Susan Lindsay in conversation with Shirley Ward

Ireland, December 2012

Shirley: Well, where do we start Susan? We both seem to have been around the psychotherapy world forever over the last thirty years!

Susan: Yes! You were saying that a lot of people may not know about the early beginnings, so maybe I’ll start there with my own story.

Shirley: That sounds like a good idea. I understand that you have now retired from working as a psychotherapist and have exciting new, creative projects in hand for the future. You were one of the pioneers of psychotherapy in Ireland, so if you start with some of those early beginnings and the part you have played in this; then we can talk about the present and what the future holds for you personally.

Susan: I went to a very liberal kind of school in Dublin and that is relevant to my life now. It was heavily influenced by the educational philosophy of A.S.Neill, the founder of Summerhill School and so individual autonomy and democracy was fostered there.

Shirley: He was very much a forward-looking thinker! I think he opened Summerhill in Lyme Regis in England about 1923 and it was the original alternative free school where the school should be made to fit the child. Is that right?

Susan: The main thing is an emphasis on children as capable of being responsible in a supportive democratic environment. We had a School Council with members elected from every class and a weekly School Meeting with a Constitution that decided a lot. This is where I learned about proper procedures for conducting and chairing meetings – one of the most useful things I learned in school and useful in IAHIP too! I found out later that Neill was also a disciple of Wilhelm Reich and there is a book published of their correspondence. This provided a link between earlier and later influences in my work.

Shirley: Did you ever meet A.S. Neill?

Susan: I did! Amazing, isn’t it? I value that memory. He spent part of a day with a group of fellow pupils and staff from my school on a weekend outing of fifth and sixth formers in a cottage in County Wicklow in 1967. I am presently co-editing a poetry newspaper and it has brought me right back to when I was in fifth year in school producing a school magazine. It was done using a Gestetner hand-printer – a lot of ink and mess. There was no digital then!

Shirley: We were very lucky to be living through those early years when some of the great pioneers were doing their work and we were able to meet them.

Susan: Yes, that’s true. I went on to do social work in Trinity and qualified in 1975, having also married in 1972. I wanted to develop my skills in group work and that led me to meeting Len Goodman from Canada.

Shirley: Who was he?

Susan: He was a Canadian teacher who had spent time in the Canadian navy and had been in a group or groups with Fritz Perls. He also had experience in Bioenergetics and he ran encounter groups with us.

Shirley: So all this was going on in the late 1970s?

Susan: Yes. That was really the beginning of my interest in therapy and also growth groups. I was a member of the Eastern Regional committee of the Irish Association of Social Workers with Barbara Kohnstamm, who also became a psychotherapist, and we wanted to offer training workshops – both in group work and family therapy – to our members. So we also brought over Fed Labelle, a family therapist who had done training with Virginia Satir. Barbara met Len (later known as Somen) when he visited the agency she was working in and she also knew of Fred Labelle. Both did a significant amount of training here. Sometime during 1975-76 Len Goodman and Barbara Kohnstamm (who by then had become his partner) got together with Ray Cadwell and Tom Mannion and expanded the Dublin Growth Centre. I attended several years of groups there – including groups I co-facilitated as a trainee after they had set up an apprenticeship training programme. I loved group work from early on in my career and focussed more on this from then on than on family therapy. Years later when I went to a group with Carl Rogers in Dun Laoghaire, he and the team came over to Ireland, but this was a long time later, it was very familiar work in many ways. I had known about Person-Centered Therapy and Theory from my days in social work initially anyway, but I learned about his Communications research and Encounter groups first hand. The most important thing after college in the 70s, for me, was therapy and the experience of Zen- influenced awareness. The books of Alan Watts are still among my favourites and he is mentioned by Paula Meehan on the back of my recent poetry book. A lot of people may not realise that Fritz Perls was an analyst who had been trained, or involved in, Zen Awareness and he developed Gestalt Therapy out of that. Now looking back – and I know you have been very conscious of this in your time – and seeing all the discoveries in Neuropsychology, Biology and Mindfulness research that confirm and tweak the work we were doing over twenty years ago it is fascinating and satisfying. We were working a lot of the time out of experiential learning and learning things from our own internal consciousness in a truly phenomenological way. But what we learned has become accessible to far more people as it has become confirmed by mainstream research, even if the application of the information is limited sometimes by the lack of an integrated understanding of it.

Shirley: It was such an exciting time and I feel truly privileged to have also shared my journey through the experiential. It seems to have been a very creative and enlightening time for you.

Susan: Yes. It has been a great journey and I think it is no surprise today that I am learning to write poetry from the inside out. I like learning by doing, it has opened up a much greater understanding of poetry now that I have some idea of how it comes about in the first place. I find it a relief now to be doing this, rather than to be actively engaging with people all the time and have to be continually consciously self-aware. Although some habits die hard!

Shirley: It must also have been around that time your children were born?

Susan: Ben was born in 1979 and Emma in 1983. Ben came on a week-long summer group with me which people still recall to me occasionally. Emma was conceived along with the Creative Counselling Centre.

Shirley: Which is when we first met and when Alison Hunter opened Amethyst in 1982, thirty years ago!

Susan: Yes. I left St. Vincent’s Hospital where I was working as a psychiatric social worker and doing some group and family therapy when I was pregnant with Emma. I became the first social worker in Ireland to become self-employed. It was seen as entering into ‘private practice’ and hence as controversial – not that that stopped social workers coming as clients and sending along their family, so that was more encouraging. We began the first CCC training course in a year after Emma was born and it was a two-year course. The Centre was my idea and I founded it along with Una Maguire and Angela Walsh. Una was at the birth of both: as founding partner of the centre, and assisting midwife for Emma’s birth at home!

Shirley: Names from the past and, of course, Una has sadly just recently died. I was at her 70th birthday in Belfast in 2010 and Olive Bourke, Chair of IAHIP at the time had written a lovely letter to her on behalf of the Association, thanking her for her contribution to psychotherapy and IAHIP over the years. Although the Alzheimer’s had taken hold it was clear that Una did understand what was being said to her.

Susan: Una played a critical role in the development of Humanistic Psychotherapy in Ireland. She wasn’t always out front but she was a founding member of CCC, ICCP – that grew out of it – and IAHIP. She was there from the very beginning and she was one of the longest serving Directors of the Institute of Creative Counselling (if you include its precursor, the CCC) and a member of the training team there throughout most of the trainings. She also contributed to the development of IAHIP in many forums, particularly in relation to training and training standards. We weren’t as close after I left the Creative Counselling Centre, but it was good to hear and see how engaged most of the members of her ritual group remained when I was at her funeral. Mary Condren, the feminist theologian, performed the Celtic ceremony very beautifully. Una was very happy with her partner Margaret McKenna who took care of her so wonderfully when she was ill in the last few years. Margaret has my very heartfelt condolences – along with the rest of her family, who it was good to see again.

Angela Walsh was also a social worker who had become a Family Therapist. In the early 1980’s she joined myself and Una to start the CCC, but she decided within the first year to leave us as she really wanted to focus on Family Therapy in the company of others doing the same thing. She had gone abroad to train. But we had met at the first Irish training courses and were founding members of the Irish Family Therapy Network before it became formalised. Actually, I remember chairing the meeting that decided the Association would become more formal before I left. Virginia Satir herself had been over and we had some lovely workshops with her. We had therapists over from many approaches, including Salvador Minuchin but she was the Family Therapy Grandparent who was the most humanistic with her emphasis on communication, congruence and self-esteem. It was all very exciting and a wonderful way to begin. It was happening in the States and we were already getting the follow-on. We had Brief Therapy specialists over too. People might be interested to recall that Bandler and Grinder based their first books on NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), The Structure of Magic on their analysis of observations they made of the work of Satir, Perls and Erickson – brief therapist and grandfather of modern hypnotism. Len Goodman ran a course for us on the book. I think it was a supervision course, although I’d forgotten that when I was trying to remember if I’d ever done a supervision course. Later I remembered that one and courses I’d done as a social worker too, but they had been long forgotten – that’s part and parcel of nearing the end of a career you began early in your working life.

Shirley: So right from the beginning you were doing humanistic therapy?

Susan: Yes, Humanistic Psychotherapy. We began a facilitated training course based on the Rogerian Person-Centered Research on Education which I was particularly interested in from my own school experiences. I was really inspired to do something in experiential learning and education. In those early days the Creative Counselling Centre was based in Templeogue, so the first course was there. This was pre-Dun Laoghaire. Una practised there full-time and I went there for groups. I saw myindividual clients at home with a young family in Stillorgan. At that time of the start of the training, I went over to England and met John Rowan who had been chair of the Association of Humanistic Psychology in England and also, I think, chair of the AHP in America at one stage.

Shirley: John has certainly been a leading light in the Humanistic Movement in Europe and America.

Susan: He has certainly written extensively about humanistic psychology and psychotherapy.

Shirley: You know he is still writing about it, travelling and lecturing in Eastern Europe and America at the age of eighty-six. He completed his PhD when he was eighty-one!

Susan: We asked him to be our consultant and he visited us annually. The course needed an ‘external examiner’ with a true understanding of the Humanistic approach. He taught us Humanistic Research methods too. Una had been a Loretto Sister and also Principal of a school in Mauritius. She was now a lay person but she had that educational background too and supported me to go ahead and do the course with John Rowan as our consultant. He suggested I go over to the Rugby Conference in London. I reckoned that to establish ourselves somewhere we needed someone well experienced in the work and a source of information. When I went to the Rugby Conference I thought I’d be out of my depth, but didn’t find that at all.

Shirley: Were they basically all counsellors?

Susan: No, they were the beginning of the psychotherapy movement consisting of people from many faculties including Transactional Analysis, Psychosynthesis, Group Analysis, the Grubb Institute, the Jungians and so on. It was very interesting to observe and be part of the dynamics of all that. However, the British Association of Counsellors had initiated the original Conference. I think they hosted it.

Shirley: It is a pity that you have not documented all this.

Susan: Well I did write an article for Inside Out in 1990 which covers a lot of the early days, at least here. I looked it up and it is in Volume One, Issue Three, and was called ‘Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy from an Anecdotal Perspective’. In it I did document the history from the beginning.

Shirley: At present we only have the journals from the last ten years on the IAHIP website after IAHIP bought the journal. As you know it had been a private business with different owners and editors from today. So I am not sure how we can retain some of these early articles from 1990 to 1999 without infringing copyright. But maybe something needs to be done with the earlier articles from the beginnings of IAHIP and the development of psychotherapy in Ireland and the UK.

Susan: Well in terms of the Creative Counselling Centre and the course, Ger Murphy (also a former social worker by the way) completed the training course he was doing at the Minster Centre in the UK and was considering returning to Ireland, so I invited him to join us. We needed someone else to help us with the trainings and on the second training in 1987 Ger and I were the main facilitators. It was still a facilitated course. However, Una was always a major trainer on the course as she was in the Institute of Creative Counselling and Psychotherapy that grew out of it. Once the course was begun we felt there would be a need for a professional organisation that could represent psychotherapy in Ireland. If students were going to be trained they, or their course, would need to be accredited by some organisation other than one set up for those who worked in psychology, medicine or teaching. We didn’t want therapists to be regulated by those professions so a separate professional organisation was needed.

Shirley: Was this the beginning of IAHIP?

Susan: Yes.

Shirley: Was the ICP set up before IAHIP?

Susan: Oh no! That came much later. I remember at this time I had just left St. Vincent’s Hospital, Elm Park, where I worked on the psychiatric unit as social worker and doing some therapy. Cormac Gallagher, a psychologist who was also a Jesuit and trained as a Lacanian analyst, also worked on the unit. He began the first psychotherapy training in UCD. It was based on the hospital unit. My advert for the training in the Creative Counselling Centre and his advert for the training in UCD happened within a couple of months of each other in 1984. When Ger joined us for the course in 1986 Una, Ger, myself and Ed Boyne, who had been one of our first students, held a meeting to discuss a more formal organisation. We invited others and had a first wider meeting and a precursor to the first formal AGM in 1988.

Shirley: I remember attending that.

Susan: As regards IAHIP, we had a first official meeting where John Rowan was invited as a guest speaker and it was set up formally. At that meeting we decided to make the organisation primarily humanistic and also integrative. That was an important distinction – it could have been equally humanistic and integrative but that was the way the vote went – it was one of the first major decisions of the more formalised organisation. Then we began to set up the grandparenting criteria, which meant we could begin accrediting both each other and other people practising psychotherapy according to agreed criteria. That was the beginnings of IAHIP! I left the Creative Counselling Centre after four years. My then husband, John Lindsay, was also a partner, as well as Ger, Barbara Kohnstamm and Una. Barbara had been to India in the meantime. When she came back we invited her to join us. A year later John and I decided to leave the Creative Counselling Centre. I was burned out from minding two young children who didn’t sleep most of the time, from the training work, but also from the challenges of setting up an organisation with all the attendant teething problems that arise in a new management team. John and I set up Connect Associates in Avoca Avenue in Blackrock, other people rented from us there and it was collaboration rather than a partnership. Within a couple of years I went back to what was then the ICCP, the Institute of Creative Counselling and Psychotherapy, as a visiting member of the training team alongside Patrick Nolan. By then there were also additional partners in the Institute, including Eilis O’Donoghue who had been a student on the first course.

Shirley: That must have been around 1992 after all the processing years. I remember John Rowan being the speaker at the first AGM in 1992 as it was also Alison’s 60th birthday! John was also a Patron of Amethyst and we celebrated her birthday later with him.

Susan: Was it? It took a few years with the initial meetings, the formal structure, and then the Association and, of course, later the formation of a formal company. Ger was the first chair.

Shirley: You were then the second chair elected at the AGM in 1994 and served for two years. I looked that one up!

Susan: Yes, I chaired the first accreditation committee before that. I also served later as the IAHIP representative on the Irish Council of Psychotherapy as it was being set up. These were the early days of ICP with Michael Fitzgerald who was a Child Psychiatrist from Ballymun. He was a great proponent of the European Association of Psychotherapy, and the Irish representative pulling all the strings together. He was a Child Analyst and, of course, it is his wife Frances Fitzgerald who is now the Minister for Children.

Shirley: Oh, I hadn’t connected the two!

Susan: Yes.

Shirley: So what was happening in the 1990s for you?

Susan: In 1995 I had a book published by Marino Press called The Love Crucible. There isn’t space here for everything but I did some training with Ian Ratcliff over several years in Bioenergetics and I attended a week-long course with Stan Grof in early 1982 that was significant. I also did some Primal Therapy with Alison Hunter. In the 90s I became involved in deep imagery work with Margaret Vasington and then did a good few years of deep imagery training with her called ‘The Personal Totem Pole Process’. Steve Gallegos from the States was the founder of it. He gave the training on the west coast of Ireland and Margaret trained us on the east coast. We then developed a lively Irish community of people working with the process. By the end of the 1990s I wanted to go back to the heart of what Humanistic Psychotherapy was all about. I felt the core work I believed in was getting lost and I was getting lost in that. I got the support I needed to do it from Louise Holman who was Secretary in Connect Associates and from Tom Templeton from Derry, and Germaine Morrisey – both of whom I met through the imagery work – who agreed to assist me in setting up what became the Dancing The Spiral community workshops. This started around 2000/2001. I wrote a letter to therapists who I thought were primarily keen on using a Humanistic Approach and others I thought would be interested. Some were former students and others I knew. They were not all therapists. Some had done the animal imaging process or other things.

Shirley: Did you do this because you thought psychotherapy in general was losing its way?

Susan: I felt humanistic psychotherapy was losing its way; that it was losing its humanistic core. But also I was losing the core – and I wanted to get in touch with it. I wanted to build a community of people who wanted to support themselves with this.

Shirley: And did it work?

Susan: It did. It was a very interesting experiment. It was to be a community, a facilitated workshop that would include ritual and play. I would facilitate it but the other half would be facilitated from the group itself. We set up a model for that.

Shirley: Where did you hold the groups?

Susan: We held them in the Burren before I moved to Galway in 2004. John and I had gone our separate ways some years earlier. The group met for six days in the summer then it moved on to include two three-day weekends in the year as well. We met every year for those twelve days a year. Not everyone stayed. I was having requests to join it from other people too. So I set up another group which I co-led with Tom Templeton. This time it was a more tightly-held community. So we had two groups going, then we ended up with a third group. Laura Hatton and Marianne Klopp helped out with that one. I never intended to have three groups, it just evolved. We amalgamated the two to keep the community going – there were twenty-five in that combined workshop at first.

Shirley: There was obviously a great need for them.

Susan: There was great interest anyway. We liked doing it! It contained ritual which was a very important part of holding the community’s centre. The groups carried on even when I left as we managed to come up with a structure to keep it going. More were interested. If I’d kept going I think it would have grown. It was a very nurturing experience for people and deep work ended up being done within the workshops. My time for being a therapist came to an end. I realised to my own shock and surprise that I couldn’t go on doing it. Firstly with group work and later with my individual clients. My time seemed to be up as I was running out of energy too quickly. It was very powerful to be running groups at that depth and I suddenly realised that I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had kept up with some individual work after I came to Galway in 2004. I didn’t want too much work and had started a small practice in Galway city which I later moved home. So that was fine. I gave up the groups and kept going with a small practice. Five years ago I went by chance for a mammogram, and discovered I had pre- cancerous tissue which led to a minor operation and radiotherapy. I was completely cleared of that for three years, and feeling fine and very optimistic when I had my regular mammogram eighteen months ago which discovered a very small amount of cancer in my other breast. Sufficient to have me go through the whole process again. During the second process I realised I needed to finish my therapy work. I’d had a sense of that for a while that I was disregarding because I liked it too much. But my time for working with clients was up.

Shirley: I am very shocked at what you have being going through, Susan. Sometimes our life journeys can be so tough. Where are you with all this at the moment?

Susan: Well, in the meantime I had been going to poetry writing classes from 2004 in the Galway Arts Centre with Kevin Higgins. I loved that and I think that was the time when I discovered I needed a new language. David Whyte had re-introduced me to poetry, bridging it with humanistic psychology at the International Transpersonal Conference when it was held in Killarney, then I kept hearing Paul Durcan on the radio and loved his contributions – the humanity of his writing reminded me of how in groups when someone speaks their deepest truth, the other members are riveted because it speaks for them too. I had written a kind of myth before and I found the language I needed in poetry and in that. I find it very rich as it allows for work at a transpersonal level in a different way. I can write at many levels at one time, both consciously and unconsciously and in different ways and it keeps me in touch with my deeper self. I have found that terrific. I found both journeys in hospital transformational. Living through and dealing with the challenges of being on my own for the first time and finding myself in hospital and undergoing radiotherapy involved very new experiences. Also my children growing up and leaving was still at a fairly new stage. But then came the pleasure of grandchildren, Ben’s two children are a great joy to me.

Shirley: Did you tell anyone?

Susan: My neighbours knew. I did tell my clients I wasn’t well but I don’t think the details in a therapeutic relationship are wise. That would have also been hard to handle, maybe on both sides.

Shirley: But you got through?

Susan: Yes, I got through very well and learned loads and I have a very good prognosis. I meditated a lot and it’s amazing the way things arrive as you need them if you are open to that. I live in a great neighbourhood community and the poetry community in Galway is also good company.

Shirley: Illness certainly brings us closer to the meaning of life and the sacredness of it all.

Susan: Both events were totally separate and that is very important. One was not secondary to the other. But the second one really confronted me at a deep level and I am conscious of this. I was interested recently to hear Marion Woodman, in a film about her, talk about the need to learn to surrender. I could identify with a lot of what she said including her thoughts on the degree of addiction present in society today. I am learning to surrender to the Tao or God or however one cares to describe the mystery of our being (the ambiguous term, Taoist Christian is the best I can manage to describe my religious orientation, if one is needed) to an increasingly greater extent and finding great riches and support in that.

Shirley: Marion Woodman also had cancer some years ago and speaks of her own journey too.

Susan: It has been a very powerful journey for me in the last year. Surrender was the gift of the second challenge. I have learned to further embrace being alone and the challenges that come. I like it a lot more than I had realised, I can be quite reclusive! More people seem to arrive as I let go but I think I’m meeting them in a slightly different way. Both events brought me into meditation and another level of consciousness. I found the second journey quite shamanic in a way. I found a lovely art therapist in County Galway, an Anam Cara who has been great support. She provided a sacred space for me and I feel very protective of it! I think I have been making artifacts more than art and that suits me.

Shirley: You sound so positive about everything Susan. So much creativity coming from you in so many different ways – you are being hugely creative.

Susan: I see myself going back to being more of an educative facilitator – doing things in relation to creativity and flow – if I run courses in future.

Shirley: Just as you were taught to do in school all those years ago!

Susan: The roots of my facilitation style and trust in the process seem to be there. I am also interested in the work of Warren Berger who wrote a book called Glimmer. He writes about design thinking and the need for designers.

Shirley: Maybe this is where your poetry writing is leading you?

Susan: Well I had a book of poetry published in March 2011. It’s called Whispering the Secrets and is published by Doire Press. I was then formally invited to read at the Poetry Ireland Introduction Series. And there is a possibility of another book in the next year or so.

Shirley: Congratulations! Have you read on the radio yet?

Susan: I won a radio competition with what was called ‘A Carol of Our Times’. The poem was set to music with the RTE Orchestra and played on The Tubridy Show about three times that particular Christmas (2005). Then I read a poem recently on the John Murray Show. I was also invited to read at the Cuirt Literary Festival which is held every year in Galway.

Shirley: So your new career is well and truly becoming established! Could you choose a poem you would like us to publish after this conversation in Inside Out? It would be good to read some of your work.

Susan: I much appreciated Margaret Watchorn reviewing Whispering the Secrets in Inside Out. One poem and some excerpts are in that article if people would like to read them. There can’t be much space here, however these are a few lines from a poem I wrote in the last year called In the Darkness…… of the asylum/she made papier machee beads/from crushed paper…. spent the last of her budget/on metallic paint and a volunteer/donated gold she found light/could create something/beautiful.

I am excited now that three of us are co-editing a new poetry paper. SKYLIGHT 47 will be launched in January 2013 at the Over the Edge Literary Events Tenth Anniversary reading at Galway City Library. We are describing it as, ‘possibly Ireland’s most interesting poetry publication’ and including an interview with Ireland Professor Poetry, Harry Clifton, in the first issue along with a Masterclass on paper with Paul Madden. It will be published twice a year in newspaper format and we are all very excited about it.

Shirley: The Editorial Board suggested that I let you flow – rather than having a list of questions to ask you! You have certainly done that! Is there anything else you would like to add as you continue on your sacred and spiritual journey?

Susan: It has been a sacred journey – it has been a spiritual journey – as are all our journeys. I am definitely in active transition and that makes it hard to say where I am exactly, but maybe that’s how it always is really. I am definitely in a period of relief having left the work, and also grieving that loss. It is hard to say goodbye to people you have been engaged with on long journeys and long periods of time with parts of their lives that are very, very sacred, rich things to be involved in. Sometimes it is unreal to be doing this and I say to myself, “did the work and those relationships really happen”? But I think that this is all part of this process. I am not too keen to talk about psychotherapy because I am not clear of it yet.

Shirley: As people read your story Susan I am sure they will be very much with you as you reach this period of transition in your life. Thank you for being truly honest and genuine in your life and for sharing yourself with me in our conversation. On behalf of our readers I wish you well with your future ventures and look forward to reading your poems that are still being created within and outside of you!

Susan: Thank you.

Susan Lindsay worked as psychotherapist, facilitator and occasional consultant to organisations for thirty years before starting to write poetry. Her debut collection Whispering the Secrets (Doire Press) was published in 2011 when she also read for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series. She may be contacted at: susanharrislindsay@gmail.com or via skylightpoets47@gmail.com.