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Health, Sports & Psychology
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Artist insight: Liz Bentley

Updated Friday 18th June 2010

For Liz Bentley, when things got really bad, she eventually had to laugh. A comedienne, writer, poet and therapist, Liz talks about how therapy - and comedy - helped her to deal with mental health and a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Microphone close-up against a blue sky Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Flickr CreativeCommons hiddedevries http://www.flickr.com/photos/8091814@N08/599606659/

[Image copyright: hiddedevries - CC-BY licence]

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Copyright The Open University

Text

Okay, to close the evening, she’s a wonderful performer, so please welcome Liz Bentley.

[sings]

I’ve got a very good relationship with my GP
They change all the time but I don’t care who I see
I get a regular prescription of temazepam
I am very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very lucky
Many, many, many people don’t know that prescriptions can always be free
They don’t check what boxes you tick or if it’s really you that’s sick
Well, doctor, you can’t cure me because nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing wrong
I’m not sick, just bored a bit and need new material for a song

My name’s Liz Bentley. I’m a 45-year old mother of two. I’m a therapist. I work within the NHS in primary care and also have a private practice. I’m a comedian. I’m also working as a performer, writer and poet. When I was 21, I became a Samaritan volunteer. I was always aware as a child I felt different to other, certainly other children, other people, and then as I was getting older, adults.

Being a Samaritan, I suppose I felt that I could relate to the callers. With that experience, I landed myself a job at the Marie Stopes Abortion Clinic. I was funded to do some counselling training. I realised that if I didn’t get therapy myself I would probably land up in a bit of a mess. So I found a therapist through the British Association for Counselling Psychotherapy, and luckily I found a therapist who I then saw for seven years.

I started to have an eating disorder in my teens. I didn’t know what it was. It’s bulimia. But at the time bulimia didn’t seem to be in the English language. I also somatised. When I say 'somatised' I mean I think emotionally, because there was no outlet for my emotions, I think I took things in on myself, so physically I became quite sick, and at 23 I was eventually diagnosed with having multiple sclerosis. Soon after that diagnosis, I then started to get some quite nasty MS attacks. I had to look at my life.

It became clear that there were a number of issues including relationships and drugs, alcohol, putting myself in very vulnerable situations that I needed to look at really to help myself move forward in life. I was numb. I think that’s where the MS played such a part because it physically makes you numb, and I was numb physically and I was numb mentally.

It took years to actually start thinking that life might be different if I started to feel or have emotions like anger, for example. I mean anger wouldn’t be something that I thought existed within me, and it took a long time to acknowledge how angry I was about a lot of things and disappointed, regret, that kind of thing, but not much regret actually.

As a therapist, I don’t give any diagnoses or labelling. I leave that to the doctors and the psychiatrists. There was a workshop around borderline personality, and I never forget there was a form that they were saying that the psychology or psychiatrist would ask a patient to tick boxes, and if they ticked more than I think it was five of those boxes then they would be diagnosed as borderline personality, and I remember saying out quite loudly oh that’s me!

Although I was saying it jokingly and the other counsellors laughed, afterwards it reminded me that I was still on a journey, and I wasn’t far from these tick boxes and actually how fortunate that I went down the psychotherapeutic route at the age that I did and when I did, I do feel fortunate that I came across the right therapist at the right time who could hold me for all those years.

Ah, the writing started, it was my therapist. She was trying to get me to open my horizons, and she would never advise me where to go, but I do remember her mentioning Morley College, and I did some drama and some creative writing courses there. I wrote a novel and an agent did, at one point, want to read the book. She then told me it was too, she said too personal and too many descriptions of bodily functions for her taste - I will never forget those words.

It was my partner of the time who suggested that I take a story from the book and read it at a Spoken Word/Open Mic Night. So we looked in Time Out and there was a gig down the road. So off I went with a story from the book, and I read it on the stage, and to my surprise people laughed. Which I mean it wasn’t funny at all. It wasn’t written in humour, it was a disturbing piece of work but obviously very funny.

That night, not only was I booked to do a paid gig a few weeks later, so it was the start of my performing career, there was somebody in the audience who belonged to a writers’ group and who invited me to the writers’ group where I gained a lot of support and help with the writing. I probably put more down on the page than I ever managed to get into a session because of a lot of things I was bringing I was very ashamed of. It’s just what's happened in my life.

[Sings]

You get lots and lots and lots of money,
but it’s changing rapidly so don’t be smug.
The surgery’s now open ‘til half past seven,
no early break we’ve got a meeting at eleven.
The Primary Care Trust is crushing, crushing, crushing, crushing you
and government guidelines suggest that CBT will work for you too.
CBT will work for you, CBT will work for you.
Yes, now occasionally, sometimes, sometimes, occasionally, sometimes, occasionally, sometimes, sometimes, occasionally, same thing.
And then there’s CCBT1, that’s computer cognitive behavioural therapy 1
that’s doing it with a computer.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is becoming much more known to our society at the moment, and it’s, I was under pressure working in the NHS to change the way I worked. It’s a huge relief for me to put down my feelings about what goes on in the NHS in a song because it’s not personal, it’s just about what’s happening, and a lot of people, especially therapists and patients, can relate to it.

I do get a lot of people come up to me. Some say I really like your humour or your humour’s just spot on or something, I really relate to it, and then sometimes someone will say something quite specific. I do something about discovering I’ve got something that’s called Morbid Jealousy and a woman came up to me, and she said I’ve got that, it’s really nice to hear you talk about it.

When I talk about Morbid Jealousy, I talk about being in a new relationship and the first night I spend with my new boyfriend. We’ve spent the night together and then in the morning he gets up to go to the toilet, and he’s gone for maybe thirty seconds. When he comes back, I ask him where he’s been, and he says he’s been to the toilet, and I’m so jealous of the toilet that I can’t use the toilet. And this is a true story. So I recognise something as being quite serious and worrying, but also I recognise things as being very, very funny.

I don’t laugh at other people. I only laugh, I can only sort of laugh at myself. You have to laugh in the end. Maybe it’s that when things get so awful, the only, yeah, that’s what it is, when things get so bad, they’re so awful, the only thing to do is to laugh, and I just remembered. I had three miscarriages, and I remember going to a friend’s, who wasn’t one of those sort of sympathetic, empathic friends that would sit me down and give me a cup of tea and sort of talk to me about how I felt about the appointment I’d just been to, and I went there, and I just told her of this horrible appointment I’d been to and how hideous it was, and she just said to me ‘well why don’t you write a song about it then?’ in this quite stern way. I said okay then. And she gave me a piece of paper and a pen, and it’s really quite a shocking song really when I think about it.

Mmm, it’s a difficult subject because it’s such a common issue and there’s going to be somebody in the audience that’s struggling with fertility or loss, and so it’s going to hit a nerve and if they’re in a space to be able to laugh or see the funny side then okay, but sometimes they might not be. They might find it a bit difficult but then maybe they need to find it a bit difficult.

Comedy can help mental health. And I don’t think it matters what type of creativity it is. We have got something in us, and it doesn’t matter what it is. It could be cooking, it could be gardening, it could be anything, we’re all individual and we’ve all got things that we can give to others. I’m lucky to have found mine.

[Sings]

Doctor, you can’t cure me because there’s nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing wrong.
I’m not sick, just bored a bit and need new material for a song.

Thank you very much.

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