“Yeah, and that’s the problem because—”
“Whether they’ll respond positively or not, I don’t know. Maybe—”
“—and, well, the entire idea of street photography is to catch people in a candid way.”
“—hypersensitive to ‘stranger danger’ and—”
“Yeah, well. Long story short: I don’t take pictures anymore. I write. And that’s pretty much the most solitary thing you can do.”
Doctor K nodded enthusiastically. “That’s exactly where my brain just went. Exactly where it went. Because I … I think the isolation is going to end up killing you. I mean just being really blunt with you, man.”
I laughed. “I know that, yeah. I’ve felt that I’ll probably have an … abbreviated lifespan, at least in my current track, if something doesn’t change. You know, that’s kind of why I’m here, trying to put myself out in the world. But yeah, I do feel that … You know, as things drop off in my life—my parents die—it’s just going to get tougher.”
“I’m worried about that. On this current path I think you and I would have the same projection, and I want to change that projection. And the key is, it’s going to come from you. I obviously can’t say, ‘Jon, get your ass out of the house,” he laughs. “You know? ‘C’mon leave, and lock the door behind you.’ I can’t do that.”
The last time I saw Doctor K, when he had said those things to me and expressed worry that my continued isolation would one day prove lethal, was last month—the last Thursday of June. The twenty-seventh. Because Independence Day was also on a Thursday this year, it meant I wouldn’t be seeing the good doctor for two weeks instead of the usual one. In a way I was glad. Our last few sessions had begun with me feeling tired, worked over, secretly dreading the inevitable moment when he would scoot his roller-chair around to face me, settle into the leather cushions with one leg crossed and a sunny pad of paper balanced on his knee, and ask about my week. Often I began with an unintelligible mumble, groping for a thought or an issue that would propel us both into another session in the same way you might tug the cord on the lawn mower or turn the ignition key two or three times, trying to get the engine to turn over and run. Sometimes, though, I didn’t have much to say. Sometimes my weeks felt like copies of the weeks before, where again little happened, and I just knew talking about them would leave me with an inescapable sense of déjà vu. And, maybe surprisingly, sometimes when I arrived at Doctor K’s office there on Chicago street I was in a good mood—I didn’t have much to complain about.
I’m still turned around enough in my head that arriving to a therapy session in a good mood still seems odd, like I’m not getting my full-money’s worth. So, come Thursday afternoon at around quarter to two, I often find myself digging. I’ll slog out into the swampy backyard of my thirty-three years of life and root the ground for some fossil of a fucked-up relationship, some broken artifact of mine or my family’s. This is what CF had once described as putting in work. Back in April, when I had not yet seen Doctor K and telephoned him about arranging an appointment time, she told me, If you’re going to see a therapist, I want you to take it serious and put in the work. She said, You go and be honest and get everything out in the open. Maybe CF should have added for once. Though, I’d like to think my experiences with past psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors have all been with an earnest effort, a sincere desire to overcome my problems and get healthy. It’s just that those doctors, male and female, were not good fits. They took my money and paid their mortgages, treated their spouse or their family to a nice dinner in a classy restaurant, and I took home delusions, sometimes scared, desperate delusions, that these people genuinely cared about me. That they might have been moved to tears upon hearing the news of my suicide.
And one time I took home samples of Lyrica (pregabalin). We—the psychiatrist and I—thought maybe the jaw pain was a symptom of a larger ailment, Fibromyalgia. Eight years later, I’m still unsure what causes the (now infrequent) pain and chameleon-like symptoms of Temporo Mandibular Disorder, but am reasonably sure it’s not that.
As for whether Doctor K is good for me, if he’s really helping or if we’re just shooting the breeze for fifty-five minutes every Thursday afternoon, I’m not sure. On the passenger-seat of my car I have every yellow receipt for every session we have had together, stacked, and the number is currently eight. After eight appointments I am still unsure.
Therapy is hard to quantify sometimes—much to my wallet’s displeasure.
But as usual, our Thursday discussions are a long, winding mess of ideas. In many ways, it feels like it’s a road we are traveling. Like we’re on a road trip somewhere out West, in the desert because the desert holds a special place in my heart, cruising some road like highway 50 through Nevada(1), visions of Hunter S. Thompson and Dr. Gonzo and The Great Red Shark looming on the horizon just ahead. Just our one car, moving quietly through a busted landscape. A tourist and a native. The good doctor driving, of course. I live here, in this very labored analogy it’s even my car—I’m paying for the gas and everything—yet somehow I’ve become lost. Broken down and stranded. I can’t read the signs. But the good doctor assures me he can.
“Know how I know you’re not well?” The doctor screams over the roaring wind and looks at me in the passenger-side. My reflection in his dusky bug-eyed sunglasses looks warped, my head too large for my neck, face swirly—as if I’m being flushed down the drain.
“I dunno,” I yell back. “How?”
“I’M STILL DRIVING!” He yanks the steering wheel to the left and our car veers into the other lane, the wrong lane. For several moments we stay there, the desert scrubland whipping by at obscene, highly-illegal speeds, only swerving back into our lane when an oncoming eighteen-wheeler starts blaring the horn. The good doctor’s laugh is frenzied and mad. Suddenly it feels like the bottom has dropped out of my soul.
Maybe I’m still a sucker, having bought into the general idea of counseling and the good doctor’s sales-pitch(2). The therapy might be a little sketchy (You have to put in the work! CF invariably says), but at least our talks continue to be good material for these journals. Some of it—a small nugget’s worth—is maybe even insightful, life-changing. But trying to remember it all was starting to get difficult, especially as my interest in relating these experiences grew. By the end of our fifty-five minutes, my brain always felt like a wrung-out dish rag. Running my mouth almost nonstop, hopping subject to subject as interest took hold, left me afterward feeling like I was wandering around in a fog. Often the drive home was a blur of moving color, traffic lights, stop signs, the car behind the car ahead, houses, whole neighborhoods sliding in and out of awareness. I’d always be elsewhere, in my head, scouring what I could before the sound faded and my memory of the appointment fogged down to a single image: the good doctor and I, seated across an expanse of wood flooring in our respective places—the roller-chair and the leather sofa—as if they were our forts, defenses to be stormed, our hands gesturing, our lips contorting around words that were now muted. Once during the drive home I had grabbed an old, empty envelope(3) from the passenger-side seat and while idling at a red light jotted down the salient points of our conversation(4), just ten or twenty minutes earlier. Even then the memory showed signs of cataracts, the details graying to nothing.
I wanted to find a way around this problem. So last month, hoping to aid my poor memory, I began covertly recording our discussions with a Memorex digital recorder I’d purchased from Walgreens, a few years ago. It’s a skinny, silver thing of surprising quality. Had I openly asked for permission, I’m sure the good doctor would have agreed; I’m sure, also, the sound quality would have been better. But, much like street photography, it is those candid moments that are worth everything. People get self-conscious when they know someone else is watching; they stiffen up, or they get extra-loose; their smiles take on a forced, plastic quality, or they start funning around, getting a little goofy, playing themselves up. I didn’t want Doctor K thinking he had to be extra witty, clever, or intelligent, just because the recorder would be lying on the coffee table in plain sight. Instead, I kept the recorder hidden in the pocket of my shorts or jeans—whatever I happened to be wearing at the time. The sound quality wasn’t great, but it was good enough that with headphones I could fish out the gems and include them in my stories. Later, once our appointment finished, I’d sit in my car in the clinic’s driveway, thumbing the rewind and fast-forward buttons, playing back our conversation and stopping at random points to listen. Our voices registered, but only in a thin, distant way. We sounded as if we were both deep underground somewhere, in a tunnel or sewer. Floating underneath our words was a constant white noise, a hiss, as if the air were electric and softly buzzing—the cause of which I assumed to be the inside fabric of my pocket draped over the speaker.
At the moment, I have roughly six hours of material. Some of it is good—revealing—and some of it is trivial and wanders. It’s kind of amazing how much can be said in one hour of talking. The first conversation of ours I later decided to transcribe, wanting a text version of our dialogue so later I could embellish the scene and craft it into a story, a good piece of creative non-fiction. I gave up on that notion after transcribing about twenty-three minutes—three thousand words. Better, I figured, to just cherry-pick the good stuff.
Most of what we discussed that last Thursday in June dealt with bullying. Didn’t matter which side, the one bullied or the bully himself—in a sense, they’re the same. The word itself never came up, but at its heart, that’s what our conversation was about. I mentioned to Doctor K what I had once told CF, during one of our close talks.
“The older I get I feel like the less well I cope with things.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, just that I’m not handling things as well as I used to.”
I went on to describe for Doctor K what I consider to be the extreme low point in my life as a working man: the fall and winter months of 2011, and on into the new year, when I was part of the overnight crew and stocked shelves at a local grocery store for pennies above minimum wage. I described how my boss, a guy named Ess(4), and I never quite got along—even from the start, the first day we met—and how we were very close to trading punches out in the parking lot by the time I quit. And finally, I described for Doctor K the urges I still sometimes have to revisit that grocery store, to find Ess’s red Ford Explorer, and either crush the headlights and windshield with a baseball bat(5) until the ground sparkles, or slash long grins into his tires. How that would go, I explained, is like this: I’d glide up next to his truck on the driver’s side, slip out of my car nonchalantly, with a kind of practiced cool like hey, no big deal, I’m down here in the shadow of this other guy’s car, crouched in front of the wheel with the plastic neon green box-cutter, sticking this fucker’s my former boss’s tires, but if anyone asks I’m just tying my shoes or whatever, picking up the shiny quarter I just spotted, and then once I’m done peacefully, with a full heart and a full soul, driving off into the night.
“But fortunately reason prevails and I think, ‘How embarrassing that would be, were I caught,’ and I don’t do any of those things.”
“And it’s kind of, I don’t know what the right word here is,” said Doctor K, “but it’s interesting how some people find themselves wanting to hurt other people because they’ve been hurt, been treated so poorly. Not everyone’s like that, of course. I’ve had others who would have turned that around and been like, ‘You know what, I’ll be nice. You guys can be assholes—fine. But I’m not going to be another asshole like you.”
“Right. And I used to think that way, like years ago. But it’s like, as this goes on, I get older and older and I just kind of realized that being the better man, the nice guy, is unfulfilling after a while. After this keeps going on and on and on. Being that guy is not fulfilling anymore.”
(1) The Loneliest Road in America.
(2) The first time I met with Doctor K we discussed how these therapy sessions might work, what our goals were, and what ‘success’ might look like.
“My eventual goal,” he said, “is to put myself out of a job.”
I remember feeling slightly annoyed when I heard that, feeling like I’d just been coated with some sort of goo. There is such a dead, black heart at the center of a line like that, a rampant disingenuousness, because, with seven billion on the planet and growing, the good doctor knows and I know such a sentiment cannot ever become reality. There will always be people in need of counseling/psychiatric services. It’s an admirable goal, sounds warm-hearted and sincere, but it’s not—the line’s sole-purpose is to lay a calming hand on the shoulders of financially-strapped clients, to dispel their worry, to assure with a wide paternal smile that “I’m a guy you can trust. My motives are pure.”
(3) The envelope was an old, wrinkled, cream-colored one from my gastroenterologist. In the upper left corner, the building’s address read: OMAHA GASTROENTEROLOGY CONSULTANTS, P.C. GASTROENTEROLOGY & LIVER DISEASE. Then, below a horizontal line, the address: 7710 Mercy Road, Suite #330 Omaha, Nebraska 68124.
I forget what the contents of the envelope might have been, though I can imagine two possibilities. Inside was either the printed instructions for my (then) up-coming colonoscopy, scheduled April 16, 2013 (a 1% chance), or, happily folded in thirds and tucked snugly inside the once crisp, knife-edged envelope was yet another bill for services rendered (99% chance).
(4) On the back of the envelope, written down the entire length, was everything I could fish out of my recollection of our talk, in roughly the same order as they surfaced in our conversation:
- Locked door
- Birds like kazoos
- Dad – Mom hero
- No go / no show at place(a)
- Facebook rabbit hole
- “Facebook effect”
- Suicide cake
- “No, not schizo.”
- What do I do after this is unearthed?
- Does it make sense to drive all the way to—?
- Slam poetry
- Trouble talking / dry mouth / cry
- The terrible middle
(4a) The place was a writer’s workshop that took place every Wednesday night, 7-10 PM, in a little room at the Ralston public library. Distance had not been a factor in my decision to skip out. Technically, the library was in another city (more appropriately, a suburb of Omaha), but the building itself was just down the street, a couple miles at best. I could have walked and been there in a half-hour. No, my decision not to show had to do with the overall lame, and what I felt was a slightly narrow-minded, nature of the workshop itself. When I had arrived and sheepishly dodged into a seat near the very back, the person in charge of the workshop, an older woman named Sally, was in the middle of a grammar lesson. Specifically, the proper use of commas. I felt the itch to leave about five minutes in, but, the trooper I am, I hung around. Though I more or less decided not to return when she stated, matter-of-factly, that all punctuation is game except for two items which should never, ever appear in fiction: the colon and the semi-colon. It’s possible I sat there with my mouth agape for several minutes. I was shocked to hear something so arbitrary and narrow-minded and so clearly wrong. Just couldn’t take the gathering seriously after that. My first visit ended up being my last, and I told myself if I ever felt the urge to spend two hours in a workshop, what I ought to do instead is apply butt to chair and fucking finish something.
(5) Ess was not the first supervisor I had during my time there. He came on several months after I’d been hired, once my other supervisor, a cool-enough kid named Chris, switched to days. From the beginning, I think, my relationship with Ess was rocky; Hey man how’s it going?