“Professional listener”, said the postcard in the window of a north London newsagent. “No advice. No criticism. No interpretation. Simply listening. £25 per hour. Contact Isabel.”
I was feeling a bit down, so I did. (I’m one of the estimated 10 million depressives in this country.) And after all, a Downing Street adviser had just suggested that we need 10,000 more therapists in the National Health Service.
I found the address given on the postcard in Finsbury Park and rang the bell. A small notice beside the door said: “An easier place to get enlightened. Sukhavati: for Buddhists of all religions.” The door swung open to reveal a tiny woman looking up at me with a beatific smile.
She offered her hand and I grasped it, eager to see what a Buddhist felt like. The beatific smile intensified. Perhaps this branch of Buddhists didn’t speak, they just listened and smiled a lot. Wanting to get into the spirit of things, I attempted a beatific smile of my own. I must have looked like I had a touch of wind because her expression changed to a look of concern. “I’m Isabel,” she said. “Please come in.”
Isabel led me into a cheerful back room with whitewashed walls and a central glass table. She asked me if I wanted tea and I chose elderflower. Through a window into the next room I spied an enormous statue of an oriental deity. So was Isabel a Buddhist? She was not, she said. She was Catholic and from Colombia. Her husband, who was out, was the Buddhist.
She’d had the idea of a becoming a professional listener after reading a book that belonged to her husband – which one she couldn’t remember. “One of his Buddhist books?” I said, hoping that her listening service was based on ancient Buddhist doctrines. “I think it was a crime novel,” she said.
Isabel brought her own steaming mug to the table and made herself comfortable on the opposite side. “So,” she said, turning that beatific smile on me again. “What are you going to talk about?”
Where does one start? Should one shoot from the hip with an explicit account of one’s sexual and homicidal fantasies, I wondered? If so, would she know what gaffer tape was, for example? How much could a beatific smile such as that take before it faltered? I looked at her clear, guileless face, thought again, and kicked off instead with a lively account of my recent bout of depression.
I told her about how, when I was nearly better, a duty doctor had refused my request for more Prozac and prescribed six sessions with a psychotherapist instead.
The duty doctor had a theory that depression was caused by “inward-turned anger” and that given the right circumstances both anger and depression can be talked away. So once a week I sat opposite a middle-aged, middle-class psychotherapist lady for half an hour.
My depression, said the lady, was due to the bottling up of old hurts and resentments I’m what she called my “subconscious”. She promised that together we would reach down into this “subconscious” and release them.