In years to come, anyone consulting the class of 2012 photograph from Oxford University’s Kellogg College will see among the dignified students looking earnestly into the camera, a very mature (in attitude not years) student looking demented with happiness - that would be me.
For an American, at this stage of my life, being in the rarefied environs of Oxford is unbelievable; like winning the lottery. I have a student card, which I like to whip out and demand student rates; people assume it’s stolen. My children are furious because I left and went to university before they did - let them know what the empty nest feels like. I heard one say “Our mother’s left home. She’s at fresher’s week, we can’t find her.”
I had already gone back to school four years previously getting a degree in psychotherapy, I wanted to finish what I had started at University of Berkeley thousands of years earlier. I left in the middle of my studies, one day sticking out my thumb and hitchhiking my way to the UK. (I flew over the water). I still have dreams where I am trying to figure out my locker number to get the books out I left in there. Out of nowhere I decided to become an actress with absolutely no skill or talent whatsoever. Luckily, it worked out, but I always promised myself I would go back to my original fascination with the mind.
I heard Oxford was offering a MSt (master of studies degree) in Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy which was partly cognitive therapy, partly neuroscience and partly Buddhism. It’s fantastic that such an old establishment could offer something so eclectic. Before my interview, I stayed in a bed and breakfast near the college, hyperventilating I was so nervous. I managed to get in mainly because I give ‘great interviews’ and improvise so well I almost amaze myself with what comes out of my mouth, a moment later I have no idea what I said. Knowledge doesn’t really stick in my brain, it ebbs and flows. They told me I got in but I didn’t believe it until the actual matriculation. I had no idea what that word meant, it sounded like a skin infection, but the next thing I knew I was in full bat cape and square hat walking with hundreds of other students down Oxford High street with common people cheering. I waved like the Queen. As a student who never got the hang of spelling and was thrown out for putting sardines under the lighting fixtures you can imagine how startling the experience was.
You file into some ancient building and then the Dean of Deans dressed like a grand magician welcomes you by saying, more or less, “now you are in the most holy of holy institutions.” At that point, I was just thinking that if I could dig up my parents and they could see this they would never believe what was going on. My father would always be so encouraging when I was young, telling me I was cute but stupid. Matriculation was more sensational than getting married, not that getting married was so sensational; we did it in a registry office and I wore the receipt around my finger to prove we actually ordered a ring. I told my husband on the way in how old I really was but it was too late for him to bolt.
I travel to Oxford every six weeks and stay for three days. There are only 15 other people on my two-year course - professionals already and very bright. Many of them are psychiatric doctors and they first looked at me as if I was an encounter with a third kind. I’m sure they thought I wandered in from some institution not of learning but of mental. It is very strange to me that I’ve suddenly started reading science books so voraciously at this time in my life. It’s as if my old self has died and been taken over by a nerd.
I’m a member of the Student Union but I’ve never been there because I’m only in Oxford for 3 days. Also in honesty I would feel freakish showing up among the bright and beautiful. Just before enrolling for Oxford I crashed a course on neuroscience at UCL and told all the 21 year olds I had that disease where you age prematurely so they’d ask me out with them. It worked for a while until they found out I really was old. I would have loved to join some of the clubs at Oxford; I could have been a rower or a serious alcoholic. One of the best moments we had was getting in to the Bodleian Library, an officious guard said ‘you need a card’ and I brandished it out of my bag with the greatest feeling of “up yours”. There I was, open-mouthed touching 600-year-old books, staring at the paintings of severe looking aristocracy on the ceiling, feeling they disapproved of my presence. I actually filmed myself with my iPhone to prove I was there in the epicenter of all things smart and beautiful. I got caught which is so off limits it’s similar to treason, everyone looked at me in total disgust.
I sometimes stayed with Helena Kennedy, actually called Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws. I do not know who that woman is, I know Helena, my girlfriend. It was amazing to follow in her slipstream as Principle of Mansfield College, wafting around in her black bat costume and passing the porter (I think of him as the man in the glass box) who usually treats me like a toenail clipping; with Helena he seemed to kiss the earth he was so humbled to be in her presence. I squealed, “I’m with her” as we made our way to her lodge.
In actuality I wanted to study mindfulness-based cognitive therapy because I used it to deal with my own depression. I had my last serious bout 5 years ago and thought I am sick of running to therapists, stuffing in medication to the point of bursting so I began to practice mindfulness. It doesn’t eliminate the constant critical thinking, which is one of the symptoms of depression, but it certainly lowers the volume. When people are in the grip of depression they are usually at the mercy of a barrage of abusive thoughts and in order to run away or avoid them they work harder, get busier, become compulsive; some people turn to drink or drugs.
You can’t sustain loading on more and more ‘things to do’. Nobody can. Eventually you have a break down, an accident, a heart attack, you burn out. I find that studying cognitive therapy helps by actually learning how you, as an individual, think or feel in response to certain situations and by noticing that these responses might not be in your best interest, they are just habits of thinking. Some therapies take you back to your past to pinpoint why you are the way you are. I think you need an idea of your narrative but how many times do you want to tell the same story? You can’t, every time you tell a story you are changing it. Your memory elaborates and reinterprets the story. Also I find by telling the same story repetitively you start to define yourself by your story, therefore creating a more limited view of yourself and the world. People begin to say ‘this is what I am’ and it eliminates every other possibility. With mindfulness you take the place of the cognitive therapist, you begin to learn your patterns and with practice learn to self-regulate. The research on mindfulness using MRI scanners is very positive and impressive.
For part of my dissertation my tutors allowed me to perform a show at the Chocolate Factory, in London, as part of my assessment. Normally, students have to hand in a film of themselves doing 16 hours of therapy sessions with their patients, but as I am a performer and not planning on teaching mindfulness, I did a comedy show about how the brain works; Neuroscience with humour - a new brand. My new book called, “Taming the Mind - A Rough Guide to Sanity”, published by Hodder & Stoughton is due out next year. We have the technology to understand a lot more on how this amazing piece of equipment, the brain, works but it’s far too complicated unless it’s translated with humour, and that is my mission.