In July 2018 I wrote a blog post here about my perception of a link between therapy and punk rock, particularly from a self-esteem point of view. Happy with my effort, the post joined its comrades and, as far as I was concerned, was lying dormant until, last November, I had an out-of-the-blue email from a Canadian fellow called Jason Schreurs telling me he was writing a book and doing a podcast about punk rock and mental health, and would I have time for an interview to talk about my ideas?
As surprised as I was, Jason’s timing was prescient in that I had just the day before been talking to my writing mentor, Meg-John Barker, about potentially taking the DNA of that punky blog post and forging it into some kind of therapeutic writing resource built around a three-pronged attack of resistance, rebellion and reclamation.
Speaking to Jason on Zoom later that week, I was excited and humbled to have been given the opportunity to talk to a likeminded individual (and perceptive interviewer) about my affiliation with punk and its impact on my life. Surveying the wealth of interviews already populating his Scream Therapy podcast site, I was also enthused to see just how many other people Jason had tracked down who shared our take on a connection between punk and mental health, featuring both on-the-ground punk band members and mental health professionals with a punk background of some kind. This was most definitely a project that I was proud to be a part of, and it spurred me on to complete my own, which by now had a definite name – Write Your Revolution.
And so it has come to pass this week, that both the podcast interview and my writing resource have taken their place in two corners of the internet, ready for any interested party who might stumble upon them. As a friend commented after I shared the interview with him, ‘It’s gas how content you create can travel so far and resonate with people so long as it’s real and true.’ As hackneyed as it might sound, if either make an impact of any kind on even one person, then that’s something I’ll happily take with me on the rest of my journey.
I recently read this fab article by Holly Williams: ‘How Björk has helped me heal from heartbreak’ – concerning the author’s relationship with Björk’s 1997 album ‘Homogenic’ and its ‘remarkable remedial power.’ To me, there’s always been something beautiful around the idea of an artist’s creative output exerting an empathic healing quality far outside its own parameters, and this article prompted me to reflect on my own journey with Björk over the years. In the past few weeks, I have been particularly drawn to the 2007 track ‘Wanderlust’:
The lyrics marry well with the landscape I find myself in now – embarking on a journey into full-time therapy provision, to also incorporate therapeutic writing group work. Drawing on David Byrne, I might ask myself ‘How did I get here?’ – and surprisingly, there is a fairly simple answer. Like Björk, I have in my adult life always been drawn to a need for movement and space, where new ideas, ways of being, experiences and so on can take seed and grow – pretty in keeping with the dictionary definition of ‘Wanderlust’ as ‘A strong desire to travel.’
The phrase she uses, ‘relentless restlessness,’ perhaps contains something of a double-edged quality – on paper at least, the idea of being ‘relentlessly restless’ might not sound too comfortable, but it is the core ethos behind this that speaks to me – not so much a sense of nomadic rootlessness but a liberating state of always being open to the next step of the journey and the challenges it may bring. When she says ‘I feel at home whenever the unknown surrounds me,’ there is a sense of unbridled possibility and courageousness – to stare a path shrouded in fog in the face and not only keep walking, but to do so with joy, anticipation, even a sense of belonging.
I am reminded here of the innumerable journeys I have been on with my clients over these past several years, and how their willingness to take those steps into the unknown (often so terrifying to start off with) are the foundations of every single thing they will subsequently build in their inner and outer landscapes. At some point or other, the fear may indeed morph into something closer to what Björk describes – comfort in the movement, even a sense of adventure as the path continues to evolve and new features pop up along the way. I suppose this is my hope for myself now, too – but of course only time will tell what the landscape will look like in the years to come. Whatever it may be, I am heartened that its origin lay in a spirit of creativity and movement… or, simply put, wanderlust.
I’ve been listening to a lot of punk recently, bands like Minor Threat, Bad Brains and Bikini Kill. This is a natural progression from the punk that has populated my music taste since I got into the Stooges and the Ramones at the age of 17 and never looked back. Punk can be almost simultaneously silly and serious, political and personal, high-stakes and throwaway, but whether it’s the Sex Pistols seeking to dismantle the monarchy, Kathleen Hanna refusing to let anyone dictate her choice of best friend, or the Replacements advocating running a red light, the common thread is nearly always some overarching element of rebellion.
There is a great clip of punk-precursor legends the New York Dolls playing BBC music show The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973 (watch it HERE). They perform ‘Looking for a Kiss,’ a swaggering sneer of a song that draws on the badass attitude of ‘60s girl group the Shangri-las, filters it through the glam rock of Bowie and Bolan and then coats liberally in NYC grime. As with the entirety of their Todd Rundgren-produced self-titled debut album, it is a defining moment in the evolution of not just punk, but rock music in general. And yet at the end of the performance, host Bob Harris appears and dismisses the band as ‘mock rock’ with a self-satisfied smirk. This kind of reaction is exactly what punk exists for. It says, we may not be as proficient as those beardy musos over there or have a ton of 12-string guitars, mandolins and Moog synths colonising our stage but we believe in what we’re doing and we won’t let you tell us otherwise. In other words, a giant fuck you to the status quo and a clear message to it that things are changing and it better watch its back.
So what are the benefits of a punk attitude from a therapeutic point of view? To me, whether it tangibly feels like it or not, therapy itself is often an act of rebellion, particularly when it comes to things like self-worth and the desire to live authentically. You’ve been raised in a certain environment. You believe you should be and act a certain way. You’ve internalised messages about yourself from the people around you. You end up believing some of these even though they are self-critical and have a corrosive effect on your self-esteem. You’ve learned what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the eyes of social and/or family norms. You fear what would happen if you were to step outside of these. You self-censor. Or, you mentally challenge these ideas and then feel guilty for it. You cultivate an invisible and deeply personal antenna that alerts you to when you have committed a transgression. You listen to the little voice from your past that tells you that you’re bad, stupid, weird, awkward and unworthy of love. You get stuck in a place that isn’t authentic to what you actually want for yourself, and life goes on around you. Damn.
What does punk say about all this? Punk challenges you to say NO. Punk challenges you to identify a status quo that no longer serves you and stand up to it. Punk challenges you to be and act and do in a way that feels right for you. Punk challenges you to be visible and unashamed. Punk challenges you to get angry for what you’ve gone through and put up with and settled for and had to listen to and then channel that feeling into creating something better for yourself. Punk challenges you to be friends with who you want and to consign the people and things and inner voices that hold you back to the trash can. Punk challenges you to be goofy and stupid sometimes and just go with it. Ultimately, punk challenges you to resist, rebel and reclaim, and this is what also makes therapy punk. So the next time your inner critic starts up with its usual cyclical crap, maybe try reaching for your inner leather jacket and shades and tell it where to go. Or to quote Minor Threat:
Before you take another crack And slap yourself on the back Before you tell me what you heard And sum it up in one word Before you start talking shit Before you throw another fit:
Several months ago I became aware of a niggling feeling that my life was lacking in a sense of creativity. Corresponding with an actively artistic friend in the US, I lamented that the most tangibly creative thing I had done in what felt like an age was compiling the mix CD I was shortly going to post to her. Now don’t get me wrong – I put a lot of time and care into that mix CD and actually got a great amount of pleasure from listening to it myself afterwards, but somehow it didn’t seem enough. I was reminded of a feeling I had in my late teens – while a large portion of my friends were busy displaying their creative chops in various bands, I occupied the more sedentary position of musically-ungifted music-obsessive. You could ask me anything about Björk’s latest offering or the hot new band to come out of New York (this being the post-Strokes early noughties), but in more actual terms my creativity on that front was seemingly confined to the curating of, again, mix CDs. It seems this vague sense of ennui had persisted on some level since then – dissatisfaction at being the perennial audience member but never the creative driving force.
More recently, however, I have been reassessing this somewhat one-sided view of things, opening my mind to the wider scope of different ways one can be creative. For example, writing this blog is creative, but so is making up a nonsensical song in the shower. Chief among these explorations was the realisation (and something I had never concretely conceived of before) that therapy, as a process, is a deeply creative endeavour – and this is something I engage in with other people every single week. I was inspired to this thought after reading an interview with one of my favourite bands, Beach House, in the aptly-named article:
Equally apt was the fact that it came from The Creative Independent, a Brooklyn-based initiative whose goal ‘is to educate, inspire, and grow the community of people who create or dream of creating.’ That’s a whole lot of creativity going on.
Like the typical therapeutic relationship, Beach House is made up of just two people, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally. Starting with that principle, I was struck by some of the similarities between the pair’s musical and songwriting partnership and the partnership I aim to establish with my clients – one of equality and respect that is also constantly evolving. As Legrand elaborates,
It’s always changing and it’s also always surprising us, too. I think we are still finding new ways of working together. It’s not something predictable. Yesterday we were talking about this, I was saying, “Isn’t this funny how we’re doing this now?” Or, “This is different than it used to be. I like this. I’m glad we’re doing things this new way.” I think you never stop getting close to somebody. In any partnership it’s a lot of hard work, but when you get past the fact that it’s hard work, there’s this nice oasis where it does feel effortless and you get these little surprises.
To me, this is very much akin to how the therapeutic relationship gradually deepens over time, from early days possibly characterised by a sense of optimistic apprehension to a freer sense of shared intimacy, where being oneself with another feels more comfortable, less scary. And this is creative. Therapists help their clients to explore, challenge, accept, adapt, plan, move, and so much more. We can aid them in reassessing a life situation, give perspective on how they can reform or reject the status quo, and then bear witness as they reshape their pasts into a more satisfying present. Doing so is not as simple as merely sitting across from someone and asking them how they feel (in spite of the enduring therapist stereotype). It requires curiosity and creativity from the practitioner, and an equal dose of the same from their client – after all, what could be fundamentally more creative than forging a new or more authentic path for oneself? As Legrand expands, from a musical standpoint:
It’s really just a journey for each individual… Maybe you’ll discover through music that you’re actually a painter, so maybe you should do that instead of trying to be a rock star. Maybe you’re something else. I think that it’s just about asking questions, but also producing things and making stuff. It’s the only way, really, to find out who and what you should be… Being creative, making things, figuring yourself out—that’s never a waste of time.
Ultimately, the spirit of creation and creativity, of embarking on a journey into the unknown, of asking questions and figuring things out, or, to paraphrase David Bowie, turning to face the strange (ch-ch-changes), is really at the heart of the therapeutic encounter. Now all I need to do is create a mix CD that sets these ideas to music… Suggestions?
Beach House’s latest album, B-Sides and Rarities, was released in June of this year. Listen to its lead single below:
I’ve been aware of the band for several years but am not really familiar with their music – as such, the article gives a good overview of their evolution from emo icons to current Talking Heads-enthusiasts. More relevant to the world of counselling and psychotherapy, however, is Williams’ discussion of her mental health difficulties in recent years. Early in the article she says:
For the first time in my life, there wasn’t a pinhole of light at the end of the tunnel. I thought, I just wish everything would stop. It wasn’t in the sense of, I’m going to take my life. It was just hopelessness. Like, What’s the point? I don’t think I understood how dangerous hopelessness is. Everything hurts.
I particularly like this quote because one of the main reasons I chose the name ‘Nozomi’ for my practice was its link to the idea of hope. As Williams says, an absence of hope (for the future, for one’s situation, for change) is dangerous, and once someone goes down that path it can sometimes seem insurmountable. The instillation of hope that things can get better is often instrumental in getting someone back on track.
Later, the piece takes an interesting turn when the interviewer, Alex Frank, is confronted with the fact that his questions on a previous day of speaking with Williams ‘triggered’ her to the extent of having a panic attack. I admire Williams’ honesty and openness on this front, and indeed this is the reason why I am so passionate about the idea of public figures discussing mental health issues, and particularly their own struggles – the more people talk about it, the less scary it seems.
This is especially true for younger people like 28 year old Williams – role models for a generation that are embracing that idea that looking after your mental health is not something to be ashamed of or afraid of talking about. On the contrary, it should be applauded, or even just seen as par for the course when confronted with difficulties that can’t be dealt with on one’s own. Here’s hoping this shift in societal perception and the stigma attached to seeking counselling and other forms of mental health aid continues apace. We’re not there yet, but things do seem to be moving in the right direction.
Paramore’s latest album, ‘After Laughter,’ was released in May of this year.
Above, the opening line to Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy,’ which also kicks off his iconic 1984 album ‘Purple Rain.’ Last week saw a lavish remastered reissue of the record, the main draw for fans being an excellent bonus disc of previously unreleased songs that plays like a long lost album. In celebration, here is a link to an article of mine that was previously published on PCI College’s website:
I discuss the concept of disenfranchised or unrecognised grief, and how this connects with fandom in the context of the above-average number of celebrity deaths last year. Grief and loss come in all shapes and sizes – all should be respected the same way.
The final article posted to coincide with LGBTQ Pride comes from musician, writer and actor Carrie Brownstein. In a particuarly poignant excerpt from her memoir, Brownstein relates the story of her father, who came out as gay at the age of 55:
I think this is a beautifully observed snapshot of the effect coming out can have not just on the person themselves, but also on family members and loved ones. Furthermore, the context is still more common than many realise. On the first Thursday of every month, Gay Switchboard Ireland provide a confidential Married Men’s Group, ‘a peer support group for men who are, or have been, married or in a long term opposite sex relationship and who identify as gay, bisexual or feel attracted to other men.’ Further details are available here:
The truth was a satellite, the picture getting clearer, circling and homing in, and then he was close enough to touch it.
I think this could be applied to any number of peoples’ experiences of therapy, regardless of what has led them to it – the sense that the process of exploring and being supported in that exploration is slowly unravelling a mystery or knot in the client’s life. Though initially confounding, ultimately her father’s decision to come out allowed Brownstein to finally meet him at a core level that had previously eluded her. Being true to one’s gender or sexual identity is far from easy for many people, but when Brownstein says ‘Now there is someone to know’ of her father, she reminds us of the huge rewards that can await if we have the courage to step into ourselves.
Wishing all readers a happy Pride!
Carrie Brownstein is a founding member of seminal art-punk band Sleater-Kinney, as well as co-writer and star of hit TV show Portlandia. Her memoir, ‘Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl,’ was published in October 2015.
In the second of three posts honouring Gay Pride – here are a couple of articles on two gay men who continuously make waves in the alternative/indie music scene, while displaying the sort of honest humanity that goes hand in hand with the process of counselling.
Firstly, Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, talks sexuality, anxiety, and the transformative power of long-term relationships…
I think both pieces highlight the sense of support/community that music and inspirational musicians can provide to those who otherwise feel like they are a bit on the outside – a feeling not at all dissimilar to the experience of being truly heard and listened to by a counsellor who doesn’t judge or tell you how to live your life.
One final article to follow tomorrow.
Perfume Genius’ latest album ‘No Shape’ was released in May of this year; Grizzly Bear’s ‘Painted Ruins’ is expected in August.
I recently had the pleasure of teaching a class on Personal Development, and my students and I spent a good deal of time discussing the concept of self care – what it means, what it looks like, how often it is engaged in, and so on. One thing that became clear quite early on was just how variable the answers could be, depending on the individual. For me, self care is about showing myself that I matter – that I deserve a break – and acknowledging that I can give that to myself, if I choose to and then make the time to do it. Sometimes easier said than done, but absolutely necessary to get the batteries recharged and not get overwhelmed by everything life brings – particularly important in the world of counselling and psychotherapy.
So, how do I practice self care? I aim to make this the topic of several posts here but the first port of call is usually music. By which I mean, really listening to music – lying back with my headphones (the same ones I bought in Japan in 2004) and letting the sounds spill over me, connecting with them as they do so. I have a very broad taste in music but right now I’m finding an album called ‘Cool Velvet’ by jazz saxophone legend Stan Getz to be particularly rewarding. Some might find it syrupy but to me the melding of sax and strings on this record is nothing short of heavenly. Here’s a taste:
Getting lost in these melodies is as therapeutic for me as taking a long, hot bath might be to someone else – whatever form it takes, the end result is hopefully a calming so palpable you can almost see the stress rising up and out of you. Doesn’t that sound good? And yet for many, self care sounds too much like ‘being selfish’ to be properly entertained, which is a very real shame. More on that another time.
For now, I might finish this particular post with an invitation for anyone reading to share or reflect on a song/album/piece of music that offers them that same feeling of nurturance or recuperation as I’m currently getting from ‘Cool Velvet’ – and why do you think it has this effect for you?