Friday 22nd December 2006
Around Christmas, the Psychology Department becomes empty and eerily unfamiliar; even the smell seems to revert to its former use as a psychiatric ward. I was the only one in on the Friday before Christmas – the ‘skeleton cover’ required by management over the holiday period. Appropriately named, as it happened.
I checked the waiting area at 10.20 am for my new client. She was already there, with an older woman. The young lady had brilliant blue hair framing her extremely thin, gaunt face.
The young lady turned from reading the noticeboard, swiftly looked me up and down and replied, ‘Yes, I suppose.’
She had scarcely responded before the older woman butted in, ‘I am Adelle’s mother. You must be Dr Lewis, pleased to meet you.’ She put out her hand but I proffered mine first to Adelle; after all she was my client. Adelle shook my hand gravely, looking me in the eye. I thought I knew what she was pleading with me to do, and obliged.
I turned to her mother and held out my hand to take hers, which she had stuffed back in her pocket. She looked away, avoiding my gaze.
‘Thank you for accompanying your daughter to her appointment,’ I said to her half-turned head; then, smiling at Adelle, I invited her into my room. Her mother picked up a green handbag and matching leather gloves, then stood up. I stepped between them, saying, ‘Appointments usually last about an hour. Please feel free to use the little kitchen down this corridor, if you’d like to make a coffee while you wait. There’s some fresh milk in the fridge.’ I didn’t pause to register her response.
Adelle headed towards the better of the two scruffy armchairs in my room. She folded her raincoat neatly to hang over the back. As I sat on the second armchair, she pulled a blue shawl from her bag and, in one swift movement, swept it over to cover the chair before she sat down. Her outfit was all varieties of the colour blue. Her cheekbones stood out from the hollow cavities of her cheeks, emphasising the shadows surrounding her startling blue eyes.
I had known to expect someone looking rather skinny through the information in the referral letter from the psychiatrist, but I hadn’t imagined her looking as she did. I waited for her to settle in her seat, ready to begin my assessment, but even as she pulled her shawl around her body, she said, ‘I’m going to tell you something I have told no one else, Dr Lewis. You’ll think I’m mad.’
Not what I had planned – but I nodded, stroked my freshly cut beard and waited.
‘I’ve had a very strange experience.’ She was leaning forward staring at me, her eyes wide open. ‘I think I nearly died. I passed out and a light was drawing me towards it, or something. I don’t know.’
‘What did you feel?’
She turned her head, gazing out of the window. There was a pause before she said, ‘You’ll think this odd, but I felt peaceful; it wasn’t frightening.’
‘Tell me as much as you remember.’
Her stare was now fixed on the ceiling. She was very still; her bony fists were clenched in her lap but her voice was calm, almost matter-of-fact. ‘I seemed to come back from the light. I realised I was high up in the corner of the room – well, my mind was. I could see myself on the floor with people standing around me and my mother shouting at everyone to stand back.’ She glanced at me. I nodded to show her I was following her story. ‘Someone was on the ground by me – I felt confused about what was happening, but I was aware of breath filling my lungs as I came down from the corner of the room and sort of went back into my body.’
I had questions I wanted to ask but reckoned she needed space.
She slowly pulled her gaze away from the ceiling and turned towards me, speaking almost in a whisper. ‘What was it, Dr Lewis? Am I insane?’
There was an urgency in her voice that made me reassure her: ‘Such an experience does not mean you are out of your mind.’
‘You’ve heard of it before, then?’
I replied slowly, being careful with my words, having no idea how this young lady would respond. ‘What you have described is more commonly experienced by those who have been thought to be right at the edge of survival, perhaps on an operating table or after a serious accident.’
My client was breathing fast – I gave her some time to adjust, with the only sound in the room coming from the soothing tick of my wall clock. As gently as I could, I asked her, ‘Would you like to tell me more? Or shall we come back to it another time?’
‘I want to tell you.’
Despite her words, I had to wait while she sniffed loudly then pulled her shawl up around her shoulders, and took a few deep breaths. I could hear her mother talking to someone in the waiting area, but Adelle was focused, drawing her thoughts together. Her words spilled forth in a rush.
‘I collapsed in the street. My mother has told everyone I fainted from lack of food. It was more than that. I was told afterwards that the man leaning over me was from St John Ambulance. He was running a display in the shopping centre and somebody dashed off and fetched him. He took my pulse and checked my breathing, then started CPR. My mother said he made too much fuss, but I think he saved me.’
Cocooned within her shawl, she rocked back and forth as she spoke.
‘That must have been frightening. Have you talked about it with anyone before today?’
She shook her head. ‘I haven’t had a chance. Every other psychologist, psychiatrist and mental health person has let my mother barge in with me. You asked her to wait outside. She thinks I’m mad anyway, so I didn’t want to add more fuel to her diagnosis.’
I was tempted to smile at this, but nodded instead. I glanced at her file.
‘Thank you for telling me today. Do you mind if I make some notes, Adelle?’
‘Call me Bluedelle, please, and as long as the notes are confidential, that’s OK.’
‘Fair enough.’ I thought now was not the time to give her the exceptions to confidentiality.
Adelle surveyed my room while I looked back at the referral. She had neatly disrupted my plan for the session. She was here with a psychiatrist’s diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I could see why. She was in blue from head to toe, only contrasted by her sallow skin. Her high cheekbones and blue-black eye shadow emphasised her extraordinary thinness. The psychiatrist had also diagnosed a non-specific eating disorder.
Adelle’s gaze was now focused on the photo on my desk. I had only brought it in that morning. It was a laughing Ella, swinging Jamie around in a blur. Taken more than five years ago, before Jamie’s illness.
‘Is that your family?’ she asked.
‘Yes.’ I managed to smile and move to safer ground. ‘You said your mother thought you collapsed from lack of eating. Was that part of the problem?’
‘Probably. I’d been eating only blue food for a long time by then and missing out on protein. That was what made my mother persuade me to add blue cheese, blue tuna and nearly raw steak to my diet.’
‘Did you manage to eat the protein?’
‘More or less – it’s easier some days than others. Mind you, before I agreed, I negotiated the refurbishment of the summerhouse in my parents’ garden in order for me to move into it. The fear of losing it is what is keeping me going.’
‘So you are living in a summerhouse?’
‘Yes. It’s been insulated and converted. I’ve decorated it and made it my own. It’s like a gorgeous holiday chalet now.’
I detected a note of triumph in her voice. She carried on talking, scarcely pausing for breath, ‘You see, I’m jobless and lost my place at college. I had to have somewhere to live so I was still in my old bedroom and my mother was driving me crazy. I was like, no, am still like, a project being taken from one psychiatrist or psychologist to another. Exhibit A, the strange drop-out who likes blue and doesn’t eat. Although that might finally stop now I’m seeing you.’
‘What will stop? Liking blue? Your eating habits? Or being Exhibit A? What would you like, Bluedelle?’
Solemnly staring at my face, she answered clearly, ‘No longer being Exhibit A, for sure. We’ll see about the rest.’
I knew then that despite her being quite positive, she was not ready to let go of blue. We were in for the long haul. Meanwhile, I needed to come back on track with the assessment. I referred to my notes, and tried to take the lead for the rest of the session.
After Adelle left the room, I quietly and reverently placed the photo in my desk drawer.
It was odd when I met Mike. I was so surprised when he kept my mother out of the consulting room that I just blurted out stuff as if I’d known him for years. It’s not like he was anything special. A bit scruffy, in my opinion, and he had a strange habit of stroking his auburn beard.
But he listened. He let me tell him all about the time I collapsed. He didn’t correct me when I said I felt like an exhibit and then he just asked me about ordinary stuff like what I was studying, my skills and my friends. Telling him about the interior design course felt as if I were letting him in on a secret that had been too uncomfortable to think about. Not that I told him everything; just how difficult it was to use clients’ colours in a specification, rather than the full range of beautiful blues. Perhaps I’ll tell him what happens in my mind another time.
When he asked me about how focusing on blue had begun, I didn’t want to say. So I told him so and he said, ‘Fair enough, it can wait until you’re ready.’ Not like all those other psychs who pushed me and made me cry. I respect him for that.
Finally we got to the bit that I always have to do, ie those mental health questionnaires. He knew I must’ve done them oodles of times before because he apologised and asked me if I’d like a coffee or something while I did it. Then he realised what he’d said and said ‘sorry’ again, this time for having nothing blue to drink. He was OK. I think I’ll be all right with him.
And – the best thing about the session was, he didn’t give me homework. That may be because it’s Christmas. But we’d talked a bit about colour charts of various blue hues and I offered to bring some in and show him the ranges. We both found it funny when I told him about some of the most ridiculous of the names, ‘Stiffneck Blue’ and ‘Parson’s Gate’, and that my personal favourite was ‘Chef’s Blue’. I even told him how I liked the colour I used most because I could get it from boiling red cabbage and how I could find no name for the colour it produced because it changed depending on how I used it, so I called it ‘Red Cabbage Blue’. He seemed really interested. But then I suppose that’s his job.
We had a sticky moment when I finally left his room – my mother was right by the consulting room door, an imposing figure in her green coat, clutching her tote bag and her gloves and trying to step into the room as I came out. It was obvious she wanted a word with Mike. But Mike said, ‘Thank you again for bringing your daughter today and I’m sorry we kept you waiting for so long. Have a lovely Christmas.’ And he turned back into his room and shut the door.
My mother exclaimed ‘How rude!’ as she marched out of the department. I could hardly contain myself. I don’t think I have ever felt so good after seeing a psychologist.
The mood stayed with me as we went home in the car. For most of the journey Mother hardly spoke. We were actually turning into our road when she said, ‘I heard you laughing in there.’
I was going to tell her why, but I stopped myself. Instead I said, ‘I think I shall get on well with Dr Mike Lewis. He’s fairly easy to talk to.’
‘I shan’t be satisfied unless he sorts you out. No good just chatting and laughing through the sessions – we need to see some real change. I hope he gets you eating sensible stuff next time you see him or we will have to try somewhere else.’
Sometimes I feel wiser than my mother and this was one of those occasions. ‘Mother, I have been like this for six years. No one can sort me out, as you put it, in two sessions. You are lucky I have agreed to go back to this one and that I shall be seeing him on the NHS.’
I didn’t tell her that next time I would go on my own. There was no need for her to come with me. I am an adult, after all.
That night, just before Christmas, when I had closed my ‘Littlehampton Blue’ door behind me, I felt triumphant and even nearly content. I put my fairy lights on the small blue-green conifer I had bought for a Christmas tree and made myself a blueberry milkshake, which turned out a little redder than I wanted. Instead of pouring it down the sink like I usually do, I dropped a little essence of red cabbage into it and drank it. I sunk into my cobalt sofa and began glancing through the carefully filed pages of paint and material charts I had collected – all shades from ‘Morning Light’ to ‘Midnight Blue’. I felt myself relax into their cool calm.
Before I saw Adelle Merchant, I had considered that I might assess her and pass her on to another member of the mental health team. I had only taken her case because of the long-term absence of Ralph, our consultant clinical psychologist who was head of department. We had heard that it was unlikely he would come back to work, so I was sorting out some of his longer-waiting referrals.
Adelle herself changed my course of action. A client so keen to tell me things she had not disclosed before was a rarity. I could work with that. It indicated that she was ready to learn and maybe change. How long it would take was another question. I had yet to ascertain why and how she had come to the difficult mental state we were now going to address.
I wondered who Mrs Merchant had been talking to in the waiting area. As far as I was aware, I had been the only one in the department. The doors had been newly fitted with safety features, including an intercom. The mystery was solved when I glanced through the departmental message book – there was a note for me from Anita, the art therapist.
‘Happy Christmas to you and Ella! Thank you for all your help, you were great.’ I had no idea why she’d needed to come in when she was on leave, but it was kind of her to write a note.
I left the empty department at 3.30 after letting the staff on the switchboard know they could direct calls to my personal number if I were needed over the next few days. I joined the Friday-before-Christmas rush of jolly and slightly drunk commuters. This year was the first year in five that the general sense of bonhomie had not created a completely overwhelming feeling of loss and desolation in me that would drown any joy out of the festivities.
Nothing could bring Jamie, my son, back. But today I was en route to my old home – our home – where Ella was waiting for me. I was walking into warmth, love and the smell of mince pies. And we would have Christmas Day to ourselves because her fostered adult, Shaun, would be with his family.
I had bought Ella an eternity ring. On Christmas Day I wanted to suggest that we renew our marriage vows in a proper church service. I felt as excited as I was when I first proposed to her.
We had a great weekend, making last-minute preparations. I sorted out the Christmas lights when they blew the fuse, put fresh candles into their holders and wrapped small extra presents for Ella. I think she sent me to the shops three times for things she had forgotten – I remembered how this used to irk me, but now it seemed an absolute joy to be running around for her.
Much of Christmas Eve was taken up with ferrying Shaun to his parents, dropping in on his friend with a present first. Once home, we prepared the vegetables for the Christmas meal together, and we ate our first mince pies as we listened to carols.
I had been childishly excited about Christmas Day with Ella. To start with it was all I could have hoped for. Waking in the morning, next to my wife and cuddling together as we wished each other ‘Happy Christmas’ was a beautiful beginning to the day. But despite the festive decorations and the wonderful dinner we cooked together, we both missed Jamie. We tried to remember without becoming upset – I managed this better than Ella.
After we had eaten our meal and looked at several photos, sharing memories, I thought it was time for my surprise. I had the box in my pocket and made a great show of going on one knee to present it to her.
‘Ella, I feel like we need to mark the fresh beginning of our life together. I want us to be together for the rest of our lives, and to confirm that I have bought you this.’ With a little bit of a flourish, I opened the box.
I wasn’t prepared for her reaction.
Ella looked embarrassed. ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’
I thought she meant that I was too extravagant, so I charged ahead with taking it out of the box and waiting for her to extend her left hand. She didn’t, but paused slightly before offering me her right hand.
I put the sapphire and diamond cluster onto her ring finger on her right hand. I felt disappointed. Ella noticed.
‘What’s the matter?’ she said.
‘I wasn’t sure which finger you wanted it on. I hoped you would see it like a second engagement ring.’
‘I would like us to renew our vows.’
Ella looked at me, her head on one side. ‘Listen, Mike, this is a lovely ring and I really appreciate you buying it, but we are a long way from being ready to renew our vows. We have only been back together for such a short time, how do I know this will be forever?’
‘You think you are ready. We need to wait. See how you are when we’ve finished our couples therapy. Until then, think of this as a time when we are renewing our courtship.’ She stroked my hand gently as she talked but I was bitterly disappointed and only half-listened. I began to doubt her feelings for me. I went and made us both a hot drink, heating up some mince pies to give myself time to work through my feelings.
I brought in the tea and offered her the products of her own baking. She glanced up at me and I realised she knew she had upset me. I had to say something.
‘I didn’t mean to rush you. I still have the flat, if you want me to leave.’ I could scarcely say the words.
‘I don’t want you to leave. But in case you want to, I suggest you carry on renting the flat for now.’
I didn’t want to argue with her. I thought she was wrong and we should renew our vows soon. To my relief, there was one small indication that she wanted to go forward in our relationship – she kept the ring on her finger. I noticed her glance at it every now and again, moving it to catch the light.
‘If we are courting, where would you like to go on our dates?’ I asked.
During the rest of the day we planned some outings together. I realised this approach made a lot of sense – it would be harder to have time on our own once Shaun was back in the house.
The day went quickly and Boxing Day disappeared in collecting Shaun from his parents’ home. So on the day of Adelle’s next appointment I was very much looking forward to meeting Ella for a long lunch at the end of my clinic. I had plenty of time to take in lieu, so we had planned to go to the cinema afterwards – with the work mobile in my pocket in case the on-call psychologist was needed.