Hey friends! I’ve just started the Neil Gaiman MasterClass on storytelling, and it’s fantastic. In one of the lessons, our exercise was to write a short story based on some instructions. Knowing the instructions before you read will ruin the story, so I’m going to put the instructions at the end. Enjoy!
From the start of my first session with him, I could tell that there was a lot of work to be done. He was intelligent, maybe even dangerously so, and his views were… different. As therapists, we can’t simply tell a person that their worldview is wrong, or that the feelings they’re feeling are not justified. We can’t try to persuade a client that they should be more like us, or use average people as a standard against which to measure them. Rather, we have to work together to unearth some of the deeper issues and allow the patient to come to the realization by themselves that change is needed. We have to be the catalyst for the change that they come to perceive is for the best, even if they don’t have that perception at the start of the sessions.
He had an aura about him, different from anyone I’ve ever worked with. Charming, yet dangerous– in the way that a psychopath might convince you that they mean well. I shouldn’t use the p word so quickly, I hadn’t done a full assessment and it would be wrong to cloud your judgment about this character before we get to that part of the story. But there was definitely something about him that was almost magical, but in a way that inspired distrust. It took a big step for him to come here, and I don’t want to sow seeds of doubt in his mind about my intentions, so I tried to keep those feelings internal. Honestly, I wanted to get to the bottom of this story out of my own curiousity and intrigue as much as for my practice. My private session notes should help me tell you about him.
“Session 1: Feeling weird about this client. Brings into the room with him a weight, as if the air got thicker the moment he entered. Very friendly and smiling. Might feel like he doesn’t need therapy…”
His clothing was obviously not from around here, and I was sure I had to ask about his childhood to give me an idea of how he got to where he is today. He told me he was born in a country, but I had never heard of it and I didn’t want to seem ignorant so I simply assumed the Arabic name implied somewhere in the Middle East. I make a mental note to look it up afterwards, and it slipped my mind about five minutes into our discussion. He talked about his parents, about growing up without siblings, and about his fascination with birds.
“Father demanded a lot from him: school, music, religious studies, etc. Always expected more from him. Mother wasn’t really present in his childhood, very quiet compared to father. Died in his teens. No mother figure…!”
He was always measured against perfection, and nothing was ever good enough. Most in this situation would show a lack of confidence, an anxiety about their worth. And yet I got a sense of confidence, even overconfidence from him. It turns out, after some digging, that this made sense. His father’s pressure was an awful burden, but he did end up learning a lot and being the top of his class in all of the schools he went to. Certainly his social life could have used some help, but he didn’t rebel like some others would have done in that situation. Instead, he strived to prove that he actually was that good, and actually strived to prove to his father that he was better not only than these expectations, but better than his father in general. They grew distant as he passed into his late teens. Their interaction became more formal, almost transactional. I’m not sure if this was due to the loss of his mother, a lack of open communication, or something else.
One day his father was taken by imperial guards while he was out buying food. He came back to a note saying something to the effect of “we’ve taken [I can’t pronounce his name so I won’t try] to the palace for questioning, he will return shortly”. Well, here we are, 35 years later, and there was never any sign of him.
“Trauma, loss of both parents. Never really concluded his relationship with his father. Maybe explore that relationship more? Mentioned something about ‘sahar’ when talking about his father’s disappearance, maybe that’s a place? Unsure.”
We finally reached the present day, and started discussing why he actually came to my office today. Why today, and not before? Why come at all? He had reached a point where he knew he would do something unreasonable if he didn’t have an outlet for his feelings. I say feelings because there was a whole pile of them: frustration, anger, disdain, envy, all jumping on each other and fighting to burst out of his chest the second an opening appeared. If that metaphor sounds painful, you might be able to start to understand what he was going through. In his position though, if he snapped or even if he showed signs of being about to snap, it could cost him more than just his job. He held pretty important information about the dynasty, their history, their military operations, and more. He couldn’t simply be “let go” like some servant who tended to the gardens.
“Talks about biding his time… (until what?) Having trouble communicating about his goals, his future, seems to be making things up. Need to dig deeper.”
The strangest thing about this discussion was that when he said he deserved a higher rank, and that he deserved more respect, I believed him. I couldn’t see a reason why not, to be honest. Despite that heaviness in the room, he had an air of perfectionism, confidence, and knowledge which made me think that his boss, “the Sultan”, could do well to be replaced. Without judgment I proceeded. He was obviously frustrated, his talents and his skills were absolutely not being appreciated, and it was as if you could feel his father’s soul hovering above his chair, weighing on him heavily, telling him that he’ll never amount to what his father was capable of.
“Motivation: proving to his father that he is better than everyone, even this ‘Sultan’. Drive for power, fame, glory. Doesn’t seem concerned with wealth, trying to fill this gaping hole in his life with power. Dangerous, but not diagnosable in any way. Yet.”
He was frustrated, but he said that this frustration would end when he found it. It. We talked about “it” for a long time, and he refused to tell me what it was.
“End of session 1. Next time: find out what “it” is… my guess is that it doesn’t exist. Power won’t help fill the hole in his life. How to proceed?”
Finally, we found it. Well, we found what I assume is some metaphor for it. “A diamond in the rough”. What did that mean? He was looking for it—looking for someone, rather. I tried asking him if this “diamond” was maybe a part of himself, but he dismissed that as quickly as he dismissed the questions about whether or not he ever truly loved his father. People had died trying to find whatever it was, and he needed this thing, this person, to feel fulfilled. At this point, I was a few hundred times more confused than when we started. There was clearly this narrative going on in his head, a narrative that was absurd and magical and wild and yet he talked about it as if it were fact, as if it were normal to believe that a cave in the middle of the desert held the answer to all of his problems.
What was in this cave? The more he talked, the deeper the story got, and the more tangled the web became. It became impossible for me to determine what was real and what was metaphor, what was suppression of trauma and what was fantastical imagination, what was diagnosably schizophrenic and what was simply a man who had seen more than I had, in a land very far from my own.
“Session 2: Talking about magic, crazy stories and worlds. Schizophrenia? Maybe schizophrenia, really not sure. Validate his experience then dig.”
As a therapist, you have to walk a fine line. You have to believe that the experience that this person is having is real. The experience, of course, is the experience that they are living, not necessarily the sequence of events they claim have happened to them. His feeling that this cave, whatever it was, would solve his problems, was very real. His frustration that he couldn’t find this “diamond in the rough” was equally real, and neither of these are things that any trained therapist would dismiss. But there was more there, so back into his imagination we dove.
There was a princess: a stubborn and strong-willed princess in jewels of jade who refused to play her role. There was the Sultan: a round, bird-brained man who was easier to influence than this man’s pet parrot. There were princes, and when he described the princes that came to court the princess it was as if you were transported into a world of vivid colours, music and dancing. You could lose yourself, it all seemed so real—and yet, here we were. A frustrated 45 year old with a lacklustre upbringing, striving for power and dominance like the rest of them. Whether it’s silicon valley or wherever he came from, the story seemed to be the same.
I knew what had to be done. It was a long shot, but it was worth a try.
“Clearly very imaginative. Use his metaphors, work on real practical solutions using his metaphors. Maybe suggest schizo treatment—not yet. Everything means something: the cave most importantly, the Sultan (if he even exists), the princess. The diamond. Yes, the diamond. Must be central to the story.”
Back in we went. We were nearing the end of the session, and I knew that we had one more session before I would recommend actual drugs for schizophrenia. We made a plan of action. Look deeper for this diamond in the rough. Look for something deep within, know your worth and believe in your ability to find this thing that you seek. Reflect, mull it over with your pet parrot if need be (he told me he did this often), and go to that cave once you think you’ve found it. Go to the cave, and get the treasure you seek. Avoid the distractions in the cave, and bring back the tool you need to reach fulfillment. You can be more, you can do more.
This, of course, was all going to take place in his head. He became so animated when describing the story that I felt it would be a good idea to let him run with it, and see where we were at when he came back next week. He didn’t seem at risk of actually hurting anyone, not this week at least.
“End of session 2. This is a crazy idea, hope he can reach these depths of his mind without it becoming dangerous. High risk high reward, maybe don’t tell supervisor about this one. Doesn’t seem physically dangerous or violent however, so might be safe. Next week, if delusions continue, consider medication.”
The notes I’ve been reading from, these don’t reflect the whole story. Over those two weeks, I stayed up at night reflecting on this strange man and his strange understanding of the world. This could have been a basic case, but there was something different happening here. During the days leading up to his third session, I made notes to cover the different things that might come up. I slept horribly the night before his session—I didn’t sleep much, and what little sleep I had involved dreams of caves and magic and treasures beyond my wildest imagination. In my dreams I flew across the sky on a magic carpet, and I saw all the things he had talked about in his stories. It all seemed too real, and I must get to the bottom of it.
“Session 3: …never showed up to therapy.”
The instructions for this exercise were to choose a folk tale or fairy tale that I know well, and pretend I’m a therapist treating one of the characters from it. Then, write a scene in which I discuss the character and their life and problems. Hopefully you figured out who it was!
This was the first time in a long time that I’ve written something purely creative, and it was really fun. Very much looking forward to more writing exercises!