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Being listened to

I seem to have spent the whole of the last week playing hide and seek with My Loved One.  Lucas and I have both mentioned the mystery of the vanished hand basin plug – which I have now, I’m happy to report, managed, at last, to replace on the third attempt to find one which fits. Don’t let anyone tell you these things are standard even when they all purport to be one and a half inch.

Since then I have removed drinking glasses from the cats’ cupboard, items of fruit from the bedroom and his cardigan (more than once) from the housekeeping cupboard where the vacuum cleaner, spare lightbulbs et al live. Boxes of tissues and toilet rolls frequently walk round the house and goodness knows why, the other day, he took all the crackers out of their tin and put them in with the sweet biscuits.

The other form of the game is finding things for My Loved One which he says have “gone” but they haven’t: his toothbrush, glasses, watch etc are always “disappearing” but of course, actually, they’re exactly where they should be.

Then there’s a new habit of forgetting to turn taps off. I now have a new last-thing routine whereby I check that the taps are all off at the same time that I make sure all the doors and windows are locked.

It all happens when he’s alone. If I’m upstairs working in my office (which I often need to be) and he’s downstairs he’ll potter about, rather than settling to anything for more than a few minutes. Then when I go down after, say an hour (dare not leave it any longer) I never know what bits of muddle I shall have to sort out. Why, for example, has the ice cream scoop been removed from the dresser drawer and put in the hall? What’s the washing up liquid doing on the dining table?  The same applies if I’m out working in the evening and there’s a half hour or so gap between the carer leaving and my getting home.

In itself, it’s all very trivial stuff, but the totality is intensely tiresome and irritating. And I’m afraid patience isn’t a strength of mine. I haven’t succeeded in two careers and always had more than one job on the go at a time by sitting about patiently. I’ve done it by striding ahead at speed and being totally focused on the goal. None of that helps a jot now. It just compounds the frustration because I’m having to act a very slow role in which I am woefully miscast.

My lovely Yorkshire-based friend, with whom I had four glorious days’ respite earlier this month, talked to me at length about “seeing someone” to talk all this through. Well, I’ve always respected the counselling industry but hey, I come from a family in which we all put our heads down and get on with it. We’re strong. We don’t “do” airy-fairy psychology. It seems to work for others but I had long been convinced it wasn’t for me.

My friend, however, was very persuasive so when I got home I found a local practitioner – walking distance – who has strings of qualifications and accreditations along with 20 years’ experience. Last week I had a session with her. Let’s call her L.

To my surprise I enjoyed every minute of it. To sit in L’s peaceful, professionally set up, sitting room and to be allowed to pour it all out – all those unsayable things which I’ve been bottling up for a very long time – was absolute bliss.  Real life conversations are punctuated with interruptions and more often than not the other person highjacks the conversation perhaps because they feel awkward.  This was quite different.  It was just me and my situation for a whole hour.

And L did make some really helpful observations. She pointed out, for example, that the man I married in 1969 has already gone. The person I now live with, mostly now incapable of any form of sequential conversation, is someone completely different. I am in a sense already widowed. Now, in truth, I had already worked that out but it was a huge relief to hear someone else overtly articulating it.

She also listened attentively to my account of what I have to do: showering (at least twice a day and often more) and cleaning up an increasingly disabled person, supervising him 24/7, shouldering every domestic task including cooking, gardening, admin and more laundry than Widow Twankey along with a demanding job as a journalist /author. “But, Susan, no wonder you’re pissed off” she said simply. “You’re doing three separate full-time jobs”. Spot on. That’s it, exactly. And it isn’t what I want at all. I’d quite like my life back.

L made two linked practical suggestions. She thinks I should have a proper focused discussion with both our sons (together) about possible strategies for the future. She also thinks I should check out some local care homes which might, just possibly, be useful in the future if only for respite. It’s always better to have provisional plans in place than to have to make hasty decisions when an emergency strikes. I have all this in hand.

I now realise I’ve been undervaluing the importance of “off loading” your problems for most of my life. No woman is an island, as John Donne nearly said.  I have made a follow-up appointment with L.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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