[Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott confessed today that he used to be a bulimia nervosa sufferer.]
Well, we didn’t see that one coming. John Prescott a secret victim of bulimia? It sounds like a cheap gag from a standup comic. Oh, and Gordon Brown has laughing sickness. But in his memoirs Prezza reveals how he would happily down a whole tin of Carnation condensed milk, or eat his way through the entire menu of Mr Chu’s in Hull. He’d make himself vomit after his binges, a classic sign of the disease which sadly afflicts thousands of girls in their late teens. Mr Prescott blames it on stress. He went to see a consultant who asked him “about my childhood, early sexual experiences, that sort of stuff, which I don’t think had anything to do with it.” Mr Prescott claims “I was just under pressure and seeking relief in eating too much, then sicking it up – that’s all there was to it.”
Although I have no reason to doubt the diagnosis, I’m not sure I entirely buy the source of his affliction. One of the principal causes of bulimia is low self-esteem. Can it be true that the ebullient Mr Prescott had actually discovered what to the rest of the world was blindingly obvious: he was a terrible minister? He’d punched a farmer, had dubious dealings over the super casinos, played away from home with his secretary and his housing and transport policies had failed. You could accuse Prescott of a lot of things, but being good at his job was not one of them. Faced with the realization of such inadequacies, any man would have turned to the bottle – or in his case, the tin.
I wonder if bulimia will soon join the list of celebrity must-have diseases, like depression. Depression is one of those catchy words, like rehab or charity, which is part of a new media shorthand designed to raise public sympathy. It’s a key weapon in the arsenal of the publicity machine: we all like a good victim, so coming out and admitting depression can excuse the most appalling behaviour. The list of celebrity sufferers is growing: George Michael, Kylie Minogue, Melvyn Bragg, Bill Oddie, Ruby Wax, Russell Grant, even Jordan has jumped on the bandwagon. There’s a danger that the sheer number of breast beaters may dilute what is actually a very serious illness. However one consequence of this self-exposure is that at last the public is beginning to accept the importance of “therapy”.
In Britain, especially here in the North, there’s still a stigma attached to the word. People still equate “therapy” with “loony bin”: it’s not something that’s talked about in polite circles. I had dinner last week with a friend who’s just split from his wife. His distress was obvious. It’s affecting his work and he’s drinking too much. When I suggested he should see a therapist, he looked at me with his proud Yorkshire face and said “Don’t be daft, I’ve not gone mad.”
When my first marriage ended I went to see someone called Trevor. He was very nice, but wore grey plastic shoes (funny how you remember such details in times of crisis). At the end of the first session, he charged me £75 and told me to come back twice a week for the next year. I never went again.
When my second marriage was failing, I was living in L.A., where going to a therapist is like going to the gym. I don’t know if I was actually depressed, but I was certainly pretty glum. So, overcoming my northern phobia, I trotted off to see a man with a moustache and Gucci shoes. He asked me the same questions that Mr Prescott’s consultant asked him, and fortunately I didn’t write them off as “stuff”. A year and a hundred sessions later I’d found the failings in me (which were substantial), and began the process of sorting my life out. My shrink even found me a divorce lawyer from among his clients. Mind you, I could have bought a lot of cans of Carnation for the price.