TEA AND SYMPATHY
I could hear the screams that were coming through the phone even though the bedroom door was closed and I was sitting in my own room reading. The sound was so full of pain it was like the dying screams of an animal and I reacted like Bambi’s mother, my head snapped up and eyes opened wide in alarm, as my ears strained to hear what my father was murmuring to whoever it was that had called. I leapt off my bed and crept down the hall to stand at my parents closed bedroom door, my ear pressed against it, shamelessly eavesdropping. Who the hell was he talking to? Was it someone I knew who was so clearly in trouble?
Since my parents were both therapists and my father also counseled students at the college where he taught odds were good that I did not know the person in trouble. But that sound of pain still made me feel concern. And also a little afraid. I wanted to know that they would be okay. I wanted my daddy to make it okay the way he did for me when I fell on my bike and he carried me into the house and cleaned my shredded knee with Physoderm before gently bandaging it with a, "there all better now".
He hung up the phone and got to the door before I could move away and pretend I hadn’t been listening. It didn’t matter though because he was on his way to find me. It was 6:30pm and he had to give a final that night at school and this client, I’ll call her Elle, was in serious crisis. Like she was going to kill herself crisis and she’d called him to come over and stop her from hurting herself. But he had to be at school to give the final – in 30 minutes. He asked me if I would be willing to go over and sit with her until he was done.
I was 17 and after hearing her screams I was more than a little unsettled at the idea of sitting alone for two or three hours with a suicidal stranger. What if she got violent? What if she tried to kill herself while I was there? My dad reassured me that this wasn’t the case – he would’ve called the police if it was that kind of situation. He explained to me that she didn’t want to hurt herself, that’s why she called. She was in so much pain she was afraid that she would hurt or kill herself and she needed someone to just be with her. He would come over as soon as the final was finished and take over.
I was already involved because there was no way I could not think about this person who was hurting so bad that she could make that sound. So I said yes. My father’s confidence in me made me believe I could handle it. And so we left and my dad drove me over to Elle’s house and introduced me to her. She was in her 30s although she looked younger, with blond curly hair to her shoulders, held back off her face with a hair clip. She was rail thin her arms and legs like a child’s yet filled with a tension that created an aura of a woman on the verge. She clung to my father and her wails rose up, braying and howling sounds coming from someplace I didn’t ever want to go.
What the fuck was my father thinking to leave me with her. Alone. For hours.
I guess he was thinking he didn’t have any other options except maybe the police and even I could see that would be a bad call. She was more like a horribly distraught child, but in a grown up that behavior is scary to see. After my dad left Elle and I sat down on the couch. I watched her warily as she sobbed and I handed her Kleenex. Not knowing what to say, I asked her if she wanted a cup of tea. Inquired if she had eaten anything? Having no idea what to do in a situation where there’s really nothing that I could do, I reverted to that which comforts me. Food and beverage, preferably prepared by someone who loves me and brought to me in bed. So I made us tea and found some Vanilla Wafers and since she couldn’t stop crying I suggested that we go sit on the porch. Sometimes just a change of venue will help when I’m really sad. Getting up and moving and resettling in a different place would at least provide a momentary distraction. It also took us out of the house and into the fresh air of the night which I myself desperately needed as the house was stuffy and it felt like I was up to my chin in all her sadness, anxiety and fear.
She was practically catatonic so I felt like I had to fully pay attention. Hanging ou, reading a magazine and just keeping an eye on her wasn't going to fly. I feared she would escape to some dark corner of crazyland where my dad wouldn’t be able to reach her when he got back. I very much wanted her to be better when he returned than she was when he left. Not just for her sake and for my sake, but for his sake because if something happened to her I felt like it would be his fault for deciding to leave me with her. I was thinking that he really should’ve dropped me off at school to give the final. I was far better prepared to pass out papers and read for a few hours.
As we hunkered down on the steps of the porch Elle took a sip of her tea and looked at me. “I’m sorry” she said, “I just can’t stop crying”. “It’s okay. I don’t mind if you cry,” I lied. “Want a cookie?” She took one and drank some more tea. I told her to take a big deep breath and let it out slowly and to just do that a few times and concentrate only on the cool air going in and the warm air coming out. I did it along with her. It’s amazing how just breathing can calm you down. I know there’s a physiological aspect to it – the oxygenation of the blood and all that, but there’s also an immediacy and a connection to the moment when you pay attention to each breath as you take it. And my parents had just gone through Transcendental Meditation so there'd been lots of talk about how powerful "the breath" is - I figured what the hell.
We sat there and breathed together for a little while, which made me feel a bit calmer and I guess Elle did too because she started to talk. Elle had a history of abuse that was hard to believe and difficult to listen to. She had been raped by her brother and her father from the time she was about 6 years old until she ran away as a teenager. She had tried to sew her own vagina up with a needle and thread when she was 9 so that they would stop. She told me these things without crying, though she asked for a blanket because she was cold. I went and got one and when I sat back down I put my arm around her and put the blanket around both of us. I had a feeling it was only going to get worse and if she didn't need a hug at that point, I sure did.
She lit a cigarette and told me about how she’d had a baby boy when she was 16 but she was addicted to drugs by then so he was in and out of foster care most of his life. She’d been a prostitute and gotten arrested. More than once. Her most recent boyfriend had tried to kill her. She told me that she felt like she deserved bad things to happen to her because she was a sinner. Her son had told her that he didn’t want anything to do with her and that he never wanted to see her again. Her voice was dead as she told me these things perhaps because she had repeated her story over and over in AA and therapy. Maybe because she was finally exhausted from all the hurting and crying. But now I was crying because it was a horribly sad story. And what do you say to make it better? The psyche can’t be washed with Physohex and bandaged with an “all better now.”
She put her head on my shoulder and said she was sorry for making me cry. And I looked at her and said, “But, I’m crying with you because all those things hurt so much and I am so sorry that they happened to you. I’m sorry that those things could happen to anyone. I’m sorry you think it was your fault because it’s not.” We sat there quietly a little longer and then she said she had to go to the bathroom and I asked if she wanted me to go with her? Did she still feel like she might hurt herself? She stopped and thought and shook her head. “I’m better. Thank you.” I still followed her in the house and watched the clock anxiously, fully prepared to break the door down if she didn’t emerge in less than 10 minutes.
When she came back out she had washed her face and she looked as exhausted as I felt. We sat on the couch and I held her hand asked, “What are you going to do? When my dad comes? Will you let us take you somewhere where you can be safe and not be alone?” “I don’t want to go to a hospital,” she said, getting agitated again. Okay. Next subject. I wanted to know about positive things that were happening now because I didn't see a drug addicted prostitute sitting on the couch with me. That's not who she was anymore - right? I asked her about her work. She had a job that she liked and where she had been experiencing a level of success. She had been sober for about a year. She had just bought the house that she was living in because she thought that her son would come live with her. I pointed out that she had worked hard and created such good things in her life and it would be a waste for her to not be here to enjoy them. And just because her son didn’t want to live with her now didn’t mean that he would never want to live with her.
So wouldn’t it be a good idea to go to the hospital to make sure that she would be here in this house, with her great job, when he changed his mind?
About that time my dad showed up and I went and sat in the car so that he could talk to her alone. It was 10pm and I was completely exhausted. More tired than I had ever been in my life to that point. My heart felt empty and my brain felt fried. Even though she was a lot better than she’d been when I had first got there I didn’t see how she could ever be really well or happy. The things that had happened to her, the things that she had done to herself were so horrible. How could she ever close her eyes and not have her head fill up with that shit? My dad came out to the car and said that Elle had decided to go to the hospital, did I mind if we did that before we went home. We drove to the hospital and my father went in with her so she could check herself in to the psychiatric wing.
I cried on the way home because I was so tired and because I couldn’t stop thinking about the abuse Elle had suffered as a child and the reverberating destruction that it still wrought on her as an adult and on her son and on everyone who came into contact with her. My dad held me and said, “thank you so much for being there for her you did a really good job”. And I was so conscious in that moment of how lucky I was to have ended up with my parents, in my family, in our home. I took that all for granted up until that moment. And as I write this I am grateful for all the love and protection and encouragement that I received as a child because just being born isn't a guarantee of the happy childhood I got to enjoy.
My dad continued to work with Elle and she and I saw each other occasionally at my father’s Christmas Open House for his clients and students. Elle got much better and eventually was able to quit therapy with my dad, but he kept in touch with her. Her son did come around and move in with her, eventually joining the military and getting married himself and having a baby. Elle met a really nice man and got married too.
And I know that I am in some very small way a part of her happiness now because I sat with her with her for 3 hours, drinking tea and crying because it hurt - to make sure she would be there to experience the good stuff that life still had in store for her. And I what learned from Elle is that no matter how bad your story has been till now if you stick around, and you’re willing, you can make the next chapters good ones.
It’s never too late to have a happy ending, but you gotta stay in the story.