I’ve been seeing a doctor who is a family therapist. It all started around 1982 when my family and I were going through an epoch of change; it made sense to me to consult a family therapist. In the 1980’s family therapy was enjoying a vigorous infancy and Brian was one of its champions and very well-known in his field. I suspect Brian’s aura of celebrity was an attraction for me.
I saw Brian again today, as I have done at intervals ever since 1982. I continued seeing Brian long after I learned celebrity is illusory. You could say I see my doctor now for his aura of ordinariness.
The family events of the 1982 epoch were decidedly ordinary, but to me they felt momentous: a loving father and his doting daughter found themselves in conflict at bedtimes. Every single night! Tears overflowed from a deep well of love. Leapfrogging shouting matches, feelings wounded on both sides. Bewildering. The child’s parents brought her to Brian with whom she had a private consultation that lasted thirty minutes. The parents were then invited to join therapist and naughty daughter. From that day the loving father has loved and the naughty daughter has doted and they’ve never fought like that again.
I kept seeing Brian. He diagnosed an overdose of compliance. He suggested I cared too much for the expectations of others. He prescribed delinquency. It must have worked because my father remarked: Howard, you’ve changed. I felt troubled and liberated. At the age of thirty-six I’d entered adolescence.
In 1983 my father in law was diagnosed with advanced cancer. He was not old and he wasn’t ready. None of us was ready. We went, four of us, to see Brian. Brian helped us – a family foundering, a frightened cancer sufferer who would not see his grandsons’ barmitzvahs, a shocked wife, a daughter trying all she knew: how to support a father, to comfort her mother, to mother her own distressed children? And a son in law out of his depth.
How did Brian help? What did he do? What did he say? I cannot say. But he helped: through the fear, through the dying, through the disfiguring grief in all its forms. Somehow I didn’t cry. I loved my father in law, called him Dad. But when he died my eyes stayed dry. I felt myself shallow. A year later the family was doing well. I watched a TV mother spreading margarine onto white bread. I saw her TV family eating, children dancing around the mum. The voiceover said, You ought to be congratulat-ed. And I started to cry. So I went to see Brian.
Perhaps it was Brian who cured my sadness. Perhaps he helped me to know my sadness and to make room for it in my life. For a time we stopped seeing each other. I left his consulting room taking with me the gift of tears, accessible again now after a drought of three decades.
But before too long I was back. I was doctoring as well as I could, I was fathering and brothering, I was a son. And I was doing my best at all of these. I was husbanding too, an amateur at the job. All these jobs, so important! To fail at any of them? Unbearable thought! I needed some help for a problem I couldn’t define. In my sessions with Brian I must have received help without quite being able to name it. I heard myself say once, I measure my life in coffee spoons. It was busy-ness I was suffering from, jamming too many important things into too few frail minutes. For sixty minutes every month or two I’d breathe out. I’d hear Brian ask a question and I’d pause and think and answer slowly. Brian would hear me. I’d hear myself.
And so it went on. Family kept happening: this one married, that one became unwell, another distressed. Parents aged, their bodies failed, their willpower arrayed in fierce battle against any help. Grandbabies were born, astonishing joys, swamping strains, grandparents stretched to thinness. A parent died, a brother died, finally the remaining parent. Family, the furnace and theatre of my life, kept happening; so, naturally did my therapy with Brian. By now Brian knew this family, in its longitude and its latitude, in its occasional depths, in its many heights, as few outsiders could.
Brian never seemed to say much. He’d sit and think and nod. Silences would stretch open and I’d feel comfortable within them. When Brian spoke I’d hear an affirmation – my feelings, Brian’s words – and something more, some new molecule of extension or understanding. It was never portentous but it would sink into me and I’d leave lighter.
As the years became decades I began to recognise distinctive elements in my visits to Brian. Prompted by the remark of another who works in mental health, this seems more like a friendship than therapy, I conceded that partial truth. I heard too unspoken echoes of purists: what sort of family therapy is it when only one family member participates? Fair enough, but not far enough; these thoughts never outweighed the heft, the lift, of one person meeting with another, of a person encountering himself through narrative and counter-narrative; of knowing himself respected, accepted, safe to extend himself and to develop. I could see this as it had become, a friendship. I could sense the fear and the sneer of Authorities that decree that a doctor who is also a friend must be less of both. That absurdity is the zeitgeist, the fruit of the self-distrust which has become normative in all professions. Deeply I know it to be untrue of my friendship with my doctor.
At some stage, perhaps twenty years ago there entered a new element, love. It happened like this: Brian closed his professional rooms and began to see patients in his home.
That home is a Victorian building with a central corridor leading to private rooms. One room serves as waiting area; you enter and find it littered with books and magazines. Comfortable chairs invite a guest to sit and browse. Nothing you pick up is familiar, everything is novel or intriguing. Too soon, the appointed hour arrives and the guest who-is-the-patient enters Brian’s consulting room. Here bookshelves extend from floor to lofty ceiling. Brian appears, offers coffee, I decline, he disappears to prepare his own cuppa and leaves me to the books. I know no library to match this cornucopia. Books of poetry, books of biography, of history, of ideas, of beauty and cultures. Every author I know or have heard praised is in that room. There’s not a book here that I own or would not wish to own. I browse until Brian returns with coffee and spoils it all. I put down the book, passing some remark. Brian says, borrow it if you like, Howard. And I do.
A book lover meets a second book lover in a book bower every couple of months. I meet Rilke and, never understanding a word, I fall into a trance. Brian recommends fellow physician, William Carlos Williams, whom he calls a satyr.
A dawning realisation: I wish never stop this “therapy.” I must never cease visiting these books. What’s more I need to continue. Divorce, a stranger to my family story, breaks down walls that were built of my children’s love and faith and hope. The bricks and the timbers fall hard and heavily onto my little ones. The floor buckles beneath them. They are thrown about hard. Will they be broken? Unlike that epoch of my wife’s father’s death, now I know my pain, I shed my tears, I ache as one aches for the pain in the heart of one’s tenderest. I act strong; I become bricks, timber, floor. How durable am I? Bricks, timbers, floors do not complain. But Brian hears all of this, he nods, he murmurs. He understands. Perhaps he says something that shifts the picture; some light gets in. At the end of the hour I get up and I leave that old room of books, thanking the therapist and riding fast to work. The puffing and the sweating help. I arrive at work feeling encouraged, a bit lighter.
In the calms between the storms we speak of work, mine and Brian’s. What does it mean to labour where we must always fail? What is the call? How to answer the call? I speak of legacy. What have I received? What does it call me to do, to be, to become? What do I pass on? And how? We speak too of a shared passion. Brian and I know the one eternal truth of any great love: love means loss means grief. It is the love of the Collingwood Football Club in whose depths we know this truth.
I write and I publish books, articles, opinion pieces. I share many of these with Brian. I present him with a copy of each of my books, inscribing each one in thankfulness. Thankfulness for what? I think I’m giving thanks, in the final analysis, for Brian knowing me. My inscription boils down to, Thank you Brian; I feel known. Brian never congratulates me, never approves the writing. For once I’m not looking for praise or admiration or congratulation, those junk foods of a ravenous ego. It is enough that Brian knows that I write and I am serious.
In years past a patient would say to me, I’ll make an appointment to see you first thing next Tuesday morning.
Well, no you won’t. First thing next Tuesday I’ll be seeing my own doctor…
Why so coy? Where’s the shame in saying I’m seeing my psychiatrist? So I start to say that and it alarms people. They search my face, hoping for a joke. So I explain. By and large people prove equal to learning that every human needs help from time to time. I’m one of those humans who gets help.
I reach the age of seventy years and Brian and I speak of retirement. It’s an idea that remains an idea, an abstraction. It sits over there on a shelf, within my view, but dimly, while my work burns brightly, and I continue. So, after his fashion, does Brian. For years now he’s taken no new patients, continuing with a rump of which I must be one. He won’t abandon us. Eventually he expects it must end; he’s ready but are we?
Three more years pass. Family keeps happening. Visits to the family therapist continue. Late in 2018 Brian and I appoint to meet again in February 2019. February arrives. Brian asks of my outback experiences and I tell him of the familiar joys, the familiar frustrations, the shocks against which time cannot shield. I speak of family, how once again I’ve been feeling the urge to dash to the rescue of this loved one or that other. We speak of that impulse which is a reflex which has become a habit. I know in my being that habits ossify. What used to work will not work forever. I used to jump to catch my little ones as they fell. Is this what I must do in this late phase, when my little ones are grown and stronger than I know? A habit becomes a pathology, I know. Brian listens, ponders, offers no directive. I’m not looking for instruction. I receive what I need, what always I’ve received from Brian, an attentive listening. I hear my voice, Brian hears it, a quietness settles around us. A seed of thought falls, to germinate and take root and grow. We’ll talk of it at our next session, or at some session later.
It’s nearly time to finish. I speak of Collingwood, of how we came so near to glory, of defeat in those last moments. Brian mourns: remember it ever; speak of it never. A Brian pause, then: we reach a point when we look back and see where we’ve been… how far we’ve come… how far short we’ve fallen. What have we done, what remains to be done? What can we still do?
My ears, attuned still to the Collingwood near-triumph, detect an alteration in tone, a new note. It is of valediction that Brian speaks, a farewell, a long farewell to all this richness. He goes on: it is not ours to finish the work, nor are we free to desist from it. I murmur, Hillel, The Ethics of the Fathers.
We rise. I pull out my diary to appoint the next visit. “No, Howard. This was our final session.” So it was! I had managed to forget. Brian escorts me to the door and waves a goodbye. He’s still standing by the doorpost as I jump on my bike. I ride to work, not hurrying, not sweating, just thinking, thinking and feeling. I’m seventy-three years of age. Brian has been my doctor for thirty-six-and-a-half of those years.