Blogging about books – The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

About once a year, a book comes round that becomes a huge bestseller largely on word of mouth recommendations – like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train.  I don’t tend to enjoy these books – Gone Girl was deeply unsatisfying with its collection of unpleasant characters, the most unpleasant of whom comes out on top, and The Girl on the Train was just dull.

I was hoping The Couple Next Door might buck that particular trend but I was to be sadly disappointed.  The plot seemed promising enough – having been let down by their babysitter, Anne and Marco go to dinner with their next-door neighbours leaving baby Cora alone in the house.  Lest you think they are totally neglectful parents, they do take the baby monitor with them and go back to check on her every half hour.  It’s probably obvious that I’m not a parent when I say that this does not seem entirely unreasonable – okay the house could catch fire but it’s not very likely and any other problem would be identifiable from the baby monitor.  And while I don’t think it’s an unreasonable solution to the problem I find it hard to believe that a new mother would be emotionally capable of leaving her baby alone like that – I don’t have children, that doesn’t make me an inhuman monster.

Anyway, to get back to the plot, when Anne and Marco get home they find Cora has been kidnapped and there then follows the interminably slow tale of the police investigation into her disappearance.  This is all told by an omniscient narrator so the reader is party to practically everything any character thinks, says or does.  I assume this is intended to generate tension as we know things the other characters don’t but it actually has the reverse effect, slowing things down and rendering large chunks of the plot irrelevant.

Yet again we have a book in which it’s hard to like any of the characters – I can summon up a small bit of sympathy for Anne and I suppose Cora would be likeable if her parents cared enough about her to convey any hint of her personality, but everyone  else is just vile.  I don’t understand why it is that writers of thrillers, in particular, fail to recognise that readers need someone they can root for.  It’s much easier to appreciate a book if you can identify with a character and that’s just not going to happen if they’re all horrible.  Unless the reader’s a sociopath.  Maybe this books aimed at sociopaths.

Without wanting to give too much away, I can say that after many (too many) trials and tribulations Anne and Marco appear to be in with a chance of rebuilding their lives.  Only the author just won’t let them go, ending with the most ridiculously melodramatic twist it has ever been my misfortune to read.

I gave this book away.  Quickly.

Hypnotherapy Diploma – Module Three

We did it!

Three months ago, a motley crew of seven strangers started training to become hypnotherapists.  We were excited, apprehensive, and unsure quite what to expect. On Wednesday April 5th, seven friends reluctantly went our separate ways, proudly clutching our Diploma certificates.

It’s been quite a journey.

I was quite late setting off for Aviemore this time, arriving just after 5.30pm but I wasn’t too surprised to find I was the first one there.  I’d bumped into Andy and Lisamarie buying up food stocks in case of a zombie apocalypse topping up their alcohol supplies in Tesco and I knew Marta was waiting for Matthew to pick her up from Inverness airport.

I didn’t have long to wait, however, before they all arrived and we sat down to our first evening meal of this module, washed down with copious amounts of rosé wine.  We sat up talking well into the night (and possibly also the next morning) excited to be nearing the end of our training.

Saturday was devoted to reviewing the case studies we had carried out since our last module.  Again there were some amazing stories of positive change that had been brought about by my fellow students.  This time, however, I felt able to take a pride in my own achievements, another sign that my depression was no longer in control of my mind.  Matthew also took the opportunity to make us aware of a recent article in New Scientist, the main message of which he summarised as “hypnosis isn’t bollocks”.  He may have been preaching to the converted somewhat on the subject of hypnosis and its non-bollocksness – I lean towards the view that people who have paid a not inconsiderable sum of money to learn about a subject are more likely than most to believe there might be something in it.  However, it was reassuring to have that belief confirmed by such an august journal.

Saturday was also my birthday.  I’d accidentally let this slip in a reply to a Facebook comment asking me how I was going to spend it and my fellow students had eagerly picked up on this as an excuse for a celebration.  I was surprised to receive cards and presents, and Jan even served cupcakes with candles in them at lunchtime.

We’d planned to go out in 70s fancy dress, and earlier in the week I’d ordered my Bjorn from ABBA costume.  Unfortunately I was too mean to pay £8.00 for a Bjorn wig so ended up paying £20.00 for in Claire’s Accessories for a  long blonde one which a neighbour kindly cut and styled for me.  On the plus side this allowed me to cross shopping at Claire’s Accessories off my bucket list.  (I don’t actually have a bucket list – if I did, I’m pretty sure shopping at Claire’s Accessories wouldn’t be on it).

We were a motley crew that night – I doubt the Italian restaurant in Aviemore had ever seen anything quite like it.  We had three quarters of ABBA – Marina as Agnetha, Andy as Benny, and me as Bjorn.  Frida clearly had a prior engagement.  Gillian and Marta were 70s hippy chicks with a bit of a Fleetwood Mac vibe, while Lisamarie in a huge Afro christened herself Gloryhole Gaynor.  I think Lisamarie may have been a drag queen in a previous life.  John contented himself with wearing a cowboy hat and striking a 70s pose.  I should perhaps clarify – the cowboy hat wasn’t all he was wearing.

A good time was had by all and there were some thick heads and heavy eyelids when we got back to work the following morning.  The difficulty inherent in studying hypnotherapy is that you get hypnotised a lot.  That may not sound like a huge problem but when you’ve experienced it few times it becomes very easy to slip into trance.  All it takes is a couple of words from the right person and away you go.  Add that to the effects of a late night and watching a hypnotherapy demonstration can only end one way.  I don’t think a single one of us experienced the whole of Sunday’s training sessions in quite the way Matthew intended.

Somehow we managed to learn something about Ericksonian approaches to hypnotherapy.  Milton Erickson was an American psychiatrist who used his own very personal style of hypnotherapy, involving storytelling and metaphor to great effect.  This had a certain resonance with me – I often use metaphors and similes in conversation which I strongly suspect make no sense outside my own head.

In the afternoon we were introduced to the RESOLVE model of therapy developed by a New Zealander called Richard Bolstad.  This is an approach to psychotherapy which uses NLP techniques to great effect in the treatment of mental health problems.  Although we could only skim the surface of the subject, this was something I found very interesting and intend to read up about.

That evening we had a real treat – Marina had invited us to her croft for a delicious meal of roast lamb.  I have no idea how she managed to cook this while simultaneously attending the course – I can only assume she has a team of elves who attend to her life while she is doing other things.  Either that or she is supremely organised.

We arrived to the sound of bagpipes being played beautifully by her 12 year-old son Kyle, who also plays four or five other instruments and can basically pick anything up and get a tune out of it.  Once inside the house we met Donald, Marina’s husband, who clearly has the patience of a saint, her beautiful little daughter Isla, and twin boys Jimmy and Murdo.  I think we all fell a little in love with the younger ones and were in awe of Kyle’s talent and ability to engage with a group of weird adults within minutes of meeting them.  Marina’s children were beautifully behaved and a real credit to her.  Donald was quite good too.

After dinner we sampled some of Marina’s gin collection and were introduced to the game Cards Against Humanity.  I’d heard of this but had no idea what it involved.  Sadly, although I know it was a lot of fun I have no clear memory of it so still don’t know what it involves.  Blame the gin.

By Monday morning we were becoming increasingly aware that our time together would soon be over.  We watched a video of Richard Bandler, one of the founders of NLP, working with a schizophrenic patient.  This was made some years ago, and the fashions of the time rendered it unintentionally hilarious, but Bandler showed an impressive ability to quickly produce beneficial changes to the patient’s response to difficult situations.

Later, Matthew did some work with Marta, who had a fear of learning to drive as a result of a car accident when she was a child.  It was fascinating to see her become upset as she relived the accident under hypnosis, then relax as Matthew helped her to let go of the distressing feelings.  He also showed us a video of him working with a mountaineer who was being held back by the trauma of accidents in which he had seen friends killed.  If we had any doubts about the power of hypnotherapy to produce positive change, they were quickly being swept away.

Tuesday was the last full day of the course and to describe it as packed would be an understatement.  After touching on the subjects of mindfulness and hypnosis in healing, Matthew spent some time talking about past life regression.

This is a subject the majority of, if not all, hypnotherapy schools teach, generally with the caveat that they are expressing no opinion on the reality of past lives.  This may sound like fudging the issue, but Matthew’s approach is that regression should be carried out in order to find the root cause of a present problem which can then be laid to rest, rather than simply to satisfy curiosity about past lives.  From this perspective it doesn’t matter if the past life experience is real or, as I tend to believe, a story created by the unconscious mind to explain the reason behind difficulties in “this life”.

We tried an exercise in regression, initially going back to our earliest memories, then going through a door to a past life.  This was where it got really interesting – I went back to 1896 at the end of my life.  I was blind, I was dying, and it was fine – there was nothing to fear.  Was this a genuine past life experience?  Did my unconscious mind create it?  Or did I consciously make it up in order to explain my difficulties with visualisation while also assuaging any fears I might have about death?  Maybe it doesn’t matter.

After a break, Matthew showed us a video of himself working to help Rogan, a student on one of his courses, overcome the psychological effects of a brain injury, with a follow-up video where the two of them discussed the results of this therapy.  Even without Rogan’s own description of the positive change he had experienced, it was clear from his demeanour that hypnotherapy had benefitted him immensely.

This was followed by a short session on Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT).  This is probably best described as a form of psychological acupressure which works by clearing blockages int he body’s energy system.  It may sound like the worst kind of New Age mumbo-jumbo (Wikipedia dismisses it as a “psuedoscience”) but it seems to work, to the extent that it has been adopted by many therapists in the field of PTSD.  I read about it several years ago and thought it might help with my depression but was put off by the perceived difficulty of learning the procedure.  It’s actually surprisingly easy when you’re shown how to do it – after a couple of sessions it just becomes second nature.  And I’m pleased to report that it does seem to have a beneficial effect on my mood.

Finally on Tuesday, Jan gave us some information on joining the General Hypnotherapy Register, getting insurance and business development.  It felt like a long day but a very worthwhile one.

This being the last night of the module, we of course went to the Cairn at Carrbridge for a celebration meal.  Unfortunately it was very busy so the only table available was in a back room away from the atmosphere of the bar.  This took away some of the fun we had previously had there.  To make matters worse, the only rosé wine they had was Zinfandel.  Lisamarie and I have standards – they may be low but Zinfandel is way beneath them.  Once Marina and Gillian went home the rest of us decided to head back to Motivation Manor, stopping off to replenish our wine stocks at Tesco.

We sat up talking until far too late then crawled up to our beds.

We were a subdued group on the Wednesday morning – tired, hung over, and aware that we would soon be saying goodbye.  Matthew added to the things Jan had said about business development, advised us on pricing and premises, then handed out our certificates.  We had a group hug,Jan took a photograph of us and that was it.  The end.

Those of us who didn’t have to rush off went into Aviemore for coffee and more chat before reluctantly, and with much hugging and promising to keep in touch, finally going our separate ways.

I used to watch programmes like The Great British Bake-off and be a little cynical when the contestants claimed to have made friends for life, suspecting that was said for the cameras and they would actually have forgotten each other’s names within a week.  Now I know differently – I understand the power of an intense life-enhancing experience to form bonds between people who have only known each other for a short time.  Motivation’s first class of 2017 has a WhatsApp group on which we are all in regular contact, sometimes sharing success stories or asking for advice, at others having stupid conversations about ducks that no-one else would understand and I have no intention of explaining.

I enrolled on the course to learn hypnotherapy.  I came away with new friends and a new outlook on life.  I think that represents pretty good value for money.