The receptionist dashes into Maureen’s office, looking like there’s been a bomb threat.
“I just need to tell you,” she says in lowered tones. “The student you are about to see. Stephanie. Says she doesn’t want anyone to talk to her in a ‘soothing, calm voice.’”
Maureen looks up from her computer.
“But…I am a University counsellor.” My job is to calm and soothe.
The receptionist makes a grimace. “Good lu-uck.” She dashes back out.
Maureen rises, straightens, walks out to greet the student who has been ushered into the little room reserved for tearful cases.
“Hello, Stephanie,” Maureen says in a firm, no nonsense voice. “I’m Maureen, come through.”
Stephanie bulldozes her wet tissues and phone into her half open bag. With a loud sniff, but holding her head high, she strides ahead of the counsellor down the corridor.
“My office is the first one on the right,” Maureen says, matter-of-factly. “Just here.”
“I can see this one is first right! I’m not blind,” Stephanie responds, ploughing into the room.
“Right,” Maureen says as they sit down.
Tears start to flow and Maureen relaxes a little. This is more like what she’s used to. She nudges the box of tissues closer. The girl snatches several in quick succession and rubs her eyes with them, then slumps in her chair. Maureen peeks at her printout of the information. Stephanie is nineteen, and has made it through one semester of Uni.
“So, how can I help you?” Maureen asks as unsoothingly as she can manage. Twenty minutes before the next student will need to be seen.
“I just want some food vouchers. My sister kicked me out of our flat and I slept rough last night. I have no food, no money.”
Maureen takes in Stephanie’s tear-smudged, faintly freckled face. How is she supposed to be unsympathetic? The girl’s eyes are puffy and red-rimmed, her ratty hair tips all wet. She is unbrushed, unwashed — unpolished. She looks like she could do with more than just a few food vouchers.
“How come you were kicked out?”
“My sister, she teases me.”
“What does she tease you about?”
“It doesn’t matter about what.” Stephanie glares at the too sympathetic, too soothing counsellor. “The thing is, she kicked me out. She assaulted me.”
At the word “assault” Maureen readies her pen. “Tell me, how did she assault you?”
“I had bruises on my back — but they’ve faded and the police say it’s just my word against hers.” Stephanie grabs some more tissues and blows her nose into a bunch of them. She aims for the bin, missing it, and the whole damp mass sogs on the floor.
Maureen is not surprised that Stephanie is in conflict with her sister. But there goes her next idea for triage. Stephanie has already been to the police.
“What about…” Maureen hesitates. “Parents?”
“My mother is full of alcohol and shit. Go figure.”
Maureen has guessed something like this. And by law Stephanie is no longer a child, so no helpful mandatory reporting lines that she can call.
Then she suddenly remembers that today is world suicide prevention day and she is wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with “” emblazoned across it. Bright yellow. Through her tears Stephanie must have noticed it. She glares and Maureen is humbled into silence.
“Um…we don’t actually have food vouchers here,” she says when the pause seems too long. “But I can send you over to…”
“I don’t want to be sent anywhere,” Stephanie bites. “You should understand what it’s like for me. I don’t want to be sent to this person and that person and to have to tell my story over and over again. You’re the counsellor, you’re supposed to know what to do to make me feel better.”
Maureen bristles, half ready to take her on. Well, if you would give me a chance…
But she checks herself. Does she really have any idea what it is like to be Stephanie?
They lock horns. Stephanie tells Maureen they haven’t got much time left as she wants to get to her tutorial at ten.
“Do you think you are really up to going…?” Maureen starts, weakly.
“Of course I’m going,” the girl shouts. “I want to pass Uni, you get it? I want to do teaching and then become a school counsellor because I want to help kids like me who’ve been beaten up all their lives. But I don’t want you or anyone to help me, I want, I want…”
What does she want? Five minutes to go and Maureen is not sure how it is going to end. Suddenly it all seems so wrong; what she’s doing, why they are here, the two of them together here in this room. There are too many contradictions. The girl is so tough but so wounded; tearful yet so ballsy; scornful but so full of idealism.
Stephanie straightens. “You are going to have a really crap day now that you’ve met me and I’ve been so mean to you.”
“It’s ok,” Maureen says. Actually, it’s not ok. This is the crap part of her job.
“I didn’t exactly mean to be mean,” Stephanie says.
“What do you mean, mean?” Maureen says.
They both almost laugh. Stephanie looks down, as if her smile is a betrayal of herself.
“I know you didn’t mean to…be mean,” Maureen says. “I’m sorry that I can’t help you. We do counselling here, we don’t offer any…financial help.”
“I don’t want to be helped,” she says.
“Yes, okay, I get that. You don’t want to be helped, you just want…”
Stephanie looks at her, her face full of expectation. She’d better come up with something now, about what Stephanie wants — about what anyone wants.
“You just want to know… what to do — next.”
“What does your sister tease you about?” Maureen asks again.
“When I was sixteen I tried to kill myself,” Stephanie blurts out. “And my sister keeps bringing it up. She’s mean to me about it.”
Maureen takes in a deep breath. She has to ask the question, it’s all part of the suddenly ridiculous protocol she should be following.
“Do you still want to kill yourself?” She waits, fearful of the answer. If it’s a yes she will have to cancel the rest of her students for the day, call mental health triage, or call an ambulance, or call Security to help her escort Stephanie, scratching and spitting — if she doesn’t bolt before — over to the hospital. It’s not helpful, but it’s the protocol.
Stephanie fiddles with the hole in her jeans; thin, worn jeans but then, that is the look. No different from the next nineteen-year-old who will be coming in shortly.
“God, no,” she says. “I want to go to my tute.”
The tension in the room subsides like a wave breaking on shore.
“What you really want is to know why you are like this.” Maureen dares to say. There will be a diagnosis, she bets she even knows exactly what it is. But she also knows that it’s not what matters to Stephanie or anyone right now.
Stephanie looks straight into Maureen’s eyes.
She doesn’t answer yes or no.
“Well.” Maureen takes in a breath. “I think you are like this because you’ve had a really crap life and you want to turn that around and make a difference, but it’s hard to know how to stop spitting and scratching at people who you think might hurt you. Or worse, that they might ignore you. Or who remind you of the parents you never had. So there’s this huge rage inside you.”
Stephanie stops sniffing. “Maybe. Yeah.”
They are both silent.
Any second now reception will buzz through to say Maureen’s next student is waiting.
“And so, you want to know what to do next?”
“You should go to your tute,” Maureen says. “That is the best, the only thing to do. You know that already, Stephanie, I don’t need to tell you. You were always right. Go.”
Stephanie stands. Maureen thinks of all the things she should or could do: look up homeless.com, find her something to eat, refer her to doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists.
“Ok,” Stephanie says and aims the last clump of tissues at the bin. She misses, but bends down to scoop them all back in. “I don’t want you to call or email me. Ok?”
“See you, Stephanie.”
She turns to leave, her composure regained; she won’t be embarrassed in the tute. Maureen asks herself why, really, she came. Maybe the answer is simple. Not psychiatric at all. Just human. She’s a kid who had an argument with her sister and who consequently feels bad. She just happens, additionally, to have had a crap life.
The receptionist bustles into the room after Stephanie has gone. “Just checking on you,” she says. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” She’s rattled, stung, and more than a little moved. “I really did try not to be soothing.”
The receptionist rolls her eyes. “She said something else, I remember now.”
“What was that?”
“She said she wanted someone who would treat her like a person.”
“Right,” Maureen nods. “A person. Not a diagnosis. Yes. Well — I did my best. I don’t think we’ll see her again. Which is good. She’ll be okay.”
She thinks Stephanie will be ok.
|© Jane Turner Goldsmith, 2016