Short story: Together in the Muck

 

Two times this pandemic, I did something I’ve never done before.

I entered two short story writing contests. And – you guys – I came in second in both. I’m super proud of myself, especially because writing fiction is not usually my jam.

To be fair, the first story I submitted was about 90% fact with some embellishing thrown in. I had originally written it here, on this blog, about being pregnant with my first. The second story I wrote from scratch and it’s based on my experience working as a therapist in a nonprofit. I’m very proud of how it turned out. Here it is, dear readers.


“I know what you’re doing,” she interrupted me, “and I want you to stop it.”

“What am I doing?” I asked, genuinely perplexed.

“You’re trying to make me feel better, and it won’t work.”

I sucked in some air, immediately defensive.

Of course I’m trying to make you feel better! I’m your therapist, for Christ’s sake.

“Look, Madison, I’d like to be able to help you, but I can’t do that if you’re unwilling to answer my questions. I’m curious to know more about the positive things in your life.”

“My life is shit! That’s why I’m here.” Fresh tears made Madison’s heavy black eyeliner streak down her cheeks and disappear into her oversized black t-shirt.

“Your life is not shit. You just told me about your dog who loves you more than anything. Your artistic talent is incredible! That’s not nothing.”

“He’s just a dog! These are stupid doodles! And what do you know about my life?! You’re just a shrink that my mom pays so she doesn’t have to look at me.” Madison started shoving her sketchpad and pencil into her backpack.

I’m losing her, don’t lose her.

“I’d love to know more about your life if you’d let me. I think you downplay what could be sources of real happiness, like your mom. I’m sure she loves y-”

Madison was already standing. Tears had been replaced with fire in her blue eyes.

“I told you to stop it.”

She strode to the door, yanked it open, and stomped down the hall. I slumped down in my chair, defeated. We still had fifteen minutes left.

Session 3. Client presents in a depressed, irritable mood. Exhibits poor eye contact, sluggish movements, intermittent crying. Affect is blunted at times but mood congruent. Resistant and uncooperative in working towards treatment goals – client left 15 minutes early. Next session in 1 week.


The chunky, rough rope cut into her hands, but she gripped it tighter, resolve flowing through her. Feet planted, arm muscles tensed as she held the rope steady. She wasn’t able to pull it toward her, but for now, that was okay.

Just don’t let go.


“So, how have you been?” I gingerly chose my words as Madison settled in across the room. The more sessions we had, the more she seemed to move-in each time. Today I watched as she unpacked her sketchbook, a few pencils, a sweatshirt, and a half-eaten granola bar that she unwrapped and shoved into her mouth.

“Mmruph.

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

She took her time chewing and swallowing. “Hungry. I dunno.”

Sigh. What do I do with that?

“What would you like to talk about today?”

Madison shrugged, then busied herself with sharpening a pencil and turning over a fresh page in her book. Wordlessly, she began to draw.

Not knowing what else to say, and worried I’d say the wrong thing, I asked, “What kinds of things do you like to draw?”

After several beats, “A bit of everything. You know. Animals. Landscapes. People.” She answered me from under a curtain of long, blonde hair dyed purple that had fallen in front of her face.

Rather than respond, I decided to try riding out the silence. Often it felt like I was doing too much work to try and keep the conversation, any semblance of a conversation, afloat. Clearly, she prefers doing things at her own pace. I should try letting her.

Minutes went by, where all we heard was the soft scratching of Madison’s pencil on the paper. Every once in a while, her eyes darted up and back down again as she hunched over her lap, focused. I watched her and waited.

“So do you have kids?” Madison asked without pausing her drawing.

Caught off guard, I robotically gave the classic therapist response they coach you on in training: “What makes you curious to know?”

She bristled while meeting my gaze. “You can just answer the question.”

I made a conscious effort to soften my tone. “I honestly don’t mind answering the question, I just want to know why you’re curious first.”

She paused, evaluating me. “I don’t know. You seem like you’d be good at it. And you’re always trying to get me to talk to my mom more.”

“Well, thanks.” Did not expect that answer.

“…so do you? Have kids?”

“Ha. I don’t, although I would like to someday.”

There’s something here, something she’s mulling over. What is it?

Our eyes met for a moment longer than was comfortable, and Madison hunched over her sketchpad once more. Silence fell for another minute. Wait for it.

“I got into art school. My mom wants me to go.” Her voice was a fraction above a whisper.

“What?! That’s incredible! Congratulations!” My surprise and excitement came bursting out. She deserves this! She’s suffered way too much trauma; it’s about time she had some good news in her life.

“It’s not a big deal. I probably won’t go.”

“What? Of course it’s a big deal! Why wouldn’t you go?”

Madison looked me dead in the eyes. “Why do you even care?”

She’s testing me. What’s the right answer here?

“I-I care about you, and you deserve good things, Madison. It’s okay to allow yourself to feel happy.”

Madison’s eyes narrowed. “…Did my mom talk to you?”

“What? No. Why?”

“Whatever.”

I felt all her remaining energy drain from the room. Mine went with it.

I glanced at the clock on the wall behind Madison’s shoulder.

“We’re out of time for today,” I sighed, “But I would like to continue talking about this next session.”

As she got up to leave, she tore the top page from her sketchbook. She crossed the room and before she turned for the door, she let the paper fall facedown on my desk.

I watched her disappear around the corner and then went back to my desk and turned the paper over. It was the most exquisite portrait of me, down to the mole on my left cheek. I was drawn seated in my cheap office chair, hands clasped smartly in my lap and my eyes gazed straight at the viewer, as if I were desperately trying to win a staring contest.

Session 6. Client presents in an irritable mood, reports feeling “hungry.” Exhibits intermittent eye contact, hunched body presentation. Affect is blunted at times but mood congruent; speech often quiet, slow, halted. Presents as resistant and defensive. Next session in 1 week.


She was being dragged forward, in the wrong direction. Her feet dug into the ground, but it wasn’t enough to keep her from sliding. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep this up.


“I need to get outta here.”

Madison was visibly upset, about what she wouldn’t say. She was rocking back and forth in her seat, tugging on her hair (now dyed blue), and if I didn’t intervene soon, she was going to start hyperventilating.

“Of course. Do you want to take a walk?” I motioned towards the door.

She nodded and grabbed her backpack.

As soon as we got outside, her breathing slowed. She seemed less agitated.

“I want to sit down.”

“Sure, let’s go over here.” I pointed to a park bench in the shade.

We sat at opposite ends of the bench and Madison bent over and put her head in her hands. I angled my body towards her.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked. What is going on?! I wonder if her dad tried to contact her again.

“No. I don’t.” Her voice was muffled.

I just want to comfort you! Tell me how!

“Okay.”

We sat in silence for several minutes. I wondered if Madison could hear the birds or feel the breeze. She seemed a million miles away, unreachable.

“My life sucks.” I could barely hear her.

What happened?

You have so many positive things in your life!

You’re the strongest, most resilient person I know.

Your life can’t suck. I won’t let it.

I took a deep breath. “Everything is going to be oka-”

Madison let out a sound somewhere between a groan and a wail.

Stop.

Stop pulling and go to meet her.

Meet her where she’s at.

I sighed and turned my body to face forward, mirroring hers. “You’re right. Life sucks, especially yours. You got dealt a shit hand and it’s not fair. I’m sorry.”

Madison looked up and held my gaze for a moment before looking away.

“Yeah,” she said, “it sucks.”

Each of us dropped our section of rope. I waded into the mud pit to meet Madison, who was already there. I let myself sink down in and the sludge encircled us both.

We sat in silence, together in the muck, for the remainder of the session.

Session 8. Client presents in an anxious, depressed mood, reports “life sucks,” because it does. Exhibits normal behavior considering the circumstances. She’s doing the best she can. We both are. Next session in 1 week.

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