The art of staying sane

Psychotherapist, novelist and wife of Britain’s best-known transvestite, Philippa Perry explains why she’s now turned self-help author

Philippa Perry lives in a tall old townhouse in a leafy square near London's King's Cross, with her husband Grayson, their daughter Flo, Grayson's teddy bear, Alan Measles, and a large and terrifying Maine Coon cat called Baddie. Like the rest of the house, the sitting room is filled with art: Grayson's glazed ceramic pots line the shelves, one commemorating the couple's wedding in 1992; propped against the sofa is a series of small canvases, on which Philippa has copied the dot paintings of Yayoi Kusama in felt-tip; and on the wall is a vast portrait of Grayson in a wedding dress. He's a Turner Prize-winning artist and Britain's best-known transvestite. She's a psychotherapist.

Obvious first question: is Grayson as intriguing a psychological case study as people might assume? "He's my husband!" Perry responds. "I've been with him since 1987. He's like one of my limbs! I can't see him like other people see him. He's my friend, my lover, my confidante. I'm so used to him."

But there was a time, wasn't there, when psychotherapists might have tried to "fix" cross-dressers? "People tried to fix homosexuality as well. But I hope we've moved on from that. Honouring an individual's subjective experience is basic psychotherapy."

Basic psychotherapy is the subject of Perry's new book, How to Stay Sane, part of a series of six small self-help paperbacks published by The School of Life, Alain de Botton's idea-sowing social enterprise. As someone who'd instinctively resist therapy and ridicule self-help, I found the book genuinely interesting, and potentially helpful.

Perry breaks her discipline down into four essential areas: "self-observation", "relating to others", "stress" and "personal narrative". After explaining the significance of each, she suggests useful exercises. Self-observation, for example, can be improved by keeping a diary, or even a daily breathing exercise.

For relationship aids, look no further than the "Daily Temperature Reading": a structured half-hour conversation between friends, lovers or family members, in which you offer and receive "appreciations", discuss your mood and your hopes, and provide each other with constructive criticism. "It's an amazing tool," says Perry. "Without it, people could just be exchanging dry bits of information, not keeping each other informed of their ideas or emotional processes. It's all about practice, not just doing it once. [Grayson and I] did it formally for about two or three years."

Stress, meanwhile, isn't all bad. "Good stress... is what we need for personal development and growth," writes Perry, who – as if to prove it – ran the London Marathon in 2008. "It was the best thing I ever did," she says. "It's comfort-zone expansion. I've never been sporty, but every year when I saw the Marathon on the telly or went down to the river to watch it, I couldn't stop crying. I found putting so much effort and training into something very moving."

The book is dedicated to Perry's father, now in his 90s, who still lives in Warrington, in the house where both he and his daughter grew up.

"He was born in one world war, and a major in another. I dedicated the book to him because I wrote it in a bit of a hurry and couldn't visit him as often. So it was a present; an act of love. I don't know if he'll read it."

Perry was born Philippa Fairclough in 1957. As a teenager at boarding school, she had undiagnosed dyslexia. Her parents, thinking her unacademic, sent her to a finishing school in Switzerland. "I saw it through," she recalls. "Not like Lady Di, who only lasted a month! I learned to ski and speak French."

She was married and divorced and worked for law firms and McDonalds, before going to art school as a mature student. The products of her art practice are as evident around the house as Grayson's: she painted the pictorial tiles in the kitchen, and created the intricate fireplace, which closely resembles some of the work in her husband's recent British Museum exhibition. "I made it in 1991," she explains. "So I was first! But I got bored of sitting in a room all by myself every day with Radio 4 and powdered milk. I like being with people." She met Grayson on a creative writing course in 1987. Their first date was at a transvestite club – and, yes, "When we were first together and he was poor, we did share clothes. He liked my Jaeger suits."

 

A round the same time, she became a volunteer with Samaritans. "I'm a child of the 1950s and we didn't talk about things; we just got on with it. I thought I was volunteering for the Samaritans because I could give back something to the community. But with hindsight I think my motivation may have been finding out if it was safe to talk about feelings. I listened to a lot of people, and it really seemed to work. So I thought I might give it a go myself, and went to therapy. It helped me enormously. I became very interested in the process – so then I trained to be a therapist. I felt inspired to see if I could help other people."

The Samaritans also taught her that people don't always recognise the source of their own unhappiness. "When I was a volunteer, a lady rang asking for advice about good second-hand shops in the area, 'because we've got a lot of gentlemen's clothes that we don't need any more.' Of course, you know that isn't the issue, so you ask: 'Why do you have all these clothes? Oh, your husband died... What sort of man was he?' To her the problem is that she has all those clothes, but of course that's not the real problem. Why she called Samaritans and not her neighbour, only her subconscious can say."

In 2010, Perry published her first book, Couch Fiction: a funny, frank graphic novel about a therapist and her patient that sought to demystify the psychotherapy process. She gave up her practice to focus on writing and now has a monthly column in Psychologies magazine. She's also an accomplished tweeter. "Twitter is great for the anxious narcissist who likes a bit of reassurance from time to time," she says. "It's a form of self-soothing."

As well as publishing Perry's book, the School of Life offers a therapy referral service for anyone who feels they need further help remaining sane. "Remember: see a psychotherapist and you might feel better," she warns, "or you might just feel broke... Every case is different. Every therapist is different. You can't say 'I tried therapy and it didn't work'. You might just have the wrong therapist." But when it works, she says, it really works: "The relationship with your therapist could be the most important relationship you ever have. Sometimes a friend needs tough feedback but you're not in a position to give it to them, and they don't want to jeopardise the friendship by doing so. But a psychotherapist could."

 

'How to Stay Sane' is published by Macmillan on 10 May, £7.99

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate