Out of the shadows

From the Pathfinder project in Glasgow: How the creative thinking of a determined project co-ordinator brought an elusive young woman into the light.

This is the story of Sarah, who may have hidden in the shadows when she started the programme, but is now emerging into the light as a positive young woman.

Thinking outside the box is an approach much encouraged in many walks of life. Creative minds can crack the apparently impenetrable, unpick the impossibly tangled. Someone who can think in this way is an asset, particularly when gifted with a cool head, the ability to step back, reassess and try again. In a charity dealing with young people frequently beset by complex issues, sometimes that challenge is human, not abstract; and can present a puzzle to be approached not only with creativity, but with a thoughtful delicacy of step.

Kirstie, a project coordinator with Pathfinder in Glasgow, may be a recent recruit but she hit the ground running in the summer and has barely paused for breath since. Amongst her very first group of trainees was Sarah, an enigmatically elusive young woman; difficult to read, reluctant to give, she appeared trapped in a robust shell of isolation. A conundrum indeed: how can you go about helping someone for whom fundamental communication seems to be an insurmountable obstacle? Extracting information from her felt like an exercise in interrogation; there was a gaping void where normal interaction ought to exist. Kirstie stepped back to reconsider, readily admitting her own frustration and doubt during the first weeks of induction, ‘I don’t know how to get her out of her shell’.

Sarah, however, is clearly an interesting and engaging character in her own unique way; ‘You’d pick her out from a crowd’, Kirstie says, ‘I think she’s got so much to give.’ Despite her extreme and continuing inability to express her wants, needs and thoughts, despite too, her apparent rejection of her peers in the group who’d made efforts to include her, Sarah was nonetheless engaged in the programme to the extent she felt able to be. Her timekeeping and attendance were impeccable, her work always completed. She wanted to be there but didn’t know how to, or didn’t want to, open up and fully immerse herself in the experience; her conversation was minimal and dealt with only what was necessary, her eye contact practically non-existent. Kirstie found herself at an impasse, ‘I don’t even know what level she’s at’.

Some creative thinking was becoming imperative: Kirstie quickly understood that this wasn’t someone who just needed a bit of time to relax and feel comfortable; nor was she going to respond well to a broadside of questions, indeed any direct questions during group sessions prompted a negative, evasive response where she twisted her face oddly, even more so when there were others looking at her. Kirstie created activities specifically to encourage individual speech within the group, to assess her reactions and monitor her participation. The evidence was clear: Sarah needed one-to-one support of an individually tailored variety to enable Kirstie to cultivate a more beneficial relationship with her, gradually chipping away at the protective coating to understand something of the person beneath.

But how to go about prising open the cover of a stubbornly closed book? Kirstie facilitated an exercise in the induction group about goals, a standard activity and one which also introduced the thorny issue of barriers; what impediments did the young people identify as being in the way of their achieving the goals they were aiming at? To promote a sense of safety and hopefully encourage honesty, the exercise was private, not one to be discussed with the group. And there it was: Sarah wrote plainly about her issue with communication, demonstrating both self-knowledge and a desire for change. The power of her words, ‘I’d love to fix it’ energised Kirstie in her quest to help find a way for this isolated young woman to connect and function in the world.

Their one-to-one sessions became regular and focused, Kirstie calling on all her powers of invention to coach Sarah in the most basic of exchanges and behaviours, understanding that an informal approach, a mutual exchange where there is give and take from both parties was the most effective. At the start, Sarah’s discourse remained brusque and monosyllabic in all modes of communication; she rarely initiated any correspondence. Kirstie needed to explain that when someone asks, ‘How are you?’, reciprocation is expected, even if you don’t particularly want to know the answer. She needed to point out that Sarah could kick off a conversation, start a text message exchange, make a phone call herself. This stuff, so instinctive to most of us, seemed like a particularly inaccessible foreign language to her.

But her persistence paid off: the shimmering, indistinct form of Sarah began to acquire depth and colour: she has two siblings and a much beloved cat; she’s got a quirky take on style and is interested in fashion and make-up. She’d clearly being paying attention to her lessons on the conventions of social interaction too. Kirstie speaks of her delight when Sarah actually initiated a call and began with, ‘How are you?’. Such a tiny step, but massive for her. They worked consistently on the tricky business of eye contact, Kirstie using a timer to see how long they could hold each other’s gaze. She logged progress: from 30 seconds to five minutes. She logged Sarah’s feelings too: what had been ‘nerve-wracking’ initially was now ‘more comfortable’.

Meanwhile, the bread-and-butter activities of the induction group gathered momentum; modules were completed in all kinds of areas – Sarah becoming quite the guru on matters of health and safety, and blossoming unexpectedly in her interview technique, previously terse answers becoming detailed and descriptive. Her interest in all things beauty manifested itself in her decision to do a course in spray tanning which represented another milestone achievement. It was just a half day, but it was new territory and peopled with strangers. The practical nature of the course meant that stripping down to your underwear was central to proceedings – not for the faint-hearted or timid, you’d think. But Sarah bounced out shining with pleasure at finding something she felt she wanted to do, and pride at what she’d learned and accomplished; ‘I loved it, Kirstie!’ she said.

Full steam ahead to placement number one: a tanning salon presided over by a lovely, supportive chap, and the potential of a job if all went well. Kirstie had reservations but kept them to herself in the belief that finding the right path is as much about experience in the field as it is about taking guidance from those around you.

Week one went okay, week two saw a significant deterioration. This, however, was difficult intelligence to get hold of; Sarah had become distant again, choosing retreat over sharing something she didn’t know how to communicate. Kirstie speaks of the challenge of this, knowing that Sarah’s initial response that everything is ‘fine’ is the defensive stone under which lurks a more complex truth.

A review happened back at base where Kirstie, kid gloves at the ready, was able to gently but clearly communicate to Sarah that it’s absolutely acceptable to decide that a particular placement or line of work isn’t the right one, but that this decision needs to be shared; she explained too that leaving in the proper manner is extremely important, ‘don’t just walk out – leave professionally’. This is a critical learning curve for Sarah, but also crucial to Kirstie’s being able to maintain positive relations with a useful business mentor. Kirstie managed to pitch things just right, providing reassurance and hopefully an open door to easier future exchanges of this nature. Further probing into the matter revealed that Sarah had lost interest and motivation very quickly: she’d shied away from forming relationships with colleagues and clammed up when left to deal with customers. Her eventual expression of her feelings was blunt but lucid: ‘I struggle with groups, and I hate it when all eyes are on me. It makes me close up.”

It was clear then, that more support was essential to coach Sarah in the art of connecting with others, and in expressing her feelings when something isn’t right. They hadn’t gone clattering back down to square one, however; Sarah said to Kirstie, ‘You’ve taught me what communication is, but I know I’ve got a long way to go’. At least now, the elephant in the room had a name and a seat at the table.

As far as employment was concerned, it was back to the drawing board. Kirstie dug out a careers’ sheet from Sarah’s file which dated back to the early days of induction and used it as a starting point to work through every type of job she could think of, exploring and discussing some ideas more fully if Sarah appeared receptive. She was careful not to push too hard, though; after her first placement crashed, Sarah needed a bit of time to breathe and reflect. It was important too for Kirstie to carry on figuring out who she was dealing with, understanding the person and her kinks and quirks, the better to help her move forward.

Kirstie rummaged in the inner recesses of her creative toolbox and produced a winner. A boardgame: a hybrid of snakes and ladders and bingo, all about rolling of dice, moving around a board, and landing on questions in a seemingly random manner. Information started to flow as though the pressure in a blocked pipe had suddenly been released. The informality of a game and the reciprocity of exchange allowed Sarah to feel comfortable and open up. She’s done some pretty impressive travelling, notably to Russia and Croatia; she has a trans sibling and a real interest in art.

This was a valuable and unexpected breakthrough, even more so because Sarah was fully engaged, taking care to move around the board and land on the questions that she wanted, showing an interest in Kirstie and what she had to say. At one point she manoeuvred deliberately to land on a particular square, ‘Ask any question’. She wanted to know what Kirstie’s favourite holiday destination would be and why. Further exchanges delved into previously unchartered territory – family and living situation. She wanted to know about Kirstie’s children, what it was like having kids and how she felt about that possibility in her own life. They got to the nitty gritty of Sarah’s own family and living situation, where details of where the harmonies and discords lay became more apparent. Kirstie is delighted to have made such progress and is planning more games for the first part of this interim period before she gets down to more focused interview preparation.

Sifting through job types proved fruitful too: the prospect of a cleaning job piqued Sarah’s interest. Perhaps something not so dependant on interfacing with lots of people would be a sensible next step to take. A potential placement presented itself, preparation was done, and arrangements for a chat with the business mentor were made. For someone who doesn’t express much in the way of emotion or appreciation, Sarah was showing real commitment to this plan, asking questions, and pushing for details. She even tentatively suggested lunch with Kirstie on the day of the proposed interview.

This kind of active initiative is a marker that indicates real progress for Sarah who is, step by step, and with continuing support, starting to take control of her future. Not just in the realms of employment but in the fundamental business of how to express herself and interact with others. She recognises the value of what she has learned and the potential she has for more. Her own words are succinct but speak volumes, ‘I’m now getting help from you on how to speak to people, which I’ve never had before. My eye contact and communication have improved but can improve more.’

Kirstie, meanwhile, is a woman on a mission. ‘I could never give up on Sarah. I’ve seen such a difference from how she was at the start, and I want to keep going till I get her to the right place.’

September 2021

Written by Catherine Campbell from information provided by Kirstie Martin.