John stood in front of the glass door looking through a hollowed reflection of his own face. He could see another door down a short hallway, and supposed that the purpose of the glass was only to give the little gold letters that spelled out “Dr. Richard B. Palmer, Ph.D” a home. A shadowy hand rose to meet its solid twin as John pushed the glass open and walked to the second door, where he knocked twice.
“Come in John, come in,” a voice, presumably the doctor’s, said from inside. “Take a seat on the couch.”
The doctor was sitting in a dark green armchair. He gestured with his pen toward a faded brown couch across from him as John entered. John sat gingerly, tensing his legs in a refusal to sink back into the folds of the leather.
“Now John, I would like to start off our session today with a little exercise,” began the doctor, “Is that all right with you?”
“Sure,” he replied, “what kind of exercise?”
“It is a sort of memory exercise. Imagine the last time you walked down a sidewalk with two friends.”
“Is it a wide sidewalk?” The doctor asked, leaning forward.
“I’m not sure. It’s the same size as a normal sidewalk?”
“Okay, and you are with two friends walking. Now tell me, how are the three of you aligned on the sidewalk?”
“I guess we’re all next to each other in a line,” he said.
“You mentioned it was the same width as an average sidewalk, so the three of you fill it?”
“I suppose so.”
“Where in relation to your friends are you standing?”
“There is a woman walking towards you on the sidewalk. She is moderately attractive. Which of you drops back to give her room to pass?”
“I’m not sure.” John paused. “I guess I would?”
“So, there are now your two friends walking beside each other in front and you are trailing behind them as the woman passes by?”
“Imagine your two friends get into a conversation, just the two of them, while you are walking behind them.”
“Okay.” John closed his eyes.
“Do you continue to walk behind them as they talk or do you try and squeeze back into a line?”
“I stay behind?”
The doctor nodded and wrote something on his legal pad. John watched the scratching of the pen’s nub as it crossed the yellow paper with ink-filled slashes. He desperately wanted to see what the doctor had written.
“Now, imagine it is 3 o’clock in the morning. You are shaken awake, what do you do?” The doctor asked next.
“I close my eyes and go back to sleep. I’m a deep sleeper.”
“So you ignore it and then roll over to the other side of the bed?” The doctor pressed.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
The pen scraped at the paper again, sealing its wounds with wet ink. “But John, it’s 3 in the morning. Don’t you want to know why someone was waking you up?”
Shit. “Uh, sure. Yes, of course.”
“I see.” The doctor made another note. “Why do you suppose someone would wake another person up at 3 in the morning?”
“I’m not sure. It doesn’t happen to me very often.”
“But can you tell me any reason you can think of? Pretend you are waking someone up at 3 in the morning, why would you do that? What cause would justify your waking someone up at such late hour? Just some quick free-association here.”
“Uh, I guess if there was a burglar I would wake them up. Or if there was a fire or something.”
“So you are saying that it acceptable to wake someone up, no matter the hour, in cases of emergency?”
“Yet if someone woke you up you would disregard it?”
“Well, I mean…” he trailed off.
“Listen John, there is no judgment here. This is a safe, open space. A place for honesty, without censure, in order to help both of us get to know you better.” As the doctor spoke, he made more notes.
John felt the gleaming blue fountain pen cut strips from him and place them, inky black and twisted onto the yellow lined paper. He wanted to tear the sheet from the doctor’s hands, feel the lack of resistance as it crinkled into a ball in his fist, the heat of his palm making the ink run black and wet through his fingers.
“I know,” he said instead.
“Let’s try something different, John. I want you to listen to these two song clips and tell me which of them you like better.” The doctor picked up a remote and pressed a button. The office was flooded with sound, a classical piece that glided and soared. After thirty seconds, the song changed to a lighter melody in a minor key that skittered playfully along an edge.
John picked the second, his mind racing with the possible implications the doctor would derive from his choice—choosing now to partake in free association. He cringed as the doctor raised his hand, expecting the pen, but it was only to put on a pair of glasses that lay on the round table beside the heavy armchair.
“What did you like about it more than the first sample?” the doctor asked, his dark eyes now peering out from behind a tortoiseshell frame.
“I’m not quite sure. It’s tough to explain why you like something.”
“That’s fair. Did either song make you think of anything? What were you thinking about while you heard the two clips?”
“I was just listening to the songs, I wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular.”
“I see. So neither stirred anything in you? What did you base your liking for the second song on?”
“I’m sorry, it’s just hard to describe. The beat of the second one? I liked its beat better maybe.” He sounded defensive.
“Let’s move on. Here, I’m going to play that same second song and then a new, third one and I want you to tell me which you like better, the second or the new one.” The doctor picked up the remote again and the same light melody filled the room with its jumping minor key. Then, a jarring and loud song started playing. Harsh, screeching sounds pounded John’s ears. He winced.
“Still the second one, I definitely like the second one better,” he said.
The doctor’s hand picked up the blue pen. Its silver tip flashed as the hand came to rest on the paper and began writing with smooth scratches.
“I see.” The doctor replied. “What was it about the second song that you liked more than the third?”
“It wasn’t as loud and blaring as the third. It sounded much better.” John’s eyes were on the pen as he talked. He barely knew himself he realized, as his mind envisioned all the dreadful and rotten things the doctor was writing about him, the pen’s bright nub picking apart his freshly uncovered flaws and scattering them in its inky wake. He needed to see the paper, he realized. He was just a bag of flesh sticking to bones. His soul lay wet and dark on the paper and his body craved it, rejecting the pale imitation it currently housed.
“Besides being loud and blaring,” started the doctor, “what was it you did not like about the third song?”
“It just sounded unpleasant. It had no melody, it was all chaotic noise.”
“I see. From what I understand, it sounds like you have trouble deciding what you like about things,” the doctor put down the pen and looked at him, “but not what you dislike about things.”
“Uh huh.” He crossed his arms. That damn pen.
“Do you ever experience moments of self-doubt?”
“Yes, of course. Who doesn’t.”
“Can you tell me about a time you doubted yourself?”
He glanced at the blue pen, silver accents gleaming as its cool curves rested in the doctor’s hand. “Well, uh, I mean…Yea. Sure. Hold on.”
“When talking to an attractive girl perhaps? Or before a big presentation at the office?”
“Yeah, both of those, definitely I’d say.”
“Can you tell me more details,” the doctor probed, “possibly about how you felt before presenting an important project at work or something similar?”
“Well I was definitely nervous. Who wouldn’t be you know? No one wants to look bad in front of their superiors.”
“I see. Would you say that you experienced self-doubt while answering my questions at any time during our session?” The pen hovered expectantly above the paper.
“Uh,” John began. The doctor had him trapped. “I guess so. It’s my first visit to a therapist’s office, so I’m a little hesitant as to how to respond.”
“That is understandable. If it is all right with you, I’d like to move onto the next part of our session.” the doctor scraped away at his pad with the pen. John felt like a scratch-and-win lottery card, with the doctor digging away at him trying to see if he would uncover a prize or nothing at all.
“Sure, that’s all right by me.”
“Okay, during this time I’ll start by recounting what I’ve gathered from our exercises so far. As you didn’t come to me with a specific problem you wanted to work on, this will be a sort of general summary.”
“That sounds fine.”
“So, John, as I mentioned before it sounds like you suffer from moments of self-doubt. This suffering, I believe, is due to a mild case of Phantom Father Syndrome you seem to be afflicted with.”
“Phantom Father Syndrome?”
“Yes. It’s a newly recognized condition highly prevalent among men of your age group.”
“What exactly is it?”
The doctor took off his glasses and put them carefully back on the table. “Phantom Father Syndrome is a reaction to the lack of a dominant father-figure in an individual’s life. Usually found among men in their early-to-mid 20’s, though there have been reported incidences in women, it typically leads to insecurity and self-doubt as the individual has no concrete gender role to model him or herself after and is therefore unsure about many of his or her actions due to the lack of a strong paternal presence during childhood.”
“And I have this? This is wrong with me?”
“The majority of your peers suffer from it as well. Don’t think of this as something wrong or some flaw you specifically have. As men are becoming seen less and less as the main providers in a family, the resulting lack of distinct gender roles during a child’s developing years leads to a more blurred boundary. Phantom Father Syndrome, PFS as we call it, is a brutally repeating cycle. It is signified by a tendency of those afflicted to easily find fault in various things they are presented with.” The doctor made a note on his pad, dark ink spreading like a stain across the page. “This is because of the self-doubt experienced by the individual. By finding flaws in things, the individual is subconsciously bolstering his or her own self-esteem. Putting something down raises the person finding fault with it above that thing, it’s one of the easiest ways to feel better about oneself. Unfortunately, individuals tend to turn their negative scrutiny inward as well and thus come up with a laundry list of insecurities which they try to quench by finding more fault in their surroundings and peers. It can be quite a vicious cycle.”
The pen dripped a mass of black ink on the page. John looked at it, heavy and wet, filled with all the dark things inside of him.