“Oedipus complex,” is the first thing he said to her. “Your opinion?”
Aubrey Thyme was a professional. She had over ten years of experience providing individual and group therapy, with special focus on serving trauma survivors. She had had clients threaten her, scream obscenities in her face, proposition her for sex, and even worse. She had worked clients through the process of hospitalization, she had reported actionable threats of violence and self-harm to the police, and she had heard descriptions of anguish, pain and loss worse than most others can imagine. Aubrey Thyme was a professional, and she was professionally trained and experienced with managing terrible, confusing, and challenging clients.
And yet, even with more than ten years of experience, there are still ways in which a professional like Aubrey Thyme can be surprised. That’s the thrill of the job, after all: there are always surprises. For instance, a professional like Aubrey Thyme could have a brand new client, coming into her office for the very first meeting, plop down in the seat across from her and say, “Oedipus complex. Your opinion?” the way that this client, Anthony, just had.
Part of being a professional mental health therapist is having a keen, observant eye. From the moment of first contact with a client, or potential client, a professional like Aubrey Thyme pays attention to every hint about a client’s identity, personality, problems and paths to solutions. This is why, when this client, Anthony, plopped down and said, “Oedipus complex. Your opinion?” she wasn’t left stuttering.
As soon as Aubrey Thyme had opened her office door and seen her new client, Anthony, sitting in her waiting area, she was observing and assessing him. At first glance, she paid attention to the following:
- His clothing was expensive and stylish;
- He wore very strange but noticeable cologne;
- His relationship to the seat he occupied could only, very loosely, be described as “sitting;”
- He looked angry;
- He was wearing sunglasses.
What Aubrey Thyme, a professional, thought, upon first seeing her new client was: you’re going to be a fun one, aren’t you?
She had invited him into her office. She had smiled, kind, and he hadn’t smiled back. He stood, he moved past her, and he didn’t say a single thing, not even a greeting, until he plopped into her chair and asked for her opinion on Oedipal complexes.
A therapist didn’t have to be a professional with over ten years of experience dealing with particularly challenging cases of severe trauma to know how to respond to this. A therapist worth even half her weight in salt would know how to respond to this. So Aubrey Thyme had settled into the seat across from Anthony and said, like even the half-salt therapist would have, “Why do you ask?”
He clearly wasn’t impressed, but she was okay with that. He was trying to bait her into a power struggle; he wanted to needle her into trying to prove herself to him. He was still wearing those sunglasses.
“Last time I tried this,” he said, “I spent hours lying on a couch, and then I got an earful about Oedipal complexes. I’m not doing that again.”
She listened. She nodded. What she heard was: I’m scared. Displease me, and I won’t stay. This was her job, to convince him to stay.
“It sounds like you saw a pretty traditional Freudian psychoanalyst.”
“Well, yeah. It was Freud.”
That didn’t make sense to her. By the flare of his nostrils and the set of his mouth, she could tell that he didn’t expect it to make sense to her. He wanted to fluster her, she was certain, because doing so would let him win the power struggle he wanted them to be in. So she wouldn’t be flustered.
“I’m not a Freudian. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about Oedipus in a session before.” She smiled.
The fact that she gave the right answer didn’t mean he was done testing her. Aubrey Thyme, professional, understood that Anthony was someone who would not be done testing her for a very long time.
“I’d like to start by getting to know a bit more about what brings you here,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said, and then he didn’t go on.
One of the first skills Aubrey Thyme, professional therapist, had developed was the ability to sit with silence. It can be terrifying and overwhelming, sitting in a small room in complete silence with another, especially when that other is a very angry man who still hasn’t taken off his sunglasses. It can be unsettling, and most people have a compelling urge to fill up every uncomfortable silence with chatter. But that wasn’t what Anthony needed right now, she decided. What Anthony needed, she thought, was the experience of waiting as long as it took for him to say what he needed to say.
Another one of the first professional skills Aubrey Thyme had developed was the ability to surreptitiously keep an eye on a clock, no matter what. That’s how she knew that Anthony was silent for a full thirty seconds before he continued.
“Something happened a while ago. I haven’t been okay since then. I need you to fix it.”
So far as trauma narratives go, that wasn’t the worst she had ever heard in a first session with a client. With another client, she might respond: it is very hard to talk about, isn’t it? Or maybe: I’m really touched that you’d share that with me, thank you. Or maybe something else. But given everything she had learned about Anthony so far, she decided on: “What happened?”
“There was a fire. I thought my friend was dead.”
“That sounds very painful.”
“Your friend wasn’t dead?”
“No.” He shook his head. “He’s fine.”
“And, now, you’re not okay.”
Pulling teeth, she thought. “Tell me a bit more about that,” she said. “How are you not okay?”
He twisted and fidgeted and he rolled his eyes in an exaggerated way that must have been designed to let her recognize he was doing it despite the sunglasses. He has a lot of practice doing that, she thought. The movement allowed her to notice the tattoo on the side of his face. She was going to have to think about that tattoo, later.
“I looked it up,” he said. “They’re flashbacks. I’m having flashbacks to the fire.”
She nodded her head. It was one of her professional nods. It was the nod that said, That makes total sense to me. “Anything else?”
“Changes in mood?”
She paused, so that she could let her professionally-trained mind evaluate her options. Anthony was testing her, and she decided she wanted to test him back. “Is that true? Because you seem really on edge.”
“Just my winning personality,” he said.
“A lot of people, after a traumatic event, find themselves feeling angry and on edge. You sure you haven’t noticed any changes like that?”
She watched him think. He had a lot to think about, here. She knew that many people, after experiencing a trauma, lost touch with their emotions. He could be like that; he could honestly need to think, to access his emotions, to find the answer to her question. She also knew it was possible he was still testing her, and he wanted to see how far she would prod before she gave up. Or: he could be deciding whether he wanted to keep up with the lies. That, she thought, was the most likely scenario.
Anthony, she was starting to understand, was a liar.
Aubrey Thyme liked working with liars. Not all therapists do. A lot see lies as poison to the therapeutic encounter, but not Aubrey Thyme. Aubrey Thyme, in all her experience, had found liars to be interesting enough to be worth the potential for frustration. Liars were fun.
“Yeah, okay,” he said, and he leaned back in his seat. She noted the shift in posture: leaning away, turning his head to the side. He had given the most meager crumb of emotional truth, and he compensated by increasing physical distance. “I have been told I have been irritable.” He made a complicated gesture with his hand. “More irritable than usual, that is.”
“Your winning personality,” she said.
He grinned. That’s promising, she thought.
“Who told you you’ve been more irritable lately?”
“My friend,” he said, and he was shifting his posture in the seat again. Her back started to feel antsy, vicariously. “We’re not going to talk about him.”
“Is this the same friend you thought had died?”
His mouth opened, then hung there for a moment. He clearly knew he’d been caught, was stuck. “Yeah. Yeah, him.”
“Then I think we’re probably going to have to talk about him.” She made a gesture with her hands, like laying out options, like offering a consolation: here’s all I have to offer.
He made a little noise, somewhere between a grunt and a whine.
“So, tell me about him,” she suggested. She shifted now, crossing one leg over the other, and she shrugged.
“His name is Ezra. He owns a bookshop. It was the bookshop that was on fire. That’s all you need to know.”
Anthony liked to decide what she did and did not need to know. She put that observation aside for later; she’d have work to do, developing her full account of him, after her time with him was up.
“Ezra’s bookshop was on fire,” she summarized. “You thought he was dead -- in the fire? And now you’re having flashbacks, and you’re irritable.”
“I was in the fire,” he said, and it was like he wasn’t in the room with her anymore, like he was off, somewhere else, somewhere far too hot and without exits. From the look of him, Aubrey Thyme surmised, his blood pressure just spiked, his heart rate was climbing, and his skin just went clammy. He was so thin, she could see every muscle move in his face and hands as his whole body tensed. She watched as he didn’t breathe.
“Stay with me,” she said, and she said it in the very specific tone she used in situations like this. Because this wasn’t an unusual situation, not for a professional like Aubrey Thyme, who specialized in cases of trauma. “Anthony. You here with me? Look at me. I’m here with you.”
His sunglasses meant she couldn’t see where his eyes were, but she guessed she had gotten his attention. She made a point to breathe in deeply, and she was gratified to see him follow suit.
She waited. She breathed. She watched Anthony. He returned to the present, to the room. All things considered, it didn’t take him that long.
“I have more questions for you,” she said. She made sure her voice was quieter now. She knew how to use her voice to modulate others’ emotions. “But I think we should put them off for now.” She waited for a response, but he didn’t give one, so she went on. “Instead, how about I teach you something that may be able to help, when this sort of thing happens.”
“Yeah?” he asked, in a certain way, and it was a way that made Aubrey Thyme’s heart nearly break open. She was used to this, feeling her heart break open, when clients sounded and looked as Anthony did right now, especially the liars. This is how she always felt, when she saw someone’s angry and irritable veil pull aside, to reveal the scared and lonely child hiding within. Anthony had done that. He was giving up to her a kernel of raw hope.
She wanted to deserve it.
“It’s called five-four-three-two-one. It’s a grounding technique. Ever heard of it?”
He shook his head.
“Okay.” She smiled. “Let me explain what it is.”
They got to work.
When the hour was over, Anthony was a little calmer. After he had walked out and she shut her door, she let herself feel all the pent up nerves she had been hiding from him. She breathed in, deep long breaths, and she closed her eyes. She had spent an hour drinking up Anthony’s anger and pain and confusion and palpable distrust, and she had ten minutes to let it all out of her system, before her next client arrived.
She put the odds of Anthony coming back for the next session at 50/50.
At a certain level of abstraction, there are three phases to trauma therapy. This is, at least, what the tri-phasic model of trauma therapy says. Aubrey Thyme found it to be a useful model.
The first phase is all about safety. A therapeutic alliance must be formed. In this phase, the client gains trust in himself and the therapist. Focus is put on learning skills--grounding techniques, breathing techniques, meditative techniques, and so on--that help with the symptoms of trauma-related disturbances. The goal is to give the client the tools he needs to cope with the pain that will come, in later phases, when focus switches to confronting and overcoming the traumatic memories, themselves.
Different clients, of course, have different safety needs. This first phase takes longer for some clients, rather than others. After a first session with a client, Aubrey Thyme usually had a fairly good idea of how long it would take before they could move on to phase two, but she never knew for sure. There were always surprises, set-backs, and unforeseen developments.
She wasn’t sure, after just one meeting with Anthony, how long it would take. But she had a pretty strong suspicion: they’d be ready to move out of the safety stage, only once those bullshit sunglasses came off his face.
“I’m starting to worry you’re no good at your job,” Anthony said, soon as he was properly spread out in her office’s chair.
They had met a few times now. Each time, she was surprised he came back--especially after she had double-checked his address. (Google Maps told her that London was a 9-hour flight from her office in Rochester, New York. “Quite a commute,” she had said, and he nodded. “Especially for someone who’s retired,” she’d added, and he hadn’t responded. He was a liar. But he paid in cash, and his phone number worked, so she went with it.) Each time, he started out the session with a very clear establishment of ground rules: I can leave any time, I don’t need you, prove yourself to me.
That was okay. Aubrey Thyme, after all, was a professional. This wasn’t the first time a client had questioned her competence. It wasn’t even the hundredth. The good thing about experience is, it helps you take things in stride.
“Now, why’s that?” she asked.
He reached up a hand, index finger extended. He tapped that finger against the frame of his sunglasses.
Ho-ho!, she thought, but she didn’t let it show. “You wanna explain what you mean?” she asked.
“You used to people in here wearing sunglasses the whole time?”
Do you have to be so goddamned adversarial about everything? She thought. “No, not at all,” she said.
“Isn’t that the sort of thing people in your profession should, you know, comment on?”
She grinned, and she knew what effect that would have on him. He wanted her unsettled; he wanted power in this encounter, so he could feel safe from the distance it inspired. She grinned, and in so doing, she robbed him of that. “Yeah? You think so?”
She robbed him of the safety that came from him unsettling her, because she wanted to replace it, instead, with a different kind of safety. The safety that comes from honest conversation. “You’re right,” she acknowledged. “It definitely is the sort of thing people in my profession tend to comment on.”
He shrugged again.
“And, I’ll tell you, Anthony, it’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about.” She waited, but he didn’t react, so she went on. “I’ve thought about bringing them up. Want to know why I haven’t?”
He was too unmoored to acknowledge his curiosity.
“It’s because…” and she drew this out a little, because maybe she could be a little cruel with adversarial liars like Anthony, at least when she knew it wouldn’t backfire too badly. “I figured, soon as you were ready to talk about them, you’d bring them up.”
She let him sit there and think about that. She let her grin settle into a satisfied smile.
“I don’t want to talk about them,” he mumbled.
“Then we don’t have to.”
“I have an eye condition.”
“Ah, I didn’t know that.” She nodded now, and she let her mind work that information into her theories about him. “Thank you for letting me know.”
He hated being thanked. He hated it now. She kept smiling.
“I don’t want to talk about them,” he said again.
“So you said,” she nodded. “You know, something else about people in my profession? When we hear someone say they don’t want to talk about something? Especially if they say it more than once? We tend to pay attention to that.”
She saw him frown, behind the dark lenses.
“We tend to think it means, they actually really do want to talk about it.”
“So you’ve said.” She smiled. “Three times now.”
He was tired of this game. He groaned and he shifted in the seat, somehow coming even closer to mocking the concept of ‘sitting’ than any human had any right to. She would be pushing her luck, if she kept up with this any longer.
“You don’t want to talk about them, we don’t talk about them. You want to keep them on, you keep them on. But if you do want to talk about them, then we’ll talk about them.”
Eyes on the clock: forty-five seconds passed before he spoke again.
“No one actually calls me Anthony,” he said. She was getting better at reading his face, despite the sunglasses, and she could tell he wasn’t looking at her.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Crowley. I go by Crowley.” Now he looked towards her, and his lips twitched.
“I’ll remember that.” For most clients, first names had greater intimacy than last names. But Aubrey Thyme could tell that this wasn’t the case for Anthony--for Crowley. This was a gift, an olive branch of sorts, being offered. “Thank you for letting me know, Crowley.”
He hated being thanked. He could tolerate it, but he hated it. That’s why she kept doing it.
She made a note of every single time he mentioned the sunglasses. She looked for the patterns, for the eliciting events that led to him bringing them up. Sometimes, like right now, he brought them up in order to change the subject.
“If I were to take them off, you wouldn’t think of me the same way anymore,” he said, as if the referent for ‘them’ had been established already, as if the two of them had been in a conversation about the sunglasses. But they hadn’t been. She had, instead, been asking about why he didn’t like practicing breathing techniques at home. This annoyed her, but she was a woman of her word: when he wanted to talk about the sunglasses, they talked about them.
“How do you think I would think of you?”
“You’d…” Crowley often started talking before he knew how to finish what he wanted to say. His mind worked fast, after all, and he still didn’t trust her. “You wouldn’t see me as human anymore.”
“Wow,” she said, and she let herself show the weight that those words had for her. She watched him fidget. He was hiding something, which seemed strange. Most people, when they admit that something would make them no longer feel human, have exposed themselves. Somehow, though, not him. “What does it mean to you, to be human?”
Something very complicated passed across his face, like a smile and a grimace and a sneer. She would think about that later. “It means being free,” he said.
“If you take your sunglasses off,” she summarized, “then you wouldn’t be free.”
“I don’t practice at home, because Ezra doesn’t know I come here.”
She could get whiplash, trying to follow Crowley’s attempts at deflection. “Okay, okay,” she said, and she put out her hands. “I really think we should talk about both of these things. But we can’t talk about them at the same time. Sunglasses, or Ezra. Which do you want to start with?”
“Neither.” Because Crowley was, if nothing, petty. “Whichever. I don’t care.”
“Sunglasses, fine,” as if this were a favor to her, a great sacrifice on his part for her benefit.
“Okay.” She nodded and gave herself a moment to work out a strategy, repositioning a bit in her seat. “Let me ask this. Suppose you were to take them off, in here, with me. What’s the absolute worst thing you think could happen?”
“You’d turn into a pillar of salt.”
He did this sometimes. He made dumb jokes, and they usually were littered with Biblical allusions. This was, also, something she kept notes on. She didn’t understand why he did it, but she knew he didn’t expect her to. It was his own private way of having fun at her expense, it seemed. She waited.
“You’d scream and run out the door and then you wouldn’t meet with me again,” he mumbled.
She nodded. “So that’s the absolute worst. How likely do you think that is? Scale of one to ten, where one is not likely at all, and ten is absolute certainty.”
“So it could happen, but it’s not so likely.”
“What do you think the most likely result would be?”
“You’d probably scream a little, but you’d try to hide it.” He paused, sucking at his teeth. “You’d thank me for being so brave and strong.”
She had done that a few sessions ago. He was mocking. All the same, she thought it mattered that he remembered, and that the words had affected him enough to bring them up again. “Okay,” she said, not taking his bait. “And how likely is that?”
“Probably, around seven.”
“What’s the absolute best thing you think could happen?”
He hadn’t been expecting that. He sat up a little in his chair, which she thought was interesting. “I guess--I guess, nothing.”
“Nothing. You take your sunglasses off, I see your eyes, and absolutely nothing happens.”
She smiled. “Right, yes. Because nothing about your eyes can change who you are.”
He thought about that. He didn’t respond.
“How likely is it?”
He glared, and then he said, “We’re already past ten. Worst case is four, most likely case is seven. We’re dealing with impossible probabilities.”
“Humor me. How likely?”
Aubrey Thyme was a professional. She had a professional interest in what eye condition her client, Anthony Crowley, could have. She had a professional interest in coming to understand why he was so scared to show his eyes to another, and why he thought the sight of his uncovered face would be so terrifying that the whole of their relationship would change. But Aubrey Thyme wasn’t just a professional, she was also a human. And, as a human, she had a deeply prurient interest in what the hell could possibly be under those dark lenses.
They didn’t get around to talking about Ezra, that session. It was unfortunate, but time was up.
Aubrey Thyme liked to think of the human mind as like a spider web. This wasn’t particularly creative of her, it was a common metaphor, but it was a useful one. Each strand in the web was a belief. The peripheral strands were simple beliefs, easily shaken off with counter-evidence, insignificant. The center of the web were the core beliefs, however, the ones that shaped the whole of one’s identity. Pluck at one of these core strands, and the whole of a person could change. Aubrey Thyme spent much of her work trying to locate the core strands in other peoples’ webs so that she could then pluck them.
She wasn’t foolish enough to think she could ever understand the whole web of a person. Everyone hides something. Psychology is just goddamned complicated, and there would always be unanswered questions about any client, no matter how long the work lasted. This was something that Aubrey Thyme was used to: balancing an intense curiosity with a realistic gauge of human limitations.
Her work with Crowley had left her with some sense of the web occupying his mind. She had glimpsed, now and then, at some of those core strands of belief. But there were also, still, some very serious questions she had about him, holes in her knowledge of him that she knew were interfering with their work. She had had these questions, ever since he first filled out the demographic forms, the first day they met.
For pronouns, he selected ‘he/him.’ For gender, however, he wrote, “No.” For sexuality, he wrote nothing. For religious affiliation, he wrote, “Sure, why not.”
That last one was what surprised her the most. He looked like someone who would be angry at the very idea of religion. He had the look of a man (?) who had dabbled in Satanism before it turned passe, someone who had given it up once he realized atheism fit his wardrobe better.
The other demographic information didn’t surprise her too terribly much. Crowley was, after all, a man (?) of a certain age, and she was used to men of a certain age, with certain persuasions, feeling uncomfortable describing certain aspects of their identities. But she still needed to ask about it. It was a conversation they needed to have.
They needed to have this conversation, because she was starting to glimpse what was at the very center of the web in Crowley’s mind. She was seeing, over and over again, how deeply entrenched that core of Crowley’s mind was, how every other single aspect of this man (?) revolved around that core. For most people, that core is some set of beliefs about oneself. For Crowley, however, it was someone else.
Ezra. She needed to know more about this Ezra.
The opportunity came up one session, the way so many of them did with Crowley: he was rude.
They were in the middle of session when his phone went off. This happened, now and then, with clients. Most people forget to turn their phones to silent. She was used to a client giving a sheepish smile, scrambling to pull out their phone, and turning it off. Sometimes the client would make hushed apologies, telling her as it rang that they needed to answer, and then taking the call. But not Crowley, oh no. Soon as the phone went off, it had his full attention, far more than she ever did. He was unapologetic, uncaring, giving no excuse or explanation. He fished it out of his pocket, standing and turning his back to her, and he answered.
“What’s wrong?” He said as he answered. She could just slightly hear the voice on the other end, but she could only make out Crowley’s part of the conversation. She thought she heard another British accent, matching his. “Oh. Oh. No, yeah, that’s fine. Seven. Sounds good. Uh-huh. Hm. Uh-huh.”
This was the part in the phone call where most people would say, I’m in the middle of something, I’ll call you back. Crowley didn’t.
“Can’t you just, you know? Ah. I see. Yes, fine. I can pick that up on the way. It’s fine. Yeah.”
She would have felt guilty for eavesdropping, but he was, after all, in her office. She cleared her throat.
“Listen,” he finally said, giving her a glance. “I need to go. No, everything’s fine. I’ll be home in about a half hour. Okay. Okay. Yes, ta-taa.”
Crowley wasn’t the sort to say ta-taa, unless he was mocking someone. He sounded like he was mocking someone, but there was no barb to it. He hung up the phone and sat back down.
He had the look of a man (?) who knew he wasn’t getting out of this alive.
“Ezra,” he said.
“He still doesn’t know you come here?”
“Can we talk about that?”
“No.” He was a liar. “I don’t want him to worry.”
“He worries about you.”
“It’s his specialty.”
“You worry about him?”
“Eh,” he grunted, not accepting her wording. “I look after him.”
“You care about him.”
“You love him?”
That was risky. Aubrey Thyme, professional that she was, knew that sometimes one had to take a risk. She watched closely as Crowley became very still, far stiller than he ever sat before.
“We don’t use that word,” he said, after a fifteen second pause.
“Is there a better word?”
Twenty-three seconds, then: he shook his head.
“Did you love him, before the fire?”
“From the beginning,” he said. This was the sort of situation where she would normally expect him to hide behind his sarcasm and private jokes, but he didn’t. He was earnest. Crowley, she determined, did not joke about this relationship.
“It’s touching,” she said, and she smiled. “You two found each other, and it sounds like you have something very special together.”
“You’re a sap,” he said, but there wasn’t any rancor to it. In fact, he was smiling, even.
The way past Crowley’s sunglasses, she thought, is through his Ezra.