I have an appointment to see a shrink. (Actually, she isn’t a shrink; she’s a consultant. She tells me this as we sit down, having walked along the corridor to her room.)
Whilst walking she asks me if I mind a colleague sitting in on the session. This is a new and unexpected scenario. I do mind. What we are going to be speaking about is personal, I’ll feel inhibited.
‘It was on your sheet,’ she says, ‘that you filled out.’
I have no recollection of this. ‘I must have missed it,’ I say.
‘Yes, you didn’t tick to say you didn’t want someone sitting in, so we presumed you didn’t mind.’
‘Well I’d prefer not, if that’s alright.’ I get the sense that this isn’t alright.
‘Dawdle down the corridor,’ she says. ‘I’ll go in and tell him.’
A fresh-faced young man exits her room. I smile at him apologetically.
‘Take a seat.’
Two armchairs face each other. A low table in between houses the tissue box. I dither momentarily. Should I take the seat nearest to her desk, or the one with its back to the door. I plump for the one nearest to her desk.
The games have begun.
‘I’m not your therapist. This is not the start of your therapy. I’m a consultant. I will decide whether or what help to offer you.’
I recoil mentally. I’ve been tricked. Why, as we walked along the corridor did she not tell me this? I now feel apologetic and stupid for having insisted that she eject her colleague; as if I’ve overstated my case, been inappropriately grandiose about who and what I am. I am tempted to suggest that she bring him back in, but decide against it. She is forbidding, foreboding.
She stares at me.
Here we go, I think. I stare back. Give me some clues, I think. ‘So do you want me to say why I need therapy?’
‘If you like,’ she says.
It’s too funny, I think. But I’m not feeling funny.
‘I’ve been through a lot lately.’ I give the plain hard facts. I recount some incidences.
She doesn’t bat an eyelid.
I go off at tangents. I lose her. I pull it back in and reverse. I revise. I edit. I rage. I blurt and splurt.
‘How does your depression manifest itself? You don’t seem depressed today.’
She has rumbled me. I am a fraud.
‘In the last seven years I’ve moved house three times. This may sound unremarkable,’ I say, ‘but I’m a home-loving Cancerian, and prior to this period lived in the same London flat for sixteen and a half years.’
I moved initially into a rented property in Norwich, where I had moved to escape, (escape my ex, Jean-Paul, and London; the London we had inhabited together). The first thing I did in this house was paint a blackboard wall in the dining room. I then set about re-decorating the whole property: walls, doors, wood work. I pulled up a carpet, removed a built-in desk from the attic – no mean feat, and wonky cupboards from the bathroom and kitchen. I renovated a leaky shed, planted up the garden; it was excessive.
‘A more reasonable person,’ I suggest, ‘wouldn’t have spent their evenings and weekends decorating a rented property. They would have lived with it, knowing it wasn’t theirs. But in my desperation to make a home, to implant myself, to imprint myself on the bones of this house, I tore away all that didn’t scream “me”, that didn’t mirror who I was.’
I look at her.
She stares back, impassive.
Eighteen months later, despite still having six months to run on the tenancy, I decided to buy a house. I saw a tall thin Georgian house in an estate agent’s window on a Friday, viewed and bought it the following day.
‘A reasonable person,’ I suggest, ‘wouldn’t have seen a property in an estate agent’s window on a Friday, viewed it and bought it on the Saturday.’
(I bought my current house in a similarly knee-jerk fashion; within five minutes of getting through the door.)
The house was central, close to the station, and the street reminded me of the Huguenot streets around Brick Lane. After moving in one August day amidst a deluge which had pounded my sensibilities all week, I sat on the stairs and wept; for the views: a car-park and grim housing block at the back, and neo-Georgian Barratt houses out front; for the absence of trees; for my soul and sanity.
‘I have moving-furniture-syndrome,’ I say, wondering if such a syndrome exists. ‘In this house I regularly moved the contents of rooms. I turned a bedroom into the living room, the living room into an office, the office into the dining room, the dining room into the living room, a bedroom into an office. I made and unmade flat pack furniture: bunk beds from Habitat, which didn’t fit (too big); flimsy bunk beds from Ikea, which I hated immediately and skipped after a few months; single beds from Habitat which I also disliked because, as with all flat pack furniture the joints didn’t quite fit, there was an unacceptable degree of movement, and they were too long, and hard, with sharp corners which I kept knocking my shins against. Finally, I had a carpenter build in platform beds into the tiny backroom less than six month before I knew we were probably moving out. I had to get him back to take them out to sell the property.
I carted sheets of MDF up and down the narrow three-storey staircase, moved collections of books, boxes of archives, trays of toys and bags of clothes on a daily basis. I brought secondhand furniture in and out: I went through three sofas, three tables, two coffee tables, a sideboard, a parade of kitchen tables, three sets of stools, innumerable armchairs, a cane-hanging chair (the type one sees in the windows of Amsterdam street brothels), a gold-upholstered tub-chair, two sets of dining chairs, and various configurations of shelving. I painted the walls and ceilings white and the floors black. By the time I moved out I had painted each room two further colours before repainting them white. I painted the stairs and banisters black, then white, then black again, then white again, then black again, then white again.
I see this as indicative of my state of mind,’ I say.
‘You certainly appear not to have been settled.’
Her brown eyes look at me. Not a flicker of curiosity in them, just there, aimed in my direction. I can see no pupils, just huge, liquid pools of brown. Not a twitch of empathy or compassion or understanding or anything at all. What training must one go through, I wonder, to be so impassive.
‘I painted another blackboard wall in the back kitchen of this house,’ I say, moving back onto firmer ground. ‘It was a small gloomy space opening onto a small airless yard with ten foot high walls. If I was depressed before,’ I say, ‘this is the house where it became full-blown.’
‘We had three cats,’ I continue. ‘They left home, one by one.’
I stare at her, looking for a sign. How much is it necessary to spill, I think? How much blurting and splurting is required to convince this woman that though to the impartial viewer I seem fine, inside, my head is a bag of knots some days, a tangle of overstretched elastic bands on others. There were days, in Norwich, when I was scared to go to bed, because I could literally feel that my synapses were ready to snap; and when they did, I reasoned, I would lose my mind. I would end up in an asylum, I’d lose my kids. It was probably only that thought which kept them intact. And yet, on other days I’d be so stretched that I’d consider checking myself in voluntarily.
And now, here I am, albeit as an out-patient.
‘I’m in pain,’ I say. ‘My mind hurts.’
Whilst living in this house I conceived a piece of work – I’m an artist – entitled I Am Absolutely Fucking Desperate, to be made up as an embroidered wrist band. I spoke with a young art curator about this piece, with a view to working it into a group show. He made some quip about speed dating. Not for a shag, I thought. I wasn’t desperate for a shag. I didn’t give a fuck about having a shag. I was quite simply, straightforwardly absolutely single-parent-in-a-small-town fucking desperate.
So, the houses, the redecorating, the moving of furniture, the blackboards, the flatness, the boredom, the loneliness, the hollow feelings, the teeth-clenching , (I don’t reveal all of this), my general mania. Is it enough, I think? Will it do? Do I qualify?
‘I’ve been manic,’ I say, filling in the gap of her silence. ‘On my return to London last year I threw myself into movements, organisations, associations. I joined my son’s school PTA and volunteered myself as press officer for their anti-Academy campaign. I devised stunts, stickers, slogans, banners. I attended meetings for the local Transition Town movement and said, yes, I’m in, at the call for Events officers and Council Liason Officers. I attended meetings about the neighbourhood regeneration programme. My new house was already fixed up and it was all I could do to stop myself from sabotaging it: from scratching the perfectly lacquered wood laminate floor. I immediately ripped up the sensible wool carpet upstairs. It was beige and my fragile synapses couldn’t cope.
‘I’m mad. I’m crazed. I’m loopy,’ I say.
‘You sound angry,’ she says.
‘Oh boy, am I angry,’ I say.
Towards the end of the session I remember something. A recent event. ‘How long have we got?’ I say. I’m aware of the procedure by now, the surreptitious glances at the clock. The abrupt cut-offs. The “we’ve run out of time I’m afraid”. No warning. No “five minutes to go”. Wouldn’t that be the decent thing to do? I won’t be caught out again, mid sob, mid emotional outburst, I decide.
The consultant looks at her watch and nods. I gauge five minutes.
‘A strange thing happened recently,’ I say. ‘I have a friend I met when I moved back to London last year. At the time she couldn’t have been more helpful, attentive. A few months ago she left her son with me, and there was a mix up about pick up time. When she came to collect him it was like she had flicked a switch. There were no hugs, no kisses, no “darling”s. She managed a “thank you” through gritted teeth. The friendship has never recovered. I’m bewildered,’ I say, ‘by what’s happened.’
I’m hoping she can give me some insights, some pointers. ‘Is it me?’ I ask.
‘Or perhaps it’s the people you choose to make friends with,’ she counters. She is brittle, ascerbic, damning, hostile.
I’m offered psychodynamic counselling.
‘You can do it in a group or individually,’ she says.
‘Individually, please,’ I say.
 I do not know how to buy houses. I have never been taught this. Though it must be noted that my knee-jerk purchases are preceded by months, sometimes years, of looking online and go-sees. Nevertheless, I feel the act of purchase, that decision-making moment, should be monumental. There should be a period of habitation prior to purchase, a week at the very least of try-out residency, just in case. Just in case you really can’t live with the MFI fitted kitchen and can’t afford to replace it; just in case you really dislike the neighbours; just in case coach loads of drunken revellers pass by your window every Friday and Saturday night – this is the kind of thing that a seller will certainly not reveal.