A while ago, when I was in the middle of one of my many attempts to be fixed, I went to a lovely old building on a gorgeous tree-lined street not far from the hospital to see someone about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. My therapist had a deep, rich, African voice but he didn’t make eye contact, and our time together was not a success.
The majority of my follow-up with him was over the phone and before long I realised I was enjoying his accent without really following what he was saying. The feeling, if anything, was mutual: I was detached enough from the conversation to know that he wasn't following it either. He asked me where we had got to last time when I expected him to know, he said “Do you understand what I am saying?” as a way to tick a box and move on in our fifteen minute slots rather than because he wanted the answer, I could almost sense his eyes looking round the room where I’d had my first session. Maybe he was peering at his watch and if so, I couldn’t blame him. I was looking at the clock radio in the bedroom, thinking Is this still five minutes fast? Are we done yet?
I knew it wouldn’t work from the outset, if I am being honest. The therapist’s first name was the same as my surname and the first time he called me, he opened the conversation with “Hello, is that Mr Evans? This is Evans”. I struggled not to laugh out loud at the absurdity of that, and I don’t think I ever quite got over it. I used to do my homework for those sessions the hour before the session, and I knew then that in some significant ways I hadn’t changed in twenty-five years. The problems change, but the solutions – and their effectiveness – remain the same.
One thing Evans asked me to do – one of the only things I found interesting, although I’m not sure it helped - was an exercise in mindfulness. I was to carry out a mundane activity and while I did it I was to switch my brain off, stop thinking and just focus on everything I experienced through my senses. Of course, this ran counter to everything I knew about how I lived my life but I tried it all the same, because it was my homework, when chopping the vegetables for dinner one night.
It was a fascinating experience, like one of those sequences in a film where the music stops and you are forced to concentrate on what’s actually happening. The endless flood of thoughts I usually have, the current I am carried by, is like the music: What is that twinge? Do I need to wash some shirts? I’m dreading that meeting on Thursday. What’s for dinner tomorrow? Is this cancer? Is this cancer? Is this cancer? and when it’s muted all that’s left is the here and now.
It was like the scene in The Artist where the main character is deafened by every minor noise. I heard the knife, for example: the fizzing sound as it moved through every layer of the onion, the solid thud of it reaching the board on the other side. I felt the cold cylinder of the handle, icier and smoother than I’d ever realised, against my palm. I heard the papery crackle of the garlic skin on my fingers, the hollow click of the bin lid, the sweep of the discarded vegetables into the rubbish, everything was vivid and enhanced. I supposed this must be what being on some drugs must be like, not that I would know. Everybody, I thought, should try this some time.
I wanted to tell Evans all this during the next session, but fifteen minutes wasn’t enough time to do it justice. Besides, I think he’d forgotten that he’d asked me to do it.
What I’ve realised, since, is that there are some activities I’ve always done that I lose myself in. Not many, and not enough, but a few. I love shaving, for example. I especially love it when I’m staying in a hotel, one of those ones with a fancy mirror that doesn’t steam up, so my skin can get properly warm and wet (no rushing out of the shower so I can still see my reflection in the glass) and the lather is so thick so I look like Uncle Albert from Only Fools And Horses, and the razor has a brand new blade (it has to have a brand new blade) and I haven’t shaved for a while so I’ll really notice the difference. This, I can tell you, is a man thing: we like to leave jobs long enough that doing them has a transformative effect. It’s why our rooms are either cluttered or spotless, our hair either just cut or in need of a cut, our faces almost-bearded or smooth, our surfaces thick with dust or shiny and perfect.
Then, in that hotel room, with music playing in the background (although I often don’t even notice it) I experience every stroke of that razor blade as if it’s the only thing happening on the planet, as if all the maids wheeling their trollies outside, all the chefs cooking breakfast, all the receptionists smiling fakely and taking calls do not exist. Instead, there is just the gritty noise of the razor sweeping down my cheek, the pleasing blank space where the foam once was, the wonder of seeing those little dark shavings caught in the blade. The tap of the blade on the sink reverberates, and then I start again. I like restoring order to chaos, probably because it so rarely happens in other contexts. I like conquering my own appearance.
I like the progression, too: first the cheeks, downwards, then the neck, upwards, then the chin and only finally, when the shaving foam has properly softened the bristles on the skin that has itself been softened by heat and steam, do I tackle the top lip. Sweep and tap, sweep and tap, until there is no more white foam and no more stubble and I am completely renewed. Shaving like that, when I am on holiday and have all the time in the world and there is no steam on the mirror obscuring my grand project, may be one of my favourite things in the world - and if you think I am sad to be made so happy by it, I would just say that isn’t my fault if you aren’t mindful enough to appreciate it.
The other thing I love doing – and I think almost nobody feels this way but me – is ironing my shirts. Again, I don’t think I realised this until Evans set me homework, but it totally absorbs me in a way that very little does. I stand at the board, music playing (again, the exact music seems somehow unimportant, although goodness knows I spend long enough choosing it) and I wait until the light goes off on the iron, until I hear the hiss of the steam and I know it’s ready to escape. That’s when I begin.
It’s a very similar experience to shaving, I think – making things perfect by progression and repetition. First the collar, followed by the sleeves and cuffs. Then the yoke, then one side, then the back, then the other side. I especially like some shirts because they look so crumpled on the hanger, fresh out of the washing machine, and I know that when I’m done they will look as if they’re hanging in a shop, pristine, ready to be bought and taken home (of course, those are also the shirts that will look like I’ve slept in them after I’ve worn them for ten minutes, but that’s beside the point). I can’t understand people who buy non-iron shirts, every bit as much as they probably can’t understand why I so enjoy ironing.
I love the smell of the steam, the ironing water filling the air with the fragrance of hot, clean perfection. I love the smell of the cotton, when it’s all done and hung up again.
Sometimes, there are just too many other things to do and I end up ironing last thing at night, my wife looking at me with disappointment from the bed, waiting for me to finish, fold up the ironing board and settle down to sleep. But when I have the foresight I do all my ironing on a Sunday evening, four shirts one after the other, old jazz records playing on the speaker and I can honestly tell you that heaven might not feel all that different to being lost in that moment.
If Evans had been a different therapist, I might have told him all this. I might have explained that his mindfulness exercise made me realise that I’ve fallen in love with ironing, and maybe we would have talked about it for so long that he didn’t look at his watch and I didn’t look at the clock radio in the very same bedroom where I iron all my shirts. But I know, too, that if Evans had been a different therapist he might have asked me what I find so attractive about these mundane tasks, all of them about imposing neatness, about making messy, scruffy things right. He would have pointed out that “ironing out” is a figure of speech for resolving problems and confusion, and he might have asked me about all the things I can’t iron out in the rest of my life, and why I can’t. And I wouldn’t have answers for him, just questions. Questions conveniently drowned out by the sound of a knife moving through an onion, a razor scraped across a face, an iron, like a little train, puffing its way across the back of a shirt.