Today, The Helpful Clinic is celebrating its 5-year anniversary, so we’ve decided to have a slight change from the norm with today’s blog. Instead of the usual format, we’ve got a fantastic interview with the clinic’s founder, Thor A Rain. I’m James by the way. I work behind the scenes helping Thor with the fortnightly blogs. Why not check out my short bio on The Helpful Clinic team page.

Why did you set up The Helpful Clinic?

I see myself primarily as an health activist and I think the main reason was sheer frustration and refusal to accept the status quo. Having myself been ill for seven years, and then trained to support people with their health, I was frustrated with the fact that people always talked about health either from a mental or physical perspective only. I felt there was a distinct lack of bringing those two aspects together, as well as a missing third dimension: social.

This frustration was fuelled by the fact that key health statistics (see last year’s birthday blog and picture below) were simply unacceptable.  I’d been to a conference in 2013 where one of the speakers talked about 30%-50% of all GP visits being because of medically unexplained symptoms.  The moment that slide came up on the big screen has stayed with me. I remember everything about that moment, where I was sitting, who I was with, the voice of Monica Greco the speaker. That moment is branded in my memory and that overwhelming sense of: this is not ok!

The second component that was a driving factor in my decision to set up The Helpful Clinic was that often when people are dealing with health issues (whatever they are), it takes time and what I felt was really missing was the short-term support.

During my own illness back in 2003, I started my own First Aid Kit for Feelings to help me deal with the immediate stuff like anger, anxiety and overwhelm associated with being diagnosed with an illness that I was told I’d never recover from (how wrong the doctors were).  It was also an instrumental tool in helping me deal with the excruciating pain I lived with for seven years and the debilitating fatigue.  Having a First Aid Kit for my Feelings, as well as developing the ABC First Aid for Feelings technique, helped me deal with these experiences in the short term while I was working through the longer term stuff.

The Helpful Mission

This led me to develop the Helpful Mission, which is all about improving health and wellbeing through emotional and health literacy. So the concept is to empower ourselves to understand and drive our own wellbeing. This is all about learning and skills, just like reading and writing is about learning and skills. And if we don’t get taught how to read and write, if you like, our own health — which involves physical sensations, health experiences, emotions, thoughts, the lot — then we are simply not well enough equipped to deal with experiences that arise out of that.

It became obvious that the business I wanted to develop wasn’t going to be focused solely on either being a business or a charity, but rather that three dimensional structure of a social enterprise (yup, there’s a theme ;). In this way it could encompass both business and charity operational principles and take it further. So there was a very strong social component to this right from the start.

Why name it ‘The Helpful Clinic’?

Anybody who’s worked with me or had a conversation with me for more than five minutes will know that my favourite question is always “is it helpful?”

I think often when we’re working with health or anything in life really, we can get stuck on whether it’s right or wrong, good or bad, negative or positive. So there are all these kinds of judgements about the situation or experience we’re facing.

Whereas if we move out of that space and into just ‘is it helpful to me in this moment?’, it frees up our creativity, our curiosity and gives us the clues and power to take those next steps.

So with a thought, emotion or symptom that is not necessarily easy to treat, is it helpful to focus on it incessantly? Possibly not. But neither is ignoring it. By stepping into that gentler, more compassionate space of just getting curious about it, we can often make more helpful choices in the moment.

Keeping it real

What I find is that things that can be helpful to one day, may not be helpful the next day. So it’s also kind of stepping out of that space where we seek a fixed answer, like an Oxford Dictionary answer, to a much more of an interactive experience where we have to learn to read and understand what’s going on, and then respond to it in real-time. 

There’s also the fact that what may be helpful to one person may not be helpful to another. We often see this in medical interventions, but the same applies in other spheres of health too, whether that’s physical or mental health or social health. Using that question: ‘is it helpful?’ saved my metaphorical bacon when I was ill because I could step out of what is the medical reality and into just what’s helpful to me in this moment. And because it’s a question that I’ve been using for nearly 20 years now, it was just sort of obvious to use the word Helpful in the title of the clinic as well.

So what does The Helpful Clinic stand for?

The compass that we always use has got four cardinal points, like any compass, and it stands for Compassion, Courage, Curiosity, and Commitment. Those are the values that we bring into everything we do. These are my personal values as well, so I bring them into each engagement with everybody I work with, in whatever way that is.

The Helpful Clinic achievements

If you read our blog post last December (here), you’ll know that we set ourselves the aspiration to help a further 2,460 people over the next four years. That aspiration absolutely still stands, even though Covid has thrown a rather large spanner in the works this year.

Despite not being able to do any First Aid for Feelings workshops this year due to Covid we’ve been able to support 70 people directly in 1:2:1 consultations and nearly 1200 people through the First Aid for Feelings course on Insight Timer.  This means that in this one year we have already reached half our 4 year goal!  This is not including the people joining us for the Mindful Monday Check-ins or those listening to the free meditations which have had over 12000 plays because we don’t see how many people are benefitting, just the number of plays (we know that some people listen to some of these again and again!).    That is so cool. 

The Helpful Clinic highlights

Number one for me is the people I work with and support. I don’t take for granted their honesty, courage and trust.  Seeing people’s health and wellbeing improve, being able to support someone not just back to work but having a more meaningful experience of both working and more importantly living.  I love getting emails and cards from people where they share what they are now able to do or handle that before would have been impossible.

What’s also been an interesting development is that people who’s recovered or reached their goal (if it wasn’t recovery but something like career progression or leadership) is that many of them now have like annual MOT like calls where we do like an check-in and work out any ‘course-corrections’ they need at that point. It’s deceptively powerful in its simplicity. None of us can see the back of our own heads so that space where I can be that mirror and we can spot that together, pure magic.

In terms of specific events, I think the absolute highlights would have to be the two Impactathons we’ve held. So we had an Impactathon in September 2016, where we had people coming together for a 24-hour like hackathon experience. Then there was the second Impactathon we had in January this year. Coming together with friends, colleagues and strangers and having really meaningful conversations and see that this stuff actually works, that’s just human poetry in action.

The award-ceremony speech

There’s no way I could do this if I didn’t have the support of a powerful team. At the risk of this sounding like an award ceremony speech, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without the help of Neil who’s like head of HQ, you and Nicki (who’s writing the First Aid for Feelings manual with me, more on this later), Thana who’s just joined us to help with social media and Will who’s the website guru. There’s also my supervisors and of course Ann my business mentor. Then there is the advisory group Simon and Karina (and her hubby Sam) and, of course, dear Jen who died earlier this year.

This interconnected ‘eco-system’ of people with their skills and contributions co-create the conditions where I can do what I do and get such good results.  I’m also privileged that I have full support of my nearest and dearest with my sister Barbara, my parents and my partners being staunch supporters of the Helpful cause. 

What obstacles have you had to overcome?

Setting up the clinic five years ago, there was lots I didn’t know that I now know. There have been a number of obstacles to overcome in just being a social entrepreneur, understanding the mechanisms of running a business and the processes that need to be put in place. This is particularly important because of the team of people working with me. I need to ensure that I know how to set them up well to do their jobs.  We’re all committed to not just making a living, but actually making a difference to quote the actor Denzel Washington. I encourage you to listen to his speech here – it’s like motivation rocket-fuel.

Stepping into that leadership role of being clear and specific in the way I communicate has taken some training. I’ve also become more agile and responsive in dealing with obstacles when things don’t go as planned (and they so often don’t). In fact, we’ve had quite a few initiatives that haven’t really worked. Developing that experimental attitude that says we try different things and that failure is absolutely allowed is key. Without giving myself the permission to fail, I’m not going to be able to innovate and come up with more powerful ways of delivering the mission.

Who does The Helpful Clinic help?

We basically help people with their health and wellbeing. That can be with pain and fatigue related conditions like ME/CFS, Fibromyalgia or challenges like cancer, anxiety or trauma. Some of the people I support are also step-changing their careers and wanting to increase their performance without health being the collateral damage.

During Covid, it’s become even more important to have that 3D approach. That approach of curiosity is actually now translating more into leadership. I am supporting leaders to become even stronger and more skilled and agile in how they respond to heightened uncertainty like we’ve got at the moment.  Whether it’s the leadership of a business or the leadership of yourself, the same principles apply.

You say the Helpful Clinic is a social venture. What does that actually mean?

In the most basic of terms, it means that the purpose of the clinic isn’t just to be financially sufficient. It is also to deliver on how many people we have supported and had an impact with. So in social ventures, we talk a lot about impact. In fact, social ventures are also called ‘impact ventures’. There is a very deliberate mission, or action: to have an impact that doesn’t only generate enough revenue (and not all the activities do that), but delivers on the mission (all the activities do that). 

It was a privilege to be accepted onto the Cambridge Social Ventures incubator back in 2015. Their help was instrumental in finding a way forward for the clinic as a social venture. I still remember Mark, one of the business mentors, placing his hand on my shoulder on the morning of December 1st 2015 when it all went ‘live’, saying just one word: courage! Cambridge Social Ventures works within the Judge Business School here in Cambridge and is a powerful space to plug into for budding social entrepreneurs.

Cambridge Social Ventures

Our latest news in terms of being a social venture is that this spring we were accepted into Social Enterprise UK, which is pretty cool. More on that later this month.

What kind of help does The Helpful Clinic provide?

Basically, here at The Helpful Clinic, we help you feel better physically, mentally and socially.

What we’ve been doing more of in the last couple of years is focusing on early intervention. This means supporting people before they become ill as well as supporting those who are struggling with their health. We’ve also been working with businesses to help them identify and support staff. It’s about support before people become at risk of falling ill and support return to work if they are already unwell.  So we’re now working across that spectrum of illness and wellness, moving more into that early intervention and prevention. 

What’s so brilliant about the way the clinic is set up is that we’ve been working on video and phone for years now. Because of that there’s been no disruption to our ability to support patients and clients because of Covid.

What’s next for The Helpful Clinic? What’s on the horizon?

We have ambitious plans for the next year and we’ll be sharing them with you throughout the month of December. There are a few clues in this interview and we’ll be sharing the Helpful plans in the next few newsletters and on Facebook so stay in touch. If you’re not receiving the fortnightly Helpful newsletter you can sign up here and you can find us on Facebook here. 

What enables you to continue to support people deal with stuff day in, day out?

Firstly, I am infinitely curious about humans and what makes us tick. That is the basis of everything for me.

In practical terms, my top tip for holding steady is making sure me, myself and I have quality time together. ‘We’ have regular check-ins (see the blog about the Mindful Monday Check-in).  In addition to those check-ins, journaling is one of the main methods I have. In other words, to write down and download what I’m experiencing each day. It’s something I do and have done for years. I don’t go back to it or use it for anything, this is pure processing and normally I set a timer for about 15 minutes.

My second tip is bumper space, much like cars have bumpers to protect them. I do this between consultations and meetings to give myself that breathing and bumper space. It doesn’t need to be long, 5-15 minutes helps me hold steady. It also allows a bit of flexibility in case more time is needed before moving on to the next thing.

Denny the dog

Denny is an integral part of the Helpful team. She’s a great teacher especially when it comes to patience and being hopeful. She’ll patiently wait – often for a very long time – in the hope that she’ll get a treat. Nine times out of ten, the person she’s chosen as her treat-giver will end up giving her a treat!

She’s also my personal trainer and takes me out for a walk twice a day. This helps me keep physically active, as well as have space to just walk and be out in nature throughout the seasons. Whatever is going on, I know I’ve always got the dog walk, which ties into the fourth one: mundane magic. 

Mundane magic is where I savour the everyday stuff that’s always going on. Whether it’s doing the dishes, folding the laundry or waiting for the kettle to boil, these everyday activities provide me with an anchor throughout my day. It’s a bit like the bass line in a song, you may not always hear it or notice it but it really anchors the music.

I always have a reminder phrase (taken from the choice part of the ABC for Feelings). This phrase helps me make more helpful choices. I keep my reminder phrases up to date and somewhere where I can see them. That way they help me stay the course in whatever is going on in my day at that time.

What’s in your First Aid Kit for Feelings?

There are some things that are always in my First Aid Kit for Feelings and then there are some that go past their ‘use by date’ so to speak and get updated. Here are five that are current:

Georgette Heyer – she’s one of my favourite authors and I’ve frequently got one of her books on the go.  I’ve read them all a number of times and the characters have become good friends that I like hanging out with. 

Nietzsche’s book The Gay Science – I’ve not read his stuff in quite a while and recently I got this book. It’s a collection of poems and essays so great to dip into for some sustenance. 

My coffee ceremony – inspired by the Japanese tea ceremony, I do my own coffee ceremony where I grind my favourite coffee beans and make the coffee in my super coffee maker (recent moving in present). I enjoy drinking it out of the beautiful cup and saucer that I inherited through a loved one.  The whole process is a practice in mindfulness and appreciation for all those who’ve given me what brings it all together.

The song Oh what a beautiful morning sung by Gordon MacRae from the musical Oklahoma.  It’s so deliciously kitsch, it makes me smile and singing along adds a spring to my step.

I have a picture of Jen on my desk. She came on a First Aid Kit for Feelings workshop in 2015. This was when the clinic was just taking shape and she was instrumental in its success. I often have imaginary conversations with her and the photo of her on my desk helps me with that.


If any part of this interview has resonated with you do get in touch. We’d love to hear from you…