This is Part I of Tuesday’s therapy session. I hoped to get the whole thing out in one sitting, but it’s getting long so I decided to cut it into two. I’ll be back to finish this later (hopefully).
I’m sitting in my psychologist’s waiting room reading People Magazine before being called into the safety of Carl’s office, with its heavy paneling and darkly stained wood. The space is completely stuffed full of leather furniture. Books, ceiling to floor. Carl doesn’t smoke a pipe, but it smells like someone did a long time ago. With me in the waiting room are two large coffees from Dunkin Donuts – one for me and one for Carl. Mine has cream and sugar. Carl likes his black, which my mind translates into “I don’t need any help and can do this alone.” Silently, I curse my coffee for being needy. Bringing him coffee is new and this is only the second time I’ve attempted this. I’m anxious. I haven’t been here in two weeks and I worry that bringing Carl coffee is somehow a breach of the imaginary boundaries which shape the doctor-patient relationship.
Carl appears suddenly, as if conjured, and bids me a hearty “Helllll-OOOOWWW”, which always triggers a sudden release of adrenalin, mildly throwing me into the fight-or-flight response.
DENNIS: (Thinking to myself) I pay him for this?
CARL: Come - on - back! (He says, in brisk staccato as if each word were a complete cheer in the game of my well-being).
I pick up both cups of coffee and comply. Walking back, I hear the electric whirring of the sound machine, parked on the floor by Carl’s doorway blurring the sound of conversation which might leak out of a session. I look at it and feel sad – sad that there are so many secrets in need of blurring. And in that moment, I feel the weight of my own shame, worn like a backpack full of lies. I step into Carl’s office and look around. It’s my routine. What am I checking for? I don’t know. I guess I just need it to be the same. I look some more. Everything is where it belongs. I stop next to my favorite leather chair, the one that swivels and reclines and supports me when I fall apart. The one I’ve rebuilt myself in over and over again. The one that knows more about me than any other chair in the world. I study it too. For the briefest moment I imagine someone else sitting in my chair talking to Carl, using my tissues, from the box on my table next to my chair and I feel the sting of jealousy sizzle down my spine. Suddenly, I remember that I’m holding two coffees and hold one out toward Carl.
DENNIS: Oh! I almost forgot. I brought you a coffee. I figured you wouldn’t have had any yet since it’s so early, and I had to stop to get mine anyway . . . (my voice trails off, nervously watching for any sign of disapproval.)
CARL: Well! Thank you! How kind. I don’t mind if I do sir. (He says this in a sing-song sort of voice, as if he were telling a children’s story full of magic lands, giants, and enchanted gardens.) Can I pay you?
DENNIS: (Subconsciously I become aware of the word “patronizing”, but the thought fails to form fully in my mind.) Nah. It’s on me. My treat. It’s nothing.
This exchange is followed by a few more reassurances and I settle into my chair. Carl sits in an identical one across from me and we move into the next phase of my routine – the staring game. The silence makes my ears feel full and I wait for him to speak, like always. Eventually, he asks how I am and in no time, ten minutes of my fifty minute session have been wasted on small talk. And then we get to work.
DENNIS: . . . I know! It’s like that mother complex thing we were working on last time. I just have so much trouble asking for help – especially if it’s help for me personally.
CARL: What do you mean?
DENNIS: Well, in my world, there’s a huge difference between “Can I help you with that?” and “Can I help you?”
CARL: (Stares at me.)
DENNIS: I mean, I don’t have any trouble letting people help me with stuff – you know, work on my cases or do things that need to be done if it helps me out. Again, No problem with, “Let me help you with that.” I just go nuts though if someone tries to help ME!
CARL: Can you give me an example?
DENNIS: (Makes a loud puffing noise somewhere between exasperation and surprise.) PUHH! Yeah! Definitely. Last night. Perfect example. I’m sitting in my office preparing for a deposition when my paralegal, Beth, walks in at around quarter to five.
CARL: Is this the new paralegal?
DENNIS: Yeah. So Beth walks in and asks me if there is anything that I need for my deposition. Do I have my file, Do I need any last minute filing done, any copying? I tell her, “No.” Not because I don’t want her to do those things, it’s just that there really isn’t anything that needs to be done. She was just being helpful.
CARL: (Stares at me.)
DENNIS: So she mills about my office putting things away and tidying up and looking after me in a way that starts to feel a little mothering (cue the psycho violins). Then she turns towards me and just looks at me very compassionately. She’s observing how tired I look and is measuring my pile and doing the mental calculations which allow her to conclude that I have many long hours ahead of me. She cocks her head to one side slightly and in the sweetest most compassionate voice asks me if she can get me a cup of coffee.
CARL: (Stares at me.)
I pause here and feel myself burning with anger. I’m angry that Beth offered me coffee and I’m furious that Carl is just staring at me and saying nothing.
CARL: What did you do when she offered you the cup of coffee?
DENNIS: What did I do? (I ask, stunned that he’s asking.) I told her, “No!” But not just “No” like a regular “No.” It was a “No” like “Whoa! How could you ask me such a question?” I said it with a lot of force and in a way that hopefully told her that she shouldn’t ever offer me coffee again. She looked hurt and a little scared and I imagined that she was wondering what the hell was wrong with me.
CARL: (Carl looks back and forth several times at his cup of coffee and then at me – pausing for emphasis.) What did she do when you told her “No” like that?
DENNIS: She smiled a funny smile and said, “Ok.” And then she left.
Several minutes pass as we both ponder the exchange between me and Beth and my reaction to her gesture of kindness.
CARL: So? What do you think this is all about? What would have happened if you had accepted Beth’s offer? (Pause) Can you close your eyes and imagine Beth again offering you the coffee and you just feeling how good that feels to have someone look after you in that way? Can you imagine accepting the coffee from Beth?
As Carl says these words, the hair on the back of my neck stands up, my teeth gnash and my hands clench the armrests on my chair. I imagine Beth’s syrupy-sweet offer and experience her words flowing through me like a lethal injection. Every cell in my body arches and resists as if my life depended on it. Fury rises in me and suddenly, I see my left hand firmly around Beth’s throat and all I can think about is choking her. I close my eyes to the image and feel drops of sweat sliding from my underarms down my sides. I answer Carl in a small whisper – almost the voice of a child.
DENNIS: No. (Still whispering I continue.) I don’t want that. I don’t want any of it.
A tear rolls down my cheek but I hardly notice. I’m back in my bedroom and I’m five years old. I’m sick. I’m sure I have a fever of over one hundred degrees and I’ve just thrown up in the bathroom. Before waking up my mother to tell her, I’ve assembled everything she could possibly need to take care of me. I’ve gotten out the aspirin, thermometer, a cold rag, a glass of water, a trashcan with a bag in it to catch my vomit and tissues. God forbid my mother should have to get any of these things herself. I’d feel so much more like a burden – even more than I do now, just needing her to know that I’m sick and maybe take my temperature. After several minutes, my mother stomps into my bedroom carrying her bathrobe. She doesn’t slide her arms into each sleeve. She punches her fists into them in quick jerks, while muttering under her breath. She ties her robe violently with sharp dramatic movements, and I can actually hear the fabric protesting as it slides across itself. It makes an angry zzzzzziiip sound.
Still muttering, she comes over to my bedside and observes my “handiwork” – my collection of things one needs when one is sick. My mother looks at me with disgust and says, “You’re such a hypochondriac! You don’t even know if you’re sick yet! I’ll tell you if you’re sick!” She picks up the thermometer and removes it from the case. She starts shaking it down violently. I can hear her wrist snapping and cracking with each shake. It’s a horrible sound – a precursor of a certain kind of death. I watch in horror. I’ve seen this before and I know what’s coming but I dare say nothing. And then it happens – again. The thermometer flies out of my mother’s hand and shatters on my nightstand. Glass and mercury go everywhere.
MOM: SHIT! GOD DAMN IT! GOD DAMN YOU! UUUHHHH! You have to go and get sick, don’t you! I tell you not to touch filth – to wash your hands, but you don’t listen. I tell you to button up your neck! GOD DAMN IT!!! (She’s lost her mind).
I feel the need to throw up at this point but somehow my body knows better – knows my life depends on not getting sick. I offer to clean up the glass and mercury but my mother ignores me. Her silence says it all. Her silence is worse than words – because I supply the words for her in when she fails to rise to the occasion. In my head I hear clearly, “I hate you. You’re such a fucking burden. How did I ever get stuck with you? I hate you. You’re an un-loveable piece of shit!”
After a moment, I realize I’m looking down at two wet spots – one on the top of each of my thighs and I’m back in Carl’s office. I’m on fire with shame and feel the urge to leave. I need to get out of here. I can’t look up at him.
CARL: Where’d you go?
DENNIS: (I look up at him for a second)
CARL: Where’d you go?
CARL: (An understanding nod).
To be continued . . .