She came towards me, taller by some three inches, a handsome woman, width across the cheek bones, her clothes far from new but worn with some style, and as she stopped in front of me, I remembered. She bummed money from me three weeks ago, mad as a box of frogs. I know you are not supposed to say that, a psychiatric nurse of my acquaintance said nothing inflamed faster than the “m” word. But in the present climate of dirty linen in hardback, shriving made public and all gilt framed in the neo Victorianism of “mental problems” – life has taught me that there are people who are never coming a step into your world and if you are drawn into theirs, you are in trouble.
No I am not unsympathetic. Far from it. I believe in greater knowledge, more openness and better help though I’d like to point out that there are few short cuts to real assistance. Help takes time and time is money. We have time to dupe the public out of many millions of pounds for schemes that don’t work (ferries, highspeed railway and 3rd airport take a bow) but not for mental health.
However, what interested me selfishly, was that it was the second time. Because, I remember vividly that years ago, I went to help a woman much older than me with something she couldn’t reach on a supermarket shelf and she turned on me like a snappish dog. I was so shocked, I just beat a retreat. And yes, I know that life can be cruel and that suffering doesn’t necessarily ennoble, far from it. Maybe her feet hurt. Or maybe she had been let down one time too many, and she was just heartsick at anybody younger or fitter than her. Age is not for amateurs.
A year or so later, in the same supermarket, I asked a woman reaching for something “May I help you ?” And she said “What makes you think you could help me ?” and I recognised the voice that fell on my radio ears. Steadied by my reaffirmed sense of self ( I was, as they say, in a better place than the first time and just beginning to understand that I would never be a girl again, and if I was any kind of adult, I could skip dissembling), I said” I thought I might reach something for you …”I can’t remember her next disagreeable remark. I do remember my rejoinder in my best gently emphatic transatlantic drawl “Oh lady, give me a break. I’m gone, good luck “ and I left. But the point is, same person twice.
My father used to say that he believed in reincarnation (very much part of his time in the world, in the aftermath of “the war to end wars”) because he was sure the Good God in his infinite mercy wouldn’t expect you get everything right in one go.
The built in generosity of trying again was always part of childhood. I don’t confuse myself with superheroes, I am just a shamefaced perfectionist and it is chastening to make the same mistake twice. Though even that was covered. I was taught ”once, a mistake: second time, still a mistake: but three times and you’re a fool.” Some of us take a bit longer to learn. Quite a few of us, if you include two world wars.
It is chastening to report that my greatest mistakes were made twice though over time, I learned a lot about patterns of behaviour and why we hide in them. That’s an act of will right there. It’s hard to learn to recognise what you do, even harder to understand why you do it. And there are few absolutes. And just because you perceive yourself in behaviour we could call x, and know that x won’t work for you, it doesn’t follow that you will never get as far as x again.
I suppose that if you’ve signed on for learning more about yourself, it isn’t that you won’t make the mistake again, it is that you will be unashamed in changing how you respond to the recognition – as in “what, again ? not again.”