“Stu, this is my colleague, Kevin, and he’s going to be joining us,” I said, as we sat down in two high-backed chairs across from our patient.
“Hi K-Kevin,” Stu said.
“Now why don’t you tell me what’s ailing ya, partner,” I said, cracking open my beer and taking a long swig.
“Well, Dr. Merle—”
“Please.We’re friends.Call me Jimmy Merle.”
Kevin rolled his eyes.
“Oh, okay.Thanks, J-Jimmy Merle. Well, I have a lot of f-fear lately.”
“I wake up every day feeling really anxious.”
“I just feel really afraid.”
“I think I know what’s causing your problem,” I said.
“Yep.Your fear is causing you to be afraid.Therefore, if you eliminate the fear—” I prompted him to complete the thought.
“I…I’ll stop being afraid?”
“Wow, I n-never thought of it that way.”
“Oh, that’s just fucking brilliant,” Kevin mumbled sarcastically, taking a pull off his beer.
“Stu,” I said, glaring at Kevin, “I need to confer with my colleague for a moment.Can you excuse us?”
Kevin rolled his eyes and followed me out.I closed the door behind us.
“Listen, we’re supposed to be helping a soul in need, fuckwit,” I whispered.“Can you please knock off the sarcastic comments?It’s not helpful.”
“‘If you eliminate the fear you’ll stop being afraid,” Kevin said in a mocking tone.“You’re a regular Sigmund Fucking Freud.”
“We’re in the middle of a crisis situation here, numb nuts.So why don’t you back me up here and help me fix this poor fellow’s psyche, hmmmm?”
“Oh, well pardon me all to hell.By all means, fix away.” He gestured to the door.“After you Dr. Merle.”
We went back inside.
“Thank you for waiting, Stu,” I said as we sat back down.
“D-do you think you can help me get rid of this fear Dr.—Uh—Jimmy Merle?” He asked, desperation in his voice.
“Definitely,” I said, slurping my beer.
“Oh, what a r-relief.” He gazed at the ceiling.“How?”
I stared at him trying to recall all the psychological literature I’d read in Buzzfeed.Nothing was coming to mind.I stared at him harder, willing therapeutic words to emerge from my brain and come out of my mouth.
“J-Jimmy Merle?” He said, looking at me.“You can help me, r-right?”
“Of course,” I said quickly.I glanced around the office searching desperately for inspiration,anything to help this poor fuck.That’s when I noticed the framed inspirational poster hanging above my patient.
“Fear,” I said, reading the poster, “isfalse evidence appearing real.”
“So, you’re s-saying I need to stop believing the fear, because it’s not r-real?”
“Wow, that’s amazing.How d-do I stop believing the fear?”
I looked around and saw an inscribed plaque on the desk.“Stu,” I said reading, “everything you want is on the other side of fear.”
“So, you’re s-saying I should use my desire to achieve what I want to stop believing the f-fear?”
“That’s so deep,” he whispered.
Kevin rolled his eyes.
I picked up a coffee cup sitting next to me on the end table and read the quote printed on its side.“Fear is a story we tell ourselves.”
“So, you’re saying that I n-need to figure out when I began t-telling myself the story that’s making me afraid?”
“That’s right, Stu.So, when did you begin telling yourself the story?”
“About a year a-ago.”
“What happened a year ago?”
“I was a b-bank manager in Colorado Springs.I was covering for one of my tellers who was out sick and I g-got held up at gunpoint by a guy in a ski mask.”
“Shit.” I said.
“Instead of p-passing me a note like a civilized robber, he pointed a huge gun at my head and started yelling this is a robbery, and screaming that if everyone wasn’t on the f-floor by the count of f-five he’d blow my goddamn head off.”
“Fuuuuuuck,” I whispered as Kevin shot me a wide-eyed look.
“There was some screaming, but everyone h-hit the deck.Unfortunately, one of the t-tellers pushed the silent alarm button.The cops arrived within two minutes, sirens blaring, and it t-turned into a hostage situation.”
“That’s messed up,” I said.
“We were locked in there with that m-maniac for fourteen hours, and he had the gun pressed to my head almost the entire t-time.Finally, he made the mistake of walking in front of a window and a S.W.A.T. sniper took him out.”
“Wait, was that the Bank of Colorado Springs robbery that was all over the news last year?” I asked.
“Yeah.It was the worst f-fourteen hours of my life.”
“No shit,” I gasped.“What happened after that?”
“I started d-drinking a lot.”
“Can’t blame you there, pal.”
“Before long I was d-drinking on the job, polishing off a couple b-bottles of vodka every day.Eventually I got fired, and that’s when I really started to lose it.I developed this st-stutter.And after about the t-tenth time I went on a screaming and crying jag in front of the kids, my wife packed them up and took them to live with her p-parents.Not that I blame her.”
“Me neither,” I said, looking at Kevin who appeared to be in shock.
“Before long I was spending f-five thousand a week on heroin.It didn’t take long for me to shoot my entire savings up my arm.I lost my house, the car, my f-family.I’ve been living on the streets for the p-past six months.I turn t-tricks to support my new meth habit.”
Kevin and I looked at each other, eyes wide and slack-jawed.
“So, how do I get better, J-Jimmy Merle?”
“Fuck if I know,” I said.
Kevin smacked me on the shoulder and shot me that said what the hell is wrong with you?
“I mean, this is not a problem,” I said quickly, “because we see this sort of thing, like, practically every day.I’m confident we can get you fixed up in no time.Can you give us a minute while Kevin and I discuss the best course of treatment?”
He nodded, and Kevin and I exited the room.
“Holy shit,” I whispered as we walked over to the reception counter.“This guy is a total fucking basket case.I need a drink.”
“Me, too.How are you going to help him?”
“Me?You’re in this, too, ass hat,” I said, setting up the glasses.“Help me think of something.”
“Don’t look at me, fuckwit. ‘He needs therapy,’ you said.‘How hard could it be?’ you said.”
“Kevy, where this guy has gone,” I said staring wide-eyed into space, “I don’t think there’s any coming back from.”
“Oh great, let’s tell him that.‘Sorry pal, where you’ve been there’s no coming back from.’That’s good psychotherapy, Dr. Merle.Really groundbreaking stuff.”
I stood there thinking for a minute as I poured the bourbons.“You know, recently I read that you can overcome fear by doing what you’re afraid of.After awhile you realize nothing bad is going to happen and the fear goes away.”
“Where did you read that?”
“So, you’re saying that, like, if you’re afraid of dogs you should pet dogs?”
“Right. They called it exposure therapy in the article.Maybe it’ll work for Stu.”
He shrugged.“It’s worth a shot.”
“Yeah.Besides, what could go wrong?”
I picked up the glasses, Kevin grabbed and the bottle, and we went back inside.
“Kevin and I have reviewed your case,” I said, handing Stu a drink, “and we agree that exposure therapy is your only hope.Cheers!”I clinked his glass and sat down.
“Cheers,” Stu said, and shot the drink in a single gulp.“What’s exposure th-therapy?”
“It means you face the thing you’re afraid of, and after awhile the fear goes away,” I said, as Kevin refilled Stu’s glass.“So, for example, if someone has a fear fixated on dogs, you’d have them pet dogs, and after awhile dogs won’t scare them anymore.”
“I see,” he polished off the second drink, which Kevin quickly refilled.“What’s my fear fixated on, J-Jimmy Merle?”
“Obviously you suffer from a fear of guns.”
Stu stared at the ceiling, a puzzled look on his face.Kevin and I sipped our drinks, giving Stu time to absorb this revelation.“So, if I spend time around g-guns the fear will go away, and I’ll be able to k-kick meth, and get a job, and get my wife and kids back, and stop st-stuttering?”
“Guaranteed,” I said.“So, what you need to do right away is get ahold of a gun.”
“I can do that.” He shot his drink.Kevin shrugged and handed the bottle to him.“What do I do with the gun?”
“Well, this is exposure therapy, so expose yourself to it.Spend a lot of time with it.Hold it.Sleep with it.Eat with it. Carry it around wherever you go.”
“So, have the gun with me all the time, every d-day?” he asked, tipping up the bottle and taking a really long pull.
“Stu, you’re going to make that gun your best friend.Scratch that—you’re going to make it your lover.”
“My lover,” Stu whispered, staring dreamily at the ceiling as Kevin nodded and gave me a thumbs up.
“You’re going to give her a name,” I continued.“You’re going to go to bed with her.You’re going to wake up with her.You’re going to talk sweet to her all day, and she’s going to be your companion everywhere you go.”
Just then the entry door chimed.
“Kevin, can you go see who’s here while I continue with our patient?”
“Okay.”He got up and left the room, closing the door behind him.
“How you doing there, partner?” I asked.
“I have hope for the first t-time,” he sighed, then took another long drink.“For some reason I feel really, really good.”
“Stu, hearing you say that is what inspires me to do the work I do.”
The door opened and Kevin poked his head in.“It’s a guy from the State Board of Registered Psychotherapists here to do a surprise inspection.”
“What did Christy say to do if they stop by?Tell them to fuck off?”
“No.She said to be polite and text her.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
“I’ve already done the polite part,” Kevin said.
“Okay, let me text her and I’ll be right out.”
Kevin shut the door and I pulled out my phone and fired off a quick text to Christy.
“Stu, let me deal with this guy and I’ll come back and finish up our session.”
“Okay,” he said. My phone chimed with a text from Christy saying she was two minutes away.I went into the reception area where Kevin was standing across from an Asian man wearing a blue suit and gold-rimmed glasses, and holding a briefcase.
“This is Robert Hattori,” Kevin said.“Mr. Hattori, this is Jimmy Merle.”
We shook hands.“Kevin said you’re here to do the thing.”
“Yes, as you probably know, the Board of Registered Psychotherapists does periodic unannounced visits to therapy practices in Colorado to make sure everyone is in compliance with state regulations.”
“Right, Christy said you might stop by.She just texted me and said she’ll be here in a couple of minutes.She runs the place.”
“Are you one of the therapists here?”
“Oh, fuck no.We’re just here to work on the website,” I said, gesturing to the computer and accidentally knocking a stack of empty beer cans off the reception counter. They made a hell of a racket as they clattered to the floor.
“I see,” Mr. Hattori replied, looking at all the beer cans, liquor bottles, and drink glasses scattered around the reception area.
Just then the entry door chimed and Christy strode in smiling—but pulled up short.Her smile collapsed into an ‘O’ of dismay.
“Speak of the Devil!” I said.“Hi Christy!This is Robert Hattori from the state psycho board.He’s here to do the thing.”
She shot me a dark look, then quickly composed herself, smiled, and strode over to Mr. Hattori with her hand extended.“Hi, I’m Christy Langley-Faucheux, the owner. We’re actually closed today, so we’re not seeing clients.”
“I should hope not,” he said, “because Jimmy Merle informed me that he and Kevin are not licensed therapists.”
“Of, no, of course they aren’t,” she said, laughing nervously and mumbling something that sounded like ‘God forbid.’ “They’re just here to work on our website.Also, you should know that Healing Hearts has a strict no-drinking policy.”
“Clearly,” he said, gazing at the empties scattered about the place.
“Well, you see, I told Jimmy Merle about our no-drinking policy, but—”
“Why don’t we begin the inspection,” Mr. Hattori interrupted, “by taking a look at the website these gentlemen have been working on?”
“The website is part of your inspection?” Christy asked.
“Of course.It needs to be in compliance with state regulations.And seeing that you’ve just had some work done on it, I’d like to take a look.”
“Oh, well, they’ve just—uh—started on it today,” she stammered.“I haven’t even seen it yet.I’m sure it’s not done.”
“Oh, it’s done!” I said, helpfully.“We finished it this afternoon.”
“Excellent,” Mr. Hattori said.“Let’s take a look, shall we?”
Christy put a hand to her forehead and mumbled something that sounded like ‘God help me’ as I led us around the reception counter.
“Kevin, why don’t you do the honors?” I said.
He sat down in front of the monitor and began clicking on the keyboard as everyone crowded in close.
“Christy, I know you only wanted a few minor updates,” I said, “but—no offense—your site was pretty fucking dull.So, Kevin and I decided to make it awesome.”
Christy’s eyes were closed, her lips moving, like she was praying or something.
“And…Walla!” Kevin said with a final keystroke.“Here it is!”
“Holy fucking shit!” I exclaimed.“That’s awesome, Kevin!”
Christy slowly opened her eyes which grew wider and wider as she stared at the screen.
“I bet you’ve never seen a psychotherapy website with a pink, lime, and orange color scheme!” I said, clapping Mr. Hattori on the back.
“True, I’ve never seen a psychotherapy site that looks like this,” he replied.
“Fuckin-A!Differentiation is the name of the game you want to crush your competition!” I said.“Kevy, it’s breathtaking!”
“Thanks!I built it on a WordPress theme I found called Pussycat Punk Rocker.”
“Christy, check out how Healing Hearts is on a blinking, heart-shaped marquis?” I said.“It totally stands out from your competitor’s boring sites.”
“It looks like a sign outside a strip club,” she said dully.
“Exactly!” Kevin cried.“And that’s not even the best part!Watch what happens when I try to click away.”
He moved the cursor as if to leave the website, and instantly Crazy Train began blaring through the computer speakers as an animated man danced backwards across the screen.
“Oh.My.God.” Christy said.
Mr. Hattori moved his face close to the screen.“Is that Sigmund Freud…moonwalking?”
“Yes!” Kevin shouted.“I was afraid you wouldn’t be able to tell who it was.”
“If that won’t keep them from clicking way, nothing will!” I said.“You’re a fucking genius, Kevy!”
“Thanks!” he replied, a huge grin on his face.“Christy, I also put your photo at the top of the home page along with an inspirational quote underneath, just like you wanted.”
Mr. Hattori leaned closer and adjusted his glasses.“Depressed?Addicted?Suicidal?” he read aloud. “Come to Healing Hearts ‘cause Imma therapy the shit outta that motherfucker.”
For some reason Christy looked like she was going to pass out.
“Uh, excuse me?”The four of us looked up from the monitor.Stu was standing in the open door of the therapy room, swaying back and forth and holding the bottle of Wild Turkey.“Sorry, I d-don’t mean to interrupt.J-Jimmy Merle, are we done with our therapy session?”Somehow, he managed to slur and stutter at the same time.Christy shot me a horrified look.
“Oh, hi Stu!” I said, walking back around the counter.“I almost forgot you were there.Hey, everyone, this is Stu.Kevin and I have been helping him work through some fear issues.”
“Hi,” he said, and gave a little wave.
“You told me he’s not a therapist,” Mr. Hattori said, turning to Christy who looked like a deer caught in the headlights.
“Who s-says Jimmy Merle’s not a th-therapist?” Stu stutter-slurred as he staggered over to me. He tipped his head back, drained the rest of the Wild Turkey, and—after eyeing the bottle carefully to make sure it was empty—flung it at the rock water-fountain where it exploded into a thousand pieces.“J-Jimmy Merle gave me hope.He empowered me to kick m-meth, and g-get my job back, and get my f-family back, and stop st-st-st-stuttering.He’s the best goddamned th-therapist in this entire shitty, God-forsaken w-world, and anyone who says different can suck my big ‘ol hairy d-dick!”
“Thanks, Stu,” I said.“That means a lot to me.”
“J-Jimmy Merle is a hero!”
“No, Stu,” I said, gripping his shoulders and looking into his eyes, “you’re the hero.I merely opened the door.You walked through it.”
“Are you aware,” Mr. Hattori said, “that conducting psychotherapy without a license is illegal, and carries heavy fines?”
“Anyone who fines J-Jimmy Merle can GO FFFFU-UCK THEMSELVES!” Stu yelled.
“Okay, big guy,” I said, putting my arm around his shoulder and steering him towards the exit. “What I want you to do—right now—is get out there and start the assignment I gave you, okay?”
“You’re ffffu-ucking awesome, J-Jimmy Merle,” he stutter-slurred, as I opened the door so he could stagger out.“NO MATTER W-WHAT THOSE ASSHOLES SAY!” he shouted from the corridor.
“Call back tomorrow and schedule a follow up appointment,” I called after him.“You’re a winner, Stu!”
I turned around.“Okay, where were we?”
“Ms. Langley-Faucheux, I am frankly appalled by what I’ve seen here today,” Mr. Hattori said, scribbling furiously on his notepad.“You have numerous regulatory violations occurring here, not to mention gross ethical breaches.I’m ordering a formal hearing before the State Board in two weeks.Until then, your license to practice is suspended.”
“Mr. Hattori,” Christy stammered, “if you can just give me a moment to explain I’m sure—”
“Here’s your notice of suspension, and the date of your hearing,” Mr. Hattori said, tearing off the sheet and handing it to her.“Good day.”He walked around the counter and exited the office.Christy stood there silently, gazing at the paper in her hand.She seemed deflated somehow.
“Sooo…” I said, “I’m guessing that’s not good?”
Christy looked up and stared into space, her arms falling to her sides.The paper slipped from her fingers and see-sawed through the air before coming to rest on the floor.
She turned her head towards me, but seemed to stare right through me.I could see a vein at her temple throbbing.She began to quiver, clenching and unclenching her fists.
“You okay?” I asked.
That’s when she exploded.
“NO, I AM DEFINITELY NOT OKAY, YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE!!” She screamed.
“Christy.Sis.I want you to know I hear you.I feel you.And I honor your perspective.”
“THIS IS WHAT I GET FOR CAVING IN TO MOM AND AGREEING TO HELP YOU!”
“Christy. In moments of stress it’s important to take a deep, cleansing breath, and be the observer and not the participant.”
“YOU’VE RUINED MY GODDAMN BUSINESS!!”
“I honor your feeling that your business is ruined, but if viewed from a place of enlightenment I think you’ll see—”
“IT. IS. RUINED!!YOU ARE A COMPLETE FUCKING SCREW UP, JIMMY MERLE, AND NOW YOU’VE SCREWED UP MY LIFE!”
“Okay, I feel like right now you’re catastrophizing—”
“Jimmy Merle,” Kevin interrupted, as he vaulted over the reception counter, “maybe we oughtta get going.”
“Oh,” I said looking at the clock, “I guess it is quitting time.”Kevin made a hasty exit and I followed.“Hold up, buddy.I need to ask Christy something.”
“Jimmy Merle,” he said, turning around, “I don’t think that’s a good idea—”
I stuck my head back in the door.“Soooo, Christy…same time tomorrow?”
She let out a shriek that made my eyes water, and a split second later the framed Serenity print shattered against the wall an inch from my head.