Donald Freed
International Playwright
and Master Teacher

Excerpt from the second chapter of Marie’s novel in progress, The Unthought Known. The plot focuses on Lisa, a psychotherapist, who is disturbed by the arrival of a new patient. 

Chapter two

Tuesday, 27th March

On Tuesday mornings I begin seeing patients at 0700 a.m., before Keith sets to work with his infernal drill. The passage up to my office at that hour is actually quiet and I am alone in the building until my first appointment. Sometimes I come in even earlier, particularly if Frank is away and I am restless.  I tell myself that this is an opportunity and I use the time to write my column, or make notes on whatever paper I’m planning to deliver next. On this morning, though, I arrived at the office only thirty minutes before my client, time enough for a cup of coffee and a quick piece of toast in the building’s communal kitchen. I had to rub the crumbs from my fingers before going down to open the door.  I am always a little anxious before meeting a new patient and all our arrangements for this session had been sorted out over the internet.

Dorothy was a blur on the other side of the bubbled glass, the angled pitch of an umbrella protecting her from the rain. I opened the door and she stared at me, her eyes wide open in shock, not sure what to expect. As if wondering whether I might hit her or kiss her.

Neither, of course. Instead, I offered her my hand. “Hello,” I said, “I’m Lisa Harden.”

Her responding grip was acquiescent, like holding air. There is so much to say in a handshake and I was disappointed.

I dropped her hand and it landed at her side like an empty swing, entirely without purpose. “There are a few stairs, I’m afraid,” I told her, and signalled that she should walk past me. Clutching her dripping umbrella she did what she was told, leaving a trail behind her. And it was the trail I noticed in those few seconds that she walked ahead of me, rather than anything of her, as if that was the important thing; what she left behind.

“You can set it there, if you like?” I suggested, pointing towards the large umbrella pot I keep by the front door of my office. There was a rattle and clunk as it landed at the bottom and Dorothy’s eyes widened in surprise and guilt, as if she had knocked over china. She let out a small, “Oh!” and smoothed down the front of her wet trench coat. I wondered why she did not simply take it off, but that might have been revealing too much, too early and I already knew working with her would take time.  This young woman had lost her shell and her damp trench coat was now the best she could do.  Did she have any reckoning of how much she had already revealed?

I took a step forward – a tug to see her more clearly -  but she was too quick and stepped like a dancer  away from me, a small pirouette unintentionally leading her even further into the consulting room. There was nowhere else to go and having come up behind her I was blocking the exit.

Would she have run away then if she could? If I had only taken a step back, rather than forward, we might both have had a way out. Instead, in her terror she had pushed herself further into the vortex and I simply followed her in, never suspecting what she would come to mean to me.

Dorothy was now stranded in the middle of the room. I have an image of her shaking her head, her eyes swinging around the room to find a way out, but in truth she was standing still, complacent now that she was truly trapped. She had, in fact, made her own way in. I wondered if this was her pattern, in her terror always racing towards the bright light of danger.

I was careful not to spook her again and, remaining for the moment in my spot by the door, I pointed towards the couch.

Dorothy sat down and I saw that her knees were bare, even in this weather she was not wearing stockings, or trousers to keep her warm. She seemed to me defenceless, and yet here she was, alive and sitting in my office. She had found a way to reach out to me, a gesture of some significance and hidden strength, or desperation of course. There is often a confusion of the two, a case of mistaken identity. What looks like an impulsive act of bravery is sometimes simply the ferocious action of the need to survive. Which one might it be with Dorothy?

There are moments, when staring straight into the heart of someone else’s pain, that I experience a piercing point of pleasure. I excavate and touch in others what I dare not look at within myself and, in those moments, I am transcended. I am the coward sheltering behind my patient’s despair.  This is not true in all cases, of course. I am a good psychotherapist, warm and engaging and most people feel safe with me. I have compassion, though I struggle sometimes to extend it towards myself, particularly in those difficult moments following that exquisite point of contact. I am like a drug addict suffering the consequences of his actions the next day, and I am not the only one such self-indulgence might harm. My patients are vulnerable and need me to be true to their experience. I have no business embroiling them in mine.

“How do you think I might be able to help you?” I asked, finally sitting opposite her and opening with my standard question.

A first session with a new patient is always tinged with disappointment. The imperfect therapist sits facing her imperfect patient, and in the midst of the session there is the inevitable dawning that there are hard times ahead. In Dorothy’s case, I think that moment had passed, perhaps for both of us. She was stranded, perched at the edge of my couch and sitting upright like a Methodist spinster whose only defence is disapproval. There was no leaning back into the cushions, or easing into whatever she had imagined therapy to be. Already she was damp and disconcerted and facing a stranger demanding too much from her in that first question: how can I help you?

But she seemed to relax then, and something nearing how others might see her outside the room emerged. I noticed for the first time that she was actually very well dressed.  Her knees were bare, but her trench coat was fashionable and her shoes were expensive. The small bag she unhooked from over her shoulder was a neat leather satchel of the kind I could only justify buying while on holiday, perhaps after a glass of wine.

I was surprised by the envy, a small tinge of wishing something of the other. How was it that in this sad woman who, so far, had offered up nothing of any substance except terror alternating with disapproval, I could find something to want?  I took note that it wasn’t anything of her that I coveted, only something she owned. So this was her refuge, I thought, the carapace of possessions. But her knees were bare and her fear had been palpable. In her handshake she had given me nothing.

There is a powerful urge on the part of most therapists to hunt out something in the internal wasteland of another, but I resisted again the temptation to move towards her and instead pushed further back into my chair, a high backed winged seat that exudes eminence. Of course, I also know how cultivating envy can be a tidy way of keeping people at bay.