Shrinks and thin skins

Image of Susie Boyt

Sometimes I think I should buy myself five starched striped dresses, some white lace-up shoes, and a bicycle with a wicker basket, because in my informal role as friendly psychological district nurse, just now, I am in enormous demand. It’s quite a responsibility. I have never known a summer like this one for people falling apart. It’s happening everywhere. Not just friends, and friends of friends, but friends of friends of friends (ie complete strangers). I am not sure how it happened, but if anyone knows anyone who is suffering, I get a call. I don’t mind, and am actually very honoured, but I can’t help thinking it rather odd.

To make it clear: I am not presenting myself as a professional; I always adopt a demeanour that is friendly, even slightly bumbling, rather than searching. I try to emulate the sort of sensible, cheery, soul you might find attached – by elastic – to a church or synagogue if you visited such a place, ready to spring to your need and then snap back out of sight. I offer myself as a wry soul who has been to hell and most of the way back.

Early on in the meeting, I will tell an anecdote about, or even against, myself, to make it clear I am not a doctor. I eschew the formality of navy blue, although it’s a colour I wear at all other times. Sometimes I go too far the wrong way. “Why exactly does my uncle’s business partner think you can help me?” a young woman asked me this week, as if I were some sort of stray Mary Poppins. We were sitting in a café drinking tea. She’d failed to recognise me by my description and I had been forced to enlist the waitress’s help in sending her my way. “I think he thought that if you talked to me a little about what you are feeling,” I ventured, “I might be able to think of a good course of action. I know a lot of therapists and I think he thought I might recommend one that would suit. I do work a little as a bereavement counsellor, but I’m on holiday at the moment,” I added, for it is true.

The young woman’s bravery as she spoke at length about wanting to look after herself in the best possible way, whilst not wanting to carry on, moved me a great deal. She had tried everything. Even her therapist had told her she felt out of her depth. Things were several layers lower than they’d ever been, and they’d been low before, she said. She had suffered all her life from an incredibly thin skin, she told me, and she could see the sadness in people’s eyes and imagined their difficulties and felt as though they were almost her difficulties, too.

She said sometimes she felt she could only be as happy as the most unhappy person in the street or in the world. She saw acres of sadness everywhere. I told her that when I was a child, I really used to feel the pain and indignity of those stray items on the little shelf at the checkout in the supermarket that people decide to ditch at the very last moment. “Even today I try to buy one if I can,” I said. She smiled for the first time, and I told her I had once heard a woman on a talk show say she used to cry when she put the rubbish out because she knew she was never going to see it again, and we both agreed rather smugly that we weren’t that bad.

Together we discussed the qualities a good practitioner should have, and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist I know came to mind. August is the cruelest month when it comes to finding a shrink, but miraculously an appointment was made and kept and went rather well, so I was able to exhale.

When I returned home I received a call summoning me to the house of an acquaintance with a desperately ailing friend. The timing didn’t suit me much, but I suppose I felt a weight of duty because I have received so much help from people in my life that it’s nice to keep the circle going. My spirits have been lifted by ballet and English teachers, the heroic and humorous mothers of friends, indulgent taxi drivers, chatty newspaper sellers, sentimental road sweepers, wondrous neighbours, eccentric priests, and stern-looking librarians. Even a bit of paper taped on a wall in a café saying: “BACON NEWS: all bacon dishes subject to 20 per cent pricing increase for the foreseeable future” once cheered me greatly when I was very low.

We made a date for two o’clock the following day. “I’ll bring a cake,” I heard myself say.

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