A few months after my brother Adam dies, I book myself in to see a counsellor. It seems like the sensible and responsible thing to do, if only to reassure everyone who suggests, with a slight sense of panic, that I See Someone. It turns out to be a mistake, though. What can I say? The counsellor is more miserable than I am. I’m not expecting him to crack jokes, but he is relentlessly dour, his face so grave that gravity itself could not shift it. If I had any worry left, I would worry for him. He solemnly clarifies the reason for my visit and hands me a checklist to fill in before we talk, to establish just how mad I really am. From the options presented, I would say the answer is ‘not very’, which is consoling. My ghostly brother, looking over my shoulder, makes scathing comments on both the questions and my answers. Shut up Adam, I mutter – but sanely. I pass the form back for marking and distract myself by trying to make the counsellor smile. It doesn’t work, so I bring out my prepared question instead. Should I just book a cabin somewhere and spend a week by myself wallowing and get all my crying over with? I feel that perhaps there’s an amount I have to complete before it will stop, and I am currently spending most of my waking hours trying to find time for it. This seems pretty clear to me, but he avoids a definitive answer, and gravely suggests that some people find meaning in awareness raising. He is so damn serious it’s starting to feel like a power play. Awareness of what, exactly? Depression? Suicide? The shittiness of life? They all feel like topics that are comprehensively covered in the mainstream media. He pushes inexorably on, through his invisible list. Perhaps I would like to celebrate Adam’s life by doing something that he enjoyed or didn’t get the chance to achieve? An image flashes into my head of myself celebrating Adam’s life by drinking a bar dry and sampling a vast range of non-prescription drugs, some of which must surely have been invented in the months since his death. Imaginary Adam lets out a surprised and enthusiastic ‘Yeah!’ inaudible to anyone but myself. I was never that supportive of his drug taking while he was alive. I decide not to mention this to the counsellor, who has moved on to making scrap books and setting up foundations.
Eventually, inevitably, he prompts me to talk about my brother. I get the impression that he thinks this is what I’m here for. It’s a reasonable assumption, and one I may have made myself in a previous life, but now it feels grimy, like paying for sex. He has no interest in Adam at all – why would he? And (why would he) neither does he care about me. When he elicits the inevitable tears it’s like a hard little orgasm, too soon. I talk and cry anyway, until it’s time for him to look at the clock and cut me off with a neat summary of the issues (dead brother, feeling sad) and an offer of two more appointments paid for by my employer. Adam was right to be scathing. My troubled brother’s cynical ghost is warmer than this man. I feel close to him for a moment because we agree on something, then I remember that we will never agree on anything again, and I leave bereft, taking the rest of my tears with me brimming all the way back down to ground floor, and on to work, somehow sadder than I was before.
But that’s not the end of the story, because I have a friend to tell about it over coffee. She laughs affectionately at me for preparing questions and gives me the advice I need, easily and without fuss – ‘If you go away and spend a week crying, you’ll just end up dehydrated as well as sad. You’re an intelligent and resourceful person. You’ll get through this.’ She shares stories of her own madness and indulges my weak jokes with a quicksilver smile like flashing sunshine through clouds. She sees me. I see her back. It occurs to me that the phrase to ‘see someone’ had somehow been mistranslated, because this kind of seeing is exactly what I need. I don’t make another counselling appointment but instead go out and eat cake with her every day that she’ll come with me, until I am sane again, and the rest of the world can bear to look.