An Interesting Choice Of Words
Dr Arthur Zimmerman had been a fully qualified psychiatrist for gone thirty years, graduating with honours from Oxford’s prestigious Keble College back in the days when students were gentlemen and study was the product of paper, ink and a library card.
Strolling around his office with notable pride and holding a dusting cloth, he polished the surfaces of his bookcase, the drawers on his antique pine desk, always excessive in his attention to detail.
His day had begun as any other, the morning appointment spent negotiating the inevitable divorce between a distant couple struggling under the delusion of their marriage. A tedious series of backward conversations, encouraged along by the odd probing question. It was all in the timing.
By midday he was sat back in his crisp leather chair, spraying his table plant with cool fresh water, half-way through the chicken sandwiches his wife had made him. He followed it with the one solitary cigarette he’d allow himself every day.
But finally he had come to it. An intriguing appointment that made its way into his schedule only two days earlier. A referral from an old friend at the University.
The doctor repeatedly peered to his watch in anticipation, the minutes baring closer to 2PM. He perused through the online Guardian. He was reading a business article when the phone rang, breaking the calm ambience in the room.
Closing the browser window, he answered the call on loud speaker.
‘Mr Daniels is here for your two o’clock, Dr Zimmerman,’ a lady’s voice responded.
‘Send him in,’ he replied eagerly, rising from his chair and repositioning his pad and pen.
Looking up to the door, he watched as it opened to a man he’d never seen before.
‘Professor Daniels?’ he asked.
‘Good afternoon, Dr Zimmerman,’ the professor replied, stepping forward and offering his hand. Zimmerman walked round his desk to shake it gladly.
‘Take a seat,’ the doctor said, gesturing to the leather sofa positioned just off-centre in the middle of the room. He took up his usual seat on the opposing chair.
‘So, Professor Hendry pointed you my way, did he?’
The professor rested into the sofa, responding with a friendly nod.
‘How is Mike?’
‘Getting married,’ the professor replied.
‘Fourth time lucky.’
‘Yes, well, I should know…’ Zimmerman stopped himself there. ‘Would you like a drink? I can get you a pot of tea?’
‘No, thank you,’ the professor replied, looking around the office. ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’
‘If it makes you comfortable,’ Zimmerman retrieved an ashtray from his desk drawer and placed it on the small glass table between them. Neither felt the need to fill the silence as William lit his cigarette. Zimmerman opened a small window to let the smoke escape.
The professor took in a long exaggerated drag, followed almost instantly by a series of coughs and splutters.
‘Do you often smoke?’ Zimmerman frowned.
‘No, not really,’ the professor confessed, looking down at the cigarette. ‘Not since the Gulf. I started up again about a month ago, filthy habit,’ he flicked some ash into the ashtray.
‘So, William – can I call you William?’
‘I hope you don’t mind me saying but when we spoke on the phone you seemed a little guarded.’ He chose his words carefully.
‘Yes, well the last psychiatrist I spoke to was appointed by the Forces. Our conversations didn’t flow, shall we say.’
‘I see, well let’s see how we get on. This is a place where we can discuss in confidence what you like; free of embarrassment, guilt or self doubt. I am here to listen.’
‘And judge?’ the professor swiped.
Zimmerman kept a straight face.
‘Think of me as a guide. I will ask important questions to steer us, offer an opinion perhaps, but we’re only here to discuss what you want to talk about.’
The professor rose from the sofa, leaving his cigarette burning in the ashtray, and began pacing around the office, staring at the paintings on the wall and soaking up the literature on the shelves. Dr Zimmerman watched with interest.
‘How do we get started?’
‘Why don’t you tell me what you’re thinking?’
The professor stood for a while, frozen, before finally turning to speak, his palms placed together.
‘Look, I don’t want you to think that I’m wasting your time or being frivolous with your company. It’s just that I need to talk to someone, someone that will listen. I don’t know if we’ll have many sessions, if any after today.’
‘Could you talk with anyone else if not me?’
‘My life has been very… Specific, for the past…’ William tripped up on his own words. ‘However many years it’s been now. I’ve been very focused.’
‘My friends, family, they’re a distraction.’
‘Why is that?’ Zimmerman asked, making notes in short hand.
‘They wouldn’t understand.’
‘But you hope I will?’
The professor folded his arms as he leant against one of the bookcases. Dr Zimmerman continued to write on a small notepad, never straying his eye contact from the professor for more than a few seconds.
‘What would you like to talk about?’
The professor pushed away from the bookcase, pacing back and forth.
‘I’m… I’m involved in something, an experiment if you will. It’s something that will change a lot of people’s lives. In time maybe even everyone.’
‘In what way?’
‘It’s complicated. No, sorry… I don’t mean to be patronising,’ William apologised. ‘It’s just that there’s only so much I’m prepared to say. I trust you understand?’
‘What are you able to tell me?’
The professor wished he’d thought this through better; scratching his head, he retreated into silence.
‘Is it a cure?’ Dr Zimmerman asked.
‘Oh yes,’ he smiled. ‘Very much so.’
‘And you wish others understood and were thankful?’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘A theory. Human nature.’
The professor shook his head, reaching into his pocket to pull out some pain killers.
‘Teaching is a thankless profession,’ he said, tapping two pills into his hand.
‘Are you OK?’
‘Fine; well, I’ve been suffering from migraines.’
‘Painful,’ the professor sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.
‘Do you crave… Rest? Peace?’
‘I’ll get all I need when the job’s done.’
‘Do you crave… Acknowledgement?’
‘Must I crave something?’ William asked, appearing defensive.
Dr Zimmerman paused his line of questioning.
‘Perhaps not. I’m simply trying to understand the reason you wish to talk with me.’
He allowed a moment to settle the tension.
‘Is what you are doing dangerous?’ Zimmerman asked.
‘There’s risk with the project, yes, but great reward.’ He pointed at the doctor, holding his gaze for several seconds to amplify the point.
‘It will help a lot of people change their lives for the better.’
‘Wouldn’t this be easier if you simply told me? I am bound by the laws of confidentiality if it helps.’ He gestured to the room, hoping he wouldn’t have to draw attention to the numerous certificates on the wall.
The professor tapped his right foot on the floor, appearing anxious and unsettled before finally shaking his head.
‘Let’s look at this another way.’ Zimmerman changed his approach.
‘Why would someone not appreciate what you’re working on?’
‘Fear.’ The professor‘s reply was instinctive. ‘Change.’
‘Fear of change?’
‘Perhaps… That’s the risk we’ve taken.’
‘Soon, I’m going to have to take the next step, I’m out of time, I can feel it. But I’ve put this off for so long, I’m not sure how to take it. I’m at a crossroads. You’re a therapist, you’ve heard all the metaphors?’
‘Are you afraid?’ Zimmerman asked.
‘Not for me.’
‘So you feel responsible for others in your… Project?’
‘Their lives will never be the same.’
‘They’re not ready?’
The professor frowned, unable to answer, settling for a shrug.
‘Don’t worry,’ Zimmerman assured. ‘I expect to ask more questions than I get answers.’
The professor glanced to the doctor’s pad, noting a few of the scribbles with curiosity.
‘What have you got?’
‘It might be better to wait – until the session is over, perhaps.’
‘Humour me,’ he pushed.
Zimmerman sighed as he held up the pad.
‘ “William indicates signs of fatigue and stress. Symptoms extenuated by migraines, the renewal of smoking habit and an irritable demeanour. Dismissive towards friendships and family, demonstrating trust issues with insecurities potentially routed by childhood trauma. Gives reference to a project which may or may not be metaphorical, but appears to be the source to representations of anxiety and unresolved tension.” ’
‘Interesting,’ the professor rolled his eyes.
‘There’s more, I just haven’t written it down,’ Zimmerman explained. ‘By not sitting or accepting a drink you’ve made it clear that you don’t want to associate this session with comfort. You’ve avoided three or four questions by either responding with opposing questions or ignoring them entirely, all of which has been done, subliminally or intentionally, with a view to staying in control. You’re accustomed to managing the environment around you. I appreciate that letting go can be difficult.’
‘Mike was right about you,’ the professor said, heading back to the sofa to sit down.
‘I’ll presume that to be a compliment?’
‘Thank you… But we both know this doesn’t scratch the surface.’ Zimmerman briefly looked at his notes.
‘From what I’ve seen and what you’ve said and not said, we’d need ten sessions or more to go through all of this. So I’m left wondering how I can help you, William? Or whether you really want my help?’
The professor leant forward to pick up the cigarette he had left burning in the ashtray and took an exaggerated drag before stubbing it out.
‘I came here wanting to know if how I’m feeling is the only way I could feel? I know that in the long run what I’ve done will make lives better.’
‘And yet you don’t know if what you’re doing is the right thing?’ Zimmerman offered.
‘Exactly. It’s a paradox… And it’s consuming.’
‘Given the choice, with hindsight, would you have done anything differently?’
‘Yes, I believe so,’ The professor answered almost instantly.
‘That’s good to hear.’
‘Yes, by acknowledging that there are better alternatives you’re showing that your mind is open. It would be more concerning for you to think that the things in your life are the only way they could be. Although it does suggest that you could be dwelling on the past.’
The professor broke his eye contact to look away to the window.
‘Is there anything about the past that could be relevant?’ Zimmerman pushed carefully.
‘There are things that I would do differently, but nothing that I’m ashamed of.’
‘Ashamed?! That’s an interesting choice of words.’
‘Perhaps a poor choice,’ the professor replied softly.
Dr Zimmerman made some more notes before raising his head.
‘Let’s try some simple word associations. Say the first word that comes into your head.’
The professor rose to his feet and began pacing, eventually turning to explain.
‘I think better on my feet.’
Zimmerman smiled in response.
‘Memory,’ the professor sighed.
‘Dar…’ the response was instinctive.
‘Dark?’ Dr Zimmerman queried.
The professor shook off the question.
‘Look, it’s not metaphorical. The project’s real.’
‘But you can’t tell me anything about it?’
Dr Zimmerman made some more notes on his pad.
‘Perhaps you’re right.’ The professor put his hands in his pockets. ‘Maybe this should be a weekly thing for a while. Why don’t we pick this up in a few days? I’ll check my diary and we can set something up?’ The professor picked up his packet of cigarettes from the table and began backing away to the door.
‘William, if you leave now we both know I’m never going to see you again.’
‘I promise I’ll think about it.’
‘Before you leave may I offer you some advice?’
The professor turned with curiosity, sparing one last minute to give the doctor his due. Zimmerman tried to make his words count.
‘The end of anything is often bittersweet. Sometimes you need help to make it over the finish line. Now in your case that might not be me, but it does need to be someone. Keep your friends close, William, you appear very much alone.’
The professor nodded, for a moment appearing to ponder the doctor’s advice. Poised with indecision, he offered a respectful salute before turning for the door.
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David P. Philip