in It's not ok to feel blue and other lies curated by Scarlett Curtis
‘Sorry I’m late,’ I said, as the door was opened by a small woman of around 70 seventy with short hair and an astute gaze. ‘I got lost.’
The eyes brightened even more. ‘I see,’ she said in a slightly amused voice. There was a pause as if she wanted my words to hang in the air. ‘Well, then. Do come in.’
I walked into a narrow, Victorian- tiled hallway and turned left into a small sitting room, with a desk and chair, low book shelves, a small glass vase of cut flowers and a potted plant in the corner. Against one wall was a single bed, with a ridged purple cover bedspread. A clean tissue had been unfolded and carefully spread over the covered pillow. I looked at the woman, who’d introduced herself as Beatrice.
‘Am I supposed to lie down?’
‘If you don’t feel comfortable you can sit for now,’ she said, taking a seat in a chair behind the head end of the bed. ‘But, yes. I suggest you lie down. Tell me, why do you think you are here?’
At 26 twenty-six years old, I had got lost on the way. My mother had died abruptly when I was three and a half (brain tumour; coma; gone two weeks later), and my father had remarried quickly. As a young kid I had managed to navigate what you might call ‘a complicated family situation’ in the way that young kids – made of plasticine, built to adapt – naturally do. But in my teens I had fallen down a hole. A dark hole of eating disorders and impulsive, escapist behaviour – no fixed abode, long periods abroad –- and something else, which I didn’t yet know was depression. Apart from a short stint in a hospital – three weeks, in which I made two friends and witnessed a girl die of anorexia –- I had clambered out of the hole myself, gone to uUniversity and muddled through. This was not, I told Beatrice, the reason why I’d decided to start therapy.
‘Oh?’ The voice came from behind my head. ‘So why, then?’
I stared up at the ceiling, off-white, a few scuff marks in the paint which I would get to know very well.
‘I’m trying to write a novel. But I’m stuck. I keep re-writing the beginning.’ Another pause.
‘In that case, let’s start at the beginning, shall we?’
For a year, I saw her twice a week. And then for the next five years, once a week. Each week, pretty much the same ritual. Arriving, breathless and apologetic at her door:
‘I’m sorry, I’m late, the damn traffic . . .’
‘I’m sorry I’m late, got caught on a call . . .’
‘Sorry I’m late. I got lost again. I know, I know, two years, you’d think I’d know my way by now . . .’
And at the end of each session, she’d get up and walk carefully over to her desk to look through her diary, while I, leaning over on the desk next to her, wrote out a cheque:
‘Please fill in your stub,’ she’d say sternly, glancing over, glasses at the end of her nose.
‘But there’s no point;, I haven’t filled in any of the others,’ I’d protest, flicking through.
‘Well, just do it anyway, won’t you?’ she’d say, with an impatient sigh.
What did she do for me, this Jewish South African psychotherapist, with her gravelly, cigarette-laden voice, her frequent flashes of wit, her searing common sense?
She sat at the end of the that bed every Thursday, for fifty minutes, through most of the weeks a year, through almost every mood. The days when I was uncustomarily quiet, when it felt like there was metal running through my veins and my joints were stiff and puffy and my brain was numb. The sessions when I wasn’t really there at all but distracted and impatient, listening to the noises of the children in the sports field across the road, keen to get out in the sunshine and live, live, live and wondering what I was doing in this old lady’s home in West Hampstead after all these years: was she a con artist –, there was really nothing wrong with me after all –, was she in it for the money? And surely shrinks should not be so opinionated, should not let me know their feelings, and anyway – how long could I stare at those shelves with the same lines of books on attachment and loss?
She sat there, out of sight, dispensing a wisdom that seemed to come from life and people more than her books, until the voice stayed with me when I wasn’t in that room. Until I began to hear her, began to predict what she would say when I wasn’t there, too.
‘Just wait,’ she’d say, about a person or a situation. ‘Don’t judge, or do anything now. It will emerge.’
Or, one week, when I arrived with bad news and a tearing pain in my chest: ‘It’s unbearable,’ she said. ‘Let it be unbearable.’
‘I think that falls into the “‘Oh, Bueulah, peel me a grape”’ category,’ she’d tell me, quoting from a Mae West movie in a southern drawl – her gentle way of telling me that what I had just related was an example of me being spoilt, or lazy. Though ‘lazy’, she went on to say, was almost never a character trait, was almost always a symptom;, ‘lazy’ needed thinking about, too.
‘Learn to shut up,’ she said once, surprising me. ‘Wwhen you’re feeling like that, don’t phone a friend immediately. Sit with it, or pick up a book. Bring it back to me next week. See if you can.’
And another time: ‘Even in those three years, she must have given you something very strong, your mother. Otherwise you would have been broken. Something I can feel, deeper than the sadness, a little pilot light that hasn’t gone out. Let’s turn it up. Let’s work out how.’
‘Am I bringing you down?’ I once asked anxiously, during a session in which in I heard my own voice, low and flat, in which I was aware I had brought a different energy into the room, and my mind had not been quick to do the work, to make leaps, and I hadn’t made her laugh at all (which I loved, more than anything else, to do.).
A pause, and her voice came out a little more husky than usual.
‘Whatever you’re feeling, whatever day you’ve had, you always turn up at my door with a great big smile for me.’
And about the time when she’d just about done this – when she’d taught me to live and love better, when she’d seeded inside me the self-care I’d never learned, in the week that my husband-to-be was about to propose –, Beatrice died.
‘You’ve very thin,’ I’d remarked, a little carelessly, when she’d opened the door after taking the odd week off here and there for ‘health issues.’ ‘Are you OK?’
‘Thin,’ she agreed. ‘It’s annoying. But fine.’
Then the sessions had been suspended again.
A few weeks later, sitting in the car, I got a call from someone who introduced herself as Beatrice’s daughter.
‘She’s in hospital,’ she said quickly. ‘She wanted me to tell you –. . .’ and here the voice caught on a sob –, ‘that she’s very fond of you.’
‘But she’s going to be OK?’ I heard myself say.
‘I have to go –,’ the daughter’s voice rose even higher –, ‘but she wanted you to know. She said it was important that you should know.’
The funeral took place in a cemetery in nNorth London that I knew well. I sat crying in the back row of a small, packed synagogue. This is your therapist, I tried to remind myself. As her friends and family took to the podium to talk about her, I looked around the grieving faces, wondering which of them had been her patients; confused and pained by the fact that although I had known all the different nuances of her voice, known when she was worried, or tired or distracted, had known her in this way so deeply –- I hadn’t known her at all. This is unbearable, I heard her say in my head. Let it be unbearable.
Now, ten years later, my car still slows as I drive past the street where she lived. I have missed her, with a sharp pain, at all the landmark moments of my life –, my wedding, the arrival of my two children –, or still, now, in those days when I get stuck, when it feels like the metal is running through my veins again. Often I hear her voice in my head, the same gravelly warmth, like the time she said goodbye to me after my first session and I agreed to come back the following week. ‘If you’re game, this will be quite a journey,’ she warned, with a smile. ‘But I promise we’ll be on it together.’
And sometimes I visit where her ashes were scattered in the cemetery garden. In a flower bed, about thirty feet away from a small copper beech tree where the ashes of my mother – another Jewish South African woman, who, had she lived, would have been almost exactly the same age – were scattered twenty-nine years before.