Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Real Therapy" - A Short Story

I wrote this story at least 2 years ago, and just looked at it a few days ago. Made a few minor changes here and there. Although it may not be ready for publication, I hope to get a few readers and hopefully suggestions and/or comments.

So, I'd like to present to you

Real Therapy

Find your way home

Through this vast empty space

Though you feel no longer

Reach...for that long ago place

“Stan! Stan!” Brandon’s words reverberated in my ears, his hand fixed firmly on my shoulder. “Hey, man, are you paying attention?”

As I tried to break through the murky waters of my mind, I finally uttered, “Uhm ... yeah, of course I am. Listen, Brandon, I’m not feeling well. I think I’m going to call it a day, OK?”

“Sure, I guess.” Brandon shrugged and fiddled with the remote thermal-actuator. “Are you okay?”

I nodded. “I’m just a little anxious because of the grant renewal meeting. It’ll pass.”

It’s not everyday that a couple of grad students are required to submit data and give a presentation to NASA administration, who will then decide whether or not to grant further funding. It wouldn’t be so stressful, but the majority of the departments funding for this research as well as many others would depend on this renewal.

Somberly, I gathered my papers and stuffed them into my bacsac. I walked over to the exit and placed my right index finger on the optical reader and spoke my full name, and out the door I hastened.

As I rushed through the mob of students, scurrying this way and that, I felt a feeling that I had experienced so long ago creep its’ ugly form into my head. A sensation ... a state of mind, I had worked so hard, for so many years to abandon and replace with even a smidgeon of hope.

As my vision momentarily blurred and hope began to fade, I cried out, “Oh God! Why is this happening again?”

Brought on with this “shift” in vision was an acute shift in mental perception. Everything around me seemed to slow to a mechanistic beat, set in motion with no thought. Both inanimate and animate alike. No purpose. Just emptiness. It felt like I was in a dream. It was the world out there, on one side, and me on the other side of the fog.

“Damn it!” I thought. “I can’t let this happen again. I can’t go back to that place. I’ve fought so long and so hard, brought my thinking back to a functioning level again. I just have to focus my thoughts on physical sustenance, the particulate stuff in which the universe-including myself and every other human and animal on this planet-is made of. Cogito, ergo sum - I think, therefore I am. If I can apply it to myself, then them too, right?” This I felt like proclaiming to each and every thing that crossed my path, but something compelled me to keep my head. I knew that even if this world was not real, I would then have “unreal” consequences to deal with. Apparently, this world is still governed by rules. So be it. Instead, my mind still num and tingling, I walked to my apartment, threw my bacsac on the couch, and flopped onto the bed.

Depersonalization/derealization is what I had been diagnosed with, once I finally sought therapy

for this ailment. It had come on acutely a few times before during my childhood, mostly anxiety

provoked. But since late adolescence, after what I call the “Nervous Breakdown”, this feeling -

this mindset - has been a continuing battle in my mind ... for my mind. For so long I have been

silent, not telling anyone, hiding it the best that I could. I tried counseling a few different times

between the time it first happened and just a few years ago. But it didn’t seem that anyone really

understood where I was coming from, what I was trying to tell them. It’s so difficult telling

someone that you don’t feel real, that feel like you’re in a dream. “Quick someone, pinch me so I’ll

wake up”. What’s even worse is when you stop feeling at all, and you simply state that you’re not

sure whether or not any of it is real, so finally you say, “What the fuck! What do I do now?”I was

invariably led to the Center for Health and Counseling at the University of Washington, where I

also studied materials science and engineering.

Following a few months of failed psychotherapy and drug treatment, we decided to altar the

course of my treatment. The doctor thought it would be a good idea to wax philosophy with

Rachel, a final semester PhD student whose area of specialty concerned transpersonal


It was a good idea, considering that the core of my mental strife involved some of the core concerns of epistemology and metaphysics. It was philosophy that got me into this frame of mind, perhaps philosophy would take its’ turn as savior.

Three p.m. today was to be our first session. As the mental fog began to lift somewhat, I glanced at the clock and discovered that I was about to be late. I jumped off of the bed, splashed my face with cold water and then dashed out the door.

The storm that had began as a slight shower this morning had grown to winds of around 40 mph below a dark and menacing sky. The rain pelted my body and my umbrella danced above my head as I waited for and then boarded the Student transport bus that would take me to the Center.

As the shuttle began to slow down, I looked out the window and noticed that the Center’s parking lot held only a fraction of the vehicles it usually does on a Monday. For that matter, ... any day of the week. When I pass the Center on my daily trek to the lab I usually notice a near packed parking lot.

Finally, at my destination I stepped off the exit platform, deployed my worn umbrella and walked briskly toward the green awning of the Center’s main entrance. I shook out the umbrella and wrung myself as best as I could.

As I entered the building, I had to shut my eyes to let them adjust to the brilliant interior lighting. It seemed this light could have lit the stormy, dark outside if the doors were left open long enough. Once they adjusted I walked to the reception desk at the far end of the waiting area. A smiling, petite gray haired woman patiently watched me as I approached.

“Good afternoon,” she said. “How may I help you?”

“I’m here to see Rachel. I’m a little late,” I fiddled with the change in my pocket. Is she still available?”

“Yes,” the receptionists said, “As a matter of fact, she’s running a little behind. She called a little while ago and said that she’s running about ... ”she thumbed through some scattered papers on her desk, “twenty minutes behind.” She pointed to the south lobby and said, “If you’ll take a seat over there, I’ll tell her you’re here.”

“Ok,” I sighed with relief. I had thought she wouldn’t be here. I really needed to talk with someone, soon. It seemed as if my life force, my very essence, was slipping, being erased by some fiendish, irreversible process. Soul-eaters.

I walked over to the waiting area the receptionist had pointed to me. It was a cozy atmosphere; a few potted plants and some hanging plants filled some of the space that had not been occupied by tables or couches. Within the framework of the wall a large flat panel TV tuned to the GNN was showing images of the Europan surface taken by the Icy Sub-bot, which would be melting its way through the ice to reach the subsurface liquid water ocean just next week.

A silhouette figure steering around the corner caused me to shift my gaze in its direction. A tall, athletically built woman with wavy, dark brown hair to her shoulders and a dark tan approached me.

“Stanley Robkin?” she asked, her eyebrows raised and smile widened.

I was taken aback, as if I was sleeping and had been suddenly awaken. I jumped to my feet and tucked in my shirt. “Hello - yeah, that’s me.”

Smiling invitingly and holding out her hand she said, “Hi, I’m Rachel. It’s nice to meet you. Would you like to follow me?”

“Of course, it’s nice to meet you, too.” I said as we shook hands.

I followed her down one corridor after which we turned a corner, walked a few steps forward and stopped next to a sliding door. She placed her hand against the palm pad on the wall and announced carefully, “Rachel D. Carson, entering with one client.”

Grinning, she glanced back and me and admitted, “I’m still trying to get acquainted with the new system. It wasn’t too long ago that I entered with a client and forgot to mention the client’s name. Security wasted no time getting here. I had to explain to the client that although I had access to the palmpad, there is an infrared detector that determines the number of persons entering. If the IR data and the vocal data are not consistent an alarm is then signaled to security. We had to show security documentation to prove she was who she said she was, and did have an appointment. I spent the entire session trying to convince her it was nothing she did, and that “they” weren’t intentionally trying to give her a difficult time.”

I chuckled as I felt a sense of comfort. She may be able to help me after all. At last she would be approachable, I had decided.

Upon entering the office Rachel said, “Make yourself comfortable, Stanley. You can hang your jacket if you like.” She motioned toward a wooden coat rack in the corner.

“OK, thank you. I’ll do that. You can call me Stan.” I replied. She looked at me in acknowledgement.

It was a comfortable office. There was a mahogany computer desk in the corner opposite me. A couple of round end tables and book cases were situated fairly evenly throughout the room. There was an excellent view of mount Rainer through the large window of the north wall. I sat against the east wall so that I could see both Rachel and the magnificent view out the window. The dissipation of the storm was well under way; there were only a few patches of clouds against a mostly blue tranquil sky.

Rachel sat facing me, her back against the corner-desk and right elbow resting on an extension. After a brief moment she pushed her chair away from the desk, crossed her legs, and placed both hands over them, sitting straight in her chair.

“Stan,” she said, “I would first like to thank you for giving me an opportunity to help you. I’m not certain how much you know or have been told about Transpersonal Psychology, but what I do know is that the therapy and methods involved seem to be helping people where the more traditional psychotherapies and medications tend not to. It may take some time, and you have to be willing, but you will be better able to cope with these issues that you’ve discussed with Trish and Dr. Brimms. We can go as fast or as slow as you like. Only you know when you are prepared to move on.”

She paused to adjust her posture and asked, “So how are things? Tell me about what is going on in your life.”

“Well, let’s see... where to start,” I managed to mumble. “I’m assuming you’ve read a summary of what Trish and Dr. Brimms think about my situation?”

My right eye began to tic and I began to profusely sweat. How do you tell someone you think they may not be real, and yet expect yourself to function as if they were?

“Yes,” she answered, gently lifting a thin stack of papers up to me. “I reviewed everything that they had written about you ... and I reviewed some of the literature on the conventional treatment and therapies for this related series of disorders. I see that you have been taking Elaquel and Placidon. How is that going ... with your medications?”

“Honestly?” I asked, shifting in my seat and propping my left leg on my right. I cleared my throat. “I’ve not been taking them for a couple of months now. They make me feel tired all the time. The way I see it is that I’ve been dealing with this for what, ten years now? I’ve made it this far, I can go longer without meds. You see, I’ve got an important project in the works, and I can’t do it with the meds. So I had to drop them. It’s a double edged sword. On one hand, I understand that this was initially brought on by anxiety, but usually I’m not at all anxious. At least not any more. I just don’t see how medicine is going to cure this disorder - which was brought about by anxiety - which I don’t even have anymore, at least not in the usual sense. But I wanted to try them for the sheer hope that it would lift this persistent fog from my mind. And it hasn’t happened. Besides,” I sighed, “the meds make me extremely tired.”

“On the other hand, I have my research in my field, which forms a tangible, real bond with me. I feel real when I focus on the physical sciences - probably as real as it’s going to get. I like to see a logical sequence of events arise from a given cause. If not, I feel like I’m coming unglued, taking a ride on the Entropy Express, nonrefundable.”

She smiled and shook her head, “I can’t imagine anyone with the pressures you are under having such a sense of humor. That is to be commended. I’m not so sure I could do it.”

“I guess it’s a survival mechanism. I’ve played so many mind games and turned tricks in my head to be able to just get by. Even that in itself is wearisome. I don’t know which is worse: the initial state or DP/DR or the subsequent self-therapy. I mean ... the actual feeling of being in a dream or not being real has mostly gone. Now I just have to convince myself to believe it IS real, and that this is just a bonafide medical illness."

“Oh,” her eyes widened in alarm, and she straightened herself in her seat. “So, the actual ‘feeling’ of unreality, or being in a dream is mostly gone; it’s now turned into a possible belief state?”

“Yes,” I murmured, rubbing my eyes with my hands. “I mean what if all this,” I motioned around the room with a supine palm, “is only a figment of my imagination? And furthermore, what if it has ALWAYS been that way?”

“I see,” she sympathized. “It must be very lonely for you, to feel so isolated like this”.

I ran my fingers of both hands through my hair and asked her, “I’m going to always be this way, aren’t I? Not ever knowing one way or the other. Indeed, true knowledge is impossible.”

“Stan,” she reassured me, “what I am going to do is try to help you deal with these beliefs. You may not ever just snap out of it like you snapped into it. But, like you’ve already told me… slowly and surely, you have begun taking control over your life. Stan ... “Cogito, ergo sum.””

"I think, therefore I am. Yeah, where would I be without Descartes?” I sighed and shook my head.

"Stan, if you continue to play ‘what if’, what if it is all real, eventually you will come to that point, that reference frame that you knew back then, that you are so desperately searching for. If it’s your research and studies that you are content with ... that keep you going on ... then you should continue to do that."

She eased back in her chair, tilted her head and pulled back a section of hair that dangled over her right ear, revealing a small mole on the upper lobe. "What kind of research are you doing at the University? You’re a graduate assistant, right?"

"Uhm ..." I froze. She could have pulled back her hair in slow motion. I replayed it in my mind. It was like a digital movie, forwarding slowly, just a few frames a second. That mole! I knew her. I've seen her do that before ... not only in some unfamiliar place, but right there, in that very chair. My heart raced, my palms leaked, and my head tingled.

She looked at me with concern. "Are you okay? We can continue this later if you like."

"No," I swallowed hard and palpated my chest. "No, I’m fine. Just a bad attack of heartburn." I paused for a moment, barely able to focus on her question. "I'm in the smart materials section of the astronautical engineering department. I instruct a few sections of undergraduate introductory materials science labs. My research focuses on spacecraft restructuring during extended duration spaceflight."

"That seems like such an interesting career path. What are your plans after graduation?"

"I’ve secured a fellowship with NASA, at AMLEST - the Advanced materials for Long Exposure Space Travel lab. Their materials are being tested on the ISS and various other interplanetary missions. Essentially, we want to build a space vehicle that will think for itself and be able to repair itself in ways humans may not ever be able to."

I couldn’t be sure, I didn’t know if she was employing the silent technique, or if she was truly speechless. Her eyes were distant, as if she had just taken off on an extended spaceflight of her own.

Finally, after an eternity, she opened and closed her mouth, still speechless. A harsh clash of reality struck her and I found her eyes, back in the present.

“I’m sorry, Stan,” she sighed. “It’s always been a dream of mine to leave home and venture out into the neighborhood of stars. Just thinking about it has conjured up a lot of fantasies and daydreams I used to have. You know, Stan ... it feels so right, I mean ... talking with you about this.

Yeah, of course it is, I thought. That’s because we sat here before and had this very discussion. I know you, I thought - apparently too loud.

“You know me?” She asked, raising her eyebrows. “How do you mean?” I could tell she was trying to probe my mind with inquisition.

I couldn’t believe I had said it out loud. I wasn’t sure I was prepared to continue in this vein, but now I had no choice.

“What’s your take on déjà vu?” I asked her. “God, you know, never mind ... this is crazy.” I grinned, shook my head, mostly at myself. I stood up, reached for my jacket and suddenly her warm, soft, refreshing hand touched the back of my arm.

“Don’t go,” she said softly. “Stay. You can talk to me about it.”

I sat back down on the chair and we sat in silence, occasionally glancing at each other. But, it felt all right. I could sit with her for eternity and everything would be all right. But something was very wrong.

Finally, she crossed her legs and leaned forward. “This seems to really upset you, experiencing and talking about déjà vu. Can you tell me more about it?”

I steadied my trembling hands and replied, “Usually talking about my condition doesn’t make me nervous, with learning to adapt all these years. But this, this is something entirely different. It’s been happening more often, especially the last two weeks. I’ll be doing something totally routine, and then I’ll suddenly get that déjà vu feeling - the seeming experience of having been in that exact situation before, perfect in the finest details. For Christ’s sake, it’s happening right now!”

Apparently sensing a pending panic attack, she sat on the couch beside me, grasped my hand and calmly instructed me to take slow deep breaths and to try to remain in the here and now.

Her scent, touch, the words that fell from her mouth, was enough to relax me. Something was so vaguely familiar about her.

“Stan,” she said. “I believe it is imperative that you work on learning to relax. Now that you are a little more focused, I want to guide you through some guided imagery relaxation techniques. For this you don’t have to stay in the present, or this place. Imagine any place you like, any time you like, as long and it effectively relaxes you. Have you ever tried this before?”

“No,” I softly replied. But I was surely looking forward to it. I mean, listening to her enchanting voice was enough to put me in deep relaxing slumber. I could listen to her slow methodical commands all day. “I have heard of it… I mean, I’ve even imagined myself in relaxing situations, but nothing formal, er uh structured.”

“OK, let’s get started then. I am going to lead you in some initial relaxation, and once you are physically relaxed, I will queue you to begin the imaging. What do you consider relaxing, or what would relax you most when you have thoughts like this?” She hesitated for a moment and then resumed, “Some examples would be lying on the beach, observing a towering waterfall in a lush tropical rainforest, or watching clouds whisp by in a grassy field above a blue sky?”

I had to think about that for a moment, then I decided. “How about imagining I’m aboard a spacecraft in earth orbit, watching the earth.”

“That will work!” She exclaimed, but looked somewhat bewildered. “You call that relaxing? I think I would be so excited I would be bouncing off the instrument panel. But, I can see how that would be relaxing to some.”

After a brief delay she said, “Bare with me OK, I have no script for this one. Are you ready?”

She dimmed the lights and tinted the window. Some kind of spacey new-age instrumental music played softly in the background. I shut my eyes and stretched out across the couch.

“All right, Stan,” she said. “I want you to take three slow breaths, let your body come to equilibrium. Loosen the tension in your neck, shoulders, and back. With each inhalation you bring in new knowledge of the universe; patience, acceptance, and belonging. With each exhalation you release doubt, worry, and fear. You are one of many ... and all, a part of the same cosmos. As you look through the transparent observation bubble you witness the whole earth… this remarkable blue water planet with clouds streaking across the surface, against the black of space. Can you sense that?”

“Yes,” I whispered, but the image I had conjured slowly began to transform from an observation bubble overlooking the tranquil Earth to a dimly lit enclosure with LEDs, monitors, and other electronic equipment against the walls of the space I was confined in. I slowly walked to one area and a three-dimensional holographic image of what appeared to be a rocky planet and a disc shaped craft orbiting it phased into view. It seemed so real it was surreal. I knew I was lying there on the couch in Rachel’s office, supposedly imaging a geosynchronous Earth orbit getaway. Does this happen often and with so much impact?

Then, from what it seemed nowhere, I heard water movement - the sound that’s made when someone pushes themselves out of a bathtub or a pool.

I took a step in the opposite direction and consciously looked toward the auditory disturbance. A tall athletically built woman, bare to the skin, had emerged and was wringing out her hair. Her tan body barely discernible in the dimly lit space, she walked toward me and then began walking around me. Now able to recognize her sharp features, I whispered, “Rachel?”

“That’s right,” I heard her continue. “You are perfectly relaxed, let the harmonies of the universe wash over your entire being. One continuous organism ... the very essence alive in you is alive on this frail world next to you.

“Rachel,” I called out to her. “What’s going on? Where am I; where are we?”

“Stan,” she said calmly, “you are in earth’s orbit looking out at our home. Are you okay?”

I felt queasy. “I ... I don’t know. Where are you, why am I seeing you in my guided meditation? Does this usually happen?”

As I lifted my drooping eyelids I saw her eyes sharpen, piercing into my mind. “No ... not really. I am sitting on the couch, next to you, in my office.”

Then ..., I began to realize, or at least hypothesize,

what could be happening, why I felt so detached from reality. What have I got to lose for postulating, right?

“Are your eyes closed?” I called out to the nude woman.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Open them - slowly”.

The nude woman stood still, closed her eyes and then opened them. She clasped her hand over her mouth, “Oh my God!” She gasped through her fingers. “What’s happening? I ... I don’t understand. Stan?”

I led her to the dimly lit chamber where she saw both our bodies, lying naked, horizontally within a liquid medium. A solid bar curved around our scalps.

“This is a liquid medium that slows the metabolism of our bodies. In effect, we do not age while we are in here. That bar wrapping our heads is a stimulant that the computer uses to control the life matrix – the guided imagery - of our minds. This is it, Rachel! I knew I had known you before. The longing I felt for you when I first saw you. Our connection, this is it. We are really here ... this mental representation of our objective situation. The other world back in Seattle - it’s not real.”

I took her hand in mine, and she squeezed it tightly.

“What do we do now?” she asked. Her face looked heavy with worry.

“I ...” Too many scenarios were floating through my mind. “I don’t know. Now that we know, we must figure out what it means, maybe we will be reborn into this continuing matrix again. Maybe this is an intuitive problem solving program. I don’t know. This is happening too fast.”

She threw her arms around my neck and embraced me.

“It’s okay, Stan. Maybe it’s all a dream; none of this is really happening. Maybe we just wanted it to.”

“Even so”. I cupped her face in my hands and kissed her gently. “I will remember you.”


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