Book Review: The Skeleton Cupboard

I am a big advocate of discussing mental health in the open -- it is something that has or will touch all of us in our lifetimes. And the sooner we can get rid of the shame associated with it the better, and more healthy, we will all be.

For a long time I flirted with the idea of becoming a psychologist, but now I'm pretty sure it's not the career for me. However, as I am absolutely drawn to reading and writing about psychology, I couldn't resist buying Tanya Byron's book The Skeleton Cupboard: The Making of a Clinical Psychologist.

At first I didn't realize it wasn't a memoir -- it is, in fact, fiction, based on Byron's 25 years of work in clinical psychology. The characters are inspired by her experience, but not actually based on real-life cases, which would risk the principle essential to her profession of confidence. This actually annoyed me at first and made me wonder how good it could actually be, but I should have had more faith in Byron (I have been a big fan of Byron's since the series she did with Claudia Winkleman on BBC Three called The House of Tiny Tearaways, where Byron was the therapist for families with children with behavioral problems. These types of shows are like catnip to me.)  

It would seem that the part of the book written in memoir is the perspective of her training as a therapist. Her time was split between her formal training at University College London and her series of six-month placements with supervision. And this is what is so interesting about the book: while telling the stories of her patients she also speaks about her own feelings and struggles around defining not only the mental health of her patients, but her own. 

Through narrative, Byron makes the point that it is not often clear where sanity ends and insanity begins. From my own experience, and from observing those around me, I would agree with Byron's conclusion in the epilogue, that some of us are just lucky enough to manage the challenges life presents, either through nurture, with supportive families and networks, or through nature, with less of a predisposition to mental health vulnerability. I also believe that the influence of these normalizing factors may change over time, and certain situations may result in those with no mental health issues in the past, suddenly finding themselves on the brink.  

As she puts it:

I'd forgotten how anxious I was, how arrogant I could be and how naive. I often had no more clarity of thought than the people I was meant to be treating. I owe a huge debt to them for providing me an opportunity to become a skilled practitioner and perhaps, a better person. 

I suppose some may find the book a tough read as even though the stories she tells are fictional, they are based on her clinical work. And certainly from what we know from reading the newspapers, the situations are believable, and very harrowing. But I think there's great hope in the telling of stories like these, in making all of us feel that we are not alone in our struggles as humans and through connection, there is some hope for healing.

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