Donald Freed
International Playwright
and Master Teacher

Therapy

 I closed and locked the office door behind me.  I was in a hurry and my handbag knocked hard against my hip while I turned the key, that one extra click to ensure it was double bolted. I remember this with the clarity that results from extremity, not the actions of a woman moving smoothly through the rhythm of her life. Except, of course, I was in a rush, and now I don’t even know what for.  It could have been to meet someone, or to catch a train, it might have been simply to move things along a little. In the dark space where terror resides, perhaps I already knew my time was up.

 I’ve always been good at closing doors, those invisible portals between one stage of life and another. I suppose this particular talent of mine, this ability to effect closure, at least within my own mind, is what helped me to draw the door behind me and move into my own life at the end of the working day. Not to do so might mean my drowning in the sorrows of others, and I have a horror of death. The transition isn’t always easy. To sit for hours listening to others, to witness raw grief and to withstand the hot tip of another’s molten anger are the everyday fodder of my profession. Now I know I was hiding behind the misery of others – that door again where I could pretend my patients were so much worse off than me, and I truly believed that I could be of some use.  

Hubris is simply a shield against the worst fears about ourselves, and I speak with some authority.

But back to that door, the easy one at the end of my working day. My office was on the top floor of a Victorian House I shared with three other therapists and a dentist on the ground floor. My feet clattered on the steps. I held the banister to keep myself steady and I remember registering that Daniel and Lisa were still in their offices, ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs hanging on their doors. 

As I passed Keith’s office door, the scent of (what is it?), the dull taste of bicarbonate of soda wasn’t so strong as on other days, but there was still the scream of the drill, a little dulled through the thickness of the walls. I remember wincing at the sound, even toned down as it was. As ever, I was pleased it wasn’t me in the chair.

I didn’t know it was the last time I would see the office, that I would never feel the familiar soft pad of the rubber on the stairwell, or experience again a flash of irritation that the patch at the bottom had not yet been repaired.  These were the last moments of the life I called my own  and  for which I had worked so hard, closing door after door behind me to get to just this comfortable place.

Now I wonder which door it was that I did not close hard enough, or whether while I was busy closing the doors I didn’t attend to something else. I remember a Greek woman telling me once, she never entered a room without considering whether there was a window through which she might escape. So perhaps that’s it, I never considered how gas leaks, through all those unseen crevices, or out the damn window I never even thought to close.

I walked out into the evening, a soft autumn night that might have been beautiful. I remember the cool air, and I remember the soft thud of the front door as my life closed behind me. I remember looking over my shoulder just once, an afterthought perhaps, or the unthought-known, the pang of a lover left behind in a moment of longing.

 

I thought I had a life, a good life even.

I did, of course, it just wasn’t the one I thought I had. I walked out of one door and through another, time in reverse, like the joke clock I had hanging over the door in my kitchen, forever confusing. The funny thing is, I was used to it and could tell time in a heartbeat.  I could see people sometimes, staring at the clock in confusion.

“What time is it, exactly?” Frank asked the first time he saw it.

“Ten to eight,” I said, giving it a cursory glance. I was pouring coffee after an early dinner. We were intending to go to the movies. “Just reverse the numbers. It’s easy.”

“For you, maybe. Why would you have a clock like that? What’s the point?” he asked, shaking his head. Not for the first time, I noticed how much hair he had, unusual in a man of fifty. A little bit of grey in the corners, but mostly a dull blonde where the signs of age could get lost for awhile before showing their true colours. 

“What do you mean, what’s the point? It’s a joke. ”

Frank shook his head. “Why not play it straight? It’s unsettling, if you ask me.”

“Nothing is straight forward.” I handed him a cup of coffee.

“Oh. Well, then...”

Who had given me the clock? It’s not the sort of thing you buy yourself, or I don’t anyway. I lean more towards clothes and music, a good hotel with room service.  It was the parting shot of one of Frank’s predecessors, a man like the others who finally grew tired of working through my past in the present.

“How is it?” he had complained the day before handing me the clock, wrapped up in pretty white tissue paper, “How is it, that someone who analyses every little thing can be so unreasonable? I think you need to figure a few things out,” he had suggested, not entirely unkindly. What had I done to cause him to say such a thing? Blast him for some minor infraction that replicated a larger injustice from my past no doubt. How was he to know, but he’d given me the clock, so he’d registered something.  I closed the door on that one, forgetting his name even, but I’d kept the clock, hanging it over one of my precious doors.

To Frank, the clock didn’t yet make sense, but it would soon enough. What I didn’t know was that Frank was a stayer. He might not grasp the reverse mechanisms of my life, his thinking was far too linear for that, but not understanding would never be enough of a reason for leaving. 

 

I like buses, where everything is above ground, so that’s where I headed when I left the office that day; to the stop at the end of the road. I probably figured it would take me where I wanted to go, and with less effort as the underground is further away. I take the bus most days. For a woman who spends her working day tunnelling through the unconscious maze of others’ experience, I am adept at avoiding my own. I take the underground only when pressed, when there is little alternative but to head down directly. I like to sit up top, sometimes at the front like a child, facing the world head on. Down below, I usually end up on one of the ‘priority’ seats, not because I’m old, or disabled, but because it’s the only one free. Already I feel cramped, pushed in on the sides of my life and forced to focus at close quarters. Up top, I can breathe, down below the air is thicker, people too tired even to head upstairs to find the light. 

The underground always demands work.  It’s a fifteen minute walk down the road and I take it only when I’m forced, when it’s the only route possible to get where I’m going, like the furthest reaches of North London, or Dagenham, which I consider the end of the earth. Anywhere else I can skim along on the surface. Shoved onto the tube I feel like I’m caught in the web of other people’s misery. And I am a therapist by trade! But at the end of a fifty minute hour I’m let loose. I can write my notes and re-calibrate my internal settings. On the underground, who’s to know with whom I might end up trapped in the middle of a tunnel, with the lights out and no means of knowing how long we’ll be there. How do you reach the air in an underground tunnel, except by passing through more tunnels? The maze is endless and there is no map, just a relentless series of dark turns without a single hint of what might be ahead.

I ditched my first therapist when she dared to suggest I was resistant. This was after I was given the clock, which was really the last straw.  It wasn’t that no one had ever suggested I needed help before, just that he’d said it better than the rest. I finally went into therapy, initially for a few weeks because I thought it was only a bit of fine tuning I needed. In my innocence I really believed it was simply a few unfortunate habits I needed to break, like giving up smoking, or putting that foul tasting stuff on your fingernails to give up chewing, that sweet comfort of gnawing at your own flesh before the pain sets in and you’re reminded how disgusting it looks.  

In fact, the first therapist did only last a few weeks. She moved in on me too fast and too soon. Couldn’t she see I was terrified of the dark? Like I said, I dumped her. I wanted someone to show me how to negotiate turns, and she was all for slowing down and working out the route.  I would never be able to stay up top with this one. Even her kindness irritated me. She wasn’t pragmatic enough, like an inefficient sales clerk who clucks around behind the desk while you’re waiting for her to serve you, such a simple transaction turned into a drama.  

When I told her I was leaving, she lifted her slim shoulders and shifted a bit in her chair. “Have you considered why you want to leave?” she asked me.

“Because I don’t think this is helpful,” I was blunt. What was the point otherwise? I just want to know how to manage my anger sometimes, how to get through the day. “Maybe this is for some people,” I told her, “but I haven’t got the time.”

She didn’t argue, just nodded her head and smiled an irritating smile. I was out the door the same day, into the light.

Now, I recognize that when someone is determined to leave therapy, there’s no point in arguing. You become better at knowing the difference between a threat and an intention. She was wise enough to know that argument was useless, she could only encourage me to think. Later I would be grateful, but in that moment I was only happy to be out the door.

 I wasn’t thinking of doors, the ones I’d closed behind me while I was waiting for the bus. I didn’t have time, as the bus came along pretty quickly. It must have done because I don’t remember tapping my little internal foot until I actually got on the bus. Who was it I was meeting, and why is it that I focus my impatience so often on this hole in my memory? It wasn’t the main event, not even offside. That evening was simply the warm up act no one remembers afterwards, unless it was truly terrible. Except I do remember the ride, like the last view of someone you love.

The bus wasn’t crowded but it was full, and like always I headed up top. There was only one seat available that I could see, somewhere in the middle on the right.

Excuse me,” I said, clinging to the pole for balance as the bus pulled out. The seat was occupied by a bag of groceries, their owner staring out the window.   

“Oh!” she said, turning to look at me in mock surprise. “Sorry.” She heaved them over and onto her lap like a ten ton sack of potatoes. A martyr, I thought, a woman to be avoided. I plopped myself down and focused on her insignificance, my usual method for annihilating the enemy.

Two stops later she got off, huffing and puffing with her load and I wondered why on earth she hadn’t remained below stairs. When she’d gone, I slid further down next to the window.  Someone had left a coke can behind and it rattled back and forth underneath the seats. Where do you put such a thing? There are no dust bins and the seats were all taken. Irritated, I picked it up and shoved it between the seats.  Two people were talking loudly on the telephone, competitive one-sided conversations no one, least of all me, wanted to hear.  I glared a few times and one woman actually stared back, shoving her head forward in an “I dare you!” sort of motion while her voice grew even louder. The other one just turned away. They weren’t worth my time worrying about, and so I simply shut them out, turning my head to stare out the window.    

The bus rattled along the Wandsworth Road, not a pretty place at any time of the year. It always looks dusty, as if no one has bothered to clean the corners since the last bunch lived here, before the houses began to fade into disrepair and the junkies moved in.  But there is always hope and the first thing I saw was the congregational church, with its slogan outside promising salvation. Everything on that bus ride was so perfectly normal. I noticed one more section along the route having a face lift, a row of alms houses with scaffolding up and a sign to say luxury flats would soon be available. I wondered who would be the first to move in and imagined an aspiring City boy with his leather couch and a television the size of a wall.  

The route was reassuringly predictable. Heading towards town, council housing ran like a ribbon on the left hand side of the road, while above the derelict buildings and the messy business of transition on the right, was the stately elegance of Clapham Old Town.  There were no Portuguese coffee shops there, with their twenty -four hour football and men smoking and shouting through the open door at the television. Bakeries had turned into patisseries and the butchers were all organic.

I lived between the two, the dusty, messy road and the quiet confidence of Old Town. But that evening the bus rattled along, with me up top heading towards – where?  I passed my own stop, I can remember that, and the bus continued on its route towards town, turning left at Vauxhall bridge and up and along the House of Commons.  I had a book in my handbag, which I never looked at again. For weeks afterwards I could read nothing at all, but this was still hours away. Instead, I watched history glide by and looked through the tourists to see if there was anyone I knew. There never was, but I always looked and I was always disappointed, as if somewhere in the crowd I should experience a flash of recognition, a resurrection of sorts where someone from my past might be pleased to see me.  I even sat up straighter, like a child plastered against the glass to get a better view.

 I must have landed somewhere near Trafalgar Square because the bus turns round at the Aldwych.

The evening ends for me there. I don’t remember the space between, or the journey home. It’s the insignificance of the evening that is so striking now. My life was about to tip over into my past and I can’t even remember what I did the night before, like a drink too many and the hangover of regret. And no one has ever filled in the void, either because they have no idea of the significance of the evening, or it was simply too pedestrian an event to ever comment on again. A drink and dinner with a friend perhaps, or more likely a colleague. I haven’t so many friends that I can leave them scattered without notice.

Somewhere between Trafalgar Square and home again I lost the last evening of my old life, and no one noticed, least of all myself. For once, with the door wide open, I didn’t even think to pay attention.

 

It was two more therapists, and another few years before I dared to work below ground. But still I played it safe, careful to measure out just how deep I was willing to go.  In those easy questions like, ‘tell me about your mother...’ I discovered there was an uneasy alliance between what I thought, and how I felt about her. My father too, so little known and for so short a time, I had built up a lifetime relationship with him through fantasy; he was perfect, of course, as constant in my unconscious dreaming as he had been fickle in life. No man, certainly not the clock man, or Frank either for that matter, had any hope of living up to such perfection. No wonder I was so angry. My mother, a little wisp of a thing, clinging to her grief and disappointment like a talisman. The sorrow of her husband’s abandonment had given her definition, the pity of others a stand-in for constancy. I was the living symbol of her difficult life, a single mother whose child was doing well, my success the product of her own hard work. If I failed, so had she and the pity might dry up. For my mother, who depended so heavily on the attention of others, I would be killing her.

This was the grit of my early therapy, unravelling truth from fiction and, like so many of my patients, the grief and anger of those early years. My story wasn’t unusual, or even very terrible compared to some I’ve heard over the years, but it was mine all the same, my own particular pool of pain.

I finally learned to manage and Frank came along, just as I decided to train as a therapist myself. Frank is a mathematician and so we drive each other a little mad, he with his linear thinking and me with my worrisome tendency to exhume and scrutinise every little thing about the other. But by the time I met Frank I had also learned to manage my anger a little better, and to take a breath before holding a gun to a man for not living up to the fantasy version of my father, or heaven help us, replicating some pusillanimous aspect of my mother.  I resided more securely in the present, my past a labyrinth I’d negotiated over the years in therapy. I knew the route by now, as complicated as it sometimes was, and I‘d learned to distinguish one path from another. I stayed above ground, closed my doors faithfully behind me and moved on.

But I never told anyone the darkest secret, reserving it in a place in my heart no one could touch. It would take more than a good therapist to extract that nugget. Even to shift it a little loose would risk cracking the whole lot, my life shattering into a million tiny pieces of unbearable loss I knew I would never survive. Better to live a life at half mast than not to live at all, and so I never thought about it, I never dusted it off even once during those many years of therapy. I never really looked there at all.

 

I remember the next morning perfectly, a seemingly ordinary Saturday morning. There was a letter. I mistook it for an invitation to a gallery opening, or notice that I would be given a ten percent discount on something or other. I might have thrown it away but even junk mail I don’t throw out without being certain. I put it to the side, in a small pile to be opened later after my coffee and a read of the morning paper, my treat on a Saturday morning. Frank was away. About that I was lucky, though in the effort to organise my morning, I missed him. Usually, he made the coffee while I lounged. He’s a doer, you see, he likes to do things while I sit back and think. His world is made up of numbers and puzzles: cabinet doors that don’t open or close properly are a source of pleasure for him, working out the solution a source of quiet triumph. Perhaps this is why he lived with me, pre-occupied as he was with smoothing out my difficult corners; certainly he worked very hard to ensure that our lives ran easily. Why did he put up with me? Most of the time I hardly noticed. Like the drawer that suddenly worked, I took it for granted. If he was in the room of course I said, ‘thank you’ but I’m nothing if not outwardly polite and it’s only now, and far too late, that I’m learning to be grateful.

I didn’t open the letter for another few hours. It was mid-morning, after my coffee and shower and while I was clearing the kitchen table. I like a clean surface. I opened it while standing over the re-cycling box, my foot on the pedal with the lid up preparing to drop it in.

I scanned the letter quickly, and a second time more slowly. I couldn’t move. Have you ever been hit in the chest, in the hard place just above and between your breasts? Like a shovel hitting rock. The pain was so great I couldn’t even breathe. If Frank had been there he would have known what to do. He would have moved towards me slowly and taken me by the shoulders very gently and led me quietly to a chair. He would have waited, then, to hear what I had to say, or perhaps he would have taken the letter from my hand and read it himself, something of the mystery of his wife finally coming clear. 

But he wasn’t there. With my foot still on the pedal of the recycling bin, the lid still open and ready to receive, this time I couldn’t close the door.

Maisie. Who names a child Maisie, I thought?

Indignation.

As feeling gradually returned, when I could breathe again, it was indignation I felt first of all, the last ditch defence of the guilty.

Have I said I haven’t any children? Now at an age where I could be said to be tipping over the brink of possibilities, people rarely ask me whether or not I have children. I lack something of the warmth of a good mother, perhaps, or express little for the concerns of others, though no one would ever accuse me of not being interested. But perhaps my curiosity is more forensic than compassionate; I dissect rather than empathise, the essential quality of a good mother.

So, I stood there, frozen in time. Who dares to write a letter like this? Indignation again. My morning, my life, all running smoothly. After all the effort I’d put in, I wanted a clear run. Where was Frank? Now I wanted him. I needed a fixer, someone to tell me what to do.

But this was also my secret, the one I’d never told anyone.

I was robbed once, in the middle of the morning when I was home working upstairs. I came down for lunch to find the television gone and all my CD’s. I stared at the empty space in complete disbelief and it took me some time to realise that the burglars couldn’t be far away. I called the police and they arrived in droves, sirens howling and dogs straining at the leash. They sniffed and finger printed and a woman police officer spoke to me kindly. And then they were gone and I did not know what to do. As if there was something to be done.

This was what I felt like now. A terrible restlessness and I couldn’t settle down to any little thing, let alone concentrate on the big thing. I would need time to think, but I couldn’t think.

I went to the window and stared out at the street. The back of the house would have been more soothing, with the tree house and the garden and maybe a fox to distract me. Instead I looked out at the row of houses opposite. Ours is a quiet road, and there was nothing happening that I could see. The cars were all parked in a row and one lonely cat slunk out from underneath the belly of a BMW.  What was behind all those closed doors, now that mine was flung so wide open? I pressed my forehead against the glass, pushing harder and harder.

I didn’t cry. I didn’t wail and thrash and wonder why I was so hard done by. I wasn’t so selfish that I couldn’t see at least a glimmer of another person’s point of view, but I was still far more concerned with own.

 

To be continued....