I didn’t know what I wanted to talk about – which, these days, is mostly okay. But it turns out it’s not okay if it happens just before a therapy break.
“We peaked too soon” – I heard myself say during the last session, cringing inside at the entirely intentional sexual innuendo. But it also felt true. My last two sessions before the break were preceded by my therapist going away on a residential conference – a temporary parting of sorts, which I had suspected for weeks I would find difficult because it would trigger feelings of exclusion. We parted well – the sort of parting I have become used to experiencing before a longer break. It was positive and connecting, and the adult part of me was at the fore. Which is all well and good, except that it turns out that I cannot keep that up on multiple occasions in a short space of time. The positive feelings started to ebb away, and I came down off my plateau. I knew at my penultimate session that I had run out of steam, and I left feeling anxious about how things would turn out the next day.
In the absence of a list of topics (or even one topic) to talk about, this is how the session started to take shape in my imagination. I guess you could say that this became my plan.
I walked upstairs to the therapy room, but instead of sitting straight down and taking off my shoes, as usual, I stayed standing, and started to look at my therapist’s bookshelves. She came in, shut the door, and sat down. I imagined her looking at me with curiosity, wondering what was in my mind, and what was in play. Why were things different today? I answered her wordless questions: “Could I have a look around? I haven’t really had a chance to do that yet. I don’t have anything in particular to talk about, and I’ve always wanted to just explore this space a little bit”.
She nodded, silently, and I turned back to scanning the shelves. What might the books tell me about the things she was interested in? About the different types of difficulties she had worked with? About the training she had had? Would she let me borrow any of them? But it wasn’t just books that filled her shelves – it was postcards, and ornaments, and objects of different kinds. I had joked a few days ago that I was developing my own little corner on a higher shelf – she had made a neat display of a postcard, a photo, and a couple of gifts I had given her. I wondered if she ever looked at them during our sessions. Or anyone else’s……
I said: “All these things….sometimes I wonder whether they are your memories, or symbols of someone else’s story. Are these keepsakes from other clients, on your shelves?”
She said: “And what would it mean, if they were?”
The night before the last session I was feeling restless, and went from room to room in my house. I was looking for something, but I didn’t know what. I had a strong sense that I wanted to find an object to give to my therapist, to remember me. At the same time, I wanted to find an object for me, to remember her. I wanted a chance discovery, to invest with meaning. At the start of the Christmas break I came across a book she had lent me more than two years ago. The subject matter connected powerfully with material we had been covering in session, and the book was a tangible reminder of her and our work together. I knew, wandering about the house, that there was no other such book to find – so what did it mean, that I continued to look?
The day came, and I walked upstairs to our therapy room. Instead of sitting straight down and taking off my shoes, as usual, I stayed standing, and started to look at your bookshelves. You came in, shut the door, and sat down. I imagined you looking at me with curiosity, wondering what was in my mind, and what was in play. Why were things different today? I answered your wordless questions: “I’m just looking at your books – I won’t touch anything. I don’t have anything in particular to talk about, could I just have a look at your shelves?”
You said: “I think we should start the session”.
You asked me why things were different today – why I was sitting in a completely different position. Usually, I curled my legs under me, with my back slightly towards the door, so that I could more easily look out of the window. The point my eyes usually fixed upon when I was thinking, or distressed, or dissociated, was a small dark wooden chest of drawers, next to your chair. This time, I had unthinkingly brought my knees up to my chest, with my back towards the window, facing the door of the room, which was behind your chair. The point my eyes were now fixed upon was the opaque glass in that door and the gap underneath it – both black with the darkness of the landing at the top of the stairs.
“It’s interesting having a different viewpoint”, I said.
“I asked if I could look around, and you cut me off”, I added.
I said: “I find it interesting, how you handled that. You were much more definitive in your reply, than usual. You said that we should start the session but you didn’t leave room for the possibility that looking at and talking about the bookshelves could be part of the session”.
“I thought it was a defence”, you said.
I always thought of this space as in some way ‘my space’, even though it’s your house; somewhere I could be free and explore – I didn’t say.
I was quiet. Somewhere in the distance – or was it just downstairs? – there was a swishing, faintly thumping sort of sound. There was movement, and some creaking, and a door opening or closing. I looked at the black line under the door, imagined the darkness of the stairs beyond.
You said, “Where are you”?
I said, “Is that a washing machine?”
And then, “What is that poem, the one about being on the stairs, and meeting a man who wasn’t there?”
You looked at me – was it curiously or with curiosity?
You said, “It feels unsettling, because you expect therapy breaks to start in a particular way, and that’s not what’s happening this time”.
You were right, and for the last fifteen minutes of the session my defences somehow fell away, and I managed to take that in – to take you in. You were right, and I was scared – how could I go into the break off the back of this difficult session? And how would I manage without a tangible ‘meaning-object’ to get me through? A therapy jacket, a stone, a book, a memory, a piece of music – what would it be this time? You asked why there had to be something, rather than nothing. I was quick to point out – was that your intention? – that I knew it wasn’t a case of having nothing. Some of those previous objects were still in my possession, and I had many memories, and more tools to get me through, than at any point previously. At the same time, I had nothing in particular – no object, memory or metaphor – to associate with this particular break. But that didn’t need to mean anything. It certainly didn’t mean that the break would be a disaster, or that I would lose connection with you.
“You are still connected even if you don’t feel connected”, you said. “You will still be kept in mind”.
When I got home, I googled ‘man on stairs who wasn’t there’, and found this poem, called ‘Antigonish’, by William Hughes Mearns:
“As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there!
He wasn’t there again today,
Oh how I wish he’d go away!”
When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door…
Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn’t there,
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…”
Sometimes both my therapist and I free-associate via poetry – it’s one of the things I love about her. Part of me finds it a little amusing that this poem came to me in our last session, and I wonder what it might mean, if anything. It felt as though the trigger was simply my mind wandering from seeing the black line under the door, to thinking about the darkness on the landing and the stairs. Is this the only poem I’ve read that connects darkness and stairs? Why think of a poem at all?
Was my therapist curious, wondering what was in my mind, what was in play? I hope she didn’t think that my subconscious was wishing her husband away! I remembered that when I’d written about his presence in the past, I light-heartedly spoke of him ‘haunting’ the house. I thought about the fact that a few months ago, it became clear to me that one of her daughters was back living with her for a while.
‘I thought it was a defence’, she’d said.
‘What do you want to ask? Sometimes, when you say you don’t have anything to talk about, there’s a question that you want to ask’. That’s what she’d said the day before.
I said I didn’t have a question, but perhaps, this was it:
“As I was going up the stair
I wish I knew who waited there.
Is she here again today?
Or has she left, and gone away?”
Sharing is difficult, isn’t it?