The Toki Ponist on the Mountain
Chapter 6: Flying porcupines
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My pet project didn’t add up to anything. I wanted to simplify my workflow, so I could be more productive. I tried to create a script that would automatically create a to-do list for me so I would always know exactly what to do but without the hassle of having to come up with it. In my current state, the plan was too ambitious. In the last few months I have been ill-prepared to fight the force of nature for chaos that is required to add myself to the ranks of all those other innovators and productivity gurus that attempt the same.
He is not my therapist; he is just a therapist, for now. I am talking about the man I am about to visit today. I am not a consistent therapist seeker, but once in a while, as one season in my mental climate, I somehow think another person can help me feel better. The last psycho-babbler that failed me was a young woman working in a mental health factory on the fourth floor of a dreary office building.
I remember sitting in their waiting room before one of my appointments, staring at a nearly dead succulent plant which still was the liveliest thing present. A water reservoir stalled its demise, keeping it alive, I imagine, against its will. On a table lacking magazine, newspaper and brochure towered an almost empty can of water of indeterminate freshness. Nobody seemed up to the challenge of drinking it.
The coffee machine served highly caffeinated yet poorly tasting coffee. As anyone knows, caffeine calms down people with mental issues. The interior decorators had pinned the chairs to the three walls of the room. Waiting there with several other potential nutcases was a treat. To avoid looking anyone in the eye, I could let my eyes wander across the spurious wall art. I recognized them as the stock photo posters sold at IKEA. They persuaded me I should feel at home, without being overly inspired by originality because that was the work of the team of psychologists, damn it.
When the clock struck the hour, busy looking young therapists would collect the waiting patients one-by-one. Mine was always late. I could recognize her by the clickety-clack of her shoes. The actual session rooms were empty office spaces in which the whirring of a desktop computer was both the main distraction and attraction. I did not complete my therapy there. It seemed I spent most of my time filling in online questionnaires about my current state and waiting for print-outs of homework sheets that appeared to target people with no reasoning or self-reflecting skills. The woman was charming, younger than me, and pretty. And she agreed with pretty much everything I said. I could duck annoying questions, tout weird thoughts, provoke sympathy, and it gave me an opportunity to explain to her how her exercises and models related to a broader range of psychological theories. I scored worse on the craziness questionnaire when I left compared to my ‘before’ result.
It was a recurring theme. I finally muster the energy to seek help from someone else to fix something in my life, yet I end up adding more disorders to my list. I think it started with a fear of failure and fear of heights, but later I could add social anxiety, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, attention deficit disorder, lack of self-worth, self-hatred, and then later just general anxiety. And if I had continued to visit such people, I am sure I could add high-sensitivity, giftedness and a dash of high-functioning autism to the list. You get what you ask for, I suppose.
Most of these therapists claim to be down-to-earth, practical, reasonable, solution-oriented. In other words, useless. It was then that I decided I needed someone way out there in the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune. When I first spoke to Dr. Holger, he listened to my lamentations and said, “You are like a knight, looking for the holy grail. But if you don’t box with your shadow, there isn’t an animal ripe enough to pick the fruits of your inner false self.” It didn’t quite register, but I thought, tell me more.
This afternoon, I enter Dr. Holger’s office for the sixth time. Its furniture has the peculiar property of being differently arranged each time I visit. He waves his hand and says: “Pick a seat.”
He observes me, and I take my time. It is a dance and an act. But I am paying quite a bit for each session, so I play along. I opt for a bright yellow cushion and know that this must mean something significant. The cushion is regrettable and remarkably uncomfortable. He picks a rocking chair and positions it across me. The doctor smells his coffee with mindful pleasure, closes his eyes and breathes gently. I do the same, but without the coffee or the mindful pleasure.
I feel time ticking away and I’ve conjured up a theory about how to estimate the number of sips there are in a cup of coffee.
“So, shall I start?” I say. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my response after what happened to Elsbeth.”
“No”, he says. “Whenever I’m ready. Let’s get aligned first.”
He opens his eyes and smiles.
“How is that feeling in your stomach?”
“Ups and downs,” I say. “This morning it was pretty bad, but it subsided a bit. It’s never really gone you know.”
“Where do you feel it right now?”
“Well, the stomach area, obviously. It sometimes moves up. That pressure I feel in my chest is also always there, as you know.”
“Ah, yes, I am glad it feels better. Who am I talking to right now?”
“How old is he? Who I am talking to now?”
He moves forward, and suddenly something in me answers his question.
“Move to a place where you feel comfortable.”
I roll off my yellow cushion and withdraw into a corner. Dr. Holger asks my six-year-old self about feelings and what it needs, and it does not really answer. It doesn’t say much, and I am used to that. He calls me back to my cushion and to be me again, the one that observes. I do my best to comply.
“If you look to your left, into the corner,” he starts out. “Can you see your six-year-old self sitting there?”
I nod, but it is a lie.
“Now close your eyes.”
I close my eyes.
“And from this central position, try to contact this six-year-old child by feeling what it feels.”
I make a serious attempt and see myself sliding on a scale from an observer without body and pain to a form that experiences all the discomfort in my stomach and heart. Like the volume knob on an old stereo, I can play with the intensity of my feelings. I sway from feeling okay to feeling nauseated and full of shame and anxiety. I go at it for a while, loving how I seem in control, hating that the volume button does not go to zero.
“How are you doing over there?”
“Yeah, going back and forth.”
“Can you come back to your center again,” he says and waits, I assume patiently, until I nod.
“Now visualize this six-year-old sitting there in the corner and try to make contact.”
“Okay,” I whisper, and I try to imagine a frightened little boy that is supposed to be a part of me. I go there and try to comfort it as I would suspect I would comfort a child. I try to hug it, talk to it, sit next to it in silence.
“And?” Dr. Holger asks after a while.
“It’s not responding to anything I do.”
“Stop forcing it.”
I’m not forcing anything I want to yell out loud.
“I try not to.”
“Take your time, opening up to a stranger takes time.”
I try again, but this little asshole does not budge. He cools and darkens.
“It wants nothing to do with me.”
“Okay, come back, slowly.”
He seems slightly annoyed with me, but he is also too professional to admit it.
“We’ve been trying this for quite a few times now,” I finally complain, “and it is getting worse. It’s not like I am playing a game here. I am actually trying to cheat. I can’t even imagine the boy getting more lively if I try to.”
“You’re not supposed to imagine anything.”
“But even if I do, I mean, I can imagine anything I want. Make me imagine flying porcupines with pink socks singing songs. But I can’t imagine the little boy getting off his feet or respond to anything I imagine doing to it.”
Dr. Holger is silent for a while.
“How does that make you feel?”
“Really? That question? That is all you can come up with?”
He looks at me stoically and after some time one of his bushy eyebrows raises slowly.
“It feels fucking frustrating, okay?” I say.
I climb on all fours but before I get up from my cushion, I sit down again. The cushion lets out a long-winded sigh.
“Look, you can tell me to be a six-year-old here,” I point to the area in the corner why my six-year-old self is supposed to be cowered. “Or to my artistic free-spirited self near that bookcase.”
Dr. Holger waits patiently until I finish my sentence.
“I have no idea what I want to say, I think we are done for today.”
“Really, we still have ten more minutes, I’d rather take you back to your center again and create a nice closure for today’s session.”
While Dr. Holger does some centering and summarizing and breathing exercises, I hear myself repeating the words,
utala ala, in my head, not sure what it means or if it means anything. I came here to get my thoughts in order. To find the origin of the everlasting stomach pains. To sort my feelings, to give Elsbeth’s death a place in a larger context. Instead, Dr. Holger introduces me to a whole range of selves I have to communicate with in my empty and uncooperative head. It’s time for an exit strategy once more.