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.