Reader, our scene now shifts, from the fringes of popular culture (where the UK comics industry generally sits) to a slightly uncomfortable, badly decorated room, once again in Mile End. For a decade or more that part of East London exerts a strange influence over my life – a summer job in Shadwell, then nearly five years at Titan, nearly two years at QMW and now a badly decorated room on the Bow/Mile End fringes.
The location is St Clements Hospital, which joins the list of hospitals in which things happen to me, only for the hospital in question to cease to exist. The original Potters Bar Cottage Hospital is long-since demolished (hooray). Wanstead Hospital is apartments and St Clements, which according to its Wikipedia entry started life as a workhouse, has now been turned into housing.
My GP’s psychological referral has led me here. When we first discuss therapy, he asks whether I would prefer group or individual therapy. I opt for group, suggesting that listening to the problems of others may “take me out of myself so I don’t become too obsessed with my own problems”. What a significant response that is in retrospect. I manage to ask for help yet somehow try and limit the extent to which therapy might look at my own issues. Individual therapy might well have moved me on faster – who knows? What I do know is that instead of providing a therapeutic space group therapy becomes, for much of the time I am involved in it, a hiding place for me. Which is not to draw hard and fast conclusions about the respective merits of group and individual therapy – just about how I interacted with the situation. I can really see that request for group therapy now as an ostensibly sensible response to cover the plea “Please don’t make me look my problems in the eye!”.
By the time I troop into that room as St Clements (not exactly sure when, but sometime in 1988) I am in my default mode. The thing the experience reminds me most of to begin with is sitting in seminars at university. Lectures were all right – no need to talk while the wiggling fingers of ridiculousness recited Shakespeare (see earlier post). But seminars were terrifying, as the lecturer might ask me something. I would therefore look down at my boots, try to avoid eye contact, sit as far away from the lecturer as possible etc etc. I begin therapy in the same way. The difference, of course, is no one will pick on you and try and make you speak in therapy.
I am in a room with, I think, four others, plus T-, the therapist. As well as myself there are three female patients and one male. One woman – pale, goth-like, attends intermittently and then disappears from the group. We start in one badly decorated room and then after a few months graduate to a hideously decorated room, whose appearance I find a constant, possibly welcome distraction. In the first few months, my name is all they get out of me. I listen while others speak. I make no comments, or suggestions. I never tell them anything about me. Partly this is crippling shyness – paradoxically in what should seem like a safe, confidential space, my terror of revealing anything about myself leads me to behave more shyly than I have since university days. Part of the problem is this persistent, genuine paradox that I want/need help but am unable to face up to why and what I need help with, even to myself. So when asking my GP for a referral, I talked about the impact of my recent surgery on my state of mind – certainly a real issue but again a way of avoiding the real issue, the gender struggle within.
Attendance is a problem for me, but not in the same way as it is for others. I don’t find it a problem to be there, particularly as I don’t say a bloody word. Others come and go, and quite often find it hard to gather the emotional energy to attend. That is not my problem, particularly as I am keeping my own emotions at arms length and therefore not properly engaging with the therapeutic situation. My problems are entirely logistical. When I start at the group, I am still working at QMW, which is reasonable walking distance from St Clements. When I leave and am teaching myself to type, then again it is easy to troop down from Walthamstow to Bow. But when I start working as a temp for Kelly, I find myself working all over London. Sometimes in the City (fine), but other engagements take me to Victoria, Baker Street, Elephant and Castle etc.
So whether or not I am able to get to the group at the start of the session hinges on where I am working and how quickly I can get away and (often) across town. Arriving at group therapy after the start is, of course, disruptive to the group. T– points this out fairly repeatedly, but if I am to remain in the group there’s not much I can do about it. But I recognize that although the circumstances are beyond my control (it is hard to dictate terms to the clients one works for as a temp) this is also another factor that helps me to stay more detached from the group process than perhaps I should be.
Gradually, things do change. I do become more involved, although tellingly I mostly respond to others issues rather than raise my own. In due course the group does allow me to face up to one or two important things about myself, but not the most important things. A contributing factor is that the therapist, good though he may be in some ways, comes up with a particularly half-baked notion of why I am trans, based on my relationship with my father. I don’t believe it at the time he comes up with it, and with the benefit of hindsight it seems completely ridiculous although it was probably, at the time, the orthodox psychological view. Who knows? Anyway group therapy helps a bit, as you will see.