Susie Watts is an extraordinary human; her capacity to see good in people and to reserve judgement makes me incredibly proud to call her my little sister. She is also highly intelligent AND great fun. I know, I know it’s pretty annoying. If it’s any consolation her singing is a bit warbley.
Anyway, despite the fact that I’ve known her for all 31 years of her life there are some things we haven’t talked about, like how she is so comfortable with other peoples’ distress or how she copes with seeing the worst side of human nature on a daily basis (she works with victims and perpetrators of significant abuse) or what a better world looks like through her eyes.
After this conversation I am absolutely convinced that she should run for election, the world would be a happier place with Susie at the top and I think you’ll agree.
KW: You have never been afraid of situations that would make other people uncomfortable. Do you feel discomfort and ignore it, or do you just not feel uncomfortable?
SW: I’ve never really felt uncomfortable with other peoples’ distress. Any struggles that other people have, a disability, trauma, or just being emotional - I’ve never really found that difficult to deal with. All you need to do is listen and I love people opening up to me. It’s something that I’m actually most proud of; people who find it hard to open up seem to find it easy to open up to me. I always get strangers in pubs telling me about their history of abuse, once I sat in a pub garden for three hours talking to a woman I’d never met about her horrific, traumatic childhood.
KW: Poor woman, thank god you were there. So… you were quite naughty as a child.
SW: I was.
KW: Well, actually I don’t know if you were THAT naughty, we were all naughty but you were always caught. You were suspended from sixth form multiple times but you’re actually a really conscientious person who hates being in trouble. So how did it get so bad and why do you think it happened?
SW: We’re all kind of mischievous in our family but I’ve always worked hard and I felt that as long as I wasn’t hurting other people, anything I did was justified. With the whole smoking and drinking thing, I saw it as me making a choice to have some fun and at that point in time I prioritised having fun with my group of friends over sticking to the rules. I got told off but after a while it became a bit of a joke and then that became part of my identity.
KW: I totally understand the prioritising fun, I mean at Ellesmere everyone was drinking and smoking, that’s kind of what we did but your behaviour was pretty extreme.
SW: It was. I think I’m just a thrill seeker. I just like doing things that are against the rules.
KW: But you hate being in trouble?
SW: I do and I hated being suspended but actually the first couple of times Mum and Dad weren’t that annoyed. It was only the third time that Mum went psycho at me. I think they liked the fact that I had a bit of character. They’ve always encouraged us to show our personalities
KW: So you were playing a part then?
SW: Well, it was what I wanted to do and actually I quite liked the fact that I was bit rebellious I’ve never wanted to be too serious, that’s my worst nightmare. Whenever my behaviour was described to other people it would be like “Susie’s naughty and she does this and this but she doesn’t cause any trouble for us at home, she’s really hardworking.”
So it was never the sum total of my character, it was a little bit of personality. I never felt it was a really negative trait and I still don’t. I think that’s why I make stupid decisions and drink to excess because it doesn’t define me it’s just an aspect of my personality.
KW: And do you think these experiences help you to empathise with the people you work with?
KW: In what way?
SW: Their behaviours, some of them are a result of trauma; they’re acting out because they’re needing something BUT a lot of their behaviour is about being a child and trying to rebellious and different and not fade into the background.
KW: So it’s helped you to be less judgemental?
SW: I’ve never let my bad behaviour define me, so when I look at other I see that they’re more than their behaviour. Anything that they have done and I’m talking about people who have committed some really serious crimes, I never see that as them being bad people. When people say, “how can you work with them?” it’s because they are defining people by their offence but actually there are so many qualities in everyone that I meet, people are more than negative behaviour.
KW: That’s why I get frustrated when the media described acts as being ‘evil’, they often are difficult to understand and horrific but it’s a massive over simplification and doesn’t really get to the core of the issues.
SW: Yeah. It’s like Dead Man Walking, I was obsessed with that film and with any film about death row because I feel so much empathy for the characters. It’s not that I think they haven’t done anything wrong, I see the need for them to change their behaviour but I also see that there is potential for them to do that, if they have the right things in place to be able make good choices. We’re very lucky, so many people don’t have that. When people say, “they’re just evil, they must have been born evil,” that probably makes me angrier than anything.
KW: You see the worst side of humans on a daily basis do how do you deal with that?
SW: I talk about this a lot in supervision, you do become desensitised to it when you’re faced with it day to day and actually that really worries me. I remember working with this boy, it was the first time I’d met him and he told me that he’d self-harmed and he wanted to show me. He’d carved words into his arm with a razor blade or something, they were really deep marks. I went into autopilot, I did all the things that you should do, I was consciously thinking how I should be responding. Afterwards in supervision I realised that maybe I hadn’t reacted like a human would. Sometimes the people you’re working with need to see their behaviour is actually really shocking, that it has an emotional impact but you are desensitised the more you hear it and the more you get used to handling it.
I make a conscious effort to process my emotions around it afterwards and I have developed coping strategies. I’ve become a lot more disciplined at separating work and home life. That wasn’t the case when I first started the job, I would think about work all one evening and then drink heavily the next. Now if I’ve struggled with something in the day I’ll say to myself, you can think about this between 6 -7 but then you need to actively do other things. Exercise is great, reading is something I want to do more. The easiest option is watching soaps because then you’re automatically involved in another world, a fake world that’s easier to process. It’s also about remembering that you have a life, if you’re not looking after yourself you can’t look after others and care for them in the way that they need to be cared for. There is a balance, your life and the people in your life are as important as the work.
KW: How do you remain optimistic then despite experiencing this stuff?
SW: Because amazing things happen every day. For one person it could be the fact that they smiled and you’ve never seen them smile before or for another person that they’ve put in place something that you’ve suggested or you’ve talked about in a session. It could be that they were provoked by someone else and they’ve managed not to lash out or it could be the fact that they’ve got into college, or that they’ve shown empathy for someone else. You have to recognise the smallest things as being achievements.
The good thing about doing the job that I do is that I see that people change and that feeds into my optimism. I see the worst side but I also see the worst side getting better. Having relationships with people…well, that’s what life’s about really and for those people to open up to you, it sounds really cheesy but it’s a privilege. For them to feel comfortable enough with you to share their life and to share the things that they’re most ashamed of, in training once we were told to imagine the thing that we’re most ashamed of and then to imagine being asked to stand up and share it with a room full of people that you don’t know very well. That is what we ask the people we work with to do and they do it. If they can do that then they can do anything.
KW: It’s really brave when you put it like that. In that context you begin to see the importance of intervention and prevention. Our current society is set up to focus on punishment and prisons. How could things be better if more money, more time and resources were put into prevention and intervention?
SW: The really sad thing is that everyone knows that in theory, in research, in everything, everyone knows that early intervention is what works. At the point that I moved down South the focus was on early intervention but gradually bit by bit those workers and services are being pulled and we’re moving back to simply treating the problem because of the need to make financial cuts. That is never going to work. It’s never going to work. It’s not to say you can’t help people at that point but it makes it so much harder because in their eyes they’ve already failed by then. They’ve had disappointment and been ostracised. By committing an offence they’re also creating trauma for themselves so they’ve been through so much and they have to deal with that on top of everything else. If you can catch people early on when they’re just showing a little bit of negative behaviour then you can support in place, that’s all it needs really, someone to listen to them and to actually listen, not just problem solve. That’s what works but for reasons which are way out of the scope of this conversation, the Government are pulling funding from that. We were seeing a decrease in crime and now we will see an increase again.
KW: Which is just devastating, it’s a failure of society.
SW: It is and that’s the other thing. There are places where you can offer that support without having a whole service dedicated to it, like schools but schools don’t feel equipped to do that. There’s this idea that these kids needs really specialist support so people don’t feel confident in supporting the kids but if you catch it that early on and you notice the signs they don’t need specialist support at that point, they just need nurture. It would mean going into schools and giving training, giving people who have the day to day contact with the kids the confidence to actually do it but then people also need time and everyone’s overworked.
KW: But if there was money for resource in that area, I mean you could pilot it, you wouldn’t have to roll it out everywhere straight away.
SW: Exactly. One of the main struggles for teachers is dealing with challenging behaviour if real emphasis was put on not just recognising signs but also how to respond in teacher training it would make a difference, it really doesn’t take someone specialist to do it.
KW: Which means there’s so much possibility, why aren’t we doing it? Last question, which is a big question, if you could change one thing in the world right now what would it be?
SW: I wouldn’t change anything for me personally because even though it hasn’t been the best year, actually I’m very fortunate. I have support around me.
I want people to be more inclusive. You know after the terror attacks in Paris we were talking about anomy, I feel that is responsible for so many things in this world. We segregate ourselves, we group off and we’re drawn to people who are like us. I would like people to more open minded, to break down the barriers and include everyone. I want there to be more of a sense of community, more of a sense of support because when we do that we do it really, really well.
Say you’re walking down the street and you see a woman in a tracksuit, pushing a pram, with a fag in her hand, yelling at her child, your automatic reaction is, “what a skank, how dare she treat her child like that, she should be reported to social services.” I wonder what would happen if people approached her and said, “are you alright, you look like you’re having a really hard time do you wanna go for a coffee?”
It wouldn’t work every time because she’s probably had so much negative feedback from other people that she’s terrified of everyone around her but for some people it would really make a difference.
Those small acts of kindness that people can do to give themselves the feeling they’re part of something. If I’m having a bad day and someone smiles at me in the street there is no way that I wouldn’t’ smile back because the fact that someone smiled at me is really touching.
Those small, simple things that we can do to make people feel welcome and part of society, if we could just get them right. I mean, I’m not deluded into thinking that it would be some happy world where no one ever gets angry but children learn behaviour, they copy behaviour so if everyone around them was going around being happy, smiling at everyone and including people, if that was generally the way people are, it would change the world.