Remembering Billy

Mike Guilfoyle
Monday, 29 September 2014

One of the most interesting and seminal figures in child development was the wonderfully insightful psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott. His therapeutic work with troubled adolescents was recently featured in a series of lectures organised around the theme of the 'antisocial tendency'. These lectures were then published in a book: 'Broken Bounds: Contemporary reflections on the antisocial tendency'.

The impact of many of the insights in this collection brought a particular set of memories from when I started to work as a probation officer with Billy (not his real name) at an inner city probation office. Following my arrival at the office, I had the good fortune of being attached to a vastly experienced and casework-informed team of probation colleague. One of whom was heavily steeped in what, I thought at the time, was a very recondite theoretical approach to some of his probation casework. It was a psychodynamic inflected methodology that he would share at team meetings where case discussions informed part of an exciting opportunity to look afresh at 'difficult ' and seemingly intractable client interactions.

I was initially hesitant to broach what I took to be an unorthodox facet of my colleague’s practice, when Billy whose disruptive presence in the waiting area had often resulted in a harassed duty probation officer having to 'threaten' possible breach action. But whenever Billy reported to my colleague, his demeanour and behaviour appeared to show a remarkable, perhaps more tolerable improvement and the sessions (my office was adjacent his) were, it seemed, conducted in an almost trappist silence.

When Billy emerged, I would ponder on exactly what had transpired in the meeting (this was at a time before electronic record keeping). The opportunity to discover a little more of what seemed to allay Billy’s often volatile behaviour, was afforded when my colleague took extended leave and I was re-allocated supervisory responsibilities for his probation order (again, this was at a time before community orders entered the legal lexicon). When Billy was introduced, the local manager who took a lively concern in case transfers, appeared to unsettle the working atmosphere, as note was made of Billy's at times often violent interactions with his father (also known to the probation service). I had an uneasy apprehension that this would subvert what his good professional relationship with my colleague had, I believed, safely achieved.

Billy stated at the outset that ‘I would be OK if I didn't say anything that didn't upset him’! I sensed that his outbursts of, often vicious, violence had its origins at least in part, to the breakdown of his relationship with his father. My colleague attempted to work towards building a trusting relationship, that would enable Billy to express himself more effectively, and that over time this destructive behaviour might diminish; and this began to shape my approach to our meetings.

The keynote themes of a breakdown in communication and of relationships, meant that for Billy to move away from such a troubled pattern, some way of learning to communicate in a less violent manner, required persistence and resilient supervision. Moreover, a willingness for him see his behaviour as a response (maybe at an unconscious level) to hurt and rage, which could so easily escalate. At times, I thought that I was poorly equipped to handle the fallout from Billy's fraught interactions. I could only offer a hope, having heard about his past painful communications, another way forward was possible. Furthermore, it did matter what transpired in our meetings because someone else cared for and about him. We all need to find ways of being heard, and experience integrity and a positive belief in people's ability to change. At this point Billy's probation order was still running and this shifted his perspective to enable a measure of greater personal control to take hold.  The wider argument on the concept of the 'antisocial tendency' and the continuing relevance of some of Winnicott's observations merit, I believe, further exploration.

As for Billy, when my colleague returned from his leave, he would sometimes wink at me before entering his room for his weekly appointments and even managed to say on one such occasion 'Hope see you again Mr Guilfoyle'.