I heard about the Australian GP Dr Claire Weekes on an ABC tribute to unacknowledged Australian women. She engendered my interest as she was a pioneer in the treatment of Anxiety and Depression – what she called “nervous illness”, “nerves” or “nervous suffering”. She deliberately avoided the psychiatric boxes of “neurosis”, “agoraphobia” and “panic attacks”.
She had suffered from all three at a young age – receiving an inaccurate diagnosis of tuberculosis whilst completing a doctorate in Science (Zoology) – the first woman in Australia to do so. Her studies involved studying pregnant female lizards in the Blue Mountains. This was at a time recently imploded with the concept of Evolution and from her observations, understood the “reptilian brain” and how it responds to crisis – i.e. flight or fight.
As an armchair observer, I would hazard a guess she is on the Autism Spectrum. Though she had the opportunities of an academic, she soon left her position to travel to London (not unusual for gifted Australians of all vocations at the time) and found herself relating her findings about fight and flight to the human brain.
The amazing thing was that after her false diagnosis of tuberculosis, using her knowledge of biology she was able to survive two years of panic attacks, anxiety and depression. Once she was in London, still suffering, she met the man who was doomed to be her unrequited love, or perhaps more accurately, her love but not at the right time. Ten years later he married her best friend. He was a survivor of the trenches of WWI and when she “told of her racing heart and indescribable distress” he shrugged, “That is nothing, those are the symptoms of nerves. We all had those in the trenches.”
He told Weekes that her heart continued to race because she was frightened of it. It was programmed by her fear. This made immediate sense. ‘All the time I have been doing this to myself?’ she asked. ‘He said “yes” and laughed,’ she later recounted.The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code: The Extraordinary Life of Dr Claire Weekes p. 81
Dr Claire Weekes (due to her Science Doctorate) but tiring of the relentless dissecting of lizards, went onto a career as a singer in the UK & Europe accompanied by her lifelong companion, Bessie Coleman on the piano – herself a more than proficient musician than Weekes was a singer. When this did not yield the expected outcome, after her extensive travels in the UK and on the Continent, Dr Claire Weekes set up a travel agency for Australians to travel overseas at an inexpensive cost. Unfortunately this was just prior to the outbreak of World War II.
Her unceasing energy and desire for relevant activity drew her to medical studies with the outcome of becoming a GP, now a “doctor” in both definitions of the word. Naturally, she came across many patients suffering from “nerves” as the vocabulary of the times described. With her own personal experience and knowledge of the condition along with biology she was able to describe and empathise with these patients.
Eventually she started writing books and producing cassette tapes to help those suffering, and in the US & UK was becoming a best-selling author and public speaker. Her own family circumstances were challenging as the matriarch, shielded by her long-time friend Coleman.
Judith Hoare, author and ABC journalist, has taken a forensic approach to the life of this incredible, yet unacknowledged woman.
I first learnt of Dr Claire Weekes some years ago on an ABC Women’s Day tribute to the unacknowledged Australian women of the past. At the time I was going through a time of excruciating depression and anxiety having suffered a physical and emotional breakdown. The recommendation from my psychologist was Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness.
Surprise! Surprise! Dr Claire Weekes’ down to earth mind-body connection and therapeutic recommendation to Face, accept, float, let time pass had been appropriated by males – in particular the American Dr Stephen Hayes who ascribes no acknowledgement whatever to Dr Claire Weekes, and English/Australian Dr Russ Harris who does at least give a nod to Dr Weekes. Unfortunately, even though I have seen it, now am unable to find the reference.
Her self-help books and cassettes were widely available in the UK and Europe as well as the US – thought she had some unscrupulous dealings with self-serving “agents” promising to promote and distribute her books and tapes there, but not delivering.
Getting to the author, Judith Hoare and her approach and execution of this biography – being a journalist – it is if nothing else, forensic. At first, I found this tedious. The attention to detail, the seemingly irrelevant examination of her life, grated – to be honest. However, the commitment and dedication to providing a significant and comprehensive testament to Dr Claire Weekes and her amazing life is evident. Perhaps, not so coincidentally, the author herself was helped at a young age by one of Dr Weekes’ books, though this is not mentioned in the biography.
So, the more I read, the more appreciative I became of the “full picture” detail which is provided. It inspires admiration, understanding for a non-scientific person of her intelligence and first-hand recognition of the fear of fear in a changing historical context of the 20th century, and anger – at the blatant neglect of her contribution to the fields of psychology and psychiatry.
This book has not been an easy read – certainly not a page-turner. Yet at this time in my life as I navigate my own lifelong suffering of anxiety and depression, I find myself appreciating the courage and vulnerability shown by our own Australian Dr Claire Weekes. As I read the final pages, I felt like I was losing a friend, so thoroughly did I feel I knew this woman.