Colleen and I used to visit this new-Agey place in Philly, Awakened, where Colleen would spend hours perusing zen books, fondling crystals and buying anything written by various yogis.
Me? I'd walk to the back, ring the chimes, duck into one of the unoccupied aisles and watch as Colleen and the rest of the yogi-worshipers turned and scowled at the noise that disturbed their ethereal quietude.
One of us became a criminal defense lawyer. That would be Colleen.
One of us became a therapist. That would be me.
I used to think Colleen, who spends her workdays defending alleged rapists and murderers, had the dangerous job.
Now, after what happened in Maine, I'm not so sure.
“Who am I talking to today?”
If one of my co-therapists walked in to hear my opening line with my first client at Mind Works today, they would think I’m callous...or crazy...or both. I mean, there are only two people sitting in my office, and my break-the-ice opener isn’t what they taught me at Immaculata or, I suspect, what they teach at any reputable counseling psych program around the country.
But most clients aren’t like Michael. And most therapists aren’t like me.
“Queen Elizabeth,” Michael responds.
“Where’s your crown?”
Michael and I have been polishing our schtick for about a year since, as I explained to Michael the first time I saw him, he drew the short straw and got me as his therapist at one of the largest counseling centers in Delaware. Turned out that I was the first therapist he had ever seen.
Michael was raped repeatedly by his father between the ages of five and seven. He told his mother, but she didn't believe him. He told his school counselor, but the counselor decided that Michael merely was lashing out because his parents paid more attention to his sister.
I wish that counselor was still around. I'd lash out at him with a baseball bat. Hey, they say the best way to deal with anger is to own it. I own plenty of anger when it comes to the way Michael was abused first by his father, then by a mother who didn't buy his story and then by a counselor who should have been an auto mechanic.
“Can we just shoot the shit today, Nick?” Michael asks. “I don’t know if I have any tears left.”
There were plenty of tears during our last session and Michael, a big, burly former linebacker at Penn State isn’t given to much emotion. It’s a problem that afflicts most of the men I see. They want to be strong, so they don’t show their emotions. Problem is, not showing feelings leads to a buildup of emotions inside, kind of like a balloon getting filled. Keep blowing air into a balloon and it’s going to pop. Keep hoarding emotions and you’re going to pop, which is why Mind Works does so well and why so many of the clients are men. When it comes to mental health, men could learn a lot from women. Women discuss feelings. Men discuss sports.
Michael and I didn’t discuss sports the last time we met. We talked about the molestation, which led to tears, which would have led to an anxiety attack if Michael didn’t employ the breathing techniques we had practiced over and over again in our sessions.
“Shoot the shit about what, Mike? The Phillies? They’re not worth talking about. Wake me up when they get a bullpen. The Eagles? They haven’t been worth a damn since they won the Super Bowl. The Sixers? I should be Ben Simmons’ counselor. The man has a three-point-shooting phobia.”
Silence. I rushed to fill the silence void in my early counseling days. Now, I let it be. Either the client starts talking or the clock runs out 45 minutes later.
The client usually breaks the silence. I’d like to think it’s because I am employing tried-and-true therapeutic techniques. But it’s probably because the client wants to get something for his money.
“After the last time, we can’t shoot the shit about the depressing Philly sports scene,” Michael finally says. “Nice sports buzz-kill, counselor. And you’re the only person who can keep up with me talking sports, you being a former sportswriter and all. Why’d you change gigs, anyway?”
“What you’re doing, Mike, it’s called avoidance. We’ve talked about this.”
“You didn’t feel fulfilled talking to those millionaire athletes? Was that it?”
“Repression, Michael. We talked about that, too.”
“You get paid extra for psycho-babble, counselor?”
“With a little displacement thrown in.”
“Damn, you’re making big-time money today.”
More silence. I’m thinking the clock will run out before we get to the actual therapy.
“Okay, let’s do it.”
Which is Michael’s way of telling me that he’ll confront the molestation. It’s difficult but Michael wants to deal with his problems and knows discussing his father, not the Sixers, will lead him closer to his destination.
So, we start into “exposure therapy,” which includes Michael going into detail about the abuse, me calming him down when he gets tense, and Michael going into more detail until the session ends. Exposure therapy allows a person to express his feelings in a safe, controlled environment. It also lets me normalize their experiences.
Michael calms himself by taking deep breaths. His eyes are trained on me, but he isn’t looking at me anymore. He’s looking at an event that happened when he was five years old.
“Underdog,” Michael smiles. “I love this show. I really love Sweet Polly Purebred.”
Is he playing with me?
Michael loses the smile.
“Door’s locked!” Michael yells. “You can’t come in! What are you doing, Dad? I was just watching TV. What are you doing? No. Stop it. Stop it!”
“I’m telling Mom. No! That hurts. No! I’m telling. I don’t want to. I don’t...”
“I’m telling,” Michael is crying. I start to well up, just as I always do every time Michael speaks about this. “Please don’t. Don’t!”
“Let’s stop Michael.”
More crying. And then silence.
But Michael isn’t here anymore. Charles, the Protector, has taken over. Michael has dissociative identity disorder and has developed at least seven personalities that come out when it isn’t safe for Michael to be himself.
“Try that one more time, counselor, and I’ll hurt you,” Charles glares at me. “And I’ll hurt your family, too.”