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The scene: I am sitting on a slightly worn armchair, opposite a complete stranger – a kind-faced counsellor – in a characterless room.
I am reluctant, wary. All my emotional walls are up, the doors are triple locked and bolted. My overriding thought is directed at this woman in front of me – “Go on then. Do your worst. Let’s see what you think you can do with THIS material…”
She smiles encouragingly at me. I nod back – surly, impatient.
She closes her eyes, still smiling, and takes a couple of deep breaths, looking every inch the meditative, lentil-eating, sandal-wearing counsellor. Her mismatched dangly earrings quiver as she breathes out.
I roll my eyes to heaven. I wonder what the time is. Hopefully 5 minutes closer to home time.
When she opens her eyes, she smiles at me again. I’m aware that my eyebrows are starting to take on a life of their own, doing the arch ‘seriously?’ look.
She says nothing. The air around her is completely still. She emanates nothing. No expectation, no anxiety, no impatience. Nothing.
I fidget in the armchair. I feel acutely uncomfortable. When the hell is she going to start talking? Telling me what to do? Explaining what we’re here for?? What kind of counsellor just sits there? That’s not really a job is it. I can’t believe she gets paid for this.
I realise I’m angry. After all the effort of getting out of the house – not easy these days – I take a dim view of this lack of direction. I may find it hard to roll out of bed before noon each day, and I may sit on the sofa staring at the ceiling when I AM awake, but I still object to this ridiculous farce…having to waste a whole hour of my life in this room because my GP doesn’t know what else to do, and doesn’t quite dare to call me a hypochondriac to my face.
I catch her eye, and this time I actually do a little sarcastic half-smile and a shrug - *What the hell am I supposed to be doing?*
She smiles again with a slow nod and a slow blink, as if I’ve answered a difficult question, and doesn’t move another muscle. Doesn’t say a word.
Now I’m actually furious. Oh? Is this going to be a battle of wills? Who’s going to speak? Who’s going to crack first? Because I can play that game. I can sit forever without saying a thing. With some glee, I am suddenly resolved to be the worst client this counsellor had ever had.
There’s no clock on the wall. I can see a little table next to her chair, which has on it a glass of water, a box of tissues (what a cliché) and a small alarm clock. The clock’s face is angled towards her, and I won’t be able to read the time without leaning half out of my chair, and I’m not quite ready for that kind of anarchy yet.
To this day, I don’t know how long we sat there facing each other in complete silence. It was more than half the session. I think it was probably about 40 minutes. 40 minutes of drawn-out, excruciating awkwardness – at least on my part. Diane looked completely calm and unfazed by it all.
For all my bravado, the silence eventually broke me. My tiny, pathetic rebellion came to nothing when that querulous, critical voice inside my head scolded me – told me that well brought up children don’t behave so rudely; told me that I was being immature and selfish; asked me what other people must think of me.
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked gruffly, my voice rusty, as if I hadn’t used it for 40 years.
She leaned forward and engaged me in a look that was ruthlessly direct, yet warm and compassionate, and said clearly, “That is up to you.”
I think my mouth dropped open in surprise. Up to me?? I realised how much I had relied on being directed. How I was expecting someone to ask me questions, analyse my answers, tell me what was wrong with me, and what steps I should take to become better.
It never once occurred to me that my recovery might be up to me. It dawned on me that she couldn’t possibly tell me what was wrong with me. She knew nothing of my history. She could not set an agenda for someone whose experiences and emotions were so intricately, agonisingly complex and tangled.
There was only one person in the whole world who could know the extent of everything that had happened to me – only one person who could make a decision about how I wanted to spend the rest of my life.
It was my mistake to come to a counselling session with expectations. Expectations are for fools. Expectations create boxes. Boxes are for cereal, not for emotions or memories. Expectations imply you already think you know what needs to happen. If you know, then just get on with it. On the other hand, if you don’t know, seek help, with an open mind.
There was nothing she could say. I had to choose my first words. I had to decide which direction this session was going to take. The choices I made would determine the route and manner of my healing. It was going to be a journey. One that would have to go right back to the very beginning. A journey so long and arduous that my heart suddenly quailed at the thought.
I looked up and it was plainly evident from the expression on her kind, lined face, that she had been following every progression of my inner thoughts – from the sullen mutiny, the revelation, and then the fear as the enormity of my challenge swamped me.
And she was there with a look of encouragement, being my support when I lost my balance, willing me to begin.
I thought, “The sooner I start, the sooner I will reach my goal.”
And I began to speak.