You’re driving me insane: Literature, Lyrics and Drama through CAT eyes for clients and students

Elia, I. and Jenaway, A., 2007. You’re driving me insane: Literature, Lyrics and Drama through CAT eyes for clients and students. Reformulation, Summer, pp.43-44.


The idea for this workshop arose out of discussions in supervision. Working with adolescents meant that I had needed to get back in touch with the current music scene as so many young people would say in sessions “it’s like in that song, you know the one about...” as a way of describing their feelings, or their view of life to me in more vivid detail, as in the Charlotte Church song “You’re driving me insane”, which we chose as the title for the workshop. Irene had used the play, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller with one of her adult patients as a way of remembering the roles that he needed to avoid, and a patient of mine had spent a whole session describing a film which he had watched 30 times. A chance discussion between Irene and Jason Hepple, who was organising the 2007 conference, led to the workshop.

We presented a slightly adapted scene from Death of a Salesman. I played ‘Linda’ and Paul Dawson ‘Willy’. The audience were then invited to think about the reciprocal roles and procedures they had seen enacted. A lively discussion ensued over the narcissistic role played out by Willy Loman, particularly in relation to his son Biff. We also discussed how his wife Linda enabled him to continue in those roles, and even speculated what she could have done differently to help him move away from them. I was surprised at how involved people got in this exercise after seeing such a brief extract, but I suppose that was just the point we were making. Literature, music, and film can bring reciprocal roles alive, put the flesh on the bones in a way that just describing them directly does not. Seeing roles acted out, often in more extreme ways than happens in real life, can really get through to someone who has not yet fully accepted the idea of themselves in roles. This brings me to the second part of the workshop and my clinical case.

X was a sixteen-year-old, A-level student, referred to psychiatric services by his school counsellor. He had been found looking at suicide sites on the internet. The counsellor was alarmed by his vivid fantasies about killing himself. For example, one of his ideas was to cut himself in half with a chainsaw. He seemed to have a preoccupation with death, which was described without any emotional expression at all.

He said that this preoccupation had been present since age 7 or so, but he could not explain it. Doing badly at school and fear that he might fail his A-levels and end up as a shelf stacker in Sainsbury’s would make him dwell on these fantasies. He worried about becoming a shelf stacker because to him that would not be an interesting job and he would rather be dead. He wanted a job where you could travel and meet interesting people, but he found it hard to get on with his work and preferred to play computer games of the “shoot ‘em up” variety. He did also enjoy a game where you had to run a hospital and save lives.

His parents had divorced when he was around 9 years old, but he reported this as having been amicable and as having given him an advantage by having two homes, two holidays, two lots of presents etc. He got on well with his parents, had friends, and could get a girlfriend if he wanted one or break up if necessary.

I was at a loss to understand his extreme suicidal thoughts and said this to him, explaining that usually people with those ideas had experienced traumatic events in their life, but he described everything as being fine. He then told me about 7 deaths that occurred in quick succession over the period of a year when he was around 7 years old. Although all four of his grandparents died, he had felt close to only one of them and remembered going to the funeral but not feeling he had the right to sit at the front with his mother. Also he had not wanted
to see her upset. At last I felt I had something with which to begin making sense of his “out of touch with feelings” state, although he did not see how these deaths could have caused his current problems.

He spoke little and brought very little to the next few sessions, so I wrote a reformulation letter and drew a diagram, going on my intuition, using the idea that he had somehow become split off from his emotions as a child, and never got back in touch with them. This made life a bit boring and not worth living, and feeling only broke through in extreme ways when he was angry or upset and began fantasising about killing himself. He sort of accepted this hypothesis and asked if I could teach him how to get in touch with his emotions.

It felt like a breakthrough when in session 10 he started to tell me about his favourite film Equilibrium. He had watched this film 30 times and proceeded to describe the plot to me in detail. The story is set in the future after there has been a nuclear third world war. As the world was almost destroyed by this, the powers that be decide to eliminate the cause of war – human emotions. As in the book and film 1984 by George Orwell, all citizens have to inject themselves with a drug “prozium” to eliminate emotions. However, there is a resistance movement in which people refuse to inject and continue to read poetry, listen to music, and look at paintings. The protagonist of the film is a member of the police force that roots out resistors, kills them, and destroys the objects they are collecting from the past. For various reasons, the protagonist forgets to take his drug and then makes a conscious decision not to. He starts to become aware of his emotions. When he interviews a beautiful woman from the resistance, she asks him the point of his life. He replies tit is to safeguard the future of the world, but she tells him that life without feelings has no point.

Without giving away the end of the film, I simply say that X wanted to tell me that, having watched it 30 times before, he now for the first time felt emotions while watching it. We were able to talk about how the film symbolised our understanding of his own journey, and what he needed to do in future. It was very poignant to be at last on the same wavelength through the medium of this story. Later, he described being able to read emotions in films and TV much easier than with real people, and we agreed that this was probably because they were exaggerated
for effect. He was able to use drama to practise noticing feelings and begin expressing them in real life.

So what is the message from our workshop? Listen carefully if patients talk about their favourite film, song, or play. Ask them about their identification with created roles or suggest something for them to view, read, or listen to. It may sometimes be easier and less threatening to first identify reciprocal roles in creative contexts and to use created roles as shared signs in therapy to promote meaningful dialogue.

Alison Jenaway

Full Reference

Elia, I. and Jenaway, A., 2007. You’re driving me insane: Literature, Lyrics and Drama through CAT eyes for clients and students. Reformulation, Summer, pp.43-44.

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You’re driving me insane: Literature, Lyrics and Drama through CAT eyes for clients and students
Elia, I. and Jenaway, A., 2007. You’re driving me insane: Literature, Lyrics and Drama through CAT eyes for clients and students. Reformulation, Summer, pp.43-44.

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