Better to live

Book Review

Alastair Campbell
2020, Hodder, 294 pages.

I have a tenuous connection to the author, Alastair Campbell. We spoke at a conference organised by Maytree and sat next to each other. We chatted about my experiences as an ex-guest and his as the patron. I encountered him once again a couple of years later at the opening of an art exhibition in aid of Maytree, and he recognised me and remembered me. I cite this in the spirit of honesty and integrity, although it provides one sentence to critique as he claims to have a poor memory, something my experience of him denies.

So why am I reviewing his book? It’s not a book about therapy, and indeed psychotherapy and counselling don’t feature - as Campbell gets therapy from a psychiatrist, rather than a psychotherapist, and in previous publications Campbell has stated categorically that he’s not a therapist. However, I felt it was a potentially important text for the therapeutic community given the author’s profile, the range of endorsements with quotes from, for example, Jon Snow who says it “provokes a far wider and more honest understanding of the condition [depression]”. Ultimately, the world in which I work is shaped far more by publications like this which will bother the best seller lists more than industry books, and it’s important to have some understanding of the public discourse.

The book has two main parts, 1. Me, My Life, My Depression and 2. My Search for a Cure which come after a very powerful, pithy and poignant preface. Each part has ten chapters and the book does feel balanced. Reading the first half, I was struck by some similarities with my own experiences. Campbell relates the story of his cousin, Lachie, who, seemingly out of the blue, ended his life. He added some sentiments from the wider family that it’s useful to try and understand what could have been going on for him. He wrote that it’s unlikely Lachie was feeling selfish when he died.

I share a similar desire to gain a greater understanding given my Dad’s suicide and the lack of explanation around my family experience. From my own suicidality, I know that when I’m “in that place”, I’m able to construct a narrative of how everybody would be better off, with very specific whys, and being able to see the similarities with the experiences of the other, in this case Campbell, is helpful for my relationship with myself. Ultimately it helps me feel less alone.

Chapter fourteen, To Medicate or not To Medicate, was most heartening to read from a professional perspective. Campbell is forthright about his use of psychiatric medication, how this sits alongside his desire not to be medicated, and how this presents a difficulty. I see this in a number of people I work with, although generally they’ve tried and found it not to work, or the side effects are not advantageous enough. The chapter is well-balanced and concludes that, ultimately, it’s about the relationship between patient and doctor, that he can see himself trusting the psychiatrist who is doubtful about medication, but he arrived at the door of his psychiatrist first and therefore buys into the way in which he sees the world. This is a very readable way to suggest what a lot of therapy courses and texts reach, that creating the right environment and relationship with clients is healing, far more than what’s actually said or done. Campbell shows that a trusting relationship with his psychiatrist and I also found it interesting that he discloses the personal recommendation with such openness. It’s this sort of disclosure which can more generally help to shift the narrative around therapy and the talking cure.

There is another interesting afterword from Campbell’s domestic partner, Fiona Miller. A lot of what she writes tallies with what has come before, but what is different is the clear difficulty she experienced living as the partner of a very driven and depressed man. I felt this was impressive and important, to have some insight not into the experience of the person in therapy, but the person who’s probably most affected by how the therapy goes. She describes feeling helpless and intimates that this is a common experience with Campbell and the language they use is the same to describe their experience. I have had clients ask about potentially bringing their partners to therapy. Generally, I’m suspicious of what good it can do for my client, as then the space is no longer theirs and theirs alone, and the relationship goes from a two to three and to my mind that can’t be reversed. I’m unsure whether this counts as evidence to the contrary; the relationship between Campbell and Miller is clearly strong, enduring and wonderfully honest, and I’m unsure if all relationships could withstand a dipping in and out from a partner.

I would recommend colleagues buy this book. It’s a good read, entertaining and very grabbing. I found myself feeling grounded that some of the experiences described by Campbell are everyday to me given the clients I work with, and that at times I need to acknowledge that this is not “normal” to the general population, and that has a power in itself. Alongside this, the overview of his meeting people who give out drugs, both natural and pharmacological, electric shock treatment and the jam jar which has helped him so much, is useful.

Ben Scanlan is a UKCP existential phenomenological psychotherapist and supervisor working online and in London. His profile as a member of the Contemporary Psychotherapy board can be found here.
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