Thanks to My Working-Class Roots I Don't Look Down on My Patients. I See Us All as Struggling Human Beings; Psychotherapist and Author Reinhard Kowalski Tells How a Stroke of Luck Helped Him Break Free of His Humble Origins SECRET OF MY SUCCESS ES JOBS

Article excerpt


UNTIL I was 13, we didn't have our own bathroom. We lived in a council flat in Dortmund in Germany and the only bathroom was in the cellar. We had to share it with five other families.

I was an only child and I shared a bedroom with my parents.

It sounds hard but it was a close community and there were lots of children to play with. However, my father never really fitted in; his parents had come to Germany from Poland, so he couldn't speak German when he arrived, which made him an outsider. He had artistic talent but he had to leave school at 14 to earn money as a coalminer at the local pit. He used to say: "Make sure you don't become a slave like me," and that did have an influence on me.

My father drank too much and, by the age of 10, I was the one who would pacify him when he became drunk and verbally abusive. He wouldn't listen to my mother. So at a young age I was developing the skills of a psychotherapist.

I was top of the class at school, but chose not to try for the exclusive "gymnasium" secondary school which would have led to university.

None of my friends was going there.

I ended up going to middle school, then doing a year's apprenticeship at a steel mill, aged 16. I had an Elvis haircut, a scooter, lots of girlfriends and a job at the mill - I was working class, that's what we did.

But an opportunity came up that changed my life. A church group sponsored me to go as an exchange student to America for a year. I went to an upper-middleclass Massachusetts family and attended high school. The father was a university professor and the family treated me like a son. I loved it.

It was such a relief to have rules and discipline. I studied hard and did well. It was a turning point for me.

When I got back to Germany, I went to college. I wanted to study medicine but didn't have the confidence to go for it, so I went for psychology instead. I got a place at university in West Berlin and spent an exciting five years there. I learned about Marx as well as Freud, which enabled me to put my background into perspective.

Then I heard about a worldfamous postgraduate course at the Middlesex Hospital in London, so I applied. I found a mentor there in clinical psychologist Dr Victor Mayer. Training with him took away my fear of patients; he'd trust you and throw you in at the deep end with them, which would never happen now.

He was charismatic. He'd see a patient with a group of students in tow and somehow manage to have an intimate relationship with them, discussing deeply personal problems. I think it made the patients feel accepted, and that their problems were interesting, worth discussing in a group.

After that, I went back to work in Berlin at a youth counselling centre, but I wanted to return to work within the NHS because I could see psychologists had a more independent role in Britain than Germany.

I applied to do a three-year in-service clinical psychology training within the North-West Thames Regional Health Authority and was accepted out of 95 applicants for five places. I spent the next three years at different hospitals getting an overview of the NHS and areas of mental and physical health.

When I was the senior clinical psychologist at Hellingly Hospital in Sussex I became interested in anxiety disorders and panic attacks. I ran self-help groups there, and wrote my first book, Over the Top, about ways of dealing with these attacks.

Since then I have written several other books, including Anxiety and Stress Management Toolkit and Discovering Your Self. …


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