"Hi Will," her voice was exceptionally bubbly.
"Oh, Hi Allison." My face lit up along with every blood vessel in it. I dove into my locker, pretending to search for a lost book.
There's a cruel phenomenon within all of us. It teases us, misleads us, lies to us. It tells us we’re the one, the next big thing, the only one holding the million dollar ticket. That's how it was with Allison Channing. I knew this adversary well, I believed anyway.
"So, you going to the Lodge next weekend?"
"Oh, is there a party?" Questions divert attention away from yourself and yield a slight calming effect.
"Yeah, after the game. I really hope you guys win."
The Lodge is the nickname of the party house kids at my school go to on the weekends. It's just an old cabin in the Appalachian foothills, once quite elaborate though."
"Hey, hey, hey, my two favorite people." Justin came running up, putting his arm around Allison as if they were best friends."
"Hi Justin. How's life treatin' ya." Allison said.
"Oh you know. I've got the looks of an Aeropostale model and the soul of Ghandi, can't complain."
Allison laughed. I was annoyed.
“Hey Will,” Justin turned to me. “What class ya heading to?”
“I gotta get to math.”
“Let’s meet up afterward.”
"You're such a charmer, Will. How do you do it?" I gave Justin a scowl as he turned his back. "My lady." Justin held out his arm, gesturing to escort Allison to her next class.
"Oh wait, today’s Friday.” I called out.
“Yeah, so what.”
“Um, I have to meet with Mr. Johnson after class to go over some homework. I meet with him most Friday’s.”
"You’re such a brownnoser.” Justin's eyes rolled up to the ceiling. "Let us depart my lady." Allison locked arms with Justin and both went skipping down the hallway. I wanted to shoot him.
I didn’t like lying but it was better than the alternative. I had been meeting with Dr. Z on Friday’s for about a month now. I was reluctant at first but my parents insisted after they learned I was having difficulty paying attention in class. The school social worker had me tested for ADHD. Not the squirrely, can’t stay in your seat type, but the absent minded, can’t hold a thought in your head type. The tests came back negative and I didn’t meet criteria for an ADHD diagnosis, but the social worker thought I could benefit from meeting with Dr. Z. She said it would help me to "better connect with my peers,” whatever that meant.
Some of the kids criticized me for being aloof. It wasn’t that. I just had secrets. Secrets that were killing me, but I would rather die than have them exposed. So I remained distant, stayed guarded, and stayed safe. I wanted desperately to connect with them, to be part of their group, to fit in. It just wasn’t in the cards. I was different from them. Maybe they were different from me. It didn’t matter. Difference creates fear. Fear leads to anger. The anger I masked and kept hidden was born from frustration, from not being understood. I stuffed it down, buried it deep.
Despite my initial reluctance I found the meetings with Dr. Z helpful. Dr. Z. was an old soul with boyish features, soft green eyes, and a kind smile. Despite his youthful appearance he often joked that he was, "pushing 70." Dr. Z. was confined to a wheelchair. He never talked about it and I never asked. He had a background in Theology, but was different from the crazy preachers in town. He never forced his beliefs on you. Dr. Z. allowed you to have your own mind without condemning you to hell for it. A lot of what he talked about made sense. He helped me recognize how my thoughts made me anxious and distracted, especially around others. He never officially diagnosed me. He said that he didn’t believe in labels. Best I could tell from self-diagnosing web searches was that I suffered symptoms related to generalized and social anxiety.
“Willy, come on in.” Dr. Z greeted me in his office.
“You’re the only other person who calls me Willy, well, other than my grandfather who’s been dead for five years.”
“Does it bother you? Please tell me if it does.”
“No, it’s nice actually. We were close. You kind of remind me a little of him, at least your personalities.”
“Well, tell you what, I'm going to leave that memory for your Grandfather. It's William or Will from here on out. Tell me, how has your anxiety been?” I wiped the moisture from my hands onto the legs of my pants. The anticipation of having to speak honestly about my feelings was more alarming to my body than someone sneaking up behind me with a blow horn. My eyes darted around the room. The plant on his desk. The ugly yellow shades on his window. "Who’s that?" I gestured toward a painting on the wall.
"You're not answering the question, William."
“Oh, um, I feel more panicky in the morning. It’s hard to get going and feel motivated. I just get so nervous before school. My stomach hurts a lot.”
“Is there anything that triggers your anxiety in the morning?” Dr. Z. asked.
“Not that I can think of."
“Try to recall the thoughts you have in the morning before school.”
“I don’t know. I always feel like I’m being judged by others. Like if they really knew how messed up I was they would be appalled. I don’t want them to think I’m a loser or see me as weak. I guess the thoughts make me anxious and then the stomachache comes which intensifies everything. Thinking about panic makes me panic. If I could just forget.”
Dr. Z. leaned forward is his chair. “Do you see the loop? Think about a digital media player and how it plays songs over and over again. It does this because the minicomputer inside tells it to. Your brain is that minicomputer. The more you focus on something the more intense it will become. Distraction. Distraction. Distraction. It's the only way to break the cycle. Tell me Will, what else helps you manage the symptoms?"
"I pray, a lot, but I don't think it helps."
"It helps for a little bit, then I start thinking about having a panic attack and it comes back."
"What do you do then?"
"I start my ritual over. Get on my knees, pray, stand up, get back down, pray, touch my heart seven times, make sure I didn't mess up the rug on the bathroom floor, and then touch the doorknob with three taps before leaving."
"Yes Will, I'm quite familiar with your routine. The reason your prayers don't work is because they come from a place of desperation. Tell me about this feeling of messing up?”
“So God won’t be angry.” The words were out before I realized that I had spoken them.
“You’re afraid God will punish you if you don’t pray the way he wants you to?” Dr. Z. raised his brow. I thought about Justin and Corbin’s comments last night, that I was afraid of God. Were they right? If so, how could they see it and not me?
“I don’t know.”
“Have you been practicing your coping skills, breathing and distraction exercises when you feel compelled to start a ritual?" Dr. Z. asked.
“I have. They help a little.”
“Good Will, keep practicing. The more you practice staying with the moment and accepting your feelings, the more your brain will rewire itself. Over time your anxiety will weaken. Each time you engage in a ritual you are avoiding anxiety. Avoidance keeps you trapped.”
“I get that. I just wish it didn’t take so long. I wish it wasn’t so hard. I feel so alone sometimes, so isolated. I can't tell my friends; they wouldn't get it.”
“It is a learning process, Will. Compulsions are acts of desperation. Acute anxiety is devastating. People who haven't experienced it don't understand the pain it causes. It's only natural to want to fight it but it takes time. Your brain needs practice and repetition to learn a new skill. You've been thinking anxious thoughts for so long your brain doesn’t know any better. Would you expect to lose one hundred pounds in one week if you were obese?”
“Well, psychological disorders work the same way. Give yourself a lot of credit. You have to deal with all of the same things that kids without mental health concerns have to deal with. It’s a heavy challenge, but I have no doubt you are the person to take it on."
"It feels like a curse.”
"You don't have to fight this alone. You said you couldn't tell your friends. Maybe in time you can. They may not truly understand, nobody can understand your experience but you, that doesn't mean they won't support you. What about Allison?”
“Oh God, are you kidding?”
“By the way you describe her she sounds like the right person, warm, caring, compassionate.”
“Do you still carry the heart?” He asked.
I reached in my pocket and pulled out the charm.
“Why not tell her then?”
I had known Allison since elementary school. She meant everything to me but didn’t know it because I could never bring myself to tell her.
“Do you enjoy torturing people for a living?” I asked. “You put on this front that you’re this spiritual person, but I think there’s more. There’s a darkness in you.”
Dr. Z. gave a hearty laugh and I couldn’t help but crack a smile as he reached out and gave my knee a playful slap.
“Just be open to the possibility. You never know if the opportunity will arise. You’re on the verge of a great awakening. You have an opportunity to experience how these disorders affect your life.”
“Why would I want to experience that?”
“There’s reason and purpose for everything. Experiences develop character. Challenges in life awaken the spirit. Be careful. With any great gift comes tremendous responsibility. Because of the difficult nature of psychological disorders, it can be easy to slip off the path and lose your way.”
“Slip off the path?”
“Some people turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, extremes of all kinds. They wind up in a hell of their own creation.”
“I assure you, Dr. Z. I’m not headed down that path."
“Nobody purposely heads down that path. Always, it sneaks up. People don’t realize it until they spiral down, out of control. That’s when they cry out for help.” I sat back in my chair. “Now tell me, Will, how’s your anger?”
My chest tightened. “I’m not angry. I keep telling you that but you don’t listen. To be honest it’s frustrating.”
“Ok, Will, you’re not ready to talk and that’s fine.” I remained silent. Anger was the one thing we didn’t see eye-to-eye about. Dr. Z said anger was the one chain that could prove most difficult for me to break. I wasn’t convinced. He called it denial.
"In the Wilderness," he said.
"What?" I turned just before stepping out his door. Dr. Z. motioned to the painting on his wall.
"The name of painting," he nodded. "It's symbolic of the people that come through my office. They tell me they can relate, that it's therapeutic."
The painting was a picture of Jesus sitting alone on a rock, his head buried in his arms, the weight of the world on his shoulders. I studied it for a second. "They let you hang it? I mean, being in school and all. The Puritans lost control of the school board several years ago after the state stepped in."
“I know. Administration has asked me to take it down six times now.” Dr. Z. gazed at the painting, never removing his eyes from it. There was no way it was coming down. I turned and left his office.
Why was Dr. Z. so concerned that my anxiety was driven by some hidden repressed anger? The only anger I had was directed towards my disorders. They make me different, like there is something wrong with me, like I am a bad person.
“Hey Will," I heard someone say just after my face planted itself into a building support post. “Watch out for those posts. They come at you so quick.” I looked down, pretending to hide. Heat filled every blood vessel in my face. Keep walking and get the hell out of here. Having my embarrassment exposed was far more devastating than actually running into the post. Thankfully it was Friday. This will all be forgotten by Monday. I just needed to get to my next class and hide in the back row.