Mary-Jane Wiltsher was 16 when her mum took her own life. After burying her grief throughout her twenties, she reconnected with her school therapist - a decision that changed her life.
“Of course I remember you.”
It was a rainy morning in October when those five gentle words travelled down the phone line from a Cambridgeshire village to my flat in Mile End. They delivered such a strange, double-barrelled hit of comfort and sadness that I faltered. In the pause, the familiar tones came again: “How lovely to hear from you after all this time.”
I was 30. The last time I’d heard the voice, I was 17. As the conversation regained tempo, I felt the knots in my stomach start to unravel, knowing that weeks of emails, calls and midnight Googling had finally come to an end.
To put that moment in the frame, I need to rewind 15 years to 2003, when Andrew, the man at the end of the phone line, helped me through the worst time of my life. It was autumn in west London suburbia, I was studying for my AS Levels, and my mother was in the grip of a colossal nervous breakdown which, less than six months later, would drive her to take her own life.
It’s hard, even now, to whittle down that nightmarish time into neat sentences. How do you explain something inexplicable? To everyone around her, my mother’s breakdown seemed to come from nowhere. Kind, gregarious and a savvy journalist, she was active in the local community and a passionate political campaigner. Her illness – which started with panic attacks and rapidly escalated into a vicious combination of acute anxiety and depression – flummoxed doctors and evaded all kinds of therapy and medication. It left her crippled by feelings of worthlessness which, in the end, were too great for her to bear.
Over the course of that bleak winter – which my father and I experienced by the hour, caught between the living world and the melancholic fug that had enveloped my mother – I met with Andrew, my school counsellor, once a week. I can still picture the room in the history block, with its two deep-cushioned blue chairs and the silvering, kind-faced man sitting opposite me. Our talks were hours of solace in a rush of heart-pounding hospital visits as my mother unravelled and overdosed three times, being ferried from home to ward to mental health unit to outpatient centre.
We feared the worst. When it came, the end was more brutal than we could ever have imagined. On a Saturday morning in February, my mother quietly left the house and walked to the local station, where she ended her torment by jumping in front of a train. The world blurred.
In times devoid of hope or sense, Andrew was a constant. His innate sensitivity and calm insight helped to keep me afloat in the black and choppy tsunami of my grief, from the initial pit of numbness to the all-consuming sorrow that came later. He always felt like a friend as well as a confidant. One who I let see me at my rawest, lowest worst.
Months drifted by. I continued seeing Andrew for a year, but university applications and travel plans loomed, and eventually we parted ways. I gave him a copy of my mother’s book, Most Dangerous Women. My degree provided a blissful escape: three years in beach-blown Brighton, a shiny new town with shiny new friends who knew nothing of my past. I learned how to have fun again. So much fun, in fact, that I began to bury what had happened. A family suicide didn’t match the revamped, carefree me. I divulged my story to a handful of people but, even then, only when asked directly, which was rare. It was partly self-preservation but, on a hard-wired level, I was protecting my mother. I was terrified of anyone judging her.
The burying kept going, right through my twenties. I had several urges to return to therapy, always around milestones like birthdays, graduations or house moves, but I supressed them. It was easy; after all, there were plenty of distractions. I had a big friendship group, a lovely east London flat and the cool indie magazine editorial job that I’d always wanted. Relationships, though, were a non-occurrence. For years I was resolutely single – it was safer than the risks involved in letting someone see the full, messy picture.
When I turned 30, a decade of stoppering my grief caught up with me. Increasingly I began dwelling on the murky days of that February in 2004, and I pined for my mother – whose career path I was, to some degree, now following – more than ever before. I read Bobette Buster’s book How To Tell Your Story So The World Listens, where she describes untold stories as being ‘like an evil genie left in the bottle’, and felt a pang of recognition.
I became a quiet cheerleader on the sidelines of the growing public debate around mental health, silently donating, ‘liking’ or signing petitions, all the while fantasising about sharing my own experience, but never writing a pitch or picking up the phone. Simultaneously, cracks were beginning to show in the first meaningful relationship I’d had for a decade and my social anxiety peaked. I craved change but didn’t know how to make it happen.
I started typing Andrew’s full name into Google, prefaced with things like ‘London youth therapist’. Nothing. I tried again, plugging in the counselling service provider. Again, no hits. I trawled lists of counsellors based in my childhood borough, searching for a familiar headshot, getting nowhere. I rang my school but so much time had elapsed that there was no longer any record of his name.
Finally, I unearthed some ancient paperwork at my father’s house and realised I’d misremembered Andrew’s surname. Searching again, a likely website flashed up immediately. A therapist of the same name, based near Cambridge. I typed an email.
That’s the road that took me back, full circle, to the familiar voice coming through the phone receiver. Andrew was as calming and empathetic as I’d remembered. He’d left the rat race for Cambridgeshire’s green fields several years back and was now providing counselling services for the surrounding villages. The tightness in my chest loosened and I felt a small swell of pride that I’d actioned my feelings.
Over three weeks of phone and email contact, we agreed that it was a good idea for me to return to therapy. The snag was that Andrew was due for retirement, news that felt like another wave of loss. It disrupted the film-like narrative I’d created in my head, in which, despite geography and common sense, we made it work via Skype, phone and eye-watering train fares.
But this was real life, not a British slice-of-life flick – and besides, making the first step of reaching out had given me the confidence boost that I needed to go further. Andrew set about looking up counselling contacts in the capital, passing on useful advice and recommendations, including an association in east London, APEL. I made a call and booked an assessment.
In May, I finished six months of psychotherapy with the man who conducted that assessment, Chris, a warm and brilliantly astute therapist who lives a short walk across the park from me. Going back to the therapist’s chair (this time stippled leather, not padded primary colour) was the best decision I ever made, and while ‘life changing’ is a sweeping a term – I’m still learning and I don’t consider my therapy ‘finished’ – it has certainly gifted me with a renewed sense of purpose and energy.
Since my sessions ended, I’ve left my full-time editor role to build my own freelance career, put my flat on the rental market and moved in with a friend close to the colourful flowers of Columbia Road. More crucially, with Chris’ help I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll never know the cause of my mother’s suicide – and in sharing my experience, I’ve been overwhelmed by people’s acceptance and sympathy.
I can see now that the timing of Andrew’s well-deserved retirement was a good thing. It meant that my instinctive act of boomeranging back to my past brought about the newness and change that I was really craving. Who knows what this next chapter will bring? Really, it’s the telling of the story that counts.