Becoming a Qualified Counsellor – My Story

My name is James Field and I am a qualified counsellor practicing in Exeter.  If you’ve just landed on this page and you are looking for counselling please visit my Welcome Page here.

James Field: Headshot
James Field: Counsellor in Exeter

Counselling is not my first career.  Like many counsellors, it was a calling that I only discovered later in life.  What follows, for anyone who might be interested, is my story and how I came to be a qualified counsellor.

The Very Beginning…

Portrait of James Field Counsellor in Exeter as a young boy lost in his own world
James Field as a young boy

I come from an ordinary, suburban family from the very outer edges of London. I am told that my first action upon this Earth was to cost my parents a tax rebate by being late for my own birth. When I eventually turned up I wailed so incessantly that I scared away the family cat never to be seen again.

I was a sensitive, anxious child who’s greatest fear was of people being cross with me. Perhaps as a result of this fear, I learned to live in my imagination as much as I did in the real world. Amongst my earliest memories are my Mum reading to me the whole of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and holidays spent exploring the moors, woods and coastline of Devon where my grandparents lived.

So, for the most part I had a happy and contented childhood.  I would like to say that the teenage years that followed were a time of wild abandon and experimentation on the road to adulthood but, far from it, this was a difficult and painful time for me. I buckled under the pressure to conform and succeed and became withdrawn, confused and angry. I struggled to make friends and found socialising intensely difficult and for a few years, not knowing who I was or how to be, I lived the life of a teenage hermit.

After School

When the time came to leave school I went to university because, whilst the prospect of university was terrifying to me, it seemed marginally less so than getting a job in the real world. Somewhere along the line I had decided that I wanted to work with wildlife and I chose to study Environmental Biology. It’s hard to say where the inspiration for this came from but I like to think it was the dreamy child still somewhere inside me dreaming of adventure, wildness and Middle Earth.

I enjoyed university and my chosen subject and, upon graduation, I set out to become an ecologist. When it became apparent that there was little demand for ecologists with mediocre degrees and no work experience in South East London, I began volunteering with various conservation charities and local wildlife groups.  I earned a meagre living working part-time for a DIY chain store. I used to like the evening shifts when it was pouring with rain outside and I would be the only one to volunteer to collect the trolleys from the car park outside.

Environmental Education

My escape from the rainy carpark came when I went to work as an environmental activity instructor at a children’s adventure centre on the Isle of Wight. Although, by now, I was much less socially awkward than I had been during my teens I was still very much an introvert and living and working in such an environment was an intense experience for me. After six months I fled back home to the South East but only after discovering a whole new career in environmental education.

More education jobs followed with a local community regeneration charity, a small inner London museum, and a waste education charity. I even got to work at the Natural History Museum in London and for a national park in Ireland.

I enjoyed working with children and developing and planning creative, new and imaginative activities. We created giant spider webs, staged an archaeological dig (complete with fake skeletons), ran solar-powered boat races, modelled the solar system during a total solar eclipse and contributed to breaking the Guinness World Record for the longest ever snake made of tin cans.

Bats!

Photo of pipistrelle bat in hand from the days when James Field Counsellor worked as an ecologist
James Field Counsellor: handling a pipistrelle bat

Throughout this time I still dreamt of working as an ecologist and continued my volunteer conservation activities. I specialised in bats and eventually become a licensed bat worker. This would take me behind the public facade of the buildings and infrastructure around us. I’ve seen inside countless attics, cellars, churches, mine workings, railway tunnels and even a few dams whilst looking for bats. I remember the ghostly, empty wards and corridors of an abandoned hospital and the crematorium where pipistrelle bats would launch from the plush curtain surrounding the coffin and buzz the congregation as their loved one descended into the furnaces. I even got to chase bats around the garden of a Hollywood star and discover a population of great crested newts in their swimming pool.

Depression

By my mid-twenties I was doing OK: outwardly anyway.  I was earning a living and working towards that elusive ecologist job but inside, the anxious, dreamy child and the angry, isolated teenager I’d once been were still there, pulling levers and driving many of my decisions. However well I was doing I could never shake the painful feeling of being an outsider and I never truly felt I belonged anywhere.  I was able to function relatively well most of the time but holding together those disparate parts of me was draining and I would often withdraw from anything other than the most essential human contact.

Eventually, it got to the point where I was struggling to even leave the house and my closest relationships were being strained to breaking point so I went to see my GP.  I can still remember the relief of that ten-minute appointment when, instead of just dismissing me, my doctor listened to me with care and empathy and prescribed me a course of anti-depressants. I still don’t know what helped most that day, the medication or the human validation, but help it did.  For years afterwards I would still go through periods of mild depression but it would never be quite as bad again.

Ecology at last!

My first big ecology break came in my mid-twenties during one particularly difficult time when I had been forced to return to living with my parents (I’m not sure who it was worse for – me or them) after a disastrous summer living abroad during which a long-term relationship with my first love had come to an end and a brief period of homelessness.

It was at this time I was offered a job as a Conservation Officer for an environmental regeneration charity that I’d previously worked for as an education officer. I became part of a small, but close knit team working on a number of exciting habitat restoration projects on the edge of London where, amongst other things we raised over a million pounds towards the restoration of a neglected but wildlife rich area of marshland alongside the River Thames.

I have particularly fond memories of this time in my life but I still dreamt of escaping the urban sprawl of the Thames Gateway and, when an opportunity arose to move west to Bristol to run a large landscape-scale conservation project on the wetlands to the south of the city, I grabbed it.

The Wildlife Trust Years

James Field, Counsellor in Exeter, eyes obscured by cap holding a dormouse
James Field, Counsellor, studying a dormouse during his ecology days.

There were parts of this new job that I loved like co-ordinating a team of volunteers to monitor the gradual return of otters to the county and studying dormice in the surrounding woodlands. However, I felt less comfortable with the main part of my job which was to persuade local farmers to enter environmental schemes on their land.  I had some successes but, with absolutely no farming background, I frequently felt out of my depth. There was limited political will for the project and, for the first time in my life, I experienced real hostility from some quarters who perceived any kind of environmental enhancement as a threat.  I found it hard to escape the feeling that for all of the battles I might win the war was being lost.

Most of my successes in the job (there were a few) came not from my technical knowledge or practical experience but from being able to establish and maintain effective partnerships with others.  I realised I was becoming more and more interested in the psychology of the people I worked with and the complex office politics swirling around me.  I began to recognise in myself a natural ability to see and understand other people’s perspectives and I carved an unofficial role for myself as a troubleshooter and conflict resolver within the organisation.  It was gradually dawning on me that I was often more interested and engaged in work this than my actual job.

By this time the global financial crisis had shaken the world and money was becoming tighter for the charity and the organisations that supported it and I realised there was going to very little opportunity for me to progress within the organisation so I took the difficult decision to move on again and I became an ecologist working within the engineering department of a utility company.

The Corporate Years

James Field, Counsellor, wearing a hard hat and high-vis jacket on site.
Wearing a hard hat and high-vis whilst out on site during my previous career.

My main function in this job was to make sure the company didn’t find itself on the wrong side of any wildlife protection laws. I worked on hundreds of large and small construction projects making sure there were no programme or cost over-runs because of an inconveniently located badger sett or bat roost. There was often a lot of pressure knowing that one mistake on my part could cause massive disruption to critical infrastructure projects and cost my employer hundred of thousands, of even millions of pounds in fines or knock-on costs.

However, this added stress came with more financial freedom than I had experienced in years of working for small, environmental charities and, for the first time, I was able to clear my debts and have some money to invest in myself. Instead of trying to put together the deposit for a house or buying a new car I decided that I was going to re-train and I embarked upon some basic counselling training at Iron Mill College in Exeter.

Counselling – the Beginning

I recall signing up for my Certificate in Counselling as a very impulsive decision but I think there was already a number of threads leading me in this direction. I was starting to recognise and question the conflicts that had persisted inside me ever since my childhood and to acknowledge that perhaps the discomfort and unbelonging that I so often felt was not because there was something wrong with me but because I was not aligned with my real purpose in life.

From the very start of my first counselling course I felt I had stumbled into a world where I belonged. Here was a role where I didn’t have to distort and force myself to fit into it. I discovered a whole new way of being in the counsellor’s chair and recognised the profound effect it could have on myself and my clients.

As soon as the counselling certificate had finished I signed up to the Advanced Diploma in Integrative Counselling and, for several years, I combined my work as an ecologist with my counselling training and working as a student placement counsellor at the Margaret Jackson Centre (MJC) in Exeter.

Today

James Field Counsellor in Exeter sitting on a stool against a dark green background
Today: James Field Counsellor in Exeter

Eventually the time came to choose between counselling and ecology.  On the one hand, working with wildlife had been a dream since my teens and I was now established and secure in my career.  On the other hand, the work I was doing with my clients excited and moved me in a way that my ecology rarely did anymore.

When the opportunity came to apply for a job managing the counselling service at Iron Mill College I went for it and I was lucky enough to get it.  This was crunch time.  In the end, the chance to return to the organisation that had had such a profound impact on me as a counselling student was too much and I left ecology behind and threw myself into counselling as a full time career.

Today I spend part of my week running the Iron Mill Counselling Service and the rest of the time on my own private practice.  My Iron Mill job is exciting and busy and it’s great to be part of a wider team of counsellors and psychotherapists working at the cutting edge of our profession.

Through my private practice I get the chance to work in depth with my own clients.  I still find this to be the most rewarding part of my job.  It is why I do what I do.  It remains nothing less than the greatest of privileges when I get to share a client’s journey with them and the sense of satisfaction when I see people make the changes they want in their lives is profound.

Because I continue to believe so deeply in the power of counselling to change, and even save lives, I remain committed to making it accessible to as many people as possible.  For this reason I still volunteer as a qualified counsellor at the Margaret Jackson Centre.

Epilogue!

When I embarked upon my environmental career I think a part of me was seeking adventure and wilderness (perhaps inspired by tales of Middle Earth and those holidays in Devon) as an antidote to my safe, suburban upbringing.  Whilst I am left with countless precious memories from this part of my life (scrabbling around in the middle of the night looking for bats; wading through rivers in search of crayfish;  trapping water voles, discovering dormice and watching otters play) I eventually had to accept that my work was taking me further and further away from the things that made it worth doing.

By contrast, as a counsellor I get to explore the deepest, darkest wildernesses that exist.  To venture with my clients beyond the facades we present to the world.  When I approach a fellow human being with an openness and willingness to see that person as they see themselves not only is it a profound experience for them but it is impossible for me not be moved and changed by it as well.

So, this is my story.  Well a part of it.  A sanitised, appropriate version suitable for this website anyway.  To look back on our lives as a story can be a deeply affecting exercise.  When we write the story of our past we can begin to think about and edit the untold story of our future.  Why not try it yourself.

And if you are looking for a safe, professional, friendly qualified counsellor in Exeter please feel free to contact me to arrange a free, initial consultation.

To Be Continued…

Photo of sunset over Exminster Marshes, Exeter to end James Field's Counselling Philosophy piece.
Sunset over Exminster Marshes, Exeter.