In the waiting room

09 April 2014

Main image: The Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt by Vincent van Gogh (1890)

Rebecca Wait, author of The View on the Way Down, on her own experience of going to a psychotherapist.


The waiting room is not as I imagined it. Not a big square room lined with chairs, whitewashed, faceless. It’s more like a tiny conservatory; large windows instead of an outside wall, a sloping, snug little space clinging onto the side of the house. This isn’t what I expect from a psychiatrist’s office. I’m disappointed before we’ve even begun.

There are two basket chairs and nothing else. They’re rounded, as though encouraging you to curl up and go to sleep. I wonder if anyone has ever done this. The sun is coming through the windows, warming the little room; it would be very easy to go to sleep if you weren’t on the verge of a panic attack.

I sit in one of the chairs, my mother sits in the other. I had envisaged some stranger sitting in the waiting room with me, whom I would slowly befriend over the course of several months’ appointments and who would turn out to be far more troubled than me, freeing me from the grey constriction of my own problems. She or he will be a little reckless, a little dangerous, like Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted. But Angelina can’t sit there if my mother is sitting there. Still, I’m glad my mother’s with me; I’ve become weirdly clingy in recent weeks.

It’s a Thursday morning, and I’m missing double French. This is not a cause for celebration. I hate missing school. I think of L'√Čtranger, which the rest of the class will be reading without me. Meursault wouldn’t put up with this kind of shit.

Eventually the inner door opens and Dr. R appears.[1] My mother, in turn, disappears, though only after some cheery segue chat, something along the lines of ‘Well! Here she is! [Awkward pause] I’ll be off then.’ It is a little like being dropped at the hairdresser’s.

Dr. R’s appearance is disappointing. He is a small, skinny man, neither desirable nor remotely threatening. And he does not have much of a sense of humour.[2]

I am not strictly seeing Dr. R in his guise as psychiatrist. He asks about my medication, and suggests adjustments, but leaves the actual dishing out of pills to my GP. He is instead wearing his psychotherapist hat, which, I discover, means talking a lot about my childhood.

This annoys me.

‘It was nice,’ I reassure him. ‘It was normal. I was very happy.’

He doesn’t seem convinced. He knows there are skeletons in my closet and he wants to see them. I have a natural urge to perform, to please people, but I really don’t have anything to show him. My life up to this point has been fine. We end in resentful stalemate.[3]

I wish I remembered more of our first conversation beyond this. My memory, usually pretty reliable, was doing funny things around this time, grabbing onto some moments with disconcerting greed and storing up every detail to wheel out triumphantly later, like a cat dropping a mangled mouse in front of its owner; but on other occasions it doesn’t even seem to have tried, instead simply shrugging wearily and turning away. Whole reams of time are gone completely.

I do remember going into Dr. R’s consulting room with a very clear sense that the walls were closing in on me, and leaving with the same feeling, only now with the added fury that Dr. R had done nothing – in a whole hour and a half – to lift it.

Back at school, a couple of my friends come over. ‘Where have you been?’

‘The dentist,’ I say, giving them a toothy grin. Might as well have been the dentist, for all the good he did.

I say, ‘How far did you get with L'√Čtranger?’

Dr. R was never part of the plan.

I am eighteen years old, but only just. I have, as they say, my whole life ahead of me. It’s going to be a successful life; I have been designated a high-achiever. (Soon, mysteriously, this will morph into ‘over-achiever’; they’re only with you so long as you’re winning.) I have a very clear image of what I am, and what my life should be. But at some point over the past few months, we appear to have gone dangerously off-piste.

Dr. R, it dawns on me over the next few sessions, wants to challenge my view of myself. He thinks it’s too rigid. He thinks it’s dangerous. I’m pleased when I’ve worked out his strategy, because now I can be on my guard. For my part, I decide that he doesn’t understand that I am special and brilliant, and also that he wants to take away all the things that make me special and brilliant.

At this stage, I really dislike him.

I tell him in our second session that I’m afraid I won’t get the grades I need in my A-Levels because I can’t work anymore. Can’t open a book without panicking.

He says, infuriatingly measured, ‘What will happen if you don’t get your grades?’

‘I’ll lose my place at Oxford.’

‘What would happen then?’

I look at him uncomprehendingly. We appear to be playing some kind of strange, two-person narrative game in which we chart my miserable progress through life.

I decide not to get involved.

He says, ‘Well, would the world end?’

I turn my head away.

Most of the time I can’t think straight. Can’t eat properly either. Difficult to eat when you’re terrified – you bring it all up again – and difficult to stop being terrified when you can’t identify the threat. Dr. R is supposed to save me, and he is failing.

‘Don’t like him,’ I tell my mother afterwards. ‘No sense of humour. Thinks I had a bad childhood.’

She looks upset.

‘No, no,’ I reassure her. ‘It was a great childhood.’

After a bit, I confide in my best friend about Dr. R. She mishears his name as something obscene, and persists in referring to him by this title. She doesn’t make any jokes about me being crazy, though usually nothing is off-limits. This makes me think she is worried.

It’s probably fair to say that I don’t, at this stage, have a very good understanding of ‘talking cures’. Dr. R and I limp on with our sessions, he as patient and reasonable as ever, unfazed by my erratic, stricken responses. I sit in the tiny waiting room before each session tapping my foot, wondering if, miraculously, this time I will come out cured. Disappointed afresh each week.

Maybe it works on you secretly, the questions and the neutral silences and the annoying refusal just to tell you how to get better. I put my head down and try to weather the storm. And at some point during this awful year, I am taken apart and remade. I’m not sure what role Dr. R plays. Possibly a seed has been planted.

The day of our last session, I walk down the steps of his house alongside my mother. The sun is shining, but I know it isn’t over, and I know I’m not saved. Nevertheless, I have a sense of ceremony. This is progress, of sorts. I follow my mother to the car and I think, ‘So: I will take up my bed and walk.’[4]

[1] His name didn’t begin with R. Could have just given him a whole fake name, but they always seem to use initials in case studies. Looks professional.

[2] It seems only fair to acknowledge that he may have been a riot once he got away from his patients.

[3] It’s possible the resentment was exclusively on my side.

[4] I often thought in Biblical references back then. I’m not saying it was normal. 

The View on the Way Down Rebecca Wait's debut novel, The View on the Way Down, is out now in paperback.

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