Perhaps the only negative legacy of my life-changing therapy is an abiding belief that the people who would benefit most from similar treatment are the people least likely to believe that they might. I know this because I used to be one of them. Until relatively recently I subscribed, quite sincerely, to the school of thought that sees vulnerability as weakness and suffering as character forming. Worse, I would passionately contend that early experiences of mental and physical pain had helped me develop a robust and resilient personality – the kind of personality, I believed, that you needed to navigate the vicissitudes and casual cruelties of newspaper offices and, later, the worlds of TV and radio.
Would I ever have sought help solely for my own benefit? In my work as a combative radio phone-in host, I would argue honestly and often that a healthy character could fight its way out of any situation, argue its way out of any problem. Weirdly, it worked for years in many ways, but I had subconsciously convinced myself that being brutalised as a boy had done me ‘good’, that it was perfectly normal to spend your entire life with your fists up and your armour on and that it was possible to argue, cajole and debate your way out of any negative situation. I thought it was perfectly normal to wake up every morning with a bolus of what I now know to be anxiety in the pit of my stomach, and that it was perfectly natural to spend every day chasing the adrenalin hits that would temporarily quieten its gnawing presence.
When one of the people I love most in the world became catastrophically and, it seemed, irreversibly ill, I realised pretty quickly that this was a problem my personal toolbox was spectacularly ill equipped to fix. In fact, my tried-and-tested tactics for tackling troubles were making the situation worse – and finally admitting this to myself constitutes what was probably the most difficult moment of my life. When my wife suggested I try therapy, I was so broken and desperate that I agreed immediately. But I did so very sceptically, more, I think now, to allow myself to claim that I was ‘trying my best’ to be better, than in the expectation of any actual improvement. If she’d suggested that coffee enemas or drinking horse’s milk might help, I would have signed up for them too.
Next in this issue
And so I approached my introductory consultation with a heavy heart and next to no hope. I was James O’Brien, broadcasting bruiser and destroyer of the slickest politicians. Therapy simply wasn’t for people like me and, besides, there were no traumatic skeletons in my closet. Being adopted as a baby by the best mum and dad anyone could hope for had marked me out as special and wanted in a way that unadopted children could never be. Being sent to a boarding school near home at the age of 10 – and one 200 miles away three years later – was an act of love and sacrifice by parents who wanted me to benefit from advantages they had never enjoyed. How could this walking, talking ‘success story’ possibly be a ‘victim’ of anything?
And then, sitting in a little garden studio in London, I began, at the gentle urging of a warm and wise therapist, to think about the abandoned, beaten boy I had once been. I baulked at the description and told her so. ‘If we decide to work together,’ she said, ‘you will soon be talking to your younger self and telling him that he’s safe now, that you will look after him.’ On the surface, I still found this a perfectly bonkers notion but something must have shifted because, just a week or two later, with a cushion playing the part of 13-year-old me, the floodgates opened and my life began to change.
To my profound shock, I came to understand that I had been so desperate to protect myself from the pain inflicted on me by monks and teachers that, even before puberty, I had started to surround myself with a complicated framework of denial and weaponised debate. I had thought this framework was ‘me’ and had buried my authentic self beneath an aggressive, arrogant and often angry carapace. As we began working to shed it, every single aspect of my life improved and, remarkably, continues to do so.