empty chair in jayne's therapist's office

[story] empty chair work

This piece, though it is a work of fiction, was inspired by actual techniques my therapist invited me to employ during some of our later sessions together.

So, this story is dedicated to that therapist — the woman who gave me the tools and incantations that helped me exorcise some of my darkest demons. I wouldn’t have made it this far if I’d still been hosting them.

My feet are heavy on the wooden steps that lead up to the front door. The sign in the window says to ring the doorbell, but in the five years I’ve been coming here, I never have and I’m not about to break the routine.

I close the door softly behind me and greet the receptionist with a weak smile. She acknowledges me and tells me it won’t be long. I take a seat on the couch in what used to be the living room of this repurposed home while I wait.

The door in the corner next to the fireplace opens to reveal a slight woman with short silver hair and crystalline blue eyes. Louise greets me with a prolonged Hiiii… Her long vowels are always rather long, they’re never excessive, followed by impossibly soft smile.

This part is always the same. I know what she will ask and how she will ask it; she knows what my answers will be. But we go through the motions anyways. I’m on edge, even more so than usual, and the familiarity of our simple routine always helps to settle me.

“How are you.” The way her words fall, it’s almost as if she’s telling rather than asking me.

“Fine, thanks.”

“Do you want some water or anything?”

“No, thank you. I’m good.”

“I’m just going to fill my water bottle before we go up.”

I wait at the door, holding it open while she fills her bottle at the cooler. The glug-glug-glug of bubbles fighting their way to the top of the big blue jug makes me wince, but the silence that follows soothes me.

Like always, I go first. Louise follows soundlessly behind me up the carpeted stairs. I walk into the room at the top of the stairs—first one on the left. It’s a warm inviting space with a neutral, lived-in aroma that feels at the same time your grandfather’s rustic den, that one auntie’s living room, and a dentist’s office that’s trying a little too hard to mask how much money you’re about to spend. The combined effect is that of unassuming balance and I’ve always felt strangely at home here.

There is an arm chair, two couches—one forest green leather love seat directly in front of me and one gaudy floral piece along the side wall that looks like it belongs in your grandma’s basement, a corner desk with a simple standing lamp and a big, plush office chair, and a plain flat back wooden chair at the wall next to it. I always sit on the love seat because I like to sit with my legs crossed. Louise always sits in the armchair because it’s across from me, but not aggressively so.

She waits until I find some sense of ease in my couch mudra. I signal to her that I have arrived by making eye contact. It feels like I nod, but I’m fairly certain I haven’t moved. I don’t really have to. Sensing the message I’m conveying to her, Louise tilts her head to one side, taps the end of her pen to her temple and begins. “So, it’s been a few weeks. How have things been going since the last time?”

I look at the clock on the wall. 11:02. The skinny red needle falls all the way down to graze the clock’s rounded chin before I respond.

Finally, I say, “Not great, to be honest,” rather bluntly.

Since working with Louise, I’ve gotten much better at saying words right out of the gate. My extemporaneous speech, as she calls it. For a long time, I would get bogged down in a series of sighs with a smattering of ‘I dunnos’ typical of an over-thinker often numbed out by a surplus of feeling before anything coherent could form.

“I had a panic attack. It was so bad that I needed to take the Xanax while I was at work.”

I hate the way benzodiazepines make me feel. Sluggish, groggy, confused… I avoid them whenever possible. But it’s not always possible.

“I zonked out so hard that they had to send me home. My boss was nice about it, all things considered. But I was embarrassed, which only made me feel even worse about everything the next day.”

“Oh, wow,” says Louise. “Yeah. That’s tough.” She is a woman of few words and I like how she never blankets me with apologies. “Do you know what set you off?”

“I know exactly what set me off.” My words roll faster now and I look past Louise, somewhere over her head, as I speak. “He was working. I didn’t even know he was back…”

I trail off. Louise sits quietly in her chair with her notepad on her lap. She puts the cap over her pen and folds her hands over it, waiting for me to continue.

“Well, I knew that he was back in town…” I confess. “He must have gotten my phone number from someone because sent me a text a couple weeks ago. Not long after I saw you, actually… Anyways, I just really didn’t expect him come back to work there again.”

I look down at my hands. I pick at a loose string at the end of my sleeve to justify my averted gaze.

“He was being cryptic and elusive in his messages… You know, like he always is. It’s obviously been a while, but I knew it was him right away. I knew it was him.” The second time I say it, it’s quieter. Like I’m uncertain of the language I’m speaking and how the words go together now. “But when he finally identified himself, my heart still dropped hard as ever…”

I wrap the string around my finger and tug on it gently. I watch the blood under my skin drag away from the white lines drawn by the coiled thread.

“It was late, so I pretended to be asleep. I didn’t respond. I was a little shaken, but I thought it would be fine, that I could get away with it.”

At least long enough to prepare myself and be ready if I saw him around.

“He didn’t mention that he’d picked up his old job again for the summer. I should have known… But when I saw him there the other day, I…”

I fall silent, shake my head and conclude the story by succinctly ripping the thread from my sleeve right out with my teeth.

Louise’s brows arch away from her eyes. Louise often raises her eyebrows right before she asks a question. “Did you have to talk him before you left work?”

“No. Predictably, he made no real attempt to communicate with me. It was easy enough to avoid him on my way out.”

“How are you feeling now?”

“I’m so… I don’t know.” I pull my hood up and burrow my balled fists into the ends of their respective sleeves. “No, you know what? I’m fucking angry.”

Good thing I bite my nails. Otherwise, I might have broken the skin when I clenched down on my fists.

“I was going to start weaning off the meds this week. THIS WEEK.” I push one fist deep into the plush seat cushion beside me. “The appointment to check in with my doctor was supposed to be yesterday. I canceled.”

Louise nods.

“I’ve been so… stable for so long… Relatively. But the moment I saw his stupid, toxic face, I just… I lost it.”

I feel like I just punched myself in the face. My nose stings with the burning omen of imminent tears.

“It’s just so embarrassing.” I rub my cheek into my shrugged shoulder, as if I could rub the flush of my frustration away, and retreat even deeper into the shadow of my hood. “I thought I was doing so good.”

My lids squeeze tight to sever the tear halfway through its build. I wipe it away with the back of my sleeve and rush through the corresponding sniffle, looking to the side wall.

“Well, from where I’m sitting, that much is true.” Louise’s voice can only be described as angelic. Stoic yet gentle, and without condescension. “It might not feel like it today but this setback doesn’t invalidate the work you’ve done so far.”

I absorb her words without comment, rubbing the hem of my pant leg between my fingers now.

“I guess I hadn’t considered just how much of a trigger he could still be for me,” I say, picking up where my last train of thought left off. “I thought I was stronger now, you know? I don’t want to fall back into my cycle of self-destruction I was in the last time he was in my life. I—”

I cut myself off. Hugging my knees into my chest, I tuck my chin into my basket of limbs. We sit quietly while the red needle drags itself around again.

“I know it shouldn’t matter now, but I guess I wish I would have just… told him how I felt,” I murmur from the crook of my elbow. “It probably wouldn’t have made a difference, but maybe I’d feel better now knowing I’d said my peace.”

It’s Louise who breaks the silence this time. “I have an idea. It’s not something we’ve done before, but you might find some value in it.”

Her suggestions tend to fit well, so I listen with earnest.

“What if you could tell him how you feel right now?” She stands up as she says it and drags the chair in the corner to the middle of the room. Directly in front of me; aggressively so. “What would you say?”

My question is wordless, but she has anticipated my inquiry.

“Imagine that he is sitting in this chair right now. He has nowhere to be, nothing to do besides listen to you. What do you have to say to him?”

As I glare at this empty chair, I press my covered hand to my lips. Like I need to hold my mouth shut to let the words build up before I can muster a whole sentence.

“I would say…” The sentence dies before I can finish it. I guess I didn’t let it charge long enough.

“You are saying,” Louise insists. “You’re really talking to him right now.”

It feels weird. Talking to this empty chair like not only can it hear me, but that it’s listening too. But I humor Louise because she has a knack of pinpointing what I need especially when I can’t see it.

I take a breath and address the chair—I address him by his name and tell him that he hurt me. It takes a little digging to get into it before I get deep enough to find the words that matter. But eventually, I do get there. I tell him that I know the darkness I didn’t acknowledge that I was harboring before I met him wasn’t his fault, but his insensitivity didn’t do anything to help the matter. That I would really have liked it if he would have helped.

That I would really have liked it if he had wanted to help.

“Now, you sit in this chair,” Louise says when I feel I’m done giving him that piece of my mind. “You are him. What do you want to hear him to say back to you?”

The empty chair is befittingly cold. Now I’m talking to my warm hollowed divot in the couch. All I’ve ever wanted was some insight into what he thought or how he felt, but I’m blank. It takes me a long time to figure out what it is that I would have liked to hear from him if I could.

This pressure is excruciating.

“I understand that… I hurt you. I”—I choke down the sob bubbling already to the surface, and continue—“I wish I could have been better for you.”

I look down at my anxious fingers rolling over each other in my lap.

“I apologize.”

I can’t say anymore. Is there anything else to say, really? I slump over in the chair and tears trickle down my face into my hands.

Louise commends me in so many words and invites me to resume my place on the couch to continue the conversation.

Legs crossed again, I look back to the chair. I’m so delirious by this swell of emotion that I can almost see his face start to take shape right here in front of me.

[part two]

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