Almost a year ago, while researching the history of a children's care community, I encountered an unfamiliar group with an unusual name. Acronym-wise it was cute and cuddly. But its quadrinomial description was disconcerting. So, discreetly dispensing with the idea of never judging a book . . . . I took the short-cut and put my own interpretation in place.
"Planned Environment Therapy Trust"? Hmm ! I'd spent a substantial part of my childhood in (mainly positive) care - but culminating in something of a let-down. Whatever the influences were - before (mostly?) and subsequently (less so?) - my life has evolved with a caution about certain "terms".
"Planned"? This had me in a dilemma. I love organisation - almost obsessively. Well, to be honest, delete the "almost". And yet, did this suggest . . . restriction?
"Environment" had a little bit of the 1984 about it and "Trust" ? - well, that was potentially anything! But, sneaking around, just left of right, was "Therapy". Another "Hmm !" but with several more "mmmm"s. It all smacked of, well . . . therapy? And the image of therapy? That is: my image of therapy? Well, yeah, you know, right, nuff said, etc, etc, etc.
Now, I'm educated, right? I got scrape-through 'O' Levels in General Science, German and Religious Knowledge. And, as far as "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" goes, I've read the book, seen the play, attended the movie and wrote some essays. (Confession: I read the book when attempting adult further education but never actually took the exam). I've travelled the world, been to war and survived as an Amway distributor. I am worldly!
At this stage I should point out that I can hear the sniggering.
But . . "therapy"? (More "hmmm")
I really don't understand why the word bothered me - but it did. Connotations of psychological impairment being something of a bogeyman? Maybe. I'm not really sure. So, following a predictable approach, I looked up the term and tried out the descriptions. I liked the bits about "heal" and "relieve". But "treatment" had me worried. It seemed all sort of, I don't know, American? Or was it an inference that treatment might mean external (i.e. out of one's own) control?
Then I had an introductory phone conversation with Craig Fees. And knew almost at once that I was dealing with someone who seemed (yes, I was still cautious) to understand our story and who also seemed to speak my language (well, I had lived in Australia for 40 years). So, I had a further think about that "term"and its place in the PETT name. And, especially, how it related to my/our in-care experience. Which I would never, never have described as "therapy". OK, it was "planned" and I can't argue against it having been an "environment". But, given we weren't a particularly troubled group (were we?) and we certainly never had any counselling or exposure to trick cyclists while in care, it just didn't seem to connect with "therapy". But . . . our environment was definitely nurturing. And controlled in all the best ways that a child rarely notices. (I recently came across a detailed administrative plan for a 1960 camping trip to Wales. It never even occurred to me that it had actually been "planned". Even the casual bits were organised. Didn't that stuff just "happen"?). All right, if an environment keeps an eye on you, protects you from external and internal risks and helps to see you through a vulnerable period where you might otherwise have succumbed (keeping in mind of course that there was nothing deprived about my early life, as far as I could tell) - well, I could see that "therapeutic" was a tolerable adjective. And so, derivatively, "therapy" was an acceptable term, too.
Putting Nurse Ratched out of my mind, I have seemed to be comfortable with the "rabbit-proof fence" interpretation (it works - but you're never quite sure). Until a week or so ago. I was trowelling through the internet (think of it as an unsophisticated, small-tooled hacking approach) to find some material and I came across The Who Cares? Trust . There, in the first paragraph, was a definition - confidently expressed - of the term "therapeutic communities". It described them as "places where people with severe behavioural difficulties or mental health problems can be treated in a supported environment where every activity and treatment is planned around them and their needs."
Hang on a minute! I'd spent quality time with myself last year, coming to terms with accepting the term. Now it was coming back at me with spikes on! Behavioural difficulties? Mental health problems? Give me a break!
Yes, I do realise that this worthy website was describing therapy (accurately) in terms of their own focus. I think I'd unwittingly built over half-a-century of my own "attitude" which involved a prejudical perspective of mental health care. I don't know why and I don't know how (if I'm honest, I probably couldn't even explain the "what", either). But it does go to show that, however enlightened one might believe oneself to be, there can still be surprises in store.
I guess the bottom line of all this is that we all need to be so careful not just of how we use words but, as importantly, also how we interpret of the words of others in the context in which they appear. I'm not talking about political correctness. The reality is that we've all spent our entire lives learning our attitudes: towards images, towards ideas, etc. It may seem a little ridiculous to have an "attitude" towards a word. But it is what we do (and I haven't even touched on sex, politics or religion). I really do realise that there are many people who see the term "therapy" as a blessing. Including me - now.
Just don't assume it.
[Len Clarke is one half of the driving force behind The Early Pestalozzi Children Project. The other half is Will Eiduks]