on 1st July and the London bombings occurred on 7th. We organised teams of counsellors to support rescue teams from London Underground. The ones that were the most successful were those who threw away the rule book and just offered a listening ear, cream cakes and curries in the rest room as shifts changed. Again, they took their lead from the clients by being there when guys sidled up and said” have a word with Joe Blogs he has had a bad recovery today”. I received reports from every counsellor once a day but chose not to read them until I had to compile a final report for TfL. I did this the night before the briefing and ended up being vicariously traumatised! I had the biggest panic attack travelling on the Docklands railway to the Canary Wharf-headquarters. Huge learning experience.
So back up north I secured a job with the pilot scheme for each of the first IAPT projects. What a shock! Computerised CBT for anxiety and depression. Not at all what I wanted. Didn’t stay long! Totally against my belief system of respecting client ability to self-determine. And the staff all suffered stress from the need to produce stats rather than engage with clients. Went back to Primary Care then into Staff Counselling at a secure mental hospital. Stayed there over ten years and this turned me into the counsellor I have become. I broke many rules and used my initiative, engaged with stressed out staff and learnt to be an EMDR practitioner to help traumatised staff who were experiencing assaults by patients. Such a rewarding time. I also trained in Mindfulness which was so useful when dealing with anxiety and depression. My long-term supervisor retired and the loss of his input was sad as he had watched me grow and develop professionally. Just as I have had the privilege of doing with my supervisees.
Use of experience in hindsight
Most of the decisions I made were generic, taken because of necessity and circumstances. In essence they weren’t planned, just happened. Going with the flow, not pushing the river, as Barrie Stevens wrote. However, the various jobs and knowledge gained has equipped me to react to and be with the many diverse scenarios that clients present with. Sometimes, when talking with someone I feel something welling up from the depths of my ancient brain that informs the conversation I may be having, almost like defragging computer hard drives. I worked with a wonderful woman who was my personal therapist at a time in my life when I was finding my whole existence under threat. She sat quietly listening to my dilemmas and she responded that the answers were within me as I was a wise woman. At the time I did not understand what she was telling me. Now I do, as I delve into the memories and experiences I have had. Many people actually tell us that younger people can do all the academic training available to train as a counsellor but they lack life experiences. I once disagreed with this as my co-counsellor on my diploma course was a young woman whom I respected enormously. However, now I see the sense in this in hindsight. My main value at the moment is that I am no longer afraid to express my opinions and voice them. I have that life experience to draw on and have no fear in speaking out and no hidden agenda. Every experience has proved valuable to my work, whether positive or negative.
Where am I now and what does the future hold?
Two years ago, after working full time then latterly part time for the NHS I decided it was time to retire. Yet my studies and experiences had taken over twenty years of my life to accumulate and I was loathe to let go easily and let that time go to waste, so I dusted off my private practice that had been ticking along nicely for 15 years with a small number of private clients and the odd training course being delivered. I networked and built up contacts. I kick started the practice with revamped branding including a new logo and fancy new website and business cards and flyers. Somehow, just as they had throughout my counselling career, opportunities arose out of nowhere. I trained to deliver mental health awareness training and spread out to reach people with the help of a mental health nurse who asked me to be a co-facilitator. As luck would have it, whilst I was searching for a job for my unemployed son in law, I saw an advertisement for a self-employed position with a company offering telephone counselling to teachers. The process of applying for this was so easy it seemed meant to be. This now forms the background to my private practice using a five-session solution focussed brief therapy model. This gelled for me coming from the NHS staff counselling environment where we employed a six-session model, and where I had in fact developed an online counselling protocol for use with staff away from the main hospital where I worked. Again, a piece of the jigsaw fell into place. So I now have three strings to my bow; training in Mindfulness, mental health and palliative care, telephone and face to face work using solution focussed model, long term personal therapy and EMDR for trauma and supervision of experienced counsellors and student counsellors. Perfect! Finally, the pieces of the jigsaw have all come together to form the complete picture. It allows me to utilise all my skills accumulated over 25 years and to continue to work part time and keep those skills honed by continuing CPD.
In semi retirement, now having treatment for my CLL after 15 years of ‘watch and wait’, and finally having the soul mate I have always wished for. He came into my life eight years ago through a coincidental link – fellow OU students having a common interest in geology. We have been married for two and a half years and I lean on him heavily. Life is as perfect as I could wish for. Coupled with the unexpected addition to my family of a second adorable grandchild born only two days ago. We are in lockdown because of Covid-19, but the contentment is there despite the odd frustration. It has taken me 68 years to finally feel I fit. My business name is Think Differently- not based on CBT principles but on the campaign my son adopted whilst running for the Student Union whilst at university. I pinched it, and his lightbulb logo. And now I see how seamlessly life does evolve. For this I have immense gratitude, it has really made me Think Differently!
Simply the best
“I have had the privilege of knowing and working with Maggy as a professional supervisor from her very beginning as a Counsellor, and so I have been able to view the development of her career throughout.
She has always impressed me with her deeply caring approach to her clients, backed up by diligence and skill, self-motivated learning and a very high ethical standard. If a personal friend or member of my family were to need counselling, I would not hesitate to recommend Maggy’s care.”
Mr Paul Hunt Clinical Psychologist
Increased sense of personal worth
"The benefits of supervision are well recognised to be an essential part of reflective therapy to ensure good practice for the counsellor. Margaret has not only been essential in ensuring that I have felt supported in this, but has provided emotional support as well as information and guidance that has greatly increased my sense of personal worth and I feel has benefitted my counselling work."
Cath Thomas practicing counsellor and supervisee
“Thoughtful and professional delivery.
Excellent concise instruction as ever from a talented and insightful mentor.
Mindfulness allows me the opportunity to distract myself when I experience overwhelming anxiety.”
Very approachable and sound advice
“I met Maggy last year at a networking event and found her to be very approachable, we got chatty and within minutes I felt so comfortable with her that I found myself telling her somethings that I wouldn’t generally tell anyone except on a need to know basis.
She listened and gave me some very sound advice which has stayed with me since. I would certainly recommend her for Counselling & Psychotherapy.”