A tall Victorian at the end of the line for the J-Church streetcar was home to The Integral Counseling Center. I caught the streetcar a block from my apartment on that most rare of things in San Francisco, flat ground, and rode the car as it lurched around the curves up a very steep grade. About three-quarters of the way up, at the edge of a lovely expanse of green lawn known as Dolores Park, the car stopped to let another rider on and I got a glorious view of downtown. We lurched a little further uphill and then hit a flat stretch at the top of Church Street. As the car moved further out, the buildings took on a decidedly more faded look than the colorful Victorians close to the park. This was one of the city’s least trendy neighborhoods, the local hangout being a bakery which sold donuts and very weak coffee. A block past the bakery was the end of the line. My destination.
The waiting room reminded me of free clinics I had gone to for birth control during the sixties, places short on decor but long on information. Being the only person there, I had the choice of sitting on one of several straight-backed chairs or a well-worn couch. I opted for the couch. Easing my way down, I found myself thrust back and down even further as the overly soft cushions molded themselves around me.
On my left, the bulletin board was covered with flyers announcing groups and workshops for incest survivors, women in transition, and men, who I suppose needed help simply because of their gender. There were pamphlets scattered around on end tables and on the window ledge. For as long as I could remember, I had believed that endless possibilities for change were awaiting me right around the next turn. Given all the change offered in that room, I felt in my element. The message was clear: You may be miserable now but there’s hope for you yet.
While the message seemed positive, the surroundings were decidedly glum. The morning had started out foggy, with the fog still lingering like a thick grey shade pulled over the sky. Light leaking in the narrow window to my left was grey, the sort of light one associates with December. Hearing my thoughts, a therapist might have said I was projecting my depression onto the environment, and to a certain extent this was true. Nevertheless, like me, the place appeared badly in need of cheering up.
Aside from its frayed lack of pretention, what most stood out was in the tiny kitchen alcove to my right. Filling up nearly all the space between the top of the kitchen cabinets and the ceiling were stacks and stacks of identical green and white boxes of Kleenex. Enough tissues to soak up a lifetime of tears.
The center was one of two counseling facilities run by a local college. At each facility, counseling was done by unlicensed therapists on their way to getting licensed, and their work was supervised by clinical psychologists. What I got out of the arrangement was affordable therapy. A cheerful environment would probably have cost extra.
According to my friend, Barry, therapists at the center combined Eastern practices, such as meditation, with Western psychotherapy. I had no idea whether this would help me, since I knew nothing about psychotherapy. What made the place appealing was Barry’s glowing recommendation and the low-cost sliding fee scale. I had to admit, though, that the Eastern slant made me a little more comfortable. I had dabbled in Buddhism over the years and though not a devout (or sometimes even an irregular) practitioner, I saw my values as being more consistent with a Buddhist worldview than with any other. In addition, I had hung around the fringes of society for most of my adult life, along with the artists and writers, the meditators, and the folks who packed up to go to Nicaragua after the Sandinista Revolution and to trek in the Himalayas after that. From Barry’s description, the people here sounded like they inhabited that same outer cultural fringe. The decor confirmed it.
The room would have looked gloomy to me no matter what, since I wasn’t feeling very happy. I was scared and tired. Very, very tired. I was so tired because I felt downright miserable and misery always made me tired. I was also nervous and being nervous tended to tire me out even more than misery.
Adding to my anxiety was the fact that I had arrived fifteen minutes early for my 10:00 am appointment, giving me time to sit and fret. I had a thing about being on time, having grown up with an Air Force squadron commander for a dad. I made such an effort to be on time that I always arrived early and then worried that the person I was supposed to meet wouldn’t show up. True to form, I kept glancing at my watch, surprised to see that barely a minute had passed since the last time I looked. Barbara wasn’t coming. I was sure of it. My mouth, already dry, got drier.
As I started to wonder how long I should wait before giving up and heading back home, the front door opened and a woman walked down the hall and stopped at the entrance to the reception area. She had short reddish-brown hair and large dark eyes, and was dressed in a long off-white skirt and sweater, with a colorful necklace and earrings. She looked interesting, more like an artist than what I imagined a therapist to look like.
“You must be Patty,” she said and smiled.
“You must be Barbara,” I said and reached out my right hand to shake hers.
We stood in the entryway for a moment and Barbara apologized for being late. During that moment, I had a strange experience. I noticed that I felt calm. Being in Barbara’s presence, her “energy,” as we liked to say in California, made me feel uncharacteristically peaceful. It wasn’t anything she said or did that made that happen. It just happened.
She motioned for me to go into the room next to the reception area, closed the door, and started rearranging furniture, eventually moving two straight-backed chairs so that they sat facing one another. While Barbara arranged the chairs, I glanced around. Like the reception area, the room was dark, with only a small low window to let in that grey, early morning light. On the left side, a sandbox filled with colorful plastic figures, little houses and miniature cars covered the center section of the floor. I had heard of sandbox therapy and hoped Barbara wouldn’t use it with me. A tall plant sitting on the floor next to the sandbox was so dry and droopy that I thought it needed cheering up as much as I did. In the corner by the window, there was a small table which Barbara dragged over next to her chair. She then pulled a tape recorder out of her bag and set it down on the table.
If you have never been to therapy before, it’s an interesting, and at times unnerving, experience to suddenly have the most intimate, scrutinizing attention placed on you by a perfect stranger. “Have you ever contemplated suicide before?” “Are you using drugs?” “Have you been sexually abused, at least that you can recall?” “Are either of your parents alcoholics?” I had worried that I would find it hard to talk about myself, at least in the deeply personal way I assumed one needed to talk to a therapist. Yet I was now being asked the kind of personal questions I had thought might be difficult and found it easy to give simple yes or no responses.
It was actually a relief to have someone ask if either of my parents had been alcoholics. I had spent most of my life covering up the sad and soiled details about my family and my feelings about it all. I felt better knowing that this might be a place I could finally stop hiding.
As Barbara asked me questions and I answered, my anxiety started to lessen. There’s something incredibly comforting about having a person take a caring interest in you. I was accustomed to being around people who loved to hear themselves go on and on about themselves. As a child, I had the bad luck of having my father notice me only when he had something critical to say. To have another person ask about me in order to get to know me was an unfamiliar but pleasant experience.
I had thought it would be difficult to make a decision about whether I wanted Barbara as my therapist but the more she asked me questions, the easier I found it to open up. The more I opened up, the better I felt.
I secretly hoped that Barbara would fill me in on whatever we were going to be doing. But other than asking me to tell her about myself and why I was there, the bulk of the agenda-setting seemed to be my job. What I was supposed to do, it appeared, was talk about myself and somehow fill up an entire hour doing that. Faced with this task, the whole idea of therapy suddenly seemed daunting.
The problem was that I didn’t know what to talk about. I had thought of therapy as a probing-type experience in which the therapist asks questions and the client answers. Now I saw that I was expected to do both – ask the questions and answer them – and I didn’t even know what the questions might be.
That day I left the counseling center, I was glad I had found a therapist I liked but uncertain what she could possibly do for me. Mostly, I worried about being able to do my part. I wanted Barbara to like me, and I figured I had to please her if that was going to happen. What I needed to do to please her, it seemed, was to find a way to fill up an hour every week with talk.
I was thinking about this as I stood in front of the corner bakery waiting for the streetcar to come. I anxiously breathed in the smell of just-baked cinnamon rolls wafting out the open door. And I thought to myself, I just don’t know if I’ll be able to do it.
The following week, Barbara and I sat across from one another in the same straight-backed chairs, and Barbara suggested that I sit with my feet flat on the floor slightly apart and that I let my hands rest loosely on my thighs. Before, I was sitting with my arms wrapped around my waist, the way I often sat. Barbara said something about being open, the way I was sitting now versus the way I was sitting before.
Barbara asked me to close my eyes and focus on my breathing. The in breath and the out. Just watching the breath going in and out. And then she asked me to feel my feet, to let the breath go all the way down to my feet and back up again. And then my legs.
We went on like this for a few minutes, taking the breath to different parts of the body. When we were done, Barbara asked me what I wanted to talk about. I didn’t know what to say. She asked me how I was doing, how I was feeling right at that moment.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Once again, she asked me to focus on my breathing, feeling the feet, feeling the calves. And then she asked me if I could tell her how I was feeling in my body. I concentrated for a moment and then noticed that my forehead felt totally dead. Almost like a headache but not quite. I suddenly felt very, very tired, like I could fall asleep right there in the chair. She asked me to describe the feeling more.
“It’s a total deadness,” I said.
“And what about the rest of the body,” she asked.
“I can’t feel a thing,” I said. “It feels as if everything is cut off at the neck. All feeling is up in my head. Everything else is gone.”
“Tell me what happened with David,” she said.
I didn’t know how to respond.
“How have you been feeling about it this week,” she asked.
“Dead,” I told her. “I’ve been feeling dead.”
“And how are you feeling now as you talk about it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really feel anything.”
I felt bad not feeling anything, like there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t feel. I would have liked to tell her something else. I even started to make something up, as I often did with people. Trying to figure out what I thought they wanted to hear and then giving them that.
But it didn’t seem right to lie or pretend with Barbara, even though I was tempted to do it. Where was lying going to get me?
Once again, Barbara asked me to notice how I felt in my body. She had me do some breathing again and asked me where the feeling was. This time the feeling was in my stomach. And I started to cry.
I cried about what happened with David. I cried about all the pain it had caused. I cried about how hard it was to feel.
I had hardly ever cried so much at one time and I had never cried like that in front of a stranger. In fact, I rarely cried with other people present. I had a pretty good idea that people in my life didn’t like to be around me when I was feeling bad, so when I couldn’t be up, I usually stayed home alone.
Barbara’s eyes were a little watery when I looked up.
“It’s pretty sad,” I said, and she nodded.
I told her I was afraid from the start that David would leave me. The only thing that made me stop worrying was when he called. I worried like that with every man. And sooner or later, every man stopped calling.
I cried again and then Barbara said, “We’re going to need to stop soon but we can continue with this next week.”
I felt like I could continue with this next week and the week after that and the week after that and I still wouldn’t be done. It felt like I had stored up a lifetime of tears around this pain and one hour a week for the rest of my life wouldn’t be enough to get rid of it.
But I nodded and said, “Okay,” relieved that I had made it through another therapy session.
Now, I had a whole week of freedom before I needed to do this again.
I walked down the steps and up to the corner, hoping no one on the street would look too closely at me and see my red, puffy eyes and guess that I had been crying. Luckily, I didn’t have long to wait before the J-Church arrived.
I liked the ride back down the hill even better than the ride up. On the way back, the view appeared more glorious. Today, I noticed that the view was even better than usual, the sky a wonderful, deep blue. All the way across San Francisco Bay, it was totally clear.
Then I noticed something different about myself, something I had rarely experienced before. Where I usually felt like my forehead was stuffed with cotton, now the whole area above my eyebrows felt open and clear.
Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest, and had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays.