Just before dinner, I tiptoe into my youngest son’s bedroom to check if he’s finally asleep. Peeking into his cot, I find him lying awake but happily burbling away so I lean over to make out what he’s saying. “Shit. Oh shit. Shit.” he repeats. “Shit. Shit. Oh shit…” Articulating each syllable with brazen delight, the words tumble from his one-year-old lips like some evil lullaby.
Sometimes you’ve got to accept responsibility – this is all my fault. Admittedly, my language has never been great. I’ve always sworn less like a trooper and more like Nick Kyrgios after he’s just trodden in dogshit following another futile run-in with the umpire. It’s hard to pinpoint the cause of all this. Admittedly, my mother is from Queensland (despite being an English teacher, she was never shy of littering her conversation with toe-curling profanity). Yet I blame a lifetime working in journalism, too. I’m not sure whether it’s to compensate for the slightly effete nature of the work, the remorseless grind of deadlines or the impending sense of professional doom. But magazines and newsrooms are godless places full of casually hurled perversities that’d make a bricklayer wince. The men aren’t much better either.
Needless to say, this is neither big or clever. But the upshot is that I’ve developed an engrained habit where “f*cking” is the default substitute for “very” and the c-word an affectionate term for old mates. Swearing is my instinctive response when anything goes wrong and, given that I have two young kids, mishaps occur on a 10-minute basis. Life is a multi-car pile-up of nappy blowouts, tantrums over the “wrong” shaped toast and copping one in the knackers from a clumsily wielded toy light-saber (better than a real one, I suppose).
But I don’t want my kids to pick up my potty-mouthed habit. Not before they start using actual potties at least. Witnessing my son’s performance in his cot marks a turning point: I’m determined to clean up my act.
To kick off I try that age-old deterrent: the swear jar. I’ve just polished off a jumbo-sized jar of picked jalapenos and vow to throw in $5 for every verbal transgression. It doesn’t work. The problem is that, in this cashless society of ours, I never carry real money anymore. I’ve become one of those jerks who rocks up to the Surf Club sausage sizzle and tries to pay $2.50 on my credit card. Initially, I write the swear jar “I.O.U” notes but, after finding myself $85 down in two days, I realise honouring these promises will send me bankrupt.
“Just tone it down instead,” sighs my wife, who’s accustomed to my lack of self-control. “Find some non-offensive alternatives.” This sounds like a more frugal tactic at least. I experiment with “Holy cow!”, “Shiitake mushrooms!” and “Oh Fraggle Rock!”. But these half-cocked Ned Flanderisms fail to provide any verbal catharsis and offer a similar release to alcohol-free beer. Blasphemy proves slightly more effective – perhaps a touch of indecency is a vital ingredient? – but it’s still not ideal. As Mark Twain acknowledged, “Under certain circumstances, profanity provides relief denied even to prayer.”
My resolve begins to waver. Does swearing really matter anymore? Is our confected outrage over certain words just heightening their taboo power? Frequent use, after all, tends to neuter words of their offensive force. My mother-in-law, for example, a silver-haired lady who loves her gardening and Thursday night tennis, regularly uses the word “bugger” in a way that, to all intents and purposes, has nothing to do with anal sex.
Swearing isn’t inherently bad, agrees Monika Bednarek, Associate Professor in Linguistics at the University of Sydney. Its effect depends entirely on context. “For example, who is swearing, which words are used, in which type of situation, and who is addressed and how? Is it a negative, aggressive situation or is it a positive, friendly, humorous exchange between equals?”
The aim of swearing isn’t necessarily to cause offence either, she insists. Its functions can range from expressing pain to adding emphasis. In fact, Bednarek’s ambivalence even extends to protecting your kids from four-letter words. “For children, words that are ‘forbidden’ might actually hold some allure,” she reasons. “Perhaps it’s more important to teach them about the difference between formal and informal situations and the importance of who they are talking to and how.”
Bad language, in other words, might not be so bad, after all. Indeed, a range of scientific research shows it can even prove a positive force. Studies have shown that sweary folk are more honest and verbally fluent. In his book Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits Of Being Bad, British psychology lecturer Richard Stephens shows how swearing can also foster social cohesion and help people cope with pain. Given this overwhelming evidence, I’m tempted to shrug my shoulders and say f*ck it.
Then something happens that forces a change of heart. I’m standing in a suburban toy-shop trying to buy a gift for a child’s birthday party. After lengthy rumination, I settle on a miniature plastic chainsaw (seriously, when won’t that be useful), when I hear a commotion from the neighbouring aisle.
There’s a kid arguing with a middle-aged woman who, for some reason, I suspect is not his mother. He wants a bag of kinetic sand (yep, me neither) but she refuses to be swayed. It’s the classic toyshop stand-off, but things escalate fast. “F*ck off!” snarls the kid to the woman when she refuses to buy it. “You certainly aren’t getting it now,” she replies. “Oh yeah?” replies the kid. “Well, you’re a dumb c*nt.”
And I’m floored by the stinging violence of the words. When I wander around to the aisle – gift-wrapped chainsaw in hand – the woman has stormed out. Standing there forlornly clutching a bag of blue sand that he’ll never possess is a seven-year-old boy in a black cap, who’s just realising the extent of his self-sabotage. I’m hit by a conflicting mix of shock and pity. But one thing’s for sure: my kids can’t turn out like this little shit. That’s when I decide to get hypnotised.
The credibility of hypnotism is still recovering from the old vaudeville days, when a hokey showman would swing a clock and compel some hapless punter to squawk like a chicken. Yet Brett Cameron, a Newcastle hypnotist and vice president of the Australian Hypnotherapists Association, believes the practice also suffers because it’s unregulated. “Unfortunately, anyone can go into a weekend workshop and put up a shingle that says ‘I’m a hypnotherapist’,” he admits.
But athletes have long seen beyond the quackery to use the science of suggestibility to get a performance-enhancing edge. Back in 1956, the Soviet team took 11 hypnotists with them to the Melbourne Olympic Games and finished top of the medal table. Ever since, a variety of elite sportsmen from Tiger Woods to Michael Jordan have also tapped into this psychic superpower. Over the years, Cameron himself has treated a variety of golfers, triathletes and pro footballers to sharpen their focus, overcome anxiety and silence self-doubt. “It’s all about getting your mind into the right space.”
Increasingly, hypnotism is also being used as a clinical tool (“acceptance is certainly growing” Cameron says). Today hypnosis is credited with helping people to conquer addition, lose weight, cope with IBS and boost confidence. “More than half of my clients are seeing me for anxiety,” Camerons adds. “Hypnosis is extremely effective in that realm.”
Hypnotherapy works by evoking a deep sense of relaxation before deactivating the area of your brain that handles analytical thinking. Bypassing your critical faculties opens your unconscious mind to the power of suggestion. “That’s the part of the mind that holds onto our old habits, emotions, memories and behaviours,” Cameron says, “And if we can reach an agreement with that part of your mind: voila – magic happens.”
The following Tuesday morning, I find myself enveloped in a deep leather chair in the practice room of Dr Bruce Alexander. I’ve picked Melbourne Clinical Hypnotherapy in the leafy suburb of Kew because their website claims they treat an exhaustive range of conditions from sleepwalking to kleptomania. Unfortunately, my personal vice isn’t on the list.
“Swearing is a particularly tricky one,” admits Alexander, a burly, auburn-haired fellow with a direct but friendly manner. It’s easier to treat problems like smoking or drinking, he explains, as completing the action requires a longer chain of movements. With smoking, for example, first you have to buy the cigarettes, then extract one from the pack, next you have to spark it up before, finally, taking a wheeze. “But words happen a split-second after thought,” Alexander says. “Swearing is more like nail-biting – where you don’t even realise you’re doing it.”
Nevetheless, he’s willing to give it a go. Alexander quizzes me about the specifics of my swearing to gauge the true extent. “Is it a response to something that is stressing you out or do you use it or in the normal day-to-day?” (Both.) “Would you swear away if you had lunch with the Prime Minister?” (Tempting given his immigration policy but probably not.)
As the questioning continues I feel a pang of guilt. I’ve instantly warmed to my hypnotist’s matter-of-fact nature – a former medical research scientist, Alexander is erudite and smart. But I don’t fancy his chances of curing me.
This isn’t just because I believe that my mind is a fortress. No, the reason I fear I’m going to waste Alexander’s time is that my commitment is wavering once again. I’m aware that hypnotism doesn’t work unless you want it to and I’m suddenly questioning if I really do. Swearing, it seems to me, is a red-blooded expression of Australia’s larrikin spirit that’s increasingly crushed under the boot of political correctness, the nanny state and, let’s face it, slightly higher levels of common decency.
But then Alexander reframes the issue in a brilliant way. Some people, he suggests, can stay ice-cool even under the craziest pressure. He mentions an old buddy of his called Ron, a WWII veteran who he used to sail the Sydney-Hobart yacht race with. “Ron was a great person to have on the boat because he was so rock-solid,” Alexanders recalls. Together they braved all sorts of nautical disasters from hitting a whale to getting stuck in a 50-knot gale. But whatever the calamity, Ron would remain unflappable. “And he never got seasick either.”
Eventually, Alexander was moved to ask Ron how he maintained his stoic composure. “Look, I survived WWII,” came his reply. “I remember kamikazes coming straight for me when I was on the gun trying to shoot them down. After that, life is a piece of cake…”
The implication here is that I need to be more like Ron (AKA the personification of Kipling’s If). And that’s when Alexander pulls the focus back to our session. “Swearing isn’t just bad for your kids,” he says. “It’s a sign than you’re getting emotional. This is an opportunity for you to mature into someone who can stay calm and doesn’t get so rattled.”
The hypnosis begins. Alexander gets me to close my eyes and focus on my breath. He guides my attention to the background noise of traffic and gentle music wafting from his stereo. Gradually, he compels me to relax and dissolve any physical tension before imagining that my arms are made of “heavy lead”.
I drift into a sort of twilight state – half-asleep but still mentally lucid – as Alexander guides me through a succession of vivid scenes. In one, there’s a blackboard on which I have to chalk up the word “POISON” before rubbing it out. In another, I’m told to hold a glass of vomit and take a stomach-churning sip. “The body has a natural tendency to reject things that are poisonous,” he intones.
He conjures a scene of a gang of violent drunks trying to force their way into my family home. “You call the police,” he suggests. “Things that are bad are simply rejected.”
And then I’m walking down a long staircase. At the bottom is a room with two TVs both showing images of myself. One shows my current incarnation: brittle, overreactive and jumpy. The second reveals a new and improved version: “chilled, powerful, strong – more in control”.
The session ends. Come back in a week and we’ll see how you’re getting on, Alexander smiles. As I get up to leave with a yawn, he asks me if I’ve ever driven a car in America. The effects of hypnotism, he says, can trickle through in a similarly gradual manner. “At first, it takes a lot of concentration to put the car on the other side of the road,” he says. “After a month, you’re driving like everyone else.”
But it doesn’t take long at all. As soon as I leave the office, it’s as though my brain is channelling a slightly calmer bandwidth. I’m not being actively vigilant about the swearing, but it’s as though I’m self-censoring at some deeper level. Over the following week, my language is 90 per cent more sanitised. The odd reflex expletive is still blurted out – when a bird flies into my car windscreen, for example, I still yell out “shit!”. At the same time, I’ve also become hyper aware of any such backsliding.
When I return to see Alexander the next week, I explain how things are progressing. I share the overall improvement but confess my swearing isn’t totally eradicated. “I wasn’t expecting that,” he says, before asking for an example of a relapse
I mention telling a story about a good mate of mine who’s struggling through a messy divorce. Watching it unfold at close range, I’m struck by how traumatic it is on multiple levels – the heartache of the break-up compounded by his limited child access not to mention the financial wreckage. My depiction of his troubles is not very poetic: “I said that ‘Divorce has really f*cked him’,” I sheepishly admit.
Alexander considers my choice of language, then shakes his head in sympathy at the plight of my mate. “In that situation, that might’ve been the best word to use when you think about it,” he admits.
And that’s the nub of this swearing business. Most of the time you can keep things clean and serene, but certain matters do warrant the strong stuff. As Ron would have discovered shooting down his kamikaze planes, sometimes you need the heavy artillery.
This story first appeared in Men’s Health