Breaking Badly by Georgie Dent

Breaking Badly by Georgie Dent is the second Australian memoir I’ve read within the last month that examines mental health. While Nicola Redhouse turned to psychoanalysis and medication, Dent discovers that CBT strategies are effective in managing her anxiety.

On paper, Dent had the ‘perfect’ life. A recent law graduate, she landed a sought-after position at a prestigious Sydney law firm; had just moved in with her boyfriend; and was surrounded by supportive family and friends. Very quickly, things changed. Dent was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and began to suffer pain and crippling anxiety. Within a year, she had left work, was living back home with her parents, and finally ended up in a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Dent describes her year as ‘worrying herself sick.’

I preface my thoughts on this book with two important points – firstly, what works for one person, doesn’t for the next and therefore, no judgment. Secondly, chronic pain is a game changer. People who are living with chronic pain will do anything for relief and until you’ve been in that situation, you can’t really know.

Dent’s describes her experience of CBT –

I changed my life because I changed the way I thought. It was as complicated and straightforward as that.

And, like Redhouse, considers the links between our physical and mental health –

Early on it had felt like I was losing my mind because I had lost my body, but several months on I was beginning to wonder if it might have been the other way around.

I think many elements of Dent’s story will be familiar to readers, particularly her ‘perfectionist’ approach to every aspect of her life. Dent’s ‘faulty thinking’ (that’s a CBT term) was such that she saw her path as linear – she either achieved or not, got better or not – this type of binary thinking leaves no room for ‘progress’ or small victories/ defeats –

Two immutable facts of life make this paradigm calamitous: perfection is impossible to achieve, and failure is inevitable.

There is a ‘happy’ ending to this story. Dent manages her anxiety, marries the boyfriend, has a career change (to journalism), has three kids, and continues to live a fulfilling life. And therein lies a common problem with memoir – there is no ‘ending’ because life goes on and yet, authors feel compelled to provide a conclusion. This is particularly problematic in the case of this story – an ending (that Dent is content and managing her anxiety) is ‘binary’, the very type of thinking she learnt to fight.

Furthermore, the neat conclusion makes her problems seem far more easily resolved than I imagine they were in reality. The fact is, anxiety is something that is managed, not ‘cured’. It can be managed in many different ways (from medication to meditation), and Dent found that CBT worked for her.

3/5 Interesting but not ground-breaking.

4 responses

    • Some memoirs have a natural conclusion but I think most often, they don’t, which in turn demands of the author a ‘take away message’. That’s hard stuff to write!

  1. I don’t know about Crohn’s Disease, though there was a young man on the ABC last night dealing with it with marijuana (my first TV for the year, I was at mum’s). I have a young teenage relative who is learning to deal with bi-polar (diagnosed. And her father’s was severe). Those incremental wins are very familiar. 15 was terrible, 16’s going ok, if she (mostly) stays on the rails I think dealing with it will become ‘ordinary’ but I don’t think it will ever go away.

    • No, it won’t ever ‘go away’ – there’s as much work in managing it as there is managing the expectation that it will ‘go away’. I know a few people living with chronic pain and regularly others will assume that because they’re not talking about it, they’re ‘okay now’. And then imagine if someone did talk about their health/pain constantly… because others want to hear that!

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