Philippa Perry's guide to staying sane in lockdown

Philippa Perry on feeling not fixing, art and Grayson

Lockdown getting you down? The homeschooling, working from home or being out there on the frontline every day taking their toll on you and yours?

Maybe it’s time to turn to the professionals. Someone who’s spent decades working out what makes us tick and has a number one best-selling book flying off the shelves to prove it.

If the very word ‘psychotherapist’ makes you want to comfort eat Jammy Dodgers and reach for the remote, fear not, for no-one is more approachable than Philippa Perry, psychotherapist, author, podcaster, creative contributor on husband Grayson’s Art Club TV show, and ray of sunshine.

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With the light blasting through the wintry morning windows of the London home she shares with Turner prize winning husband, contemporary artist and cross-dresser Grayson Perry, she Zooms into view, a vision in stripes: horizontal orange, pink, turquoise and black across her jumper, vertical black and white through her perfect fringed bob, accessorized with purple blue glasses and orange red lipstick. The walls behind her are adorned with artwork and bright embroidered cushions bear the mottos ‘Home is Where the Heart Is’ (a gift) and ‘F***’ (Philippa’s own work, only without the asterisk editing).

She’s cheery before she opens her mouth to talk about The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children will Be Glad That You Did) – (Other titles include the podcast, Audible: Families in Crisis, How To Stay Sane and the graphic novel, Couch Fiction), her cat Kevin, daughter Flo and life with Grayson.

A bestseller in hardback in 2019 and topping the charts again in paperback now, The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read and Your Children will Be Glad That You Did might sound like a parenting guide, but it’s so much more than that. There’s something in it for anyone who has ever been flummoxed by family or relationships. Human, sage and funny it covers understanding how our upbringing formed us and coping with kids to mental health and beyond and comes in easily digested prose with nuggets of advice such as Feel don’t Fix, Connect don’t Correct.

“I like to make it punchy; hope that it will filter down and get people talking,” says Perry, delighted that her book is topping the charts.

Philippa Perry taken by Justine Stoddart

“It’s great because there’s not much point in writing a book if nobody reads it. You write it and don’t know whether people will get it or not, and they have. It seems I was telling them what they knew anyway but hadn’t put into words. I hope that it will improve the lives of parents and of children.”

Perry doesn’t do judgement, good or bad labels or quick fixes.

“I don't like the idea of ‘good parent’ or ‘bad parent’. I don’t think judging ourselves or our children helps at all because what we have with our children is a relationship. And what they need to feel safe is a good relationship to come home to, a good confiding relationship where they can say anything. It’s really important to not give priority when they get older to our point of view. We should have our world view and they theirs and one isn’t right over the other. If you can’t be OK with that, your kid will just give up confiding in you.”

We all like to think our children can tell us anything, but as Perry explains, the reality is they often don’t because of our habit of trying to fix things for them, to make everything better in a world where you often just can’t.

Grayson and Philippa. who present Grayson’s Art Club on Channel 4, have been together since 1987.

“If you’ve been in the habit of dismissing the monsters under the bed when they were small they will get into the default mindset of ‘I love my parent but can’t tell them about my monsters’. So many tragedies happen because we’re brought up to believe we’re only acceptable when we’re cheerful so we put on a happy face to please our parents then hide away rather than share problems. So it’s really important we accept our children with ALL of their feelings, not just the happy feelings and we shouldn’t think of sad feelings or angry feelings as something that we need to correct. We need to connect, not correct.”

“My dad used to tell me off for feeling down ‘cos there wasn’t a war on, bless,” she laughs. “He had a point, but it meant that I had nowhere to take my ‘down’ because I’d get told off for it. I’m sure he did want to connect with me rather than push me away but he hadn’t got the book, which is why it’s The Book I Wish My Parents Had Read.”

If Perry’s parents missed out on her book, her daughter Flo, now 28 and an illustrator and writer, hasn’t. She was one of the driving forces behind its completion when her mother’s energy flagged, telling her to get on with it.

“What’s so brilliant about Flo is that we have a great relationship, and she noticed that a lot of her peers have troubled relationships with their parents. There was love there, but also agony. They would say to her ‘I can’t tell my parents that!’ and Flo would think why not? Who else is going to help you get an abortion or whatever, so she kept saying ‘oh write it mum, please write it’. So when I sent her the first 10,000 words and said I’m going to give up, it’s too hard, she said ‘No! Separate that from that, make that into a separate chapter, go on, keep going! And I thought oh all right!”

Grayson and Philippa Perry at the Ultimate News Quiz drinks reception in 2019 in London, in aid of Action for Children.

Flo also benefited from having broadminded psychotherapist and artist parents, so was it hard for her growing up with the probably unshockable Philippa and Grayson?

“Well, her act of rebellion must do a master's in chemistry. ‘Okay, you're cleverer than us, you’ve proved that, now go and do some art!’ She laughs.

“She was running a club but that closed during lockdown, so now she’s doing more art, painting and putting it on her website, Floperry.com. She also wrote a book called How to Have Feminist Sex - A Fairly Graphic Guide so she’s become a sexpert and is often on panels, which is great. I’ve just got my head around the idea that she has sex - 28, is it too young?” she says and laughs again.

In times of Covid, there’s always someone worse off than you, so complaining about anything other than matters of life and death feels shameful, but Perry is big on encouraging people to voice their negative emotions. She also emphasises we shouldn’t try to fix what we can’t.

“I had this last night,” she says. “Sometimes I’m miserable because there are no parties and we’re not seeing anyone, and sometimes my husband is. Last night he was really ‘how much longer? Is this life now?’ It really got him down. And it’s so tempting to go for the fix and say ‘don’t worry, it won’t be forever’ or ‘isn’t it great we’ve got enough money, we’re so lucky’. But it’s much better to go ‘yeah, it feels a bit isolating doesn’t it’.

“If you do feel flat and notice your mood dropping, just describe what’s happening, or if it’s someone else, get them to describe what’s happening. Feel with them, rather than deal with them, so you’re both down there and then you can both come back up together.”

Grayson and Philippa Perry at the 'No Love Lost, Blue Paintings by Damien Hirst' exhibition at The Wallace Collection in 2009 in London.

“When I was working at The Samaritans I was told when someone’s in a deep, dark well, it’s no use staying up the top and saying ‘come up here the weather’s lovely!’ That just makes them go further down into the well. What you have to do is climb down and sit with them in there and go ‘bloody hell it is dark down here isn’t it? It’s dank and it’s dark, no wonder you’re so bloody sad. I’m so sorry you’re sad, I’ll sit with you’. Then they’re not alone, they’ll come with you further up. Might not happen overnight, but if you dare to let go of having to control the whole dialogue and if you dare to let yourself be affected by them and they can sense that affect, then they’re not alone and they will feel better however bad it is.”

As a psychotherapist in her three-decade career, Perry has seen this happen hundreds of times when speaking to people with depression.

“If I went ‘oh cheer up!’ I don’t think that would help would it? Or ‘have you tried doing breathing exercises?’ Or echinacea?’ If you say that you are pushing them away because you’re not letting them affect you. It’s important to allow people to be where they are right now, and then they are acceptable, because so often we have been conditioned to believe that some moods aren’t acceptable. It’s OK to say we’re angry, and hear others, and tell them you understand why. You’re being there, but you’re not fixing it. This is useful during lockdown when we’re miserable.”

Perry was motivated to become a psychotherapist by her curiosity as to what drives us and our behaviour and after an aunt left her some money she went to art school as a mature student, all the while reading her way through the psychology section of Swiss Cottage Library in London.

“Then it started to dawn on me, are you going to do anything with all this knowledge, you know, train? And I thought, oh I couldn't possibly.

But she did, first volunteer for The Samaritans, listening to people exploring their feelings and being heard and validated.

“It seemed to make them feel better. Who knew? So I felt then I could do my own therapy and when I learnt to become aware of my ways of being in the world I realized I could do them differently and that made a difference to my life. It was so great I just wanted to give it to other people as well. It’s pyramid selling, psychotherapy you know.”

Perry is all about seeing the world from others’ point of view as well as your own, because it expands the mind and opens up relationships.

This extends to Kevin the cat, a sleekly handsome black and white Battersea Dogs and Cats Home rehomer, who has taken up residence on her embroidery beside the Zoom screen, skilfully kneading the bright silks with his paws. This is Philippa’s latest art in progress, apart from dying black stripes into her white hair, for her role as “sidekick” on the forthcoming second season of Grayson’s Art Show, airing on Channel 4 next month. Last season saw 10,000 artwords submitted by viewers in lockdown.

“Last time my medium was pottery and that was much faster. Anyway, the first week we're doing Family, and for that I machine embroidered my family's faces onto napkins so I could at least put them round the table and feel like they’re there. My second week is nature and I’m doing needlepoint, but it’s difficult with the cat lying on it. He seems to know what I hold most dear at the moment, and he's just laid all over it. Look at him!”

Kevin luxuriates on the silks. Maybe he knows there’s no napkin portrait of him, worked in monochrome?

“I might do one, yes. But I don't know a cat that has had more art done of him, honestly. And now he's bitey!” she exclaims.

As Perry herself says, all behaviour is communication and Kevin is making his presence felt.

“It’s such a ‘mare, only because I’m running short of one colour and it’s so hard to shop at the moment.” She gives Kevin a stroke.

Perry has been Grayson’s ‘sidekick’ ever since they met at a creative writing night classes while she was a mature student in 1987.

“It was before the internet, so how do you meet baby fathers? You go to night school,” she says. “I tried other classes - film appreciation, that didn’t work. Oof! And I really didn’t really want to do mechanical engineering.”

After a few weeks of writing exercises, Grayson and Philippa hit it off and he asked her out.

“He said do you want to go to a transvestite club or a private view. A private view? How boring. A transvestite club please! I’d been to New York with my friend and gone to drag bars where you stand on tables on lip sync so I dressed up like Ru Paul’s drag race with a blond wig, false eyelashes, feather boa, a lot of contouring, lip liner, the lot, and went to pick him up from his house because I had the car.

“This dowdy middle-aged woman came to the door and I thought ‘oh my god he lives with his mother’. I said ‘is Grayson in?’ and his booming Essex accent came back, ‘who wants him?’.

“I said ‘Oh my God it’s you’, and he said ‘oh my god it’s you’. We didn’t recognise each other. He was going through a rather dowdy Marks and Spencer suit stage then. At this transvestite club they were all like that; they looked like a provincial branch of the WI except instead of talking about jam they were talking about cars and diggers, because they’re blokes you know. What a terrible start for any relationship, but there we were.”

Nowadays Perry doesn’t notice Grayson’s outfits, whether it’s jeans or a dress, dowdy or daring.

“I never notice what he’s wearing. If you said was Grayson dressed up last night, I’d say I can’t remember. I notice if people look lovely, but don’t ask me the next day to describe their clothes.”

With Grayson’s star rising after he won the Turner Prize in 2003, Philippa became a public figure too, writing in newspapers and magazines and appearing on TV. During lockdown she has the Art Club into which to channel her energy.

Does she think art can keep us calm in Covid?

“What helps with inchoate feelings we can’t pin down is to process them. Put them into pictures, objects, song, listen to music that seems to nail them, that's processing. And processing, especially traumatic feelings, is essential. That's the way we take control of the feeling rather than the feeling taking control of us. It doesn't mean we stop the feeling. That’s the trouble with drugs; they dampen the feelings down. You don't want to do that. You want to be in charge of it: drive the chariot, you don't want the chariot to drive you.”

After giving up running when she was 52 (she’s now 63), Perry took up swimming but with pools closed is missing it hugely.

How about walking? Is that an option?

“I can walk about four miles and then my knee goes,” she says.

Never mind. Has she tried online Zumba?

“Now, what you’re doing…” she says. “All you have to do is say ‘oh it’s a shame you haven’t got a pool.’ You don’t have to fix me with Zumba.”

She’s right. I’m doing that fixing thing.

“Yes. Don’t fix me. You just need to go ‘oh it’s such a shame the pool’s shut.’ I’m just illustrating how you don’t have to fix it. Because you’re using so much energy, and online pilates, I might already be doing it and f***ing hate it”.

I try again. “I’m sorry you don’t have a pool and might f***ing hate online pilates.”

“Thank you, that’s brilliant. Well done, you’ve got it! I’ve been seen and heard now.”

She has. And she definitely doesn’t need fixed.

CREDIT

The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read is published by Penguin Life, priced £9.99

Grayson’s Art Club, catch up episode tomorrow, 31 January, Channel 4, 7pm

and Season Two will air in February. Channel 4, https://www.graysonsartclub.com

Twitter status https://twitter.com/TheScotsman/status/1307976189248786433

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Philippa Perry with Kevin, who was rehomed from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, and likes embroidery.
Philippa Perry, psychotherapist and author of the bestselling The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children will Be Glad That You Did).
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 24: Grayson Perry and Philippa Perry attend the 65th Evening Standard Theatre Awards at London Coliseum on November 24, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)