I’m sure this is painfully familiar to every counsellor and therapist – the client that doesn’t arrive. I’ve made a number of appointments for clients; I’ve spoken to them over the phone, checked that the date and time works for them, given them a number to cancel the appointment then sat and waited for them in the Centre, only for them not to show. There are a myriad of reasons for clients not attending – the women I am working with have numerous challenges to their time management and organisation. Some are fleeing abusive partners and are vulnerably housed – often sofa surfing with friends or family. Most have children and often cancel our appointment because of childcare falling through or because a child’s appointment at school or the doctors takes precedent. Some women are still with their partners and make the appointment with full will to attend but find themselves locked in the house or fearful of explaining where they are planning to go.
I sit and wait (we have a 15 minute rule at the Centre) then I try to phone, if it’s safe to do so and usually leave a voicemail asking if the client wants to rearrange. It is a rare treat if the client rings back. I get what’s going on and I empathise with each woman’s difficulties in attending and I have tried to use the waiting time to check out my frustration and test how patient I have to be. I’m not good at waiting – I have a real horror of being late and I’m frequently irritated by people who have a more relaxed idea of punctuality. I have to consciously convince myself that the client will have a reason. So during those long fifteen minutes, I find myself wondering what the client might be like – tall or short? Hair and skin colour? Sad or angry? What she might bring to the session. Then I wonder how I can start the session – contracting and business-like or friendly and informal? Should I ask straight away for permission to tape the sessions? Shake hands or just smile and say hello? Those fifteen minutes are full of possibilities and uncertainties and I feel the butterflies. As sixteen minutes pass by I feel the cold certainty of a ‘Did Not Attend’ creep in but I ignore it, thinking about town centre traffic and missed buses. By twenty minutes, it’s all over and I’m acknowledging my frustration as I’m firing up the computer to record DNA in the notes.
Waiting is work for me but counselling is harder work for the client. I know that not everyone is ready for that work – facing the reality of choices and consequences, the uncertainty of change and progress, spilling your darkest thoughts in front of another person. It is my work to wait – those testing fifteen minutes are practice for the waiting I’m obliged to do in the counselling room while the client is trying out her possibilities and uncertainties. This placement is pushing me to become patient and work at another person’s time frame instead of mine.