A text by the 2014 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow Diana Petrova
The number of clients I had was growing, and so were my apprehensions about how I was going to manage.
"Hello," the Computer Programmer said and took off his jacket, which looked like an oversized piece of kids' clothing. His red boxers were peeking out over the belt of his jeans. "I've come to you with a specific question."
I felt a sudden urge to explain what a psychotherapist's job was, and that he was neither a fortune-teller nor a TV game show contestant, which is why he couldn't be expected to give answers that were either right or wrong.
"And what is your question?"
"Well, look…" he started rubbing his hands on his jeans. "How can I make some friends? Not colleagues, not acquaintances, but friends outside my professional sphere."
The simplicity of the question was brutal. We just sat there for several seconds – I tried to identify the internal torment's complex intricacies underneath his question's blatant simplicity, while he just worried about how childish it had sounded.
"Do you ever read applied psychology books?"
"Yes. I've read some stuff by Steve Pavlina, if that's what you mean. He gives tips on how to ask somebody out for lunch and things like that, but that has nothing to do with making friends," the Programmer sighed.
The effort of saying more than two sentences seemed to exhaust him. I was tempted to conclude he was one of those people who don't have the vocabulary to talk about their emotions, the kind of person who doesn't know how to express, let alone discuss, his feelings with a stranger. And yet, I refrained from drawing any conclusions, as that would've predetermined the course of things and created expectations on my part.
Once the expectations were there, I would try to validate them, and that had no part in good psychotherapeutic practices.
"Pavlina is that famous blogger who's also a computer programmer, if I’m not mistaken."
"Yes, you know about him!" his shoulders relaxed and his legs opened up.
"Yes," I said, while trying to hide my real opinion of the guy, which was that he was worthless.
"What do you think of him?"
"What do you think?" I felt like I was playing a game of ping-pong.
"He's good, but he's not much use in this case."
A pause followed. I should've been prepared for that. I was in a psychotherapeutic situation and I was supposed to be attentive to the person sitting across from me.
"What kind of difficulties do you usually encounter when you try to make friends? Have you even tried?"
"I've tried many times."
"What do you usually do?"
"I chat people up, I invite them out to lunch."
"It doesn't work."
"Tell me about the specific steps you take," I was being merciless.
This guy was probably making at least five times as much money as me. And yet, he was acting like a wimp. I think that was the moment I decided that this was a client worth keeping. He could become my punching bag – I'd quietly compare myself to him and think about how I had the most awesome friends, the hottest chick, and the coolest motorbike, while he didn't. At the same time though, chills went down my spine. If I continued to entertain such sentiments, perhaps I wasn't worthy of being a professional psychotherapist.
Shortly after that, a wave of pity for the guy swept over me. Back in school, he'd probably been a straight-A student, or worse – a nondescript nerd who hadn't dared to stand out as a straight-A student. Perhaps he'd been bullied, kicked around, spat at, and made fun of but, ever since, instead of breaking windows or raping girls, he'd tried to remain as inoffensively normal as possible. What had he done to deserve such hostility from me? And God damn it, what had he done to deserve my pity?! I uncrossed my legs and leaned on my elbows. The Programmer stayed silent.
"Look, this isn't going to work unless you start talking. I need to know what you're feeling. I can't help you otherwise."
"Yes, of course, I'll try," he said and his face strained.
I listened to him, as he recounted all his pathetic attempts to get people to like him. According to him, they either took him for "a fag" or "а sissy," and they excluded him from their little cliques.
"So, how do you feel now?" I hated that question because it was so misleading. It usually got clients to start spewing out superlatives about the session they'd just attended before getting the chance to really evaluate it. But I was itching to ask anyway – I needed to hear his praise.
"The same as before," he said and smiled. "Nothing's changed yet."
His words stung me. Not just because they didn't meet my expectations, but also because I'd actually made an effort.
"That's good," I said, though I actually meant the opposite. If he was still feeling the same as before, then the real reason for his unhappiness and his inability to socialize outside of his work environment was pretty far removed from what he'd shared with me. "For next time, I'd like you to write down some of your dreams. After getting into therapy, you might start dreaming more intensely," I said, and smiled in return.
There was a real possibility he would never come back. I would eventually find out that this possibility existed in regard to all my clients, since the things they said, the things they felt, and the things they did were sometimes completely at odds with one another. Those who needed therapy the most were the most inconsistent. So, it turned out that, besides keeping the good of my clients in mind, I also had to worry about ways of encouraging them to come back.
"Did you bring a dream today?"
"I didn't dream of anything," the Programmer rubbed his hands on his pants.
"We can't make the unconscious speak to us according to a schedule."
"Actually, I'd like to talk a little bit more about my job today."
"Hmm . . . I thought you wanted to talk about your relationships with the people around you."
"I did, but today I'm not in the mood at all."
"Of course. The important thing is to talk about whatever's currently on your mind, sir."
"I'd like to be a little less formal. Can we switch to a first-name basis, if you don’t mind?"
"So, in my free time, I do programming for a website that deals with online gambling. It's a project I started with a couple of friends . . . but it weighs heavily on my conscience."
"That so many people completely miss the point of gambling . . . and that it's totally senseless . . . and that it just eats up their savings in no time."
"And how does that concern you?"
"Well," he continued, "We can manipulate the games to our advantages. The whole damn thing is totally unregulated."
"You'd want it to be regulated?"
"Well, as weird as it may sound, I would," he said, raising his voice.
"Why's that?" I raised my eyebrows.
"Because if it were, I wouldn't feel as bad about it as I do now," he said with an expression that gave away his irritation with having to state the obvious.
"Since it makes you feel guilty, have you considered putting an end to your involvement with the website?"
"Yes, of course. That's precisely why they think I'm a fool. Besides, I've already put work into it, but I still wish my money was going to . . ."
"A good cause?"
"Yes," his face flushed.
"You don't need to be ashamed of this. You should be proud, actually. Let me repeat, you don't have to feel badly. I’m familiar with the issue of gambling from a psychological point of view. You might be curious to hear about that."
"What difference would it make?"
"I suppose it might take you a step closer to getting rid of the guilt."
"Hmm," he said, shrugging his shoulders.
"It would allow you to make friends faster," I put my last card on the table.
His face lit up, which I took as a sign to go on.
"Gambling, in the most general terms, is a way for people to make a break with reality."
"So," I made an effort to follow my train of thought, "To some people, immersing themselves in this imaginary world is a kind of escape. Try to imagine that gambling may be a way for them to demonstrate their intellectual superiority over the other players, or – to go even further – over the creators of the game. So, in some players, the game might give rise to an unsuspected thirst for revenge, aggression, or even cruelty."
"Is that all?"
"Not at all," I said, taking a breath. "Many of these people need a way to get rid of their excess energy, or they simply like following the dynamics of the game. Others might get excited by the whole veiled secrecy and think of the game as a kind of . . . ," I was looking for the right word, " . . . social drug.'
"And so, what?"
"Do you think it's logical for you to feel guilty, just because some people have the kind of needs that cause them to use gambling as a vessel, into which they pour their inferiority complex? What I mean is, gambling will exist whether you're part of it or not."
"It might not be logical for me to feel guilty," he began cautiously. "But I do anyway."
I realized I'd made a mistake. You simply couldn't prove a client wrong by making inferences.
"Do you remember when you first started feeling guilty?"
The Programmer crossed his legs and knitted his eyebrows together.
Then came a pause.
"Are you able to connect the feeling to a particular event?"
"Well . . . I don't really know. I can think of one. Some people from my building once blamed me for flooding their apartment. We got into an argument . . . I tried to talk to them rationally, but to no avail. In the end, it turned out that it wasn't me, but the next-door neighbor who was having some trouble with a pipe in his own apartment. Though it took us a while to figure that out . . ."
"And what happened afterwards?"
"That's about the same time that my partners and I were meeting and trying to come up with ways of increasing visits to the website. Look, this has nothing to do with it," he said and sucked some air in through his teeth.
"Let's not jump ahead of ourselves," I said, thinking I might be onto something. What if he'd been unjustly accused, then tried to add to the accusations himself, and finally – after finding nothing for which to blame himself – he'd gotten into the gambling websites? My train of thought led me to consider his parents. I immediately imagined a father who constantly punished and blamed him undeservedly, while the Programmer himself finished off what the father had started.
I began asking him about his relation to his parents, but before I knew it, the session was over. I definitely thought this could have something to do with his inability to communicate with other people. If he was feeling guilty or punished by the world, the only way he could connect to the world was through that guilt. And when he tried to enter it by other means, he simply didn't know how to do it.
I wanted to stop and rewind, as I'd been too hasty in coming up with a theory about the case. I went out and lit a cigarette. It was almost evening. The schoolyard was illuminated by a floodlight. The lights were on in several of the rooms, but most of them were dark.
As I watched them, I admitted to myself that I knew nothing about the Programmer.
Diana Petrova is a Bulgarian author with four published books, two of which are short story collections. The Castle of the Flies made her a recognized writer for children, while The Double Planet explored the fraught subject of adopted children rejected by adopters and psychologists, although loved by the children. Her third book, the debut novel Ana received contradictory reviews in the media because of its provocative character. Petrova's fourth book and second novel Synesthesia, shortlisted in the 2014 New Bulgarian Novel Contest of Ciela, was published in Bulgarian by Iztok-Zapad Publishing House in November, 2014. The featured excerpt is from her novel Synesthesia and was first presented in English by the international online literary magazine B O D Y, www.bodyliterature.com.