Lisa’s room is relatively small, with shelves of books adorning the back wall and a chair in front of them. Next to the chair are a box of tissues and a small, open bin. Opposite me, she sits down. I look down for a second at the bin by the tissues, and notice a few discarded used ones. Someone has been here before, crying. That’s not me, I think. This will be pretty brief. I explain my situation, that I am struggling to have close relationships without feeling the need to run away, and that I’ve just turned 30 and I don’t want to end up in record shops or at the cricket, alone, at 70, not remembering what happened with the rest of my life. I am in a pretty big band, you see, I try to drop in humbly.
‘What is the worst thing you can imagine in your life?’ she asks. I don’t even pause for thought. My band breaking up is the worst thing I can ever imagine happening. It isn’t until the end of the first session that she asks about my past. ‘My mum died when I was 17,’ I say. ‘But that was a long time ago. I don’t really want to go into that.’
In the following months, I return every week to Lisa’s. There are all kinds of theories we work through. The memory of my mum smiling through the suffering, not enabling me to vent any kind of suffering of my own, for what could be worse than her illness? Or, maybe worse still, it stopping me from allowing anyone else close to me to voice any suffering at all. The need for me to be ‘special’ in the eyes of absolutely everyone, alive in all their minds, no option or possibility ever closed – after all, the one person that I was truly special to was gone. That I had replaced intimate relationships, in which there was a chance of loss, with hundreds of tiny, controlled interactions. That we were brothers who never fought or squabbled as there was always something bigger happening, leaving me with a repressed child still inside somewhere. That my identity might have been completely dependent on being a ‘good boy’, attentive and passive, never disturbing any peace or adding any burden to anyone. That I might be holding onto adolescence because leaving it would mean leaving her. That I might possibly have a more manipulative side, so that I could knowingly use people for my own gain. That it turned out I didn’t really know how I felt about anything. I knew how other people felt about things, and I knew how to agree with them. And, finally, that the feeling surging through my throat, threatening to pour out, was unprocessed grief.
Every week I leave Lisa’s almost giggling, as if some knot has been undone. It is a mammoth relief to have a place to at least explore all of these things without the fear of something disappearing, away from judgment; to play with them and then use or dismiss each theory. It occurs to me eventually that, bizarre as it might sound and much as I know cerebrally that it is impossible, I still expect that my mum might just come back soon and that I’ll be able to show her all the stuff I have done.
Close to seven years since my first visit to Lisa’s, imagining it then as a sort of GP meeting for a quick cure, I am still in therapy every week. I have learned, in time, to hold with me the conversations we have – the small breakthroughs and workshopping of theories – as I take myself back into the world. We have developed a language between us where, among whatever is happening in my day-to-day life, we occasionally use books, films, music and sport to provoke restless feelings or dormant pains to come to the surface, where they are kneaded out and, although never ‘solved’ (when is anything?), can eventually be observed and demythologised until they just become a conscious and accepted part of who I am. I think I am still in therapy for that reason – nothing is ever solved, but there is so much to explore and I have learned, over time, that people are complicated and require the space to understand themselves to be so. There is little doubt that, without it, I would have surfed a few seismic life changes far less successfully and would not have developed anywhere near enough perspective or expertise on my own brain to have written my book – which, I only realised in conclusion, has the work of the therapy on almost every page. I am deeply grateful for it.