10 things I have learnt from therapy: Part 1 (In which I fail actually to discuss any of those things….)

On Friday my therapist told me that she is going to have to retire much sooner than expected, due to illness in her family. Her original retirement date was September 2018. Now, we have six weeks left until our final session on 15th December. 

It was really hard news to hear. For a number of reasons. 

Firstly, I know that it is not a decision she will have taken lightly, and that it therefore reflects some very difficult times in her own life. She had already told me that someone in her family was ill, since she wanted to give me advance notice that she might have to miss or reschedule some of our sessions. It is quite a shock when your therapist’s life creeps into your sessions, since it happens so rarely. Until the last few months, Alexis had only ever  missed one of our sessions, when she was involved in a car accident. She was unable to get in touch with me to explain what had happened, and it was such an unusual occurrence that she actually sent me a letter to apologise for how her unexpected absence might have made me feel. More recently, Alexis missed a session as she fell and broke her wrist. That, in conjunction with the news about her family and alongside the increasingly time-limited nature of our relationship, made me feel rather unsettled. I have always found endings and change incredibly difficult, and seek to impose a sense of my own agency and control onto myself, events and other people’s perception of me. The fact of Alexis’s retirement is just that: a fact. There is nothing either of us can do about it. While I have known about it for a number of months, and while I periodically get incredibly upset about it, I suppose that in some way I have been able to think: I still have time, we can talk about it and we need to,  but I don’t yet need to actually really engage with how I will prepare myself for it, practically and emotionally. Suddenly, the time frame that has governed many aspects of my thinking and of how I spend my time, has been drastically reduced and has come rushing to meet me in a  complete state of unpreparedness. 

The original time frame  – the months between now and next September – had probably taken on an exaggerated significance in my mind. There are many things that I want to change in my life, and with a solid basis of a network of supportive friends and, significantly, a hugely less stressful job and better mental health, I feel quite determined and also confident that I have the capacity to think about what I want to change and to act on that understanding. As mentioned throughout this blog, I want to write. I am writing of course. What I mean is that I would like to be published, and to find a way in which writing can become a significant part of my future career path. To that end, I am writing two blogs, and also a novel. The latter is moving at a very slow pace. In terms of the blogs, I am writing fairly regularly, and attract a reasonable number of visitors. I am just unsure as to how to develop this further, to find publications that might be interested in my writing, or to somehow ‘monetise’ my blog – though of the two the potential for that clearly lies in the other one, which focuses on fashion. 

I have talked to Alexis a lot about writing. I think one key change to have emerged from our sessions is an increased confidence on my part that I have something to say, and the skills and language with which to say it. That has happened for several reasons. I have thought about ‘being a writer’ or rather, writing, for a very long time. I have written for a very long time, since I am an assiduous keeper of a whole range of diaries. But I had never really expressed my very deeply-held desire to write something for publication, and for an audience other than myself. The path to sharing that wish lay in various things, including my need to make sense of the history of my mental health by ‘writing it out’, my dissatisfaction with my previous job and my related need to find an outlet for my creativity, and also my understanding of my creative potential that has developed through my exploration of photography. 

Alexis was the very first person I talked to about my wish to write. She is the very first person that I have talked to about a lot of things. Having the confidence to share this wish with her then gave me the confidence to share it with other people, and eventually to share my fashion blog with them (a few have also seen this blog.) I showed it to other people before I showed it to Alexis. Partly I suppose because you don’t really share things in that way with a therapist (I am assuming…) but also I imagine because her opinion is particularly important to me. I did eventually share my fashion blog with her. Given that our sessions will now end in six weeks, I am also going to show her this blog. I have yet to do so for a number of reasons. Firstly, a lot of it is about her! Secondly, I know she doesn’t really like the use of the term ‘depression’ as a catch-all, so I worry about how she will receive that section of the blog. 

Back to the significance of the time frame. I had set myself the target of having something published by the time that I stopped seeing Alexis. Now there is no way that that is going to happen. I had determined to prove something to her by the time our sessions came to an end, to show her that I can effect change, and can work towards the blended approach to my work and my life that I believe will make me happier – ideally, a combination of writing, teaching, and psychotherapy training. Now I feel as if it is too late. I am experiencing waves of panic when I remember how little time we have left, how little time I have to prepare myself for the ending, how little time I have to tell Alexis how much she has meant to me, to buy her a present that somehow perfectly reflects that, and to show her that everything she has done for me will lead to positive outcomes. 

I know this is all largely ridiculous. Even with a year to go, I was never going to achieve all of this. In any case, as Alexis said on Friday, she doesn’t need me to give her proof of what has changed and what is going to change; most, if not all of that pressure is coming from me. Nor does she believe that psychological progress is linear. Furthermore, while I do genuinely feel that Alexis has saved me, feel a huge amount of love for her, and really don’t know how I am going to cope without her, I also understand from a rational point of view  – a rationality that seems rather outside of myself, since all I can currently feel is the rawness of my emotions, but a rationality whose existence I nonetheless acknowledge – that I have put her onto something of a psychotherapist pedestal. No one person can be the determining factor in your life – apart from yourself, of course. That is a hard fact to take on board though. Alexis knows more about me than anyone, and has had more of an impact on my life than anyone. She is the person above all that I want to show that I can be happier and that I can change. I feel devastated that I haven’t done it yet, and that I will no longer have the chance to show her. 

Right at the start of this post I said that it was really hard to hear that Alexis is retiring so soon. Beyond my concern for her own situation, and my sense that time is running out, the thing I am finding most difficult is the prospect of having to carry on without her support. Our twice weekly sessions have provided me with an emotional safety net. Without it, I feel as if I will be completely on my own. I know in practical terms that is not the case, and the support I have had from very close friends since I told them Alexis’ and therefore my news on Friday gives me clear evidence of that. Nonetheless, however much they say that I can call them any time, I won’t. I won’t feel that I can call them in the middle of the night to tell them that I am in despair and scared about what I might do. I won’t tell them that if my hair continues to get thinner and thinner and to recede, I strongly believe that there will come a time when I will feel that I will no longer be able to function, or interact with the outside world. I won’t tell them of my fear that there will come a time when all hope has died and, in the absence of anything to live for and out of sheer embarrassment for the small, insignificant thing that my existence has become, it will no longer seem worth living. Not that I can call Alexis in the middle of the night. However, I know that I will see her within a few days, and that is hugely reassuring. I also know that I can tell her things that I worry my friends would find too difficult to hear. I do sometimes worry about the impact that my feelings have on her, and especially at the moment when I know she is having an extremely difficult time. But I know that she is not my friend, and that she has the professional resilience to listen to what I have to say. I know that I won’t push her away by being resolutely negative, as I sometimes am in our sessions.

Even with my most resilient friends, I worry about the impact that my emotions have on them. When I was at university, there was a girl in our circle of friends who was very insecure and quite needy. That in itself would not have been a problem. It was just that her needs and her insecurities  were always placed at the centre of our friendships with her. She had very little capacity for listening to the feelings of others, or even to the detail of what was going on in their lives. Our support for her was not reciprocated. While we were at university, our friendship with her survived, since the imbalance within it could be absorbed by the group dynamic. When we left university however, and seeing each other became more of a challenge, there seemed less and less reason to put effort into a friendship that was not really providing much in return. After a year or so, contact dwindled and eventually stopped. 

Another member of the same circle of friends was a girl to whom I was particularly close. We both stayed on at university to complete an M.Phil after our undergraduate degree, and while our subsequent career (me, so ‘career’, really) and academic (her) paths took us to Italy and Paris respectively, we still saw each other regularly, and stayed in touch via phone calls and letter during the in-between times. On my return to the UK, I started working in London, in a job that I quickly came to loathe. As discussed elsewhere in this blog, this coincided with my second serious period of depression, and in fact with the beginning of my relationship with Alexis. I travelled to Paris a number of times to see my friend, Hannah. Whenever we got into discussions about how things were going for me back in London, I inevitably became very upset. This was in stark contrast to the positivity surrounding Hannah’s life in Paris at the time. She was carving out a place for herself in the French capital and pursuing her artistic interests en route to her PhD. After my last visit, contact between us petered out. I initially continued to write to Hannah, unaware that something had shifted in our friendship, although I eventually came to this difficult understanding. 

Looking back, I wonder whether it was simply the case that our lives were heading in different directions, and that Hannah was creating a new life for herself in Paris, and had moved on from her time at university. She was a far more pragmatic person than me, and also had a strong family base that was her constant, wherever she might be or whatever she might be doing at any one time. However, at the time, I attributed the end of our friendship to the fact that I had become an increasingly difficult friend. I needed emotional support, whereas at the time Hannah’s life was on track. I suppose I equated my role within the friendship to the role played by our university friend with whom we had lost touch. 

I still worry about this imbalance in friendships today, and this is one reason I feel reluctant to ask too much of the people around me. I do understand that all of our lives go through peaks and troughs, and that we will all need more or less support at different stages in our lives. I have friends who have gone through unimaginable tragedy, and it goes without saying that I and my other friends have tried to be there for them, providing any support and comfort that we can and expecting nothing in return. I went out with friends for a birthday celebration last night. While we had a wonderful time, it was clear that almost everyone around the table is currently facing challenging issues in their life. Nothing is simple, and being there for your friends is part of the give and take of meaningful relationships. Nonetheless, I don’t want to be a burden to other people. I don’t want to put them under too much emotional pressure and i don’t want to push them away. 

One of my closest friends is, I would say, one of the most emotionally resilient people I know. She is also kind, generous and open. She has been a huge support to me over the last few years, and has repeatedly given me the courage to face challenging situations. We no longer live in the same town, but she is still incredibly supportive. After Alexis, I would say that she is the person with whom I can be most open. Nevertheless I worry that despite her resilience, my emotions have an impact on her, whether because she worries about me, or because they put her under a degree of emotional pressure and are too much for her to take on board. She is notoriously bad at responding to texts, and has a very busy family life of her own. While I know that, and while I know (hope) that she would tell me if I were asking too much of her emotionally, I sometimes worry that my messages are putting her under too much pressure, and that she feels the need to disengage. Most of the time I hope that were that the case she would tell me, and I also know that I am able to provide her with support, albeit of a different kind. We also have a lot of fun. It is sometimes hard though not to anticipate rejection, not least when you have experienced it from those on whom you should theoretically be able to depend in the past. 

Aside from this, the most challenging thing about that end of my relationship with Alexis is that I will not longer see her every week. It feels like a bereavement. I am terrified that it is going to overwhelm me. I just wish that it didn’t need to happen, and I suppose also that it didn’t need to happen so soon. Not that next September would have been any easier. It is going to be an unimaginable loss. 

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Anna’s letters

When I was at school, there was an amazing Deputy Head called Miss Shinwell. In a weird twist of fate, I am now the Deputy Head in the same school, though that is not really the focus of this post.

School was the best and worst of times for me. I was very academic, one of the most academic girls in my year. I suffered as a result of this in many ways. My school was very pressurised from day one, and there were what now seem to be pretty arbitrary and slightly insane methods of assessment in place which served to pile on even more pressure. Following biannual exams, certificates were awarded for academic merit and distinction, depending  on your average percentage across all of your subject areas. Twice a year, all anyone could talk about was what your average percentage was, if you were one of the girls likely to come out on top and receive a certificate at the summer Prize Giving afternoon.

I say it was all anyone could talk about.  Some of my oldest  friends date back to my school days – though we didn’t really come together as a group until the 6th form – and so we have a whole host of shared experiences. One of my closest friends wasn’t really part of our circle of friends until we were all at university, and when we talk about school it often becomes clear that her experience of it was parallel but entirely different to mine. In a competitive, all girls environment, I guess we needed something to talk about. One of those things was the gossip about who among a select group of likely candidates was going to do best at the end of each academic year. Looking back now and having discussed it with friends, I don’t know how many people bought into this particular topic of conversation, but I do remember that some of the most confident and popular girls did. I clearly remember some of them running towards me down the corridor one afternoon, gleefully informing me that Angela B (one of their group) had beaten me in the end of year Latin test and trying to find out whether my exam average was higher or lower than Sophie’s. (Sophie being the lovely girl in my form whom they positioned as my academic arch-rival, though I doubt they gave either of us a second thought at other times of the year.)

I’m pretty sure none of those girls would remember these discussions now, but I guess they meant something to me at the time and so have remained with me. I say that I suffered in the pressure cooker of my school’s academic ambitions and focus on results, but I have to acknowledge that a significant part of that pressure was of my own making. I was desperately insecure about my ‘likeability’ and about my physical appearance throughout my teenage years. Girls tended to stick closely to their form groups in terms of friendships and it wasn’t until the 6th form that I really made what I would consider to be true friends . After I foolishly left behind a secure, if slightly geeky friendship with Sophie during our first term at school, in search of something I thought was better, shinier and more fun, I had a couple of years trapped in a close, intense and very destructive relationship with a girl whom I don’t think I ever actually really liked. I am not sure that she really liked me either. I imagine we clung to each other as we had that desperate teenage need for someone we could describe  as our best friend, however much harm the relationship might be doing to either of us. I genuinely hope that I didn’t make her as unhappy as she made me, though I have a horrible feeling that I probably did. I only finally got out of the relationship when my mum, concerned at quite how upset it was making me,  offered to make a voodoo doll representing my best friend, for me to beat up. I think she was only half-joking.

At a time when I was so unhappy in myself and in my friendships, being academic was something that I could rely on, and which was largely within my control. I have always found the academic and the rational much easier to deal with than anything emotional. I  think there are a number of reasons for this. Emotions are by their very nature revealing, and in the past I have disliked anything that threatens the carefully constructed image of myself that I present to the outside world. I have expressed my emotions to friends and family, and have learnt to do so more confidently during my time in therapy. I did occasionally express my emotions when I was younger. Often though, I felt as if I was not understood, that people didn’t want to acknowledge the validity of how I was feeling (responses along the lines of ‘what have you go to be depressed about?’) or found that people got angry when they couldn’t find a way to help me get my emotions under some sort of control. There are so many issues tied up in this, particularly where family is concerned: the sense that others feel they have to assume responsibility for how you feel, and that you then have to deal with their own sense of disappointment or failure when you express your upset, uncertainty and anxieties about yourself and your life; the sense that if people get angry that you are upset, this means that they would prefer you not to share those emotions; the feelings of rejection when people cannot understand why you feel the way that you do. I see these complexities in relationships all around me on a regular basis. Even among my closest friends, we all have a terrible habit of apologising when we get upset and need to lean on other people, as if we are imposing on them, and as if the ability to ask for help and support were not one important aspect of what any friendship is about. (I say this as someone who does this as much as the next person.)

The academic side of school was a refuge from complex feelings, emotional difficulties and challenging relationships. It was an area in which I felt I had agency. I couldn’t contemplate the idea of failure, and even though I imagine I could have achieved the same outcomes with much less effort, put in hours and hours of work to ensure that I continued to achieve at a level that gave me that sense of control and self-worth. Not that that was my only motivation for studying. I was and remain an incredibly passionate learner. Particularly when I got to A Level and beyond, I genuinely loved the subjects that I was studying, and saw my future in the academic world: I couldn’t really see myself doing anything outside of a learning environment. While I have eventually ended up in education, at the time I was very much anticipating a career in academia. The fact that this didn’t happen is largely due to the fact that self-esteem built almost entirely on the foundations of academic success is inevitably a rather fragile construct, not least when the learner in question has never really had to cope with any sort of failure, and so has none of the strategies nor any resilience to fall back on when things don’t go perfectly.

After my degree, I completed an M.Phil in European Literature. In the end, it went really well, and I was awarded a distinction for my dissertation. However, as discussed elsewhere in this blog,  it was a rather bumpy road, and far more challenging emotionally that my undergraduate degree had been. I was suddenly surrounded by people who were incredibly well-read and academic – I suppose I always had been at university, but the intensity of my course made this particularly obvious. Many of the students on my course had come to Cambridge from overseas. I imagine it was much more challenging for them to win a place on the course than it had been for those of us who were already known to the faculty, and I suppose in some way I allowed myself to feel a little like a poor relation. Whereas I was primarily interested in, and studying film, most people on my course were studying literature, and would often have discussions about theories I didn’t know and about books I hadn’t read. When I find a situation difficult, I tend to withdraw from it, which is precisely what I did, thereby helpfully exacerbating my nascent sense of isolation and inadequacy.

If it had been just that, I think I would have coped better, and carved myself a little cinematic niche, full of my own knowledge and passions. However, I also found that I wasn’t performing as well in my essays as I would have hoped. The first one was fine – in the sense that I got the distinction that I was hoping to achieve. However, when two subsequent essays were handed back (these three in total made up the academic submissions for the course, along with a seminar and the final dissertation), I found that I hadn’t done as well as I hoped in one of them, and was devastated. I think one thing that struck me in particular was the fact that one of my supervisors – a woman who is now a professor of French and whom I hugely admired and respected at the time – had been so positive to me in all of our supervisions. I just hadn’t seen the final outcome coming. I retrospectively interpreted her encouragement as a sign that the level I was working at was the highest I could achieve, and that just wasn’t good enough for me.

That was it. Pretty much based on that one moment of terrible, terrible disappointment, I decided that a life in academia wasn’t for me and that I wasn’t going to apply for a PhD. When I look back, I have really mixed feelings about the decision that I made. On the one hand, knowing what I know now about the things that I need to maintain my positive mental health, I doubt that three years working independently in a highly pressurised academic environment would have been sustainable. The personal crisis prompted by the disappointment I felt at how my course was going that year led me to seek counselling support for the first time. After twenty-three years spent valiantly suppressing many of my emotions, I finally reached a point where I couldn’t do that any longer. Once I allowed myself to express them, I was completely overwhelmed by my feelings.  After my M.Phil, I stuck with my plan to move to Italy to teach for a year, even though this was no longer in preparation for the linguistic demands of my ongoing academic study. In the event though, I had to cut my time in Italy short and return to the UK, as I felt emotionally unable to cope with being away from friends and family. Ironically, the depression from which I was suffering led me to isolate myself still further from them even once I had moved to London, and it wasn’t until things really reached a crisis point at that time that I sought help, met my therapist and began to make some positive changes. Had I stayed in academia, I feel that either my studies would have been derailed by my mental health issues, or that I would have managed to ignore them and keep studying, only for them to resurface anyway at some point in the near future. However unsatisfying and ultimately rather depressing my first job was, it at least allowed me to move to London, meet my therapist, and finally realise that the job I had so enjoyed in both France and Italy in the past was the job that I should be doing in London, i.e. teaching.

Which brings me back to the school I currently work in, and which I attended as a student. Miss Shinwell was one of the Deputy Heads at the school for most of my time there, and during my time as a prefect and Deputy Head Girl in the 6th form. As such, I and the other school officers had regular meetings with her. She was friendly, supportive and, I felt, aware of the considerable pressure I was under, without me ever actually needing to spell it out to her.  While it was at this time that my circle of school friends began to come together as a cohesive group, and while there were a number of people who were willing to listen to and support me when I discussed the issues I was finding most challenging both in and out of school, I didn’t really reveal much about my anxieties, insecurities, or depression to any of them. Looking back, I wonder how much they were actually aware of. I feel that I have always been highly adept at managing my emotions, and in any case school and the company of my friends were the places where I felt happiest, and could experience some reprieve from the difficulties, dark thoughts and secrets that I kept hidden elsewhere. I cried very infrequently at school, and shared only fragments of my unhappiness or concerns. However, as my therapist often points out to me, none of us are as good at concealing our feelings as we think we are. They manifest themselves in all sorts of ways, whether or not we explicitly share them with other people. Either way, I felt that Miss Shinwell could see beyond the achievements to the unhappy teenager sat behind it all.

Throughout my time at school I would periodically have moments when I felt overwhelmed by my feelings and unable to cope. It didn’t happen very often, as I had trained myself to suppress my feelings and to keep working and doing things. When I think back to how much I did as a teenager and how I managed to keep going, I really can’t understand how I did it. Partly of course it was down simply to having more energy at that age. However, it was also partly due to fear-induced adrenaline: I couldn’t stop.  If I did,  firstly there was a danger that I would fail and secondly, there was an even greater risk that the emotions I was trying to outrun would then catch up with me.  Whenever I felt that low, I would reflect that if ever I were to tell an adult about how I was feeling, it would be Miss Shinwell. I never did, but I think it meant something to know that she was there. Whenever I felt even lower, I thought that were I ever to leave a suicide note to someone at school, again, it would be to Miss Shinwell. Not an accusatory note, but a letter explaining how I had felt and why I had done what I did.

I thought about suicide fairly frequently as a teenager, and have continued to do so, though these days primarily only at times of severe emotional stress. One of the great myths of suicide, to my mind, is that idea that it gives you the opportunity to settle accounts by explaining what compelled you to take your own life, and to communicate the feelings you felt unable to share when alive. I say myth since while these aims may well be achievable, the person who was seeking to communicate something essential about him or herself is no longer around to reap the possible benefits of this communication. Netflix’s recent drama 13 Reasons Why represented one teenager’s attempt to find a solution to this dichotomy, by leaving a series of tapes for her classmates and teachers to listen to after her death. In this way, her interaction with them continued after the violent act to which their previous interactions had led. In the TV series Hannah – the girl who has taken her own life – reappears not only through flashbacks but through the hallucinations of one of the main characters. Clay, probably her closest friend and alongside Hannah the main protagonist of the series, begins to see the dead teenager again as the impact of listening to her tapes takes its emotional toll. Many critics focused on the presence of Hannah in the ongoing drama despite her suicide. To some, it reinforced the sense that suicide can somehow be an effective way of addressing life’s difficulties, while minimising the very final and irreversible effect of the act itself.

I can understand and see the appeal of  Hannah’s decision to make a series of tapes to accompany her suicide, albeit she is a fictional character. When I thought about suicide in my teenage years, for me a letter seemed the best way to explain in death everything I had felt unable to explain while alive. Over time, I thought about writing a whole series of letters. In my mind, I eventually moved from letters to the construction of a whole new reality through my suicide: I would write letters to a whole range of friends and other significant people in my life, explaining my actions and telling them how much they meant to me. I realised that I was in fact putting together the plot of a book, rather than an action plan for my suicide. Every other chapter would be a letter from the protagonist to someone she was close to. The letters would explain why she had taken her life, but also focus on the (generally) positive impact that the recipient had had on her life. In between each letter, those who received them would deal with their grief at the loss of their friend, but also move forward with their own lives, which had been enriched somehow by the knowledge shared with them in their personalised suicide note.

Reading this now, I am not sure whether it reflects a truly desperate desire on my part to feel that I could control the uncontrollable, and make the people that I cared about happy, or an incredibly self-absorbed and hubristic desire to play God in other people’s lives. Either way, it does reflect my ongoing belief in the power of the written word, and my awareness that should I take my own life, there is no coming back from that decision, however many plot twists I might map out in an attempt to counter the finality of suicide. My book was going to be called Anna’s letters by the way. I might try to write it one day, though clearly both Netflix and Jay Asher (author of the original book 13 Reasons Why) have stolen a march on my plans…

I have been thinking about suicide recently in relation to the impending retirement of my therapist Alexis. Two of my friends in particular are concerned about how I am going to cope when my therapy comes to an end in September of next year. They have both suggested that I should start seeing a new therapist before Alexis retires, to enable some kind of handover period and to ensure that I am not left to cope on my own. Both I and Alexis feel that this would be a bad idea. I would feel conflicted to be seeing two therapists at the same time, and wouldn’t want to discuss anything personal with anyone other than Alexis while I can still see her. More importantly, while I know that the end of my therapy with Alexis is going to be incredibly painful, I feel it is a pain that I need to go through. I have been seeing her since 2001 and my relationship with her has been one of, if not themost important in my life. It is really vital that I allow myself to grieve the end of that relationship, and to reflect on everything that it has meant to me. Of course I am scared at the prospect of how strong my feelings will be, and about whether or not I will be able to manage them. Over the last week I have experienced a number of panic attacks brought on by my anxiety about Alexis’ retirement and my wider feelings about the passage of time, and about events that are out of my control. In those moments of panic, I am completely overwhelmed by my negative emotions, and at times feel that I will be unable to pull myself up and out of what is a real pit of despair. That sense of panic and loss of control is in itself terrifying. It was a regular feature of my life when I started seeing Alexis, and I am truly scared at the thought of it being so once again. I have to believe that I am stronger now than I was then. Having said that, I know that there will be moments when I will not be able to cope with the strength of my feelings when my relationship with Alexis comes to an end. I worry about how I will be able to communicate them to other people, when perhaps the person who I feel would best understand them and be able to help me manage them will be the very person who is no longer there. At times of impending despair such as this, suicide or at least a suicide attempt can seem like a helpful shorthand, a way to present everything you are feeling to other people, a way to ensure that people take those feelings seriously. It is of course also a very cruel way of communicating with the people who care about you, a violent act, almost a way of hitting out at people for failing to understand instinctively what you felt unable to tell them. In my own particular situation, suicide is not something I would want to inflict on Alexis, though if I were to attempt it, in a way what would be the point unless she knew? The fact of her retirement is not her fault, it is nobody’s fault, it is just something that is going to happen, and which she is preparing me for as best she can. It is going to be incredibly hard though, and alongside my anxiety about the ending is a slightly panicked sense that I need to do something between now and then, to show her that I am making changes, making progress, and that all of our work has led to positive, tangible outcomes. Of course Alexis hasn’t expressed a need for any kind of proof, and I guess the progress I have made is implicit in all of our conversations. However, it is really important to me that I can do or achieve something that will reflect the huge impact that she has had on my life over the last seventeen years.

Life without therapy

I stopped seeing my therapist for about two and a half years in 2009. I had been seeing my boyfriend of the time for about a year – and my therapist for about nine years – when I told Alexis that I didn’t think that I needed to see her anymore. This officially goes down as the worst decision that I have ever made in my life. So why did I make it? At the time, I didn’t really discuss my reasons with Alexis. I also assumed that once I told her that I wanted to stop seeing her, it would happen almost immediately. I was surprised and angry when she told me that we should establish a timeframe for the end of our relationship.

I think one of the principle reasons for my anger and irritation was because I knew I couldn’t be honest with her about why I wanted our sessions to end. The problem with therapists is that they have a highly developed ability to winkle the truth out of their patients, and that was a discussion I didn’t want to have. Today, it is a source of huge regret to me that I stopped seeing Alexis, and I also truly regret the way in which I behaved once I had made my decision. Alexis, of all people, is the last person I would ever want to offend. I have since apologised to her for how our relationship ended and how I behaved towards her. My decisions and my lack of communication constituted an absence of the respect that I think is Alexis’ due for all the support, guidance and respect that she has shown me.
One of the reasons behind my decision to stop seeing Alexis lay in the financial imbalance in my relationship with my boyfriend. I was (and still am) a teacher. He, on the other hand, was a consultant working in the IT sector. Whereas I was a real spendthrift, with very little clarity about how much I was spending or how I could begin to pay off my debts and contribute to my almost non-existent savings, J was extremely cautious financially, with spreadsheets galore and money invested in a whole range of ISAs, savings accounts and shares. One of the few positive outcomes of our relationship was the help he gave me in sorting out my finances. Thanks to the budgeting he taught me to do, I was able to pay off my credit cards and save money for my eventual house move, from a shared ownership flat to a home that I own outright, albeit with a sizeable mortgage. But at the time, I part-owned a property and had no money. J on the other hand had a huge amount of money, was renting a house, and was looking to buy somewhere, plans that at one stage included me. I felt that I had very little to bring to the relationship from a financial point of view. If we were to buy a house together, I would be making a very small, if any, contribution. Eventually, this sense of imbalance extended itself in my mind to the relationship as a whole. I felt that I could make very few demands of my boyfriend or of the relationship, since I was the partner within it with less material value. In terms of money in particular, when J helped me organise my finances, he commented on how much of my income was going to Alexis in her fees for my weekly sessions. I felt that I needed to be more financially astute and to make more of a contribution to our relationship and our future plans. J never explicitly said that he didn’t think that I should continue seeing Alexis,  but what was clear was that he didn’t understand the value of our sessions. My lack of self-confidence meant that I felt that J’s opinions were usually more valid than my own. I wanted to make him happy, and to feel  – as far as possible – that I was an equal partner in the relationship. Being able to make a larger financial contribution was one way of achieving this.
Looking back I find it hard to work how much of this was explicitly coming from J and how much of it was rooted in insecurities of my own invention. To discuss this with Alexis would have been to reveal some uncomfortable truths about my relationship with J. I think in my heart of hearts that I knew that the value judgements I was making about the relative merits of my relationship with J and the benefits of my sessions with Alexis were the wrong ones.
The other question mark in my decision-making is the extent to which I was reluctant to discuss the real issues in my relationship with J with Alexis. I met J online, a stress-free and smooth first experience with online dating that has not at all been reflected in my more recent, brief forays into the domain of lonely hearts. The relationship progressed quickly and remarkably smoothly, given that it was my first vaguely serious relationship in the ten or so years since I had left university. Even the relationships that I had had at that time were very short-lived and relatively meaningless. I was completely unused to having someone there with whom I could spend my time, build a history, and share my passions, fears and experiences. While I had and still have some very long-term and close friends, I was not in the habit of sharing many of my innermost anxieties and insecurities with them. My family is not a family that communicates particularly effectively, and my difficult relationship with my parents had often meant that attempts to discuss my worries with them were met with some sympathy, but then frustration, a lack of understanding and sometimes even with anger.  With J, I suddenly found I had someone who wanted to listen, who wanted to help and who didn’t get annoyed at the number of emotional obstacles that I found it incredibly difficult to navigate in my daily life.

When I discussed J with my friends,  I said that I could talk to him about anything. To a certain extent this was true: he was always ready to listen to my anxieties about work, family and friends. Equally, he was grappling with some very challenging issues relating to his own family and his self-esteem, and he often said that he felt able to discuss these concerns with me in a way that he had not been able to with his previous, long-term girlfriend, or with his friends and family. However, the one thing that we found it hard to discuss was our actual relationship.

One thing that I have learnt from my relationship with J (aside from the importance of a budgeting spreadsheet!) is the need to keep communicating with those who care about me. Partly due to the very personal nature of the issues with which J was struggling, and partly because I felt firstly, that it was not my place to make demands of the relationship and secondly, that I loved J so was resolutely in some degree of denial about the direction in which the relationship was heading, I just stopped talking to people. I didn’t share my anxieties about J; I didn’t share the fact that the relationship was gradually making me more unhappy than happy; I didn’t share the way in which it was eating away at my self-esteem; I didn’t share the fact that when I finally and very briefly moved into a shared flat with J, I would wake sweating and anxious in the night, often heading towards a full-blown panic attack.

If I had continued seeing Alexis, I am convinced that I would have ended the relationship myself, and much sooner than it eventually ended (with me being dumped the day before I was due permanently to move into J’s new flat – classy!)  At the time that I stopped seeing Alexis, the relationship was still going well, albeit I was self-censoring about my emotional needs due to my view of my rights and position within it. If I had continued seeing Alexis, I would have been forced to discuss my concerns and disappointments with her. This in turn would have precipitated more of the discussions I periodically had or tried to have with J. I am convinced that with Alexis’ support, I would have felt more able to tell J what I needed from him. Not that I think he would have been in a position to provide it, just that I would have more easily been able to acknowledge that the relationship was increasingly an unfulfilling one for me (and also, I think, for J.)

As it was, we both soldiered on for two years after my sessions with Alexis ended. I don’t think that things would have been easy, even if I had continued seeing Alexis. I don’t want to paint an idealistic picture of Alexis as a miracle worker. Equally, I am very stubborn and very capable of taking a really long time to make what in hindsight might appear to be a very obvious decision – in terms of my personal wellbeing, I am incredibly indecisive. I changed job a year ago. The impact of this decision on my emotional and physical wellbeing has been transformative. Yet while I was aware that I was very unhappy, stressed, anxious and at times seriously depressed in my previous school, it was really hard for me to make the decision to move on. Partly this was because I was so emotionally invested in the school, I had so many friends there, and because so many positive experiences in my life were linked to the time I had spent there. Partly this was due to my anxiety about change and my fear of losing friends who had become like a family to me. Of course in the end, while the process of change has inevitably been a challenging one in many ways, it has also been incredibly positive, and I still have my friends. Now, Alexis says things like ‘Well, you were very, very unwell in your last job.’ She also said those things when I was still there, but I suppose I just wasn’t ready to listen. Nonetheless her guidance, and just her presence in my life does force me to be honest with myself – even if it takes me a while to get there. It seems incredibly significant to me that for the two years that I was not seeing Alexis but still seeing J, I almost entirely failed to write in my diary – and this from someone who usually writes two or three times a week.  I couldn’t be honest with Alexis, nor could I be honest with myself. I sincerely hope I won’t make the same mistake again, and that I will have the resilience and self-awareness to continue to interrogate my feelings, even when my relationship with Alexis has come to an end.

Spendaholic

There used to be a series on BBC 3 called Spendaholics. In each episode, “psychological coach Benjamin Fry” and “lifestyle expert Jay Hunt”  (never just “Benjamin Fry” or “Jay Hunt”) would help someone who was struggling with debt due to his or her compulsive spending. Each episode stuck to a particular format: the unwitting participant would return home to find the contents of their wardrobe or home (depending on the particular focus of their compulsive spending) laid out dramatically on the lawn, hung on multiple clothes lines, or sometimes even displayed in a pop up clothes shop. The experts would then forensically examine the participant (victim)’s bank and credit card statements, identify where the problems lay, and set them a new budget to stick to over the course of the following few weeks, before catching up again to see how they had got on. In the meantime, Benjamin and Jay would take a two-pronged approach to addressing the participant’s spending issues. Jay would show them a different way to shop, encouraging them to be more discerning, to shop around or to realise that most expensive does not always equal best. Benjamin would meet to chat about the psychological issues underlying the compulsive spending. Often, this would be the first chance that the participant had had to talk about what was driving them to spend so much, and Benjamin would suggest other ways in which they could address the emotional needs behind their compulsive behaviour.

I loved this programme. Firstly, I am a sucker for ‘self-help’ TV, from this programme to ‘Eat Well for Less’, to ‘What Not to Wear’ to ‘The Millionaire Matchmaker.’ Secondly, the approach that the programme took made complete sense to me, since I could relate to both Benjamin and Jay’s respective foci: I understand that emotional needs, anxiety issues and a lack of confidence are big drivers as far as my own spending habits are concerned. I also appreciate that there are smarter and more economical ways to shop. I did find myself slightly over-identifying with almost every participant – OMG! Her issues are my issues! etc – but other than being entertaining, interesting and often moving viewing, the programme made me reflect further on my own relationship with money and what drives me to spend it. When I think about the programme now, one episode in particular stands out. I can’t remember the details of the girl featured in the episode, but I know that Benjamin recommended two things to help her let go of the feelings that were driving her to overspend. The first was to release a balloon, which symbolised many of the feelings that she was struggling to deal with. The second – and slightly more satisfying – solution was to go to a field in the middle of nowhere, and to scream and shout as loudly as possible for as long as possible, to express some of the anger and frustration that was being channelled into her compulsive consumerism. If seventeen years of therapy have taught me anything, it is that symbolically placing your emotions in a balloon that you then watch float away does not guarantee future emotional stability. However, it has also taught me that I have a lot of anger about a whole host of issues, and sometimes a good, primal scream might be the best fix, if only temporarily.

I have been thinking about that programme as I have been thinking about my own spending. In particular I have slowly been realising that I need to make some radical changes if I am ever going to dig myself out of the sizeable financial hole I have got myself into, and to adopt a more mature and measured approach to spending.

My relationship with clothes is a very complex one. On one hand, it is a very positive one. I genuinely love fashion, design, colours, and I have, and have had,  some items of clothing that I really love, and that I think are pretty much design masterpieces! I can get almost as much enjoyment out of a truly beautiful Miu Miu dress as I can from a more traditional work of art. I know that sounds really pretentious on a number of levels, but my point is: I have a genuine passion for fashion (!)

I also think that I have an eye for fashion, and that this is something that has grown alongside my self-confidence, so again it is a real positive for me. When I look back at picture of myself as a teenager, I would say that I didn’t really have a defined way of dressing. I certainly knew what I liked; I remember a rather heated debate with my mother over the merits of a men’s grey cardigan from Marks and Spencer – ‘Why buy a grey cardigan when there are so many pretty ones in the shops?!’ – and how happy I was when I got my first pay packet from my part-time job, which I promptly spent on that grey cardigan and a pair of green 501s to wear with it. In common with most of my friends, my standard weekend uniform was DMs, Levis and some kind of vaguely ethnic top. At the same time, I did start to branch out into slightly more fitted and individual clothes. I remember with affection – and with regret that I ever threw it away – a beautiful brown, fitted wool jacket from Jaeger that my mum gave me, and which I wore to school with my DMs and black 501s. I also had a thing about long, floaty skirts, often black and occasionally, unfortunately, tasselled! To be fair, this taste developed out of necessity more than anything else: from the age of about 14 to about 17, I had to wear a back brace to correct a curve in my spine caused by scoliosis. In addition to adding about 3 inches to my waistline and hips – that very few people knew I was wearing it shows just how skinny I was in my teenage years – it had buckles at the back, which meant that it couldn’t be worn under anything that was at all fitted. It also involved wearing – very specifically – a men’s Marks and Spencer seamless white vest underneath it, adding yet another layer and further discomfort, especially when it was hot. It had to be seamless to prevent the rubbing, though coating your skin in surgical spirit on a daily basis was also meant to help. I think it did, though even today its smell can conjure up my very own petite madeleine effect and evoke the discomfort and acute self-consciousness of those three of my teenage years.

I remember very clearly my sudden realisation, at the age of 17 or 18, that I could wear close-fitting clothes. I have never really been one for the entirely skin-tight. However, that sudden realisation marked a shift in my understanding of how clothes could be matched to my body shape and how I now had many more options open to me.

For the whole time that I wore the back brace, clothes were primarily about concealment. Even before the brace, I had felt very uncomfortable in my own skin. A brief but painful period of bullying had made me incredibly self-conscious about my face and my hair, and led to a series of pretty disastrous haircuts and fringes that only served to exacerbate those insecurities, and which lasted until well into my university years, when I suddenly, effectively thought ‘fuck it’ – at least on the hair front – and finally adopted a haircut whose main aim was to complement rather than conceal my facial features.

Aside from my face, I felt unhappy in my skin, and in my body. As far as my body was concerned, there was just too much of it. I experienced a massive growth spurt in my early teens. Suddenly, everything was awkward: finding room for my legs on the floor in assembly, squeezing onto the bus, having enough leg room at the cinema, theatre or on a friend’s sofa. While these days my height is one of the few things about my appearance that  I do embrace, back then I wanted to make myself smaller, less, almost to disappear. I didn’t know how to hold myself, and always felt rather hunched over and incredibly gangly and inelegant. In fact, a few years later a friend’s father very sweetly told me that he always thought I ‘wafted’ around quite gracefully, but at the time I just couldn’t see it. Once the back brace was on, my feelings of awkwardness were exacerbated. Try being six-foot tall and sitting cross-legged on the floor in a cramped assembly hall when your brace means that you can’t bend your back and that you feel about five degrees hotter than anyone else. Then try standing up (and sitting down again) when the headmistress walks in. It wasn’t great.

But as I said, once the brace was off and I realised I no longer had to wear loose-fitting clothes, I really began to engage with clothes that suited my body shape and nascent personal style. It is a huge source of regret to me that I didn’t realise what an enviable body shape I possessed when I was younger until I no longer had it.  I think I could have enjoyed my body shape more,  and enjoyed buying clothes to show it to its best advantage. Be that as it may, my point was that I feel I have an eye for fashion. I often help friends on shopping expeditions. They trust my judgement: I usually have an understanding of the clothes in which they will feel comfortable, of which clothes suit their body shape, and often encourage them to try clothes and styles that they would not have chosen themselves, but which they then realise do work.  I am always looking at what other people are wearing; sometimes for inspiration, sometimes through admiration and, to be honest, sometimes in bemusement at what they have chosen to wear. I find it hard to understand people who seem to set no store by the impact that their clothes could have on their physical appearance – though of course I understand that there are many people who have many far more pressing day-to-day concerns than the contents of their wardrobe. In particular, I don’t understand people who choose clothes that are so clearly wrong for their body shape. I can’t understand how so many people fail to see something that to me seems blindingly obvious. Perhaps their choice of clothes is driven more by fashion than what necessarily suits them as an individual, or perhaps they just don’t have that sense of visual balance and proportion when they look at the clothes they are wearing in the mirror?

I said that my relationship with clothes is a complex one. I love fashion and design, and feel that clothes can really be quite transformative. What I wear is really important to me, and I feel that, to a certain extent, my clothes reflect my personality. That is where it begins to get more complicated. I have a love-hate (mainly hate) relationship with my physical appearance. I predominantly feel that there is a disconnect between the person I am on the inside and the person that people see when they interact with me. In common I am sure with many other people, I try to forget about my appearance, and am often shocked and disappointed when it creeps up on me unexpectedly. Clothes function as a disguise. They can create an image of me that I am happy with, and which communicates the person I believe I truly am to others in ways that I feel my physical appearance cannot. Clothes give me confidence; if I am wearing an outfit that I decide for whatever reason is wrong in any way, that confidence drains away. I have to force myself not to think about the clothes I am wearing and how people might experience me, and to keep trying to act and interact with others normally, until I can get home and change out of the offending outfit. Equally, the confidence and style of other people can drain my own confidence.

This year, I started a new job, after fourteen years in my last one. One of the things people commented on in my last role was my clothes, and they were one part of the largely positive impression that people had of me. (The other parts were of course significantly more important ones,  like being good at my job or being a good communicator! And that positive impression by no means meant that people I worked with loved my clothes. Some of my male colleagues in particular would often make amused comments about my outfits. I didn’t mind, and in fact I don’t mind; about 99% of the time I genuinely believe that I dress for myself, and that I would rather be eclectic and original than safe or conservative.) Partly because of the increased exposure of my new role, and partly I suppose because of my evolving tastes, I made a conscious effort to dress rather more sedately in my new job. While I do really love my new job, I found the process of change, and the fact of no longer working with close friends and people I had known for years and years, very challenging. When I am anxious, I seek to reassure myself and one of the ways that I do this is by bolstering my confidence through what I am wearing. I identify something that I feel is lacking in my wardrobe, and then embark on an almost obsessive search to find the piece to fill the gap. This has become a real focus for me over the last year, and I recognise that the reasons for this lie predominantly in my emotional difficulties in managing a period of huge change.

I primarily carry out my obsessive research on the internet. In some ways, the internet has been a positive thing for me in terms of shopping. When I was younger, I would spend an entire Saturday joylessly schlepping around the shops, looking for whatever my personal must-have items were at that particular time. In addition to being passionate about clothes, I am also incredibly picky, and also very tall. These would often combine to ensure that I ended the day dispirited and empty-handed, contemplating the many other enjoyable or productive things I could have been doing with my time. The expansion of online stores has meant that I can do my browsing and purchasing from home, supposedly in less time. It also means that through websites such as shopstyle.co.uk – simultaneously the best and worst thing that has even happened to me in terms of shopping – I can look at, say, a black leather pencil skirt in the entire collection of every affiliated store, rather than having to rely on the stock in the particular store I might decide to visit on a shopping trip into town. The problem with the internet though, is that it is too easy and too big. I can browse from the comfort of my sofa, without ever having to go anywhere or talk to anyone. I can visit as many stores as I want, since I don’t have to walk between them and they are all  in one virtual town. There is always one more brand to search for, or one more website to visit. Suddenly, you realise that what was meant to be a more efficient way of spending your time and money has ended up using more of both than might have been the case on the high street.

Shopping is an expensive habit, especially so when it has a tendency to become a compulsive one. When my confidence is knocked, when I am feeling anxious and to be honest when I am feeling bored or low, I get locked into a mindset in which the only thing that matters is that I locate the item that will make my wardrobe complete – at least until I find the next gap. While I have long since given up on the idea of locating the one, perfect item of clothing that will transform my appearance and my life, there is an underlying, addictive sense of hope in my compulsive shopping – hope that I will be happier, prettier and more confident than I actually am. Of course, having subsequently to face up to the consequences of the time and money if not wasted, then certainly spent accommodating my compulsive consumerism is a surefire way to dent both my happiness and my confidence. Even the search and purchase themselves can be entirely devoid of joy: I can’t relax until I have found the item I have so desperately been searching for, and even as I click to pay, then later open the parcel and admire the clothes, (unless they don’t fit and I have to send them back) I am aware that my short-lived happiness is at the expense of my ability to address a more deep-seated, negative and compulsive behaviour.

Anyway, I am now trying to get it together on the clothes front. For various reasons I have this week reached a turning point. It has to be a turning point, since there are only a limited number of times I can bail myself out, or bemoan the other opportunities I can’t take up because I don’t have any money. I have rationalised my wardrobe – fewer clothes, only clothes I genuinely like, others sold on Ebay – and taken my monthly clothing allowance out of my budget. Any money I want to spend on clothes has to be cash earned outside my monthly salary. It’s only been a few days, but the prospect of  future without shopping (or at least with much less of it) is a liberating one. I’m unsubscrbing from my million and one fashion newsletters, and stopping myself before I flick to eBay or Shopstyle – it’s almost an automatic, addictive action, like lighting a cigarette.

Fingers crossed I can stick to my resolutions and radically change the way I shop and interact with clothes. With a time-consuming job and so many interests and passions I want to pursue, I am time and money poor. Hopefully this new approach will give me more of both.

It’s all bullshit!

I am not entirely convinced that therapists are meant to tell you that the carefully constructed version of reality that you have just spent some considerable time relaying to them is complete bullshit. Mine does….

I don’t think she used to. I don’t think that’s because my hold on a reasonable understanding of myself and how other people see me was any less tenuous in the past. Rather, I think that over the years our relationship has shifted, as have both of our roles within it.

My therapist is well-spoken, though not ‘posh’ really – she has the hint of a well-to-do regional accent, which as previously mentioned may or may not be Scottish. She is certainly intellectual – well, of course she is, she’s a psychotherapist…

I’m aware that I have a rather exaggerated tendency automatically to define anyone who listens to Radio 4 –  which Alexis does – if not as an intellectual, then certainly as more grown up and serious that me. However, the fact remains that our sessions over the years have given me an insight into the books, writers, cultural figures, events and so on that are her cultural reference points.  At the same time, despite her evident intellect and intelligence, there are some curious gaps in Alexis’ knowledge. Some are less surprising than others. Things I have had to explain or expand on to Alexis over the years include: speed dating and internet dating, the bitchy jelly fish in the second Bridget Jones film, Twitter, the most famous quotation from The Bell Jar, blogging, Curtis Sittenfeld and Chicklit.

In any case, Alexis is not the kind of person you would expect to use the word bullshit. I think it is probably a measure of how irritating I can be that she has done so more than once, in fact a number of times. She has also told me that she needs a great deal of patience to meet with me twice a week, that she wants to shake me and once even said that she wanted to hit me. I don’t blame her! (And seriously, I don’t blame her. All of these comments were filtered through the affection and dry humour that characterises our relationship.) I  know that the way in which at times I am so resolutely negative, masochistic and self-destructive can be intensely frustrating. I frustrate myself, and often there is a fine line between my tears of despair and the tears of my self-aware laughter as I realise how, whatever Alexis says to counter it, I am going to cling to my negative  interpretation of whatever it is that we happen to be discussing. I can see myself doing it, but in those moments I am powerless to do anything else.

Alexis knows more about me than anyone else, and more about my feelings towards other people too. These days, she has her own opinions about other people in my life, and of course about me. Often, if I am describing friend’s behaviour, or am talking about their lack of self-awareness, she will archly ask whether they remind me of anyone we both know. In this, she takes a similar stance to my friend Kate, who is very good for me and is a huge advocate of a tough love approach to friendship, when required.  Partly as a result of nearly twenty years in therapy and partly because – I have come to realise – I do have an ability to read other people and to understand the psychological impulses and insecurities that lie behind their decision making, I am often someone to whom others turn for advice. I have been in my current job for a year, and a number of my new colleagues have described me as a calm, positive person, who can understand their anxieties and give them guidance. On one hand, I know this is true, at least in a work context. On the other, I still fail to understand how I can simultaneously be positive, calm and confident in certain situations, and despairing, overwhelmed and insecure in others. (Or have both experiences in a single situation, my outward manifestation of composure belying my inner turmoil.) I find this incredibly destabilising and confusing, and desperately want to know in which of these two coexistent states the truth of who I really am might lie. In any case, both Kate and Alexis find my ability to give others sound advice which I roundly refuse to take myself incredibly frustrating.

Alexis definitely approves of Kate. There are, on the other hand, people in my life of whom – or at least of whose behaviour – Alexis has made it very clear that she definitely does not approve. I am very much a people pleaser. I don’t think that people necessarily pick up on this. I think they see me as someone who cares, and wants to support the people around me – whether at work or in my personal life. To a very real extent, this is true. However, my desire to make other people happy is in inverse proportion to my sense of my own entitlement to happiness, and my fear that people will leave me on my own. I sacrifice too much, and do too many things I don’t actually want to do, to ensure that other people are happy. In a way I suppose that I am saying it is partly my fault if other people take me for granted, which in turn feeds my low self – esteem – why would anyone not take me for granted? I think what Alexis has helped me realise is that it is okay, and in fact reasonable, to be angry when people act selfishly or without a thought for how their actions might impact on me. She expresses her own anger at their behaviour at times, which in turn makes me feel that anger is an acceptable response, that people’s selfish behaviour is because they are selfish, not because I am someone whose feelings, time or wellbeing do not merit other people’s consideration. Anger is a difficult emotion for me, one whose expression I find uncomfortable, and one that I often turn in on myself. Nonetheless, Alexis’ anger or irritation have  made me feel I have permission to experience those emotions too.

Alexis and I don’t agree on everything mind you, in fact far from it. Recently, Alexis told me that she thought I was very oppositional. I disagreed (ha ha!), but she expressed her surprise that no one else had ever pointed this character trait out to me. I think this is indicative of the fact that very few people see as much of me as Alexis does. I very rarely have the kinds of conversations that I have with Alexis with my friends and family – even those closest to me. In a way this is obvious and predictable, given that therapy is a conversation. But at the same time, it makes me sad.  I live on my own, and while I am very lucky to have some very dear friends, the fact is that I am not anybody’s priority. I understand that. Furthermore, the reality of our busy, everyday lives is that time for extended conversations is very limited, and that conversations about what is personal or difficult are often superseded by catching up, the practicalities of social arrangements, or simply by fun. Of course, one solution would be to be in a close, personal relationship with someone that I see every day. Aside from the fact that I am not entirely convinced that I am cut out for that sort of intimate relationship – and am doing absolutely nothing to put myself in a position where I might possibly be able to decide whether that is actually the case – I don’t think that entering into a relationship to find someone to assume Alexis’ supportive role would be the right thing to do, not least from the point of view of my unwitting victim.

I have been in an intimate relationship with Alexis for seventeen years – aside from a two year hiatus during the extended death throes of my relationship with my ex-boyfriend. I now need to find a way of processing the fact that in fourteen months that relationship is going to come to an end. Kate thinks that I need to ask Alexis to find me a new therapist, and that I should even consider a period of time in which I am seeing both of them at the same time, to ease the transition. Alexis on the other hand seems to think that I can cope on my own. I disagree. She has acknowledged that I may well need the support of another therapist, but feels – as I do – that there should be a break between the end of our relationship and the beginning of any new one. The problem for me is that ‘therapist’ means a woman, older than me, a stylish individualist who knows me inside out and who is not afraid to tell me what she thinks, whether or not I am willing to hear it.

It means Alexis.

 

 

 

July 1994

I’ve just been looking through my agendas for 4th Year – Lower 6th. I really intend to write in here more or my feelings are going to be lost forever – I’ve got such a bad memory. e.g. in the Lower 6th on 26th October I’ve written ‘pub’. That’s the first time I’ve written that and as it’s after half term – when I finished working at Pizza Hut – it may well be my first trip to The Flamingo, but I can’t actually remember. I think it was the time Gemma and Vicky both downed five pints each and then Vicky threw up in her fifth glass, Dawn had to get rid of it in the toilet and Zoe had to give Vicky a lift home. Even if it wasn’t that evening, at least I have recorded something I don’t want to lose the memory of. …

Aims: to be famous enough to have my obituary in The Times; to earn enough money to be able to shop in Jigsaw and French Connection without having to look at the price tags; to be HAPPY! 

One thing that strikes me, looking back through my old diaries, is how so many of the themes back then remain the same today: my constant need to record my life, my desire to achieve that illusive state of happiness, my wish to be famous, and my struggles with money.

I think the need to record things reflects a need for proof that they have happened, proof that I have lived. I am terrified of what is ephemeral, fleeting and have a desperate need to hold onto experiences, both positive and negative. Without a written, photographic or other tangible record, how do I know that an experience, an interaction or a feeling was real? Underlying this need for evidence is I think an extreme state of anxiety at the fleeting nature of life itself. While I used to be religious, it has been a long time since I subscribed to the sugar-coated idea that on death I would continue to be me, and be reunited with the people I have cared about in life. That was never the Christian interpretation of eternal life, though it is an interpretation that understandably provides people with comfort, and which is constantly reinforced through well-meaning platitudes about the departed looking down on their family and friends. These days my religious beliefs are less clearly defined, and to be honest I avoid thinking about them, I suppose partly through fear that I will decide that actually it’s all a load of baloney, because then where does that leave me?

Sometimes I think about the fact that one day I will die and everything that is inside my head will cease to exist. I can’t think about it for too long, as I can feel myself being gradually overwhelmed by a debilitating sense of panic that I can’t really cope with. Not because I think that what is inside my head is particularly spectacular, but simply because, if you think about it for too long, it is an inescapably terrifying thought, at least to my mind. And so I seek to preserve things, to record them, to prove to myself and to others that I have existed. In one way or another, we all have a desire to create something, to leave a legacy or a lasting impact. Many people do that by having a family, or these days by capturing moments of fun and pleasure through endless selfies. I suppose I do it and have always done it by writing things down, even if I am not sure who I am writing them down for –  apart from myself – nor who will read my words when I am gone. For a start, for the most part they would be singularly uninteresting, focusing as they often do on the minutiae of my worries and my relationships with other people and regularly ignoring more pressing events that are taking place all around me.

Writing is not the only way I seek to document my life. For a long time, if I watched a film, I then had to own it. I used to have a lot more time for watching films than I appear to today and have certain DVDs that I have watched countless times. But owning the physical DVD also serves as a reminder that I have seen the film, experienced the emotions it provoked in me and lost myself in its characters, if only for a short period of time. I do the same with books and with CDs, although in recent times I have ‘bravely’ loaded all of the latter onto my ITunes and thrown a lot away. To a certain extent, the impulse to own a physical object rather than just a sound file is a comprehensible one. We are of the generation who had a record, tape or CD collection. Time, love and money were invested in building it up, in the same way that all of those things were invested in the artwork, sleeves and inserts by the artists themselves. While I’m as much a fan of Spotify as the next person, I sometimes lose sight of what new music I have to listen, or what music I have actually forgotten I own and love, without a CD case on the shelf to remind me. Then of course there are all the familiar arguments about how artists lovingly craft their albums, choosing just the right sequence of songs. Do they still do this? I imagine they do, though what percentage of teenagers have listened to the Stormzy album in its entirety and in the right order is another question entirely. CDs have their own history: the crack in the case where you accidentally dropped it on the way home, as you were carrying too much shopping; the till receipt from Our Price in Cambridge still tucked inside, a reminder of when and where you bought it – and how little CD prices have changed in the intervening years.

As with so many of my impulses, interests and obsessions, I am not clear where they shift from something that is important to me, to something that is almost compulsive and certainly psychologically unhelpful. My flat is full of bookcases, which are in turn crammed with all sorts of books, probably two-thirds of which I have actually read. Aside from the fact that they ensure that I will never achieve the minimalist aesthetic I much admire in other people’s homes, I truly value them. They remind me of the many journeys I have been on as a reader, and while I will occasionally turn to my kindle through financial or travel – related expediency, I very much believe that reading is a physical experience as well as an emotional and psychological one; where you are when you read, physical journeys you may have been on with a book, how the book looks and feels while you read it, how you mark passages or pages that have particularly moved you – all of these strike me as important reasons to find a home for a book on your shelf once you have turned the final page.

Everyone’s home is to a certain extent a reflection of their personality, and I would say this is doubly true for my flat. Not only the books, CDs and DVDs but also the colours, furniture, objects and general design all reflect something of me, an external representation of how I feel and what is important to me. One should feel safe and at ease in one’s own home, and I do. But I worry that there is a slightly compulsive element to the way in which I have created a home that is a safe haven, a retreat from the unpredictability of a world in which I can at times feel lost and lacking a stable point of reference. My flat reflects back an image of myself with which I am comfortable, as opposed to the sometimes terrifying unknowability of other people’s opinions. In my home I can be the person that I hope I am. Even if I invite other people into my personal space, it is on my terms, and I control the image I present – everything is planned and prepared to the nth degree when people come over, from what I’m wearing, to the music, the food and even the candles. I do this even with my oldest friends, who I honestly think would not give a damn if I had greasy hair, a messy flat and ordered in Dominos. Achieving this level of preparedness is tiring, but it’s a habit I can’t break. I don’t think it is borne out of any cynicism or desire to deceive; I just need this degree of control over my environment to be able to function.   In terms of my home, I think some of it is rooted in the fact that my parents and my childhood home were both very messy, and I would never invite people over spontaneously, since I felt that the lack of order reflected negatively on me. I did actually probably host more sleepovers than almost anyone else when we were at school and university, but I needed at least twenty-four hours’ notice to give me time to tidy and clean my parents’ house.

The need for control isn’t just about my physical environment though. One day last week I was running late for work and wearing trousers that I realised looked really unflattering since they hung too loose on my legs for some reason – I hadn’t worn them for a while, and by the time I realised I didn’t have time to change. It took a huge effort of will to force myself not to dwell on this, and not to look at my trousers in the bathroom mirrors at work. Had I allowed myself to focus in any way on how uncomfortable and almost embarrassed I felt in what I was wearing, I would have run the risk of being completely overwhelmed by what I perceived as a failure in my efforts to control the image that I present to the outside world. I couldn’t allow that to happen, since it would have been an almost debilitating experience which would have dramatically impaired my ability to do my job and to interact with my work colleagues. I know it sounds extreme but it has happened before. Sometimes, if I have had the freedom to do so, I have rushed home as soon as I can, not happy until I’m off the streets, and back in the safe cocoon of my home, where nobody can see me.

Reading this back now, I am not sure if it’s just what people do, or if it is not a little bit crazy. It certainly sounds – and is – tiring. No wonder I feel I have so little time for the things on which I want to spend my time – like writing, for example – and that I feel so tired. I can’t switch my brain off, and I therefore I don’t sleep. I feel sure that letting some of these things go would give me the time, space and energy to achieve some of the things I have wanted since I wrote that diary entry in 1994. I just need to figure out how to do it!

 

Back in the day…

I started seeing Alexis in 2000.  I had been referred by my GP, whom I had gone to see when I realised that I needed help. That phrase doesn’t really do justice to the despair that I was feeling at the time. As I have said elsewhere, I was experiencing a period of what I would describe as severe depression. I felt trapped in a job that no longer posed me any degree of challenge, but was unable to make a decision about what I wanted to do next. I became very angry and bitter at work, although I managed to keep these emotions under control for the most part. This is a trait that I have come to recognise in myself when I am unhappy in a job or a role. I see people around me whom either I blame for contributing to my own unhappiness through their ineptitude, or whose ineptitude is precisely the thing that pushes me to the point of distraction. Either I feel I could carry out their responsibilities more effectively, or feel unbelievably angry that someone has made the decision to confer those responsibilities on them. Once I get into this frame of mind, it is incredibly difficult for me to get out of it. I always think of Mr Darcy: “My good opinion once lost is lost forever.” I see things in a very black and white way, which I acknowledge has led me to view or treat certain people unfairly – although I would say that the person who has suffered most at the hands of that way of thinking is probably me.

So work was difficult, and when I wasn’t at work, as was and as it still occasionally my wont, I would fill my time with distractions, propelled firstly by my inability to cope with the thoughts that would come rushing in if I gave them time and space to do so, and also by my sense that if I were doing things, improving myself, learning things, making the most of London and so on, things would get better. They were better than they might have been if I had instead sat at home every day in my flat, but ultimately they amounted to little more than cosmetic improvements. I still have that tendency now, to want to fit too much in, to do things, to tick things off an imaginary list of obligations, self-improvement, passions and interests. It is a list entirely of my own making, and represents another common theme for me: the way in which I manage to convert something that is potentially enjoyable, relaxing and rewarding into a chore, or some form of achievement or challenge by which I set too much store. I do this with everything.

I do it with clothes.

I genuinely love fashion, and have a passion for design, patterns, colour, cut and fabrics. I also see what I wear as an integral part of my self expression. I find my physical appearance very difficult and feel almost alienated from it, since I do not believe that it represents the person that I am on the inside. Clothes are a way of concealing that physical appearance – or at least distracting attention from it – and are also a way of revealing the person I believe I truly am, which cannot be expressed through my appearance alone. So my relationship with clothes is at once one of aesthetic appreciation – which can at times be rather and rather gloriously superficial – and one of primary importance, closely linked to my sense of self, my self esteem, and my ability to operate on a day to day basis.

It was never likely that a pair of jeans  were ever going to be up to fulfilling so many key roles….

I can find genuine beauty and enjoyment in an item of clothing. Just as I can be mesmerised by the colours, shapes and composition of a cubist painting by Braque – an artist whose work I find it particularly difficult to tear my eyes away from – I can be captivated by the jolie-laide aesthetic of a dress or pair of shoes from Miu Miu or Prada, I can literally love the quirky motif of kittens in space helmets on my Paul & Joe Sister shirt, or the white leather spats on my Finery London silver brogues. However, something that at the outset is enjoyable, positive and rewarding can gradually mutate into something that is urgent, a chore and almost compulsive. At the start of each ‘season’ (i.e. in the autumn and in the spring) I decide what clothes I want to buy for that half of the year, particularly though not exclusively for work. I have long since subscribed to the value of buying a number of items at the same time, the idea being that I can make more intelligent purchases, think about what I actually need, and find things that I can wear together. The alternative – an approach which I previously took – is to buy individual items as and when they inspire me or when I realise I ‘need’ them. The outcomes of this approach can be a wardrobe full of clothes that cannot easily be assembled into a reasonable number of outfits, spending too much money, or realising I have twenty-five black tops when actually what I need is some sandals.

My sensible approach doesn’t always work, not least when it is interspersed with excessive impulse spending too. It doesn’t work in other ways: I have a mental and often literal list of the purchases I want to make at key points in the year. I then cannot rest until I have ticked off everything on my list. As many people will know, when you go to the shops with a particular item in mind or when you actually have money to spend, it is pretty rare that you will find the clothes that you set out to buy. Until I have succeeded, I experience that list – something which started out so positively and at a point in time when I gave myself permission to spend money, when the rest of the time I try (and generally fail) to be so careful – as a weight around my neck.

I used to spend a lot of time wandering around the shops. While I loved the rush of a purchase during a successful shopping trip, I used to feel so frustrated and angry with myself if I returned home empty-handed at the end of a day trawling around the shops. I saw it as a complete waste of time, and thought about all the other, more enjoyable things I could have spent that time doing. I don’t really find the process of shopping enjoyable, only its successful outcome, if there is one. It’s different if I go shopping with friends, though I would never then assume that I would be able to use this time to tick things off my list; I see it as a social occasion, although I am very happy  (and in fact really enjoy) helping someone else find the clothes they are looking for, or giving them advice. However enjoyable these shopping trips can be, I still find it very odd and at times profoundly depressing when people list ‘shopping’ as a hobby. I think it says something very negative about the shifting values of our consumer society. It feels like a very ’empty’ way of spending time, rather like the empty calories in a bag of sweets as opposed to a nutritious meal.

The consequence of this compulsion to tick everything off this list is a sense of relentless pressure until the task has been accomplished. I know this is ridiculous – it’s only clothes – and if other people had an insight into the perambulations of my mind as I weigh up my various options, they would probably think I was crazy to dedicate so much time and mental energy to shopping. I am aware that anyone reading this blog will probably be thinking something similar.

These days I very rarely spend huge amounts of time wandering around the shops. The internet has meant that the browsing, decision-making, excitement, disappointment and self loathing can all take place from the comfort of my living room. If anything though, the accessibility of online shopping has made things worse. In the past, I always used to head to the biggest branches of high street stores, reasoning that they would have a much wider collection than smaller, local branches. The internet takes availability and choice to a whole new, almost limitless level. I will never run out of websites to browse, those websites will never not update their collections on a regular basis, and so the search becomes ever more interminable, unceasing, relentless. Alexis – my therapist remember, this post was meant to be about her! – described it as an eye, constantly browsing and seeking, in contrast to a more integrated sense of self that would be far healthier. For a person who has a tendency to find it hard to identify with or even acknowledge her physical presence in the world, I can recognise the dangers in this almost exclusively intellectual / theoretical engagement with the world around me. In recent times, I have decided that I need to choose the path to acceptance of my physical appearance, rather than continuing to try to deny my physical existence. While I still have a tendency to spend too long browsing online, I am trying to take positive steps to reintegrate my physical being into my overall sense of self. I am trying to look after myself, by swimming more, sleeping more, and eating more healthily. Ignoring the fact that I exist inside a physical body hasn’t really worked for me so far, so it is time to try a different tack.

At the time when I started seeing Alexis, I didn’t quite have the confidence that I have now, in terms of expressing myself through my clothes. Nonetheless, clothes were an important tool in my attempts to manage my internal chaos and my unhappiness with the direction my life was taking. As mentioned elsewhere, my first meeting with Alexis gave me hope that things could be different, not only but not least in terms of my compulsive spending at the time, and following our session I sat in the local park in Chiswick, resolved to change, and cut up all my store cards and credit cards.

In the almost seventeen years since that first appointment, things have not always gone smoothly on a financial, emotional or sartorial (!) level, but things have changed for the better. For that I will be eternally grateful to a number of important people, but above all – prima inter pares – to my amazing therapist, Alexis.

 

 

April 1994

Two weeks before I go back to college, done very little work and am freaking out. Having a party here next Saturday, as M and D are going on a cruise to Germany for the weekend. I wish I could talk to mum about things. She uses TV and books as escapism, which I do to a certain extent, but I have now become determined no longer to do this as changing my life will be the ultimate escapism from the things I can’t cope with. Although I still have loads of problems, I feel happier now than I have ever felt as although I think too much and too negatively, I am convinced that I am here to do something special. I am sure that most people are not as conscious of themselves as I am, and I feel really ambitious. I can’t cope with the lives I see around me, because I know I want something more, although I am not sure what. I can’t cope with growing up if it is not special. It has got to be different, or I feel like ending it all after a few years. SY says not to worry and to wait and see what happens, but I just can’t. I want to do something about it now. I think I want to be a writer. I would die to be an actress but I just don’t think I am good enough. I just need to get through this term then I can do something about it. Anyway, I have to write a French essay….

Am I still convinced that I am here to do something special? I’m not sure. I feel I want more. When I was at school I was the most intelligent girl in my year, and achieved the best results. Teachers used to joke about it – though the French teacher on whom I had a crippling and presumably very obvious crush clearly found me very irritating and instead used to make sarcastic comments about my love of writing poetry…. Doing well academically and at music college were the only reliable aspects of my life. They were aspects over which I felt I had a high degree of control, and were compensation for the chaos that I experienced in all other areas of my life – home life, friendships, social situations and navigating the dynamics of any group,  my physical appearance and relationships with boys. Reading this list again now, my anxieties are pretty much the same, 23 years later. I feel more confident in my friendships – many have stood the test of time over those 23 years, and many are strong, important, new relationships whose very existence is unarguable testament to my ability to create connections with new people, albeit I remain much less sure of the value others see in me than in the value I place in them. My friends have really become my ‘modern family.’ I don’t really know how I would survive without them, and the prospect of that very eventuality – as people gradually get married, have children and move away – is something that terrifies me, along with my conviction that this is an inevitability.

Until a year ago, I worked in the same school, moving from classroom teacher, to Head of Department, Head of Faculty, and then to the Senior Leadership Team. When I started working as a teacher, I was very much focused on my love of my subject, and on my determination to do a good job. I wanted to produce the best possible resources, build the best possible relationships with the students, and to inspire them as much as possible to share in my passion for the subject. Over time, the last of these was slightly modified. Many of the students I taught for GCSE and A level developed a real passion for languages. However, as I built strong relationships with young people and came to understand them better – that understanding to a certain extent refracted through the prism of my own increased self-awareness, and awareness of my own fragile self-esteem in my youth – I wanted to ensure they felt a sense of worth, of progress and of security in my classroom. To a very significant extent, I didn’t really go into teaching thinking about career progression. Compared to some of the high-flying professions entered into by most of my university friends, teaching didn’t seem like a potential realm for the driven careerist. After all, if I had been motivated by career trajectory, money and status, I could easily have pursued a career in advertising, law or the city – not that I am denigrating those professions, it is just that they seem a more logical path to take if one is intent on building an impressive career. Of course I very quickly realised that I had been completely naive, and also that in the grander scheme of things, those careers are not necessarily open in the same way to everyone, in the way they were to my fellow Cambridge graduates. I remember very early on being really surprised at what I saw a cynical need and drive for self-advancement and (self-) promotion that I saw in certain teachers around me. Having said that, after three years I too climbed the greasy pole and became a Head of Faculty. I remember at the time feeling really convinced that I had the skill set to do the job, and feeling so frustrated at the poor job that I (and others) felt my predecessor was doing. This is perhaps where my current plans for career ‘advancement’ fall down. In an ideal world I would like to take a kind of ‘blended’ approach to my life and to my career. In an entirely ideal world this would be a combination of classroom teaching, writing and further study. My therapist frequently takes issues with this plan, since while I think she does now genuinely believe that I definitely don’t want to be a headteacher, I think she finds it hard to believe that I could just get on with my job without being frustrated and impatient at the job others might be doing in roles I had previously occupied. I genuinely feel it would be fine if my focus lay elsewhere but who knows, she might be right – she generally is!

Over my time at the school, people came to see me as someone who was talented at her job, and also intelligent. I know  I was good at my job, though equally I was really hard on myself about the aspects of it that I thought I could do better – and since leaving I have realised the danger of spending too long in your comfort zone, i.e. that you will fail to challenge yourself sufficiently to get out of it. I have certainly felt reinvigorated on an intellectual level since changing jobs. It is just rather a shame that I feel rather burnt out by my time in the teaching profession. As far as intelligence is concerned, I know that I am academic, and in one way this is really really important to me. I don’t like getting things wrong, I like the way I can get to grips with concepts quickly and effectively, and I suppose I have a certain degree of, I wouldn’t go so far as to say contempt,  but certainly disregard of people who are in senior positions but are really not that bright. As in 1994, I cling to my intelligence as an aspect of myself that I value, and which therefore acts as limited compensation for the many other things either in which I see little or no value, or which are scary and out of my control. As in 1994 however, my need to prove my intelligence, and to ‘do a good job’ has meant that I have sacrificed the time I might have dedicated to other more complex and challenging aspects of my life. Just as getting my work done and doing well took precedence over developing my self-confidence and self-awareness – and I generally find it rather hilarious that I thought I was self-aware at the age of 19, given that I would say the first 22 years of my life were pretty much spent in a state of anxious activity to avoid having to address the issues whose exploration would have made me more self-aware but also a lot unhappier, at least in the short term – my commitment to my teaching career, the time it takes up and also the time it can fill if you are looking to avoid other issues, has meant that a genuine effort to achieve self fulfilment is something that has been on the back burner for far too long.

Approaching my forties three or four years ago, I allowed myself time to reflect. What I discovered was that yes, I was deeply unhappy – which I pretty much already knew – but also that I did feel that there were things that could still make me happier. Looking back at my diary entry from 1994, I wonder whether this simply amounts to a need for external validation, since I am unable to achieve this for myself. Having changed jobs last year, I know I have found it really challenging to go into a new environment pretty much as a blank canvas: no one know what I can do in terms of curriculum planning, no one knows how much training I have devised and delivered, or about the impact I have had on colleagues, no one particularly sees me as more intelligent than anyone else I work with – though I am a poor judge of the latter. I tend to downplay my intelligence – weirdly, for someone who sees it as one of the very few aspects of her identity that have any value. I think this is for two reasons. Firstly, I find it really hard to establish connections with people. I worry that if people see me as particularly anything, it will create a possibly insurmountable barrier between us. Secondly, I often don’t realise that the way I think about things is any different from the thought processes employed by anybody else. In my previous job, my peers or my line manager sometimes had to tell me to simplify my explanations, or not make assumptions about others’ degree of understanding, since I don’t think my way of thinking is anything particularly out of the ordinary, although sometimes it seems that it is.

It may well be that I need to accept my life for how it is, accept myself for who I am, and accept that the vast majority of us are unremarkable and ordinary. But at the same time I feel there are things that I am yet to achieve, and if I don’t make a stand for self fulfillment now, it will be too late. I guess this blog is part of that. It has certainly been therapeutic, and I also see it partly as ‘writing practice’  for the novel I am writing at a truly glacial speed. (I would still like to be a writer, though the idea of acting – who knows where that came from?! – went out the window a long long time ago.) I am not sure who my audience is, and it may well be an audience of one (me!) But it feels good to write things down.

Number 6: Dear Jessie by Madonna

Baby face don’t grow so fast
Make a special wish that will always last
Rub this magic lantern
He will make your dreams come true for you

Ride the rainbow to the other side
Catch a falling star and then take a ride
To the river that sings and the clover that
Brings good luck to you, it’s all true

[Chorus:]

Pink elephants and lemonade, dear Jessie
Hear the laughter running through the love parade
Candy kisses and a sunny day, dear Jessie
See the roses raining on the love parade

If the land of make believe
Is inside your heart it will never leave
There’s a golden gate where the fairies all wait
And dancing moons, for you

Close your eyes and you’ll be there
Where the mermaids sing as they comb their hair
Like a fountain of gold you can never grow old
Where dreams are made, your love parade

[chorus]

Your dreams are made inside the love parade
It’s a holiday inside the love parade

On the merry-go-round of lovers and white turtle doves
Leprechauns floating by, this is your lullaby
Sugarplum fingertips kissing your honey lips
Close your eyes sleepy head, is it time for your bed
Never forget what I said, hang on you’re already there

Close your eyes and you’ll be there
Where the mermaids sing as they comb their hair
Like a fountain of gold you can never grow old
Where dreams are made, your love parade

[chorus]

When Like a Prayer came out in 1989, I was 14 years old. I listened to it constantly for weeks on end, maybe even months. I had a double tape recorder that sat on the desk of my MFI unit in my bedroom (one of those lovely pastel MDF units for children’s bedrooms, with helpful shelves and a cupboard over the desk, but no actual style features to speak of!) I can still remember my Dad coming up the stairs to check on me – though why he needed to was not clear, since the surprise would have been if I were not doing my homework, basically for most of the 80s – and rolling his eyes that I was still listening to the same songs, over and over. There have been a few albums over the years that I have just not been able to put away. I have consciously had to step away from them, and put them on a high shelf, worried that my compulsive listening is edging slowly but surely towards an unbreakable addiction. Like A Prayer was one, Jagged Little Pill was another, Is This It? by The Strokes another still, and most recently I have been completely hooked on Days Are Gone by Haim.

Back in the 80s, and even more so on the release of this album, I really felt that Madonna spoke to me, and that she represented something really significant in terms of female empowerment. The piles of scrapbooks full of cuttings in the drawers under my bed – yet another MFI purchase – reflected a real obsession and more importantly a real sense of connection with what she was saying and what she was trying to do. I would brook no criticism of anything she did or said, even when her campaign for girl power – long before the manufactured identities and lyrics of the Spice Girls – seemed to reside almost exclusively in the conical bras and masturbatory dance routines of her Blond Ambition Tour in 1990, the year after the album was released. My sister and I thought Desperately Seeking Susan was officially the coolest film ever, and numbers such as Sooner or Later (which I have recently discovered was written by Stephen Sondheim, which explains a lot!) and Vogue just about made up for some of the more ropey numbers on the I’m Breathless soundtrack for Dick Tracey – and Madonna’s acting in the film itself.

I haven’t really liked a Madonna single since This used to be our playground in 1992. One of my friends recently pointed out that this simply means that I liked Madonna’s music in the ’80s, but haven’t been a huge fan since then. That may well be the case, but there is more to it than that: Madonna in the ’80s had a devil may care, don’t give a fuck approach to everything. She wore what she wanted, said what she wanted, and tackled whichever controversial issues she felt needed addressing in her interviews and lyrics. Her rags to riches story , via the early loss of her mother to breast cancer, her decision to drop out of college to fulfil her ambition to be a dancer, her infamous job in Dunkin’ Donuts – the only reason anyone in the UK knew what Dunkin’ Donuts was for most of the ’80s – and the determination with which she pursued record producers until they listened to her songs; all of these elements of her biography combined to create a genuine, powerful role model for young women in the 80s, and for other aspiring singers who were hoping to break into the then male-dominated world of pop music.

These days, and really since the early nineties, I feel really let down by Madonna. Her almost unrecognisable pillow face – the result of a weakness for fillers that smooth out your wrinkles by effectively puffing up your face, meaning firstly that you have to keep using fillers to avoid your puffed up skin shrinking back into a wrinkled mess, and secondly that you gradually come to look less and less dissimilar to all the other celebrities who have gone down the same path in search of their lost dermal elasticity – makes me so angry! As do her veiny arms, a tell-tale sign of  excessive exercising inflicted on a body already almost entirely stripped bare of body fat. To me, both seem indicative of a desperation to cling onto her youth, and a failure to accept the passage of time with honesty and dignity. Easy for me to say, from the comfort of my sofa and far from the scrutiny of the world’s media – the world’s media not usually being particularly interested in 40-something teachers from north London… And easy for me to take the moral high ground when I don’t have the funds fully to indulge my insecurities about my latest wrinkle. Every now and then, in a panicked state usually induced by staring at my face for several hours at the hairdressers, I’ll impulse buy an apparent miracle cure for wrinkles from Boots, an upgrade from my usual Protect and Perfect. How is that really that different from the Botox and dermal fillers used by celebrities who can afford them? And who’s to say I wouldn’t do the same if money were no object? It’s just, when I look at people like Helen Mirren, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep – all of whom appear to be ageing not only beautifully but naturally – I feel that Madonna has abandoned some of the feminist principles for which she was such a strong advocate at the beginning of her career. I don’t subscribe to the (possibly fictional) version of feminism that eschews any concern for the physical or the aesthetic, but to me feminism goes beyond the surface. While Madonna has always carefully crafted the multiple images and versions of herself that she has chosen to present to the public,  I’ve always felt that they were in sync with a set of principles by which she was living, and by which she encouraged her fans to live. Now they seem strangely out of kilter, and her lyrics have long since ceased being the empowering call to arms, social commentary or ‘fuck you’ to social norms that she offered teenage girls via her songs of the 1980s. Maybe I just need to get over the fact that 21st century Madonna produces – can’t quite bring myself to say ‘writes’ –  dance music.

Back to Dear Jessie. It’s kind of out of place on Like a Prayer. It sounds more like a lullaby than a pop song, and contains none of the innuendo, sexual references or religious imagery of other tracks on the album. Apparently, it was originally composed by Madonna’s long-term collaborator and producer, Stephen Leonard. He wrote the song for his daughter and offered it to Madonna when he saw a bond develop between the two. Madonna changed some of the lyrics, and the final song is accompanied by a trumpet and a string orchestra. The video for the song emphasises the psychedelic landscape evoked by its lyrics, and I guess like the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, or Yellow Submarine, it was that fantastical, escapist, slightly whimsical world that appealed so much to my emotional 14 year old self. When I play it, I can rewind the last 30 or so years, and remember a time when I felt as if Madonna – through her music, attitude, clothes and career – was speaking directly to me and millions of other teenage girls like me, because she had been a teenage girl too and because she understood us.

 

 

Introducing my therapist: It’s time to say goodbye!

My therapist is called Alexis.

She may or may not be Scottish.

She may or may not be Jewish.

She lives in Twickenham.

I have been seeing her since 2000.

A few months ago she told me that she is retiring in September 2018.

I am not sure how I am going to cope without her.

She saved my life.

The thing with a therapist is that you are not meant to know anything about her. The other thing with a therapist is that she becomes an incredibly important figure in your life, possibly the most important and, as is the way with relationships, you want to know her better.

In a way, a relationship with a therapist is a model of how a relationship develops, though almost in a vacuum – away from shared experiences and friends, contextual information, home environment and personal history (at least on one side.) Alexis and I have never been to the cinema together, or to an exhibition; she has never met any of my friends or family –  although by now she probably feels as if she has; she has never been to my house, nor spent a day in my company. Despite all of that, we have built a meaningful and profound relationship and, I feel, know a great deal about each other.

I am not ashamed to say that I love Alexis.

I have read a lot about how relationships with therapists should and usually do work: the ‘patient’ displaces and projects feelings onto the therapist, and the dynamics of other relationships are played out from the therapist’s couch. When Alexis told me that she was retiring, I was devastated. I have often told her that I feel that she saved me: if I hadn’t started seeing her all those years ago, I honestly don’t think I would be here today. I haven’t told her I love her, but she knows how much she means to me. (And let’s face it, she’s a therapist, so I imagine she knows exactly how I feel!)

While trying to explain my sense of loss at having to accept that our relationship will come to an end, I really wanted to communicate to Alexis how important that relationship has been. In many other situations, I find expressions of emotional attachment and need difficult or risky – what if the recipient doesn’t reciprocate, or what if s/he feels overwhelmed by my feelings? – but with Alexis I am used to saying how I feel. However,  I felt the need to couch my sadness in almost apologetic terms, saying that I know, from my reading and I suppose from an intellectual understanding of our relationship,  that a great deal of the sense of attachment in a  relationship with a therapist is due to those psychological processes of displacement and projection that develop over time. i.e. This is how I feel but I know you will feel that much of how I feel is due to your role as some kind of screen onto which I project emotions, and while I may feel that it is you I love, in fact the object of my affection lies elsewhere. I am overly dependent on you, and my feelings are confused due to the psychological support with which you have provided me over the years.

In fact, when I tried to communicate this to Alexis in my rather inept and over emotional way, she pretty told me that it was bullshit – she occasionally uses swearwords for emphasis, which is a highly effective strategy and also often makes me laugh, since she is very much not a bullshit kind of person – and that I was allowed to be sad, and should not be ashamed of what I ought to acknowledge as genuine feelings. Of course, as is the way with therapists, she doesn’t often tell me precisely how she feels. Rather, she does that therapist thing of using her feelings as a way of further interrogating my own. ‘Well, you have been seeing me for a long time now. You may think that I have my own feelings about our relationship coming to an end after such a long period of time.’ Frustrating in a way but still kind of comforting since I’ve had seventeen years to get used to it. She has told me that the end of our relationship in terms of our twice weekly appointments doesn’t necessarily mean a definitive end to any contact between us, and that I will still be able to phone her if I want to, or contact her by other means. Were this any other kind of relationship, professional or personal, I would assume that this offer were just a way of softening the impending blow of its ending, but Alexis is punctiliously honest and upfront in our relationship as far as I know. I find it really moving that she would make this offer; it gives me some sense that our professional relationship has seeped into the personal sphere – though as she frequently says to me, it is a personal relationship, and it is valuable and important to consider how it works and how I operate within it, since in no sense does it exist in perfect isolation from the other relationships in my life.

In a way, it might be easier for the relationship to come to a definitive end. It is going to be an incredibly painful loss – and one for which I am already in mourning – and perhaps it will not be helpful to continue with some degree of contact that is nonetheless no substitute for the relationship and regular meetings that we have had over the last seventeen years. But it’s on a par with knowing, for example, that in just over a year’s time you will never see your best friend again. Imagine that. Would it be more painful never to see your friend again, or to have limited and perhaps ultimately unsatisfying contact? I’m not sure.

I’m not in a romantic relationship with a man, and I have realised that in a way I have been in a similarly intense or possibly substitute relationship with Alexis, which is now coming to an end. She knows me better than anyone else, and can say things to me that no one else can. Our most recent session was the last before the Easter break, and when I left I was really upset – I suppose that now every break is a rehearsal for the definitive one that is creeping ever closer. (How melodramatic!) The time between now and her retirement has now become my own personal timeframe – a period of time in which I need to achieve some of the things I have long wanted to achieve, so that I can show her what I am capable of before our relationship comes to an end. On one hand, this is an almost entirely pointless enterprise for a number of reasons: I don’t think her view of me is based on the number of things that I have achieved (that’ll be my view of me then!); she seems to value the things I have accomplished thus far in my life far more than I do (to my mind, they are not enough or, even better, irrelevant); it adds another layer of pressure at a time that is already proving to be a fairly difficult one. On the other, her impending retirement is proving to be quite a motivator; I have probably written or planned more blog posts in the last few months than in the previous few years combined. If I want to achieve something – and I do, I want to have my writing published – then I need to focus and just get on with it. So I am.