Derisive laughter is the best medicine

Therapy’s demand for unflinching self-scrutiny and then honest admission is at odds with the social rules in normal society. In Britain, when somebody says, ‘How are you?” you don’t answer, “I’m falling apart, here!”

My room-mate, Dylan, is the only other man in Ascot House. He’s disdainful of the gloominess patients admit to in therapy workshops. He knows we do it because we feel we ought to, and thus regards it as dishonest and attention-seeking. He doesn’t say anything, but I can sense him casting his eyes to heaven, internally. I guess friction is inevitable when we’re all cooped up together like this. Given that we are simultaneously the most sensitive and the rudest people on the planet, it’s surprising we haven’t murdered each other. Is it a testament to our tolerance or our indolence?

When asked to “Check In” Dylan always drawls, “Not too bad…Yeah, not too bad…” in languid, meditative tones, despite having been climbing the walls a few minutes before, and despite jiggling his foot so frantically, under the table, that its energy could power the whole house. He’s disassociating himself from our self-important misery.

He is also trying to support a relaxed, sociable atmosphere, by avoiding the awkwardness that would follow any intimate revelations. We’re kind of old-fashioned in our expectations, he and I, although he’s only 20, and we automatically resort to this kind of behaviour. You’re supposed to make light of things and not burden other people.

Perhaps this is still gendered. I’m torn between the desire to demonstrate that I’m genuinely ill, and the desire to make light of everything, but Dylan’s openly hostile to confession. He’s had a very traditional training by a typically macho, punchy dad. Maybe women can be emotionally open, honest and talkative, but, even nowadays, we boys imagine the look of horror and embarrassment and alienated betrayal on our friends’ faces, if we described to them what was truly going on in our heads. If we knew. If we admitted it to ourselves.

In workshops, you can rely, to a certain degree, on basic social etiquette to avoid too abrupt an encounter with your demons. We keep to the social scripts, and this stops us from degenerating into howling megalomania. No one grand-stands, or holds the floor for too long; everyone contributes and responds appropriately, takes turns beautifully, listens carefully and contributes dutifully. We’ve been horrible to our families and we want to redeem ourselves by being sweet and supportive to each other. We’d like, very much, to prove to ourselves that we’re kind people, not arseholes.

We’re not being insincere, it’s just that we’re sharing responsibility for our illness and putting it into context and perspective: we’re not the only ones in this situation, and this generates a certain distance from our problems. Our concern and respect for each other allows for restraint and decorousness. You can escape into wise but vague generalities made to murmurs of assent. You can say, “I think, people like us are often trying to process a sense of humiliating powerlessness…” without having to stand naked and raw before them and bear witness to your own ghastly failures, without having to say, “I am Xan Nichols, a feral and diseased rat, cowering in a filthy corner. I’ll savage any hand extended to me. Let me tell you what I did to those I say I love…”

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