[This story was created 4/18/2005 with several purposes in mind, mostly to play around with writing dialogue and subtle setting markers. This is a longer post than usual. Future posts of my longer works will be broken down into a series.]
The final minutes of Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony whispered through the cornered speakers. Owen Barfield’s History of English Words had fallen from my lap to the bluish specked carpet. It had book-marked itself on impact, its pages open to that last read paragraph about the analysis of philosophy and religion. A knock rattled the partially opened door. I was half asleep, playing badminton against patients in white, their birdies seeming to defy physics in order to avoid my flailing racket.
“Dr. Marty? Would you be willing to accept a transferred appointment? Dr. Oh –” Dr. Kamensky’s secretary sauntered past the leather chairs to the little golden bell on my desk and gave it a couple jolts. “I was wondering,” she emphasized the syllables, “if you could take a transferred appointment.”
My right leg kicked and I sat erect. Miss Glonahaven stood before me. She had asked something, I could tell. Her eyebrows had extended and she was leaning forward. I had better assure her of my proficiency.
“Um, don’t worry, I have no one scheduled for the next,” I glanced at my watch, “hour or so.”
“Does that mean you can accept?”
I had tried to sound informed and only took upon myself another hit. “Sure.”
Not everything can be determined through body language, or was I loosing my touch? I enjoyed the blackness of my eyelids once again as Miss Glonahaven left to call in the patient. I slipped back into a previous encounter where body language said all.
“And you say you feel restless about this?”
That’s the first time a patient has responded to me in that manner for a while. I tapped my tenth anniversary pen on the armrest of my favorite leather chair, the Marty throne; both were gifts from the clinic, the nickname of the latter given by my boss.
“I know your real name Mr. Reich,” I said to the floor while tilting my head toward the man in the leather couch. Don’t look too eager, but show you’re in control.
The man bore his eyes into the ceiling, biting his fingers in between clicking his tongue. He crossed his legs slowly, shifting for a comfortable spot in his resting position.
“You can trust me you know. I had my right as your psychologist to know what I will. If you think what is happening is wrong then I can help you through it.” No hinting of fault, just ease him along. “And the more I know the better I can help.”
“I…I uh…” he stuttered almost dramatically, staring mechanically at the ceiling, “I have this weird thing. You know?”
He certainly appears to be nervous, but we’ll see. “Did you know that if someone stuck an iron stake into the back of your head in just the right place, specifically the Occipital Lobe, you would become blind, but otherwise unharmed?”
Let the show go on.
“What the heck?” The man sat upright. Too quickly. “That is not relevant to what we are talking about. Are you accusing me of something doctor?”
He chose his words too carefully. Too offended, yet his arms rested loosely on his thighs. Body language, it’s all about the body language. He wasn’t nervous. He isn’t even upset right now. I knew he was hiding something.
A nervous knock rattled my door. My door always rattles. “Come on in.”
“Are you Dr. Martinez?” a man asked. He sounded muffled. He must be holding his papers right up to his face. I opened my eyes, dissipating the previous encounter from my mind. He hadn’t walked in, his knees were locked. Time for some charm.
“Assuredly I am my friend. But you can call me Marty. Enjoy a comfortable seat will you?” I motioned for the leather couch. “What service shall I provide?”
Vivaldi’s Opus Three entered the second fast-slow-fast phase. A perfect coincidental touch. I replaced the satin swivel chair I was sitting on with my throne.
“And you have a gift for me?”
The man sat down probingly, obviously enjoying the couch’s feel. I waited patiently. He had sat on the side of the couch, against the armrest, meaning he probably wasn’t a very confident individual. I’ll be easy on him.
I met his gaze and he looked quizzical for a moment before he suddenly became aware of my inquiry. He extended the green folder across the span between us, a perfect two arm’s lengths, and I retrieved my prize.
I loved this part, or rather, was curious. Discovering unique and privileged information was the interest of my profession. It is key to observe the background life of people in order to weave a proper quilt of what made individuals tick. Surely a cliché in writer’s terms, but to a psychologist every apt analogy and connection with the patient is of absolute importance.
“So…Chad,” I said behind the green folder, “I’m afraid I’ll slaughter your last name, could you give me a sample?” Don’t allow a chance for a mistake on my part. Let them talk. Make the connection.
“Oh, yeah. It’s Longren. Chad Longren.” He’s warming up already: good.
“Excellent. Chad Longren. Has a prestigious feel to it, doncha think?” I said, trying to shake the last drops of sleep out of my toes. “Let’s get to it.” Take a pause, don’t seem hasty. “Um, do you have any initial questions?”
He shrugged, but I couldn’t tell if it was from my comment or to my question. I added, “Don’t worry, it wasn’t rhetorical.”
He smiled at his shoes and said, “Well, I was wondering, well, about your name.” He continued as if talking to a communist policeman, “I don’t mean anything by it, but, but your name is Hispanic isn’t it? And, well, you don’t look it.”
I smiled one of those half-shrug sideways smiles. “Oh, that’s a common one.” I waved my hand. “My great-grandfather was from Spain see, and when he moved into Chicago he married a German, Irish lady. Since then the German and Irish side was cultivated in my family, but the Martinez name continued down the line through the men of the family,” I ended with a nod. Be relational, trust him and he will trust me.
He nodded a ‘well, that’s interesting’ kind of a nod, but said nothing.
He felt awkward. All patients usually feel awkward, unless they’re oral retentive. But this time I felt an edge of his uncertainty. Why? I stood up to walk towards the back window pretending to read Chad’s report. This brought me back to my discomfited experience from a couple weeks past.
“You want me to interpret your dreams? I donno, it’s a sketchy practice,” I said to the man on the couch, a middle aged man, much like me.
“But, it’s a reoccurring dream, those are important right?” He sounded like he had already rationalized this in his own mind. “Doctor –”
“You can call me Marty.”
“Um, Marty,” he was weaving fingers through fingers as he almost pleaded his words, “I can’t say why, or how, or even why, but I feel anxious. I…I’m just anxious.”
A repetition of words, uneasy hands, and an uncanny apprehension, interesting.“Ok, Stan,” I said, glancing at his green folder, “let us hear your dream. You could be right, maybe it will help.”
I thought I heard a baby cry in the hallway. Bad dreams of her own?
In his opportunity to explain his thoughts he sat upright and unfolded his mind, and he must have written it down in a journal by his manner of speaking, “Ok, so what I remember is walking outside of my house, right,” he said, looking up at me to make sure I followed, “and for some reason I walked over to my mailbox.”
Uh oh, I smell a Freudian theory coming up.
“When I got there I automatically opened the box, ya see, and what I found was a rat. A large freaking rat! I…I was so confused, but when I woke up I still remembered it, so I knew it must mean something,” he said, and then just stopped, looking across at me, convinced I knew all the answers.
I knew the mailbox was symbolic for a woman in his life, the setting was meaningless, and the rat, well, the rat was a source of pestilence, plague, something undesired or intrusive. I knew what Freud would say, I knew what I would say. But may I please be wrong.
I started to ask him a question, but held my tongue. Should I ask it? Does it even matter what the dream could mean? Perhaps his mind took insignificant feuding factors in his marriage then ran off on a field day on one inebriated night. But if not, then I would have to dig deeper, counsel him, then find conclusion, a passage of recovering, perhaps even a confrontation. I’ll start slow to be sure.
“So,” I said casually, “how would you say your marriage is faring lately?”
Stan looked at me in the eyes and said, “I’m not married.”
Ouch, what was I thinking? I eyed the folder again. Minus one point for Freud, and for me. I’ve dealt with unspecific problems numerous times and in a professional manner. In this instance, though, I didn’t feel in control. I felt uneasy.
A self-conscious deterioration leaked into my thoughts, an acid eating away at the precious layers of my cerebral cortex. Was it coincidence that anyone had ever been helped by my limited mentality? Hundreds of patients, with hundreds of stories to tell, with thousands of problems to solve; all seeming to be relative to each other.
Amongst these jumbled thoughts Stan had no clue as to what I was thinking, my eyes being averted to the green and yellow swirls of the lava lamp on my desk. I could still end strong by forming a professional mood. I digressed from the previous awkwardness by starting with, “Alright, good.” I clapped my hands. “Then the dream means nothing. You’re perfectly fine in that regard!” I gave an assuring nod. That hurdle being passed, the rest of the appointment continued as planned.
When the lava lamp fulfilled its distraction purposes my reverie ended and I was back in the present. I continued my usual pondering path around the desk and past the window, where I would momentarily observe the city pigeons across the street. Then continue past the shelves containing Erickson for the heavy thinking and volumes of Get Fuzzy for the lighter hearted. Passing the shelves my trek led behind the couch, and in finale rounded back to my throne.
A standing presence imbues authority over those sitting down as well as acknowledges responsibility to serve as the guide in conversation and deduction. It has been my personal practice for six of the eleven years of my tenure here.
“So, Chad. What can you tell me about yourself?” I said, passing the bend between the pigeons and Erickson.
“I’m a Stenographer for the Pennsylvania Court of Appeals. Um, done that for three years.”
I’m sure he’s had his share of the not-so-socially-adept. And yet he doesn’t seem much of a people person, unless such people have pushed this poor man away from any communal spectrum. But this was a unique job, a connection point even, comparable to mine. I toyed with that idea and said, “Yeah. You must get to encounter a variety of, shall we say, those who lack common sense.”
He smiled at his hands this time. We’re making progress.
“I guess. Most people either don’t know what that is or think it’s really boring.”
“Oh no,” I said, “not boring at all. I’ve received my end of unique situations and personalities, of which most will never know or understand. I recognize near exactly what you mean.” Another practice of mine was to never, ever make the absurd claim that I know exactly how someone feels or that I can perfectly relate.
He began to speak but was interrupted by the grandfather clock behind him, a single reverberation marking halfway through the hour.
After a moment he said, “Do you over-think things a lot Marty?”
The question was sudden, but I knew the answer. “Why, yes, yes I do,” I confessed. “It’s called metacognition. Where one thinks about the thinking process, or thinks about what he is thinking about.” I chuckled. How strange it is that I being a psychologist knew about metacognition, but it did nothing to change that I consistently double-checked my own ideas and sidetracked upon tangents of my own intellect.
He nodded, but said nothing, almost hoping I would have more to say.
I wonder. “Is that why you’re here Chad?”
Watching the yellow blobs interrupt the blue beads floating on top Chad pointed towards me and said, “Yeah,” as if expecting to be found out.
“But,” I stammered, my eyebrows wrinkling, “why come here for that? A psychiatrist’s help is a bit overboard, don’t you think.” That couldn’t be his only reason for coming. There was more. “Come on. Tell me what’s really going on. You can trust me.” But was I being condemning by being so confused?
Quickly looking at me he replied, “Yes. Of course I can trust you.” In a new arena of confidence he continued, “I now feel like I can trust you more than most. What you have described, that is the reason why I am here. And I now know that you are affected by the same thing, the same problem.”
Metacognition, a problem? Is that what boggles me down? Is that what I have placed way so many band-aids on that it obstructs my normal activities?
What is this, that a patient causes his own doctor to admit his own struggles? I was taken aback, and surely looked it.
“Please don’t get me wrong doctor, uh, Marty.”
“Don’t worry about names, I’ve got plenty. You can even call me Joe.”
“Joe, I’m not saying that thinking too hard is a crime, or, um, that this metacognition is so very bad.” His eyes searched for a better explanation. “It’s what you said yourself, our professions have similar,” he struggled for an appropriate word, “availabilities, to all sorts of weird worldviews from all sorts of weird people.”
I returned with a nod, listening attentively, as both our professions required.
“It’s just that,” he sighed, “I can’t make up my mind.” A southern accent was hinted in his words.
The distant sound of a phone ring warbled from down the hall.
I broke the silence, “Well boggle me down and cover me in band-aids, I think you’re right.” That could be a new catch phrase.
He smiled at me.
With a sliver of a laugh he said, “Should I lay down now and spill out my childhood and reminisce over all the hidden messages it holds?”
I let out a snerf. Its what I call an airy snort of a laugh. “Yes. Yes you should.” But we still needed to get to the bottom of this. “Now seriously. How would you say this hinders you?” I asked.
He thought a moment before speaking. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s bothersome to me. I can’t even make a solid decision between choosing a Barq’s Root Beer or a Wild Cherry Pepsi.”
“Well, don’t then,” I said with a poker face.
Chad chewed on one of his fingernails. I waited for his reply.
He responded slowly in the same mask, “You’ve, changed me doctor.”
Vivaldi ended his serenade.
My poker face broke, and so did his.
I looked in his eyes. Some claim that those who are relieved from a long burden have a new glimmer in their eye, or some youthful edge that wasn’t there before. But when I saw his hazy -green eyes they were still the same as before.
But he was brightened. So far our conversation had lifted his spirits, hopefully freeing him from the funk he was stuck in.
I rested my forearms on my knees, strumming my fingertips Mr. Burns style. Back to business.
“There’s nothing wrong with a bit of indecision. In fact, it can be expected from time to time, and even more so.”
“Nah.” He shrugged it off. “That’s not just it though.”
A deep breath preceded his answer, “I donno. When I sit beside the stand and record what everyone is saying, I commonly catch people in their lies.”
“Ok,” I said reassuringly.
“Let me explain,” he said, thinking for an example. “Uh, such as this old man.
He was accused of splicing a school administration’s server to find its account numbers. The police had retraced service numbers and networking figures back to the computer in his home, but we couldn’t pin the actual act on the guy.”
“Wow. Was it his grandson or did the old coot go bad?”
“Well, the man’s defense included an alibi, but they couldn’t verify it. Another defense was that the old man was oblivious to new technology and all its ‘whoha.’ That which I had recorded. He said he didn’t even know what a desktop was. He only used it for the calculator, the solitaire, and the typing program. But later in the case he was asked the obvious basics, such as ‘Did you or did you not hack into the server of the ChristianHeritageAcademy?’ Which he denied. And ‘Did you or did you not imbed a network link into the source coding of their homepage?’ Which he not only denied but said that such a method was impossible because it would require a physical connection from his computer to the school’s server in order to use a network link.” He looked at me sheepishly. “Did you catch all that?”
“Well, after recording that I realized his previous statement, catching him in a lie.”
Can he talk about what happens in court? “Are you sure you can disclose such court information?” I asked.
He responded in an offhanded fashion, “No problem. The case has been over for years.”
He obviously had a healthy pride in the importance of his job, but how did that relate to metacognition? “And so…this causes so many problems how?”
He suddenly looked defeated.
“Everyone lies Joe. Even me. I’ve been conditioned to not trust what people first say. I’m starting to doubt even what I say. As if,” he trailed off, taking a bite of another nail, trailing back saying, “I want to trick myself from acknowledging certain things.”
“I would certainly diagnose that as metacognition. I would recommend,” I said, pausing between each fragment for dramatic effect, “some Zoloft, twice a day, for three years. If any minor side-effects arise, such as internal bleeding, migraines, whooping cough, or death, then call right away for an immediate refund.” I hope I had depicted an obvious sense of sarcasm.
“No, I’m not depressed about it. But the advice is well taken.”
I grinned, resting my chin on my hands. “Of course.”
“But sometimes a bout of despair will overwhelm me. It’ll be triggered by a small mistake, or even when I find a fault in another during a trial. I overanalyze the situation…then can’t get the bad details outa my head.”
This was familiar territory. Many patients have described what Chad just did. Yet he still wasn’t at the main point. He’s trying to describe what’s going on in his head using whatever details he can remember, but finding it hard to do so.
“But just as quickly as it comes the doubt will disappear. Am I right?” I asked.
Another deep sigh. Probably not in fatigue or glum, but merely to stall the conversation so he has some time to think. Many people sigh because they hate awkward silences.
“It’s like what I said before, anything with an aura of doubt is taken for granted. I’m told that I should just fill in the gaps with whatever. ”
“Told by whom?”
“Come on Joe, you know what I’m talking about.”
I sat back in my chair and he chewed his pinky, both of us trying to think.
No. One cannot just fill in the gaps with whatever, I knew that. Even with a subject as variant as psychology, we psychologists know that there is a standard to follow.
“Looks like a defense mechanism to me,” I said, trying to fill in the time. “It sounds like one of those universal discrepancies. Your mind takes the easy way out and blocks your cognitive capacity to properly analyze the situation. Cognitively you make a decision you think is true, i.e., you think you are a failure because you, uh,” I trailed the ‘uh’ before blurting, “made a typing error on a court review. Emotionally you feel bad, but subconsciously you know that it is the easy way out. The blame is done, you get to feel sorry for yourself, case closed. But,” I emphasized, “that does not make it true.”
Wow. That actually worked out well for just trying to fill the silence.
Chad took it all in, mulling over what I had said. It’s a good thing there aren’t any muscles in the brain, or else he’d be flooded with lactic acid.
“I guess that makes sense,” he conceded while leaning back and stretching.
His arm stretched out, up, then in, towards his face, placing his wristwatch in sight. “Oh,” he exclaimed, “I need to go.”
Go? Now? But not yet, we were connecting so well.
“You need to go now?” I protested, hinting a sadness I don’t usually have when patients leave. “But we were just getting right into things.”
“Oh, no worries doctor,” Chad replied with a bona fide grin, “I have already been cured!” He thanked me, asked where he should pay, and with a courteous handshake departed.
I nodded my head, perhaps to the jazz outbreak from the cornered speakers, perhaps in agreement with his remedial admission. I continued to nod those half nods, the kind adolescents commonly give when agreeing with parents while not really listening.
I’m sure he still had his doubts, as I do, but hopefully these doubts will be taken logically for evaluation. If not logically though, at least the doubts will less likely cause self-effacing and depression.
I imagined a change in his life. I do that sometimes. What will a patient do after leaving my room? Did he change his lifestyle? Would he be the exact same as before? I knew Chad left with something. Physically, literally, his brain had mutated, as it always does when new information is taken in. Dendrites stretch from the cell body and connect to the axons of other brain cells, allowing the information to be transferred more easily.
Un-literally, emotionally, he has found that others endure similar hardships, and just knowing that he wasn’t alone was surely a comfort. He wasn’t crazy.
I sat there in the Marty Throne, myself not yet cured. I had some time to think it though. I looked at my watch. It was a half hour’s time until the next appointment. Plenty of time to ponder the universe, my thoughts tumbling like the lava lamp globules beside me.