“What do you notice?”
Emily suddenly became aware of where she was. She realized with a flush of embarrassment that her mind had drifted off, again. Her eyes focused on the person in front of her – her therapist, Judith, who was looking at her expectantly.
“Ummm…” Emily avoided Judith’s gaze and looked at the wall behind her while she racked her brain for the correct response. It had only been a couple of weeks since she had started this new treatment, but she was pretty sure it was never going to work.
“I thought about my dad.” Emily said finally, after a long pause. She figured this was probably an adequate answer. After all, her dad was the reason she had started therapy, and he was the target of this treatment.
“What were you thinking about him?”
Emily bit her lip. The truth was, she had been singing September by Earth, Wind and Fire in her head for the past 20 seconds. It had been playing on the radio in the waiting room, and now it was stuck on an irritating loop in her brain.
“I’m mad at him. For the ways he failed me as a parent. For the ways he hurt me.” This wasn’t a lie. It was easy to draw on those feelings. They were always lurking under the surface of her conscious mind, even if she was in a good mood.
“Okay, good. Go with that.” Judith held up two fingers in front of her and started moving her hand left, right, left, right. Emily followed her fingers with her eyes. This was the part of the treatment Judith called “bilateral stimulation,” and was apparently supposed to trigger thoughts or memories, presumably about her father.
She wasn’t entirely sure what was she was supposed to be experiencing. Admittedly, when Judith had explained the procedure to her, she hadn’t paid that much attention. She trusted her therapist, and figured if she thought the treatment was a good idea, she was probably right. She was the professional, anyway.
Emily’s stomach clenched. Not from anxiety though, from hunger. She thought about what she had for lunch. It had been deeply unsatisfying – a bland veggie wrap from the deli across the street from her job. She thought about what she could make for dinner tonight. Pasta maybe? No, she had made pasta last night. Maybe she could get takeout on the way home.
“What do you notice?”
Shit. This one seemed to be over much quicker than the one before it. Emily’s eyes flicked to the tapestry behind Judith. She had spent a lot of time looking at it during sessions. It was easier to talk about this when she was avoiding eye contact.
“Um…I was thinking about this time, I was probably 7 or 8 years old. I couldn’t sleep, maybe I was having nightmares or something. I remember seeing the kitchen light from my bed and I called out….I’m – I’m not sure I’m doing this right.”
“Remember, there’s no right or wrong answer. Imagine being on a train and looking out the window. You’re not trying to think of something specific, you’re just taking note of what you see passing by the window. Just observe without judgment. Think about it like that.”
“So you’re laying in bed, you can’t sleep. You called out for your parents?
“Yeah. I knew they were awake, and I called them. But they didn’t answer. It made me so upset. I started to cry. It was so stupid…I don’t know why I was so upset. I just remember feeling really scared.”
“Okay, that’s good. Keep thinking about that.” Judith held up her fingers and started moving them back and forth.
Emily wondered if Judith was frustrated with her. It must be aggravating to try to do this treatment with someone who couldn’t focus. Judith always appeared composed and patient, but Emily thought about what she did after her sessions were done. Did she secretly hate listening to Emily talk about her problems? Did she think she was exaggerating, whining about things that weren’t that serious? Emily was sure Judith had other clients who were dealing with far worse things than she was.
She had speculated about the other clients, especially the ones she saw in the waiting room before and after her sessions. The tall, androgynous person whose posture was always slumped over, who seemed soft-spoken and downcast whenever they left Judith’s office. Emily tried to avoid looking at them, but a couple times she thought she had caught them wiping their face.
The clients after her session intrigued her even more – two women who always went into therapy together. Emily had speculated wildly about their lives. Were they sisters, processing some familial trauma? A couple, hashing out relationship issues? She wasn’t sure of their ages, they could even be a mother and daughter. She imagined their conversations to be intense and painful.
“What do you notice?”
The tapestry behind Judith was vaguely bucolic. It depicted two figures, maybe a woman and child, standing in front of a stone house. One of them held what looked like a large hoop.
“It was dark. I was scared, and I started crying. I remember…this is going to sound so crazy. I know this is going to sound crazy.”
“Don’t make any judgments. Just explain the memory.”
“I started hearing voices. I know how that sounds…but I remember it so clearly. I could hear a voice in my head. It wasn’t a dream.”
“Do you remember what the voice said?”
“Yes. It was mocking me…making fun of me for crying. It was angry. I think it called me a cry baby. It started yelling at me, too.”
Emily covered her face with her hands and rubbed her eyes.
“I’m sorry. I feel so stupid saying this.”
“You don’t need to apologize. Just hold that memory in your mind. Keep going.”
Judith started the repetitions again. It seemed like she was moving her hand faster, now. Was that part of it?
Emily wondered if Judith had her own therapist. It must be exhausting, having to sit here every night, hour after hour, listening to people recount their traumas. She must need an outlet for that. Emily imagined Judith sitting on a couch like she was now, repeating the stories her clients told her to an older, sympathetic woman. Somehow, this amused Emily – the idea that there was this unending cycle of pain, processing, and healing, like a great ouroboros of emotional labor.
Maybe Judith went home at night and vented to her wife about the things she’d had to hear at work. Emily imagined her walking through the front door to a house with lots of scented candles and hardwood floors with woven rugs on them. Judith’s wife would be waiting by the dinner table or on a loveseat, with two glasses of red wine, or maybe herbal tea. She would kiss Judith, and see the weariness in her eyes, and ask her about her day. Maybe they had a cat, or a child. Judith never talked about her personal life (aside from mentioning her wife once), and Emily never asked. That’s not what they were there for, after all.
But Emily liked to imagine that Judith had a pleasant marriage. She had to, right? It was her job to help people be happier and have better relationships. She and her wife were probably fantastic communicators. They might get into arguments, but they’d always articulate exactly what they were feeling, and listen nonjudgmentally to why the other felt wronged, and find some way to compromise. They probably had sex all the time, and Emily imagined that it was passionate, but sweet and loving too.
“What do you notice?”
Emily let out a deep breath. Had she been holding it?
The hoop next to the child in the tapestry reminded Emily of when she had visited colonial Williamsburg and learned about hoop trundling, the game children would play with a wooden hoop and a stick. The figures in the tapestry didn’t look like they were playing, though. They were stationary and faceless.
“…It was his voice, right? It was my father. I mean, not literally. But those were things he would say to me. My brain was just, like, repeating them. Playing a trick on me. Right?”
“That seems like it would make a lot of sense.” Judith nodded, ever the nonjudgmental receptacle.
“When I was younger I thought maybe I was losing it. I mean, when you say it out loud, ‘I was hearing voices,’ that sounds crazy. But I was just repeating the things he would say.”
“You’re probably right. You were young. But it’s common for trauma survivors to experience auditory verbal hallucinations.”
They were both silent for a moment. The figures in the tapestry were silent, too.
“Let’s move on to a body scan,” Judith said. She had lowered her hand and scooted her chair back to its regular position. “You can close your eyes if you want to. Focus your attention at the top of your head. Move down through your body. Just notice what you feel without judgment – if you feel any tingling, tightness, discomfort, or any other sensations.”
Emily closed her eyes. She never knew what she was supposed to feel during these body scans. She never felt much of anything, even after talking about something that made her really upset. The truth was, moments before she had been imagining her therapist making love to her wife, and she was kind of turned on, and pretty embarrassed, now. But she definitely was not about to say that.
“What do you notice?”