Observer: Ursula Kenny (Sept 2002)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 15:33

This Much I Know

Interview by Ursula Kenny
Sunday 1 September, 2002

Working as a therapist is a tremendous responsibility because you interfere in people's lives. I don't see clients any more because you get to a point where you feel you're not doing your work very well. There aren't many new plots in people's lives and when someone starts to tell you a story and you know how it's going to turn out then you stop really listening properly. I'm still in touch with a number of people who were my clients years ago. Apart from the fact that I'm really interested to know how their lives turned out, I feel a responsibility to them, I feel that I'm accountable to them.

Madness is a label that other people put on to someone who is suffering immense mental distress, someone who just isn't able to cope. If we understood how we operate as humans then we would understand that madness doesn't exist; it's just a way of feeling when we discover that there's a serious discrepancy between what we thought our life was and what it actually is.

Unscrupulous therapists can keep a client for a lifetime talking about, 'Oh, the terrible things my mother did to me, dreadful things my father did to me.' But the honest therapist moves the person on to the question, 'Why have these terrible things happened to me?' and to the answer, 'Why not?' It's just chance. You're lucky, you're unlucky. That's it. When the person gets to that point, they no longer need therapy.

Happiness shouldn't be a goal. It isn't something you can achieve, it's a by-product of what you do. What you need to do if you want to be happy is value and accept yourself.

Children forgive their parents if they feel their intentions are good. Ideally, parents should see their children as individuals and always treat them with respect and dignity. But obviously there are times when the best of parents don't do this. Children forgive lapses. What they don't forgive is being lied to.

Self-help books invent disorders and then invent ways of curing them. They simplify things in a way that isn't real. The truth is that life is full of dilemmas that can't always be resolved. For example, we all want to be individuals but at the same time we all want to be part of a group. Similarly, we all want to feel free as well as secure, but the more freedom we have the less secure we feel and the more secure we feel the less freedom we have.

What psychiatrists call mental illnesses are just defences that people use when they feel themselves to be under immense threat and have to do something desperate to try and hold themselves together. If you find the world completely terrifying and then become so anxious that you daren't leave home, that anxiety is protecting you, it's a defence. You take refuge in it.

People talk a lot about the high rates of divorce but at the turn of the 20th century life expectancy for women was only about 45, so a lot of divorces now would have been deaths in previous centuries. It's ridiculous to expect people to remain the same and remain together from their twenties to their nineties.

People often ask me where I stand on antidepressants. They don't work for everyone, but what they can do is give a person breathing space. Depression tells you that there's something wrong with the way you're living your life; that there's something wrong with the way you make sense of the world. But drugs don't make an unhappy marriage a happy marriage, they don't turn an unhappy childhood into a happy childhood and they won't make someone that you love love you.

My father had some great sayings, things like: 'Don't let the sun go down on your wrath,' a good biblical saying. He believed it was better to be an optimist than a pessimist, while my mother was devoted to misery.

Most people who go into therapy want the pain to stop. They're saying to the therapist, 'Take my pain away,' but often they're also saying, 'Don't change me.' The hard part is coming to accept that the pain won't go away unless you are willing to change. When a person actually takes that in and starts to contemplate change then they don't necessarily feel happy, but they start to see what the pattern is and we all love to see a clear pattern.

Ninety nine per cent of suffering isn't caused by natural disasters like earthquakes, it's caused by the ideas we hold. And if we believe these ideas are absolute truths then we suffer and we force other people to suffer. But if we understand that our ideas are ideas we have created, then we know we're free to change them.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited