Sunday, September 16, 2007

Returning to Sheffield after Many Years’ Absence

Entry for 16 September 2007:

In 1984-85, we spent a sabbatical year in Sheffield, England with David Shapiro and his team, which included, among others, Michael Barkham and Gillian Hardy. This was my first sabbatical, and the year Diane, Brendan (then two years’ old) and I spent there was in several ways the turning point in my academic career. There, I learned how to set up a research clinic and to carry out complex process-outcome studies, which I have been doing ever since. As I have recounted elsewhere (Elliott, 1999), I also experienced an encounter with an old analyst (whose name I don’t even remember now), which led me to abandon eclecticism and embrace the form of person-centred/experiential therapy that eventually became Process-Experiential/Emotion-Focused Therapy. Further, this visit marked us as citizens of the world, capable of living and thriving in other countries, an attitude later played out in extended visits to Australia, Canada, and Belgium and which has now made it emotionally possible for us to move to Scotland, moreorless permanently.

We loved our year in Sheffield, going on lots of daytrips with our young son, savouring the daily strangeness of living in a foreign place, listening to the musical sound of the South Yorkshire/Sheffield dialect. I began a many-years’ collaboration with David and his team, and designed the Toledo Depression Project to parallel the first Sheffield Psychotherapy Project. The mature form of Comprehensive Process Analysis emerged out of this year, along with Brief Structured Recall, the Simplified Personal Questionnaire, and Bill Stiles’ Assimilation Model.

So last Friday, we got up at an ungodly hour to take the train down to Sheffield so I could give a colloquium on case study research at the School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR). Glenys Parry had invited me, and I was looking forward to re-encountering old colleagues and the city and it surroundings.

However, our trip soon ran into trouble when, upon arriving into Edinburgh Waverly Station at 7am, we were informed that train service south on the East Coast Line had been interrupted by a freight train fire not far east of Edinburgh. After spending the next hour trying unsuccessfully to figure out to get to Sheffield before my 12:30pm talk, the line suddenly opened up again and we were off.

We managed to arrive just at 12:30 and were able to start only a couple of minutes late. The talk went well, although I did choke up briefly at the beginning as I shared my pleasure at returning to Sheffield after so many years, a reaction that took me by surprise. After a quick bite to eat afterwards, Glenys dropped me off at David and Diana’s place.

Sheffield is much changed since 1984-85, with the grotty bits of the city centre now replaced by nicer things like the fountain-wall that now faces the train station and the Supertram that now rumbles down West Street and elsewhere. I found myself in a completely rebuilt shop, Sinclair, that we had visited 22 years ago but which I somehow recognized anyway.

I am convinced that catching up with old friends and having long heart-to-heart talks about trials and tribulations is one of life’s greatest pleasures. It is an opportunity to reconnect, to experience the continuity of life (even in the face of the death of parents and others), to re-evaluate what has transpired, and to reflect on present and future possibilities. It is what Burns felt when he wrote (or rather revised from an older source), Auld Lang Syne.

Among other things, we made visits to old haunts: I ran along the Porter Brook up past Forge Dam (reliving memories from later visits in the early 1990’s). We drove by the house David and Diana used to live in, and the house that we lived in in 1984-85. We went out for a long walk in the Peak District Park, on the Derbyshire Moors, around Burbage Edge and Higger Tor, among the fading heather and bracken just beginning to go brown, clambering over the rocks of the Edge, the fierce winds on moor blowing us to bits in the bright sunny day.

David also took us to Chatsworth, a famous stately mansion and 18th Century garden that we had fond memories of our previous time. David has taken up photography as a second career (see and is is making a study of photographing sculpture), and there was a large outdoor sculpture exhibition on, so we had fun going from one piece to another, studying how best to photograph it. This involved a lot of talk about the limitations of our small digital cameras, which was actually quite instructive.

However, the most amusing part of the afternoon was our encounter with a piece incongruously entitled, “Winter Kept us Warm”. I recognized the title from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” The sculpture is a piece of conceptual art, about the size of an old-fashioned London police box (i.e., Dr. Who’s TARDIS) and about 9 feet tall, made of translucent glass bricks, most with a single word printed on it. I recognized words and phrases from the first section of “The Wasteland”; then I noticed the words “April is the cruelest…” in the top row of the western face of the structure. I dropped down about half way, where it was easier to read, and began reciting aloud one of my favorite parts, “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyant…” as I walked counterclockwise around the sculpture, occasionally stopping – professor that I am – to explain one of T.S. Eliot’s obscure references. A crowd gathered to observe the spectacle, as I circled, gradually becoming somewhat dizzy. Finally, I caught sight of Diane, who was looking somewhat embarrassed (she said she was impatient to get onto the other sculptures…) and I awoke from my ecstatic state. David remarked, wryly, as we walked off up the hill, “Isn’t it nice to be old enough not to care what other people think?”

Michael Barkham has just moved from from the University of Leeds to the University of Sheffield, where he is joining Glenys Parry and Gillian Hardy to start of new research centre integrating mental health services and psychotherapy research. They have just invited me, along with Bruce Wampold, to give a brief talk as part of their inaugural event on the 9 November. It looks like it will be considerably less than 13 years before I return to Sheffield again!

reference: Elliott, R. (1999). The Origins of Process-Experiential Therapy: A Personal Case Study in Practice-Research Integration. In S. Soldz & L. McCullough Vaillant, Reconciling empirical knowledge and clinical experience: The art and science of psychotherapy (pp. 33-49) . Washington, D.C.: APA Books.

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