COMMENTARY

A Psychiatrist Encounters Ghosts of Past Trauma at an Idyllic English B&B

Robert A. Berezin, MD

Disclosures

March 01, 2019

Once upon a time, a long time ago, my wife Nancy and I were on vacation in Exmoor, outside of Devon in southwest England. We were following the road wherever it led and found ourselves on a winding one-lane path, tall grass towering over the car.

We spotted a white building high up on a hill, glistening in the late morning sun. With some dread that a vehicle would come around the bend, we did make it to a main road and wound our way up the mountain. It appeared to be an ancient church lost in time, sitting above a thatch-roofed village gently laid out beneath it. The church was anchored on a stone cliff. The brilliant sun did not seem to penetrate the darkness and the mysterious silence of the sanctuary, with its beautifully carved Anglican pews.

We felt like we had been led here and decided to spend the night. I asked the caretaker if there was a bed and breakfast in the village. She said, "There are two, but you should probably go to the one that actually likes Americans." That sounded like a good idea.

We got out of the car at the bed and breakfast and were greeted by Rose, a slightly dour but formidable proper English woman, and Hans, a barrel-chested German with a heavy accent, right out of the Brothers Grimm. They invited us to join them for tea with their friend Margaret and the dog. We all sat down in the garden, surrounded by the fairytale cottages. Rose asked me, "So, what do you do?"

I turned away and mumbled, "I'm a doctor," hoping to downplay the inevitable.

"What kind of doctor?"

Mumbling even less distinctly, "I'm a psychiatrist."

"A what?"

"A psychiatrist."

"Oh, you Americans... Always depending on a crutch. We don't have any need for therapists here," she said, chuckling.

Meeting Margaret

"Our friend Margaret is a writer. She lives in the moors. The people of the moors don't follow English law. They have their own code and are ungovernable. They hunt and poach when they want. In the winter, the snow rises above the rooftops. Provisions are stored by Christmas, and the moorspeople visit each other through a network of tunnels dug underneath the snow."

Rose continued, "Actually, poor dear Margaret here wanted to retreat to the moors to write her novel. Unfortunately, she developed a case of writer's block and was trapped there for months, unable to get out."

Margaret said, "I was so looking forward to this sojourn. I was all stocked up with supplies and books for myself. I had my cat to keep me company. The storms came and the snows blew, as had been expected, and for the next few months I was all alone. But I was totally blocked. I couldn't write at all. Nothing would come. I didn't know anybody, and no tunnel beckoned at my door."

Margaret was about 50, a bookish and very articulate woman. She proceeded to tell her story. "My parents are Irish. My father worked for the labor unions in Ireland. They sent him to organize in Wales right across from here on the other side of the Bristol Channel. It was a hard time. The Welsh schoolkids didn't take kindly to a Catholic girl. I was friendless, and I had only my books. My mother couldn't deal with the separation from her large family at home. She got lonely and spent a lot of time back in Ireland. It was so much better for her to be there; I was glad for her. It was just my father and myself. I loved him and did what I could to take care of him. I cooked, cleaned, and did the laundry, in addition to my schoolwork. My father was very busy, and I got used to spending a lot of time alone. I actually prefer it that way."

A Writer's Story Contains Inadvertent Revelations

As Margaret went on, I was struck by the psychological naiveté of her story. She ended up exposing vulnerabilities that a more psychologically aware and jaded American never would have mentioned. Her fine-tuned sensibility made her story compelling. We listened, transfixed. When she finished, she turned to me and asked, "What do you think caused the writer's block?"

Normally, I would stay away from anything psychiatric in my regular life. We were on vacation and still quite exhausted. Nevertheless, I liked her enormously, and I did suggest a couple of things.

"You might want to think about how your retreat replayed your aloneness back in Wales as a girl," I said. "In addition, the absence of your mother may have been not as genial as you say it was. It might have been more traumatic."

Walking Ancient Paths

Was this why we were drawn to this idyllic-seeming place? As tea time drew to a close, Rose told us of a Druid burial ground through the woods on the other side of the hill. We definitely wanted to see it. She gave us a set of complicated directions.

"Walk down the path, take a left turn at the fork, then when you see the fallen tree, go straight and continue down the path until you reach the small bridge over the river, et cetera... Never mind; why don't you just take the dog. He knows where it is. He'll stay with you and lead you back home."

So we said our goodbyes and set off with the dog, who guided us over the river and through the woods to the burial grounds. The forest opened up to a rock-faced natural amphitheater, a crater on top of the highest crest of the mountain. The sky was very low. We could touch the clouds. It was incredibly peaceful. We both sat down and didn't speak for a long time, drifting off in a reverie.

The spiritual presence was powerful. Maybe Merlin was here, maybe Arthur and the rest of the Round Table. Death didn't seem so alien or fearful here. To die here would be fine. This would be the place we wanted to be. If it were our time, we would join the Druids.

The rosy glow of the sunset told us we had better head back. The dog had waited patiently with us and now led us back to the village, just before the sun finally set. We asked Hans if there was a place to eat. He gave us directions to an old farmhouse that was now a restaurant. Again, a magical place which served us a dinner of spring lamb, Beaujolais, and a perfect lemon fool for dessert, with a glass of port. We returned to the house tired and full, ready for bed.

Over Breakfast, a Referral and Discussion of a Family Tragedy

The next morning, we packed our suitcases and went downstairs for breakfast. Rose pulled me aside and said, "Margaret thought about what you had said to her, and she would like to have some psychotherapy."

How was I going to make a referral in Exmoor? I vaguely remember that Tavistock was in the English countryside someplace, and I asked Rose if she had ever heard of it. She hadn't. We looked it up, and it turned out that it was located in Devon. She called and made an appointment for Margaret. (This was 1987, and there was still good psychotherapy around.)

We sat down at the breakfast table and chatted with Hans as Rose was scrambling some eggs. We had surmised by their ages that Hans must have been a German prisoner of war. After the war, he must have stayed on and married Rose. It's hard to imagine at that time that this was looked upon favorably.

When the eggs arrived, we made small talk for a while. Rose's constant refrain was everything is "lovely, simply lovely." She was actually Catholic, not Anglican, and had a very "stiff upper lip." We asked them about their family. Rose began to talk. "We had two sons." She stiffened as she stood there looking at us at the table.

"Oh, did something happen?"

Rose continued. "Our older son was a medical student. And he died in an accident."

The reds of last night's sunset turned darker and entered the room. "Goodness, we are so sorry."

"Thomas was a medical student. Ten years ago, he went on a scuba diving trip to the Caribbean. He was a very special young man and we were very proud of him..."

Then she began to sob. Hans began to sob. The walls of the room were dripping with tears. We began to cry. "He was in a full diving suit, connected to the oxygen by a long plastic tube. He was 30 feet down when the oxygen line somehow got severed. He didn't make it. They never found him."

Rose continued on about what a wonderful son he was. She went through his academic achievements, his soccer prowess, what a great brother he was to their younger son, what a sweet and gentle boy he had been. The pain exploded and created a cloud rising above our heads, and it rained back down again, dripping with sorrow. We were all drowning. An hour later, it ended. We were almost grateful when Rose stopped crying and walked slowly and politely into the kitchen. No one had anything left.

We did understand. We understood this collision in time for Rose and Hans and Nancy and me to come together. It took two strangers, two outsiders, two Americans to break the spell. We had to be there to feel and hear this pain, so powerful—sitting there, lurking there, silently screaming, waiting timelessly to surface; breaking the silence, breaking the dam. But this was just the beginning. It wouldn't be over for them; it would never be over for them. But it would get better. Something that so profoundly affected us. Something that has never been over for us, but it does get better. We did understand why we were here, necessary strangers in this place, necessary outsiders.

Hans told us that Rose had never, ever talked about Thomas' death, never mind facing it or feeling it. He had grieved alone. And they remained alone together. He was so thankful that it finally opened.

Leaving the Moor

All of us were spent. Nancy suggested that I go up and take a bath before we were to hit the road. She stayed downstairs with Hans and moved her cold eggs around her plate. She had the magical ability to create the illusion that they weren't there.

I did run a bath. I got lost in the water, warm water, safe water, holding water. I don't think I washed. Finally, I got out and dressed, getting ready to go.

Nancy came upstairs and couldn't stop laughing. She was laughing!

"What in the world could you possibly be laughing about?"

"I'll tell you when we're on the road. I can't now."

I trusted her and accepted the delay, though it was incomprehensible to me. We brought our bags downstairs and Hans was there to say goodbye. He thanked us profusely for everything. In fact, he had called Tavistock and made an appointment for Rose. The dam had broken, and the mourning was just beginning.

We hopped into the car and drove away, waving our goodbyes.

"OK, tell me."

"Hans and I started talking about other things. He said, 'Did you know we have a goose?'"

"You have a goose?"

"Ja, the goose lives on the second floor."

Nancy was laughing. "What? Tell me, then: Where does the goose go to the bathroom?"

Hans looked at her, puzzled. "They also have a goose at the farm where you had dinner."

"Ohhhh, you mean a ghost."

"Ja, a goose. Did you notice anything strange after you went to bed?"

"No."

Nancy and I were roaring. When she got her breath back, she asked, "Did you see anything?"

"Actually, I was awakened when the bedroom door slammed. It was a little freaky. I was so exhausted that I figured, 'I'm going back to sleep, and if something is gonna get me, then go ahead—be my guest.'"

It is simply true that in every one of us, even in this this idyllic, beautiful, tranquil little Mother Goose village, there is the human story, and human pain. Lurking right below the surface is the Big Bad Wolf. Life is never simply "lovely." The past haunts all of us timelessly.

Whether it's Margaret or Rose, mourning the past is the process by which we can be open to the future. Mourning is at the center of the psychotherapeutic process. It lays our ghosts to rest. Sometimes when the loss is too great, it can only be partial at best. We can help Rose mourn the ghost of Thomas, who has haunted her. But she can heal only so much. Thoughts of him will always carry pain but eventually can make way for the presence of a loving memory.

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