Through the help of coaching, Oenone was able to clarify her path and rekindle her long ago interest in psychology; she went back to school and opened her own practice outside of London.
Tell us about your background…
I was born in Wales, in the UK, the oldest of two children. We moved to Andalucia when I was 9; my parents, both artists, were inspired by the landscape and the quality of the light in southern Spain—and the cost of living was better. Unfortunately, while their work flourished their marriage did not survive and I returned to Wales as a teenager with my mother and brother.
My school did not offer the subjects I was interested in, psychology and philosophy, so I left at 16. Because writing was my other passion, I got on-the-job training as a junior newspaper reporter; I loved meeting people going through interesting times in their lives, be it crisis, celebration, or change. This is a thread I now see connecting that time in my life to what I do now.
I continued to explore people’s stories at the newspaper, then through radio, working at the BBC in Cardiff, until my husband and I decided to start a family. While I took some time off to stay at home with my two children, I continued to write for my own pleasure and to do some public relations work.
As my children started school, I began to think about returning to work and got a job in public relations, where I sold products and services—using the knowledge and understanding I had gained of people’s motivations. While this was fascinating work, I felt something was missing; I did not like the sense of manipulation involved in the work, or that it lacked meaning for me.
At this point my 11-year marriage broke up—my search for meaning was part of our disagreement. A couple of years later, I married again, had two more children, and chose to stay home to care for them.
When did you start thinking about making a change?
When we moved from Wales to Ireland for my husband’s work, I had a very hard time being so far away from my older kids and became depressed. I started getting counseling and came to understand that I needed to make changes in my life, but I was still not clear on what this meant.
As part of my exploration and search for meaning, I found Buddhism. My grandparents had been raised Methodist but had rejected this in favor of humanism. My parents were atheists, which I found cold and dismissive of people of faith. I went from atheism to agnosticism, and then started a yoga class through a friend, which led to my first experience with meditation.
Meditation led me to Triratna, a western Buddhist order, Wildmind meditation, and the Dublin Buddhist Centre. Buddhism made sense to me, like a “coming home” to myself. I met my coach, Sunada Takagi, through Triratna. At 41, I started working with her, and after eight sessions, I was clear about my next act. Coaching helped me to take a big picture look at what I valued, where I spent my time, and where I put my energy. It helped me clarify what was important to me and how I saw my life unfolding. It gave me the space and time to think about my options. By putting this into words, I was able to clarify my path.
I enrolled in an Introduction to counseling course at my local college and knew there and then that this was what I wanted to do. By being there to facilitate change in others, I knew I had found the meaning I was looking for.
What is your next act?
I am a professional counselor. I have my own private practice, Talk Counselling, in Penshurst, outside of London: I work with adults and adolescents and offer play therapy for children. I also work one morning a week at a primary school, one afternoon a week at Horsham & Crawley, an affordable counseling center I founded with colleagues, and one morning a week at The Wilbury Clinic, a private clinic in Brighton.
I am trained in humanistic integrative therapy and am a registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
While each of us is a unique individual shaped by our upbringing and our life experiences, at times, our familiar ways of responding to the challenges we face no longer serve us well and we may wish to consider another way. I believe each of us has the ability to understand the way we think, feel, and behave, and that this exploration can lead to us uncovering new choices, and opportunities for change.
I offer a safe and private space and give non-judgmental support that can help my clients discover what works best for them. I believe that the quality of my relationship with my clients is at the heart of the work I do; I love witnessing my clients’ increasing self-awareness and their ability to make the considered choices that are right for them.
How did you go about becoming a counselor?
We moved to England for my husband’s work five years ago and, at age 43, I started a two-year counseling diploma course at Wealden College of Counselling and Psychotherapy. The mix of theory and practice was just what I wanted. Part of my training included volunteering with alcohol addiction in a nearby drop-in center and with children ages 5-12 at a primary school.
I received a Diploma in Humanistic Integrative Counseling and Psychotherapy and chose to continue to work with children, in the school where I had volunteered. I am a big believer in early intervention. It allows children to build resources and resilience at the time when they need it and helps them to a healthy response rather than a maladaptive pattern that becomes a lifestyle—and much harder to shift later in life. The language of children is playing and within the play so much can be explored, and as it is play, this can happen safely.
How hard was it to take the plunge? What challenges did you encounter?
It was hard. It was a financial commitment—no funding was available for my age group—and it also meant the loss of income during the time I was training and building up my practice. While we had food on our plates and were able to pay the bills, there was nothing left to spare; it often felt that at this time in life, we should have had a little more comfort.
It was challenging to manage our schedules as we were raising our two younger children, who were ages 8 and 6 at the time. It took a lot of creativity and flexibility on all our parts to make it work.
It was also an intense period of study, reading, writing, voluntary practice, and a requirement for weekly therapy too. The learning curve was steep, I had not been in formal learning for more than twenty years and it was a stretch to get back into note taking and essay writing and exam prep.
Thankfully, my family was very supportive of me taking this calculated risk. My husband’s encouragement kept me going, particularly during stressful times of exam preparation.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I cannot begin to describe what I have learned about myself during this process. I have had to complete deeply intimate and personal work—often painful and revelatory, always rewarding.
I understand so much more about how I came to be the person I am, and I was able to recognize the choices before me. As a result, I chose to start another two-year training course that will allow me to work with children as a Child Psychotherapist. This is where my heart is.
My counseling training is designed to make a counselor of me rather than train me to do counseling. This difference is about walking the talk. It’s not just a toolkit of techniques to apply to a client, but an informed human response grounded in my training. My work in based on the understanding that it is a genuine, nonjudgmental, empathic relationship that heals rather than a set of techniques.
What advice do you have for women seeking to make a change in midlife or interested in becoming counselors later in life?
Find a sounding board, someone who will listen to you and ask difficult questions. Look for a big picture approach to change—coaching worked for me, helped me see what was important in my life and how I could leverage that more.
Ask yourself if you have the resources you need—the money, the time, the support from family and friends. Figure out sources of support, how you will find pleasure and have fun along the way. And commit.
Going into counseling can be a fulfilling path, with many different and fascinating options along the way. You will not get rich in financial terms but the richness is there in the connection with others.
If you go into this field, you need to be prepared to really explore yourself at the outset, and then continue to do so; this can be fascinating, painful and hugely rewarding. You need to be able to step into a client’s shoe while keeping one foot in your own. You need enough resilience to be able to “hold” a client in their most difficult times and the lightness to celebrate with them too. And you need infinite curiosity about others.
I feel it is an advantage to go into this field later in life. It’s essential to have lived in order to be able to connect with others who are finding life hard. Interestingly, in the UK, this is a path people often pursue in midlife, when they have faced a number of experiences that have brought them into contact with the counseling world. There aren’t any counseling courses in the UK that take people under 25 for this very reason. In my class of eight students, we ranged from early 30s to late 50s!
What resources do you recommend?
I would look for a big picture approach to change—a coach worked for me, helping me see what was important in my life and how I could work with that more.
Try an introductory course or volunteer in the area you’re interested in, so you get a real feel for what it is like to live that new life.
I fell in love with counseling children through a book called Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia Axline; any of Irvin Yalom’s books give a great storytelling narrative of what counseling is about. My favorites are The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients and Love’s Executioner: & Other Tales of Psychotherapy.
Also pretty much anything by Clarissa Pinkola Estes – but particularly Women Who Run with the Wolves and her audiobooks Theatre of the Imagination, Volume 1 and Theater of the Imagination, Volume II. These are about the psychology of myth and fairy tale, particularly as regards women.
I also loved the HBO show, In Treatment, which gives you an inside view of a therapist’s life. Gabriel Byrne plays the lead role of the psychologist interacting with recurring characters (his weekly clients) in private practice while confronting family and personal issues with his own therapist.
What’s next for you?
I am currently taking a course at Terapia in London called Adult to Child Psychotherapy Conversion Masters. When I am done, I will qualify as a Child Psychotherapist. As part of my studies, I am observing newborn twins one hour a week for their first year, I am accompanying a child psychiatrist as an observer on his ward rounds at an inpatient clinic in London, and I am in psychotherapy again myself as part of the course requirement to explore our responses to the course material week by week.
Contact Oenone Thomas at Oenone@talk-counselling.com