It was Monday morning. As Ben walked through the glass doors of the State Ballet building, he came across one of the older professionals of the company, a friend of many years.
“Morning, Ben,” said the man. “How’s Store Creek going?”
“Morning,” said Ben. “Fine. I suppose.”
Truth be told, two weekends had passed since Ben had seen Merlyn. More, he hadn’t even spoken to her. Nor had he messaged. Every day, if not many times a day, he checked his messages to see if she had messaged him. She hadn’t.
Seeing the look on Ben’s face, his friend said tentatively, “Look, buddy, I thought you were back together but if things aren’t going quite to plan, I have a suggestion.” He waited to see Ben’s reaction. As there was no obvious displeasure from Ben about a suggestion, he continued, “The missus and I have had our ups and downs over the years. I think most people think that we have been very fortunate with our marriage and we have been but, the thing is, everyone has their problems. God knows, we’ve had many.”
Ben looked surprised because his friend’s marriage was one of the few that he had always admired. Becoming more interested, Ben looked at his friend and indicated to go on.
“A few years back,” said the man, “we were having a particularly difficult time and someone suggested a therapist to us.” At the mention of a therapist, Ben noticeably baulked. “Before you get all snarky,” said the man, “you might want to have a think about it. She’s very good. And close by here.” Patting Ben’s arm reassuringly, he said, “You’ve got nothing to lose by trying it but my guess is that if you don’t, you probably have lots to lose.”
Ben looked sad, almost, defeated. “Cheer up, buddy,” said the man, “Esther, the therapist, says, We have many relationships and several of them are with the same person. I will email Esther and introduce you. No pressure but she is busy and, if you want to go, you might have to wait a long time without an introduction.”
E. G. Psychology
The next afternoon, Ben stood outside E. G. Psychology. He assumed that the E. G. stood for Esther Graham; the name he had been given. The therapist had emailed that there was an appointment available today due to a cancellation. Out of desperation, not enthusiasm, he took it.
When Esther came downstairs to open the front door and the black, metal gate, Ben couldn’t help feeling that he was being led into a fortified prison. He tried to shake off the feeling that he might never get out or that something dreadful might happen to him while he was inside.
Esther was an attractive woman in her mid-thirties. That bothered Ben. Not her attractiveness, but her age. He assumed that whoever was capable of helping his friend must have been a more mature person. The last thing he was going to do was open up about his personal life to some relatively new psychologist to make them feel good about their professional abilities.
“I’m Esther,” said the woman beckoning Ben upstairs. The building was old but Esther’s office had a modern, light, white look. “I assume you are Benjamin,” said Esther. She reached out her hand in a confident but contained manner.
Ben took it and said, “Ben is fine. Everyone calls me Ben.”
Esther did not reply but indicated for Ben to sit wherever he pleased. He chose a comfortable-looking, single-seat lounge chair and glanced around the room. It was tastefully decorated and included a few, healthy plants which broke up the clinical look. The only thing which seemed a little out of place was an impressive painting of a beautiful woman from ages past with long, red, curly hair.
Noticing Ben’s glance, Esther said, “She’s Esther, the Jewish queen, from the Book of Esther. Her birth name was Hadassah but, later, when she married and became queen of Persia, her birth-identity needed to be hidden. So, her name was changed to Esther which means to hide or conceal.”
The significance of that was not lost on Ben. Taking the opportunity to lighten the conversation, Ben said warmly, “Is that who your parents named you after?”
“We are here to talk about you now, Benjamin,” said Esther.
The whole first session was spent with Esther asking Ben about his life circumstances and his relationships; both intimate and otherwise.
“Our time is up, for now,” said Esther, “but if you would like to return, I have another cancellation this coming Friday.”
Ben paid the $180 fee and felt that was a lot of money to pay someone for telling your life story. He returned the following Friday for his appointment; not out of faith in the process but because he couldn’t bear to part with that much money without getting something in return.
Ben got a little more something than he had anticipated.
“It’s emotional torture,” said Esther in a calm but definite manner during the early stages of the Friday session. “It’s emotional torture of people who fall in love with you.”
Ben looked at the wall clock and wondered if he could leave without paying for today and cut his losses for the first session. Before he made his move, he composed himself enough to look at Esther’s face. She looked relaxed and intelligent; not the demeanour of someone meaning to offend.
“You don’t do it intentionally but, nevertheless, you do it,” said Esther. “Now, let me explain.”
Ben wondered if it was a psychological tactic. Insult the client to get their attention. If so, it was working.
“You have two different types of relationships that you oscillate between,” said Esther. “The first is as follows. Over your forty years, you have had a few genuine love affairs with people you sincerely fell in love with and they with you. They were all confident people and talented, as you are, in their own fields. Good and fair matches. However, as soon as issues came up in those few relationships, instead of dealing with them in a mature manner, you deteriorated into fear, blame, and anger. The partners, being self-assured, did not take crap (so to speak) and refused to be intimated into submission. The breakdown of those relationships was inevitable given your approach and their response and, of course, each person brings their own set of issues.”
Esther was silent to let Ben take in what she was saying. Ben was still stunned but also still listening.
“Let me continue with the second relationship pattern,” said Esther. “In between each genuine love affair, you make other relationships to recover your sense of being in control. Again, you choose people who are in love with you. You, however, are not in love with them. Nevertheless, you keep the relationship because you can control it. At some level, you resent both yourself and the other. You resent their neediness. You also resent yourself for being there but prefer it to the pain of a genuine love-affair. It is torturous for the one in love with you because they are constantly trying to reassure themselves that you love them and want to be with them. You would be doing a thousand little (if not big) things to indicate that you don’t (because you don’t). They can’t leave because they need you and will take anything rather than nothing. You won’t leave because the devil you know is better than the one you don’t. Eventually, of course, you cannot stand it anymore and you move on; possibly, with regenerated courage for another attempt at a more genuine connection elsewhere.”
Again, Esther stopped speaking to let Ben assimilate this information.
“Are you saying I’m a control freak?” ventured Ben.
“Control is a defense-mechanism,” said Esther.
“Against what?” asked Ben.
“Fear,” said Esther. “Fear of being hurt.”
After a pause, Esther continued, “I have given you a lot to think about and I do not expect you to agree with all the information I have given you. In fact, I do not want you to agree. I would like you to think about what I am telling you, so that you can understand your patterns of behaviour. In so doing, you can make better choices and feel more confident in dealing with relationship stress. You don’t have to become a therapist (that’s for those of us who really enjoy torture) but you do need to understand yourself better if you wish to be happy.”
Ben wondered if the last bit was a joke, although, Esther wasn’t smiling.
“Understanding ourselves takes work and courage,” said Esther. “Whether or not we choose to do it is up to us. Although, really, we don’t have a choice because, eventually, the pain will make it intolerable. It’s more a matter of how much pain we are willing to endure before we undergo the ‘pain’ of transformation. At least, the latter pain gets us somewhere.”
Esther looked at the large clock on the wall. It wasn’t necessary because her sense of timing was impeccable.
“Our time is up for today,” she said. “Let me leave you with a quote about fear and change from one of my teachers-in-spirit, the existential philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. He said, Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate. Or in popular vernacular, we could say, Feel the fear and do it anyway.”
As Ben walked past the print of Queen Esther, he wondered if she might not be a little less intimidating than Esther of E. G. Psychology. It would be an even match, he thought as he descended the stairs from that peculiar room which was a mix of learned academia, incomprehensible philosophers, mystic queens of centuries passed, soul-searching and confrontation. It was not a place he liked to be. Nevertheless, as the heavy gate closed after him, Ben noticed that, along with the shell-shock, something new and unfamiliar seemed to have lit up inside himself.