Some years ago, I went to see an acupuncturist. I told him my woes, of which, as usual, there were many, and he was quite aghast at what he heard.
‘It’s not acupuncture you need,’ he said with impressive honesty. ‘It’s therapy. You strike me as someone who has everything going for him. You have a nice home, a happy marriage, you love your children, you enjoy your work, yet all you seem to want to do is wallow in a swamp of misery and imagine you’re a failure.’
‘OK, I’ll try therapy,’ I said. But I had no intention of doing so. I had tried therapy once before when I was in my 20s and found it to be the most tremendous waste of time and money. Sure, it was pleasant sitting with a sympathetic woman and talking about nothing but myself for a whole glorious hour. What I loathed, though, was the notion that the solution might involve changing my personality in some way.
However, what I did learn from those therapy sessions is that I am a depressive – a manic depressive, actually, because I go way, way up as well as way, way down. Not that I hadn’t guessed as much already, for it runs in the family. My paternal grandfather was perpetually miserable, and my father used to get depression so badly that he had to take lithium to control it.
As a child you scarcely notice these things. I certainly don’t remember, for example, the family holiday during which my maternal grandfather sat outside my father’s bedroom just to make sure he didn’t commit suicide. But now that I’ve reached the age my father was when his depression was at its worst, the odd detail has started to come back, such as the funny little sucking noises my father made when he was lost in thought. I now realise that these meant his mind was in a dark place and he was wrestling with demons. I know it because I sometimes make similar noises when I’m battling mine.
True happiness, I’d always imagined, was something for other people, not me. But I’m told that it is a simple question of practice
Though I’ve never been quite so down that I’ve seriously contemplated suicide – let alone attempted it – there have been plenty of moments when the thought of a quick, easeful death has seemed an attractive prospect. The most recent of these was last year, when I experienced my longest bout of depression ever. It started after I’d suffered a viral infection – for some reason most of my downers do – and went on for about nine months. I began to fear it would never end.
Then, just when I thought it was beginning to lift, something worse happened. I became convinced – to the point of near paralysis – that I had fallen victim to some terrible wasting disease, perhaps early-onset Parkinson’s, or multiple sclerosis. This bout of extreme hypochondria terrified my family, cost me hundreds of pounds in medical bills and rendered me incapable of work for a month. Clearly this wasn’t a healthy state of affairs for a self-employed father of three. If I didn’t get myself sorted out soon, my wife said, she feared for the future of our marriage.
But how do you deal with depression when you don’t believe in therapy or medication? I have depressive friends who swear by Prozac, or the new generation of serotonin reuptake inhibitor drugs. ‘Life has become so much easier since I realised it’s just a question of chemistry,’ says one. But my worry about medication is not dissimilar to my worry about therapy: what if it transforms me, however subtly, into a person I don’t want to be?
You’ll find this quite a lot with manic depressives. Our condition may be ghastly, sometimes to the point of complete life ruination, but on another level we consider it a gift. We recognise how fantastically creative and powerful our minds become when we are on an up. Against those benefits, though, you have to set the damage it does to you and your loved ones. I’ve never come close to topping myself, but Jesus, the misery when you’re on a downer! It’s worse than sadness. It’s a complete absence of feeling. Besides becoming generally listless, uncommunicative and reluctant to socialise, I find it impossible to see any part of my life in a positive light. Often, I’ll swear out loud as each new image of despair comes into my head – every other minute, say – and my children will say, ‘Daddy, why did you use the f-word?’ And if sounding like a Tourette syndrome victim isn’t bad enough, I’ve also got an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) which compels me to touch walls when I’m walking down corridors (using the exact same pressure with each hand), and to arrange cups and cutlery on gingham tablecloths so that they’re exactly symmetrical.
It drives my wife mad. ‘Doctor Johnson had OCD too!’ I protest. She’s not convinced. She thinks I need help. And now I’ve decided to seek it.
* * * * *
It’s the most beautiful summer day there has ever been – blue sky, little fluffy clouds, cooling breeze – and the hills above Builth Wells in the glorious Wye Valley have never looked more green and lush. My wife and children are happy, healthy and smiling. They adore me and I adore them. Life’s good, really good. Back at the farmhouse I’ve got the car I always wanted – black Range Rover Sport with tinted windows; the kids are at private school and I can easily afford the fees because I’ve so much more money now; more than I know what to do with…
Welcome to my dream. Only a tiny part of it has come true so far, but just so long as I can keep my mind fixed firmly on the prize, the rest will surely follow. How do I know this? Because my therapist Steve Wichett tells me so. Steve is a specialist in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). He likes nothing better than curing depressives of their mental illness. But can he really cure a basket case like me?
The imagining-your-perfect-future game is one of the first tricks he teaches me. First you create the mental picture – sights, sounds, smells, the more detail the better; then when you’re happy with this biographical movie you’ve created, you insert yourself into the body of this brighter, happier, more successful, future alter ego of yours, and bathe in contentment, fulfilment and security. Keep practising and, hey presto, fantasy will become reality.
All that’s stopping you is that your brain has not yet been correctly programmed. Once that has been done – and it’s easy enough to arrange once someone like Steve has given you the right software – you’re ready to go. Your potential is limitless.
You won’t be surprised to hear that NLP – a technique developed in the 1970s by ex-Hell’s Angel Richard Bandler and linguistics expert John Grinder – has had a massive influence on management training, life-coaching and the self-help industry. Psychiatrists are less convinced. They are understandably resentful at NLP’s claims to be able to cure in a matter of weeks – or sometimes even in one session – phobias, traumas and other mental problems which conventional therapy would take months or years to alleviate.
Steve Wichett claims to have resolved cases far tougher than mine: multiple-rape victims, soldiers with post-traumatic stress, even a gangland torture victim. Client confidentiality means I’ve no way of checking up on this. But something in his manner – warm on the outside, firm-but-fair toughness within – tells me Steve is not a man to bullshit.
My wife, a far better judge of character than me, feels the same way. At Steve’s invitation she comes to our sessions because, after all, my depression is as much her problem as it is mine. Her presence is useful because she understands things that come as news to me, starting with the idea that the purpose of my life on this earth might be to learn how to be happy.
‘What?’ I go in absolute astonishment when she – with Steve’s help – formulates this bizarre proposition. I can honestly say the thought had never occurred to me. True happiness, I’d always imagined, was something for other people, not me.
When I find my thoughts drifting into dark places, I now possess the mental tools to go, ‘Wait a second. What do you think you’re up to?’
This is what NLP does: it helps shut down all those negative thought patterns in our brains that have been reinforced by years of bad habit. Think of these patterns as neural pathways. Each time we re-tread them they get worn into an ever-deeper groove, which is why we so often find ourselves getting stuck in the same old rut. In this way unhappiness becomes an addiction. To kick it, we need to forge new neural pathways, this time leading to positive thoughts instead of negative ones. Happiness, in other words, is a simple question of practice.
Naturally I have my doubts about this. What use is it telling the mind to be happy when the outside world is so abundant with misery and woe? Steve has answers for this, as he has answers for everything. He hands me a list of the top 30 objections most commonly advanced by his clients as to why NLP isn’t going to work for them, together with a persuasive rationale as to why it will. The bottom line is: it’s your choice. If you decide that NLP isn’t going to work for you, then it most likely won’t.
It sounds harsh, this idea that if the treatment doesn’t work it’s all your fault. But then the essence of NLP is taking personal responsibility for your life. NLP has nothing to do with blaming your parents or trying to unearth the experience that lies at the heart of all your troubles. If anything, it’s about the exact opposite: not dwelling on the past but escaping it altogether.
‘What I find with my depressive clients is that they’re brilliant at describing the hole they’re in,’ says Steve. ‘They can tell me how dark it is and how grim. But what I want them to tell me is what it’s like outside the hole, where it’s open and warm and the sun’s shining.’
This is why, in every one of our sessions, Steve encourages me to play mental games which will help me get out of that hole. We do hypnosis-induced meditation sessions where I imagine my body filling with the colours of the rainbow; we practise tricks to deal with the siren voices in my head whenever they try luring me to the dark side; we revisit the happy future-me on the Welsh hillside, knowing that one day we will merge.
You’ll be dying to know whether NLP has cured my depression. My honest answer is: how can I possibly say at this stage? What I can tell you is that the effects so far have been near miraculous. I’ve experienced more moments of prolonged happiness (which I enjoy and notice much more when I’m having them); I’ve stopped having sleep problems; I’m no longer shackled by the obsessive-compulsive urge to touch walls in order to ward off the attentions of malign gods, and when I find my thoughts drifting into dark places, I now possess the mental tools to go, ‘Now wait just a second. What do you think you’re up to?’
Sometimes I find it risibly easy; sometimes I find it so hard – it really is tough taking responsibility for your own mind – I feel like giving up. But I’ve had enough positive experiences now to know NLP really does work for me. It has made me better; it has made me happier. Perfection may have to wait.
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