When I first embarked on training to be a psychiatrist I was on the verge of throwing away my medical training and returning to university to do an Arts course, and follow my passion to be a writer. I had to finish the year as a second year registrar first—three months of anxiety (and a bout of mumps) doing paediatrics where the well-meaning parents bypassed their GP of thirty years’ experience to see me; three months rehab which just convinced me I never wanted to grow old (I was too young to think that this was better than the alternative), three months in general practice where I saw a relentless line of the worried well (the senior partners must have seen the real patients) and the three months that saved me; psychiatry.
What had attracted me about psychiatry was the world it opened up to me—different ways of thinking and being, and at both the practical experiential level and the philosophical. I found it riveting. I soaked in DM Thomas’s The White Hotel (a fictional account of one Freud’s patients), watched behind a one-way mirror to paradoxical therapy (my most dysfunctional patient and their partner were being told what they were doing was brilliant—it wasn’t, but the therapy was) and was bear-hugged by a manic patient with BO. It was stimulating, challenging, and fascinating.
Training to be a psychiatrist however, was less Freud and more neuroscience. I abandoned a DPM degree because I would have had to dissect a brain (I wanted to be a psychiatrist, not a neurosurgeon) and eventually supplemented the neuroscience with psychotherapy supervision, group and family therapy training and attachment therapy courses.
But what was it like on the other side of the couch? I had a brief stint (three months) in a chair opposite a therapist to solve a specific issue and a one off brilliant intervention for grief, but I’d never really allowed myself to be vulnerable—which is what laying on the couch (seven to fifteen years, once to three or even five times a week) renders you. Given I have a job, a relationship and two grown kids and a fabulous life, intensive therapy of the analytic kind seemed unnecessary and, well, a bit self-indulgent.
So what better place to check out the idea while being indulgent as I wanted to be, for two weeks ‘holiday’ on the Greek Island of Skyros? Skyros Holidays have been doing this for forty years—one location does the ‘we’re all still young’ stuff—everything from canoeing to trapeze, and the town location does writing courses and…’self-improvement and self-development’ courses about which curiously little is said, apart from old reviews (for some reason TripAdvisor thought it wasn’t operating) which uses words like ‘intense’. As a writer, surely I would do the writing course…well, no…my husband was giving it. So this left…self-development.
Of course everything was totally confidential so I can’t say anything about anyone else’s experience except to say I wasn’t in the room alone (eight participants and one psychologist). But let’s say that the boxes of tissues were there for a reason…
What stunned me most was having given myself over to the experience, how quickly it became confronting. Not everyone wants or is ready to make themselves that vulnerable, possibly some shouldn’t; individual therapy might suit them better…in the case of some people (not naming anyone except the narcissist everyone mentions…and for this purpose also add in Hannibal Lecter) then I wouldn’t expect therapy to work and wouldn’t wish it upon any poor therapist!
The process depends on people entering into the therapy setting in good faith…and having some self-awareness/psychological mindedness helps (I believe DM Thomas, after running a writing course on Skyros wrote a book—Lady with a Laptop—as a parody of his experience but I have NO intention of doing so of mine). I did keep oscillating between the belief that knowing myself at a deeper level would open me up to changing some of my annoying habits, to feeling this was RIDICULOUS and I was a operating, functioning, normal person so why the hell was I crying and putting my head in someone’s lap?
All but one of us made it to the end (and they only left because of a family emergency); I looked a little less shell-shocked when emerging for lunch in the second week than the first, and now we’re arranging catch-ups and group chats (the reunions will be challenging but not for psychological reasons; I’m the only non-Brit so I suspect I’ll be expected to travel, not them, though camping in my living room in Australia would be no more challenging than those 30 hours therapy).
So what did I learn?
I learnt to be humble. Well, a little.
I learnt what I think is enthusiasm and lust for life can be read as nervous energy. Sometimes it is.
Being vulnerable is scary—but not challenging yourself constantly risks bigger things. And it makes for deeper connections. After all, that is what we are wired for. I may not keep these new friends forever, but they were important connections in the overall trajectory of my life. I thank them for that.
I learnt (okay, I knew this already, but it was reinforced in such a clarifying way that I will never forget it) that one should never prejudge anyone—that when you know them deeply(well more than you know those casual friends that annoy you)—‘walk a moon in their moccasins’—then really, prejudice is virtually impossible.