There’s a scene in new comedy drama Women on the Verge in which the main character, Laura, finally musters enough Dutch courage to phone a therapist for an appointment.
She slurs into the phone, “I’m not, like, nuts or anything. I am struggling a bit,” before rushing to the loo to throw up, spilling a bottle of red wine onto her laptop in the process.
It feels intensely realistic and well it might, as it’s based on the memoirs of journalist Lorna Martin, who took a long time to seek professional help when her life spiralled out of control.
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“It’s really hard to accept and acknowledge that you need therapy,” says Lorna. “Plus it’s seen as self-indulgent. Which is odd because people are prepared to spend a fortune on externally looking after themselves, but they don’t want to spend that money on taking a good look at themselves internally. I do think now that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness, but I didn’t feel like that at the time.”
The drama came about after actress and writer Sharon Horgan read Lorna’s book, Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which in turn was based on columns she wrote in The Observer and Grazia magazine. Having had therapy herself, it struck a chord. “I went when I was much younger, and a little bit since,” Horgan says. “I absolutely would do it again and if I’m having a tough time, I do think, ‘I really should go and talk to someone’. I’m just not always that great at making it happen.”
The pair embarked on an adaptation together, with Lorna and Sharon co-writing the first episode and Lorna finishing off the next five by herself under Sharon’s guidance as executive producer. What resulted is a fun, sweary, no-holds-barred portrayal of women in their 30s trying to find The One and start a family, with all the messiness that period of life can entail.
Following in the vein of painfully honest shows like Horgan’s Catastrophe and the critically acclaimed Fleabag, Women on the Verge switches the focus from the one character portrayed in the book to three friends all struggling with different stages of settling down.
The first five minutes of the show feature Laura having sex in a loo; Katie lying with feet in stirrups during a gynaecological exam; and Alison getting back with an ex she has previously been revolted by, primarily to avoid any more first dates. That unflinching look at womanhood was one of the things that appealed to Sharon about Lorna’s book: “Lorna always made me laugh. We would swap ideas and talk about our own experiences and work out how badly we could mess up these women’s lives.
“For so long we haven’t seen [these themes] on screen. For years you were much more likely to see a man scared to commit or a woman helping them mature. It’s still rare to see a woman in her 30s floundering. The reason I think it will resonate so much [with viewers] is because it’s really f***ing hard – consistently being told what you could and should have makes it all the more difficult when it doesn’t happen for you.”
When Lorna decided to go into therapy, she was 35, in a bad relationship, and feeling like an imposter in her job as a journalist. She says, “I went into therapy primarily because I was struggling with a messy, dysfunctional relationship and a job I didn’t think I could do. I was irrational, crying all the time. I was having a breakdown.”
Lorna piled extra pressure on herself by offering to write about her therapy for a column. “It was a very spontaneous pitch,” she admits. “I wanted to impress my boss and – this makes me cringe now – I wanted an audience. I said it was to reduce the stigma of mental health problems, but the more honest reasons are slightly uglier. It appealed to my ego.”
Lorna’s psychoanalytical therapy consisted of three 50-minute sessions per week for a year, which cost her nearly £10,000. After garnering enough material to write the columns and then the book, Lorna embarked on another two years of therapy during which she finally tackled her deep-rooted problems. “That’s when I got better, rather than when I was doing it for material,” she says.
The drama focuses less on the therapy featured in Lorna’s book – therapy scenes are not particularly easy to dramatise – and more on the day-to-day lives of Laura and her friends.
Rather than the tight-knit groups in, say, Friends or Sex and the City, Women on the Verge shows the three women being competitive with each other, and struggling to be pleased for each other when they receive good news.
Lorna explains, “Certain glamorous dramas didn’t reflect my experience of female friendships. I don’t want to say, ‘We’re the first show that’s ever done it’, but I can’t think of others where I’ve seen exactly this. That time where life is a ticking clock, and you’re jealous of your friends… it’s horrible, really.”
Horgan adds: “We wanted to avoid anything that’s been seen before. The women do care about each other but sometimes you don’t feel great when things are going well for others but your life is unravelling.”
One scene shows Alison making an announcement over dinner about something wonderful – and Laura, unable to cope, whispers a small “congratulations” before getting up and leaving the restaurant in tears. ‘‘Women often do not know how to express emotions that are perceived as unfeminine, like anger and jealousy,” says Lorna. “That’s why eating disorders and self harm are common: it’s anger turned inwards.”
In the show, Horgan plays Laura’s therapist. It’s a cameo part but Horgan says it was important to include a glimpse into the therapist’s room. “For some people it’s the answer, but for some people it’s a scary thing, and I think we’ve reflected that.”
For the actresses involved – Kerry Condon as Laura, Nina Sosanya as Katie, and Eileen Walsh as Alison – the themes also resonated strongly. Condon says that mental illness is still taboo in Ireland, where the show is set. “To say you’re in therapy implies that something is wrong with you. There are things people are nervous to talk about in case you’re classified as unstable. But Christ, who isn’t having a breakdown? I’ve been in therapy. Of course I have, I’m an actress!”
Walsh went to therapy with her husband after their second baby was born and says she loved the experience: “It’s brilliant figuring out why you do things, what instigates it. But it’s expensive.” And Sosanya believes everyone should try cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): “That gives people the tools to cope and I think that’s the way forward.”
So should we all be considering having therapy? Surprisingly, Lorna doesn’t think so…
“I think that if someone close to me died, then I would have therapy again, and I’d recommend it to anybody having relationship difficulties. It definitely helped me.
“But the kind of therapy I had, every defence that you’ve spent your whole life building up is stripped back. So it’s not to be taken lightly. It was right for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s right in every circumstance.”
Women on the Verge airs on Thursdays at 10pm on W