A Strangeness in Thought
“I’m afraid the motivation that brought each and every one of you here tonight was, in its very essence, selfish”
The room took a communal intake of breath.
Sat in the third row, Terrance felt uncomfortable. Wait, no, he was ‘experiencing the feeling of being uncomfortable’. That was it. Dissociate. You are not the feeling, he told himself, again and again as he continued to feel it.
“Now I imagine that’s already had an impact on your state of being.”
Jesus. Thought Terrance. The man reads minds.
“And that is exactly the point, isn’t it? I say your motivation is selfish, and it is the self that responds in outrage. If I had said you were the most able class I’d ever encountered, no doubt you’d feel elated. Your response to the two statements are one and the same. In both cases self filters the world, determining whether or not it presents a threat.
Terrance is feeling worse about himself. Despite the Professor using it in a purely hypothetical sense, he had felt elated when he referred to them as the most able class he’d ever encountered. Was he seriously in that much need of approval that hypothetical praise would do?! The fuck was this class anyway? It was supposed to be about self-help! So far he’d reached what he would now classify as Stage 2 on Dr Stickson’s ‘states of anxiety’: “A lack of control over the progression of negative thoughts accompanied by a slight but high energy state of panic.” His self wasn’t being helped. It was being rhythmically stamped on.
“You.” The Professor’s voice. The word hung in the air. Terrance was staring at his empty notebook. The silence stretched itself thinner and thinner. His body realised before he did. He looked up. Eyes met across the room.
Terrance thought. He nodded.
Terrance’s eyes widened. His heart was racing and a thick trickle of sweat had found his arse crack. “Please stop thinking” he thought frantically. His hand went to his hair, a natural reflex, something to do with protecting himself.
“You can’t can you?”
Terrance shook his head, jolting it left then right. His eyes stared down. He tried as much as possible to become the table in front of him.
“Good, you’re not deluded.” The Professor let out a laugh, high and melodious, which felt inappropriate to Terrance but then again he was surely deep into the territory of Stage 3 — High heart rate created from and exacerbated by thoughts rejecting the implicit value of the subject — and as such his grasp of what was or was not appropriate was poor at best.
“Now I’m sorry for picking on you young man but it helps to be specific and this workshop wouldn’t be useful for anyone if I didn’t make it about you. What’s your name?”
“Terrance.” At that moment Terrance wished he wasn’t Terrance. He looked at the man sat to his left; cheap suit, wide, addicted eyes, coffee thicker than ink — why couldn’t he be that guy? Right now that guy was looking like the happiest guy on the planet.
“Well Terrance, after a short coffee break I’m going to have to ask more of you.”
Terrance was being ritually sacrificed.
He sat at the front, facing the class. The class looked at Terrance. Terrance gazed back from what felt like a different dimension. He would have to tell Dr Stickson that his states of anxiety needed expanding. Stage 5 — extreme bodily reaction, sense of value entirely diminished, a feeling of imminent mortality and a complete lack of control over the mind — sounded heavenly.
His torturer stood to his side. An older man than he had thought, somewhere in the mid 70s. What terrified Terrance most was his face. It was so gentle. So seemingly harmless. And yet that kind wrinkled face was sloped upwards in joy as it partook in flaying a teenager’s self-esteem.
A girl sat at the front of the class. Dark hair, dark eyes. Why did she have to be attractive? It made it so much worse. Here he was, Terrance the sweaty slug, paraded in front of her like a circus creature. His eye caught hers for a second. She was disgusted, she was definitely disgusted. She saw his fear, his cowardice, and she felt disgusted by it.
“Now Terrance, I had a look over your file over the break. Do you mind me sharing anything that’s in there?”
Terrance shook his head. What worse could the man do?
The Professor opened the file and perched a pair of glasses onto his nose.
“Clever kid, good grades at primary and secondary school. Nothing disciplinary, just a couple of detentions for foul language. Lives at home with mum. Older brother in university studying Law. Plays tennis — has won several county awards. Suffers from severe anxiety.”
The Professor closed the file and looked at Terrance. Terrance looked back. Well, he shifted his eyes in that direction. His body was too rigid to move, caught in the Medusa-like glare of his spectators. Don’t worry he thought to them, there’s sure to be blood.
“Which is the guilty culprit of your current situation?” asked the Professor.
That didn’t take much thinking. “That I suffer from severe anxiety” Terrance replied, suffering as he was in severe anxiety.
“No” said the Professor. “I don’t think that’s right.” He looked at the file again, murmuring to himself. He then nodded slowly and said “No I think it’s the tennis”
“What?” Terrance blurted the word out. “Why would it be the tennis?”
“No it’s definitely the tennis” The Professor looked sure of himself now. Terrance was struggling to be sure of anything. But no, he was. He had to be. His problem definitely wasn’t tennis.
“Why?” Asked Terrance. “Why would tennis be the problem? Clearly the fact that I have severe anxiety is the problem”
“You’re not very good at tennis are you Terrance?”
“Of course I’m good” Terrance felt a burning sensation now. He was facing the Professor, staring at him in disbelief. How was this old idiot, well, such an idiot. “I’ve played tennis since I was 6 years old. It’s in the file. And you read about it, that I’ve won medals, county medals! You don’t win county medals unless you’re good” Terrance’s heart was racing.
“Perfect. Now stop. Stop Terrance and just pay attention to yourself. Pay attention to what your entire being is doing in this moment”
Terrance was confused. He wanted to continue to tell the Professor about his tennis, but he’d look like an idiot if he carried on. He tried to pay attention, but felt like he wasn’t. He was definitely still thinking about tennis.
The Professor chimed in. “Start with your body. Look how it is. Is it hunched and crunched over? No, it’s open. Your arms are hanging loosely. Your feet are pointing outwards. Your eyes are burning into mine. How were you sat before?”
Terrance thought for a moment then mimicked how he remembered. His eyes down, his body closed. It felt wrong now.
“Exactly. And what about your mind? What did you think when I told you you weren’t very good at tennis?”
“Well I was angry because…”
The Professor cut him off with a bark of a laugh. “Well there is it.” He beamed at Terrance as if he’d just done something brilliant. But Terrance was sure he hadn’t done anything.
“There what is? That my tennis..”
“Forget about tennis for a moment Terrance. What I asked was what you thought but what you told me was what you felt. You felt angry. Surely you didn’t think at that moment ‘I felt angry’?”
Terrance thought about it. “No I suppose not.”
“So what did you think Terrance?”
Terrance was now struggling to think anything that he thought. Had he thought something? The silence was stretching out. He looked up. The rest of the group were all there. Watching him. His stomach churned. His face was burning.
“I don’t know. I can’t remember” Said Terrance, now panicked. The answer eluded him. His mind was hiding it. It was probably enjoying watching him sat here, answerless, powerless, an embarrassment.
“You can’t remember because there’s nothing to remember Terrance. You weren’t focused on your thoughts. And what happened when you didn’t focus on your thoughts? Your ‘severe anxiety’ disappeared. In a second. Gone, like it never existed. Your file recommends you continue seeing your therapist for the next six to twelve months to tackle this problem. But we just dealt with it in under a minute.”
Terrance was confused. He couldn’t remember a time since this conversation began when he hadn’t been confused. Think. Don’t think. You’re thinking. You’re not thinking. He felt like an exhibit. How could this man know when he was and was not thinking? And as for dealing with his anxiety, he was definitely anxious now. But there was something, something interesting in what the Professor had said. It didn’t make sense. But he felt like he understood it. And that didn’t make sense.
Terrance turned to the Professor and found himself staring at the man’s shoes. Brogues. He let in a nervous breath. “But I can feel it now”. He said it quietly, as if the others weren’t there. He hated having to say that he felt anxious, even to Dr Stickson. If he couldn’t control it, he could at least make sure other’s didn’t know that. But he wanted to say it now. He longed to.
“Of course you can. Because you’re thinking again. I’m not saying you’re cured for life Terrance. What I’m saying is that, for a moment, your anxiety disappeared. Anything that can disappear so quickly cannot have a permanent quality. It is not like a cancer, that hijacks your blood supply AND colonises your body. Cancer cannot disappear in one second and come back the next. Your anxiety is like a cloud in front of the sun. The moment it thins the rays break through and voilà! We’re here!” He shouts the last part, his smile almost manic.
Something strange was going on inside Terrance. Feelings were happening. He was feeling them. He certainly wasn’t just ‘experiencing’ them. Every breath intensified them, like the stoking of embers. He looked again at the dark featured beauty in the front row. Did she look less disgusted?
The Professor knelt down in front of him. Terrance looked into his eyes. They had so much life in them for a man with little life left. Terrance’s eyes were watering. What was happening? I must be having a meltdown he thought.
“Terrance, a great man once wrote that everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms. Any idea what it could be?”
Terrance shook his head slowly. He had no idea. But he couldn’t take his eyes off the Professor. As his head shook his eyes remained completely focused on this man in front of him, locked into the front of his head. Oh he thought, a gentle thought. I can’t feel my anxiety. And he had started crying. His eyes were streaming an endless supply of tears. They clogged up the side of his nose. They lightly salted the sides of his mouth. He was somewhere very different, but in the very same room he’d been in before. More sense in nonsense. The thought seemed to drift through his mind, a lazy cloud.
“The last human freedom, this man wrote, is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Now this was a man far more intelligent than I am Terrance, and I can only interpret his words using an inferior and ageing mind. But as I look at you I get a sense that up until now you have not chosen your own way, that you’ve been stuck in a problem that affects all of us: man trying to play Janus, unable to stand steady with his eyes lost in memories and expectations; needing to spend precious moments reinventing the past in his own image and chasing the ashen fairytale of a future promise. When you became angry early, I believe that in that moment living was not an effort for you. You were doing it effortlessly. You were no-where but here. You were thinking, of course you were. But you’re thoughts were like the legs of a sprinter, who does not need to think to move them. They move. They sprint. He runs.”
Terrance was unable to move now, let alone sprint. It wasn’t that he was stuck. He wasn’t. He felt light enough to float, and any moment he thought his body may rise up out of the chair and, waving regally, he would float into the sky. It made him smile.
“Can we give Terrance a round of applause. Such a marvellous bravery we have seen today!”
The room clapped. They clapped for Terrance. Terrance looked at them and felt a stillness. He got up. He saw his desk on the third row. The man with the cheap suit and wide addicted eyes was texting with such verve that Terrance thought his phone might crumble in his hands. He then looked at the beauty in first row, who was smiling at him, and at the chair next to her. Then he sat in it. He didn’t mean to do it. But he did.