Who’s To Blame In The Fame Game?

Triskaidekaphobia is the formal word for the fear of the number 13 and it’s a phobia that I’ve treated occasionally in my time as a hypnotherapist. But if you happen to be famous, a far scarier number – and one deserving of its own phobic classification – is surely the number 27.

Depending on how old you are, you might now be thinking of Amy Winehouse or Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison. Possibly Kurt Cobain. Maybe Brian Jones.

No-one is old enough to be thinking about Alexandre Levy, even though the Brazilian composer became the founding member of the now notorious 27 Club in 1892.

And in case none of this is making any sense to you, all the aforementioned musicians – together with 57 other people who achieved celebrity in a variety of different ways – died at the age of 27.

If you look at the list, what becomes obvious is that more than half of the deaths can reasonably be attributed to the lifestyle their fame led them into – drug or alcohol abuse and suicide are given as the official causes of death for around 30 of the unlucky 64 who didn’t make it to 28.

Aside from those for whom 27 proved to be the unluckiest number of all, history is littered with celebrities who met a premature end because of the bad choices they made when public adulation and money arrived early in their lives and led them into dark emotional alleyways from which they never quite managed to escape.

George Best, Corey Monteith, Michael Jackson, George Michael, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Whitney Houston, Marilyn Monroe, Jackson Pollock, Judy Garland and Elvis Presley are just a few names on a seemingly endless list of celebrities whose addictions led them into an early grave.

And as we mark the 20th anniversary of her death, one can make a powerful argument that fame also cost Princess Diana her life in that Paris tunnel, hounded to her end by the press who had ultimately made her life a living hell.

But the casualties of the fame game are evident in life as well as in death. Paul Gascoigne and David Hasselhoff have endured very public struggles with alcohol (the former Knight Rider star has been sober for 8 years now), whilst Britney Spears, Mel Gibson, Macauley Culkin, Mario Balotelli, Drew Barrymore and (let’s not beat about the bush here) most of the Kardashian family have all come under the spotlight for their battles with addiction and mental health issues.

So what conclusions can be drawn from this depressing and often morbid litany of tragedies?

The obvious one would be to say that fame is damaging to your physical and mental health. But that’s too easy. It’s too trite to pass off celebrity as the villain of the piece. Fame may open the door on a hedonistic existence that’s hard to ignore, but fame in and of itself isn’t the problem.

In fact, my theory is that it’s absence that destroys famous lives. Fame often comes fast – particularly in music and sport, less so in acting – and when it does arrive with more money than most people would know what to do with, these young and often highly impressionable individuals simply don’t have the experience to make the right choices for themselves.

Worse, when fame screeches to a smouldering halt at your doorstep, it’s usually followed by an entourage of sycophants and hangers-on whose sole interest is parting you from your money and leveraging your fame for their own ends as quickly as possible.

For the Amy Winehouses of the world, life becomes a funfair full of flashing lights and noise, the promise of a new and ever more thrilling ride around each and every corner and someone on hand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year to indulge your every whim and fancy.

While many stars do escape the clutches of addiction, managing to lead fulfilling and relatively normal lives, it’s largely because they have – either through luck or judgement – surrounded themselves with people who keep them anchored to who they really are.

For those who aren’t so lucky, it is the absence of those anchor points that allows them to drift away on a hedonistic whirlwind that, much like a toadstool, looks pretty on the outside but has a dark and toxic underbelly.

There is an absence of protection around the stars of today – and this is particularly true of those who ‘make it’ in their very late teens and early twenties, just beyond the age at which the instruments of Government automatically afford at least a veneer of protection through required education and guardianship.

Footballers who are at their commercial prime if not the peak of their ability between the ages of 22 and 30 are showered with more cash than they can possibly spend (though they do their best with a tiresome string of purchasing clichés), represented by agents for whom they’re a cash cow and employed by global commercial brands which, even with the best of intentions, find it hard to look beyond the monster revenue streams that players’ imaging rights bring.

New music stars are transported into a blur of hotel rooms, planes and limousines where reality is far distant. Movie stars spend months in what are, at best, genetically modified communities of trailers and hotels, separated from family and friends.

The influence of the people who love them enough to say ‘no’ is suddenly removed and in its place crawl cronies and lackeys whose only mantra is ‘keep the talent happy at all costs’.

It is, in many cases, a depressing existence lived by people who use their new found super-wealth to find new, artificial, increasingly destructive and often illegal ways of making it and them look and feel better.

And then it’s a downward spiral. A drink becomes a few drinks which bloom into alcoholism. And when the Jack Daniels doesn’t take the edge off quite like it used to, there’s a ready-made network of ‘friends’ who know people who know people who can access a veritable smorgasbord of drugs that will. And the truth is, this depressing existence that once seemed so exotic eventually and inevitably leads to self-loathing and depression from which escape will one day be just one drink or one drug too many away.

As I write this, a breaking news notification flashes on my screen to tell me that singer and X Factor judge Nicole Scherzinger has opened up in the media about her battle with bulimia. It’s far from the desperate situation in which some of the people I’ve mentioned in this article found themselves, but even so, it surprises me because everything about the former Pussycat Doll led me to believe she was one of the grounded ones.

Bulimia is no barrel of laughs – years of treating people with eating disorders has shown me that in no uncertain terms – but, like all eating disorders, it’s just another form of addiction, and, like all addictions, it’s usually a symptom of trauma deeply-rooted in the past.

Even the apparently strong can buckle under the weight of the pressure of always being the person the camera lens created.

It simply can’t be the case that fame attracts a disproportionately high number of emotionally damaged people, so it must therefore be reasonable to assume that this brokenness coincides with finding public favour. But perhaps it’s simpler even than that.

Maybe it’s that the mental degradation that celebrity seems to trigger in some people coincides with the removal of the people and places that kept them anchored to themselves in the first place.


Why We Must Educate The Government About Education

I’m rarely driven to the point of invective, but recently I’ve read about two pieces of bewildering Government policy the logic of which, no matter how hard I try, I’m unable to rationalise.

Worse, I’m genuinely worried that together they could, If I’ve interpreted them correctly, produce the most emotionally damaged generation of people we’ve ever seen.

First came the news that  100,000 teenagers will be provided with mental health training to help them cope with the pressure of exams.

Before we get to the second policy that’s troubling me, let’s just dwell on that, for a moment. Consider the process that has led the Government to that position. Consider the number of people who must have been involved in the process of constructing the financial and political argument so compelling that the Cabinet Office felt bound to adopt it. Consider what the implications of that are.

It means the Government has accepted there is evidence that the exam structure it and previous Governments have implemented is actively damaging the mental health of our children. There’s no wriggle room here, no other reality. The only reason to introduce mental health training is because there is a mental health problem.

So let’s follow that breadcrumb trail. If the Government has accepted there is already a mental health issue related to the way this country approaches school exams, then it follows that someone, somewhere (and probably a good number of someones) has asked themselves whether the best solution is to counsel the children or to change an exam system which is putting appalling, unnecessary and unacceptable pressure on the majority of children (and their parents).

And the conclusion they’ve reached is that the best thing would be to keep the pressure ratcheted up and instead try to give the kids some coping tools in the hope they might not suffer a complete breakdown before they get to the age of 18.

Am I wrong to think this is the most monumentally ill-conceived, ill-advised and ill-considered strategy in the history of modern education? To call it stupid would surely be too kind.

At present, children at primary school take Statutory Assessment Tests (SATs) at the ages of 7 and 11. They then subjected to a battery of tests and exams at secondary school which include end of year tests, GCSE and A Level mocks along with the GCSEs and A Levels themselves.

SATs, GCSEs and A Levels all form the bulk of the scoring that dictates where in the league tables any given school sits. Which means that these exams are no longer just a test of a child’s ability, but also a test of a school’s ability to deliver effective teaching. Where you sit in the league table also determines the degree to which a school can expand academically and physically and so these exams are also linked to income streams.

The net result? An academic environment in which head teachers and teachers are fundamentally terrified to fail. And as the pressure cascades to on-the-ground teaching staff from the DofE via Ofsted, through local education authorities, governing bodies and head teachers, so it grows to often intolerable levels.

Children crack at the age of 10 and 11 because they’re told over and over that they must not, under any circumstance, fail; parents crack because their children become shadows of the bright, happy individuals they once were before they entered our broken education system. Children aged between 15 and 18 crack because they’re told there is no future in failure.

Schools have become competitive exam factories rather than nurturing, guiding, neighbourhood establishments.  Rather than teaching children how to deal with more and more competitive pressure surely the role of school education needs to be reconsidered with the mental health of children being the main consideration.    Education in Britain has moved more and more towards being a consumer product rather than a means of enabling children to realise their ability and reach an independent functioning adulthood.  School has become a fuller and fuller focus on academic achievement. It has moved further towards hot housing the imparting of information in order to pass the next test rather than fostering curiosity, developing emotional IQ and gaining knowledge towards some kind of wisdom to help you through life

The number of children seeking counselling from people like me is rocketing. Numbers have never been so high. And yet the pressure continues to be reinvented and reapplied with no let-up.

It’s a monstrous process. And for what?

That brings me nicely to the second report of planned Government policy which, especially when considered in the context of the above, would almost be funny if it weren’t so horribly calculating and sinister.

The Universities minister (yes, there is such a thing), Jo Johnson has announced that the Government is to crack down on the number of first class degrees awarded by universities.

Mr Johnson – who has a first class honours degree from Oxford – says that what he describes as ‘degree inflation’ will be tackled in order to protect ‘the long-term value and currency of the degrees’.

The reason for this? Well, those pesky universities populated by students whose academic ability and mental resilience have been tested to (and often beyond) breaking point are just handing out too many of them.

So what does tackling ‘degree inflation’ mean in practice? Well, this is where we find ourselves back in Whitehall la-la land. One measure currently under consideration by the Office for Students, the regulatory body established recently to look into such things, is to introduce a quota system.

So, let’s get this straight. Universities are handing out too many top-class degrees and the way to tackle that is to only allow them to give out a certain number. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t think I could come up with a more worryingly arbitrary system if I tried.

What that means in practice is that if you find yourself in a cohort of very talented students, you may deserve a first class degree but you won’t get one because they’ve run out. So presumably you’ll get a 2:1 instead?

In what sort of twisted world is that even vaguely acceptable?

Which brings me back to my original point. I’m worried about these two things because they demonstrate that far from being willing to tackle mental health in young people by making the right policy decisions, the Government is actually promoting the decline of mental wellbeing in the youngest generation by trying paper over a gaping chasm with a sticking plaster.

That is bad enough. But now our children’s mental health is being put at risk for no great reason, because even the small incentive of achieving the best degree possible (and let me say now that a good degree will never be a fair exchange for good mental health) is in danger of being taken away from them.

We really need to put a stop to this nonsense and the damage it is doing to children and young adults.    


Curse Or Addiction?

“But the root of all these evils is the love of money, and there are some who have desired it and have erred from the faith and have brought themselves many miseries.” – First epistle of the Apostle Paul to Timothy

I find that quote from the New Testament intriguing; not because it is a religious text – each to their own on that score – but because it seems to me to be a metaphor for the power that material wealth can have on our emotional wellbeing.

The words the faith, for example, could easily be interpreted as a sense of morality or of right and wrong. And the notion that the desire for, and acquisition of, wealth can bring misery seems to me to have more than a ring of truth about it. 

Quite simply, being rich beyond imagination doesn’t buy you happiness – just ask Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and his wife Dasha Zhukova who this week announced their separation after ten years of marriage. If £7bn can’t buy you contentment then it’s probably safe to say no amount of money can. 

And whilst there are plenty of very wealthy people who seem to live their lives in quiet contentment, apparently putting the Apostle Paul’s sentiment to the sword, history is littered with the stories of society’s super-rich who seem to have been cursed with ill-fortune for generations.

The Kennedys, the Grimaldi royal family, the Gettys and the Rothschilds spring easily to mind as families which appear to have been magnets for tragedy down the decades. Yet surely no family has been as cursed as the Guinness dynasty.

Since Arthur Guinness founded his brewing empire in the mid-18th Century, misadventure after misadventure has befallen his heirs and close family members. From the 1960s the litany of catastrophes became so great that people began to talk of the ‘Guinness curse’.

First, Guinness heir Patrick Browne was killed when he ran a red light in Kensington and smashed into a van. Henrietta Guinness committed suicide in Italy in 1978 and was followed into the grave in short order by Dennys Guinness (suicide), the son of John Guinness (car crash), Caroline Blackwood whose Gothic existence saw her succumb finally to death through alcoholism and two minor heirs who died from drug overdoses.

Though the notion of a curse is of course highly romantic in the literary sense, it’s probably closer to the truth to suspect the tragedies that have befallen the Guinness family and others are the simply result of a toxic mixture of poor mental health. 

It’s no coincidence that drug and alcohol addiction feature prominently in the Guinness story. If money is at the root of all evil, then as the author and addiction specialist John Bradshaw says, shame is at the root of all addictions. And nothing is more likely to bring you bad luck than addiction.

The Guinness tragedies – both fatal and non-fatal context – have little to do with bad luck and far more to do with the shame of the past. Addiction is a symptom of something buried deep within the subconscious. 

One can speculate with some degree of logic on how great wealth can impact negatively on those who have it – and particularly on children. Certainly, it’s no coincidence that the Guinness story is awash with accounts of children who were either denied parental love or were actively neglected. One early account talks of immediate child heirs who were abandoned to such an extent that they were forced to beg neighbours for food scraps.

Abandonment, a common theme to a greater or lesser extent throughout the dynastic tragedies of the modern era, is a great nourisher of shame. As John Bradshaw observes: “Abandonment is the precise term to describe how one loses one’s authentic self and ceases to exist psychologically.”

As I’ve said before, no-one chooses to saddle themselves with an addiction, because addiction needs a trigger – and invariably that trigger comes in the form of shame. Shame at losing a job, shame at failing in a relationship, shame for one’s heritage, shame for behaving badly. Shame is the mother of all bad luck because of the life choices she provokes.

It’s hard not to look at the Guinness family and not come to the conclusion that chronic dysfunction has been a frequent bedfellow. If, as Bradshaw suggests, delusion is sincere denial, then it’s not difficult to see how psychology can short-circuit. 

Money breeds power, power breeds money and the acquisition and retention of both generally requires a ruthlessness that has no space for an upbringing or lifestyle that could be described as being in any way normal and often proves destructive in later life.

There’s more than a grain of truth in the old adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely. And it doesn’t just corrupt politically and financially, but also emotionally.

And if you’re beginning to think that this doesn’t apply to you or the people you know because you don’t have several million washing around the family piggy bank, it’s useful to bear in mind that wealth and its impact is relative.

If one starts with nothing, the figure at which you might be described as wealthy is very much lower than the figure at which others might judge their riches. Being poor doesn’t mean you’ll never have to deal with shame, far from it – but it does mean your lifestyle, problems and fall from grace can’t be supersized to the same extent.

Money in and of itself isn’t at the root of all evil. Neither is the desire for affluence. There are sufficient numbers of happy, wealthy people to prove that. 

But if the well of your emotional wellbeing has already been fundamentally poisoned by your past, then having great reserves of money can artificially insulate you against your unhappiness and the unhappiness of others. Living fast and loose by making poor lifestyle choices around addiction means you might fly for longer, but reaching rock bottom and finally seeking the help you can take longer. And as some of those infamous families will testify, you might run out of time before that happens.

Lady Henrietta Guinness, prior to leaping to her death from a bridge in Italy in 1978, wrote a suicide note in which she proclaimed: “If I had been poor, I would have been happy.”

Sadly, the truth is that had she been poor, she would very likely still have been unhappy – but she might have recognised her unhappiness for what it was and, in that knowledge, taken a different course of action to deal with it.

At the beginning of this article I said that money can’t buy you happiness. But using it to invest in the right kind of help and deal with whatever trauma or shame is leading you to make dangerous choices can very often, accompanied with some solid self-work, set you on the road to good mental health.

 


Why It’s Time To Drop The Disorder

Recently, I’ve been rather taken with the word thingy (stop sniggering at the back).  Everyone must agree that it’s a wonderful word; a catch-all for all those things in life whose proper names are either unknown to us or whose pronunciation is clumsy.

Some of my friends use a thingy to change the channel on their TV, though personally I use a doofah and others I know use an oojamaflip

In fact, our lives are joyously full of thingys (or should that be thingies?) It’s the corrugated cardboard sleeve on your takeaway coffee cup (it’s actually called a zarf), the plastic tip on the end of a shoelace (or, to give it its proper name, aglet), the indented area between the bottom of your nose and your top lip (philtrum), the stringy bits you get when you peel a banana (phloem bundles) and a million and one other things that we need to describe but for which we don’t have words.

Thingydoofah, whatjamacallit, thingymabobby, thingamajiggy, whatsit, doo-dah, doohickey, dooflicky, jimjangle …words that make up a much-loved lexicon of everyday ignorance.

And now we can add another one to the list.

Disorder.

In previous posts I’ve talked about the fact no-one is discussing the ‘why’ of mental health. We’ve become very adept at working out what challenges an individual might be facing, but there’s very little debate around what’s led that individual to the point where a mental health issue has presented itself in an obvious way.

That, in turn, has left the UK facing a mental health crisis of monumental proportions; and in large part of this is because the debate isn’t starting early enough to ensure appropriate intervention happens before someone’s emotional wellbeing deteriorates into something more obviously acute.

Mental health is complex and the budgeting and resourcing challenges that dictate care provision are acute, as a recent BBC report into locked rehabilitation wards in mental health care facilities shows all too clearly.

Our society is obsessed with labels. For many people – and particularly for those within medical diagnostics – labels are the convenient panacea for lack of knowledge. A quick canter through Wikipedia under the search phrase ‘list of mental disorders’ brings up a roll-call of no fewer than 72 recognised conditions that have been given this label. And not one of them satisfactorily defines the condition it describes.

While I’d be the first to agree that Wiki is hardly an unarguable source of totally reliable knowledge, the example is telling.

Someone presents with a condition we haven’t seen before and so we stick a tag on it.    

If a person fears that somewhere in the world, somehow a duck is watching them, the likely response of the medical community would be to invent Watching Duck Disorder rather than explore the root cause of the phobia or anxiety (and by the way, the fear of a duck watching you is actually called anatidaephobia and, apart from being one of the most unusual phobias ever, was made famous in a 1988 cartoon by Far Side creator Gary Larson – this article is nothing if not educational).  

In my experience, many mental health issues are invariably due to trauma or lifestyle – and, often, both. But trauma plays a huge role in shaping our future mental wellbeing and rather than rushing to put a ‘disorder’ label on what we don’t yet understand, it’s imperative that we begin the process of understanding trauma itself.

Many manifestations of apparent mental health issues I see are actually subconscious coping mechanisms to deal with a traumatic event in the past. Behavioural tics like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive checking are our busy subconscious mind’s way of keeping us safe. The subconscious doesn’t operate on linear time, so if the trauma hasn’t been processed properly the subconscious will continue to perpetuate these coping strategies long after the trauma has ended in an attempt to keep the individual ‘safe’. 

And the domino effect of that can be catastrophic. If you’ve experienced trauma and adversity as a child or teenager, you’re less likely to know how to self-care and put yourself first. In turn, you’re more likely to live a lifestyle that does not support you emotionally. Typically, if you’ve suffered childhood trauma, you’re more likely to try to please people, say yes when you should be saying no, overwork, over-indulge and overspend and indulge in addictive substances and behaviours. 

And you do these things to avoid the feelings lodged in the subconscious associated with the original trauma.

Yet despite the complexity of what lies behind the symptoms that eventually manifest themselves, the response of the medical community is often to simply slap a disorder label on it.

The reality is that calling something a disorder is both limiting and outdated. It chains the individual to a label for life, implying that somehow that person is forever broken and fundamentally faulty when in fact nothing is further from the truth.

I don’t believe the symptoms that we’re so blithely happy to stick in a box marked disorder always constitute an illness, they are the emotional and sometimes physical projection of an experience.  

Yet we persist in talking of things like OCD and depression as permanent fixtures in a person’s life. Only recently I saw a mental health charity advert which proclaimed My OCD is as much a part of me as my blue eyes and blonde hair. It doesn’t have to be. 

I’m concerned by that. I worry that a lot of advertising around mental health is reinforcing the myth that what you might be dealing with is something to be permanently endured, that the correct response is to simply embrace it as part of who you are.

We’ve come a long way in recognising and understanding the challenges that mental health can bring. It would be a tragedy if, having come so far, our final destination turns out only to be resigned acceptance.

If we can acknowledge and treat with respect whatever past trauma or adversity is fuelling the symptoms, many of the conscious manifestations of the trauma – for example, depression, anxiety, panic attacks and chronic stress – can lift and, in many instances, clear up completely.    

At the very least the volume can be turned down.

In my 15 years as a Hypnotherapist working with the disorders that I am qualified to treat – social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, derealisation disorder, depersonalisation disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, sleep disorders, eating disorders, acute stress disorder, body dysmorphia disorder, major depressive disorder, nightmare disorder and phobic disorder – I’m yet to work with one that cannot be traced back to a traumatic experience or series of adverse life events that have triggered coping behaviour.   

The dictionary definition of disorder is ‘a state of confusion’. People with mental health challenges aren’t necessarily confused. In fact, in most cases, a person dealing with a mental health issue couldn’t be more aware of their condition and how it affects them.

We apply the label disorder when what we’re actually trying to define or describe is a response

Mental health awareness has improved greatly and that’s a wonderful step in the right direction. But what we now need is awareness of trauma and some of the causes of trauma, such as abuse, discrimination, poverty and inequality.

It’s vital that we update the way we think about mental health, stop labelling people with disorders and start really looking at the why so that people actually have a fighting chance of getting well rather than spending their lives managing a label.

Because in the end, what sort of a life is that?    

As a successful hypnotherapist, I’ve learned the importance and power of uncovering what has happened to you, because the past is always the key that unlocks the present and the behaviours you’re presenting now are just a breadcrumb trail to a bigger mystery.

If we can change the way we think about trauma, that may just prove to be the chink of light in the dark tunnel that is the UK’s current approach to mental health care – and I’m all for that. 

Thingy may be a harmless substitute for our ignorance of the ordinary, but the same can’t be said for disorder


Have You Got A Mental Health Issue….Or Is It Your Lifestyle?

Have You Got A Mental Health Issue….Or Is It Your Lifestyle?

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Perhaps one you’ve never asked yourself before. Maybe you’ve never felt you’ve needed to. After all, you might not be displaying any obvious sign that your emotional wellbeing is at risk and perhaps your lifestyle is a predictable drumbeat punctuated with an occasional burst of high octane.

In other words, you’re just … normal. Right? Okay. Maybe you are. Maybe you’re not. Only you know for sure. Or maybe, just maybe … you don’t.

Now I’ve put the question out there, indulge me and take a few minutes to really think about your answer.

And while you’re doing that, let me explain why for a great many people – maybe even for you – their lifestyle is anything but normal and why it’s creating an unnecessary risk.

Continue reading…


How ‘Therapied’ Is Your Hypnotherapist?

Medical hypnotherapy

In the grand scheme of things, you know something might have gone wrong when you’re heating something up in a microwave and there’s a sudden loud bang, a shower of sparks and the house is plunged into sudden darkness.

Like most ordinary people, I know what electricity does, but not how it does it. I can change a lightbulb and, if the circumstances are right and there’s a diagram to work from, a plug. When there’s a normal power cut – in other words, the sort that isn’t accompanied by loud noises and sudden fireworks in the kitchen – I also know where to look to see if a fuse has blown (though what to do next would elude me).

But that’s pretty much as far as my expertise goes and you’ll probably agree that when the Fourth of July is going on in the middle of your kitchen, that probably isn’t quite far enough.

Continue reading…


Additional Credits

Video by Weeks360.

Photography by Liz Bishop Photography.

Production by Mark Norman at Little Joe Media and Joanne Brooks.

Hair by Jonny Albutt.

Make up by Olly Fisk and Nabeel Hussain.