Magazine article The Spectator

The Wisdom of Weirdos

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wisdom of Weirdos

Article excerpt

Group therapy works

It was World Mental Health Day this week -- and it drove me mad. I don't have 'mental illness'. I have bipolar disorder, and I feel as possessive about my diagnosis as Gollum did his precious ring. One term. One label. To lump the manifold terrors of the mind together under the monolithic 'mental illness' is an offence against the person. Failing to differentiate shifts the stigma like a bubble under a carpet.

So I was horrified to discover, in my latest stint in a psychiatric hospital, that others experience exactly the same as me. Others use the same 'maladapted coping mechanisms'. They are also their own worst critic; they replay their mistakes; they are wracked by 'meta-worries': being worried about being worried.

To complement the pharmacology, a large part of my treatment in the hospital is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I didn't know much about it on arrival and was sceptical. But the young woman who teaches the seminar, Dr Akita, is drop-dead dreamy, so now I've decided it's scientific.

She explains that it is a method for tackling anxiety by teaching you to stand back from your emotions and appraise them. The idea is to catch the thought underlying the feeling. For example, I become livid with the driver who's just cut me up. How quickly can I 'read myself' and figure out I'm really irritated about a put-down I've experienced at work? With the relevant information, another person could deduce that; CBT gives you the tools to do it yourself. It sounds banal. But Dr Akita's ruthless application of common sense is appealing. If you can take an observational stance and become your own therapist, you won't have to rely on someone else to talk you out of your terrors.

She asks us to list our 'triggers' on a white-board: 'being alone', 'making comparisons', 'family', 'relationships', 'work situations', 'finances', 'new situations', 'expectations from others', 'dreams', 'things not going to plan', 'people judging you', 'indebtedness', 'rejection', 'thoughts about the past'.

'What's it like to see it wasn't just you who came up with all these things, but the group?' she asks. 'Belittling,' I think. 'Reassuring,' they say. Even more of an affront to my ego is the idea of group therapy. I came into hospital pumped up by my sister-in-law's motivational speech that I need to take the therapy as well as the pills. So I committed to the sessions, despite assuming I would get nothing out of them. …

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