The cowgirl and the counsellor

I was late for the appointment. It had helped to talk about him at first but not anymore. I felt like lately Claire didn’t want to talk about him; she wanted to talk about me and I wasn’t interested in that. Or didn’t want her interested in that at least. I was my own puzzle to solve.

Her room was bright, pastel painted walls, a large print of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” hung above a walnut coffee table atop which sat a box of tissues, a sketching book and a selection of pencils in a jam jar. Claire was sitting forwards in her chair, smiling, and beckoning me into the room. It always struck me as odd. This incongruous, boxed off oasis of peace in an otherwise sterile set of shared, serviced offices. Grief counselling and therapy alongside A-Z MiniCabs, LB Accounting, and Mitchell & Hobbs Solicitors: wills and inheritance a speciality. That always struck me as particularly unfortunate and Claire hadn’t found it funny in one of our early sessions when I’d asked if she picked up many referrals. I always felt like she was testing me and I was failing. Maybe I’d just wanted to test her for a change.

“Sorry I’m late” I offered. She just broadened her smile and shook her head, gesturing at me to sit down. I perched on the edge of the armchair that was reserved for the unwell, the soft chair to sink into and surrender. I could smell her herbal tea. The more the room screamed calm at me the more I felt on edge.

“How are you ?” asked Claire. “It’s been some time…”

“I’m fine,” I replied, too quickly. She pursed her lips and inclined her head, expecting more. “Really. I’m sorry I’ve missed a couple of sessions but I think that just shows that I’m doing well. I haven’t needed to talk to anyone. No offence.”

“None taken. I’m glad to hear that you feel you’re doing well.” She fell silent. I knew how this worked by now; early on I used to hate the silence and would desperately fill it. Stories of growing up, memories of Dad. I would tell her I felt sad if I thought that was what she wanted to hear and other days I’d tell her it was getting easier, that I thought I was getting better. I did feel sad. But not in the way that I could tell Claire even if I’d wanted to. I don’t really have words for how empty everything had felt after he died, how numb. When I was little I broke my arm, fell off a swing in the park, and the pain was so intense at first that I blacked out. When I woke up in the ambulance they must have given me something because everything was duller, I could still feel the sensation in my arm but it was like I’d been separated from it. They stopped me feeling it because I couldn’t cope with it. That’s what the sadness felt like now: if I try to really feel it then I can’t deal with it. There’s just too much of it and so I try to stay separate from it. Claire cracked first. “I’ve been reading back through my notes and it struck me that we never really talk about the reason you’re here.”

“I don’t understand what you mean ?” I replied. I started to fold my arms but forced myself to leave them open, any change in posture usually provoked a flurry of note taking from Claire as if my innermost thoughts were laid bare by the position of body parts. We had spent twenty minutes in a previous session debating my fingernails, bitten to the quick. She saw some conspiracy of anxiety whereas I was pretty sure it was just because I couldn’t play the guitar with nails. Eventually I’d confessed to a concocted feeling of restlessness as she’d become increasingly interested in how I felt when I played music. I think I’d made the mistake of saying that I needed my fingertips exposed to connect to the strings, that in a funny way I felt connected to myself when I played. It was too close to the truth and so I’d deflected her with a lie. The pain isn’t separate when I play.

“We never talk about how you feel about your dad’s death,” said Claire. I held her gaze, fighting the urge to look away, to twist and hide in my seat. This was unusually direct for her. Perhaps she was as tired as I was of dancing around each other. Perhaps she’d given up trying to coax me out and had settled on a full on assault. She broke eye contact. “I’m just trying to help you Emily. Grief is a complex thing, it can eat you up without you even realising. I’m worried that you’re not…”

“Not grieving ?” I interrupted.

“No,” she said. “I can see that you’re grieving. You’re hurting so much that I think you’ve shut yourself off from feeling anything much at all and that’s a part of grieving. But it’s not a part you can stay in forever if you want it to get better.” She was looking straight at me again now and this time I did look away. I knew she was right. Maybe that was why I kept coming back, despite my deflections and defensiveness she kept on trying and, at times, she seemed to find me even as I tried to keep myself hidden.

“I… I don’t know how to do it,” I whispered into my shoulder.

“There’s no right and wrong way. You don’t get an instruction book. They don’t even give me one and I’m supposed to be helping.” I looked back at her. She was leaning forwards in her chair looking intently at me with a worried, weary smile. I smiled back at her.

“So what do we do now ?”

“I think now we try and do this a different way. Write me a song. Forget about today, we can just have a cup of tea and chat about the weather.” She must have caught the look on my face. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to have the herbal stuff. Come back next week, bring your guitar, and write me a song. I’d love to hear you sing. Deal ?” I was scared but curious. I thought I knew what she was trying to do but the quickening in my pulse when she’d asked me to write a song was the most alive I’d felt in weeks. Perhaps it was time to stop hiding.




This is story 31 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome:

This is probably the last we’ll hear from Emily’s story (as spread across the previous three posts, Concrete Cowgirl, Broken, and Heartbreaker) for a while. Largely because I haven’t written anymore of it… However, I think she’s okay in Claire’s capable hands for a while. This one’s for anyone that’s ever sat in a therapist or counseller’s room and wondered how the hell they try and explain how they feel. I was spectacularly bad at it !


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