Memoir

Faith and trust and pixie dust

Counselling and the creative process

SO YOU’VE LEARNT some counselling techniques. Skills, pacing and rhythms to use in any conversation.

Let’s recap – I’ll keep being your practice dummy. Do you remember the first technique? It’s called immediacy.

Immediacy is where you draw attention to your physical location, to what’s happening here, now. I’ll give you an example: I write this as I sit outside a café in Hobart. Rain, but I’m under cover. Eating waffles. Banana and bacon, and it’s so good. I can’t remember the last time I ate waffles.

Immediacy is like grounding – it’s an easy acknowledgement of the temperature or the physical space or any emotional tension. Because we’ve progressed some way along in our counselling relationship – which we like to call the therapeutic alliance – you might also comment on the fact that I look tired. I might tell you it’s because this is my last week in my job at a drug rehabilitation centre.

But because we’ve already had a few sessions, or because it’s just common sense, you say:

‘Kyle, do you think maybe you’re tired because of the rollercoaster ride of releasing your debut novel during a pandemic? Or is it the transition period of leaving a job?’ Here, you might pause for effect – we’re not above a little show business when it comes to the art of counselling. ‘Or is it the grief? Because you’ve mentioned your grief a few times now…’

Immediacy is also a writing skill. Drawing readers into the nowness of a story. There’s nothing but the now, except for flashbacks, and only the truly gifted can write flashbacks with any immediacy.

What I did just then was a deflection. I don’t want to talk about the grief. But you, as my counsellor, acknowledge that.

‘You don’t want to talk about the grief. That’s okay, but it’s also okay if you do.’

This is a complex reflection. This is when you reflect back to me something I’ve said, but include the unspoken meaning behind it. It’s also a change of topic, of pace. Shades of light and dark. It’s a tactic in novel writing, too. What’s unsaid being just as important as what’s printed.

You change the topic to something relevant and loaded: ‘So, the rollercoaster…it seems to be going well for you? You’re enjoying everything that’s happened this past year with the release of your debut novel, The Bluffs? It’s been a breakout bestseller. I’ve heard your success being called a Cinderella story, a fairytale beginning. If it were me, I’d probably think I was living the dream.’

Wow, you’re good at this. Nail on the head. I smile – I’m happy you’ve said it in those words because that is what I’m thinking, in my deep-secret heart, but I can’t say it myself. But when you reflect it back to me I feel I have permission, that it’s normalised. This is a crucial part of the counselling process: to normalise the things we feel aren’t normal.

The Bluffs has changed my life. It touches every part of me – not just the story, not just being a storyteller, not just people knowing my name, telling me they couldn’t put it down, loaning it to their nan.

You say: ‘But your job as a drug and alcohol counsellor sounds quite stressful. How are you managing both at the same time?’

I reply, ‘Stress is a funny thing. I think most people would be stressed in that situation.’

I say this because I like it when you normalise. I want you to normalise my stress.

Alas, I’m disappointed. You explain to me that yes, stress is normal, but it becomes an issue – a health issue, a soul issue, a space issue – when it’s prolonged, but also when there are extenuating circumstances. And my circumstances are extenuating.

 

COME BACK IN time with me, to early 2020. I’m sitting across the room from a client. I’m doing exactly what you’re doing to me right now. But me and this client, this twentysomething man, we’re comparing tattoos, which as a relationship-builder is one of my superpowers because I’m a twentysomething man with tattoos. One of his tattoos is interspersed with a scar.

I should’ve known not to ask, but as you’ve discovered, the rapport-building never ends in this game.

‘This scar?’ he says. ‘I got it from a machete. I was held overnight and tortured. My kids were in the bathroom but it’s okay, the other guys brought a woman to look after them…’

Afterwards, I walk down to the office in a daze. My boss looks me in the face. ‘You alright, bro?’

I nod. A beat too late. ‘Just another torture story. Wasn’t ready for it.’

He understands. ‘You need to take a break?’

I think about my caseload. I think about my capacity. I think about my pride.

‘I’m still good.’ I check myself for any bruises from vicarious trauma. ‘Yeah, still good.’

A counselling skill you should only rarely use, unless you really know what you’re doing, is one called challenging. This skill is self-explanatory. You avoid it because there’s a high risk of getting it wrong and damaging rapport. It tends to cause the client to subconsciously give you false information to protect their fragility.

This is where I should’ve been challenged.

 

BACK TO THE waffles. Back to me being tired. Back to me resigning.

Is it because of the success of The Bluffs? Or is it because I’m working on my second book, The Deep, and it’s been hard to find the energy to write at the end of the workday and I’m worried I can’t live up to the fairytale a second time?

You challenge me: ‘Or is it because you struggle to maintain boundaries?’

‘No. I have great boundaries,’ I say, angry.

Boundaries make up approximately 1,000 per cent of the skills required to succeed in the counselling game. It’s the armour between you and your clients, but it can’t be cold and hard like real armour because it needs to have warmth and empathy. These qualities are essential. So your armour is actually more like pixie dust: it only exists if you believe in it, and if you stop believing in it, it goes away. I do believe in boundaries. I do, I do. Boundaries mean you don’t let your clients’ issues give you prolonged stress. Boundaries mean you don’t try to rescue anyone. You keep your mind clear and your skills on tap, and you separate yourself from taking on all of that…mess.

So it hits my pride for you to say I have bad boundaries. You’re saying I’m a bad counsellor.

You caught it, right? The deflection? The way I tried to bluff my way out of your question about my boundaries? Don’t tell me I have bad boundaries. Have you ever sat in a room and listened to a grown man cry for ninety minutes in gasping, heartrending sobs because you told him his kids, whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in a decade, were taken on a cruise by their foster mum? Have you ever sat in the room as a man texts his son for the first time in years after you coached him through the process for fifteen minutes? All it took was someone to listen to him for fifteen minutes, to normalise his worries, and now he’s reaching out to his son. Have you heard the stories I’ve heard? You haven’t. Of course you haven’t.

My tone is getting aggressive. I’m defensive. Why am I defensive? I don’t want to talk about it.

Change the topic, please. Back to The Bluffs. Back to the fairytale.

To talk about the good things is something we call a strengths-based approach. Or positive psychology. Or even narrative therapy, which is about reinforcing narratives that are productive and full of the warm glow of red-blooded health.

 

HE’S NOT A client anymore. The boundaries of pixie dust have disappeared: I’ve worked closely with him and he’s begun to volunteer for the same organisation. But more than that, he calls me a good mate, a good friend, a brother, says he loves me and couldn’t be here without me. I can’t ignore the truth of this, but my entire skillset relies on my denying it (vehemently if I have to): I’m a professional and he’s not a friend, he’s a former client.

The day before he dies, the last thing he does when he leaves work is say, ‘Hey, Kyle,’ with a cheeky grin and then stick his middle finger up. ‘Love ya.’

I print off some forms and put them in the office for him to sign. The weekend comes, and by the weekend’s end, he’s dead. When I come to work on Monday the paperwork is still there. My sticky note: ‘Hey, can you sign these? Thanks bro.’

I don’t keep the note. I put it in his file.

Boundaries.

I check myself for bruises. Counselling is hard. Faith and trust and pixie dust.

The funeral was devastating. He was so close to so much life returned. But I sit down at a café and I feel that emotion inside, my throat raw from crying, and I let it fly out of my fingers. Writing a book is similar to writing case notes: don’t waste words, capture the heart of the issue, address the things that both have and haven’t been said. As a counsellor, am the tool, so I trust my body: I write about the shape of the emotions inside me, how it feels to cry for an everyday tragedy. I pour this energy into my book. Writing is my therapy.

 

WHEN THE BLUFFS began gaining momentum, there were two stories people loved: first, it was my eleventh book after the first ten I’d tried to get published had been rejected.

Second, how everything in that book was inspired by real events, real clients or real stories told by clients. The same people would ask when I was quitting my job to write full time. Patiently, I’d explain that I needed my job. To be connected, to use my skills, to change someone’s life, maybe, through a quiet session of processing, listening, caring. And writing is so much easier when you’re awash in material all day, in laughter and swearing and chaos.

And let’s be honest, my clients need me. Is that so wrong? You know the answer: it is wrong. First rule of counselling: don’t rescue.

I’m a good counsellor. I’m not going to rescue. Although the temptation is so hard to fight. Do you understand how hard this job is without the fairytale writing dream happening alongside it? I understand your sympathy is limited – living the dream doesn’t inspire much sympathy – but at least recognise that I am, as always, trying to be a good person, and we’re taught from a young age that good people rescue. 

I had a conversation with someone from my sector. I explained the tricky balance between having the energy to write versus managing the strain of my job, because the cracks had begun to show by six months after the funeral of my friend, my former client.

‘Yeah, they say you can’t last very long in this sector.’ She patted her copy of The Bluffs, which she’d asked me to sign. ‘Plus, we need more of this!’

Me too, companion. Me too.

But it’s selfish to be a writer alone. I need to be a counsellor too.

 

BACK AT WORK, after the funeral, I check myself for bruises. I find one. It’s crept up in the form of a nightmare. Time for clinical supervision. That’s the technical term for counsellors getting counselling so that they don’t screw up their minds and emotions. It doesn’t stop this process, of course. Just delays it.

I explain to my clinical supervisor what I’m thinking. What I’m feeling. How every now and then it’s like I’m choking, and sometimes my legs get a bit wobbly.

But I also mention how I’m doing all the right things. I’m not taking my work phone home. I’m not taking on my clients’ issues as my own. I’m talking through what I’m feeling with the right people. I have a degree in this; I know how to not burn out!

So why am I having these burnout symptoms?

My clinical supervisor knows her stuff. She asks about what I’m doing outside work. I mention the writing load. I mention how much time I’m spending out and about, searching for inspiration for my fiction. I mention how I’m rarely home and asleep on time.

‘Can I take you to my counselling classes and tell them you’re an example of what NOT to do, Kyle?’ she says. ‘You’re burning out.’

‘No I’m not,’ I say. ‘I know how to avoid burnout.’

‘And yet, you’re not resting. Your body and mind need to rest. Your social batteries need to rest. The job you’re in is extraordinarily stressful. You’re not giving yourself any time to decompress outside working hours. Task saturation.’

‘Writing helps me decompress,’ I say.

‘Writing seems like it’s your true calling,’ she says. ‘But are you sure it’s helping you decompress, or is it adding to your burden? Have you got space for writing alongside counselling? Are you sure your body has space for it?’

I refuse to acknowledge that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I’ll leave this counselling game eventually, but in my own time. Before that day comes, there’s stuff I need to do for people. For clients who are alive. Who have full lives waiting to be lived. I take one of them out for a coffee at a fancy café (I’m allowed to do this if it helps build rapport) and he says he’s never done this: sat at a table, watched the water, had a chat. He looks like a kid at Christmas. He orders a milkshake. He can’t believe people do this. He can’t believe he has recovered enough to do this. He points out a seagull. ‘I’ve never just watched a seagull. I’m always drunk or high, or looking for drugs. But I’m just sitting here with you, I’m having a chat with a mate, I’m drinking a milkshake.’

I don’t correct him – I’m not his mate, I’m his case manager – but I let it slide. Another strategic move in the game of counselling.

You caught that deflection this time, right? I keep calling counselling a game. It’s the opposite of immediacy. It’s distancing myself from it. Call it a game, and then it has rules and I can leave it behind.

I can leave it behind.

But I can’t. I’m arrogant if I think a degree lets me distance myself from what it means to be a human among humans, and if this client calls me his mate, do I have any right to disagree?

 

DID YOU KNOW The Bluffs was nominated for Dymocks Book of the Year in 2020? From thousands of books, across all genres, down to just six. And mine is there. My debut. A boy from backwater Tasmania is on that list.

I fly to New South Wales. I walk into the Sydney Dymocks store. My first obstacle is finding the right entrance – there’s, like, five to choose from.

I’m walking into this building, which is an assault on the senses in the most deliciously heady way, colours and words and signs and trendily dressed people. It’s like the Disneyland of books.

But then there’s my freaking book! It springs up on me there, in the lights and the bustle and the panic, my book, front and centre, under the banner that declares it’s been shortlisted for BOOK OF THE YEAR! My vision grows bright and I feel myself sliding into survival mode. I’m not sure I can do this. My skin feels tight. My shoes are too big for my feet. I think I might cry.

My first book, my Tasmanian-noir crime thriller, up against literary giants. The Cinderella story. The guy from the bush with the tattoos and vicarious trauma. I panic. I need to take a photo for my social media followers. I need to talk to the manager. I need to leave, immediately. Run home.

You know me well enough by now to see that this is not a normal reaction for me. I’m usually self-composed, collected and confident. This, more than anything, tells you what you need to know. I’m approaching burnout when I can’t even coexist with my own success. 

I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.

 

HERE IS WHERE I start to see maybe I can’t move forward without making the call. It’s become more than simply grieving a client I have no right to grieve. It’s become more than angry declarations that I do have strong boundaries, stronger than the rest of you put together. Someone told me the other day that a student had killed themselves. The response that came out of my mouth was: that’s the circle of life. I have become cold and hard.

But boundaries are meant to be pixie dust. No cyborg ever made a good counsellor, and no cyborg ever made a good writer.

Can’t I just put that into my writing? Can’t I just…debrief to myself? Externalise and allegorise? I can keep my job – I promise I’ll be better, I’ll be stronger, I’ll make it all part of the writing process. I’m a writer to my bones.

My mate tells me to stop saying that. I’m not a writer. I’m someone who writes.

I’m someone who writes and that’s healthy because then if my writing fails, I’m not a failure. More externalising: you’re not the problem, the problem is the problem. And externalising also means acknowledging that I am not a counsellor. I am someone who counsels.

At the moment, I keep believing I can do both: writing and counselling. Look at me, like an idiot, still clinging to that belief. Why the hell am I relying on my counselling skills to save me? Maybe it’s because the truth is that counselling saves lives?

Except that one time. That one time, it didn’t. Don’t misinterpret: my client friend wasn’t a suicide. Medical condition. Nothing I could’ve done. Nothing any of us could’ve done.

And that just adds to the hurt.

 

THE WARNING BELLS begin. I’m starting to cry watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. Or when I get the notes for my next book, The Deep, back from the publisher and they say, ‘What’s the moral? That the bad guys win? That there’s no point? We trusted you for a happy ending, Kyle. Rewrite the ending. Make us trust you again.’

I can’t provide a happy ending to my book in a world where someone dies the moment they’re on the cusp of winning back everything they’ve lost because of horrific torture. Torture. That’s how they lost it. And then a medical event made it final.

Now I start to see that maybe I can’t ignore my conflict. Now I can see how being a counsellor has affected my writing for the worse. Do I have the courage to walk away?

 

BACK TO THE waffles. I’ve rambled, which is exactly what you wanted. You’re good at your job. You’ve used talk therapy to get me, eventually, to the real point.

‘So, is it grief?’ you say. You’re pushing it now. Getting too challenging. But you’re like a dog with a bone and you sense the rhythm is right, so you nudge me in the direction you know I want to go. ‘What are you grieving?’

Yes. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, and I’m grieving that. I’m grieving that I can’t be a good counsellor anymore and I can’t change people’s lives. I’m grieving his death. I’m grieving that guy with the machete scar and the fact that I can’t even remember his damn name. I’m grieving that a student killed himself and my only response was ‘that’s the circle of life’. I’m grieving that I won’t be able to take another client to a fancy café and watch his face light up.

But I can’t do all of these things and be a writer, too.

Resigning was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It feels like I spent longer writing that resignation notice than I ever spent writing The Bluffs, and I was so nervous after sending it I had to drive to the other side of Tasmania, buy an ice-cream and turn off my phone. I felt like I was failing Them. Like I wasn’t strong enough. I didn’t want to blame my guilt on resigning, or being scared that some of my bruises might not go away, or not wanting to get another phone call about a death, hear another torture story, see another estranged father cry.

But…the lighter side of this story. The prince with the glass slipper. I do have something to show for it. My work has won me a tribe of people from the roughest backgrounds who call me at 2 am when they’ve just assaulted someone and the cops are on their way. Or who send me messages at midnight about the men they’ve killed and how they still can’t process it. Or who ask me to be their referees for Child Safety so they can finally make contact with their kids.

I’m still connected to that tribe, and I always will be. My being a counsellor shaped The Bluffs and will always be part of my writing. It’s unavoidable that the voices of that tribe will be heard. And that they’ll continue to shape me.

But in the meantime, I’ve got other things to focus on. The Deep will be released soon. My second book. The second of many. It’s a step towards writing full time, and writing is what I want to do.

Ah, you’re good. You’ve got me to say it. Yes: I need to be a writer more than I need to be a counsellor. But I’m still grieving the loss of that role, all those sad stories and the part I played in making them a little less sad, and I’m grieving that the world has lost that cheeky smile and that raised middle finger.

But now, finally, I can spend time enjoying this fairytale. Shortlisted for book of the year, for debut fiction of the year. Signing more publishing contracts than I ever dreamed of. Grabbing my laptop, hopping in the car, driving to the top of the mountain and being able to just write. 

I miss counselling. But I am enjoying living this dream.

You ask me: ‘So, writing is the dream?’

I laugh and spear a piece of waffle on my fork.

No. Writing is like eating waffles. It doesn’t need a reason, but it costs more than you expect.

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