Monthly Archives: April 2011

Bert’s Plan A

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey. That’s Bert at left, looking trapped.

Bert speaking:)

Recently someone asked Steve, “Exactly how does a person get addicted to control?”

“We’re born that way,” he answered.  “We’re born with this big brain that keeps us scared and worried and trying to control everything and everybody.  Sort of like a paranoid computer run amuck.”

He was referring to the idea of monkey mind, which I wrote about recently.  (See “Bert is nuts.”)

But that’s only half an explanation.  Because some people are obviously more controlling than others.  Why is that so, if we’re all dominated by monkey mind?

The other half of the answer has to do with Plan A.

Steve has this little speech he gives to new clients about the real reason people enter therapy.  Steve, summarize. 

It goes something like this.  In the end there’s only one reason anyone goes to therapy: Plan A has broken down. 

Plan A is my label for everything we learn as kids about life and how to cope with it.

We each have a Plan A.  We learn it mainly as kids, mainly from our parents, and mainly unconsciously.  I mean, nobody sits us down at the kitchen table and says, Now listen up, kid.  Here’s how you do Life.  They just do Life themselves, and we watch and listen and soak it all up like little sponges.  That’s why our Plan A tends to look so much like others in our family.

And it works pretty well for a while.  Especially while we’re living in the family.  It’s like we’re all following the same invisible rule book. 

But Plan A always breaks down.  Because eventually we move beyond the family into the larger world, filled with new people and new problems, and we discover that what worked at home doesn’t always work so well out there.

At which point we have a choice, at least in theory.  We can decide, “Oh, I guess I need a Plan B.”  Or we can keep trying to make Plan A fit every situation.

Guess which we choose?

Right.  Plan A.  Always Plan A.

Why?  First of all, we may not even know there’s such a thing as Plan B.  Childhood conditions us to see our Plan A as simply normal.  (Why would anyone want to do Life in any other way?) 

Second, even when we realize there are other options, we cling to Plan A because…it’s familiar.  We know how to do it.  And change is scary.  So we keep following Plan A even after we suspect it no longer works.

And that’s when we begin to develop symptoms — anxiety, depression, addictions, communication problems, lousy relationships.

And those symptoms are what drive us into therapy.

Seeking a Plan B.

Bert again:

In our case — Steve’s and mine — Plan A was shaped by growing up in an alcoholic family. 

Steve’s dad was alcoholic, and his mom was depressed.  Together they taught him two important lessons he’s spent his adult life trying to unlearn.

The first lesson was, “Feelings are at best inconvenient, and at worst dangerous.”  The implication of this lesson?  So you’d damned well better keep them to yourself.

The second lesson was, “You’re responsible for other people’s feelings.”  The implication:  So you damned well better be careful about what you say and do around other people.

These two lessons were the foundation stones, so to speak, of our Plan A. 

They’re also what called me, Bert, his inner monkey, into being. 

Steve created me to take control of what was a pretty chaotic emotional life.  I set out to do that by doing things like burying his feelings, developing an impressive image (see “Bert’s mask”) and becoming exquisitely oversensitive to the feelings, perceptions and opinions of others. 

I also convinced him to become a social worker.  Which seemed a natural fit to our original Plan.

(To be continued.) 

* * *

Check out my first guest post,

titled “Seven Kinds of Power”  and just published on Breaking the Cycles — Changing the Conversation, a web site devoted to “using 21st century brain and addiction-related research to change how we talk about, treat and/or prevent alcohol and drug abuse, underage drinking, alcoholism, drug addiction, dual diagnosis, DUIs and secondhand drinking/drugging (SHDD)”  (breakingthecycles.com).

* * *

And:

Don’t forget to answer the new Bert Poll question.

We need you to educate us.  🙂   

 

 

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Bert’s addiction

                                                        

Steve:  A reader recently responded to “Bert’s dog” with questions that left me thinking about my control addiction (not that I ever forget it). 

So today I’ve asked Bert, my inner monkey…

Bert:  Hey. Recovering  inner monkey.

Steve:  Beg pardon.  My recovering inner monkey…to write about that. 

Bert:

I’ve been addicted to control for as long as I can remember. 

That is, for as long as I can remember I been trying to force reality — people, places, things, even myself, my own thoughts and feelings and behavior —  to match the pictures in my head of how I want reality to be.

I do this almost constantly. 

I also do it mostly unconsciously, which is to say, I usually don’t know I’m doing it.   

I also do it compulsively.  Which means I get anxious when I can’t get enough control.

I expect to stay an addict until I die. 

I mean sure, I’m in recovery and all.  But that just means I’m less controlled by my need for control than I used to be, just as recovering alcoholics are less controlled by their need to drink.  But they’ll always be alcoholics, and I’ll always be a control addict. 

I’ll always feel this urge to control stuff.  Even when I know it’s crazy to try.

It’s crazy, I’ve learned, because control is largely an illusion.

Of course it’s not always an illusion.  I know if I pour sugar into my coffee that makes my coffee sweeter.  If I pull my steering wheel to the right, my car will reliably turn right. 

But the world is larger than sugar and steering wheels.  And the truth is that, beyond these concrete ways of changing my immediate circumstances, much of my controlling operates more on the level of wishful thinking.

Why?  Because most of my controlling is an attempt to control feelings and relationships.  And feelings have no steering wheel.  And in relationships sugar doesn’t always work.

Let me explain.

Let’s say I have a feeling I don’t want.  Say I feel inadequate.  But it’s uncomfortable to feel that, and I also worry that if you see how I feel you may agree with me, which would make me feel worse.  So I hide my self-doubt, from you and from myself.   I work hard at presenting myself as adequate, even superior. (For an example, see “Bert’s mask.”)  And let’s say it works: I convince you I’m superior.  I’ve successfully controlled your perception of me. 

Do I feel better?

Not so much. 

At least, not for long.  Why?  Because I know it’s a performance.   I’ve basically fooled you about me, and I can’t forget that.  So whatever approval I get from you is essentially meaningless.  And I end up feeling both inadequate and phony. 

See how that works?

Another example: 

Say I’m mad at you, but scared to show it.   Scared you might get mad at me, which would make me unhappy. 

So I hide my anger from you.  I bury it. 

But overcontrolling feelings tends to be bad for me.  Recovery has taught me that feelings are meant to be expressed, not contained. Released, not stored up.  So burying my anger makes me feel, well,  constipated.  Pressured.  Uneasy.  Anxious.  And when I do it long and habitually enough, I get depressed.  I.e., chronically unhappy.

How’s that for irony?

Why doesn’t control work better in the realms of feeling and relationships?

Because at the heart of this addiction lies a paradox:

The more control I need, the less control I seem to have.  

Happy Easter, if you’re Easterish.  Happy Sunday, if you’re not.

* * *

If you haven’t already,

take a look at the two short movies that Bert recommends: “Here’s to the crazy ones” (narrated by Richard Dreyfus) and Ernest Cline’s  funny/sad/thought-provoking “Dance, monkeys, dance.”


Bert’s dog

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey.  

Bert speaking:)

I’d like to introduce you to my dog.

Please look down.  You’ll find him attached to my ankle.

That’s where he lives, more or less.  Sometimes he draws blood.  But mostly he just hangs on, drooling and chewing occasionally, slowing my progress through life from a stroll to a worried limp.

Of course this is a metaphorical dog I’m describing (the attractive photograph above notwithstanding). 

It represents a part of the human personality we each carry inside us, an internal voice named variously by different psychologies.  Freudians described it as the punitive superego.  Others call  it the Inner Critic.  

Gestalt therapists call it the Top Dog.

Steve wants to add something.

I first read about this guy many years ago, in Fritz Perls’  Gestalt Therapy Verbatim.  “The topdog usually is righteous and authoritarian: he knows best,” Perls wrote.  “He is sometimes right, but always righteous.  The topdog is a bully, and works with ‘You should’ and ‘You should not.’  The topdog manipulates with demands ands threats of catastrophe, such as, ‘ If you don’t, then — you won’t be loved, you won’t get to heaven, you will die,’ and so on.” 

I remember reading that and wondering how Fritz had managed to overhear my darkest thoughts.

As Steve’s inner monkey and a recovering controller, I’ve spent many hours (years, actually) listening to this voice.  I’ve come to know Dog pretty well. 

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Dog means well.  He really thinks he’s protecting me by pointing out my flaws, reminding me of my failures, and anticipating all the awful judgments others might render.  Expect the worst, that’s his motto.  But his warnings don’t make me feel safer.  What they do is keep me scared poopless.    

Dog’s scared to death.  That’s why he scares me.  Dog himself operates out of pure fear.  (Can you imagine scarier words to live by than expect the worst?)  So every word out of him comes from that defensive position.  Which explains why the more I listen to him, the scareder I get. 

Dog’s unpleaseable.  No matter how hard I try, he’s never satisfied.  In fact trying harder seems to only make him stronger.  It took me years to realize that he thrives on attention.  So trying to please Dog is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.  

Dog lies.   He sounds reasonable, since there’s usually some  truth in what he says.  But listening to Dog is like looking at myself in a fun house mirror.  By focusing on weakness and failures only he presents a terribly distorted view of me.  And if I mistake it for an accurate one, I’m sunk, basically.  

Dog refuses to die.  This is the real reason I can’t satisfy him.  Dog exists to worry and warn.  That’s his reason for being.  Were he ever to concede, say, that I’m adequate, or loveable, or that everything will probably work out fine, he’d be putting himself out of a job.

So.  What to do with a dog like this?

Well, it helps me a lot to remember what I’ve learned about him.  That Dog isn’t me, just the scared worried part.  That he’s unappeasable, and that he lies, and that he’ll say or do anything to survive.  

All this gives me some distance from his voice.  It means when he starts growling I can say “Oh, you again.  Shut up,”  instead of taking him too seriously.

And you?  Why should you care about any of this?

Well, check out your own ankle.  

Want more?

Fritz Perls’ description of top dog dynamics can be found in Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (Real People Press, 1969), a collection of theoretical talks and therapy demonstrations.

Susan David offers tips on “How to manage your inner critic” at the Harvard Business review web site (so nice to know that even Harvard people have topdogs)at http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/01/how_to_quiet_your_inner_critic.html

And take a look at Hal and Sidra Stone’s useful  book about Dog-training, titled Embracing Your Inner Critic: Turning Self-criticism into a Creative Asset (Harper San Francisco, 1993).


Bert’s mask

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey.

Bert speaking:)

Steve’s been mad at me for the past day or so.

Can’t say I blame him.

Here’s why:

A month ago, just before he resumed publishing Monkeytraps, he made a point of asking his two kids (both twenty-something) to read it and tell him what they thought.

He likes and admires his kids, and he respects their opinion.  So this seemed a natural enough request.

But they hadn’t read the first version of the blog a year ago.  And though he didn’t blame them for that (even he didn’t think the old Monkeytraps was that great), he was a little scared it might happen again.

But he asked.  And they promised.

And then it happened again. 

They still didn’t read it.

Disappointed and puzzled, he came to me. 

“What the hell?” he asked. 

Of course this had already gotten my attention, since I’m in charge of the Controlling How Everyone Feels About Us department.

“I have a theory,” I admitted.

“What’s your theory?”

“You won’t like it.”

“Tell me.”

“They’re scared of you.” 

“Scared?”

“Uh huh,” I said, embarrassed.

“But why?”

“It’s my fault.”

“How?”

“I think I convinced them that I was you.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

I took a breath.

“Do you remember,” I asked, “what Fritz Perls said about having character?”

“Yes.  No.  Maybe.  Remind me,” he said impatiently.

“He said we think of having character as a good thing, mainly because it makes us predictable, and other people like knowing what to expect from us.  But it’s actually a sign of rigidity.  It means we’ve developed a fixed way of responding, and lost our ability to cope flexibly and creatively and authentically.  Stopped growing, in effect.”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember now, ” he said.  “So?” 

But I could tell he knew, now, where I was heading.

 “I think the character we’ve developed over the years scared the kids out of giving you feedback on the blog.”

He was silent.

“You mean the I-know-everything character?”  he said finally.

“Yes.”

“The argue-like-a-lawyer character?”

“Yes,” I said unhappily. 

“The guess-how-many-books-I’ve-read character?”

“That’s the one.”   

“Shit.”

He fell silent again.

Finally he said,

“I was afraid it was something like that.”

“Sorry,” I said meekly.

“Hey, it’s my fault too.  Seemed like a good defense at the time.   I didn’t want anyone seeing how I really felt about myself.”

“I know.  But it got away from us.”

“Yeah.  It’s like what I tell clients about defenses.  You put them on thinking they’re a suit of armour.   Then you wake up one day and realize you’re trapped inside them like tuna in a can.”     

What could I say?  It ‘s true.

 “So what now?” he asked me.

I’d been waiting for this question. I smiled.

“That’s easy,” I said.  “Leave the can.”

“How?”

“Go to the kids.  Tell them the truth.  Tell them what you need from them.”

He squinted at me. 

“It’s the only way,” I shrugged.

“I suppose,” he sighed.  But I could tell he wasn’t thrilled with either the problem or the solution.

Still, he did it.  He went to both kids, one at a time, and told them the truth.   That when he sent them a blog post he didn’t need them to critique the thing.  He didn’t need them to analyze the ideas or evaluate the writing.  He didn’t even need to know if they could relate to the psychology.  He just needed them…to like it.

“Just a pat on the head,” he said, feeling like a moron.  “Just a ‘good job, dad.’  That’s all.”

“Really?”his daughter asked.

“Really?” his son said. 

“Really.”

His daughter, the affectionate one, gave him a hug. 

“Of course, daddy.  That’s easy.”

His son, the serious one, pursed his lips. 

“I can do that,” he nodded.

And Steve felt better.

I think he’s forgiven me.  We haven’t talked again, but that’s how it feels.

Anyway, we learned something. 

Masks slip on easier than they slip off.   


Bert’s strawberry

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey. That’s Bert at left, taking a break.

Bert speaking:)

While writing that last post about monkey mind (“Bert is nuts,” which Steve retitled from “Bert’s nuts” after his wife said it sounded like testicles) I was reminded of Steve’s favorite Zen story:

A monk is fleeing through the jungle from a tiger.  He reaches a cliff, has no choice but to leap over the edge, and finds himself hanging in midair by a root.  Above him the tiger froths and rages.  Then he looks down and sees another tiger below him, jaws open, waiting for him to fall.  At that moment he notices a wild strawberry plant growing out of the cliff.  He picks a strawberry and pops it into his mouth.  “How delicious!”  he says.

End of story.

Stupid story, I always thought.

Who eats fruit on the verge of death?

Steve has tried explaining the symbolism.  The first tiger, he says, represents the past, while the tiger under the cliff is the future.  Because of monkey mind we’re almost always running away from one or towards the other.  But this monk was unusually sane: able to realize that the only real thing was the present moment (the root he was dangling from).  In that moment he was safe from both tigers.  He saw this so clearly that he was able to pause in his running, forget past and future, and taste the strawberry.

Uh huh.

Me, I’m not that sane. 

The tigers occupy most of my attention.

There’s always something I have to do, or forgot to do, or am afraid I’ll forget to do, or won’t do well enough.  Or screwed up ten or twenty years ago and still feel guilty over.

Always something to run from or run after.

Always.

And yet.

Yesterday, in the middle of the day, right in the middle of running-after and running-from, I suddenly felt tired.

I was home in my bedroom 

So I sat down on the edge of my bed.

It felt good to sit down, I noticed. 

This surprised me, actually.  I’d been so busy running (with my feet and in my mind) that I’d stopped feeling anything.

It felt nice to feel something…nice.

So I experimented.

I leaned sideways and lay down on the bed.  I lay there on my side with my eyes open, watching a square of sunlight through the bedroom window.

The room was quiet.  The sunlight was pretty.   

I felt my heart and my breathing slow down.

I stayed there for five minutes.  Then went back to work, feeling different.  Stronger, somehow.  More hopeful.

Remarkably so, in fact.

Steve wants to add something.

Most of us treat our bodies like their main purpose is to move our heads around from place to place.  But our bodies are where feelings live, and our feelings are a direct line to what we’re needing.  This has been called “the wisdom of the organism,” and when we listen to it we make different choices, often better ones.  Often I’m able to help clients in my office feel better, physically and emotionally, just by suggesting they put their feet up on my hassock, or rest their head on the back of my sofa.   We all need that sort of relief.  We all deserve it.

Go pick a strawberry.

 

Want more? 

Check out “Listening to Your Body” on the Natural Health Perspective web site.


Bert is nuts

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey.  That’s Bert at left.

Bert speaking:) 

I’m nuts.

Yes, you heard me right.

I’m nuts.

Not embarrassed to admit it, either.

Why? 

Because I know a secret.

You’re nuts, too.

How do I know this? 

Because you’re human.  (Unless, of course, you’re one of the many dogs or cats who enjoy this blog.)

And, being human, you’re a victim of what has been called monkey mind.

What’s monkey mind? 

It’s what you hear in your head when your attention isn’t distracted.

It’s the sound of a brain which over millennia has evolved into a sort of  top-heavy computer, built for problem-solving, and devoted to finding new problems to solve.

It’s the whispering, worrying, fretting, scolding and mocking that keeps you unhappy and on guard against life.

It’s the sound of a normal human mind at work.

In other words, the most human part of you.

Still not sure what I mean?

Experiment.  Take a moment now (when you finish reading this sentence) to sit without thinking for, oh, a minute or so.  Just sixty seconds.

(Pause.)

Hear that?

Yep.  Monkey mind. 

The nuts part.

Steve wants to add something.

What makes it nuts is that it’s so detached from reality.  Like a monkey swings from tree to tree to tree, monkey mind swings from past to future andback again, over and over, ceaselessly remembering, anticipating and fantasizing.  It’s never still, never focused on the here-and-now — which may actually be fine, perfectly safe and okay.  So when you’re in monkey mind you’re having all these feelings — often painful ones, anxiety and anger and such — that have nothing to do with what’s really happening in your life at the moment.  It’s like being trapped in a nightmare, unable to wake up. 

Speaking as a recovering inner monkey, I would add that there’s one other thing that makes monkey mind nuts.

 It really, really believes in control.

It operates on the assumption that if we think and analyze and strategize long and well enough we can solve every problem and bring life under control.  That if we could just figure things out, life could be perfect.  Perfectly safe, perfectly comfortable, perfectly happy. 

I remember a Little Rascals episode in which the kids got their mule to walk in a circle by extending a pole out over his nose with an apple dangling from the end.  The donkey kept plodding after the apple endlessly, never getting closer, and apparently never noticing.

Yes.  We all chase that apple.

Well, I for one am sick of it.

That’s why I’m a recovering monkey.  I’m sick and tired of feeling victimized by my own mind. 

Tired of fighting reality instead of accepting it. 

Tired of trying to control everything. 

Tired of this never-ending plod towards an apple I can never reach.

Tired — so, so tired — of being nuts.


Bert’s mission

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey. That’s Bert at left.

Bert speaking:)

So I entered Steve’s life early — probably well before that kindergarten story (“Bert’s born,” in the archive) I just told you. 

Probably before he could even talk.

My mission? 

To protect him.

From? 

Everything.

Scary situations.  Painful feelings.  Discomfort of every sort. 

Rejection.  Failure.  Disappointment.  Frustration.  Rejection.  Conflict.  Sadness.

(Just noticed I listed “rejection” twice.  Sorry.  I really, really hate rejection.)

I did it mainly by searching relentlessly for ways to change things, things both outside and inside him, to somehow move them closer to what he wanted, or needed, or preferred.

I also taught him tricks.  Coping tricks, like avoiding emotional risks.  And relationship tricks, like hiding his feelings, and obsessing over how others feel about him.  Even perceptual tricks, like selective memory and imagining I can guess the future or read other people’s minds

None of these works really well over time.  But they gave Steve comfort,, and we grew close quickly. 

I became his constant companion, trusted advisor and, he thought, very best friend.

I meant well.  And at times I’ve been useful, even helped him out of some bad spots. 

But in the end ours has been an unhealthy relationship.

Why? Because in the end my need for control set Steve at odds with reality, instead of teaching him how to accept and coexist and cooperate with it.

It’s like that with us inner monkeys.  We mean well.  We really do.

But we’re also kind of, well, stupid.

For example, some of you already know that the title of this blog refers to a method used in the East to trap monkeys, where fruit is placed in a weighted jar or bottle and the monkey traps himself by grabbing the fruit and refusing to let go.

That’s my thing.  That’s what I do.  I grab hold and refuse to let go.

I do this all the time, even when part of me knows it’s not working.

I’m trying not to.  I’m trying my damnedest to learn alternatives to control, like surrender and honesty and intimacy. 

But it’s not easy.   As Steve wrote in his first blog,

Control is like a mirage that vanishes when you walk up to it, or a train you chase but never catch.  Most of the time we don’t even know we’re chasing it.   “Ideas we have, but don’t know we have, have us,” James Hillman said.  Control is just such an idea.    

One last thing:

I’m betting you have one of my brothers or sisters inside you, too.

You have it as surely as you have  fears, and a monkey mind that whispers and worries and scares you.

You may not have noticed this secret tenant before.  But look anyway. 

I’d love to hear about him/her, if you care to share.


Bert’s born, part 2

(Continued from last time:)

The next block Steve reached for was red.  He placed it on the floor in front of the blue one, sat down and put his feet up on it.  Feeling highly visible, even daring, he waited for the room to react.

The room ignored him.

“More,” I muttered.

He found a yellow block next, and put it beside the red one.  Then he found a green one and put it on the other side.

He made a line of blocks, a little wall.  Then sat nervously down to await developments. 

None developed. 

No one in the classroom noticed, or if they did, they didn’t let on.

He went on building.  He made a second tier of blocks, and then a third.  When he was done the little multicolored wall rose to his waist and enclosed a small triangular space that felt oddly safe and protected.  He sat back down and examined the wall happily.  It felt like some sort of achievement.

I think Steve wants to add something here.

Coming to mind is a passage from a Hemingway story.  It’s about a traumatized war veteran making camp in the Michigan woods.  “Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent.  He had made his camp.  He was settled.  Nothing could touch him.  It was a good place to camp.  He was there, in the good place.  He was in his home where he had made it.”   

Yes.  It was that sort of achievement.  No small thing, creating safety for yourself in a dangerous world.

That’s about it for my story.  Nothing else interesting happened.  We stayed behind the wall until we went home.

So why did I tell you this?

Well, I’m introducing myself.   As I told you last week, I’m Steve’s inner monkey.  The part that seeks control.  The part that tries to protect him by changing reality, transforming it into something more like what he wants, or needs, or prefers.  You just saw me at work. 

 But I’m also introducing the subject of this blog, which is not a simple one.  Control is a slippery fish. 

I’ll let Steve have the last word on that:

For a long time after I began examining control I didn’t distinguish between the simple impulse to control and the addiction to controlling.  I saw it as a problem, not a solution.  A confused attempt to avoid discomfort or pain.  Trying to change realities beyond their control seemed to be the main way people made themselves (and others) sick, exhausted and miserable.

But it’s more complicated than that.  Controlling is defensive, sure.  But it’s adaptive too.  Building that block wall may have cut little Steve off from the class, but it also gave him a way to stay in the room.

So controlling can be both irrational and necessary, avoidant and creative.  A problem and a solution.

As Bert says, a slippery fish.


Bert’s born

(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey. That’s Bert at left, at an early age.

Bert speaking:)

Steve was born in 1950.

Me, I’ve no idea when I was born.  I do, however, remember my first public appearance.

It was on Steve’s first day of kindergarten. 

Actually no, it was Visiting Day, the spring before kindergarten started, when kids visited for half a day to get their first taste of public education.

Steve has vague memories of the classroom — bright banks of windows, colored plastic chairs, fingerpaintings on a corkboard, voices rattling off the walls — but no clear memory of how he felt.  Not hard to deduce, though, given what happened.  

He panicked.  

Walked in, froze up.  Stood rooted to the tile floor like a stump in a stream, while the other kids bustled and flowed around him. 

After a few moments the teacher called the kids over to her desk, and they clumped and moved obediently in that direction.  Except Steve, who stayed rooted.

He was shy kid, inexperienced, insecure, especially in new situations.  This was certainly one of those, and he found himself flooded with feelings he had not expected and could not begin to control.

At which point, Ta Da, I took over.

“Go to the corner,” I whispered.

He did.

Piled there beside the coat rack was a stack of oversized building blocks, hollow wooden cubes painted bright colors.

“Take down on the blue one,” I told him.

He did.

“Put it on the floor.”

He did.

“Sit on it,” I said.

He did.

“Now don’t move,” I said.

He did, staring blindly ahead.

The teacher came over.  Nice lady, print dress.  Soft voice.  Steve never saw her face because he was staring at her shoes, which were brown. 

She said something to him.  He shook his head.  She said something else.  He shook his head again.  She waited a moment, then walked away. 

We spent the rest of the morning together there in the corner.  First we sat perfectly still and tried to be invisible, convinced that if we moved or even breathed loudly someone would notice.   After thirty minutes it became clear the nice teacher was content to ignore us, and we began to relax.  The roaring in our ears died away.  Our hands warmed up.  We looked around at the room.   We watched the teacher playing with the kids.  We watched the kids playing with each other. 

After another hour this got boring. 

I noticed him eyeing a triangular block, off to one side.  It was yellow.

“If you put that behind you,” I whispered, “you could lean back on it.”

The idea of reaching for the block and becoming visible scared him all over again, so we argued about  it for a while. 

I can’t remember how I changed his mind.  But eventually he bent his upper body sideways, grabbed the yellow block and slipped it behind him.  Then he leaned back and waited for someone to notice.

Nobody did.

He found this interesting. 

Maybe this place was more tolerable than he thought.

Ten more minutes passed. 

“You could put your feet up,” I whispered.

He stood and reached for another block. 

(To be continued.)


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