I’ve heard enough stories in my life to know that ‘context’ is everything. People are not their behaviours and the majority of people I meet act in ways that do not represent how they feel or what they mean to say. Simply, sometimes we need a translator.
Back in the days when I was a group therapist in a psychiatric hospital, we used to have ‘handovers’. Handovers were where staff told each other about the patient and what they were ‘in for’. I’d only listen to about half of the information because I knew the other half would be bullshit. We have our own perceptions of the world and I knew that a great deal of the time we are way off.
In my work, I like to talk to a person and hear their experiences from their own mouths. One handover I was told that I had ‘a psychotic’ joining my morning group. Oh good I thought- this will be an interesting story and I already looked forward to meeting him.
I find psychosis to be one of the mind’s most creative lifelines. When an environment gets just too disturbing to bear from time to time ‘psychotics’ can ‘check out’. It is often that simple. As predicted, ‘psychotic’ couldn’t have been further from the truth with my new ‘patient’.
As the group started, the others in the group could barely look at him, they were scared. That other half of the handover I’d ignored had already circulated the ‘wards’. Very fortunately though, other people’s judgements had not yet eaten into him. He was however ‘over medicated’. The ‘anti-psychotic’ medication he’d been given was making him ‘high’ and I had my hands full getting him to stop counting the number of ‘blue cars’ out the window so he could tell us a bit about himself.
He was 24 and a trainee solicitor, very petite and very ‘English’. He didn’t actually want to be a solicitor but that is a story for another day. His work had requested a psychiatric assessment and that he take ‘appropriate time off’ because he ‘wasn’t coping’.
His story began with the details of how his boss found him wearing a Superwoman pinny and preparing a full lamb roast at his desk. At this point, the other patients almost keeled over with laughter. I asked him to tell us more as I looked for what would be the brilliant context. He’d been working a 60 hour week for over 6 months plus unpaid overtime. He was exhausted. The month before he’d asked his boss for the night off for a special occasion and was met with a resounding ‘no’. He then applied in writing to all four partners at his firm and was again, told ‘no’. He went on to say that 6 months before he’d bought a ring for his girlfriend, her family were visiting from New Zealand and he had planned to propose the night of his infamous lamb roast. As I looked around the room the other patients gazed at him stunned, one woman crying, a couple of them smiling, others laughing and certainly no one scared. Yet, every single one of them had prejudged him as a mad man, a ‘misfit’. His lamb roast preparation got him the night off plus 2 months sick leave which he was being paid for. I liked this kid. People simply have different models of the world and different priorities.
A number of months later, I met him quite by chance. He told me that after that group, he emailed his boss and resigned, discharged himself from hospital and was now doing a fine art degree. He then hugged me and asked if I would make the wedding. I went and I wore a red dress for ‘passion’, green shoes ‘for growth’, a big smile for seeing him happy and a tear of gratitude for trusting my gut about context.
If we want to better understand our audience, giving it context will achieve it for us!