A DESPERATE ONE-TIME THING
Going to see a psychologist was an act of desperation. I was afraid I was going mad. Jacques Brel’s song kept playing repeatedly in my head and I couldn’t shake it. I wasn’t sleeping and I could scarcely eat. I looked pale and I was losing weight.
I had passed the sign many times on my way to work. ‘Anne E. Holmes, Psychologist, By Appointment Only’ and a phone number. I decided to call her on my way home from work. I stopped my car outside her office and made the call. I had hoped she would be an older person. I decided I would go to see her once, and no matter what happened, I would go only once. It wouldn’t matter how tearful I was while I told her about you or what she thought of me because I would never see her again.
Anne Holmes answered the phone. She sounded like an older woman and I felt relieved. When she asked me why I wanted to see a psychologist, I whispered, “My husband is having an affair.” I choked up for a moment and couldn’t speak. She waited patiently and then said, “This sounds urgent.” She had an opening for me at 2pm the following day, Wednesday, February 29. After I ended the call, I felt a terrible moment of panic because I had made your affair more real simply by saying it out loud. I cried a while longer, still sitting in the car outside Anne Holmes’ office. Then I settled down and told myself that if I did talk to her, it might help and I would be okay.
What did I expect from a psychologist? I expected to lie on a couch and talk and have someone say, “Mmm, mmm” and “how does that make you feel?” I assumed I would have to talk about my childhood and all my problems. I would then be told what to do, pay at the end of the session and that would be it. Little did I know there would be so much more to it than that.
Anne Holmes’ office was in a house that had the front rooms converted into an office and a waiting room. I was apprehensive when I walked in. I was afraid of seeing someone I knew, but no one was there. I sat in a large armchair and looked around me. Almost immediately, the soft silence and the comfort of the room soothed me. There was a framed certificate on the wall that read ‘Anne E. Holmes, Clinical Psychologist’.
When Anne appeared, she was a woman in her fifties. She was simply and elegantly dressed and she had kind eyes. She smiled and held out her hand. I was aware of her warm, dry hand shaking my sweaty one but she didn’t seem to notice. I followed her into her office and she gestured me toward a comfortable armchair. I felt less apprehensive when I noticed there was no couch. Anne pointed to a jug of water and a glass on a coffee table between us and suggested I help myself. One wall of the room was lined with books. There were two armchairs, a desk with a CD player on it, an office chair, a filing cabinet and a cupboard. There was a pretty pot plant on the desk and beautiful paintings on the walls. One in particular caught my eye. To make conversation, I asked Anne about it.
“That’s a Grandma Moses print,” she said. “She is my inspiration. She didn’t pick up a paintbrush until her late 70’s when arthritis made it impossible for her to hold an embroidery needle. Her exhibitions broke attendance records all over the world.”
“It’s lovely,” I said. I sat back and relaxed a little. I felt like I was in safe hands.
Anne also sat back and she smiled at me as though she already knew me and liked who I was, which was odd because she didn’t know me at all. “Have you ever been to a psychologist before?” she asked. “Any history of mental illness?”
I shook my head.
“Well then, where would you like to begin?”
I must have opened and shut my mouth like a fish because she smiled and said, “Relax and breathe slowly. You will be okay, I promise. When you are ready, tell me briefly about yourself.”
I told her that I had worked for years as a kindergarten teacher and now ran a childcare center four days a week, that I had met you on a blind date when I was eighteen and you were twenty. We had been married for twenty-six years and had two children, Eleanor, twenty-four and Henry, twenty-two and they had both moved out two years ago. We lived in the house that had been my parents’ home. My widowed mother wanted to move into something smaller and offered us the house on our wedding day.
I told Anne that Eleanor was a florist while Henry was studying a Master’s Degree in Environmental Science and they were sharing a house with friends, close to the city. You were the director of a city real estate company. On Wednesday mornings, I took care of your parents. My father died when I was a teenager, my mother died only two months ago and my best friend Judy died of breast cancer two years ago. Lastly, I told her that we had to have our lovable old Labrador, Molly, put down one month ago.
At that moment, unexpectedly, I started to cry and was soon sobbing. I was crying for Judy, for my Mum and Dad and for Molly. I was crying for myself. Anne leaned forward and moved a box of tissues closer to me. I grabbed a handful. She said nothing but sat and waited. Her presence was soothing. I didn’t feel that she was trying to be sympathetic. I loathe sympathy. I can’t stand it when people pity me. I want to punch them.
Do you remember when we were with the social worker at the hospital, just after Mum died? Mum’s body was in the next room and the social worker sat with me and tried to hold my hand. She had a ridiculously exaggerated expression of concern on her face. I looked at her and thought, you don’t know me, you didn’t know my mother. What are you feeling so bad about? I was annoyed with her. As she left the room, I made a gesture with my hands, like hand passing a football. You laughed and I laughed with you. Later I wondered what she must have thought of the two of us giggling like that.
Anne wasn’t sorry for me. She wasn’t even sad for me. She didn’t join me in my misery. She just waited patiently until I was ready to talk. She gave me the impression that she had seen it all before, that I was not alone, that my situation could be easily fixed and that in fact, all was well.
After a while, I blew my nose and made those remarks that women make when they know they have made themselves look ugly, swollen and snotty. I wanted to comb my hair and wipe my eyes and I wished I hadn’t worn mascara. Anne passed me a small mirror and I looked at my wretched reflection and tried to clean up some of the mess. All that crying had given me a headache. I needed to go to the toilet urgently and when I returned, I realized I had been crying for some time. I sat down and looked at the floor. Anne poured me a glass of water and encouraged me to drink it.
I told her that I had seen you in a park with another woman and that because I knew you and loved you, I was sure you weren’t having a meaningless affair. You were not a flirt or a philanderer. It was probably a serious thing for you. During our marriage, I had never suspected that you might be with another woman. I told Anne that I had spent nearly two days in bed and then three weeks unable to decide what to do. I told her I couldn’t ask you about it and when she asked me why not, I said I was afraid that you would leave me. I told her about all my terrible ‘what if’ questions and about how I was unable to answer any of them.
“How are you feeling?” Anne asked.
“Um, I feel like I am at the bottom of a deep, dark well” I replied.
“And you need a ladder to get yourself out,” she said, nodding. “Tell me, what do you want?”
“I don’t want to lose my husband…”
Anne interrupted quickly, saying, “I didn’t ask you what you don’t want, I asked you what you want.”
I stared at her. I didn’t understand the distinction.
She continued. “If you focus on what you don’t want, you get more of what you don’t want. Start again. I want…”
I started again. “I want to keep my husband?” I felt like a child trying to get the lesson right for the teacher.
“You want to keep your husband. Good. Why?”
“Yes that’s right, why do you want to keep him?”
“Because I love him and we have been happy for a long time and I don’t want…”
Anne raised her hand to interrupt. “Don’t add that. Just tell me what you want.”
“I want to keep my husband. . .”
“Because we have been married for twenty-six years and we have been happy and I want to stay happy and…”
“You want to keep him because you want more of the same. That’s understandable.”
“Yes, yes I do. I wanted it to last forever.”
“Until death do you part?” asked Anne.
“Yes, exactly, exactly…I wanted us to grow old together.” I then noticed I had spoken in the past tense and my heart sank. My voice drifted off.
The enormity of what I might be losing, my husband, my home, my family, my past and my future, overwhelmed me. I started to cry again. Anne sat back, waiting. I am having trouble writing this, Andy, because it was a really awful time for me, but I want you to know a little of how I felt in those first few weeks so you will understand why I am doing what I’m doing today.
After what seemed like forever, I was able to settle down.
“You probably think I shouldn’t feel this way,” I said. “You probably think I’m pathetic. I know I do.”
“Firstly,” replied Anne, “what I think needs to be irrelevant to you and secondly, you need to make peace with how you are feeling at the moment. You are where you are and that’s okay. You have to begin from where you are.” She paused. “Are you suicidal?”
“No! No, I’m not,” I said. I stared at her, a little shocked. Could she tell I had thought about it?
Anne looked at me intently so I admitted to her that in the first few days I had thought over and over – I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead. I told her that it seemed to me, if I didn’t have you, I had no life at all. Some mornings I thought I would prefer not to wake up, but I didn’t have any actual plans to kill myself. I mentioned the acute despair I felt that night in the motel. I believed if I was ever going to kill myself, it might have been then, but I didn’t killed myself then, so I probably wouldn’t now.
Anne smiled and said, “Good. I had to ask. The only way you can begin to feel better is to be okay with how you are feeling now. It doesn’t mean that you will stay feeling that way. I don’t think being miserable is your default setting. To me, you look like a happy person, but at the moment you are feeling powerless, isolated, desperate…” She smiled. “Stop me if I get this wrong.”
Despite myself, I smiled. “Yes I am feeling that way.”
“The most seductive emotion we can feel is self-pity,” said Anne. “It can make us feel like a victim. It can also make us want attention and sympathy from our friends.”
“But I loathe sympathy!” I objected.
“Good. That’s important. Your job is to find ways to feel better about your situation and my job is to help you do that. I don’t give advice, I don’t give sympathy and I am not just a sounding board for your complaints. I am going to support and challenge you and all your decisions will be yours. How does that sound?”
I was a bit dazed but I nodded to indicate that it sounded okay.
“Therapy is about learning to think and feel better, no matter what the circumstances are,” said Anne. “Therapy helps you recognize which thoughts sabotage you and which thoughts make you feel better. My job is to help you find thoughts that help you make good decisions. Any decisions you make while you feel as you do now, are decisions you will regret. Therapy doesn’t end in this office either. At home or work, I want you to do everything you can think of to make you feel a little better. I want you to be careful about what conversations you have, what music you listen to, what television shows and movies you watch. Choose things that lift your mood, just a little. You will begin to notice what does or doesn’t have a positive effect. Eliminate the rest. You don’t need other people’s dramas. Tell me briefly about the night you spent at the motel. What did you think about?”
“I lay there and thought about them talking and laughing and kissing in the park and going out for dinner. I imagined them going to bed together, I tortured myself….” I had to stop there. I couldn’t breathe.
“You focused on what you didn’t want and dug yourself deeper into that well,” said Anne.
“Yes,” I said, “and then I started asking myself how could this be happening to me, why is this happening to me, what did I do to deserve this, and that made me feel terrible. Then I thought about how happy I had been before I saw them in the park. I mean, Andy and I had just had our twenty-sixth wedding anniversary. We went to a lovely place for dinner and everything seemed nice between us. I thought we were happy. I like being married. It gives me a feeling of belonging. When you see the other person’s face, you smile inside and think, ah, there you are, and it feels warm and comfortable. I can’t bear the thought that it has gone and I don’t know why.”
Anne folded her arms in front of her, ready to hear more of my story. “So now, tell me about the parts of your life that are okay. What are the positive aspects of your life?”
I looked at her, bewildered.
“What do you love about your children?” she asked.
I was taken aback by the out-of-left-field questions. I didn’t think I could shift my focus from something so bad to something else that was better. I took a deep breath and had a sip of water.
“Um, my kids are great. Eleanor is the funniest thing, bright as a button and the best daughter anyone could ask for. She loves her job, she visits about once a fortnight and she always has a funny story to tell me.”
“What is your favorite memory of her?” asked Anne.
I thought for a moment and remembered a favorite image of our darling daughter.
“She was about six years old and ready to attend a party dressed as a dragon fly.”
Do you remember that, Andy? She danced about, flapped her wings and insisted we take her photograph.
“She was so beautiful and so happy. She loved the costume I made. One of the photographs is still on the fridge.”
I hesitated. Henry went through a rebellious, angry adolescence, causing us a lot of anxiety. I remembered him yelling at me and calling me a moron.
“Henry went through a tough phase….”
“Don’t go there. Tell me what is positive about him now,” said Anne.
I thought for a moment and started again. “Henry has matured into a well, happy young man who follows the beat of his own anti-establishment, save the planet drum. He can play the tin whistle like an Irishman.” I smiled at a recent memory of him and Anne smiled too.
“Keep going,” she said. “Tell me more about your children.”
Soon, I was talking happily about the children that we both love. I had forgotten all about you. Anne kept asking questions, encouraging me to tell her about the funny, cute or clever things our children had said or done. I showed her the photos I kept in my wallet. I told her about their kindergarten drawings and the photos of them that were still on the fridge and the kitchen pin board. For a moment, while talking about the children, I was truly happy. Anne asked me to notice it, really notice it, and to use those memories as a way of feeling better every time my mood dropped low. She suggested that whenever I began thinking about you and your girlfriend, I could choose to remember what I loved about Eleanor and Henry or Molly as a puppy or anything else that made me smile.
“Therapy is work,” said Anne, “and sometimes it is hard work. Occasionally, I might give you homework. It requires you to be focused and honest and to know exactly what you want. I have recorded this session so that you can listen to it again later. Do you have a portable recorder?”
I nodded and she continued. “In future sessions, I would like you to bring it and record our sessions so you can go over our conversations later in your own time. I would also like you to start writing in a journal. It will help you become aware of your own thoughts.”
Anne took a CD out of the machine on her desk, put it in a paper sleeve and handed it to me. She suggested we end the session there and that she would see me the following week. I left feeling a little better. I felt a strange kind of relief. The dark shadow of despair that loomed over me had shifted to a softer grey. Later, when I returned home, for the first time in weeks, I didn’t sit in the dining room, looking at my hands, twisting my rings and waiting for you to come home. I didn’t sit there, wondering when exactly my life as I had known and loved it, would end. Instead, I sat at the kitchen bench and looked at the children’s photos and drawings on the fridge. I looked at the little dandelion on the windowsill. I was feeling just a tiny bit better. Perhaps I would get the help and support I needed with more than just one session with a psychologist.