There is a small room on the fourth floor of an old building in Dublin city centre where I go to make sense of myself and the world. The room overlooks a park, but I can’t see the trees because I sit with my back to the window. There’s a box of tissues, a clock that runs 6 minutes fast, and a low maintenance plant on the window sill. In an alcove in the corner there’s a filing cabinet that doesn’t fit properly. It protrudes awkwardly into the space like it doesn’t quite belong. That’s precisely how I feel when I go there every Thursday to talk to Dr F.
I keep going back because I know I have to take active steps to mind my mental health. It’s the same reason I walk every day to manage my sciatica. It simply follows that when I don’t put in the effort, I feel myself declining.
I arrive to therapy one day and I notice something disturbing. There is a picture in the room that wasn’t there last week; depicting an unremarkable forest. If you sit in the same chair in the same room every week for a sustained period, you notice little changes. Other clients might be surprised or even delighted at having something new to look at. I hate it. I don’t say anything because I wonder if it’s been put there to agitate me.
If it has, it’s working. Why is the picture not hanging on the wall like the other artwork? It’s just there, on the table, leaning against the wall. Maybe it’s new and she’ll get to it when I leave. After all, she might need a ladder to put it in line with the other painting of an impossibly purple flower.
I come back the following Thursday and Thursday and Thursday and it’s still there leaning on the wall. I think about how many clients and their struggles this picture has borne witness to. If a person falls apart in front of a painting of a forest do they make a sound?
Dr. F does her best to bring my focus back into the room. I wonder if she’s noticed how I’m struggling to get over the picture and the filing cabinet. Why can’t I just accept these little glitches? “It is what it is”. That’s true. If what ‘it’ is is imperfect and annoying.
I don’t mention the forest picture or the protruding filing cabinet. I summon the courage to talk about the misplaced and protruding things in my life. The things that jut out and don’t fit neatly into the spaces I give them. The things leaning against my walls that I plan to get to eventually but never do. How I struggle to be in the world in all its unknowable, uncontrollable wildness. My worries, my fears; feeling like I’m too much and not enough.
She asks me to say more. I don’t want to. I focus on her shoes.
When my words get stuck in my throat, I focus on the shoes. I notice the tiny etched lines in the gold leather where they’re stressed from bending at the toes. The perfect narrow point at the top that makes me wonder where her feet stop. The tidy bow, the lack of scuff marks, the unworn heel. I question whether she’s ever been outdoors in these shoes. Maybe they’re perfect because she only wears them for walking to the filing cabinet.
I can catalogue my therapist’s footwear better than I can catalogue my feelings or emotions. The stilettos of my life are impractical, dangerous and leave me in pain. In that little room she helps me understand them. The stilettos of my life were perfect footwear once, she says, but now they’re not serving me so well anymore. I can choose to wear other shoes.
Dr. F asks me to speak to that idea.
“Yeah, I guess I can make other choices. It’s just easier sometimes to put on the stilettos because at least you know how it’s gonna go, even if it’s painful”. She tells me it takes courage to choose a new way, because the familiar is comfortable even when it’s destructive.
I think about my nana and her love of ‘grand sensible shoes’. I need to go shoe shopping.
She wraps up the sessions seamlessly after an hour. I haven’t noticed her checking the clock once. In fairness, she has plenty of opportunity while I’m looking at her shoes.
I stand up, gather myself and my things and thank her. I’m genuinely grateful but I doubt that comes across. After I leave I think about the picture. Maybe it’s there because it’s leaning on the room for support, just like I lean on the room for support.