I had it all worked out. Raymond sat opposite me, his gaze unblinking. I felt like a bug pinned to cardboard, wriggling, but sure of my ability to intelligently represent what “life as Patricia” was. Though he smiled, exuding warmth, something else filled in the lines of the smile, something I wouldn’t run from.
With unflappable courtesy, he began our first session. “Tell me about yourself,” he said, the grey-blue eyes focused. He had no notepad.
I jumped right in, ready to describe all of me in one sentence. “I’m an Adult Child of an Alcoholic, I attend Overeater’s Anonymous, and I’m a Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse,” reducing myself to a bunch of abbreviations, ACOA, OA, and SCSA. A slight smirk lifted the edges of his smile, almost imperceptibly, yet I caught it because I had learned to study faces at an early age. He tried to put me at ease, but I looked beyond him to the door, an escape route.
Later, nearing the end of our time, he narrated a story, the first of many that captivated me. “My wife and I like to hike the Adirondacks. We backpacked into a favorite park carrying all supplies following a well-marked trail. But this time we veered off, taking one unmarked. The tangled thicket opened up to waterfalls splashing into a deep pool. We stripped off our clothes, swam, and then sunned afterwards on the rocks,” he watched me with riveting clarity.
Picturing him skinny-dipping naked reduced the godlike entity slightly. Still, the pedestal he perched upon soared through the stratosphere. But I had something to chew on. Like a cow with cud, enjoying the taste of sweet grass over and over. Take a different path.
We continued to chat till the time was up and he seemed satisfied. Then he said, “Okay, let’s get to work.”
I thought that was an odd thing to end with, but also encouraging. He took this seriously, he took me seriously.
The next week, Raymond said, “I’d like to prescribe Prozac. There aren’t any side effects,” he added quickly because my face must have registered shock. “It will help.”
I filled the prescription reluctantly, taking it for about a month, pissed off at the liar who said there weren’t side effects because changes took place in my body I couldn’t put my finger on. I wanted off and he didn’t fight me.
I tapered off, glad to be rid of it. Eventually, in nursing school, I learned that Prozac has many common side effects, like most drugs, and some that can be serious, even life-threatening. But it has been around a long time and serious side effects are rare. I didn’t know that then. I felt lied to and cheated, but couldn’t simply say, “You lied to me. There are side effects!” But my body language belied the nice, pleasing persona I attempted to put forth. It trumpeted resistance, bellowed rigidity, erect and wooden as the chair legs.
Uptight already, I became tighter, my muscles taut like coiled springs. Anger bubbled below with no way out. Why couldn’t I complain about something so minor? I had no voice, just buried feelings.
One day I arrived in a navy blue sweatshirt Mom had crafted with fabric balloons on it. He gentlemanly closed the door, noting every detail.
After we sat, exchanging a few words, he began, “Some of your parts are like balloons on your sweatshirt, larger, predominant and to the forefront. But there are other parts, like the ones in the background…”
I was quiet as usual, fascinated by his stories, soaking up every word, hope fluttering up through a crack in the darkness like a sunbeam.
We worked so fast my head spun. By fall he had me dreaming of who and what I could be, hairdresser or nurse? After explaining the pay for both, nursing won, enticed solely on the fatter paycheck, not the wish to heal the sick and wounded. I registered immediately for a few courses, one of which would complete the long lost Associates Degree dangling unfinished from almost twenty years before. There was a lengthy waiting list for entrance into the nursing program. The college looked at current curriculum to determine if one had the ability to complete its rigorous training.
I took Chemistry, a prerequisite. I had managed a final grade of forty in high school but dove in with zest this time around. One day the professor became livid; no one had answered a question correctly. He slammed the door, threw a pencil at the girl who had disgusted him, then turned towards me and through clamped teeth managed, “Patricia?”
I answered correctly. He seemed almost pleased and continued the lecture.
I discussed, or rather complained to Raymond about the incident, “He closed the door, told us we were all stupid and threw a pencil at a girl!”
Raymond inquired, “What is his name?”
“Dr. Payne,” I answered. We both snickered. Hard to believe, but perfect. And just as hard for me to believe as the knowledge that I, who had flunked three courses in tenth grade and took summer courses to catch up, was now being singled out to answer a question no one else could.
I earned A‟s in almost every course and the Dean’s List included my name a few times. All because Raymond had dared suggest one facet of my worth: intelligence, scholastic achievement the proof.
The work over the next four years was intense. Before coming to therapy, I’d gained back much of the weight lost after surgery.
One day he asked, “Why are you fat?” Who was so dense, rude, and insensitive enough to ask that? I didn’t have an answer, just looked back mutely while my raised hackles created a hurricane in the room.
His inquiry hurt exquisitely, enough to do something about it. Humiliated into action, I joined a gym and Weight Watchers, dropping the excess pounds again. As weight disappeared, so did some self-hatred.
The beast of resistance was attacked on every front. His next objective would clear out the negative.
“I would like you take one half hour each day and make it your time. Create on the outside what you feel inside,” he said.
It took a while for me to understand what he was asking for, but over the next few weeks and months, I worked diligently.
A hunk of clay left over from pottery class became the first sculpture. It erupted from gut to hands, as I worked the clay a serpent formed, hideous and frightening. Alone in the house at the kitchen table, the room reeled. Though unsteady, my hands kept on as the second head of the snake appeared. I trapped the unholy anomaly in a cardboard box, fearing the rattling of its tail, or the bite of its fangs. The next form that appeared under my hands in clay was an oversized, ugly, bumpy penis, which also went quickly into the box.
After lighting a candle every morning after the bus left with Shane, the ritual half hour began. I drew page after page of how my tummy felt, hellish black swirls emanating outwards like volcanic explosions, splashed with watercolors and acrylics of red, red, red, the blood splatter of rage. Black also dominated, with pictures depicting gory ghoul hands reaching up for me. Other illustrations included my stick figure separated from the group, cheeks scarlet with shame. After piling in the fury and terror, I painted the cardboard box black, hoping the fermented rot in my belly was out of me. It was a start.
In the closet nearby, I felt afraid, imagining that shit inside slithering out. I asked Raymond if he would keep it for me rather than have it sit in my closet. It was his idea to have a ceremonial fire on his property in the spring during one of our sessions, and I readily agreed. Burning that vile box would be cleansing, and I looked forward to it. The contents of the box felt so real, and so scary, that even far away at Raymond’s house, I had nightmarish snapshots of the box’s contents creeping out for him too. But the thick-coated, pendulous penis, exposed when I was just a young girl, came only for me, so I reassured myself he’d be safe from it.
Raymond never saw what was in the box. Spring came and we carried it out back behind his barn and lit it.
He said, “Do you want to say anything?”
I shook my head no as we watched it burn. Then thinking I ought to cough something up, I squeezed out, “It’s as good as Dulcolax.”
He chuckled. Having managed the first semester of nursing school, I knew Dulcolax to be an effective laxative. I wished he’d seen some of the pieces. Though horrible creatures, they were surprisingly well done, but once I’d put them in the box, they stayed there. I didn’t look at them again, go near them, or touch the box till our ceremonial march to the fire pit.
Maybe ridding unwelcome spirits is as easy as lighting a match. But the beast of rage in my heart was extraordinary, so writhing and undulating that it encroached on all other feelings, even the physical ability to breath. Raymond tried to help with my high anxiety right from the beginning. At one session he handed me a paper he wrote covering the subject of diaphragmatic breathing.
Instantly noting suspicion, he questioned, “You don’t believe in such a thing?”
I didn’t. How could there such be a word as “diaphragmatic”? Did he make it up? I just looked at him, again unable to vocalize disagreement.
My inability to trust was, as always, paramount, its periscope of suspicion constantly scanning for threats. Mistrust had become a fervent religion. It’s not a religion that allows freedom. Locked up tightly, I was unable to feel my own center, a place guarded as if life depended on it. Breaking into a sealed, guarded vault would be easier than finding my heart.
But eventually he found a way through.
I devoted time each day to slow down my breathing and visualize soothing nature trails, listening to the meditation tape Raymond had recorded during a session. His voice, silky smooth like Dan’s had been, led me to gentle streams and quiet falls trickling over rocks, then a barebacked horse ride along a sun-dappled forest path.
And then there was that nut in my pocket. I paid ninety dollars for someone to tell me to rub my thumb over something smooth in my pocket when I felt stressed. I thought him loony for suggesting such a dumb, insubstantial little thing, but did it anyway. By the sidewalk in town, chestnuts had fallen. I gathered a basketful and always kept one in a pocket. Anything was better than taking that awful Prozac.
Then he said, “I’d like you try writing without stopping. Don’t stop to think, punctuate, or check spelling. Don’t stop at all, just keep going. It’s called “free association.”
I looked at him, perplexed. Another stupid idea. Journaling was one thing, but this? My disloyal head nodded agreeably though, as if attached to someone else’s body. I tried it at home, hating it even more than I thought I would. He read the letter handed over during the next visit after sitting down. I wrote out very courteously, sweetly really, how his idea of “free association” didn’t work too well.
“Ah, free ass,” he said, looking up at me, that smirk on his face again.
What the heck was he talking about, free ass? I had merely abbreviated “association.” I didn’t mean anything by it.
Or did I?
He went on unperturbed, “You didn’t find it helpful?”
His tranquil smile both threatened and annoyed me. I squirmed in the chair, beginning to sweat as he waited for an answer. He wasn’t getting one. The struggle to disagree, or vocalize any feeling, was a lifelong endeavor. But he torpedoed past defenses others did not, doing so with precision. I was found out, with nowhere to hide or run from those gazing glittering eyes.
Through many starts and stops, I did make it through nursing school. I returned and re-bought the heavy massive books many times, once quitting for an entire year, once for three days. The lead nurse instructor showed great tolerance, allowing reentrance twice. The fear took its toll. Because of long ago trauma—untreated post- traumatic stress—any additional stress would shoot out chemicals designed to prepare the body for imminent danger. “Lions, tigers, and bears‟ were around every corner. Anyone standing nearby worried me. What were they talking about? I was sure it was me, even if I didn’t know them. Every human posed a threat. What would they do to me? How would they hurt me? What would they take from me? The more intelligent a person, the more threatening they were.
My immune system couldn’t take the constant beatings. I developed phobias of elevators and flying and had my first, and so far last, panic attack. It occurred after quitting the first time. The world crashed in. Suffocated by failure, I grasped at any lifeline. Shane, only twelve, got off the bus. My distress at the darkness drowning me pulled him into the fight for my life.
“Go outside, Mom” he said, knowing how I loved the outdoors.
I gasped for air outside too as he followed, worried.
I called Raymond, desperate for relief, crying, and tried to relay what was happening. “I feel like I can’t breathe, like I’m dying!”
He calmly replied, “Allow the feeling in.”
It wasn’t the first time I thought he didn’t understand. During our next meeting he prescribed Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, but had to persuade me to use it. I resisted taking in foreign objects and never really took enough the way it was prescribed. But just having it with me at all times after that first panic attack was the panacea I needed to prevent another one, a kind of security blanket. That and the fact that finally I succeeded and graduated.
But by that time, Raymond had gone.