Therapy, for many, is a world viewed through a second-hand lens, and at best, only half-understood. For decades, the practise has been burdened with a certain stigma, seen to be as hopeful and as foolish as wearing crystals for their vibrational energies, or poring over horoscopes to divine the future from the stars. In television shows and movies – usually the only glimpse people have had into its inner-workings – therapy is laying on a sofa, staring at the ceiling, as a softly-spoken man in a suit stares at you blankly, offering the occasional, frustratingly bland comment, ‘And what makes you feel that way?’, while jotting down notes that turn out to be a doodle of a cat. In recent years, the portrayals of therapy have been making strides to better resemble the reality and highlight that counselling isn’t the territory of kooks but of your best friend, your mother, your brother, the guy at the supermarket check-out. You.
And just as there isn’t one kind of therapy, there also isn’t just one kind of therapist. Richard James Turner is, quite literally, in a league of his own. Being a cult survivor, which left him isolated and unemployed, Turner has since become one of the leading specialists in counselling for those involved in controlling and abusive groups, as well as being living proof that autism needn’t be an obstacle in his line of work, but can lend unique insight that elevates the perspectives he can offer to his clients. Weaving empathy and his own passions into his practises, Turner spots potential in usual places, with his belief that Minecraft could be a counselling game-changer: how block by block, pixel by pixel, building an online world can help you to rebuild your own.
“What you can’t see now is that in my room, there are loads of Disney Pixar toys,” says Turner. “In fact, there’s even more after the last few days, because I went out to buy even more. My whole flat is filled with them. And the reason for that is because it makes me feel happy. I enjoy the films, and I’m not gonna suppress that part of me and push it down because I’m supposed to fit into a norm.” Central to Turner’s own path to wellness was reconnecting with his inner child – and teaching himself not to care about what other people thought about it. “I felt weird all my life – because I am weird,” he says. “But I’m okay with that. And part of the reason why I’m okay with that is because I’ve learned through counselling that it’s not healthy to pretend to be something you’re not.”
Autistic people, in particular, are notably better at maintaining a connection with childhood joy – or, as the foundational psychologist Carl Rogers would say, ‘the organismic self’. Turner explains: “I’ve always felt like a part of me was still like a boy. In the past, I felt like I needed to supress that or push it down, but because my field as a therapist is so focused on identity and who you are it has helped me accept that part of me that’s still a child. Even in terms of gender stereotypes, I’m not traditionally masculine – but that’s alright! I don’t have to pretend to be a big football fan and roll down the pub. You know, I like Disney. I like Minecraft. So much of counselling is self-reflection.”
It’s that loyalty to his inner child that is at the core of his own practises as a counsellor. It was that which made him begin to see the potential of Minecraft not just as a world-building game, but a kind of therapy. After having lost years of his life to a Bible-based cult which manipulated him into renouncing his possessions and outside relationships, Turner was left without an identity when he left. “As part of rebuilding myself, I started playing Minecraft,” he says. “It has been a really positive thing for me. It was the first thing I bought for myself when I broke free from these various abusive, unhealthy situations. I’d been playing it for fun, but it’s very creative and healing: you can do what you want and you can control your own environment. I know I’m not the first to have said it, but Minecraft is good for your mental health in a lot of ways.” Turner has started his own gaming channel on YouTube documenting his gameplay, just for fun, which has helped him relax from such emotionally involved work. “It’s only a seed, at the moment, but I want to get to the place where I’m connecting Minecraft with mental health, one way or another. Sometimes I get so over-the-top and passionate about things, and I wish it was a part of my job. So then, I think, ‘How can I do that?’ And that’s what I do.”
Becoming a therapist had arisen not from a place of want – but need. Twelve years ago, Turner himself was undergoing therapy to navigate his anxiety and depression. His therapist recommend he do the training to become a counseller, and not only did he discover it was his calling, but it helped him to understand himself better. Before this point, Turner didn’t know he was autistic. He explains, “Studying counselling gave me the social skills that I was probably struggling with – it helped me understand people better. I’d always had difficult relationships with people and felt like a bit of an outcast, and then suddenly, there’s this training that teaches you how to listen to people, how to empathise with people and how to respond. I never used to know what to say or do. People are confusing… people are very, very confusing. When you study psychology, they start to make sense because they fit into a framework. So even though I didn’t know I was autistic, the training actually started to give me answers.”
Through his experience, Turner believes that taking on counselling training – even just an introductory course – can be incredibly helpful for autistic people to get to grips with social skills that don’t come naturally to them. “It helped me understand the world,” he says. “But more than that, I wanted to help people, and that was the driving force for me becoming a counsellor. The way I communicate now is largely due to the way I have been trained to handle situations. It’s funny, looking back on the past, because I didn’t understand that I would have an emotional impact on people when I was too honest. People didn’t know how to take me or got annoyed at me. I’m still learning this now, actually – even after eight years – where I have to keep telling myself, ‘You’ve learned that if you tell people what’s wrong with them and why they are the way they are, it can be upsetting, even if you think you’re being helpful’.”
While Turner has now managed to harness his perspective as a person with autism for positive outcomes in his work, in the earliest days, it was incredibly difficult to contend with – especially in a classroom environment during his training. His tutor noticed that he struggled to answer questions on the spot in a lesson, preferring to chew what he’d learned alone. “I was just in my own world, sat like a little machine trying to put all the cogs together, and I didn’t want anyone to interrupt my train of thought. Luckily, my tutor picked up on that, but if you struggle with anything similar, it’s important to talk to them about it.” Another difficulty was sitting in a room for long periods of time: Turner would become overwhelmed by the lights; the feeling of the fabric on his skin. Often, he’d need to shake it off and leave the room. Making his tutor aware of that and contacting his college support team about his learning difficulty, made an enormous difference in his progress. “I battled with that all the way through education,” he says. “But I didn’t know what it was until I was diagnosed with autism. After about 45 minutes, I get hugely overwhelmed and I just want to scream and rip off all my clothes! It’s really strange, I know.” Even down to his sensory processing issues, he was supported. In a classroom, he found it helpful to wear tinted or dark glasses because he wouldn’t have to put in the effort to process the fluorescent light, and the college ensured his laptop had accessibility software to make his learning as seamless as possible.
Nevertheless, Turner had to work hard in the sessions to make the same progress as his classmates. “When I did my training, I struggled to connect with people in a social context. In groups, I get quite confused and can’t keep track of what’s going on. Someone actually said to me at the end of the course, ‘We’ve been in the same class for three years, but I don’t know you!’ They meant that they would have liked to – not in a critical way – but it proves how closed off I was. In fact, at the start of the course, everyone used to have dinner together and I’d just walk off on my own and sit in the corner, because that was more enjoyable for me that interacting with people. That was fairly tough. But there are a lot of autistic counsellors out there, and you wouldn’t think it. There are a lot of myths, though, that get in the way of people thinking they could become a counsellor themselves if they are autistic – but autism brings special things into counselling as well.”
The qualities autistic people have, in many ways, are a blessing as a therapist. “I have very fixed, focused interests, which is a common autistic trait,” Turner explains. “Psychology was one of them, for a long period of time. During my masters, within ten months, I’d written 35,000 words and read a huge pile of books – it was all I ever thought about.” Another positive is that he is less emotionally impacted by the traumatic experiences his clients share with him because of how he deals with things in a logical, methodical way. “I still feel concern and compassion for people, don’t get me wrong,” he says, “but I think in my mind, I use it as a mechanical thing to protect me, a little bit.” With his line of therapy having an education element to it, really plays to Turner’s strengths. “It involves a lot of discussion about theory,” he explains, “because people heal through understanding that. I can support my client through helping them with that, because I know it quite well.” The meticulous organisation, of course, is a given.
Turner’s master’s degree is in coercive control: his dissertation was on analysing language and how it’s used to control minds in everything from multilevel marketing companies to Bible-based cult groups. “I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he admits, “I was just interested in it because I’d been through it myself.” During this time, he was still in recovery, and had found that only a handful of people specialise in this area of psychology In the UK. By chance, or fate, he saw a sign as he walked through his university advertising funding for start-up businesses. Without overthinking it, he showed up to the session – without a business plan – and asked for help in starting his own counselling practice aimed at helping cult survivors like himself. He was enrolled in a programme at a university that equipped him with not only funding, a business advisor and a website – but even guidance on how to figure out his taxes. “It was one of those things where I didn’t overanalyse it – it just happened because I thought, ‘This needs doing, so let’s just do it.’” And so Think Again was born.
The clients took a while to emerge. It was a slow start. “I was trying to work in a field where it seemed no one wanted the counselling, but I knew there was a need for it because there are hundreds and hundreds of ex-cult members out there struggling,” he says. It slowly picked up over time, largely down to Turner being unafraid to ask for help when he needed it. After reaching out to people for advice and guidance, suddenly, he found that he didn’t even need to advertise his services anymore: the clients find him. At the moment, it runs alongside his teaching job, but already Turner has cemented his reputation as one of the leading figures in this area of psychology in the UK. “It has almost evolved on its own because there was a need. I don’t know where it’s going to go, or how I’m going to do it, or what clients I’m going to get – all I know is that it needed doing.”
While his work has appeared in multiple publications, as well as having penned his own article about the relationship between autism and cult indoctrination, the true rewards of his work, he believes, is the simple privilege of being trusted with someone’s story. “There have been times where I’ve sat there and thought, ‘This is incredible. I can’t believe what you’re telling me. What a survivor story this is!’ A number of times I’ve been amazed. Even when you work in a class, something mystical happens – and you can’t quite put your finger on what it is – when you realise that you’ve been on this journey together.” More than anything, it’s about recovering that sense of community in a healthy context that rewards him. “I think it’s quite special and important to me to be the person I didn’t have, basically,” says Turner. “Nobody understood how isolating it was, and finding people who did understand was so powerful, and now, I can be that person for others.”
Interview: Dom Smith / Words: Sophie Walker