Every week or so I organise a coaching session with Alessandra from Sardinia. Her Italian accent lures me in to our Skype video chats like almond-biscotti. She’s deceptively good at what she does. She coaches me into something nearing a meditative state.
Our coaching course teaches us to develop what Stephen Gilligan and Robert Dilts refer to as the ‘mind-body’ relationship. This frees us to listen to our feelings, without needing to intellectualise them. I’m not naturally strong at that. We’re living through world history – of sorts – so I’ll try anything once, unless it’s illegal, or hurts.
Generative coaching is an enterprise I hope to qualify in, but also apply to myself, so in future I can live more mindfully. I wasn’t living mindfully in 2014 and 2015, when I would run from crisis to crisis, scoffing Danish Pastries that tasted of paper bags, drinking coffee late into the night, ageing prematurely and dating a succession of unavailable guys.
I wasn’t living mindfully in 2018, when my only creative outlet was to attend art class above the Arts theatre in London’s West End, with teacher Stephen. It was so ramshackle up there in the attic space known as the Bird Loft. We shared toilets with the actors, who we’d bump into as they changed clothes between scenes. I wondered what a life on the stage would have been like and whether I could escape office-politics.
Instead, I positively embraced crises in Vauxhall Cross, working in a sixteen-storey block that didn’t have a loft, but which was positioned on the southern banks of the River Thames. They were a fuel, these daily crises. They helped me venture from one challenge to the next. Adrenaline is remarkable when put to productive use.
Permanent crash state
I struggled as a manager, and much as I enjoyed working with the Macmillan team, I was leading a life I wasn’t suited to lead: responsible for a half million pound budget, fighting bureaucracy and eternally late in approving colleagues’ requests for annual leave. I didn’t suffer from the impostor syndrome of my early days at older people’s charity, Independent Age.
Nonetheless, I’d stay late in the evening, firing off edited policy briefings, and watch the horizon far beyond Westminster, to the south east and the rising telecoms tower in Crystal Palace. The sun would set and my vantage point was the best I’d ever experienced, right at the top of ‘Charity Towers’. I yearned for something else: the panned piped early chords of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘El Condor Pasa’ would ring in my ears and awaken dreams of foreign travel.
I was living in what Gilligan and Dilts characterise as a ‘permanent crash state‘. It’s amazing how far it can take you – that is, before you inevitably collapse.
A couple of years on, I miss the diligent professional that yearned to be on television and perform through public speaking. My psychotherapist, Laelia, once observed how I balance plural identities; not personalities as such, but divergent impulses.
One of these is indeed to act as a diligent professional, to speak earnestly and seriously about matters of high politics, to dress in a suit and tie and to feel like I’ve climbed a ladder in the style only Capricorns know how – determinedly, with bent knees and a weight on my shoulders.
Impulses and instincts
But there are two misbehaving instincts which are a pull on this ‘diligent professional’ identity: the ‘creative dreamer’ and ‘the fuck-it adventurer’. And much as my sisters and I must have at times driven our parents crazy with our competing claims for affection, this trio of rival “sub-personalities” actively resist being reconciled.
I’m keeping “skin in the game” by remaining engaged in policy debates. A former colleague of mine commented the other week, “are you missing health care policy, you seem awfully active on Twitter of late?” I didn’t quite know how to respond. Last night, I dreamt I’d moved charities and was working in a cramped office full of stilted laughter and painful silence. What on earth did any of this – does any of this – represent? My enduring challenge working out which of my three impulses needs a run out in the fields; some time off the leash.
I certainly miss the status and sense of self-esteem and regular opportunities for mentorship and recognition that come from working under a named boss and being boss to a team.
But Alessandra managed to call on these other impulses of mine and artfully invited them for a tea party. In Friday’s coaching session, she nearly sent me to sleep in fact, not because she was boring me. On her rising and dropping vowels, I’m carried in a soft embrace. I’m an infant laid down by their parent onto newly washed sheets; into a mid-afternoon sleep.
“Andrew, what resources do you feel you can bring to your positive intention?”
“Stephanie, my middle sister.”
“And what is she saying to you; imagine her positioned here standing next to you,” Alessandra continued.
“To just be myself, that everything’s going to be okay.”
“And are there any other positive resources you can connect to today to anchor yourself in?”
“My old art teacher, Stephen.”
“Great, welcome Stephen,” she smiled warmly as she motioned for Stephen to enter the room.
He wasn’t there, of course, and the conversation we were having was virtual, wired on good intentions but no less rich despite the divide we had to bridge.
“And what does Stephen represent? What would he tell you right now?”
“That he likes what I’m doing, to not over-do it though. It’s good enough.”
“That makes sense,” she replied, although in this coaching context, it’s impolite to say anything else.
Two other resources also came to mind. Laelia, my old psychotherapist from 2015 and my first psychotherapist, my therapist after I struggled with OCD in 2001 after my Mum passed and I also came out as a gay man.
Later, I researched them on the internet. They’re both still with us, thank God, I said to myself. In a flash of impulse, I reached out to them both to thank them for the support they provided, and although I recognised they were only doing their jobs, the impact they had on me was far greater than anything they can imagine. I told them I wasn’t expecting a response, that giving thanks was enough (I did rather hope for a response).
Both did respond.
Margot explained she never can know for sure how people will, or won’t benefit, from psychotherapeutic help. It’s a pleasure years later to learn a client did in fact benefit.
Should I end the conversation there, I wondered.
I thanked her for the decision, whether it was a flash of her own impulse, or a calculated decision that paid off, to lend me her copy of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star. She must have known I needed that literary release, to follow writing of the strongest quality by a gay man who was unforgiving writing about gay men and their desires, and even their neuroses. She commented she couldn’t believe it was all that long ago we’d worked together. Time flies and all that.
Laelia’s response was fine and nice. Trying to obtain her email address and come across her on the web, I found out she once fundraised for Great Ormond Street and that many decades ago, her young daughter had been at hospital there, and they’d provided life-saving support. It’s remarkable what we can learn about people who had a lasting impression on our lives from a casual browse on the internet.
When I received her message back, she simply commented, “That”s lovely to know you found what we did together worked.” Or something to that effect.
I’m not altogether sure she remembered who I was.