Re-connecting through counselling
by Harry Clarke on May 4, 2011
Harry Clarke is a counsellor who specialises in aphasia. He understands the condition, not just because his clients are living with it, but because he has aphasia himself.
Over 20 years ago, aged 35, I had a serious stroke in my sleep. It left me unable to walk, talk, read or write. But it was the inability to communicate with others that was by far the most distressing of my problems.
I was one of the lucky ones. My speech returned. Now I can speak in sentences although I sometimes have word-finding difficulties, especially when tired. But as many will know, this is not always the case.
Hillsborough and Lockerbie, two national disasters in the UK, are two names etched in the collective memory of people of a certain age. I remember watching the news bulletins report these catastrophic events in 1988.
The broadcaster said that the survivors would be offered counselling and having no real idea about counselling at the time, I guessed it was something you were given to help you come to terms with a traumatic experience in your life. I don’t know about you, but to wake up one morning and be unable to walk, talk, read or write should constitute a disaster in any ones book.
Over twenty years later, it seems that counselling is a stroke therapy that is hard to get access to. Also, because counselling is often referred to as the ‘talking’ therapy – some counsellors feel that if you have a problem talking then you cannot benefit from it. I know from experience this is not the case. People with aphasia can take part and benefit from counselling because it is a therapy I have been offering for the past 16 years. For Marion, for example, coming to Connect was her first step to recovery and to accepting what had happened to her. It helped her to move on and learn to cope with situations that arose in her everyday family life.
Usually, the more speech a client has, the easier communication can be. But even someone who has very few words can communicate well non-verbally and will be quite adept at expressing themselves. Others, where the aphasia is hardly apparent will struggle with the intrusion. We are all different and some people find it hard to express emotions with or without aphasia. Some people find ‘open’ questions hard. For example, it is easier to respond to ‘did you come here by train?’ (a closed question) than ‘how did you get here? (an open question). So sometimes, and only when appropriate, I go against traditional counselling teaching and ask closed questions. Each person is affected in their own way with their own issues. Speech plays such a vital role to ones sense of self. So to be able to communicate feelings with someone who understands and empathises with them really helps.
At Connect, where I have worked since 2000, the emphasis is on communication and not just speech. Total communication means using different tools to communicate. Pen and paper can help, but for some writing can be difficult so drawing or illustrations is encouraged. Gesture and body language will help also and I’ve even used stones of different shapes and sizes to represent people, places and things. Even humour, where appropriate can be used. In fact, you should only be limited by your imagination.
In the spirit of innovation, I have just begun counselling by Skype and so far with good results. Already I can see that it will work better for some clients than for others. Ideally, I suggest at least one initial session being a ‘real’ one as opposed to one in cyber space but it could be part of the answer for those who live too far to come to Connect.
Anyone, including friends and family of people affected by aphasia, can benefit from counselling. I do feel privileged and even humbled sometimes to be working in this area and feel surprised and saddened that there still seems be so few counselling services available out there. Indeed, I often wonder if I am alone in the world as someone who has experienced stroke and aphasia and is now working as a counsellor.
If there are any other counsellors with aphasia out there, please get in touch, it would be fantastic to share ideas.
You can read more about Harry’s work at Connect here.
Join Connect facebook page here.