cw: implied previous SA
It’s just a stupid fucking therapy assignment.
One that I’ve specifically gotten a myriad of times.
One that I’ve half-assed or full-on ignored.
I’m well aware that I need therapy, and I do my best to go into every session with an open mind and do every assignment with sincerity. But this one goddamn prompt never fails to come up whether it be from previous therapists, self-help books, or internet scrounges; it never fails to frustrate me. However, I respect Laura, and that respect inside of me begs me to take this seriously for once. There’s another part of me that yearns for this release, but I choose to ignore that voice for now.
“Daniel? Are you still with me?” Laura asks, bringing me back to the present. We’re still sitting in her small office with a few lamps providing a mellow feel to the room and a white noise machine playing calming rain noises in the corner. I always lose track of time in this dimly lit room, and Laura’s calming voice doesn’t aid my efforts to stay awake.
“Daniel?” She asks again.
“Ah, sorry. What were you asking again?”
“Is the same time next week ok with you?”
Nodding absentmindedly, I get up and thank Laura again for her time before making my way to my car. The bright sun berates my eyes and reminds me that despite the fatigue settling comfortably in my eyes, it's only 2:30 in the afternoon.
I open my car door and icy air greets me as if I had just opened a fridge. My 2013 Toyota Matrix, that breaks down more often than I do, does not have a working heater, so I sit uncomfortably in the cold driver’s seat and huff warm air into my palms. Still, I suppose it's better than nothing.
The drive back home is silent; even the Matrix decides not to sputter and whine today as I pull into the apartment complex lot and park. The jingle of my keys is faint, unheard through the whining feedback and static of my mind.
I make my way to the couch in the living room that I ‘thrifted’ from Goodwill, and collapse. My pillow and blanket are still here from last night, evidence of my dinner stains the corners of the blanket that flows over the edge of the couch like a waterfall.
Most of my therapists recommended I move entirely to a new apartment after I confessed that the kitchen and the couch were the only two places I could stand being in. I want to retort with the fact that in this economy, beggars can’t be choosers.
“Why not move back in with your parents for the time being?” Marie suggested a few months ago.
Marie was naive for a therapist, believing that I could mend whatever clusterfuck of a relationship I had with my parents. I had a better chance of sleeping a full night in my bedroom than I did going back to them. Painting Marie would be in soft pinks, like a bubble floating in the wind, or a lotus sitting gently atop a still pond surface. Thinking of Marie made me think of Matthew, my first therapist.
He was something else. I wouldn’t even want to paint him.
“You couldn’t fight back?” He asked on the first meeting, eyeing me up and down as if trying to wrap his head around the fact that a 160-pound man could be overpowered by a 120-pound woman.
I never scheduled the second meeting.
At times I wondered if there was something wrong with me. There were days where I couldn’t even muster the courage to think about her name, but there were also days where I could casually recall what happened to Laura as if it were a story.
“It’s called dissociation,” Laura had said “It’s a defense mechanism that many people develop after experiencing something traumatic.”
I think that’s what I like about Laura. She uses those big psychology terms while talking to me, it makes me feel smart and mature–like it’s just a conversation between two well-versed adults.
I turn to look at the digital clock by the sofa, half-expecting it to be well past 5. Thankfully, it’s not, having only spent 30 minutes lying on the sofa and thinking. I rise and make my way to the closet by the entrance where I keep all my art materials.
“Art is a great coping skill,” Laura said once, “may I see some of your art?”
It was our first session, and I had given her my rehearsed backstory monologue. On the third time of this, it felt more like reading a book than recalling my past. However, Laura only commented on my minuscule mention of my hobby of art. I remember I had moved Marie to tears, Matthew started picking me apart, but Laura just seemed interested in getting to know me more. Reluctantly, I pulled out my phone and showed her a few pictures of some of the portraits I made. She challenged me to try and paint a full piece each week based on a prompt she gave me, winking while saying that she “wasn’t assigning homework, just a fun little challenge!” and that I was free to decline her proposal. She wrote down the first prompt just in case I forgot and handed it to me on the back of her business card at the end, saying that she “was glad to get to know me a little, and looked forward to working with me more.”
I scheduled our next meeting the moment I stepped in my car.
Smiling at the memory, I pulled out an empty canvas and my easel. It took only a few moments to set up, the whole process being almost entirely muscle memory at this point. I pulled out Laura’s prompt from this week and sat down in front of the canvas, chewing on my thumbnail as I tried to process it.
“Paint Daniel fully recovered.”
I chuckled dryly - Laura was cunning with this approach. The first few prompts whet my appetite while the most recent ones challenged me a little. But the prompts were rarely related to the reason I was seeing her, seldom were they related to me at all.
“Paint a child’s perfect day” or “Paint Laura’s spirit animal” were some of the most recent ones. I had painted a red deer for Laura after doing some research into spirit animal symbolisms and the color I associated with her; she was passionate, kind, and guiding. I explained my odd choice which led her to ask me if she could keep it. I agreed.
I sat down, thinking hard. Maybe it was some sort of reverse psychology, where the only right answer was my own? Or maybe “Daniel” doesn’t have to be me, but just another random Daniel. As I let time pass me by once more while deep in my thoughts, I heard a knock on the door.
“I’m letting myself in.” A familiar voice called.
“Do whatever you want,” I replied.
Jason was twirling his copy of my apartment keys on his left index finger and whistling as he strolled in. I feel as though I can see the tints of purple and green, royal and magnanimous, follow him around. If I had to paint him, I’d paint him like Dionysus, surrounded by plush grapes and joy, plentiful like wine wherever he goes.
“Were you about to paint this week’s prompt?” He asked, dragging a chair to sit beside me.
“That’s the thing, Laura snuck a therapy assignment up on me,” I replied, handing the card over to Jason. He took it and inspected the writing on it, a smirk tugging at the corner of his lips.
“Dude. She is your therapist. What did you expect?” He finally replies, casually tossing the card back to me.
“Still…you remember me complaining about this prompt before, don’t you? It’s just so goddamn vague and unfathomable.”
Jason sighs. “There you are with your pessimistic tone and big words. Maybe recovery isn’t as hard as you think.”
I feel my frown deepen.
“Not in that sense you dumbass!” Jason teases. “Just that, well, what if recovery is just…Daniel. Maybe you aren’t a better person than you were before what happened, but maybe you aren’t worse. Just…Daniel.”
I’m taken aback, his words actually make sense and bring a slight burn to my eyes.
“That was quite insightful…” I trail off, “for an idiot,” I add unnecessarily.
Jason rolls his eyes and leans back in his chair. “I came here to check on you but if you want to focus on your painting I’ll leave you alone and just take a nap.”
I scoff. “Most people would offer to leave, what makes you think I want you here?”
“Everyone wants me!” Jason sings, shooting up to make his way to my couch and lie down. The rhythmic sound of his soft snores fills the room in mere moments, and I’m reminded of just how lucky he is that he can sleep without the aid of melatonin pills.
I turn my attention back to the empty canvas and try to think of what Jason said. “What was I like before it happened?” I wonder to myself quietly, letting the thought roll around in my head and make a mess of my mind. All I remember was during-her and after-her, but not much of the before-her.
Even as Jason wakes up hours later and leaves, as I finish dinner and go to sleep on the couch, the canvas stays blank as my mind races with what she means by recovered.
My dream is blue, dark, and unknown, I realize I’m drowning. Limbs suspended in slow-motion as I attempt to flail, my last breaths fleeing from my parted lips as bubbles rise to the surface. There’s a siren, and it's calling to me. And I’m so tired of swimming that I simply close my eyes and let her cerulean swallow me whole.
I had half the mind to call Laura and cancel our session, but if she asked me why, what would I tell her? Because I didn’t finish my painting? Pulling into the building’s parking lot, I glance back to the back of my car where a canvas should be but isn’t. A surge of panic fills my body, and I opt to sit in my car for a few minutes as if prolonging the eventual will somehow make it easier to face the music. Vacillating between getting out of the car and being honest, or lying and saying I forgot the painting at home, I don’t even notice Laura coming up to my car and knocking on the window until the door opens and she is sitting inside the passenger seat.
“You seem distracted,” she says casually.
“I am,” I reply, before realizing that Laura is inside the car. “Wait, Laura? What are you doing?”
She smiles, “I thought maybe we could drive over to the park and talk today, or we can meet in my office.”
I start the car, ready to use anything to distract her from bringing up the painting. “Ok.”
We drive in silence, Laura’s head turned to face out the window so I can’t tell what face she’s making. I don’t try to lighten the mood, simply letting it be. We reach the park and walk over to the benches near the playground. Despite the sharp wind of winter, there are still children playing on the swings and the slide; all bundled up like cotton swabs by concerned parents.
“I noticed you didn’t bring the painting from last week,” Laura finally begins.
I swallow the lump in my throat, an excuse bubbling at my throat, but she continues without looking at me. “You do realize those paintings aren’t graded right? You could just do it whenever you want. But you chose to stick to a schedule, chose to fear not following it, chose to force yourself to paint rather than let it come to you naturally. If these challenges were truly assignments, I’m afraid I’d have failed you by now.” She says, much to my surprise.
It dawns on me that these have never been assignments, that it was my instinct to make them tasks rather than fun activities. Shame festered in my pit, as well as embarrassment. I knew Laura was a therapist, but damn, she read me too well.
“Why don’t we talk about last week’s prompt? Recovery, what does it mean to you?”
I turn away from Laura and bite my lip, chewing on the dry skin on the lower part and staring at the ground in front of me.
“I-I’m not sure. I wish I knew, and I hate myself for not knowing. I don’t get why I’m working so hard in therapy if I don’t even know what I’m working towards.” I admit, my breath comes out harshly against the air in puffs of angry white. I can feel frustration and annoyance take over, I bite my lip until the slight taste of copper beads in my mouth.
“That’s ok,” Laura says, leaning closer to enter my field of vision. “Sometimes when we’re so lost, we often forget where we were trying to go, or what we were trying to do. And it’s ok to get annoyed by that; you are working hard, and you are doing everything you can, even if you do just want to give up. But there's a part of you that’s fighting to be heard, and I think if you quiet down and listen to just that voice, you might find your answer.”
In mere moments all my emotions get washed down and drowned out by sadness, tears pricking at my eyes and threatening to spill over as Laura keeps reassuring me.
“I think it’s serene,” I finally whisper.
“What is?” She asks knowingly.
“I think, when I recover, I’ll come to like yellow again. It won’t just be associated with her anymore. And, and maybe I’ll never sleep in my bed again but maybe I will. And maybe I can come to terms with my feelings, and I won’t need anyone else to validate me. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll come to love Daniel again.”
Laura smiles. “That’s a great start.”
I blink, and a few tears fall down my face, but instead of rushing to wipe them away like I normally would, I let them spill over and fall at their own pace.
“But it’s so full of maybe’s,” I reply.
“That’s the beauty of the future though, isn’t it? We don’t know what it holds in store for us, only what we might want to happen.”
“But how can I hold on to the hope that the future might get better? What if it gets worse?”
Laura pauses for a moment, and I think that maybe I’ve stumped her. But she exhales and a puff of white gently escapes her parted lips, along with her next words.
“You don’t have to hold on.”
I feel my head snap to face her, confused at her words. At face value, it would seem she’s telling me that I don’t have to keep trying, but surely she doesn’t mean that, right?
“I mean it,” she said, as if reading my mind. “No one but you get’s to decide whether you keep trying, whether the chance that the future might be better is worth holding out through this harsh period of time. But that doesn’t mean the ones who love you won’t try to help you make that decision.”
Oh. The ones who love you.
Such a simple phrase, but it reminds me that there are still people who do love me, even after what happened. People who stuck by me through it all. It reminds me that love isn’t compensatory; it isn't a series of transactions, it’s an emotion. It’s raw and powerful and fleeting and oh so very human. And that’s what sends me over the edge; I’m sobbing now, with heaving breaths clouding in front of my face in quick succession.
“Thank you,” I manage, looking Laura in the eyes though my vision is blurred.
“Of course,” she smiles back.
We sit in silence for the rest of the session, practicing deep breathing techniques and mindfulness with not much said between us. The sound of the children crying as they part from their playground friends is pushed to the background and made a distant sort of echo until our session is over and I return to the quiet of my car. Laura says she’s meeting her next client at the park, so it’s just me riding home. Once I get home, I go to the easel and face the empty canvas. I pick up the yellows I had stashed at the bottom of the box of tubes and start painting a field of sunflowers–where I had my first date with her. But I don’t paint her with me. I don’t even paint myself. I just leave a blank spot for the maybe’s of recovery, and I send Laura a picture before hanging it up across my sofa and going to bed.
That night I dreamt in warm hues of yellow and orange, sunsets warm like hugs, and shiny ichor running from my bruised palms as I emerged from the ocean and rushed towards the golden shore, ignoring all the siren songs that sang and called for me.