Obviously I didn't want to do group therapy. I mean, who would? Mad people oversharing. Talking about feelings. I am British dammit! We don't do that stuff, it's unseemly, and emotionally incontinent and generally not on. We didn't get through the Blitz by hugging each other.
But the psychiatrist made it a condition of my rather delightful lunacy leave, which was otherwise agreeably spent wafting around London buying clothes for my new 'insanity diet' figure, sitting in cafes writing loopy lists and generally being self-indulgent. I think he felt I should go somewhere other than TopShop and Patisserie Valerie occasionally, though I think he could have equally successfully sent me to a knitting class with a little additional imagination. Anyway. It was my get out of jail card. I was willing to try anything to prolong the lovely parenthesis. Or rather, I wasn't, but I was equally unprepared to go back to work. I mean, Jesus. I had spent three weeks stuck at my desk barely able to move for paralysing anxiety. If I went back there I might actually turn to stone. They would have to put me on the wheeled trolley they used to deliver the post to remove me from the building, my hands still grasped clawlike around some giant document.
I turned up to the first session, in a fairly innocuous Victorian basement in North London sick to my stomach and completely pumped up with fight or flight hormones. A wafty, wispy woman allowed me to peep through the porthole window at a session that was already in progress. I felt like I was at a Soho peep show. With a similar amount of tissues. I was seriously in two minds whether I wouldn't just run. I mean, I could totally take her. She was tiny, and obviously non-violent. How in God's name did she end up in a position of responsibility in a psychiatric hospital? I could have just rolled her up in a ball with all the dangling loose ends of cloth she was trailing. So short sighted; unless possibly she was armed. I couldn't exclude that possibility. There were plenty of places she could conceal a weapon under her many hemp layers.
Of course, inevitably, like the good girl I am, I stuck around to take my punishment. The first session was almost a pleasant surprise. I mean, obviously it was ghastly, but I liked the way it started. Everyone drifted in and sat on plastic chairs. The average age was probably 50, my first surprise. Weren't you supposed to have things sorted out by then? God. How depressing. An overwhelmingly bland man in a blue sweatshirt, possibly the one who looked most like an in-patient in a mental hospital, was apparently presiding. He had a very, very hittable face. I already hated him.
Sweatshirt: Ok people. I'd like you all to really be in the moment, get in touch with what's going on with you right now. Shall we all just go round the room, and say how we're feeling right now, in the moment, and what we want to take from this session?
[My inner teenager was already sticking its imaginary fingers down its imaginary throat about now.
After a moment of silence, an elderly gent, rather finely dressed and handsome, started waspishly. ]
Elderly gent: - I am feeling a great deal of anger right now, and some disappointment.
Sweatshirt: Oh really Maurice. I am sorry to hear that. That makes me feel very sad. Would you like to tell the group a bit more about what you are feeling?
Maurice: I am very disappointed you are taking this session Barry. I feel you are a very poor therapist, and your presence makes me very angry. I dislike your banal platitudes.
[My inner teenager perked right up at this]
Girl in fluffy jumper: I agree with Maurice. I am also very disappointed to be in this session with you today Barry. I do not like your approach. I felt I was doing good work with Irish.
[There are murmurs of assent all around the room. My people! I embrace you!]
Barry: [looks slightly crestfallen] Well, group, I hear what you are saying and I hear your anger. And that makes me feel quite sad. I feel I am failing you as a therapist and as a man.
[The clear feeling of the room is that this is indeed the case. There is nodding.]
Desperately sad looking woman in forties: You make me feel a lot of rage Barry. I do not want to hear about your sadness. You are making this all about you. Irish never does that.
Barry [getting slightly uptight]: I'm not sure this is productive for the group. And Irish is not here today. Shall we try and take the energy back to a more healing place?
Maurice: This is very productive for me, Barry. I need to express this anger I feel towards you. I think Sad Woman also feels that need, don't you Sad Woman?
Sad Woman: Yes Barry, why are you trying to make us supress our feelings?
It went on in this vein for about twenty minutes. It was GREAT. I felt an instant kinship with these sad people who still had reserves of resourceful cruelty about them. I barely had to speak, there was so much Barry bashing. I left slightly buoyed up, though clearly not remotely less insane than when I went in there.
In the following weeks I also had the pleasure of several 'Irish' sessions. On one level it was easy to see why they preferred him to blundering Barry. He was rather handsome in a Daniel Day Lewis meets John Malkovitch sort of way. And blessedly silent most of them time. But on another level, whole sessions passed without me having a bloody clue what anyone was talking about. I mean, all the words they were using were ostensibly English ones, but there was something about the arbitrary way they strung them together that left me reeling. There was a total fluidity about the whole verb, noun, preposition thing that caused me near physical pain. On top of that, there was always some kind of meta-soap opera going on that I couldn't grasp because the rest of them were in-patients. I mean, there were issues, but I had no fucking clue what they were. A whole session might be spent on 'that Tuesday problem'. Or 'Margaret's issue with John'. I would try to arrange my features into a sort of sad neutrality and hope noone picked on me.
Irish started each session, and punctuated it frequently with an exhortation to 'sit deeply back in your chair, feel your spine and connect with your reality'. Right. My reality is orange moulded plastic. It is causing considerable pain to my under-upholstered buttocks. Where are you going with this and when can I escape to spend all my non-existent money and drink coffee. It was impossible to hope to get through a session without him turning his brooding gaze on you to say 'and you, Jaywalker, how do you feel about this?'.
As a relatively quick study, I had already worked out the basics. The absolute worst thing you could ever do was say 'I don't want to talk', or 'I have nothing to say' or 'I don't know what I am doing here'. This was like therapist crack. They LOVED that and would nag and nag and nag until the reticent individual spewed up some hideous dark inner torment. Nor should you cross your arms, look away from the circle or move your chair backwards. Don't. touch. the. chair. First rule of group therapy.
Initially I would - truthfully - reply with 'I feel as if you are all speaking martian. I do not understand a word any of you says'. This met with some initial success, in the form of being left alone. But it was not a long term solution. Eventually, someone would explain the 'Tuesday problem' to me at a coffee break, or I would work it out. So then I developed a cast iron 'leave me alone' strategy. I would say this, or variations of this, session after session, week after week:
"I am having a fairly OK day today, I think I'd like to just be with my feelings for a while in this session, and concentrate my energies on taking what I can from the group".
See what I mean? It's another language isn't it. Words, but no meaning. It was a dead cert. Say that, sit back and engage my spine with the damned chair, and keep the body language suitably open, if sad. I would also make sure I was wearing nice shoes. It gave me something to look at when things got particularly acrimonious.
I could go on. Did it make me better? Hell no. Did it give me something else to think about? Hell yes.