Telegraph Article: People like me don’t cry; we just carry on by Benjamin Fry

From The Telegraph’s Weekend section 1st March 2014

Telegraph Weekend Section 1 March 2014

Telegraph Weekend Section 1 March 2014

Therapist Benjamin Fry’s privileged upbringing left him ill-equipped for his own collapse. Now he shares the radical ideas that helped him to recover.

A few years ago, I had a major breakdown and was admitted to a specialist psychiatric hospital in Arizona, where I stayed for four months. In that time, I didn’t receive a single card, letter or email from any of my friends or family. Nobody called, nobody visited. Every day, I would check for mail, telephone messages and email. Nothing. Being British and posh, I did what I was bar-coded to do and just carried on.

I know it sounds like a poor little rich kid’s sob story, but bear with me. Behind that sad sketch lies a problem that has plagued me all my life.

My father was a multimillionaire, earning his money through the financial services industry. My mother died when I was 11 months old, but when my father remarried I was brought up at a prestigious address in Knightsbridge, London, and I went first to Eton and then to Oxford. Most normal people would tag me as ludicrously privileged.

By 30 I was married with a child (the first of five), working as a psychotherapist and presenting TV shows such as Freaky Eaters and Spendaholics.

You may not believe it but my life was, in fact, far from golden. I had felt from very early on that there was something wrong with me – I’d wander through my prep school alone at night, anxious. Later, in my twenties, I suffered panic attacks and needed therapy, which was only partially helpful.

Bad things, such as losing a mother, can happen to any of us, but I found that my background had not only prepared me spectacularly badly for dealing with them, but had contributed to the mental health problems they would cause and had been a serious barrier to my recovery.

I became brilliant at faking the kind of extraordinary confidence that people like me, equipped with a world-class education, are supposed to have, but inside I knew I had zero emotional skills.

I didn’t feel as though I could complain, which might have led to suggestions for help – I had drawn lucky in life, so what had I to moan about? People like me don’t cry: we cover our emotions and carry on.

On the surface things looked fine, but I was ignoring a rising panic within. I began to behave more and more recklessly to try to keep my golden façade intact and I invested in the emerging Greek property bubble to compensate for my lack of earnings from the work I loved.

When I lost everything in the crash of 2008, I gradually spiralled into a total collapse and became suicidal. I tried every clinic there was, but nothing helped. In the end, months after I had ignored a recommendation from a therapist friend, I gave in and found myself on a plane to Mellody House, in Arizona.

There, where a new generation of psychological therapies were being pioneered, I finally had a breakthrough.

I learned that conditions we have traditionally called ‘mental health’ problems, such as anxiety and depression, are now beginning to be understood differently.

Increasingly, they are seen as being rooted in the neurobiology of our nervous systems, and in this respect all mammals are almost identical. When faced with stress, which the body perceives as a threat, the body does what it needs to to respond and ensure survival.

However, when there is no chance to allow stressful experiences to resolve themselves naturally, many of us are unable to turn off our ‘neuroception’ of threat long after the threat itself has been survived. This means we get stuck in a frozen state that our system struggles to resolve, resulting in a biological meltdown (aka ‘trauma’). We relive the biology of a child who could not resolve his or her sense of threat.

Outwardly, this can manifest itself as many symptoms including anxiety (when the system overreacts to perceived threat); depression (when it underreacts); OCD; ADHD and ‘medically unexplained symptoms’. These almost always arise from a failure of the nervous system to automatically regulate itself.

Many people unknowingly make things worse by medicating the symptoms of trauma with drugs and alcohol as they try to bring themselves back to a balanced ‘normal’.

As I began to understand this, I realised I could apply it to my own childhood. My mother’s death was a major stress factor that I hadn’t resolved. On top of that – part of the double bind of being posh – I was pushed to be independent from a very young age at boarding school, another stress. I formed weak, anxious attachments because my parents were posh and were therefore the product of an even more difficult generation above. There’s no blame in this, I realised, just biology and causation. Mammals that are well attached in early childhood metabolise threat and stress well; those who are not, do not.

I realised that in 32 years from starting boarding school to being admitted to hospital, I had been hiding. At Eton I was desperate for friendship, and pretended I was fine. At university I didn’t offer friendship, but instead used it. I started a lifelong habit of neglecting friends once I found a woman to comfort me. I just couldn’t get vulnerable, or be open, with anyone. I had to continue the façade, doing what posh people do, living like posh people live, succeeding like posh people succeed; crying was not an option, and so in the end no one even knew who I was. And I don’t doubt that I used and abused my family’s help: I just took from them and then withdrew again. Ours was a typically high achieving, stiff upper lip household, and they didn’t know what to make of my gradual, messy falling apart.

The Arizona centre treated my breakdown with a form of trauma therapy which I now attribute to saving my life.

Working with the body from the ‘bottom up’ (which means literally working upwards through the brainstem rather than from the ‘mind down’, the opposite), my so-called ‘mental health’ problems were restored by a new generation of body psychotherapies, such as Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Somatic Experiencing and EMDR.

The difference between these and other therapies I’d encountered is that the therapist tries to engage with the mammal part of the brain and biology, not the human thinking or ‘mind’. The instruction to patients is often to engage with ‘sensation’ rather than ‘thought’ and in doing so the therapists are helping us to resolve problems in our mammalian brain (the limbic system) rather than in the human neocortex. This is radically new because it puts the primal, animal instinct before the brilliant, overdeveloped human in the chain of solving this particular problem. And it works.

Months later, recovered and back in England, I began to get back to work. The entrepreneur in me slowly fluttered to life again. My illness had taught me a lot, not least about how difficult it is to find the right kind of help, so I founded a non-profit organisation and lobbied government for better access to more effective treatment for all. Passionate about the ground-breaking therapy that had so helped me, but which was only available in America, I also established a residential clinic, Khiron House, in Oxfordshire, and an outpatient practice in Harley Street.

People began to come in their droves, from every conceivable walk of life. I couldn’t help but observe, however, that those who had grown up with the same advantages as myself, although they had the money for treatment, somehow found it even harder to accept help.

One such posh patient, George, came to see me last year. Educated at Harrow and Cirencester, George led a hedonistic life. Successful in property, he had left it behind to pursue his passion of sponsoring sport. He was charming, flamboyant, but something inside was consuming him. He was unable to tolerate his many romantic relationships for long. He suffered depression, often resorting to shutting himself in his house alone, running his business in his pyjamas. He was resourceful, resilient, but after the umpteenth bout of despair, he became suicidal. His life ‘should have been’ wonderful – and he was ashamed of not being happy, let alone well, and the isolation this caused was almost worse than his illness.

In treatment, we helped him to understand that his nervous system was responding in its natural way to the threats he’d encountered when young (an alcoholic mother and the desperation he felt when he was bullied, aged eight, at his new boarding school). We enabled George to stop judging himself for being unwell, emerge from his crushing self-hatred and accept that he needed help. Finally we were able to admit him to our residential clinic in Oxfordshire and get him on the path to a full recovery.

Anxiety; depression; OCD; bi-polar; addiction: in my clinic we no longer think solely in terms of these recognised conditions. We think of ‘incomplete stress cycles’. Our patients are overwhelmed, responding to life as if it is a constant threat, and they cannot cope.

The first step to recovery is helping patients to understand this. In my case, I also had to come to terms with the reasons why I was alone in that Arizona hospital. And it was because I deserved to be. I had treated people badly.

The damage still runs deep. Much of my family still don’t speak to me and I’m getting divorced, but at least now I understand why. I accept my own adult responsibility for the consequences of my behaviour and have gone a long way towards fixing that permanently – and now can help others to do so too. I was lucky.

Benjamin Fry’s book ‘How I F***ed Up My Life and Made It Mean Something’ is published later this month. He is the founder of Khiron House (www.khironhouse.com) and Get Stable (www.getstable.org).

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33 Comments

  1. Comment by Inspector Chrome on

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    updates, therefore where can i do it please help out.

    1. Reply by Penny Boreham on

      you can subscribe to our emails on the right hand side of this page, Very best, Penny

  2. Comment by Martin on

    thank you Benjamin, for your frankness in sharing your experiences. As a mental heath worker myself who is currently processing my own experiences of early and later life trauma, part of my anxiety about returning to work is the stigma attached to mental and emotional health difficulties. I believe that it is important to erode this stigma, and to contribute to a more helpful understanding of such experience. My sense is that your transparency can only help this process.

  3. Comment by Laura on

    Thank you. I’m going to have a good think about it all. Good luck with your book.

  4. Comment by Suzanne on

    I am undergoing sensrimotor psychotherapy treatment as I found a local therapist. I am working through processing past trauma. I can only liken it to mindfulness and processing whats ” stuck” and experiencing discharge ie shaking etc Its a slow process for myself and taking things steady. I feel some improvement so far. I am spacing the sessions out also due to affordability. Its not cheap but it is worth it.

    I trained in therapy and currently work with a caseload of 70-80 people seeing 26 people weekly . I am more of a life coach teaching cbt techniques. I did question whether I could manage this and carry on with the work. I seem to be managing so far. I see a lot of people with elements of frozen trauma and I would be interested in going into the field at a later date. I do want to reduce my workload soon but my work pays for my therapy and the bills!

    I have taken myself out of having any romantic relationships at the moment whilst I do the therapy. I see family and friends but I have distanced myself even more from people for the time being.

    I can relate to your relationship difficulties.

    I can put my hand on my heart and say it is a worthwhile process with anyone looking to undertake it. Its going to be a lifesaver for me. Ive made myself so ill in the past from anxiety and reduced the effectiveness of my immune system.

    Thank you for being open and honesty Benjamin.I would not have got onto this path if I had not seen the Mail on Sunday article last year.

    1. Reply by Benjamin Fry on

      Thank you for letting us know. I’m glad you are finding the help you need.

  5. Comment by Laura on

    Dear Benjamin,
    Thank you for your reply, I find any piece of information very useful. I am very very drawn to your clinic but like I said its a bit difficult when your doing it alone. You can’t just pop to therapy without anyone knowing, you know? What are your thoughts about online therapy? And is it something your place would think about doing in the future? It’s just so we know there’s somewhere we can go and just talk and lesson the burden so no one else need know. I think mines got to the place where I’m at the brink of bursting of needing to talk, But I (we) just can’t tell anyone, it’s impossible infact. Can you imagine how difficult that is? The frustration eats you but you can’t show it. I do have a good life (which you did too!) but no one really knows what goes on in my head (again, like you)
    So, what needs to be kept in mind and thought about (from someone who knows) is that there should be somewhere we can go (online) to and talk without disclosing it to our nearest and dearest because at the moment there is nowhere!
    It’s great for those who can just get up and go, I’m actually jealous because “we” can’t. What a shame.

    1. Reply by Benjamin Fry on

      Well it depends what the issue is, but there are allot of on-line resources if you Google them. You can do a Skype assessment with us too, but we prefer to work with a person in the room, because it is after all a ‘body’ therapy.

  6. Comment by Laura on

    I have a question that I’d like to ask, It’s a bit of a difficult one but what the hell. There are 1000’s and 1000’s of people like me who probably need a bit of help but are unable too because they’ve carried this big “secret” around all their life without being able to tell anyone, if you know what I mean. So my question is, is it worth dragging that all up again? I mean, I’ve personally done well, I’ve got my own little family, good job ect but my past plays on my mind a lot, does it get worse? How much of your childhood are you meant to remember? Apart from a few memories (mostly horrible ones) I have nothing till the age of about 12. I don’t know, it’s very confusing. Maybe I should be grateful for what I’ve got and just leave it.
    Anyway, like I said, it’s a problem for many thousands of us.
    Thank you.

    1. Reply by Benjamin Fry on

      Funnily enough I was just talking about this at lunch today on an equine trauma therapy course that I am doing in Arizona! The key point here is that “trauma is in the body, not in the event”, which means that it is in your body right now, not in the past located in the event.

      Unfinished business stays unfinished and affects the way we respond to everything else in our lives, today! Therefore if you want a better NOW, then you sometimes have to complete was is left unfinished from THEN.

      It’s great that your life is going well, because that makes it easier to finish up these things in your nervous system. If your life is robust then you will be more so too, and this shouldn’t be a big drama to get out of the box and be done with. The goal is to really leave it in the past, both in mind and body, so that you can go forward living as if it is a memory, not a recurring event.

  7. Comment by Eillien on

    What an absolute inspiration you are Benjamin. Love the honesty in your post. Thanks for taking the taboo away from mental health issues. Would love to have a consultation with you 🙂

    1. Reply by Benjamin Fry on

      Thank you. I think that an open conversation about mental health is so important. It is never the sufferer’s fault. Call the number top right for a consultation if you would like to.

  8. Comment by Mary West on

    You are a user. You continue to use and attract privilege which you are used to. The rich suffer: but suffering is worse when the basic needs are not met, as is the case in poverty. The single greatest risk factor for mental illness world wide is poverty.

    1. Reply by Benjamin Fry on

      I agree with all of your comments after the first sentence! My nervous breakdown followed my own financial breakdown in the crash of 2008. I ran out of money for myself and my family when I was at my most ill and in treatment. The fear of losing my basic needs made me iller and the reality that treatment was only available if I paid for it made that even worse. It is a terrible double bind. I have worked with the charity think tank the Centre for Social Justice since my breakdown to try to address this. We published a paper on it in 2012 (read report) and set up the not-for-profit Get Stable to deliver on these ideas. The whole point of this work is to make effective therapies available to people with no money so that they can get well, and then perhaps have a chance to take care of themselves.

      I have been lucky that even though I lost my mind and my money, I still had my education and connections. That enabled me to do all this work and hopefully to provide something for those who could not have this voice for themselves, in the private, voluntary and state sectors. That’s my goal, and I hope a valid use of my privilege.

  9. Comment by fi on

    Hi Benjamin,
    I managed to rescue the article from the telegraph(before it was in therecycling bin very impressive but I was touched by the sadness of it all,dont people deserve a second chance? why be so hard on yourself?” afterall you did your best with the knoledge and ability you had at the time, hindsight being a wonderful thing,if
    only we knew then what we know now!!

    arrivederci
    Fi

    1. Reply by Benjamin Fry on

      Thank you. I feel that it is healthy for me to take responsibility and to be accountable for my actions as an adult. In a paradoxical way it helps me to move on from feeling like I am in some way responsible for what happened to me as a child. It takes a strong adult to look after a child and that is true on the inside too!

  10. Comment by EJS on

    Benjamin. Wow thank you for sharing this. I also feel immense guilt that I did not do well after going to a private school. I am in my forties now. I feel guilt at how I use my time and that I have no freedom to choose my time use. I have terrific issues with dermatillomania which saps time and leaves me suicidal and anxious when the shame consumes me. Reading your honest open article is immensely reassuring. Thank you.

    1. Reply by Benjamin Fry on

      Thank you. I hope you can find the help you need.

  11. Comment by Lucy Newman on

    Just read your article of 1 March. So many things as I have said ring true for me. I so would like a consultation. I am already receiving counselling but I think you are my key.

    1. Reply by Benjamin Fry on

      I’m pleased that this has given you some hope. Please do call on the number top right and we will try to help.

  12. Comment by Liz Martin on

    Hi> So good to read about your experiences. I totally agree that privilege can often be depriving.
    I am very interested in working and training with body sensation; I don’t have much money and live in Norwich England, so it seems a bit redundant! Working with adolescence I could se this but need it for me! Thanks for your honesty. Much appreciated.

    1. Reply by Benjamin Fry on

      You are very welcome. Thank you for the feedback.

  13. Comment by Maurice Mason on

    I know little about you or your ‘recovery programme’ Ben; I have and still feel with my 20 year pscho-dynamic schooling that I’m a good enough clinician. However when reading your story, instinctively something started to surface. I began to feel my mode of working with patients with issues, often not far removed from yours, feels incomplete! I’m not sure where I’m going with this but I will get your book and see where that takes me. Thank you for setting the mind buds racing.

    1. Reply by Benjamin Fry on

      That’s great. My own baseline is psycho-dynamic in that I ‘hear’ the unconscious messages of clients. And, yes, I do think that there is more that needs to be done. This work moves the activity lower into the brain stem, and I think that it is there that many ‘mental’ health issues originate.

  14. Comment by Susan on

    Every time I read something from Benjamin it makes more and more sense. Life does feel like a “constant threat” to me (is it not?)and I do feel “frozen”. I have had my fair share of trauma and I am sure I have passed all this on to my child. The guilt is overwhelming. Certainly traditional therapies appear useless. This approach gives me some hope.

    1. Reply by Benjamin Fry on

      I’m glad to see you using the word ‘hope’. In my experience, finding out that there was more, and people who understood, gave me hope. With that hope I was able to recommit to healing and to get well. We do need to understand the biology of the alleged ‘mental’ health issues we face, then there is a reason and hence a treatment, which does indeed create ‘hope’!

  15. Comment by Janet Finney on

    Dear Benjamin,

    I applaud you in your life’s work as it is the “most important” work there is to do….a level far above what “society” deems “important”….I am living presently in Prescott Arizona and each time I read your blog, I am wondering if I should explore the Meadows in Wickenburg for myself and/or for my adult daughter who also experienced early life trauma. Born a 2 lb preemie to an artificial life in an incubator for her first 8 weeks of life when she should have been developing a bond with me(her mum) and also the loss of her beloved father at age 2, she has suffered for 27 years for these issues (as well as early sexual abuse by a female relative in the family).

    We are very unhappy in Arizona, however and wish to be back in our home state of California or are trying to lift ourselves up to the idea of a relocation to London.

    Keep up the good work,
    Community feeling is key to healing as is Love,

    Peace,

    Janet

    1. Reply by Benjamin Fry on

      Please email me. I can refer you to a very good local practitioner who should be able to help.

  16. Comment by Anne Duff on

    I contacted Khirron house! after reading an article by Benjamen Fry, and am very grateful that they still email me. Unfortunately, I cannot afford to stay in Oxford and receive treatment, and live in Cumbria which has dismal support for mental health issues ( the highest suicide rate per capita in the country I think, or close). Unfortunately, there is still not provision for someone like me, to afford to go to so where like Khirron house. My partners experience of counselling was quite dreadful, provided by the NHS, and my kids experience, on losing their father aged 12 and 13, in a new country, was awful too.

    1. Reply by Benjamin Fry on

      I’m sorry to hear that. Have you talked to Penny about the possibility of sourcing NHS funding for our treatments?

  17. Comment by ros on

    Every time I read an article by you I feel an immense sense of gratitude for what you are doing – most especially for having the courage and chutzpah to speak out so honestly – so that others suffering out there can finally begin to find the path home.

    1. Reply by Benjamin Fry on

      Thank you. That’s means a lot. Every time I write an article I slightly wonder what I am doing and why, given that it does make me feel exposed, but then I remember when I talk to our clients and read comments like this!

  18. Comment by nick on

    Really interesting work and description of ‘incomplete stress cycles’ and the link to our mammal systems, rather than examining he ‘thinking’ part of our minds.

    Thank you Benjamin for this post,

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