There is a female client who’s been in treatment with me for quite a while. At times, leaving the latest session with her, I have feared that she might not appear for the next. There have been many occasions on which I feared that she would not survive the work, that she could not tolerate the treatment.

At the end of each session, I close the door and return to my room; she returns to the chaos that is her daily life. I find her courage and persistence truly admirable.

She is someone whom I have discussed frequently in supervision, of course. In my written notes, in the occasional letters I’ve had to write as her therapist, in my spoken accounts of her, she is “K”. But when my supervisor asks, ‘What do I call her?’, I have no answer.

She has been called various names over her lifetime: ‘abuse victim’; ‘foster child’; ‘care survivor’; ‘single mother’; ‘prostitute’; ‘psychotic’; ‘borderline’; ‘bipolar’…

At the end of 2014, I suggested to her that she might consider calling herself ‘depressed’ now. We had a brief chat about that, what it might mean for her. She was surprised by the realisation that it would be entirely appropriate for her to be ‘depressed’ at that time. (She had experienced a significant loss recently and was dealing with the sudden serious illness of her remaining biological parent.) At the next session, she told me she had attended her GP to discuss a diagnosis and was prescribed anti-depressants for a defined period. I feel confident that she will comply with her medication regimen; it is, after all, her own choice.

‘Depressed’ is a new name for her. It describes a part of her that she recognised straight away. ‘Yes, it’s not just tiredness, is it? Why wouldn’t I be sad, my heart is broken…’

A couple of years ago, we talked about ‘feeling anxious’. As with the depression, she recognised this part of herself, too. ‘Anxiety, that’s what this feeling in my stomach is, isn’t it? When I feel sick and heave but I can’t bring up anything, when I just sit here choking in the middle of a sentence.’

Gradually she pieced together the behaviours and the triggers, the emotional burden that endured beyond the cruel havoc that had been her formative years.

‘Woman’. She was in menopause before she could call herself a ‘woman’. Other people were women, female, feminine. Others knew what it was to feel at home in a woman’s body, even if that body was hers. ‘He’, ‘she’ and ‘they’ told her what a woman felt like, looked like, responded like, enjoyed, wanted, should be, could be …

All she had were fragments of a mirror held by another, broken pieces of an image she dared not recognise because to recognise it was to acknowledge its value to her. She held on to being the child she had been, in order to protect herself from becoming the woman she might yet be.

She called herself ‘woman’, when it became possible for her to do so: when she had accumulated enough signifiers for the experience to construct its meaning for herself.

It is harder than it looks, to talk this talk.

Names, labels, diagnoses, descriptors, signifiers… What we call ourselves and what others call us, these are the parameters of our experience, the cornerstones of our ego.

The names that others give us can be toxic or nurturing.

The names that we choose for ourselves should be empowering.

So, what do I call her? I call her ‘woman’. I call her ‘anxious’. I call her ‘depressed’. I call her whatever she calls herself …

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