“So how did you go this fortnight? Did you both survive Alex’s birthday?” Jules the lesbian couple’s counsellor enquired at the start of our session.
“Sort of. She was a train wreck on the Thursday night,” Frankie blurted before I could answer.
“And then Frankie cried…” I added as she stared me down. Realising that Jules would think we were competing instead of seeing each other as allies, I arranged my face into a serene smile. “I was really proud of both of us this week. I had a minor meltdown the Thursday night and then realised I was sabotaging my own happiness and decided I deserve a happy birthday, which is what I had.”
“That’s wonderful progress Alex, well done,” Jules responded as my smile morphed from serene to smug. “And how did you handle the pressure around Alex’s birthday, Frankie? As we discussed last time, it isn’t really a celebration for her. It’s a time of deep pain.”
Frankie paused. “Well, she had a massive drama on Thursday night…”
“And then Frankie cried in the car.”
“Let’s focus on ourselves and our own behaviour, not on each other,” Jules encouraged. “Is that true Frankie? Did you cry?”
“Mah, it was nothing,” Frankie answered as she shrugged her shoulders and flicked her hand away.
It hadn’t felt like nothing to me. In fact it felt like something. Something big. I’d spent the whole week worried that I’d actually broken Frankie and it was all because of my stupid birthday drama.
On that Thursday night I hadn’t really been my best self. As Frankie prepared the filling for my birthday cake, I helped myself to the marsala she was soaking the figs in. Then I opened a bottle of prosecco to begin my birthday celebrations and then I started crying and blathering about how my family hadn’t loved me enough to ever make me a cake or put any effort in for my big day.
My meltdown sent Frankie hurtling to Westfield the next day, hoping another present would stop the drama there. Spiralling into anxiety about whether our weekend in the country and dinner with friends would be enough for me, she forgot where she left the car and burst into tears while begging a passing security guard to help her find it. Then she sat there sobbing for another half an hour.
A few days after my birthday weekend, one of the foundations Frankie had approached to fund her research position in Italy declined her grant application. Instead of stomping home from work, disappearing into her Facebook and yelling sarcastic, monosyllabic answers to my questions if I interrupted her, she locked herself in a toilet cubicle and cried until her eyelids swelled.
And then the night before our therapy session I found her sitting in bed, surrounded by soggy screwed up bits of toilet paper, her face all red and clammy as tears poured from her eyes.
“Dad was always perfect to me,” she wailed, “he was the good one…but he wasn’t good. He left me. He left me on my birthday! He rang and said he was changing the locks to the pasta shop and I had to tell mum…” Frankie stopped talking and let all the pain flow out of her. “And I told her I didn’t want a cake because what the fuck was there to celebrate? But she brought one to school the next day with her stupid friend and my aunty and I cried in my cake in front of everyone...”
Frankie sobbed dramatically as I pictured her tears extinguishing the candles on her ricotta crostata. My chest started spasming and I held my breath so the giggles wouldn’t escape my mouth.
“Don’t laugh at me. Don’t fucking laugh at me! I have photos of me crying in my cake!”
At that point I snorted loudly and collapsed on the bed, shaking uncontrollably as Frankie smiled ever so slightly through her tears.
After Frankie filled Jules in on the details of her meltdowns, Jules smiled and nodded. “It sounds like you’ve made a significant breakthrough, Frankie. Well done!”
“I locked myself in a toilet cubicle at work. How is that a breakthrough?” Frankie looked at Jules like she was an incompetent idiot.
“You’re feeling,” Jules responded, ignoring the total lack of respect Frankie had for her. “It seems that your anger has subsided and your grief is now surfacing. Have you been feeling less anxious as well?”
Frankie considered the evidence for a moment. “Possibly.”
“Well, since the anxiety covers the grief, it would make sense that the more grief you’re feeling, the less you are in an anxious state,”Jules suggested.“What do you think?”
Frankie stared Jules down, deciding whether to argue the point further. “That possibly makes sense,” she shrugged. “But there’s still the problem of all this,” Frankie said as she gestured up and down from her stomach to her chest.
“The emotions you mean?” Jules asked. “There’s the problem of all of the emotions you are experiencing? Why don’t we explore them a little deeper then?”
“I don’t need to explore them,” Frankie snapped. “I already know what they’re about.”
“That’s great work. Why don’t you tell us a bit about your relationship with your parents then? Did you always think they were incompetent at parenting? Did you always feel like you were better off figuring things out on your own?”
Frankie spent the rest of the session talking about her childhood and how neither of her adoptive parents was really capable of showing up for her. There were always other people intervening to help out. Aunty Claudia took her shopping to buy clothes, Nonna cooked the food, Uncle Guido enrolled her in music classes. But there wasn’t the feeling of being raised by a village, because everyone kept reminding her that she wasn’t really one of them and that no matter what she did, she would never be good enough.
So Frankie spent her childhood dreaming of escaping. She fantasised about going to University, becoming a Doctor and being too busy helping people to have to deal with those idiots anymore. But after her dad left, Frankie ended up nursing her depressed mother at home, periodically hospitalising her to force her to eat and attending uni classes in between.
“So my dreams of being happy as a Doctor were shattered,” Frankie told Jules. “And this belief that I had a family wasn’t real, because actually I had no one. And I couldn’t face the emptiness and pain of my life so I finished my surgical training, jumped on a plane and escaped to Australia. And then everyone not only hated me for being gay, they hated me for leaving too.”
“That’s a very sad story Frankie,” Jules empathised.
“What’s sad is that because of these fucking idiots I sabotaged my entire career and wasted years feeling guilty for leaving, when they’re the ones who should feel bad. And now I’m scared it’s too late. It’s too fucking late. And now I have Alex and I’m not alone anymore and I know I can be a great Doctor. And I don’t want it to be too late.” Frankie looked mortified as she tried to force the tears to stop. There was no way she was going to cry in front of Jules.
“It’s ok Frankie, you’re safe here. Just let it go,” Jules soothed as Frankie sucked her lips in and covered her eyes with her hands.
“All of the grief and anger has been trapped inside of you and now the healing begins. All of these intense, painful, conflicting feelings are coming up and you’re learning to integrate this information, to understand these realisations. Soon you’ll have weathered the storm and you’ll be able to move forward without the past controlling you. You’ll finally be able to focus your energy on the opportunities that are waiting for you.”
“But what if it’s too late?” Frankie cried softly.
“I don’t think it’s too late. Actually I think you’ll be a wonderful Doctor. And I think you’ll learn to reach out and trust Alex and allow her to support you and comfort you and soothe you.”
“I can see how paralysed I’ve been. And I hate this new-age shit but maybe my external world has been a reflection of my inner paralysis. Maybe these opportunities have been blocked because I haven’t been ready to step up and accept them. And now I’m getting my shit together it can’t be too late. It can’t be.”
“Does it feel like it’s too late?” Jules asked gently.
Frankie closed her eyes and sat very still. “No, it doesn’t actually,” she finally answered, looking surprised. “It feels like that Ella Fitzgerald song…” Frankie closed her eyes again as a wide, free, unabashedly joyful smile swept across her face. And then she started to sing. “There’s no controlling the unrolling of your fate my friend. Who knows what’s written in the magic book…but this could be the start of something, the start of something big.”