Whose stupid idea was couples therapy anyway?

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

‘‘So, what brings you both here today?” Dr Rosemary Nutfixer folds her hands into her lap and examines Curly and me in turn over the rims of her glasses. She looks exactly like a therapist – unsurprisingly, perhaps, as she is a therapist.

I know I’m being picky, but I wish she looked a little less like one. She reminds me of my mum, and that’s not surprising, either, because my mum is also a therapist. When I was growing up almost every adult I knew was a therapist. There were so many of them that I couldn’t imagine how there could be enough mad people to go around. That was before I realised that everyone, without exception, is mad.

“We, er, haven’t been getting on.” Dr Nutfixer nods gravely. All of a sudden I can’t remember why we are here, in this sad, grey plywood cubbyhole off Tottenham Court Road. It was my idea, that’s for sure. Curly didn’t want to come, but I cried and threatened to buy Larry, Moe and myself one-way tickets to Rio if he refused.

It’s not that we’ve been arguing. It’s worse than that. Curly and I have always bickered away merrily, secure in the knowledge that we love each other like mad. But recently we’ve stopped talking. Days have passed with nary a civilised conversation in our household. Curly just watches TV and grunts occasionally. I just cry. I’ve been crying almost nonstop for weeks on end.

It could be because in the past two months neither of us has had more than three consecutive hours’ sleep; Baby Moe is proving resistant to even the most fearsome sleep training regime. It could be because our plans to buy a house have fallen through and we will probably be stuck in our slightly-too-small flat for ever more. It could be because we should never have got together, and having kids was a huge mistake. I just don’t know.

Here I go again. I sniff and a tear plops on to my mud-stained Primark padded jacket. I haven’t even taken off my coat and I’m already blubbing.

“First, I have to ask: have you been to see your GP?” says the doctor, handing me a box of Kleenex.

 “My GP? What for?”

“For post-natal depression. There is very effective medication available, you know.”

I am stunned. Is she telling me this is a clinical condition? Surely it’s just, well, life. And I can’t see how medication is going to help. How are pills going to make our flat bigger, or get Curly a lucrative job in banking, or see off the threat of redundancy, or save the environment from certain destruction?

“I don’t think that will be necessary,” I say, pulling myself together sufficiently to nail Dr Nutfixer with a death stare. “Actually we came here to talk about Curly and why he won't retrain as a plumber.”

“I’m sure we will get on to that. But first I really would urge you to see your GP. Postnatal depression is a common condition, and medication really can help.”

I blow my nose ferociously. Whose stupid idea was therapy, anyway?

Alice O'Keeffe's column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.