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Trigger Warnings

by Mickey J. Corrigan

Trigger Warnings: synopsis

Springfield Andrisson is a very intelligent teenager, but she has also been very sheltered. When she is sent away from home for the first time, to attend a private college in Boston, she finds some of her course assignments oppressive, and she formally declines to participate in some of them. Her overprotective parents send her to an alternative psychotherapist, with results that are by turns amusing and frightening, funny and deeply disturbing. Springie’s story will resonate especially for readers of the Millennial generation in this troubled time.

Table of Contents

Chapter 7: The Program

A week later I walked through six inches of slush to the house on Brattle Street. The freshly fallen snow had sparkled at first, sitting pretty for an hour or two, but now it was coming down mixed with freezing rain. My UGGs were trashed and my toes hard and numb.

I was facing finals week, and none of my professors seemed amenable to letting my incompletes slide. Do the makeup papers, they all said. And yet, I resisted. Maybe Dr. Louder’s special program would provide a way for me to handle the situation. Was I trying to shirk my responsibilities as a college student? Or making an important point with my protest? My parents believed I was shirking, while I still clung to protest as the explanation for my out-of-character behavior. Fortunately, they had agreed to hire Dr. Louder to help settle the matter.

My stomach ached when I even thought about reading a book like Lolita. And I refused to write a paper on the Ottomans. Weren’t there more important things in life than crusty old men’s fantasies and crusty old men’s wars?

The sidewalk in front of Dr. Louder’s was shoveled clean and freshly sanded. I walked up to the front door and let myself in, then stood dripping on the braided welcome mat. After I yanked off the soggy boots and hung my wet jacket on the coat rack by the door, I headed for the waiting room.

I walked in. The secretary looked up from her typing, nodded, then returned to her work.

Some receptionist. She barely talked to the patients. What was up with that?

As I settled into the warmth of the couch, I stared at her hunched form. What could she possibly be doing? I imagined her as Jack in The Shining, typing and retyping the same sentence. This made me laugh inside my head until I realized something: the poor woman was probably one of Dr. Louder’s patients. Agoraphobic or morbidly anxious or something. He’d probably hired her to lure her out of her hard little shell. Well, that didn’t seem to be working out, now did it? Hopefully, my own success as a patient would be more profound.

I texted Austin. He’d been distant, too busy with his new life in SoCal geek-world for a dork like me. While I waited without much hope for a response, I stared at my feet. My socks were soaked, but I could feel my toes again. They kept the heat up high in the big old house. In fact, I was sweating a little.

I guess that must have been what made me so sleepy. Apparently I dozed off.

When I opened my eyes, there she was, standing over me. “Ready, Ms. Andrisson?” she asked.

I stood up to follow her. I knew my way to the open door of his office. Why didn’t he just call to me from there when it was time? The secretary’s job description seemed so arbitrary. As if she only performed those few duties she felt capable of... or willing to do.

In the empty office, I stood looking out the bay windows. The sleety rain had turned back to snow, and it dusted the streets like powdered sugar on an asphalt donut. I watched the fat flakes tumble down from the whitewashed sky, drifting peacefully to the city below.

“Springfield!” he boomed as he entered the room from the adjoining door. “So glad you’ve decided to work with me!”

He shook my hand and smiled down at me. Again, I could smell a warm dusting of sage. I breathed him in, returning his smile.

After he indicated the chair I had sat in on the previous visit, he took his place behind the desk. Notebook out, pen in hand, he nodded at me. His pale gray suit shimmered in the white light from the windows behind him.

I said, “Thanks for convincing my parents I’m okay. They were actually thinking about pulling me out of school and making me live at home for a while. To observe my quote-unquote mental status.”

He tilted his head. I liked the way his thick hair flopped to the side. It too shone brightly in the snow-cast light. He looked backlit, like a holy relic.

“That would be a shame, Springfield. You are fully engaged in the act of separation and the establishment of your own identity. Your parents are feeling the push-pull of the empty nest. This is natural. I explained to your father how they will both need to restrain old urges to protect you. This is no longer the time for them to be in control of your life choices.”

He leaned forward. “I told your mother how hard you are working to individuate and grow. She seemed to accept that.” He eased back a bit in the chair. “So. Let’s talk about what you want.” He looked at his notebook. “I am under the impression that you wish to work on your character. To become psychologically strong, less fearful. Am I correct?” He looked up, waiting for confirmation.

I shrugged. “I guess. But I’m afraid of... of so much. Part of me wants to be tough, to push back at the world, say what I’m thinking, fight if I have to. But the other part of me prefers to keep everything to myself, to stay in my own safe world and avoid conflicts. And really, that’s how I live. Most of the time.” I thought about it for a moment. “This protest of mine against micro-aggressive coursework is really so unlike me. I mean, I can understand why my parents are worried.”

His face impassive, he said, “Of course. But you are on your own now. And since you are not relying on them to make decisions on your behalf, the kind of decisions that allowed you to remain secure in the home and family womb, what you call ‘the other part of you’ is emerging. That you is in the act of being born. Poking a head out of the womb. And by coming here, committing to do the work with me, you are telling me — and your parents, yourself — that you are ready to venture out of the safety of childhood and move into what seems threatening but, in reality, may be equally safe.”

“I guess,” I said. Was that what I was doing? “But how can I be my own person and take a stand on what I believe in without totally screwing up my college plans? Because if I ruin that, won’t I ruin my whole life?”

He set his pen in the holder and folded his arms across his chest. He looked buff under that suit. Like he worked out a lot.

“Higher education is important, yes, in the economic sense. And the time spent away from home can help kids adjust to independent living. But many fail at this. Miserably.” He lifted his dark brows. “And going to college does not guarantee you will live an authentic life. A university degree doesn’t change the world. It doesn’t make you into a person of value, a person of impact. Only you can do that.” He kept staring at me, his black eyes sucking me in. “In the race to success, college is not the finish line your parents led you to believe.”

All my life I’d been encouraged to participate in whatever would help me get into a good college. School and homework, grades and after-school activities dominated nearly all my time. Clubs, volunteering, sports, everything was carefully selected to enhance my resume for eventual college admission. Even though I didn’t make it to the Ivies, I got accepted to a reputable college.

And here I was, in Boston, at the heart of the university experience. I thought I’d passed the finish line. Now he was moving it farther ahead? Eighteen years of focused effort to get here, and it wasn’t even the right goal? What was the goal, then?

“So now what?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

He leaned forward, arms planted on the desk. “So now you become who you were meant to be. You take chances, you experiment, you find out what has meaning for you. For you. Not your parents, not your friends, not your teachers, not the critical world.” He paused for a moment to let that sink in. “If you want to be your own person, Springfield, be prepared to screw up. And be ready to deal with the consequences.”

This did not seem like helpful advice. I was already doing that, wasn’t I? Maybe he was right and my parents had overemphasized the importance of going to college. Still, what would I do if I wasn’t in school? I wasn’t about to live in the slums and work some crappy job.

I crossed my arms and frowned. “Whatever they did to make me get to this point, I’m grateful to my parents. They just want me to have a good life like they do. I’m not the kind of girl who wants to live in a tent in the woods. Or camp out in front of big banks with hand-painted banners. That’s not me, either. If college is the only road to get to a good future, then I have to stay on course. Unless you think there’s some other way?”

He pushed back from his seat and stood up. I expected a lecture on entrepreneurship. On Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. College dropout billionaires, that lecture.

Instead, he surprised me. “What I’m suggesting is that this choice, like all your choices, is entirely up to you. The map is yours, the journey is yours. But I will help you chart your course, Springfield, if you wish. That’s what I’m here to do.”

The light from the windows bounced off his big manly body. I felt like I was watching him on the big screen at a movie theater. “So am I in the special program?” I asked.

“If you so choose.”

“Tell me about it.” I felt like I could say anything to him. This felt good. “I want all the details so I can decide what I want to do.” Saying this felt good, too.

He nodded, and began to pace as he spoke. The program was designed to study a new approach to therapy. He called this approach “abrasive action.” “You’ll have to fill out the paperwork with Miss Snothers. On your way out, stop by her desk.”

So that was her name. “Is she in the program?” I asked him.

He boomed out a laugh. “Oh no. Miss Snothers would never...” He stopped himself. “You won’t meet anyone else in the program, Springfield. I guard all my patients’ privacy. I will tell you this, however: these are people from all walks of life; students, professionals, single folks, married couples. Most are Millennials, but we have three older women in the cohort as well as an elderly widower. A relatively small study, but an important one.”

He walked around for a while as he continued to explain the parameters of his therapeutic approach. It sounded weird but interesting. He talked for the remainder of our session. I liked watching his facial expressions shift, his body moving around the room gracefully. He reminded me of a panther. Sleek, powerful, in control of his own choreographed dance.

I knew I could do abrasive action therapy. I could do it because I trusted him. He would keep me safe. That might seem strange now in retrospect but, at the time, it did sound like the right prescription. Like abrasive action therapy could help me change my personality. Strengthen my spine. Grow me a set of balls. And maybe overcome my scholastic issues as well.

By the time I left his office, I was in an upbeat, positive frame of mind. I could do this. I could become someone else.

I stopped at Miss Snothers’ desk and signed on.

Proceed to Chapter 8...

Copyright © 2020 by Mickey J. Corrigan

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