We celebrate the life and mourn the passing of our friend and colleague, Tommy Hanchen; a man so very loved in his professional and personal life. His many years of journeying with cancer as his teacher and opponent came to an end on 2nd November 2020.
Tommy was instrumental in the mid 1990s in setting up the first professional organisation in the world for psychotherapeutic practitioners of Neuro-Linguistics, which evolved into the Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy and Counselling Association, a UKCP Organisational Member in the Constructivist and Existential College. He contributed years of Committee work and his latest post for NLPtCA was as Supervisor Registrar.
He was also the Clinical Supervisor to several trainees and staff of BeeLeaf Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, also a UKCP OM, and his discussion, influence and personal support is indelibly marked in the evolution of the Contemporary Psychotherapy model. Client groups he served for many years included people living with chronic mental health challenges, people at end of life and their families, the bereaved, people with addiction and in recovery.
At any gathering, Tommy’s presence would be observable in the group by broader smiles and warmer interactions amongst others, as his humour and kindness were contagions to which few were immune. If a corner of a room erupted in laughter, or a huddle grew in intense conversation and shared wonder, so often the telling of a Hanchen story was the source. And that unmistakable joyous guffaw… Tommy was in the house!
Tom managed to live with his various forms of cancer for many years. He loved to read thrillers based on where the stories were set: “from down south in deep Louisiana to the chill winds across the bleak Yorkshire dales.”
And to give you a flavour of his humour and spirit, here is a quote from correspondence I had with him about a year ago:
“Apart from looking forward to three months chemotherapy I am exceedingly well. Playing with my new band St.Christopher’s Hospice BadAss Blues Band (the three of us have bowel cancer)!”
He was a gentle man, with a kind heart, who was committed to using all his experience to serve his clients and supervisees. James and I were lucky to have had him in our life.
British psychotherapy culture often devalues charisma as narcissistic mask (and on occasion disastrously mistakes the latter for the former). Tommy’s organic magnetism radiated from a core humility that hummed with curiosity. If a talented psychotherapist can be spotted by an innate glow of kind interest in others, then Tommy’s brilliance burned with tender fascination for all creatures he encountered. Numinosum, the state of wonder and awe when seeing the relation between the divine and the rational, was almost his default setting.
Having first qualified and worked for many rewarding years as a Social Worker, Tommy’s earliest training and practice as a psychotherapist was rooted in Person Centred philosophy. Rogers and Egan “blew me away” giving permission to his innate faith in the resilience and creativity of each unique person to know and find their path to healing if given a chance.
Although I knew him quite well by then, my strongest memory of Tom is when we were both students on a 3 or 4 day workshop at the old faithful, the Columbia Hotel in Lancaster Gate, London W.2. This would have been in about 1996, and I think it might have been a workshop with Stephen Gilligan.
I was in a group of 3 with Tom for the whole workshop. His deep, gravelly voice was perfect for the trance work we were practicing with each other. He was a generous man, with a delightful playful quality, and a very big heart. I have always had a deep affection and respect for him.
In recent years I have been vaguely aware of, and appreciative of his work behind the scenes in NLPtCA. Although our contact over the years was only occasional, the last time being in August 2020, I feel a gap, where he used to be.
For anyone who’d like to hear a bit of Tommy’s wisdom, I would recommend watching the video of his interview with Noel Bell about ‘Quantum Leaps in the Evolution of Therapeutic Hypnosis’
From his earliest childhood explorations and adventures of the mind, Tommy felt instinctively drawn to the importance of altered states of consciousness as the site of self-realisation and personal growth. He was as adept at working with Jungian Archetypes as Core Conditions. He was a student of Ernie Rossi for many years and a genuine proponent and vindicator of the elemental healing tendency liberated through Milton Erickson’s use of naturalistic, client-lead hypnosis.
He recognised Wilhelm Reich as an under-rated genius way ahead of his time and had strong faith in the pull and push of life-force as the ultimate compass points with which to orient the therapeutic course. To converse of the transpersonal with Tommy was free of hubris or academic opacity; it was as simple and obvious as to acknowledge the reality of the everyday experience of being alive, if we dared to live with courage, authenticity and openness.
As a researcher, scholar and educator, Tommy was confident to embrace the teaching of many masters. Awake to the delusion of panacean claims, he encouraged scholarly discipline and warned against reductionist cul-de-sacs. He was giving informed and practical teaching about affective neurobiology and brain plasticity long before most schools were willing to explore the importance of these, let alone pick them up as the buzz words they have since become. He wrote papers on the evolution of psychotherapy, giving credit to the pre-Freudian roots of psychotherapeutic theory and practice with a deeply layered appreciation of the seams of possibility that had been buried or were yet to be mined.
What can I say about Tommy ?!
He was recommended to me as a supervisor and I feel very fortunate to have known him. I always looked forward to our supervision session and always left feeling that I had spent time in the presence of someone special. For me he was a very wise and knowledgeable person who was “down to earth” with an enlightening and calm spirit. It was a pleasure to have been supervised by him and he will be remembered always.
Tommy’s own therapeutic doctrine was cultivated by life-long exposure to the necessary opportunism of healing break-through for those clients without the privilege of trying long-term analytic work. He was a practitioner who could navigate and ride, for himself and with his client, the doldrums of powerlessness or the whirl of life-crisis to one’s own limitless depths of tenderness, strength and naturally unfolding transformation.
Born to Polish immigrants, Tomek’s childhood was impacted by the earlier life experiences of both parents. His mother was an escapee from a Siberian labour camp and his father, having first been pressed into military service for the Nazi’s, was quickly captured by the British and took the option of fighting back for the Polish Free Army based in Palestine. Exposed to the depressions and anxieties of these generational traumas and losses, Tommy struggled as a young person with his second generation immigrant status but eventually became a proud reclaimer of his Polish culture and his survivor’s heritage.
Tommy’s mother taught by example that kindness and community were the necessary medicine to the scars of trauma, loss, injustice and poverty. His orphaned cousins were found, brought to UK and taken into the family as Tommy’s siblings. He was an instinctive ally to the marginalised and most vulnerable, though he would never have assumed to give himself the title of ally, working faithfully to support and believe in the person with disadvantage to be the champion of their own choices and lived experience.
Friendship, travel and music were constant themes and sources that fed Tommy’s inexhaustible passion for life. He was an accomplished jazz trumpeter who played with the London Jazz Orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival. A boxing fan, cold water swimmer and long-distance cyclist, his lithe figure often modelled gangster suits (one in fuchsia pink) in homage to his idol, Humphrey Bogart, a portrait of whom adorned his practice wall.
Amongst his friends, the nickname ‘Tommy the Pole’ was reference to more than just his ethnic identity. When cancer took its first brutal hack at his body it was hard for someone for whom physicality was such an intrinsic part of his identity. But adaptation to his new form provided more learning which he generously shared to support his supervisees to better support their clients. Whether it was about learning to love your stoma bag or learning with your lover to embrace medically assisted sex, Tommy was willing to share from his own vulnerability and loss to help another survive that journey with their dignity, humour and hope intact.
After years of cancer surgeries and painful post-operative complications, Tommy reached his sixties still rocking. A few weeks after his sixtieth birthday, he woke up with a mild distortion to his vision. His GP applied some kind of points system to assess the risk and Tommy got a few bonus marks for his cancer survivor status. His recent birthday milestone gave him one more point that took him just over the threshold that necessitated an immediate referral. Apologetically the doctor asked him to take himself to University College London Hospital as soon as he could.
How annoying! The last thing he wanted to do was waste another day of his life sitting in yet one more hospital waiting room. But respect and gratitude to the professionals who had previously saved his life made him reluctantly comply and he took a bus and a tube up to Euston Road.
What was discovered was a giant blood clot in his neck, hitch-hiking an anatomically determined highway to his brain. It was due to arrive at its final destination as a major stroke within hours, most probably leaving him dead – if it was in a merciful mood.
So serious was the situation that he was taken in for immediate surgery. So delicate was the operation that it was too dangerous to use any chemical anaesthetic. Another experience to feed Tommy’s reverence for the power of mind/body. Off his face on self-hypnosis and naturally stimulated endorphins, Tommy couldn’t help but continue to ask questions and exclaim marvel at how he was free of pain even as the surgeon’s scalpel burrowed deep into his major artery. “We’re using the oldest form of pain control known to medicine, Tom” assured the surgeon, “it’s called ‘talking with the patient’”. He loved that!
Tom was a great supervisor; he would quickly get to the real issue in any situation. His social work experience gave him a broad perspective, and a passion for social justice. Later I discovered some of his other passions, for cycling, and swimming, and jazz trumpet playing. Above all he had a quirky sense of humour that always brought life and warmth to a situation. His departure leaves a gap that won’t easily be filled.
The surgery was medically successful but personally – it was a life experience that confirmed Tommy’s other nickname, ‘Lucky Tommy’. Colourful neckerchiefs over the impressive scar were added to his sartorial flair, while his eyes sparkled with a renewed conviction in the importance of fascination as a healing force, whether to induce trance, to weave deep intimacy with another, to give meaning to the twists of life or to journey beyond pain to life-giving wonder.
This was just one of many side dishes of wisdom and compassion that Tommy routinely served up with Clinical Supervision. You would leave your session fizzing with enthusiasm, melting in tears, laughing out loud to yourself and even all three at once. He would end sessions with a quote from a jazz song, a funny story or terrible joke – once he even said “Knock, knock” as I was leaving (ducking the great vine that had over many years grown thick across his front door and which he had never had a desire to cut back or to retrain away from its natural course to a more compliant shape). I wish for the life of me I could remember the joke – I was laughing too much at his playfulness and timing to pay much attention to the punchline. Maybe there wasn’t a punchline. He was the living embodiment of mystic joker – perhaps he meant for it to remain embedded.
For the last five years of his life, Tommy continued to fight unbelievable odds, continuing to use those final years to bring smiles to everyone he met. He formed a jazz band with other cancer sufferers and established himself in his hospice as a much loved source of kindness and encouragement to patients and staff alike. He was over-joyed to become a grandfather and his love for his daughters Chloe and Yolande, and theirs for him, were essential ingredients in the extraordinary alchemical mix of courage and kindness that he whisked up and which kept him going for one more day of joy, one more experience, one more song.
Tommy’s funeral was held at Hither Green, under COVID restrictions, featuring family, life-long friends since childhood, Charlie Parker, funny stories, punctuated with tears and laughter and closing as his body was transported away to “In Other Words”.
“Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.
…In other words, please be true.
In other words, I love you.”
We thank you, Tommy, for all you gave and will study deserving of your kindness, wisdom, brilliance, courage and generosity.
If you would like to make a donation in memory of Tommy please give directly to the homeless, as he regularly did, or donate to St Christopher’s Hospice using this link, where you can also see pictures and leave messages for his family and friends.