Sitting in Silence with Lillian Dunn
Sue Gano

Lillian Dunn is perched on her benign-colored wing chair, a therapist distance away. We sit in silence. My silence. Frankly, I am tired of “my silence,” but I haven’t the energy to continue to process the fragmented emotions of my caustic childhood one more minute, so I wait it out.

I have been seeing Lillian for more than a year. She is the first therapist I’ve ever had; we agreed to work with each other after the initial interview in which I spilled my guts to her just ten minutes after sitting down on the couch, though that was not my plan. When I was finished, she shared her rules of engagement, which I feebly agreed to. She is generally likable and kind yet firm, having no problem setting boundaries with me, which I appreciate as I don’t always know when I am being appropriate. I like the way she lowers her voice when I am really sad. It’s comforting. She listens as I chuck my story into her tastefully decorated office each week for fifty minutes. She is a witness to my story. She validates my feelings of outrage, indignation, and the hatred I feel which sometimes seems as evil as the acts I recount.

While I sit in my growth-producing silence I somehow become very aware of the tick, tick, tick of Lillian’s properly placed, hidden-from-view clock. My own internal therapy clock tells me that we are at the last five minutes of this session and soon this probing, penetrating, analytical conversation should be nearing its conclusion. Time and the sound of rushed footsteps on the wooden stairs—the next client entering the waiting room—put an end to my self-imposed silence.

“What are your plans for the rest of the day?” Lillian asks as she takes off her therapist hat and begins the process of winding down our session. I’m going to take off my client hat too and pretend I have just had a good visit with a friend and maybe I talked too much, shared too much, like women do when they are out having lunch and drink one too many glasses of Chardonnay. I’ve come to realize that her oft spoken session-ending sentence, always said in a thoughtful cadence, is really therapist-speak for “How safe do you feel?” Lillian nods thoughtfully, waiting for my answer. I mumble something that I think Lillian will approve of, make my next appointment, and stumble out the door into the cramped waiting room where Lilian’s next client sits, a twenty-something woman who wears the last puff of her cigarette like rain on a Labrador’s coat. I hurry down the creaking wooden steps, making my way outside the front door to breathe in the fresh air and distance myself from the other me who shared what was never supposed to be shared, saying aloud the words that had been stifled since childhood. As I ponder the rest of my day some possibilities come to mind.

I could go back to work and suppress all the anguish, distress, and “growth” that I went through during the past fifty minutes of my lunch break. Expertly perform my duties as a model employee would, despite the conversation my therapist and I just had about that asshole of a father who shattered my ten-year-old’s reality by telling me the brother and sisters I loved weren’t really my brother and sisters at all.

Better yet, I could go back to work angry as hell, driving recklessly and at too high of a speed down I-5 south, shamelessly cutting off some poor student and taking the empty parking space that he had spied as he went around the corner. See that late-to-class student later in the hallway and sheepishly look the other way. Gossip unmercifully about a co-worker that I have no respect for, working hard to continually perpetuate the hostile work environment.

Most likely I will return to work only to leave early after a white-knuckle afternoon that showed very little productivity. I’ll stop off at the grocery store and pick up a dried-out rotisserie chicken, a bag of salad whose contents had been chopped and preserved more than two weeks ago, and a loaf of “French” bread. Without thought I’ll go to the wine aisle, in search of a large bottle of whatever is on sale. There is no brand loyalty here. It used to be a small bottle, carefully selected. Lovely, rich red wines for a tomato-based pasta or a crisp Chardonnay that would pair tastefully with fish. These days the bottle just needs to be big enough to get me through the evening without too much thought of the afternoon counseling session. The label on a White Zinfandel catches my eye, a geometric pattern in different hues of purple. Putting it in the cart, I go home with my purchases and throw everything together for a less than satisfying meal.

Later in the evening, when my husband asks me over dinner how my session went with Lillian, I will put on the smile that I think causes him the least amount of worry. I’ll say “fine” and reach for the bottle of wine to refill my glass. He will chew thoughtfully on the stringy chicken, dabbing it in the bottled Ranch dressing in an effort to soften it up and get it down his throat. He is not comfortable sitting in my silence so he begins to talk about his day. I nod, hearing him but not listening to him. Instead I recognize that no one except for Lillian Dunn is going to be comfortable in my silence until I am, and as I reach for that third glass of wine I wonder rather wistfully when, or if, that will ever happen.


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