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HEALTH

A new start after 60: ‘I became a psychotherapist at 69 and found my calling’

At 65, Bryony Harris withdrew her pension in a lump sum and enrolled on a psychotherapy course. “I like that I used my pension to train for a new career,” she says. Now, at 74, she has a thriving psychotherapy practice in Fredrikstad, Norway. “I just knew it was the right time, and I felt equipped to do it. It was the very best thing I ever did for myself.”

The four-year course was on the coast of Denmark, where for a week a month Harris was “among sand dunes with this amazing empty wild beach right outside”. To get there, Harris drove for five hours through southern Norway. “It always felt like coming home,” she says. “I was a sponge, soaking up this stuff.”

When she first arrived, she realised she was at least 20 years older than everyone else, but was never made to feel any different. Her experience was transformative, “a calling”. Practising psychotherapy, she says, “helps me to understand the word ‘vocation’.”

And yet Harris has had many careers over the decades. At university in Kingston upon Thames, London, she trained as an architect, and after she qualified and married, worked as one “for short and long periods” while raising four children.

Next came a stint as a photographer on a community arts project, then teaching photography, then working in a refuge. “The world offered more possibilities than I had ever realised,” Harris says. She regards these moves as gradual shifts rather than reinvention. “I have never made a decision such as ‘I’m going to stop doing that and do something else.’ It’s always been a gentle progression.”

How does one progress gently from architecture to photography? “Oh, you’d be amazed. Via a bookshop, actually,” she says. She and her husband had a dream to open a shop specialising in books about folklore, mythology and tradition. The shop, in Hatherleigh, Devon, is “where the seeds of therapy were sown. Because in a small independent bookshop, people open up and talk.”

Mind you, Harris also says that her “therapy side was lurking in the background” when she taught photography. In Norway, she worked at a refuge for people who had experienced abuse. In her 40s, she had a short period of counselling. She no longer recalls exactly why, but it must have been decisive because when she turned 60, she resolved to write letters “to people who had been hugely influential in my life and probably were never aware of it”. She searched for her former counsellor, but couldn’t find him.

In 1991, Harris and her husband separated, and six years later, while “in a bit of limbo”, some Norwegian friends asked her to house-sit. She went with her youngest child, who was then 13. She learned Norwegian, freelanced as a photographer and stayed.

“There were many reasons why I moved to Norway. Some were to come and find something, and some were to put distance between things,” she says. “I think deep down, I knew I wouldn’t come back.”

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Harris is very can-do. The best psychotherapy course was in Denmark, so first she had to learn Danish. “I really love a good challenge. Sometimes you can feel very stuck, but that is how I have lived my life,” she says.

As a child, Harris’s parents liked moving. She had nine homes before she went to university. “Now, I have no desire to uproot myself.”

Her flat looks out over an estuary, and she has lived there longer than she has lived anywhere. Each week brings fresh calls to her practice. “It feels very rewarding. I like that notion, that one is actually able to give back as a result of a long life.”

www.theguardian.com

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