“Do you feel visible”?
The first time I ever sat in the therapist’s chair she asked me that strange question.
I was not sure how to respond because I wanted to say the right thing. I’m very good at that – saying the ‘right thing’ – but this had become the space, my space, in which I had to be honest.
“All my life I have felt invisible.”
The words came out of me with a flood of unspeakable grief that I wondered what she had seen to ask this question of me.
“You do not breathe,” she told me.
“You hold your breath, as if you are scared to breathe. You are scared to occupy space, own space, maybe because you feel you do not deserve to?”
I have often thought of this initial moment of revelation in my journey as perhaps the beginning of my healing. Learning to breathe, learning to exhale.
She was a stranger and yet she saw me. I was present and she opened me up. It is funny how a stranger can be just what you need. As I sit here waiting for the psychiatrist to come, I think, that this is yet another stranger who is going to pry into the most intimate part of my mind. Another stranger to whom I will tell my all, just so I become ‘sane’ once again.
Yvonne Vera once wrote;
“Some kinds of truths long for the indifferent face of a stranger, such truths love that face from the neck up, from the forehead down. There is little to remember in a face with which no intimacy has been shared, to which there is no kinship. There is nothing to lose between strangers, absolutely no risk of being contaminated by another’s emotion; there are no histories shared, no promises made, no hopes conjured and affirmed. Only faces offered, in improbable disguises, promising freedom.”
‘Without a Name’
That is how I feel in therapy. Sitting there looking at her waiting for me to say something, I feel a heaviness rising up into my chest as all I have kept inside struggles to pour forth. Emotions strangling themselves, fighting for a chance to be expressed. But alas, no words come forth.
My mind is blank.
A mind well trained to block out anything of an emotional nature because that is simply hard to control. So I focus on the ring on my finger or the hem of my shirt, creating a pattern or maintaining a consistent movement, anything I can focus on so as to keep the rising tide in my chest at bay. She asks another question which triggers a rush of memories in my brain.
Thoughts of long ago, that I hoped had disappeared, come flooding into my mind. Feelings and sounds also follow, fresh as the moment I first encountered them.
My heart is racing so fast I can feel the pounding in my chest. The muscles in the left side of my neck respond in a constricting pain as my breathing becomes shallow and laboured.
‘Why don’t we do some breathing exercises?’ she asks.
Do you oblige and do the exercises? If yes, how do you feel doing them? If no, why not?
There are layers and layers of buried confusion, unexpressed thoughts, repressed memories and painful experiences that we cannot escape. They determine what we think, how we feel and relate to the world and other people.
Sitting in that chair, week after week, is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. And I do not know how to say what is wrong because I cannot say it without starting from the day I was born. I am the descendant of generations of an oppressed race, a marginalised and silenced gender and an enslaved continent.
Carrying this is not easy, but in casualty, all the psychiatrist wants to know when she arrives is if I see people who are not there. I try not to feel annoyed as I tell her no. She sticks to facts as I tell her why I am there. I have stopped taking my medication, I drink too much alcohol and now I am going over the edge, literally.
It appears she has heard it all before, and she goes off to get an intern to do the rest of the exam. The questions are the same and I begin to feel a bit crazy for thinking I am crazy..
Breathing, I think to myself, something we take for granted.
I do not remember when I stopped breathing. Maybe, it was when I began to hold my breath, waiting for a pat on the shoulder after perfectly reciting the alphabet. It could have been the time when I no longer felt the warmth of an embrace, everyone too busy to remember cuddles make the world go round. Or it could be the time I started waiting, because that is something I seem to remember doing most of my childhood. Waiting; waiting for my name to be called out in the dining hall of my boarding school during dinner, waiting all weekend in a car park hoping someone will remember you exist and drive through to see you, waiting for an answer to the question I’ve held in my head since I could talk .
“Am I special”?
So, I cannot say exactly when but I do know that there is a time I stopped breathing, held my breath and began waiting.
My mind wanders back into that cold hospital room as the intern finishes her examination and I cannot, for the life of me, remember how I answered all the questions she asked.
‘I do not have to be admitted, do I?” I ask before she leaves the room.
“No, you will be just fine.”
My heart sinks for a moment. It is not that I want to be admitted, it is just that maybe I need a little break from this life, and perhaps that would be the best way to let everyone know that I am a quarter to cuckoo, a “Girl, Interrupted”.
Left alone, I look through my bag for something to read. Yvonne Vera’s ‘Butterfly Burning’;
“The man in the green suit said a woman is for loving. If you love a woman enough she will unburden herself. That is the sweetest woman there is, a woman who has been loved well enough. This was the truest woman there was and a man could live a happy life. He looked at her directly and spoke to her alone. She looked away. She wanted to raise her voice and say that it was not like that at all, it was that a woman must love herself enough. A woman like that is the sweetest woman there is. She believed this but could not say it. What kept her quiet was that she remained puzzled by one aspect of her belief, the question she could not answer was how a woman got to do that, how she got to love her own knees, and kiss her own elbows, how she got to feel she was all the breeze there is and all the mornings there are and all the loving there could be. And then perhaps seek something more which perhaps only another can provide, and love a man simply because she could and indeed something in him made her heart beat, and yes, her knees weak with the flow of his tender caress. Finding herself, that was it. She did not know what this entailed.”
I read it over and over again. I need it to be burnt in my head. The possibility needs to be present in my head. It needs to be a dream that is alive. That is the only way I can carry on. It is as if I have known too much of the ugliness of this world for this feat to be impossible. Surely no one can be enough for oneself, surely? Surely beauty is enough, is something fulfilling and enough?
The intern comes back with a script for me. I thank her and quickly move through the corridors, longing to be back in some fresh air, still stunned that I just made it through my first experience of casualty. My friend is waiting for me outside, worried. I hug him and for a split second, the world is alright.
But it is like standing at edge of the well. Sometimes it is daylight and you can see your way round it, but the darkness is always lurking and sure to come again. What will I do then?
I do not know.
But for now, I will exhale.
Part One of this article appeared here
Main image taken from www.theatlantic.com