Natural beauty, sunshine and friendly faces welcomed our 15 ‘clients’ to our intensive residential therapeutic community experience. These weekends are designed to give people working in diverse mental health roles a taste of the transformative power of relationships by experience, rather than just by hearing about it.
We started on the Friday morning with a quick ‘welcome’ and a short tour of the site and buildings, after which we chose our own rooms and then shared lunch.
This was followed by a full community meeting where we all started to understand what was planned and began to capture the zeitgeist for the weekend. Some small shocks here such as the idea of a ‘crisis bell’, doing things in groups rather than individually and the knowledge that the small groups would be cooking the evening meal each night. It was then time for people to choose which small group to belong to, led by group analysts Jan and Sandra, and after a short break the first small group session commenced…
Confidentiality is an important aspect of any therapeutic community and the content of discussions, thoughts, and work done in the small groups stays within those groups. These sessions (five small group sessions throughout the weekend) were highly valued with feedback including “found small groups very powerful, supportive and gained lot of insight about me and my interactions with others” and “I found the small groups… very useful. I felt I could be open even though I was sat in a room full of strangers”. One small group then went on to cook a lovely dinner, finding their way around the kitchen, the food supply (and the Aga!). The community spirit grew over eating together, followed by spending the rest of the evening around the community built ‘camp fire’.
Saturday morning arrived: another hot, sunny day and a contented community. We met for the first community meeting when we checked-in how we were feeling, reflected on experiences so far, and planned what to do in our Community time that day. All wanted to be outside – one group playing Frisbee, the others forming an art/craft group working and chatting under the trees. This ‘playtime’ was discovered to be an important aspect of being together, as one attendee commented “this illustrates the balance between work and play … between containment and liberation”.
Another small group session was held, followed by lunch then we had our choice between relaxing in the grounds or joining a four-mile nature walk. A surprisingly large number opted for the energetic option and, like mad dogs and Englishmen, we set off in the heat of the sun! An amazing place to explore with contrasts of open fields of corn, secluded woodland, many ponds and pathways. Great fun and a chance to ‘commune with nature’ and enjoy being with each other.
A chance to cool down when we got back then small groups again – with the second group preparing our dinner. They made creative use of the remaining food supplies and gave us some great dishes and the invention of our very own version of Eton Mess combining strawberries, mascarpone and sponge fingers – a surprisingly delicious “Commonwork Mess”.
The evening community meeting reflected on the day’s activities and our experiences and feelings, all of us in a different place from the start of that first community meeting only one day before. A campfire was again decided on for our after-dinner community time, people volunteering for wood collecting and lighting the fire.
Sunday, our final day, and we started with an opening community meeting that was both emotional and reflective. We had more outside Community time which included the time to pack up our bedrooms – during this a ‘crisis meeting’ was called and a community ‘issue’ noted and briefly discussed. The final small group followed with the space for people to digest, reflect and work on this and the other events and experiences of the weekend.
Lunch together, clear up time and then the final community meeting. Thoughtful comments and contemplations – such a short time period since arriving but so much had been experienced, knowledge gained and ideas to take away. Images from the time spent together – “Campfire and community spirit and laughter – so positive and together / supportive, real acceptance and belonging” – and of the magic of the site “…stunning beauty and wildlife, flowers, birds…”. It’s not always easy being in the intensity of a therapeutic community but for those who a attended it certainly felt worthwhile – “I will be more mindful of how difficult it can often be to talk about ourselves and I will bear that in mind with the clients”; “it has provided an understanding into the experience … and how the boundaries of a setting can be challenging”; “more engaged and understanding of the dynamics and thought processes and more empathy for residents”.