How Many Therapists Does It Take To Change A Life?
I was working for a counselling organisation in central London. Our office, on the first floor of a converted church, overlooked a swathe of Regent’s Park. A more pleasing vista one would struggle to find. Across the lawn, peppered with flowerbeds, a psychology college loomed like a monolith to good mental health. When empty, our high-ceilinged chamber retained some of the tranquillity of its pastoral past, but on a working day, with counsellors dropping off documents, dictating letters, and rushing in and out of the committee-room, the place could feel like a therapeutic railway-station.
I was the one below a stained-glass window depicting the return of the Prodigal Son, my desk a mess of leaflets and envelopes, big font on my computer-screen, magnifier for reading print, and white cane propped against the radiator. Contrary to popular belief, when you lose your eyesight, as I did aged nine, you don’t necessarily become any of the following: an oracle, a pianist, a mean pinball-player, basket-weaver, or Stevie Wonder – nor do you develop sat-nav. In my experience, you feel disconnected, pushed back from things, a blurred observer in a blurred world. The visual cues that most people take for granted are gone. Picking up a smile from a passer-by becomes a dreamed-of luxury. No more eyes meeting across a smoky room, or smoke-free one. Even in an intimate setting, feelings of low self-worth can rise up and grab the steering-wheel of self. You might feel you’re saying all the right things, but if you can’t see whether or not the other person is even awake, paranoia can invade the empty spaces. Seeing can be doubting as well as believing.
So, in my mid-twenties, having fallen short of other people’s dreams, not to mention my own, I found myself in clerical purgatory, agnostically praying daily for something, anything, to transfigure my life. Polly, our manager, had a flexible approach to the concept of the working day, her innovative lunch-breaks encompassing both elevenses and afternoon tea. Her hair, a New Age explosion of mottled ringlets, crazily framed a face that always seemed to care. A concerned frown was her default expression, even if the news was good. She’d waft in and out in charity-sector chic, hobnobbing with the higher echelons of the counselling profession. Her secretary was Sally, sandbagged behind a desk that betrayed her business heritage. She’d arrived from the cut-and-thrust of pharmaceuticals. Her hair, grey with ambition, was tied back so tight that her nose was almost on her forehead. Words like ‘workshop’ and ‘action’ were verbs to her. To ‘workshop’ a thing was to think about it, to ‘action’ a thing, to do it. You could even ‘breakfast’ something, at a push. George was my ally in this temple to self-betterment, and looked like George Harrison around the time of Rubber Soul. We’d offset the stress of repeated calls from people who’d forgotten to either meditate or medicate, by hanging round the water-cooler and slating our colleagues. George played the guitar, had a girlfriend, and did the accounts, the first two of which I envied.
I’d been there about six months when Polly and the counsellors announced a new member of staff was needed. An ad was placed in the Guardian for someone to fill an exciting role in an engaging environment. A few weeks later, a psychology graduate called Emma arrived, and we became firm friends in the frenzied world of counselling provision. She was alarmingly beautiful, willowy, with a blonde bob and a sweet, lilting Lancashire accent, made slightly husky by the occasional Marlboro Lite. We liked similar things, Morrissey, Reeves and Mortimer, and bad game shows. Many’s the summer lunch-hour we’d spend lounging on the lawn, deep in conversation, me in a state of extracurricular longing, wondering if she was too. Then, baguettes consumed, we’d return to earn our crust, for the next day’s baguette.
As autumn drew in, my feelings for Emma grew, and I decided it was time to express myself, to tell her how I felt. An airless afternoon dragged on, and the lights in the college opposite looked like little candles of hope. Emma was loitering by my desk, as she often did, spinning my chair as I tried to type. Swivelling assertively to face her, I said there was something I wanted to talk to her about, so ‘could we go for a drink after work?’ An hour later, there we were, tucked away in the corner of our local pub. I went into sombre teenager mode, weighed down as I was by years of hard-won self-consciousness, but this time there would be no backing out, as there had been so many times before. I had to tell her. I was 28 – that’s what 28 year-olds do. I asked her what she was doing at the weekend. She said her boyfriend was coming to visit. Well there’s a thing. Just when you want to put yourself up for audition, you find the part’s already gone. I felt cursed. But I’d come this far, and was not going to turn back now. I wasn’t sure I had the provisions for the return journey, without first reaching my goal. But I felt obliged to pay some lip-service to this unwanted urchin on my path to glory. ‘Oh really, what does he do?’ I asked, not caring. ‘He’s a professional footballer,’ she replied. I couldn’t trump that. Clerical Assistant doesn’t have the same ring to it as Liverpool Striker. Then she asked, ‘So what is it you want to talk to me about?’ I forced out some clumsy words, and she understood what I meant. She wasn’t phased, but replied in a gentle and humorous way, adapting a Reeves and Mortimer phrase to soften the blow. ‘Ben, you know that office-relationships are prohibited under the country-code.’ I was both disappointed and amused. And that, for then, was that. But at least I’d done something positive, expressed myself, reached out in the name of feeling equal, worthy of respect, yes, even love. I’d spent years not telling anyone anything, so I gave myself a B+ for effort, D for outcome, and went home to ponder my wounds.
My flat overlooked the canal in Westbourne Park. Milling around in domestic isolation, I did what I could to poeticise my loneliness and put some Smiths on, smoked a joint, watched Frasier, and went to bed. How could Emma call herself a Morrissey fan without even having the decency to be single? A few months later, I learned that her boyfriend played for Crewe, and it wasn’t long before she put him up for a free transfer, and that was the end of him. But his demise was not my cue to go blundering in. A friend had already filled the vacancy.
As the months dragged on, my feelings of isolation and inertia deepened...
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