Today is the second anniversary of Gail’s passing and there’s little to add to what I’ve already written. I find these significant days are ones on which I need to do something life-affirming or something I’d maybe not do if Gail were here. Consequently, I find myself in a hotel in Cheddar, Somerset having climbed the 274 steps of Jacob’s Ladder and walked the Gorge Route; a not inconsiderable 4 mile walk with steep climbs and rough walking.
Walking and thinking are good for the soul, it seems and I stopped at one point, pulled up Spotify on my phone and played ‘Sign Your Name’ and ‘You To Me Are Everything’ while admiring the stunning view.
It’s OK. It seems to work for me. It takes the weight of the day and moves it elsewhere, and I’ve been sadder and more upset at other, completely random, times. But then again, grief can slap you round the head when you’re least expecting it.
So back in the hotel I though I’d tackle the long-delayed subject of my counselling which I spoke of in To Cut A Long Story Short and Sweet Charity. It will give me something with which to mark the anniversary.
I think part of my reticence in speaking of this is the embarrassment of what eventually brought everything to a head and ended the sessions. As mentioned previously, I’d decided that if I was going to get anything out of this exercise, it made sense to pay to see the leading Psychotherapy Counsellor available. This Counsellor – let’s call her Sarah – a leading advocate of psycho-dynamic therapy certainly wasn’t cheap and it was made clear to me at the start that ‘all sessions needed to be paid for’. This seemed reasonable enough but I did explain that as I had my own business it wasn’t always possible for me to attend every week, but I would give at least a week’s notice should I not be able to attend, a period mirrored by Sarah should she – as happened on several occasions – not be available.
Quite how the situation arose that caused the issues, I can’t say for certain but I know if Gail could read this she’d be astonished. She was long frustrated by the sight of me getting out my cheque book and the rattle of the printer as I ran off my bank statements “Oh no, it’s not that time again, is it?” she’d say before making plans to leave the house.
You see, I’m fastidious, in an obsessive compulsive way, about checking my bank balance against my cheque book ,and have been known to sit for hours ensuring that nothing had come out of my account I wasn’t aware of, often looking for a cheque stub error – always of my own making.
Now, this attention to unimportant details – not exactly re-arranging pillows on the bed but very close – was the very thing that was taking me to the Counsellor in the first place. When she was here, Gail would end my frustration with a simple ‘Come on Fanny*, put that down / stop doing that, we’re going out” (* Her stock phrase for when I was ‘fannying about’) but, without Gail, I’d lost that driving force in my life and I was concerned at often finding myself not being able to leave the house, bogged down in some meaningless task while something important was left.
At the time I booked the sessions, I was trying to get care arranged for my parents and I’d often delay contacting social services or speaking to the local council while I got embroiled in a pointless debate on Twitter or something. I was frustrated and helpless and I genuinely felt I needed help.
Before I explain what brought the sessions to an acrimonious end though, I should explain both the benefits and the difficulties with the sessions themselves.
Firstly, it has to be said, the benefits of just talking to someone can’t be underestimated. I’d often leave sessions feeling elated because I’d just been able to get so much off my mind. Sadly though, I realised later that much of what I’d really wanted to say had been left unsaid but I’ve come to think that is the failing with therapy; you can only reveal that much of yourself you decide to reveal.
I was then surprised by how often the sessions fell into what I perceived as cliche. Endless questions about my childhood and the fact that I’d chose to write under a pseudonym were seized upon and disassembled in a manner that I didn’t think they warranted. What certainly emphasised the issues though was that during the therapy, I lost first my Father and then my Mother. Sarah attempted to make much of this when the sessions ground to a halt, and it would be disingenuous to pretend my life unravelling in real time didn’t bring a focus to events, but the fact remained I didn’t see my issues were anything to do with those things and I started to resent the pointless returns to meaningless events as a child.
Then the silences began. The first was just after my father died in November when a conversation we’d been having came to a natural end and Sarah took to looking at a point on the floor, not speaking. At first, I wasn’t sure what was happening and wondered if I should break the silence but I wasn’t sure of the protocol. I started to inwardly panic – was this panic part of the therapy? Was this a test to see if, uncomfortable with the silence, I would speak? I decided to say nothing and the session ended 15 minutes later. “Do you feel I should ask the questions?” Sarah asked. I felt like a schoolboy having a question fired at him by a teacher; one of those where you sense that whatever you say will prove to be the incorrect answer.
The sessions continued normally for the next few weeks and then the week before Christmas Sarah did it again, this time at the very start of the session. That look sideways at the point on the floor and I knew what was happening. Again I started to panic but decided I wasn’t going to break the silence. As anyone who has followed this blog knows, Christmas was ‘our time’. I was approaching the second festive season without Gail and I was weighed down by grief. Gail was filling my thoughts and I had no time for tedious analyst games. Time went by, the room deafened by the lack of noise. I started to just remove my mind from a situation I felt wholly uncomfortable with, and I began to drift with Gail, to talk to her, to tell her what was happening here. I could almost hear her ‘For fuck’s sake, this is bollocks’. She was right. I realised later I’d actually fallen asleep for a good ten minutes. Then the session ended and Sarah and I hadn’t spoken for the whole period.
By this time, I was Googling ‘Silence in Psychotherapy’ and felt I was ahead of what was expected of me. ‘The use of silence within psychotherapy for attentive listening, observation, self exploration and creating a holding environment is well documented’ I noted though the advice to the Therapist was to ensure that their client was comfortable, some finding the experience ‘frightening’ and providing a ‘horrible emptiness full of suspicion, hostility, rejection and aggressiveness, a silence which blocks progress’. I certainly concur more with the latter view.
And then my mum died in early January and the ‘how do you feel about that?’ questions came. My head was all over the place by this time and I seized on the one thing my mum’s passing had enabled me to do; a holiday I’d booked to Egypt that I’d thought I’d have to cancel, could now go ahead with mum’s funeral taking place when I returned.
By the time I’d got back we just had time to have the funeral before the COVID pandemic became world news and it was obvious I wouldn’t be able to take up any more sessions. Sarah offered me a Skype session but I wasn’t going to do that and made it clear that if there were no face to face sessions then I wouldn’t be continuing.
Sarah reluctantly agreed and gave me the invoice for the past month; a month in which I’d missed three sessions due to my trip to Egypt, the only one held being the day after the funeral. I queried the bill at first as I though there was a mistake. And then the full magnitude of it struck me. When I’d read ‘all sessions must be paid for’ I’d seen exactly that; a ‘session’ being an hour in the Centre with Sarah. But that wasn’t what it meant. In fact, a session was every Tuesday from the first one held back in October right up to the start of the pandemic! This didn’t include those that Sarah cancelled – about three – but that just made it worse.
And that’s where the aforementioned embarrassment came in. After years of driving Gail to distraction with my fiscal obsession, I’d abandoned it when I’d most needed it. The situation with my parents and, in truth, the extra money that had come my way as I’d gained first my father’s estate and then my mother’s meant I just hadn’t bothered checking the bill and adding up the weeks. In fact I’d paid for about five or so sessions I’d never actually had as well as the two silent ones. I was mortified, angry (with myself certainly) but also with the whole scenario and, in all honesty, with Sarah too.
I made it quite clear to Sarah that I believed that the wording of the document I’d agreed too was ambivalent to say the least, and it wouldn’t have done any harm to emphasise that by ‘sessions’ she’d actually meant weeks even if there were no sessions. Her response? ‘You seem to be angry with me for some reason’.
That was back in March and I’ve not heard from Sarah since. She wanted me to have a closing session but I pointed out that I didn’t think that would be beneficial for either of us. I don’t believe I got anything from the whole experience bar an initial surge at getting things out, but I’m fully aware in over three months I never touched on the very issues. that had driven me to try therapy in the first place.
The whole experience had been a dispiriting exercise; a waste of time but, more importantly, a colossal waste of money. I would have felt uncomfortable had I paid for all the sessions but the fact I paid for not being there and for the interminable silences just makes me all the more frustrated.
A suitable case for treatment? As Gail would have said ‘That’ll larn ya’