In a room smaller than a nursery, she sits upright on the plush leather couch and begins to cry. When she was young, she never could have guessed that it would go this way. Her therapist knows her better than anyone before. She leans back, stretching her ribcage, elongating her spine, silently weeping. There are three paintings on the walls; one of a sunset, one of horses in a stable, and one of a field of sunflowers. In the two years she has spent coming to this office, she has often admired the array of colors and textures in the room.
The therapist sits upright in a therapist sort of way, mirroring her patient, posing just as she thinks she should. Butt pressed into the leopard print covered armchair, she extends a box of tissues that has been on the side table. To extend is to emerge from the illusion of self. Extending validates another person’s existence through acknowledgment, this therapist would assert. But extending tissues to a crying patient is a real big no-no. Can it shut down crying? Yes. Can it conjure self-consciousness and shame in the patient? Yes again. Our dear patient does not accept what is offered, and our dear therapist does not feel slighted, does not psychologically lacerate herself. In another era, she may have balked at the rejection. However, she has done her work.
The crying continues until the body is desperate for more oxygen and is satisfied with what all has been released. The therapist sits as still as a frog camouflaged among Spring leaves, mindful not to disrupt the patient’s process, as she has practiced many times, over many years. Minutes go by, the patient’s crying is sustained, and she drifts to her happy place, an unfaltering tactic. It is like entering the Holodeck on Star Trek, a place that becomes precisely what she needs it to be. The room is full of candy; actually it’s a candy store. This is an early memory. The therapist notes that she has a hankering and her parents are nowhere. They were always close when she was young, and imagining them absent is heavenly. The bright boxes and seductive packaging is critique-worthy, but right now there is no space for critique. She salivates, absentmindedly. What is forbidden is what is desired. The therapist is immersed in the pink bubble gum taste, the honeyed cavern of her mind, and only emerges when she has a sensation, repeatedly, brain receiving incoming signals, repeatedly. It is the patient. The patient is apologizing for her tears. The therapist’s brain changes its allegiance, puts its attention on this other real thing, flesh, in front of her. Both people have legs that are crossed, faces with wrinkles around the mouth, pulses that they’re oblivious to. The paintings on the walls are still.
Here exists a short gap, a span of time that may have been fifteen or twenty seconds (we really can’t say) before the therapist snaps back into this room to address the apology. But the nature of numbness includes the pronouncement of fantasy. The patient, sensing her therapist’s distance, begins sliding into her own mind, like a sailor absorbed in the elements, gliding on the swiftly yet smoothly flowing sea, looking to the cloud formations for guidance. But here looks unfamiliar. Until she looks closer and sees it is the house she lived in when she was young. A dissociative state is necessary to reach back this far into the mind’s eye and peek at something so old it is almost forgotten. It is buried in such a way to only be resurrected when the mind is so empty, so still that none of the usual barriers get in the way of its emergence.
The memory that emerges, instantly, is a memory of being eight, of feeling scared as her mother yells. The yelling is loud, the eight year old is scared, and she begins to yell back. Monkey see monkey do. Not yet very accustomed to this type of aggression, the eight years old uses a word she once heard an older person use. Once the eight year old curses, her mother has got her by the shirt and now they are in the bathroom, the one with the tacky wallpaper that was there when they moved in. As she kicks the wall with her sneaker, her mother shoves a bar of soap into her mouth and strokes her tongue with it. The eight year old cannot cry, breath, yell, and be choked by soap at the same time, so the yelling stops and her mother pushes water into her mouth, seemingly satisfied. The patient, at eight, now gathers that cruelty is a tool to be used on enemies, or family, when people don’t listen. Cruelty rarely sees itself as such.
The apology the eight year old gives her mother that night is not appropriate, the therapist will tell this patient the next time they meet. Most apologies anyone gives aren’t, she will declare, and it will feel true. The patient is transported back, feels her legs sticking to the leather couch, looks out the window at the trees quivering. She reaches her arm out and flexes her core as she blows yellow mucus into a too soft tissue. Nothing in nature is this soft.
The therapist handles the apology professionally, with care. Clichés like “it’s ok to cry” leave her mouth and the patient unabashedly bawls, as the memory presses deeper into the circuitry of the amygdala.
Candy. Soap. What goes into the mouth of a child?