Authors: Camilla Grebe,Åsa Träff
Tags: #FICTION / General
It was around then that her parents realized they had completely lost control and they went to social services to get help. An investigation by the local office resulted in Sara’s being assigned a contact person and forced to submit regular urine samples. Such measures are usually pretty toothless, and they were in this case, too. Sara’s contact person gave up
the assignment after Sara called her obscene names and spit on her desk. The social worker claimed that she felt threatened by Sara, but perhaps the truth was that she got tired of how difficult and demanding Sara was, and that not even she could cope with her.
Aggressive? Absolutely. But I have never seen Sara hurt anyone other than herself. She has what might best be described as an unfailing, almost paranormal capacity to consistently choose the option most detrimental to her, always following the path that causes her the maximum amount of pain. She seems to have a kind of built-in, indestructible Via Dolorosa compass in her skull.
After she offended the social worker, Sara was placed in a foster home. When she was fifteen, she was raped repeatedly by her foster father, which led her to do the only—from her viewpoint—logical thing: try to run away. She almost succeeded several times but was always caught and returned to the foster home by the overzealous local police force. That was when the truly destructive behavior started—the self-injuring and sexual acting out.
When Sara was eighteen, she received a real psychiatric diagnosis for the first time: borderline personality disorder. As usual, the fact that psychiatry was finally able to put a label on what was wrong with her did not help. She got steadily worse. Shortly thereafter she was treated at a psychiatric clinic for two months for a presumably drug-induced psychosis-like condition. Sara herself usually refers to the psych clinic as “hell,” and I assume that in her descent there she more or less gave up any ambition of having a normal life, a “Svensson” life, as she always called it. In Sara’s case, the stint at the psychiatric institution was followed by increasingly intense drug abuse, and six months after she was discharged from the clinic, she was committed to a facility in Norrtälje for treatment with special focus on her drug problems, which at that point primarily consisted of abuse of amphetamines and synthetic hallucinogens.
Then something happened. It’s not clear what. Not even Sara can explain it, other than that she decided to live. So as not to die.
And today? Drug-free for two years and living in her own apartment
in Midsommarkransen. Unemployed. Single. With many friends and even more boyfriends.
Sara is truly a veteran within psychiatry. She has been analyzed from every which way: by psychiatric outpatient clinics and in institutional care. She has met more social workers, caseworkers, psychologists, and psychiatrists than I have had patients. This creates an obligation. Sometimes it feels as if she is evaluating me and my analysis, categorizing me and sorting me into a mental ranking of shrinks. She makes comments that undoubtedly are derived from conversations with my predecessors: “I see, but have you taken into account the increasing sibling rivalry that was the result of my parents’ early separation?” or “I realize this sounds really Oedipal, but sometimes I actually thought Göran loved me in
I think of Sara’s thin, scarred legs and arms. They resemble a railroad yard where the tracks sometimes cross each other, sometimes run parallel. Girls who cut themselves to relieve their anxiety are often called “cutters.”
But obviously Sara is much more than a psychiatric diagnosis. She is intelligent, an expert at manipulation, and, actually, pretty entertaining when she is in the right mood. Now she needs to be rehabilitated once again. To the kind of
life she has never had and never expected to have.
I put my hand on her file—as thick as a Bible—complete with investigations from social service agencies, case records from the psychiatric outpatient clinic and institutional care. I browse through the documents absentmindedly. My gaze stops at the notes from St. Göran’s Hospital, from the time when Sara was admitted to the psych ward.
Sara Matteus, ID no. 82 11 23–0424
Reason for admission:
Pat. comes to psych. ER 6:37 p.m. via Norrmalm police after having been taken into custody for shoplifting in the Twilfit store, Gallerian. As pat. acted confused and aggressive, police brought pat. to psych. ER.
Pat. is an 18-year-old woman with drug problems and anxiety disorder UNS. She has previously been in contact both
with CAP and psychiatric outpatient (Vällingby outpatient clinic). Presently pat. has no psychiatric contact and is not on medication. Pat. states that she does not feel well and wants help. She is oriented for brief periods and then complains of severe anxiety and also says that she has taken drugs but cannot remember what. Otherwise aggressive and expresses paranoid compulsive ideas that she is being persecuted by social services and police. Pat. shows signs of self-injuring behavior (scars and wounds on forearms and inside of thighs).
I sigh and let go of the heavy file, causing the documents to fall on the floor with a dull thud. I’ve had my dose of Sara Matteus for the day. It’s time to air out the office and see Ilja, the Russian mother of a small child who met her Swedish husband on the Internet. The woman who is doing so well in Sweden and already speaks fluent Swedish. The woman who is so capable and well-adjusted, and works as an OR nurse at Sophiahemmet, but who suffers from an irrepressible compulsion to hide all the knives and scissors in the family’s garden shed out of fear of hurting her baby with a sharp object.
It seems so idyllic.
My small house is a stone’s throw from the shore. Large French windows cover the side facing the water—the house gets a lot of light. The floors are made of old, wide, worn pine boards separated by deep cracks filled to the brim with decades of dust. In the kitchen, the original 1950s cabinets with sloping blue plywood sliding doors live awkwardly side by side with new appliances. The bedroom faces the cliffs on the one side of the point, and through the large window the sea is visible on the other even when I’m lying on the bed, which is much too wide for me. The bathroom is in a separate building, in what was once a little woodshed. To get there I have to go out the door at the front of the house and pass through flower beds of dog roses.
In front of the house is a small expanse of lawn. Undisciplined and overgrown, it makes all traditional lawn activities impossible. I have trampled down two narrow paths through the wild vegetation: one to the lopsided old pier and one to the rocks. By the shore, red-leaved sedum grows among the heather and thyme. Small wind-whipped pines border the large rocks before the forest begins. Even though I live less than an hour from Stockholm, my closest neighbor is almost half a mile away.
It was Stefan’s idea to live like this, spartan and close to nature, close to diving sites. It seemed like a good idea. At the time. No dreams were too naïve, no ideas too wild for me then. Now I don’t know anymore. Along with the solitude, a strange passivity has come; changing lightbulbs is suddenly a major task and repainting the woodshed feels like an unachievable enterprise, impossible to break down into manageable stages of work. But moving isn’t an option either. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
My friends usually observe me with a mixture of compassion and horror when they visit. They think I ought to clear out Stefan’s things: the razor in the bathroom, the diving equipment in the shed, the clothes
in the closet, the watch on the nightstand that I hold at night when the sense of loss is too great.
“You can’t live in a mausoleum,” Aina always says, gently tousling my short hair.
She’s right, of course. I ought to clear out Stefan’s things. I ought to clear out
“You’re working way too much,” she says then, and sighs. “Come out with me this weekend.”
I always thank her and decline. There’s so much to do with the house and so many patient protocols to be written. Papers to be sorted. Upon hearing this, Aina always smiles as if she knows I’m lying, which of course I am.
Sometimes Aina stays with me instead of spending the weekend in the noisy bars of Södermalm in the company of men whose names she quickly forgets. We eat mussels cooked in wine, drink lots of cheap white wine, and talk about our patients or Aina’s guys—or about nothing in particular. We jump naked from the rocks into the water and listen to David Bowie at too high a volume while the forest animals watch in horror.
After she leaves, the house feels even emptier than before, with its windows gaping like big vacant holes toward the sea, and the deafening silence. I always wake up with a hangover and, because I’m too lazy to go shopping, I often end up eating vanilla ice cream for lunch and pasta with ketchup for dinner—with a couple of glasses of wine. When evening comes, I always make sure I turn on all the lights—because I don’t like darkness. It’s as if the absence of light erases the boundary between me and the world around me, which frightens me more than I want to admit and brings forth the feeling I know best of all: fear.
I have dealt with fear for many years now, and without exaggeration I can say that we are close, so close that I no longer notice when he arrives in the twilight. Instead, I receive him with resignation, like an old, if unwelcome, acquaintance.
And that is why I sleep with all the lights on.
So I’m a therapist. On the door to the practice a shiny brass nameplate clearly states:
SÖDERMALM PSYCHOTHERAPY PRACTICE. CERT. PSYCHOLOGIST, CERT. PSYCHOTHERAPIST. SIRI BERGMAN.
I sometimes wonder how my patients would react if they knew that the seemingly calm, competent woman they turn to with their secrets and fears cannot sleep alone in a dark house. What would they think about my inability to confront my own phobias, when I demand that they approach theirs head on? These thoughts make me feel ashamed; I’m a bad therapist, I’ve failed, I should have gotten over it, it’s in the past.
I should have moved on.
Aina always laughs at me and attributes my worries to my need for control and my perfectionism. “You are not your profession,” she says. “Being a therapist is not a stupid
. You come here and see your four patients a day and then you go home and be Siri. Being a depressed, passive failure with phobias can make you a better therapist, damn it. Just as long as you aren’t that way with your patients. By the way, you should have learned about this during the first semester of psychology.”
And Aina ought to know, because her name appears under mine on the shiny brass plate:
AINA DAVIDSSON. CERTIFIED PSYCHOLOGIST. CERTIFIED PSYCHOTHERAPIST.
Aina and Siri. A team since those first nervous weeks at Stockholm University. The strange thing is not that we’re still friends but that we made our dream of starting our own practice a reality. We have one other colleague, Sven Widelius, an old fox who has worked as a therapist for more than twenty years, with whom we share the office, a receptionist, and a break room. Our collaboration with him extends no farther than this. The practice is by Medborgarplatsen, in the same building as the futuristic premises of Söderhallarna, just a few floors up.
Every weekday morning I stop and catch my breath after running up
the stairs. I look at the polished nameplate, think, hesitate, and then put the key in the lock.
And today is no different from the rest. It is the middle of August. The summer has been intensely beautiful in a dangerous, slightly erotic way. The scents and odors of nature are sultry sweet and suffocating, reinforced by the oppressive heat. In the city, the metallic odor of car exhaust and air pollution blends with the scents of cooking from restaurants and hot dog stands. And in the midst of this cacophony of aromas, it’s there—the unmistakable smell of decomposition.
Both in the city and out at my home, the vegetation quivers with intensity and the air is filled with thousands of flying insects. I can hear the sound of creeping, wriggling, primitive life as I walk between the bus stop and my home. The green carpet of the forest vibrates with the movements of millions of bugs, and every step I take crushes innumerable small organisms, creating new biotopes of trampled-down moss and squashed ants and beetles. For me, the fleshy sensuality of summer is the high point of the year.