From the age of three, comedian and writer Ariane Sherine was physically abused by her academic father. As a teenager she became anorexic, self-harmed and twice attempted to take her own life, before being shunned by her parents after becoming pregnant in a violent relationship. It took two decades of therapy – some good, some bad – to help her overcome her traumatic past. Here she reveals what she’s learned.
I grew up in Northwest London with a physically violent, emotionally abusive father, of whom I was terrified, and a very repressed mother. From the age of three-and-a-half, I was hit by my father for the slightest misdemeanour: spilling my orange juice, refusing to eat my dinner, losing a pencil eraser. I would have my knickers pulled down and be hit hard, between 50 and 100 times, while he told me I was disgusting and that I made him sick. If I cried, I would be hit again.
My mother was perpetually disappointed in me. She wanted me to be tidy, clean, obedient and organised like my brother. I was messy, rebellious, loud and, though naturally bright and creative, I didn’t care about doing well at school. This was unacceptable to my parents, who were academics.
Throughout my childhood, the only attention I received was negative and I didn’t know how to behave at school. I would do and say shocking things to get attention, which meant I was ostracised and bullied.
At the age of 12, I told my father – a media lecturer – that if he ever hit me again, I’d report him and he would be arrested. After this, when he was angry, instead of hitting me he would be completely silent. The first silent period lasted for six months. He wouldn’t respond to apologies or my begging him to talk. At first, I was relieved I wasn’t being hit, but soon this too became distressing. It wasn’t just me he would do it to. At any one point he would be ignoring me, my brother or my mother for up to a year at a time.
I became sexually active at 14 and lost my virginity a couple of months after turning 15. Throughout my teens, I would sleep with anyone I thought might be willing to love me. I stopped eating properly and was diagnosed with anorexia; I was referred to a nutritionist and also for family therapy. Yet my father refused to come to the sessions and my mother didn’t want my brother to attend, so therapy consisted of me explaining that my father was violent then my mother contradicting me; she didn’t want my father to go to prison or my brother to be taken into care.
Aged 16, I slashed my arm, the start of a year of self-harming. My mother took me to our GP who referred me to the Tavistock Clinic, a psychoanalytic therapy centre where I had individual therapy for the first time. I loved my therapist. She was the first adult who had ever taken the time to listen to me properly. Unfortunately, she left after a short time and was replaced by someone I hated. At 17 and 18 I made two suicide attempts. I hated myself for my inability to complete the task. I was assessed by a number of doctors and psychiatrists who made the same diagnosis: borderline personality disorder, characterised by emotional instability, impulsive and reckless behaviour including self-harming and unstable relationships. However, I was never informed of this diagnosis at the time, and only found out after requesting my medical records in 2014. I think if I had been told, it would have helped me to understand myself.
Aged 19, I was diagnosed with depression and was prescribed five antidepressants one after the other. None of them helped much. They made me sick, delusional, thin, fat, but not happy. My faith in drugs and therapy was waning.
I started to become successful as a writer and by the age of 24, I was writing for primetime sitcoms and television shows. However, I also entered the worst relationship of my life with a man ten years older who pressured me to drink, take drugs and do things I didn’t want to sexually. Every time I tried to leave him, my lack of self-worth told me he was right and I was wrong. I got pregnant and, during an argument on holiday abroad, he turned violent – hitting me in the face and making my ear bleed. He held his hand over my mouth, suffocating me, and told me repeatedly he would kill me. I reported it to the police when I returned to Britain but couldn’t press charges because it had happened in a different country. I asked my parents for help but they refused to see me until I’d had a termination. After agonising, I eventually decided to have the abortion, then felt tremendous guilt about it.
Knowing I needed help, I went back to the Tavistock where I had my worst therapy experience. When I told the young therapist about my boyfriend, the pregnancy, the violence and the abortion, her face hardened and she said in a cutting voice, ‘So you thought you’d come here for some sympathy, did you?’
I’m not sure why this didn’t put me off therapy altogether, but a few weeks later I found myself at Camden Psychotherapy Unit for an assessment. I was referred to a formidable and slightly austere therapist. She was too Freudian for me; while making notes, she asked if I’d been breastfed, which seemed odd – being breastfed clearly hadn’t improved my relationship with my mother. However, she did say something I found helpful. When I told her about my abortion, she asked, ‘Did it never occur to you that this wasn’t a terrible thing to do?’ It seems obvious but it felt revelatory to me.
I left her after a few months but I was still having severe mental problems, with claustrophobia and panic attacks. So I went to my GP who referred me for cognitive analytic therapy (CAT). I loved this therapist. It was the first time I’d clicked with one since my teens. She was young but mature, calm, measured and reassuring. I felt she truly cared and wanted to help me. CAT is directive, like CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) but with more focus on your past and how it has contributed to your present.
By the start of 2015, I wanted to become a psychotherapist. I did an introductory counselling course, which I loved, then enrolled on a degree, which was hellish. All the trainee therapists and lecturers seemed miserable. I told them I had been abused as a child and divulged my personal history; they didn’t care. I couldn’t believe any of the self obsessed trainee therapists wanted to make life better for people or that the callous lecturers could teach us how to do it. I left after the first term.
However, one positive thing came out of it. For the degree, it was mandatory to start long term psychodynamic therapy, which is similar to psychoanalysis but focuses less on the past. I found a caring therapist as a result and have been seeing her weekly for more than two years. She is astute, calm and relaxed and I am amazed at her powers of perception. A session with her is like having a conversation with a very wise and comforting friend. I look forward to our meetings.
I wouldn’t say therapy has ‘cured’ me, but it has made it easier to deal with my past as well as whatever life throws at me. My father died two years ago – I loved him very much
and he loved me; he was just a broken person, and I still miss him. I am now estranged from my mother. I know we are all works in progress and I doubt there will ever be a point at which I will say I am 100 per cent free of problems.
That said, wonderful things happened after I started seeing my current therapist and these are due to the confidence, encouragement and support she has given me. I restarted my career in journalism and fell in love with my best friend of 20 years, Graham. Although our marriage soon broke down, we are still close and I currently rate myself a nine out of ten for happiness. I am in the best place I have been.
After more than two decades of therapy, on and off, I now know that therapists are human and fallible, and everyone is unique. I know empathy and compassion can be healing in themselves. With some therapists I made breakthroughs in understanding myself and my behaviour; with others I went backwards and was put off help for years.
As one told me, ‘Therapists aren’t like taxis at the rank – you don’t have to choose the first one you meet. You should take time to find the therapist who is right for you.’
Before you hit the couch…
Ariane’s guide to what to expect from your therapist.
WHAT IS THERAPY?
Airing your problems to someone who is effectively a stranger. You’ve usually never met them before, and after you finish therapy you generally never see them again.
WHAT KIND OF PERSON WILL MY THERAPIST BE?
You probably won’t find out much about them because therapy works best when you aren’t aware of their history or views. For example, if you knew they were infertile, you might feel that you couldn’t talk about how much you loved or disliked your kids.
WHAT IF THEY HATE ME?
Their training teaches them to be nonjudgmental and your session is all about talking freely. Your therapist gets paid to listen to you rant about anything that’s on your mind, whether that’s your profuse embarrassment about getting aroused on the bus or your secret fear that the security services are tapping your phone.
WILL THEY LAUGH AT ME?
No, they try to help you. Depending on the type of therapy, they either ask questions
to enable you to find your own answers to your problems or they help you to think your way out of your irrationality.
DOES THERAPY ACTUALLY WORK?
It genuinely can. When it does, it’s brilliant and makes you feel as though anything is possible. It can help you overcome phobias addictions, let go of things, gain clarity on troubling issues. When it doesn’t work, it can leave you feeling despondent.
KNOWING MY LUCK, IT ’LL BE THE LATTER. WHAT HAPPENS THEN?
You either try a different type of therapy or a different therapist. Because if either the approach or the person isn’t right for you, therapy is unlikely to work.
CAN’T I JUST TALK TO MY FRIENDS INSTEAD?
You can, but friends are not blank canvases on to which you can project all your thoughts and fears. You know them and they know you (or at least the version of you that you are prepared to show), which means there are often subjects you tiptoe around. And you will be less likely to take umbrage at a therapist’s comment because we often allow strangers more leeway to challenge us than friends.
HOW DO I ACCESS IT?
You can go via the NHS which is free (first visit your GP and explain your problems), but you have to wait and will have only a certain number of sessions. Alternatively, you can pay for therapy privately. It’s best to use the search engines on the two regulatory bodies in the UK – BACP (bacp.co.uk) and UKCP (psychotherapy.org.uk). Choosing a therapist through this method will ensure they have the necessary training to help you.
This is an edited extract from Talk Yourself Better: A Confused Person’s Guide to Therapy, Counselling and Self-help by Ariane Sherine, which will be published by Robinson on 25 October, £13.99. To order a copy for £11.19 until 22 October, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. P&P is free on orders over £15.