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My patient had a dream that turned out, she thought, to be a real memory. “I know you love dreams,” she laughed, glossy hair, shiny shoes, white teeth. I found it quite difficult not to cry as she spoke. That, I think, was her aim—project the sadness into me and then she can carry on pretending everything’s fine. This woman is beautiful, mid-twenties, successful. She delivers her material as though saying: “Pretty gripping stuff, eh? What do you make of that, oh therapist”?
“So, I was about two or three and I wanted my cereal out of this pink bowl with yellow flowers on it. I was a diva even then—always wanted that bowl. If I couldn’t have it I’d go nuts.” She mocked herself with a contemptuous tone. “Anyway, I was being such a monumental pain in the arse about it that my mum tipped the cereal and milk over my head and smashed my bowl on the floor.” She laughed now at the hilarity of this story until she noticed that I wasn’t laughing. “Oh, come on. I was being a nightmare. Actually, I told mum I’d remembered this and she said I was always pretty demanding as a child.”
I said it must have been frightening. She shrugged and shared another one of her mirthless laughs. “Well,” she said. “It’s all relative. But that was hardly the most frightening thing that happened at home.” She mentioned being repeatedly beaten in the car over her choice of music, pushed downstairs when she hadn’t tidied her room properly, being kicked on the sitting room floor and other violently abusive incidents she’d experienced as a child, but that she still considers normal or, worse, deserved.
So, here she is today, battling with depression and anxiety, sleeping very little, unable to understand the catastrophe of her relationships, so terrified of offending anyone that she goes miles out of her way to do favours for friends, acquaintances and strangers, making endless reparation for imaginary crimes with cupcakes and soup. Assuming that she has misunderstood something fundamental about the world, she is in therapy in an attempt to grasp what it is she is doing wrong—because she must be doing something wrong. After all, that’s what she’s always…