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Healing your body vs healing your mind

In 2013, when I sustained a running injury, I forked out £70 an hour for physiotherapy. They prodded around with my knee a bit, showed me some exercises involving rubber bands and pelvic floor raises, and told me not to run for a month.

Eventually, I could run again without pain, apart from the occasional nostalgic twinge which appears when I’m tired out. Quite conceivably, my injury would have improved by itself, and all I was really paying for was an official mandate to rest. But that in itself was not nothing. Left to my own devices, I would likely have convinced myself I was simply being lazy, or not tough enough, and would have stubbornly run through the pain to the point of knackering my leg.

I’m now, tentatively, forking out for therapy therapy, and am trying to persuade myself that the two situations are analogous. It’s the action of a pragmatist – you see a problem, and so you fix it. Your knee pain is stopping you from running, so you go to a knee doctor and sort it out. Your mental twists and coils are making life harder than it needs to be, so you go to a head doctor and sort that out. Knee, psyche, tomayto tomahto, let’s call the whole thing off.

After all, life is hard sometimes, and minds are just as susceptible as bodies are to everyday wear and tear, along with the occasional injurious yank. In times gone by they had prophets; today we have medical-sounding mind-kneaders.

But drawing this parallel feels disingenuous. Despite the fact the therapy clinic is signposted ‘chiropody centre’ (like a ‘massage parlour’ as subterfuge for a brothel), physiological and psychological therapy are two very different beasts.

Physiotherapy deals with biomechanics – the sort of problems, and solutions, that intuitively make sense by looking at a diagram of the leg. I do not mean this as any slight on physiotherapists, who doubtless have to go through a lot of training. But if your problem has a physical referent, it is instantly less mysterious. As far as I’m aware, there aren’t hundreds of different schools of physiotherapy, which all interpret your knee pain from different standpoints and offer a different way of connecting the dots.

Physiotherapy is also less embarrassing. I didn’t feel ashamed to tell people I was seeing a physio, even that time when my session was on a Friday and I ended up taking a foam roller to the pub. Body bits malfunction and that doesn’t mean you, personally, are malfunctioning. You can have poor hip stability and a weak gluteus medius – enough to cause a knee injury – without conceptualising your very being as somehow unstable and weak.

But psychotherapy is both baffling and highly stigmatised (I’m writing about it here because it shouldn’t be) and as it’s your thoughts and feelings under scrutiny, it can do a number on your sense of self. For ages, I chickened out of booking an appointment because the very concept made me cringe. I’m British, for frig’s sake. We Brits deal with our ‘troubled inner child’ the healthy way – via gallows humour, emotional constipation and fighting in the street.

A few sessions in, I’m still on the fence. I want someone to draw me a diagram of the self, and explain to me how a talking cure is supposed to change it. I want timelines, concrete goals and assurances that this is money well spent. I want an exact map of my brain – with the misfiring neurons circled in highlighter – which explains how talking about something that happened when I was 13 will affect X, Y and Z at 29.

Of course, the psychological community can’t even agree on that stuff among themselves, meaning some poor well-meaning therapist is unlikely to become my magic oracle. If something is complex and messy it ought to be uncertain. Easy answers are the preserve of cult leaders, idiots, and that psychic at Isle of Wight Festival 2009 who told me I’d meet an older man with a large nose at a salsa dancing class.

Still, despite respecting the honesty of inconclusiveness, I wish the parallels with my knee injury were cleaner. Psychotherapy feels mostly like spending money on being upset – and as a result, less fun, less functional, and less creative – which could be accomplished much more easily and cheaply simply by googling ‘UKIP’.

I am told it gets worse before it gets better, and that you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. To which I counter: omelette-makers generally have a recipe. They are not expected simply to break one egg after the next ad infinitum, until their dinner guests arrive and eat raw egg surprise and everyone contracts salmonella and orders in pizza.

So maybe I ought to trust the process a little bit. Still, it was all a lot easier to follow when I simply had a dodgy knee…


Categories: Mind & Body

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Abi Millar

British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands

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