Shaun and I were still attending our own clergy-counselling sessions.
What had started as a joyous experience to look forward to every week was beginning to resemble the cold water you put crabs in before bringing them slowly to the boil. Hard to notice when it’s time to jump.
A few weeks after we’d started sessions, Shaun was due to preach in Ireland for a week. I was invited to attend alone.
I am, I suppose, fiercely loyal. In Shaun’s first curacy, I was surprised – embarrassed, even – at the way other young wives in the parish talked of their husbands.
“He barely knows what a nappy is.”
“I can’t leave him alone with them for five minutes.”
“You’ll never guess what he did when I went to my mother’s...”
They wrote lists saying which day the bins went out and what the children were allowed for tea. Of course their men were twerps, if they were treated like idiots.
(My salad days! I went to Ireland myself for work many years later, and assumed that the rest of my family – who all ate the eggs from the garden quite happily... until then, anyway – knew that hens need locking up at night. You learn, you learn.)
Other women spoke this way in front of me, not even a close friend, about the loves of their lives. I wouldn’t dream of talking about my relationship with Shaun without him in the room: our counsellors might conclude I actually wanted to confide in them without him there, or something equally ghastly.
So while he was away I decided to give them some family background instead. Might be useful.
I told them of the struggles we had in the early years of Shaun’s living, when he was first appointed as the parson of Parson's Green. Of his father, drinking every hour God (and Mrs Thatcher) gave; of being unable to share this strain with our new congregation; of eventually having to tell Shaun’s own father that he could no longer live under our roof.
Of Serena, being so bullied at her new school that she ended up in hospital; of how the counsultant mismanaged her treatment so badly we eventually had to ask for help to enable her to get over the hospital experience; of how the NHS psychologist misinterpreted the facts so grotesquely we feared we could lose Serena for ever.
Of Alexander, our third, being diagnosed with Semantic Pragmatic Disorder, the nearest anyone got to Asperger’s syndrome twenty years ago; of the head master of his boarding choir school not sharing this information about his Special Needs with any of his staff; of Alex being bullied so relentlessly by unwitting teachers that he nearly took his own life.
And finally of the hardest challenge of all, Bink's terrible illness, now sucking everyone in the family into its greedy and insatiable black hole... That illness which our counsellors had already decided was our fault, for some unspecified reason. (This was just before Bink went into hospital, after which everything became so very much worse for all the family and Bink herself.)
I didn’t think of any of this as especial hardship. I have a dear friend (also a vicar’s wife) who had already buried two of her children. Parents on other shores have to watch theirs starve to death. We were extremely fortunate: we had a fabulously huge (if tatty) London vicarage; four gorgeous children; no physical disabilities; all four parents still living; enough to eat (usually); work we loved passionately; lots of wonderful friends.
Nevertheless I had to tell them something to fill the hour. And there wasn’t much point in describing all the things we presumably shared with every family: joys and happinesses, holidays and mealtimes, music and laughter.
So I laid out all my precious dolls on the table, that I loved so much: my dear and darling, cherished children.
I don’t know what I expected them to say, if anything. It certainly wasn’t what followed.
“What a sad story,” she said. Kindly (she was kind).
(Really? I hadn't meant you to think us sad…)
He, not so charitable. “If you came from a different background,” was his entire summing up, “we’d call yours a completely dysfunctional family.”
They had pushed me out of the aeroplane, with thirty thousand feet to the ground. And not even Shaun there to break my fall.
I've never been able to use the word “dysfunctional” since. Not of a family. So unspecific. So judgemental.
I was devastated.
I have never understood that particular style of counselling, which I’ve now come across over and over again, which consists of telling you how utterly miserable your life is and how put upon you are. (Usually by your parents. Who can’t answer back.) I realise that the old-fashioned exhortation to pull your socks up and count your blessings can be inadequate in the face of serious mental illness (believe me, friends, I would know) but when life is simply being its normal nasty, brutish and short self, our grandparents’ counsel that self-pity doesn’t help much and it’s better to remember how very fortunate we are has a very great deal to recommend it.
It certainly works better for me.
(There even came a time when that so-negative counselling approach drove me, for the first and last time in my life, to long to end it. But that was still some way down the line: it takes quite a lot of discouragement to put me down.)
Never again – never never never again – I vowed, would I ever go to counselling alone. Never. Again. Ever.
It was not a promise I was able to keep.
We continued attending faithfully, week by week, through that winter. We continued even after I felt deeply let down. The counsellors had given us their private telephone numbers and told us we could ring them any time. Over that Christmas holiday, if I ever needed my genie to come to me in the desert, it was then. The male counsellor agreed to see us the following day to help us through.
When the day dawned, he had changed his mind. It would be unprofessional, he said, to meet up outside the session.
What? More unprofessional than giving us your number? Than telling us you’d always be there for us? Than agreeing to meet in the first place?
A few weeks into the Lent Term there came another session when we had to arrive separately: Shaun was shopping for sports kit for one of the children, and arrived a few minutes after me.
Remembering my dreadful experience the previous term – one I doubt I will ever forget – I said I’d prefer to wait for him please, but they overruled me and said we’d start without. I spent the entire hour in agonised silence, refusing to say anything and wondering what on earth had happened to him.
The receptionist hadn’t sent him up because the session had already begun.
When the three of us came down and found him, quietly reading the papers, the counsellor shredded him as if he were a fibbing, thieving schoolboy. How dare he treat them and the session with such disrespect? Like a schoolboy, Shaun said nothing in response to this tirade. He didn’t bother to say he himself had been waiting for fifty five minutes. Keeping counsel is Shaun’s particular speciality. Why waste a word when silence will do?
On the way home, though, he fumed in quiet fury. I was astonished: I hadn’t realised we could criticise our counsellors. If I could have reacted like that, with anger not mortification, I would have coped a great deal better.
Mind you, I’d probably have coped better with counsellors who practised kindness not cruelty.