I’m in trouble again at work. Of course I can see the funny side of the ‘Scary Art Teacher’ incident, as can my colleagues, but unlike them I can’t get the serious side. I am reminded of the words of my O-
Right – enough self-
How to find one? Well, I believe it can be tricky. I say ‘believe’ because, to be honest, I have little experience in these matters. You see, I didn’t find my therapist. Ok, ok – my ex-
I have been able to create and indulge in this fable-
Now being creative goes with the territory, and the truth is that arriving in the blue room with the two sofas was altogether a more desperate, drawn-
It was well worth the wait. For me there is definitely a magical side to therapy. I mean how magical do things get? Every Monday for an entire year I drove across the city to the blue room with two sofas and there she was – a stranger, the best therapist in the world sitting there waiting for me. And I mean everyMonday – she never cancelled a single session. It’s not even as if I had to work hard at ensuring she’d be there – I didn’t have to ask her lots of questions or be entertaining. I didn’t have to do anything at all.
But the really magical thing is the way in which all the most meaningful changes happen without me noticing. We never really talked about my toxic obsession with the Safeguarding Advisor. It’s just that one day I realised that I had gone for 3 whole hours without thinking about her. We didn’t ever focus our attention on stopping my criminal activity. It’s just that one Monday morning I decided to go for a run after therapy instead. And I certainly never had any intention of getting attached to Sheila, and even congratulated myself on how well I was avoiding it, until the time came when we had to discuss The End.
Ah yes, The End. Well, actually the way it worked out was that there were two ends. The Therapy Centre give everybody who is assessed as treatable twelve months of free therapy. Twelve months is a long time, long enough for me to think that The End would never really happen, or at least long enough to make it worthwhile dissociating the knowledge that The End would inevitably have to happen. So I threw myself into the therapy thing and spent a good nine months attending to the business of initially being suspicious of Sheila, realising she really was on my side, beginning to trust her a bit and finally coming round to the idea that together we could work towards significantly improving my mental health. A therapeutic alliance was formed. Things settled down. And then we had to start talking about The End.
From the moment the E word was first uttered, all hell broke loose inside. Whilst I could fully understand and accept that the twelve months would soon be up, and was determined to manage the ending with dignity and gratitude, my other parts simply weren’t coping quite as well. My youngest part was petrified at the prospect of being abandoned and cried inconsolably pretty much all the time. My twelve-
As 28 July grew closer Meera, my Care Co-
At the psychiatric unit it all went wrong in the waiting area at Reception. It always starts with the taxis. I watch the patients arriving by taxi, helpless and bewildered, and I begin to fold up inside, reducing in size, shrinking further and further into myself, and backwards towards the walls.
A large beige man appears with Meera and leads me to one of those small rooms that punctuate my life, but this small room feels different, like a trap. I don’t want to see Mr Beige’s face, so I scan the floor instead. Eventually I rest my eyes on his broad, flat sandals. I startle when he speaks, despite his therapist’s voice. My eyes travel up his beige linen baggy trousers, up his beige open-
The sight of the ponytail distracts me from his question, so he repeats it.
“Can I ask you how you are feeling towards me at the moment?”
I have no idea who he is, other than ‘Ivan’, and I don’t know why he’s here.
“So, it’s all about you then?” I hear my younger self say.
I’m irritatingly impressed with his recovery of the situation. He asks me about Sheila, what it is that I like about her, what kind of therapy we do, so I tell him that she talks a lot (it means I don’t have to), she hasn’t cried so far, and I can’t run rings around her.
Then he looks straight at me with misleadingly empathetic eyes and asks if I run rings round Meera, who is about 25, lovely in every way, and hence no fun whatsoever to run rings around. I shake my head. He reminds me of the therapist with the long plait, the one who asked me if I’d like him to attend the birth of my son. As seems to be the way with those meetings, nothing was decided upon, but I left with a powerful sense that I hadn’t seen the last of Ivan the Ponytail Man.
I often consider myself to be a naturally lucky person, which can be one of the perks of dissociation. I even feel euphoric from time to time. I mean, out of all the people I could have married, I got to marry Jack. Out of all the places I could have ended up working, I ended up at Luddenbridge High and so I could continue, but let’s face it, other peoples’ luck stories soon become nauseating. So, I’ll just tell you this one …
We had been talking about The End for about four sessions and had come to a familiar impasse. Sheila seemed determined that I should be angry with her about The End. I really didn’t want to let her down, but try as I might I could not locate a single angry feeling. It got to the stage where I even seriously considered faking it, just to shut her up. The only feeling I did experience was one of dread. In order of rising severity: dread of having no therapist and returning to my pitiful pre-
So how lucky was I when I arrived at the penultimate session, feeling inadequately un-
Over the subsequent four months the changes were much more noticeable to everyone, though not always 100% pleasing to me. I took more risks in therapy, and allowed most of my ‘parts’ to play an active role, which was liberating for all of us. I remember making a paper poppy with one of my Beaver Scouts and realising that I was in the moment, absorbed in the task, enjoying his company, the plastic screen having momentarily disappeared. I became less rigid at work, more relaxed and playful in my teaching, planning less and experimenting more. The resentful mechanical voice telling me it was time to hug my children disappeared, as I felt the old pre-
At times my emotions were so intense they winded me and frightened other people. There was a parental complaint about me at work and I discovered by accident that seven of my colleagues were told about it before I was (“We’re only trying to protect you, Cathy.”) As soon as the classrooms cleared I exploded with rage, storming up and down the corridor, swearing at the top of my voice, demanding to know exactly who had been told and why, and reducing my Head of Department to tears.
Life hurt a lot. The pain crescendoed on Christmas Day which I spent wandering the streets of the local city, torturing myself by looking into strangers’ front rooms. It was just like old times. For five hours I walked through the deserted city parks in darkness, wondering if I would come across others like myself, becoming a new part, Ghost, who could glide up the middle of the city’s main roads, immune to danger.
Separated from my defences, the world was too vivid, too raw and I couldn’t seem to escape it. Nor could I access the skills I needed to cope. As I reeled around this new place, the date for the final session was ever-
I once won a competition to climb the highest mountain in Poland. I was on an expedition, and there was an organised race – whoever arrived at the foot of the mountain first would get to climb it, accompanied by a guide. I was so focussed on the challenge of the ascent, that I never stopped to think how I’d get back down again. When I made it to the summit the conditions were wild, and I was told that I’d have to abseil down quickly. I had never abseiled before and funnily enough I found it hard to trust the process, so I froze to the spot and refused to move. The guide explained calmly that we would die if we stayed there much longer and that he had no alternative but to push me over the edge. I would be fine, he assured me: I would survive.
I felt that to a certain extent I had climbed the therapy mountain and now the rough stuff was happening on the summit. I was being bashed about by the crazy winds of my freshly-
Meera had been trying to fulfil her coordinating role for many months, so that something, or even just a plan of something, would be in place by the end of March. They had six months to play with after all, but unfortunately nobody else shared her sense of urgency. With the excruciating memory of our last meeting with Ivan, she suggested that this time I might like to bring Jack along. I still didn’t really understand who Ivan was – Meera told me he was a therapist and a doctor, but not a psychiatrist – and why it was that he was involved in my case. Still, this time it would be different: I was (apparently) saner, I was stronger, and, having had six months to get his act together, at least Ivan would be able to tell me my post-
I started to fold up in the car on the way to the psychiatric unit, and by the time I entered the trap-
The water level started to rise: I was beginning to struggle. He asked me how therapy with Sheila had been useful, and for a fleeting moment it crossed my mind that maybe if I tried hard enough I could convince him that funding more therapy with her really was the most economical and logical solution, but by now ‘Don’t Talk’ had appeared on the scene and I was incapable of putting up the fight. I looked across at Jack, who told him that I had ceased all criminal activity, and seemed to have a more realistic view of the world. When Ivan asked me if all this was just too painful, I nodded gratefully. He then explained the ‘plan’. The best-
By now I was having to swim vigorously just to stay on the surface. Sensing my despair, and the tangible frustration of both Jack and Meera, Ivan did his best to end on a positive note, but first he had to ask me that question. I gave my routine answer that no, I don’t have the luxury of that option, what with having three children and all. No, I was firmly trapped into life. He smiled and used this opportunity to tell me how well I was doing. After all, I was managing to work, I was looking after my kids, I was even running for heaven’s sake: things really weren’t that bad. In my experience people generally start praising you immediately before they drop you and run. Gasping for air, I choked out my reply: the only reason I had been able to function in this way was because Sheila was in the blue room with two sofas. She held the strings. She was the strong one, not me.
We all fell silent. Ivan said that I looked as though there were many things that I wanted to say but couldn’t. No flies on Ivan. He added that he felt as if he was facing an interview panel. For some reason it was this final throwaway comment that got to me. How dare he. Interview panel? As if we were the ones with the power?! So we did the most powerful thing that we could. All six of us joined up inside, two rows of three, and stared straight at him through the pair of eyes we all share. And into that stare went all the humiliation, the hopelessness and the hurt we feel when people in those small rooms let us down. As if a stare could make any difference …
He sent me a copy of his referral letter in which I am described as ‘low risk’ as my family are “a strong protective factor”. I take it he doesn’t mean my birth family then. With the final therapy session looming, I attempted to prepare for the worst, remembering that although I had survived being pushed off the mountain, I had been cut to shreds and concussed in the process.
I approached the Management Team at work to warn them that a rough patch was imminent. I know you can expect the unexpected at Luddenbridge High, but their reaction was extraordinary. They were horrified that my therapy was coming to an end with no definite plan for the future. They were incensed, outraged, and (I suspect) terrified! I was remarkably calm by comparison, or maybe just dissociated. They were worried that my working might somehow count against me. They asked my permission to send a letter to Ivan the Ponytail Man, and to the PTSD people. So on school headed notepaper they wrote about all the things that have to happen so that I am able to continue working – all the adaptations, the robust strategies, the care. They also referred to my courage and determination, and their fear that I may deteriorate rapidly without adequate psychological support.
In anxious anticipation of 26 March I read up on what goes on in final sessions when therapy is terminated prematurely. Many people don’t show up at all, but that was out of the question for me as Sheila deserved better. I’m no coward, so I would go, but my priority at all times would be to protect my youngest parts from That Pain. I could be brave, tell myself I’ve been through worse. I just had to be strong for 50 minutes, do whatever it takes not to cry, not to be weak, not to feel: somehow I had to ram myself through the grand finale of the ending experience.
In the days leading up to 26 March I was super-
I was two-
At the end I stood up and left her office exactly as if I’d be returning a week later. I got into my car and drove down the hill to the ‘five minutes to go’ roundabout, thinking about all the Mondays I had stopped there, my heart racing and my stomach churning, simultaneously wanting and not wanting to go to therapy. It was all over – I could let go now. I carried on through the city centre with tears streaming down my face. I needed to concentrate on the road, to get home. Sheila always finished each session by telling me to drive carefully …
I sat on the sofa overwhelmed with sadness that I hadn’t been able to say goodbye. I thought about the things that we loved in Sheila – her sturdiness, her deep growly voice, her irreverent humour, her strength. I loved the way she was so un-
More Sheila catchphrases passed through my mind – “Notice that I’m here” and “What do you notice is happening inside your body?” – the things that drove me mad. Scenes of the most memorable therapy sessions flashed before my eyes as if I was somehow releasing them, giving them permission to come out now that we were safe: the session after I was diagnosed, the one after I was arrested, the time I pretended my mother was a cushion.
A week ago I had my initial assessment with the clinical lead of the PTSD team. Another small room, another ponytail, another psych. I had been told to expect it to last for two hours. We spent the first ten minutes trying to establish exactly how Dr Ivan had become involved in my case, but to no avail. When asked to describe my history with mental health services, I suddenly felt so tired that I had to rest my head on the back of the armchair. “Well, when I was twelve …” I barely had the energy to talk. The man listened for about fifteen minutes and then took me by surprise. He leaned forward abruptly and said that was enough. He told me that Dr Ivan had been very concerned about me, and had requested that I be seen as soon as possible by him as clinical manager. He said that they could help me, that I was in the right place, that I would be offered long-
Too good to be true? Well, we’ll have to wait and see. Meanwhile life without a therapist goes on … Wish me luck!