Kathy Walton talks to Tanya Byron – a very therapeutic experience
Chatting to Professor Tanya Byron, 47, is such a boost that it’s easy to see why she is universally popular.
She’s on time for our interview, she’s great fun to talk to and above all, she’s a wonderful advertisement for her profession. No wonder the media adores her and so many of her patients stay in touch, some even choosing careers in mental health themselves.
It is Tanya’s weekly writing day and the slim, well-groomed psychologist is in her North London kitchen, being served “the best cup of tea in the world” by her husband, the actor Bruce Byron (best known as DC Terry Perkins in ITV’s The Bill) and getting ready to take their two Westies Fred and Spike for walk in nearby Trent Park.
“No, it’s not work displacement activity,” she laughingly assures me in mock school ma’am tones. “It’s all part of a healthy balanced lifestyle!”
We are discussing her latest book, the surprisingly readable The Skeleton Cupboard: The making of a clinical psychologist (due out in paperback at the end of the month, with a television series in the pipeline too).
It’s an absolute page-turner for anyone who has ever wanted to know not just what drives people to seek therapy, but also what motivates the professionals whose job it is to get inside the heads of troubled people. It is by turns funny, moving, compassionate, and sometimes, as the title suggests, shocking.
“My job is like being an investigator, it has a forensic element, rather like peeling back onion layers,” says Tanya. “It’s a journey from chaos to clarity. I have to find a narrative to help my patients understand why everything is falling apart around them, work out the direction of travel and find ways to resolve a problem.”
If that sounds a little earnest, her book isn’t at all. Each chapter is a fictional account of the journey taken by a former patient, dating from Tanya’s time as a trainee clinical psychologist, with Tanya very much travelling the same road, often stumbling herself.
For the reader, the biggest surprise inside The Skeleton Cupboard is that Tanya’s depictions of her experiences and her patients are often wonderfully counter-intuitive; you flatter yourself that you ‘get’ what’s wrong, only to be tripped up when the patient throws a wobbly. In one dramatic scene for instance, a man with an abusive past finally breaks down in tears and Tanya thinks she’s cracked it – only for the man to pull a knife on her.
“I was young at the time and still working out what it was like to discover what it’s like being a grown up,” she says philosophically of an experience that could have killed her.
Despite being composite characters (Tanya stresses they aren’t real), each patient is so convincingly drawn and their journey so full of entertaining twists and turns, suspense even, that I ask if Tanya has ever considered taking up novel writing.
“Therapy is a long process and a relationship has to be built, so [my assessment] is rather like a novel. I spend my life working out my patients’ stories,” she says.
Story-telling was very much part of Tanya’s North London childhood; her late father was a theatre director from a German-Jewish family and her mother spent her early years in India. Tragically and most decisively, Tanya’s first introduction to the workings of a disturbed mind could have come straight out of a whodunnit.
At the age of 15, it was Tanya who discovered her paternal grandmother dying on the floor, her brain having been hacked to pieces by someone she’d previously helped: a young pregnant drug addict who wanted money. As Tanya herself says in the book, it proved a turning-point. “That March morning…[something clicked] into a precocious place of calm rationality that I now believed began my journey into the profession of a mental health practitioner.”
She went on to study psychology first at York University, followed by an MSc and PhD at UCL and the University of Surrey respectively and since 2008, has been chancellor of Edge Hill University in Lancashire. She’s also Honorary Professor of Psychology at Shangdong Normal University, China. And if academic accolades weren’t enough, her TV credits include the family relationship series The House of Tiny Tearaways, Little Angels and its spin-off, Teen Angels. For ten years, she has been writing regularly for The Times and Good Housekeeping magazine.
Performing is in Tanya’s blood and she’s certainly very approachable, so much so that the comedy duo French and Saunders invited her on to their Christmas 2005 show to evaluate their childish behaviour, after which Jennifer Saunders suggested they write a sit com together.
Byron and Saunders’ exhaustive and, no doubt, hilarious research consisted of shopping together, people-watching in cafés, catching up with daytime TV and reading stacks of women’s magazines. The result was The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, a biting satire of reality shows and their often dysfunctional hosts, shown on BBC 2 in 2007, and an enduring friendship with Jennifer Saunders (they still walk their dogs together).
She recalls: “It was quite intimidating the first day. I couldn’t believe I’d just taken a call from the Jennifer Saunders, but we have a similar fascination with people and why they do what they do. Jennifer’s really interested in psychology and I like comedy because humour is such an important coping skill. The first time I came up with a joke and Jennifer laughed, I felt as if I’d got a gold star at primary school!”
If her expertise appeals to famous comedians, it isn’t lost on government officials either; Tanya has just been asked to prepare a manifesto on why 236 vulnerable children were held in police cells last year, not because they had done anything wrong, but because this country doesn’t have enough safe places for children at risk.
“CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) are in crisis,” she says passionately. “The last review was ten years ago and we are very bad as a society in treating [mental health issues]. If we had the same waiting-lists for physical injuries, there’d be an outcry.”
We talk briefly about why so many young people seem to be struggling with modern life and, without hesitation, she lists some of her targets. ‘Friend-parents’who can’t say no; an increasingly risk-averse society that doesn’t build emotional resilience in children by allowing them to fail; and a lack of engagement between children (‘digital natives’) and their parents (‘digital immigrants’) over social media are all to blame, she believes, along with the cult of celebrity.
“Our society feels that you’re nobody until someone knows who you are [but] the public eye can be a precarious place. It’s this external but meaningless validation of the self that makes us so vulnerable. It worries me when young people say ‘I want to be famous’.”
With a schedule as busy as hers, it’s hard to believe Tanya ever finds time to relax, but she assures me she does, with twice-weekly Zumba and kettlebell classes in the hall of her old primary school and regular trips to the cinema with her husband and children.
So what is she like with her own children, Lily, 19 and Jack, 17? How has it been bringing them up?
She laughs again. “I thank God for my own children who teach me that I too make mistakes. In fact, they tell me they could make a fortune writing a book entitled ‘Great with other people’s kids, s**t with her own’. ”
Reluctantly I draw our conversation to a close, but not before Tanya gives me another display of her flair for comedy, with an anecdote about her own tearful efforts to get her first baby to sleep. In desperation one night, her husband Bruce started reading tips from an expert’s child-rearing manual, which an almost hysterical Tanya told him were no use at all.
“But you’ve got to listen,” he pleaded. “You wrote it…”