October 2007


Wendy was sent to see me because for the previous three years she had been suffering from a disfiguring rash over the left side of her face.  The dermatologists had diagnosed eczema, but the rash  didn’t respond to the usual creams.  Even steroids had failed to resolve it and make up didn’t conceal it.  It was particularly embarrassing because Wendy had been working as a beautician in the cosmetics department of a big store.  Her employers were understanding but she eventually lost her job. 

I asked what was happening in her life when the symptoms first came on. Wendy looked down in embarrassment and told me they had started around the time her sisteen year old daughter, Jane, became pregnant.  Wendy had felt angry and deeply ashamed.    To Wendy, this was history repeating itself.  She had become pregnant with Jane at around the same age. Her mother had been furious when she had found out and had slapped her so hard across the cheek, the mark did not not go for months.  This was the first time, her mother had ever hit her.  It was she said, her stigma; the sign of her shame. That night, she left home to live in her boyfriend’s flat.

Unexplained symptoms often seem to represent what is going on in a person’s life.  They are the feeling or reaction to what has happened.  We all know how the loss of someone close to us causes a lump in our throats and a pricking and watering of our eyes,  how we feel a rising burning sensation in our chest when someone ignores us or is rude and how we feel an urge to go the toilet before an important interview.  These are familiar.  We take them for granted.  But they are usually short lived.  We realise why we are getting these sensations.  We recognise the emotion; sadness, anger, fear or guilt.  We resolve the situation that caused the emotion by thought, action or words. action .  For example,  the fear we feel in our bladder or bowel is resolved as soon  as we start to engage in the interview.  But if what has happened is so severe, we don’t want to think about it or if we cannot, or don’t want to resolve the situation, then the symptoms are likely to remain. 

Women suffer more unexplained illness than men and their symptoms tend to be more severe.  More women than men suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome,  Chronic fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia Syndrome,  Food Intolerance and Functional Dyspepsia.  Constipation and Anorexia Nervosa are almost entirely diseases of women.  So what is it about women or their  roles in society that makes them disproportionately susceptible to unexplained illness? 

Sociologists will argue that despite greater equality in the workplace or perhaps because of it, life for women is much harder than it is for men.  Women still undertake more responsibility for running the home, for rearing the children, looking after parents than their husbands and yet many of them have to go to work as well.  Single parent families are ten times more likely to be headed by women than men.  Much is made of a woman’s ability to carry out several different roles at the same time; mother, wife, lover, housekeeper and employee, but this emotional balancing act can only be achieved at the cost of secrecy, guilt or frustration, which is often played out in the body.  

But it’s not just that women have things harder than men, they are also more sensitive.   Woman have a more acute sense of smell, they have greater discrimination of taste, their hearing is more acute, they have a wider range of vision, their skin is more sensitive,  their gut is more sensitive to distension and to nutrients, their bladder is more sensitive.  By any measure, the same principle applies.  Women are not only the secretive sex; they are also the sensitive sex.  Endocrinologists have suggested this sensitivity may be caused by the balance between oestrogen and progesterone and their effects on modulating responses to other transmitters such as serotonin;  psychologists suggest it might be due to a woman’s greater emotional capacity.    

Lord Byron probably had a point when he wrote, ‘Man’s love is a thing apart – ‘tis a woman’s whole existence, but perhaps his masculine view was a little constricted.  But physiologists have shown that when rat pups are separated from their dams, it is the females that show the more drastic rise in stress hormones and changes in behaviour. 

Brain scans have demonstrated that, compared with men,  women are more likely to engage both sides of the brain when exposed to painful stimuli or distressing situations.  In women, the connection between the more analytical left brain and the more emotional right brain is like a six lane highway.  In a man it is a rope bridge over a chasm.  This means that women are more apt to react emotionally and engage bodily responses through activation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  And in the face of severe distress, they are more readily overwhelmed with feeling.   

Men tend to react more analytically; left brain stuff.  It is not surprising that more men tend to be scientists and mathematicians and more women are counsellors, nurses and write novels. Men can read maps upside down.  Women can read people.   

Men and women are different; thank God!  No better or worse than each other; just different and when they get on, complementary.  But in a climate of stress and loneliness, a woman’s greater sensitivity and intuition comes at the cost of irritated bowels, tender muscles, eating disorders, pain and fatigue.     

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‘Oh those two mimsy psychopaths in Downing Street; I knew them quite well.  We were all young barristers together.  We used to call Tony, Miranda after Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest.  You know the speech when she sees the shipwrecked sailors stagger naked out of the waves,  ‘Oh brave new world, what delights’.  And as for Cherie, it just goes to show how you can get on by jumping on your Head of Chambers and how the biggest alcoholic in the Inns of Court eventually became Lord Chancellor.’ 

Clarissa Dickson Wright is a rebel. There are also historic connections.  In 1605 John and Christopher Wright, ancestors on her father’s side conspired with Guy Fawkes in the Gunpowder Plot. ‘So who knows what might have happened if I had accepted Tony Blair’s invitation to cook for him – I could have finished the job off’. 

Clarissa is in Ilkley to publicise her autobiography, called ‘Spilling the Beans, in which she chronicles the events in her very eventful life.  The daughter of a famous surgeon and an Australian heiress, Clarissa was born into a life of privilege,  but it was not all buns and pretty frocks; her father was an alcoholic and could erupt into the most violent of rages. ‘You don’t always appreciate the priceless enamel handle of the poker when you were being hit with it.’ 

No doubt Clarissa provoked his fury; she was out to shock even then,  ‘I got thrown out of the Brownies for putting anchovies in the chocolate cake,’ she announced proudly.  If she couldn’t get noticed for the good things, she was noticed for the bad.  ‘When you’re brought up in an alcoholic household, you don’t know what the rules are.’   

Clarissa likes to shock.  Dressed in a voluminous red trouser suit over a green and white flowing top, she sits like a little girl who has been asked to do her party piece – only she is going to be naughty!   She says all those things that  others think but are too polite to say.   

‘I had sex with an MP once behind the speaker’s chair,’ she exclaims. ‘I’ve no idea who he was.’ 

‘Gordon Ramsay should have stuck with football – the language is better suited.  And I can’t stand Jamie Oliver; he has sold out to supermarkets.’  

Clarissa had a devastating intelligence, even when she was very young.  Her father wanted her to go into medicine, but she took up law instead.  ‘My father hated lawyers and I hated my father. It seemed a natural choice.’ She became the youngest person ever to be called to the bar.   

Her father served his wife the divorce papers at the breakfast table and then left.  Clarissa stayed on with her mother, but her life was devastated when her beloved mother died.  Clarissa took a very large drink and then another. ‘It dulled the pain and seemed the answer to  everything.’  She left the law and became an alcoholic.

Hers is not a rags to riches story.  It’s the other way round.  Left with an inheritance of £2.8 million, Clarissa blew it in 12 years – chartering yachts in the Mediterranean, private jets to take friends on holidays in the Caribbean and booze. ‘After a year of two bottles of gin a day, I ended up sleeping on The Embankment.’

 ‘Oh I come from a long line of alcoholics,’ she proudly announced.  One of my ancestors was thrown out of Cromwell’s model army through drunkenness, but he was taken back for the Irish campaign!’     

Cooking saved her ‘I like to believe we all have one gift in life and mine is cooking.’   She had learnt to cook from the comfortable cook, her father employed. The kitchen was a safe haven away from the storms upstairs. Later she cooked the dinner parties for her mother and her guests.  And after her mother died, she did the catering for the drinking club which was part of her mother’s inheritance. It was while she was in rehab that she got a job running ‘Books for Cooks’ on the Finchley Road.  She then became passionate about cardoons, edible thistles, and attracted the attention of Pat Llewellyn, the television producer.  She was a natural. A few years later, she was invited to join Jennifer Patterson as ‘Two Fat Ladies’.    

‘You might think that two middle aged ladies would be intensely competitive.  We never were.  We became best friends.  It was all such fun.’   Two Fat Ladies became the most popular cookery programme, there had ever been. ‘In Japan, I was dubbed with a male voice.’  She gave an imitation,  accompanied by vigorous chopping gestures.  ‘And Jennifer and I were the sixth most popular icon or Biker’s magazine.’           

Clarissa has survived the chaos of her childhood, dicarded the privilege, and found her own identity as a cook and a determined supporter of the countryside values.  She enjoys the celebrity.  An old friend recently told her that  ‘You always believed that when you walked into a room, people knew you.  Reality has just caught up.’