I was taking my turn at answering the phone for my local lesbian network. The call I most remember was not from a lesbian but from a local psychotherapist, ringing on behalf of a woman who had been referred to her. This woman had kept her sexual orientation hidden for many years and now wanted to break her silence, but was deeply troubled about doing so. ‘I’ve spoken to her,’ said the caller, ‘and I don’t think she needs therapy at all. What she needs is the company of like-minded women. Can you help?’
I was impressed by a therapist who might so wisely and generously turn away a potential client, and the call stayed in my mind.
That was the summer my life fell to pieces. My long-term relationship ended suddenly; I hadn’t seen it coming and was devastated. Shock, humiliation and grief morphed into a long period of reactive depression. I was 60; I’d already survived bereavements, career reversals and life-threatening illnesses. I thought of myself as emotionally robust, a person who helped others rather than needing help myself. But this was unlike anything I’d experienced before. The remote hamlet we’d chosen as our retirement haven wasn’t a helpful place to be living alone for the first time in my life. Days went past without human contact. After six months, I realised that I was not going to get better on my own.
I started by looking for LGBTQ counsellors, convinced that I couldn’t share my feelings with anyone outside that community, but they were all too far away. Then I remembered the therapist who had called the helpline and, after days of hesitation, rang her. She invited me to a ‘no commitment’ first meeting and, one wild February evening, I set out on the hour-long drive through dark country lanes to her house. I got lost, wept, asked the way from a man on a tractor, and eventually found myself in a bright, calm room with the stranger who was going to save my life.
At the beginning of our relationship, I was incoherent and she was just immensely kind. I had no idea what was happening in our weekly sessions except that someone was holding me safely in what had become an unsafe world. As I began to understand the process, I could usually come to a session with something to work on. We didn’t always stick to it, but it gave me the sense that I had some agency in my own recovery. I also began to understand that I wouldn’t know immediately what we had done or achieved; sometimes I wouldn’t even remember what we’d said, but I started to take notice of how I felt – to name and own my feelings, rather than denying them.
My therapist wasn’t gay but, of course, that didn’t matter at all in the end. She was a woman and she was roughly my age – I hadn’t expected that to turn out to be really important. Women in my generation were brought up to consider everyone else but themselves; to put their own needs last. She understood that from the inside. Slowly she encouraged me to consider my own needs and to care for my broken self as I would care for others.
As I began to rebuild my life, I learned to look forward to those long drives – the landscape of the journey became part of my healing – and to the sometimes-challenging conversations that kept me on track. It was two years before she said, ‘I think we have done what you came here for.’ We decided that we would continue to meet, but less often; a kind of maintenance service rather than emergency treatment. And that went on until I moved to the other end of the country. Otherwise, I think I would probably still be seeing her.
That first experience of therapy was entirely positive – so much so that, years later, it encouraged me to look for talking therapy again, to tackle a specific problem. I feel immensely fortunate to have found such a wise and kind mentor.
Jane Traies is a writer, researcher and storyteller who for the past decade has been recording the experiences of the oldest generations of lesbians in the UK. Some of these stories feature in her book Now You See Me (Tollington Press, 2018). Jane’s oral history work focuses on previously silenced women’s voices; she is currently working with a group of lesbian asylum seekers. Now You See Me is available through bookshops or from email@example.com.