Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Guilty Man

As he lay back on the psychiatric couch, he let out the usual sigh. Yes, it was pointless, but no, you just can’t do nothing. “Much gnashing of teeth,’ – that’s what the Bible said was in store for those who live in limbo. The commitment-less, the fence sitters waiting for a never-to-appear sign, the desperate runners from reality. It was they who populated the void called limbo. The inhabitants of this inhospitable space took solace in their freedom from hell and yet wailed at the lack of heaven. Unspoken was the knowledge the time would come for eviction.

And that caused much gnashing of teeth.

He had picked a female psychiatrist just to have the company of a woman. “Paul,” she lamented, “you look even more emaciated today. It’s distressing to see.”

“Get off my back, will ya.” When he wanted to, his blue eyes were piercing and bore holes into any but the most solid of souls. His therapist received such a glare now.

“It’s your life, Paul.” It was Stock Reply Number 5, best she could do with those laser-like eyes drilling into her. “Live it as you wish.” The lasers turned away but moments like these left her feeling a complete fraud. Paul gave her those pauses more than any other patient and thus she dreaded him. But if on the other hand she could conquer him, it would legitimize her life to new heights.

Stymied once more, she gazed upon this enigma who seemed to slouch even while lying down. “You must understand, Paul,” – repeat the name, people love to hear their name even if it’s forced – “how upsetting it is for others to see anyone waste away. Now I’m not saying you should live your life for other people but no one wants to see you dead.”

“Fat lot you know.” Her constant use of his name grated on him. Later, he would think: why can’t I just tell her that? The answer: because then she would know something that really bothered him – and that would give her power.

“Do you know that today marks exactly one year since you’ve been coming here?” Wait for the no reply. “And I can’t see we’ve made much progress.” He wanted to snap back that perhaps the reason for that was because she sucks as a therapist, but he wasn’t ready to break away just yet. Endure the abuse. “It’s frustrating to see you never keep on weight. You said it started when you inherited the millions of dollars from your father but we’ve determined it’s not the money stopping you from eating. You said the feeling started as a small child when you decided you hated your father but should never tell him. You said keeping quiet was for the greater good. You said you had special abilities and didn’t have the needs of ordinary people, that you could “make sacrifices others could not.” Yet you also say it was a death trip, cutting you off from a normal life of friends and relationships.”

Paul too wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery. The Starving Millionaire who felt too guilty to eat. He would sit at the table like a prisoner behind bars with his food on the other side. Eat it and be branded a criminal. Ignore it and die. He oscillated between the two like a perpetual motion pendulum. Alternately he binged on food, gained weight and was hailed by his therapist, but that was like holding his breath and in his inevitable gasping for air he would free fall back to weightlessness. It had to stop. It had to not stop.

And that caused much gnashing of teeth.

Seeing no challenge, his therapist continued. “You said it just didn’t “feel right”, you eating like that when others had nothing. What right had you to something that others did not-“

“That’s right, lady, what makes me so goddam special??”

She didn’t look up, feeling his eyes already. “- and yet you also say you know your death would serve no purpose, and a purpose is what you seek-”

“If I do what I want, I’m a fucking criminal!”

She reiterated her analysis: ”Guilt drives you, guilt driven from a life not lived. Your death trip was in reality an ego trip to place you above others. Now you feel that in order to make any claim to morality you have to keep on making the sacrifices you always have. That if you ever used your abilities for yourself, you were some sort of selfish monster who deserved nothing – not even to eat.”

“I guess that about sums it up,” he snapped. She gave space for his torment. “I can know in my head it’s OK to do what I want, but I just can’t. I can’t defend it or explain it. I’m paralyzed by guilt for a crime I do not know. It’s a complete mind fuck!” He snorted in disgust and pride. “You know what I did? I play this anonymous little game on the computer called Reversi to kill time. I ran into this one guy about the same skill level as me - and I’m very good. I beat him two games in row 33-31, close as you can get without tying.” He looked over to see if she was paying attention. She actually was. “So I could just feel this guy on the other end saying, “I know I can beat him, he’s just getting lucky.” You could sense the frustration so I had this idea. For the third game I used a bot – a program that shows where to move. It was beautiful. The bot didn’t make any obviously great moves into the mid-game, they looked very average and he had to be thinking he was still in the game. But when we got to the end game, the horror became clear and he got wiped out. That’s when I left.”

Rarely did she see him look over to her for approval. It’s an opening, she thought, a chance to conquer. “So what did you hope to accomplish with that?”

“A mind fuck! I made him doubt his skills. I made him question his reality. I made him wonder just who the fuck he is!”

The words hung in the air like a prosecutor’s accusation. He had damned himself. She looked away in silent victory. Amusingly, she mused over replying “And just who the fuck are you?” Never did she curse and it would shock him. Secretly she thought he used such words in the hopes of annoying her. It did, but that could never be admitted – it would give him power.

“Perhaps,” she seemingly ventured, “we should ask that question of you?” No reply, of course, he was trapped. “Maybe all this death trip, ego talk is a cover up. Maybe you just don’t want to face your true self so you can keep on believing you’ve got all these “special abilities”, this Hidden Talent I keep hearing you talk about. Maybe that’s the source of all your guilt.”

The patient no longer slouched into the couch but sunk into it. What had he ever done that was special – except for maybe the extraordinary way in which he had screwed up his life. Yeah, he truly had nothing to offer. Just a big bag of wind. What kind of person is too guilty to even eat?? Maybe that was it all along. He had merely been clinging to the one thing that gave him value: self denial. Admit you’re a schmuck and get on with your life at last.

The Broken Man stood up slouching greater than ever. The Conqueror was soothing and gracious now that she had victory. At last she had proved herself a healer as she had to so many other patients. Broken Man noticed her extra kindness and dutifully acknowledged it. As he stopped at the front desk to pay, he was almost too ashamed to face the receptionist. I’m a Liar and a Fraud – that had to be written on his forehead.

But the girl was blessedly unwitting as she confirmed his next appointment. “OK, I gotcha down: 2 o’clock, next Tuesday for Mr. Paul Newman.”

And he exited with much gnashing of teeth.

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