Saturday, November 22, 2014

Therapeutic Embrace (a short story about PTSD and psychotherapy)

Forward: I'll interrupt our regular schedule of sci-fi and fantasy for some more realistic fiction I have written. While the characters and events depicted here are fictional (and not necessarily realistic), they are inspired by my experience of several years of psychotherapy to treat my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (which I suffer from due to being bullied and sexually assaulted by other kids while in elementary school).

Therapeutic Embrace

Abigail's lips moved into a frown, and she asked me, in a flat, though inquisitive tone:

"But why do you want to kill yourself?"

"Because…" I hesitated for a moment "Because I feel empty, worthless. Because I have no talent to speak of. Because I look back at my past and all I can see is pain, pain, and pain. Because Irina left me, and no other woman will ever want me."

Abigail, the therapist, drew herself back into her chair, then leaned again towards me over her desk. "You go from zero", she whistled and raised her finger high in the air "- to hero". She landed her raised hand on the desk with a thump, then spoke to me at a tone one could imagine a kindly, if annoyed, schoolteacher using to reprimand a beloved, though misbehaving child: "You make such a fine jump in your thought, from Irina leaving you, to no other woman wanting you. Have you spoken to each and every woman in our world? Did they all tell you they do not want you? You have many redeeming qualities. Many things most women will find attractive. What you are doing now –" she was now shaking her finger at me, completing the picture of a schoolteacher scolding an errant child "- is bullying yourself. You always do that when you are upset, if I think about that; you always act like such a little bully to yourself. Time after time. Well," she said in a harsh tone which could sour milk, and with a half-smile, "I do not think you should do so. I do not allow this. Or hurting yourself for that matter".

"Clang!" I could hear in my head. The trap has sprung. So finely set up by Abigail. Her logic was so perfect; so well-resonating with my past, but also with parts of my past I found difficult to come to terms with. Bullying, indeed, was an issue; and, in a sense, I was bullying myself, copying the actions used against me fifteen years ago by my classmates. Thinking, however, the pain began to rise in my heart, like a searing flame, like a flow of lava. For a second, I spaced out; I was back at 4th grade, standing next to this wall – I could not bear the thought. I blacked out for a moment, fear and anger rushing and drowning me in a sea of blackness.

Abigail's soft voice brought me back to her office. "Aharon," she spoke softly, "what are you thinking about?". I opened my eyes, to see the kindly therapist, no longer at her previous angry posture, giving me a warm, if somewhat worried look. "What is this that, from time to time, floods you like this?" she paused, touching my fingers, which were placed on her desk, with a soft touch of her palm "You do not have to tell me. But you can. I am here to help."

I hesitated. The very thought of what was done to me so many years ago was unbearable. But, on the other hand, I was here, at Abigail's office. Seated behind a desk strewn with papers, like some powerful official, her hair so tightly woven into a braid, her glossy purple blouse so neatly tucked into her dark-blue skirt, looking so formal, official, so authoritative… Yet, as I knew her, so soft and warm-hearted. Maybe, I thought to myself, I can hide behind her, bask in her authoritative power, and be safe? Safe enough for me to spill out the black tides of my heart?

I started to speak. "As I told you," I began with a steady, trusting voice "I was weak back when I was a schoolboy. I used to cry. To be afraid of people. I never hit anyone back. So I was…" at this point my voice began to tremble "an… easy target. For monsters. For bullies. But what I did not tell you yet…" My voice began to shake, and so did my hands "is that… This was no ordinary bullying. Not just being picked on, ridiculed, humiliated, beaten up… This was beyond that…" I began stuttering, but then spilled it out, like a hail of molten lead bursting out of my aching lips "I was sexually assaulted and humiliated by a gang of several boys". That was it; the black wind was blowing, no longer as a breeze, but as a terrible storm. I screamed; my thoughts and memories were no longer bearable anymore. As if struck by a nightmare, as if sleepwalking, I got up, walked to the door, opened it and walked down the corridor from Abigail's office, not going anywhere in particular, just going away, or at least trying to go away, from the storm boiling in my mind.

Suddenly, as I slowly approached the clinic's main door, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. I slowly turned around. Abigail stood there, one hand on her waist, the other on my shoulder, giving me a worried stare. "Going anywhere, are we?" she asked me, and I could not decide if in her voice I could hear sympathy, or anxiety, or anger. "Come," she said, her voice sounding crisp and sharp like an order "Let's walk back to my office". She then grabbed my right arm, one of her hands grabbing my by the elbow, the other by my wrist, giving my arm a tug in the direction of her office. Struck by my emotional storm, I resisted for a moment; Abigail responded by squeezing my arm, then tugging it again, purposefully. "Come here" she said, softly, but also very sharply and finitely. I yielded to her. Slowly, she walked me through that corridor, towards her office. I could hear her heels clicking on the floor, her jewelry jingling in a soothing rhythm as she led me, willing or not, alongside her.

She brought me into her room, and then, still holding my elbow with one hand, she retrieved a key from her pocket, and locked the door with an audible 'click', then pocketed it again. "You are safe here", she said, softly but firmly, "No one will get you. I'm watching". With this, she walked me to my chair, and motioned me to sit. I sat there, my inner winds slowly calming, as Abigail walked to her own seat, then sat across the desk from me, leaning forward and watching me intently. "They will not get you here", she said, with a smile, "I won't let them".

A surprising sensation of safety spread through my mind like a warm breeze. It was strange – Abigail saw my painful feelings, felt them well enough, but did not turn my back to me, as everyone else in my life did. Instead, she held on to me, tightly, in some sort of motherly embrace, the kind of motherly embrace I did not receive from my own mother, at least figuratively so, when she did not recognize my horrible distress during my adolescent years. All authority figures, all teachers, my parents, even the school principal, the police – all of them never lifted a finger to save me from abuse, from bullies and thugs… And from sexual assault. All of them. Even the ones who knew. I was betrayed, once, and twice, and again, and so on… And yet, suddenly, in front of me sat Abigail, as authoritative as an authority figure could be, and not only did she not abandon me to my inner bullies, but, to the contrary, held me tighter and tighter the more I was in distress. This was a new, fresh feeling for me: that of being watched, and accepted, by a person whom I perceived as an authority figure. I felt so safe, so secure, under Abigail's warm gaze.

"I am… surprised you didn't just let me go away. This is… strange for me. This feels… Unusual." I stuttered.

"How do you feel?" asked Abigail, "Can you be more precise?"

"I feel watched, guarded." I started putting my feelings to words "There are two sides to this coin. On one hand, you are guarding me, as if protecting a treasure. On the other, you are watching me… Like a jailor watches a prisoner. But this is a pleasant sensation, being regarded as a treasure, that is. Or maybe I am both the treasure, and the thief who tries to steal it? But anyhow, the harder my feelings are, the tighter you seem to embrace me… With your eyes alone."

Abigail put a soft hand on my own hand, which I placed on her table. "Now," she said "that you know you are safe, you can tell me, if you want, about what happened back then. Don't worry; I am watching."

I felt uncomfortable for a moment. "May I… Go now?" I asked, hesitantly "I have… a lot to think about".

"We still have 30 minutes ahead of us." Abigail said in a finite, authoritative voice. "Why don't you tell me what you are thinking about?"

So I told her, and cried, and the more I cried, the tighter Abigail's mental embrace felt.

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