I have a long, raw wound on my right thigh where they scraped off three layers of skin, stretching down to just above my knee. Above it is the graft, bigger than my hand, and black around the edges from the glue they used to attach it to my leg. And the thing that bothers me the most is a small, fading yellow bruise on the inside of my left wrist.
The morning of the operation, Nikki texted me to wish me luck – “Hope it all goes ok today and that you’ve got somebody to pick you up whenever you get discharged. It’s okay to ask for help! Take care of yourself!”
I sat and just looked at the message for a long time. Over the next few hours as I sat waiting, playing Words with Friends and reading blogs, I went back to it every few minutes, reading it again and again even once I had the words memorised. Seeing them on the screen gave me something concrete to hold onto, and I felt warm and comforted. She’d reached out. It was just a text message, but it felt like something precious.
It took the anesthetist almost forty minutes to get an IV line inserted. She and the nurses bustled around, tucking my hands under blankets and rubbing them to warm them up, and I felt comforted by their touch, and then wildly scathing of myself; how pathetic am I, to be so starved for affection that somebody preparing to stab a needle into my veins feels good?
Bizarrely enough, I’m squeamish, and I had to look away and take deep breaths while she wiggled the needle in the back of my hand, trying to get the blood flowing. After half an hour without success, she turned my wrist over, and told me she was going to have to use the vein at the base of my hand.
I felt panicked. A little voice in my head said “No, no, I don’t want you to do that!“, and tears came to my eyes. I could feel myself start to sweat, and the blanket felt clammy. It was such a nonsensical thing, but I almost wished I’d defended that part of me, and asked her to find somewhere else.
Last time, I woke up in so much pain I could barely think, and so groggy and disoriented that while they were wheeling me to the ward, everyone’s faces looked big and distorted, like a funhouse mirror. This time, it was almost like I’d just been napping on the beach.
It was worse.
It didn’t make sense. Where was the pain? It was like having an acquaintance you don’t like very much cancel on you at the last minute – sure, you’re kind of glad you don’t have to hang out with them, but you wasted all that time making lemon bars and pushing all the dirty laundry under the couch for nothing. I almost felt cheated, in a way. This was supposed to be a big deal. WHERE IS THE PAIN?
(It showed up in a big way two days later, with a constant stream of blood running down my leg for almost 48 hours, and even with strong painkillers I couldn’t walk, and was left hopping around like a deranged cross between a kangaroo and a flamingo.)
Half an hour after I came around and was moved back to Day of Surgery, I texted Nikki back. I’d held off in the morning, afraid I was going to need her after the surgery, and afraid to “use up” my reply too soon. I was brave enough to tell her it was really nice to hear from her, and negated the vulnerability by pointing out I was only admitting it because I could blame it on the drugs. We texted back and forth a couple of times, she reminded to take it easy with half a dozen exclamation marks, and signed off with her usual “Take care hon“.
I was burning with the need to hurt myself, to force the aftermath of the surgery to align to my expectations, but I felt happy, and cared for.
The next day, I had my usual weekly appointment with Nikki. I’d lied to the hospital to get them to release me, and was wrapped in thick bloodstained bandages that kept slipping down my leg, but I felt physically okay.
We talked about the surgery for less than ten minutes, because I couldn’t bring myself to describe the experience to her (it’s boring and stupid and I’m making a big deal of nothing and she won’t understand and she doesn’t want to hear about it anyway), but I felt comfortable and connected, being there with her.
As the session wore on, the feeling of connection slowly slipped away. She was bringing up topics I don’t care about, pushing me to see friends and do things I don’t feel capable of doing. She’d asked me to bring a picture book I love, Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, but she didn’t “get” it, and I slipped back into that endless comparison. Anna understood, I thought, as I stared at her blankly, nodding non-committally along with whatever she was saying. When Anna read it, it made her understand how hard things were for me and how grey and endless this depression is, but Nikki just thinks it’s kind of funny.
Then things started to go really sideways.
We were already at the end of the session time, and she started talking about how she’d been reluctant to go into private practice because of “the whole ‘worried well’ thing“, because she wanted to work with people who have serious problems and really need outside assistance to help them cope, not people who don’t have anything wrong with them and should just be relying on their friends and family instead of going to a psychologist. And internally, I started panicking – why is she telling me this? Is this the part where she points out that I’m a white girl with first world problems and tells me she can’t see me any more? Oh my god, why is she telling me this?
I hadn’t moved at all, physically, but suddenly I was sitting much further away from her. I was right at the back of my head, in a dark, caverny kind of space, looking out at her from a distance.
“Do you know what I mean?” she asked.
“I get your general point, but I’m not sure what you’re trying to say.”
Then she talked for a while about how the role of therapy is to help you build up your support networks, and how the therapist is part of that, but there’s an issue around creating dependence.
“Do you get what I mean now?”
“I do, but I’m still kind of like…what’s your point?”
Outwardly I was very very calm, and inside I was confused and scared and angry, because I’m not dependent, and it’s so unfair of her to reach out to me and then accuse me of relying on her too much, and why was this happening?
She started to talk about how she thinks my relationship with my last therapist Aisha was more like a friendship because Aisha disclosed so much to me, and that she’s wary of telling me too much about her life as a way to make me committed to the relationship, even though in other circumstances I’m the kind of person she’d be friends with, and I was falling further and further into the twilight zone because I have literally never asked her a personal question, and one of the reasons I stopped seeing Aisha was because of her shaky boundaries.
“I’m just wary of putting too much out there,” she said.
“Nobody wants that,” I reminded her flatly.
If the session had ended there, I would have lost my goddamn mind. But finally, finally, she got what was really underneath it all.
“Okay. This is probably motivated by the stuff about Anna doing and doing and doing, and ‘contact me any time you want’, and coming to the hospital, and being the one that was there for you, and – I’m getting a lump in my throat – while you were in the hospital, it crossed my mind constantly that I could just go and see you and tell you ‘you need to bloody stay in here’ and mum…mother you. And so that’s a boundary that I get drawn to cross quite a lot. The friends boundary, or the mother boundary. I want to protect you, and say ‘bloody frickin stay in hospital!; what are you doing to yourself?; don’t go to work!; lie with your feet up!’. Do you know what I mean? You’re strongly drawing out that instinct in me. So that’s why I was talking about that. And I probably put it in quite clinical terms, but that was my motivation.”
Her voice broke on the word ‘constantly’, and by the end she was crying, and embarrassed, wiping away the tears and hissing “oh my god” under her breath. It was so difficult for me to sit in my chair and watch her cry – my instinct is to reach out, to soothe, and I had a strong urge to hug her. The flat, distant feeling had disappeared immediately, and I felt alive and energised again.
We talked for another few minutes, and she said she thinks it’s important that there is a maternal instinct there, and when she told me she thinks it’s important that she wants to protect me and help me feel better about things, she choked on the words, and had to take a deep breath to compose herself.
It seems impossible that in all her talk about the ‘worried well’ and social supports and therapist disclosure, what she was really saying was ‘I care about you‘. That I could so easily have gone home feeling rejected when she was trying to tell me that it’s hard for her to hold a therapeutic distance from me.
Part of me feels wrong, and bad, like I’m doing something to manipulate her into caring about me. But oh, fuck, is there anything that feels better than this?