It's quite normal, when someone seeks medical advice, for the doctor to ask, "What’s wrong with you?" Dr Tony Bates, Clinical Psychologist, tells Brendan O’Connor that he would rather ask, "What happened to you?" So, Brendan asks Tony, "What happened to you?" And the answer is extraordinary and unexpected.
Tony was talking to Brendan about his new book, Breaking the Heart Open: The Shaping of a Psychologist. There’s a lot in the book, including Tony's opinions on how we as a society deal with mental illness. But we’re going to focus on one part of his conversation with Brendan. In his book, Tony details the trauma he suffered at a very young age and how it affected his life and career. When he was just 3 years of age, Tony’s 16-month-old brother Jim died from measles. Tony himself contracted the disease shortly afterwards and wasn’t expected to recover. He was taken to a fever hospital in Cork by his mother:
"My mum was very kindly spoken to by a doctor who said, 'Look, you’ve just had one son die, you don’t need to see another one go through this, so why don’t you just go back to Dublin and keep a check on the paper and we’ll publish his death when it happens.’"
Tony’s mum did as the man in the white coat asked her to do and went back to Dublin. When she visited a week later with Tony’s dad, a nurse asked them not to visit again because it made the young Tony very upset. If this sounds horrendous – and it does – it was, Tony points out, a time when people didn’t really understand the effects of extended hospitalisation on small children.
"I had four weeks of that, and I was surrounded by glass in the fever hospital. And many years later that image came back to me in my 30s. But I had never been told that I had been in hospital and my mother hoped I’d forget."
When Tony told his mother about having the image of being trapped behind glass, she told him – in detailed letters – how he’d been sick as a child:
"And the whole thing was, you know, just unfortunate because whatever about getting a near-death illness at that age, I think had she been supported to be there, I would have come through that experience probably okay. So, it’s not hospitalisation per se that makes children upset, it’s what happens around that."
Tony’s mother, he says, couldn’t cope with him when he got out of hospital because he was hurt and angry and he blamed his mother for what had happened to him:
"So, I did not relate to her. I wouldn’t let her hold me, I wouldn’t let her touch me. But I couldn’t walk, I had severe difficulty with my legs. And so, she couldn’t cope, so she sent me to Cork."
Tony spent 6 months staying with relatives in Cork, which, combined with the hospitalisation, he says, left him in a very raw place for most of his life really, but particularly his childhood and adolescence. He spent a lot of his adolescence behaving in unusual ways and he tells Brendan that he now thinks of it as wearing his unconscious on the outside:
"All the fears and insecurities and nightmares, they’re all always there in my mind all the time and my conscious self, my, if you like, the part of me that could focus and learn and pay attention and function was unconscious, it seemed to be unavailable to me, so school was very difficult."
Now Tony can frame his childhood and adolescent difficulties not in terms of what was wrong with him, but rather in terms of what happened to him. So, his symptoms were attempts to cope, as opposed to abbherations, which stopped being useful as he grew older.
"So, as a child a lot of my autoerotic stimulation things soothed me. As an adult, I needed something way more than that."
Enter therapy. And Tony’s childhood experiences have informed his career as a psychologist. He told Brendan that he sees himself in some of the people who come to him and their struggles with their mental health. And, he says, they were the people who taught him the most and helped him the most.
You can hear Brendan’s full conversation with Tony Bates by clicking above.
Breaking the Heart Open: The Shaping of a Psychologist by Tony Bates is published by Gill Books.