Growing Pains: Making Sense of Childhood – A Psychiatrist’s Story

ISBN 978-1-473643-26-0, £18.99, Dr Mike Shooter, Hodder & Stoughton

Psychiatry has a murky and deleterious past. One need only look inside James Davies’s 2013 classic Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good to realise that this 200-year-old profession has at times been synonymous with quackery and, to quote Carl Gustav Jung, outright “barbarianism”.

What was meant to be medical treatment of the soul ended up being an experimental free-for-all in the form of malaria therapy, surgically removing body parts, injecting patients with horse serum or cyanide, insulin coma therapy, lobotomy and electroconvulsive therapy.

Such a trail of destruction is barely believable given the magnitude of patient abuse behind the scenes, but early psychiatric rationale was very much “Bacteria living in…bodily areas causes mental illness”. And decades later this was merely modified to the theory that mental suffering is wholly related to biological misfortune.

This critical shift away from emotional, spiritual and moral meaning (invariably linked to one’s environment) narrowed the view of patient suffering to a purposeless experience, thus one best dampened or removed by drugs. A negative vision of mental anguish was consequently born and the pharmaceutical industry began to hold sway over non-pathological beliefs which see pain as a liminal region through which we pass (therefore playing a redemptive role and aiding one’s perspective).

Growing Pains’ author, Dr Mike Shooter is neither a re-born Emil Kraepelin – psychiatry’s pernicious 20th century architect – nor a drug company apostle. His language with patients is occasionally and unsettlingly direct – certainly to a counsellor – but his stories across 25 chapters manage to subtly weave a thematic compendium which taps into the reader’s psyche.

Dialysis, disfigurement, anorexia, identity, loss, aggression and autonomy are all covered, but it is through the curious and misunderstood lens of adolescence – Shooter’s specialist area. What appears at first too simple in its unwrapping of childhood problems quickly becomes an insightful and solicitous journey.

Characters such as Craig, Bernie and Gavin heart-wrenchingly leap off the page – their apparent irrationality on the surface symptomatic of a deeper woe: Craig, the promising 16-year-old who decided to “retreat into failure” at school because anything else suddenly felt like a form of disloyalty to his twin brother who had been stillborn; Bernie (Bernice), 17, who started to dress in boys’ clothes – the “precariousness of her sexual identity” triggered by the abuse of her uncle; Gavin, five-years-old, who had the awful genetic condition of neurofibromatosis (internal “monsters”) and was largely hidden away before making the inconceivably brave decision to have his right eye and left lower leg removed.

Shooter refreshingly talks of the traps that exist for children: personality labels, family dynamics and culture (the disorder of society, à la David Smail). He refutes the idea that adolescence is a modern phenomenon. Most of all, however, he is not afraid to highlight his own weaknesses, failings and tendency to break rules; such humility and radicalness essential in this often perplexing world.

This review was first published in Private Practice, March 2019 issue, © BACP

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