Thursday, April 15, 2021

Unheard by Lois Chapin

 My new patient sits down on the couch I just sanitized with Lysol and a leather treatment chaser. His unshaken hand fidgets with the elastic around his ear. Dark eyes, red-rimmed with grief, peer over the top of a logoed mask. My own face covering suffocates me like my boyfriend’s hand in the empty Griswold’s parking lot at seventeen. I worry what my patient’s mask triggers for him.

I keep telling myself, we’re all safe. 

The office window I shoved open after my last patient’s video session, lets in the traffic sounds that reverberated over her audio, “I’m suici….”

“I didn’t get---,” he says. 

Sweat beads on his black forehead. His mask accordions with each breath. I force myself not to glance outside at the F-150 booming at the red light. 

“Wanted to say goodbye,” he says.

“That had to be hard,” I say, trying to make a compassionate face with only my eyes. I’ve always been more of a Skinnerian than a Rogerian. 

“ICU nurse tried,” he says.

A yellow thread from my cleaning cloth lies on the carpet beside his Sketchers. Tires squeal outside my screened widow as the light turns green. The smell of burning rubber tugs at a sneeze.

“Sound cut out on her tablet,” he says.

My brow furrows above my mask. “Must’ve been devastating,” I say.

I prefer treating people in person. Video sessions pixelate faces just before self-disclosure. 

Teens’ parents’ text outside bedroom doors, “Don’t lie to your therapist!” Those locked in cars for privacy, drop their phones between seats and center consoles scrounging for scraps of note paper. 

In person I can look them in the eye. Staring at a camera light at the top of my screen to not look down on a patient, is still patronizing. The thumbnail self-portrait at the bottom of my screen never makes eye-contact.

“There won’t be,” he says. “We can’t---a funeral.” 

I tap on my keyboard trying to think of something profound or diagnostic to write. I nod instead.

“Can’t, you know, gather. But her family can’t come anyway,” he says. “Their business. The rioting.” He pulls out a tissue with several swift jerks without touching the top of the box. He blots at a tear and wipes the sweat from his face, knocking the mask off his nose. “Uh, sorry,” he mutters, and fixes his face covering.

I should be the one apologizing. My mirror neurons fire vampire mode. 

Time is frozen. We’ve both viewed the slow murder time and again. He’s the color of the man whose life was pressed out of him. I’m the color of the murderer. I’m not worthy of his trust. My shame is irrelevant.

This courageous grieving man in front of me is a warrior. I want him to know. It’s time.

“It’s, uh, okay,” I say. I’m not really sure anything is. “Take your time.”

My next patient, geriatric and white, will spend 50 minutes detailing what pejorative thoughts I must harbor behind my mask. Another victim of hearing loss. 

Timing is everything. I’d called the previous woman back on her cell after my screen displayed a spinning Ouroboros. Just Fifteen seconds re-established defenses that blocked revisiting the intrusive thoughts of ending her life. 

I’ll end this session touching his credit card like a monk breaking a vow of poverty. Then I’ll say, “You’re not alone,” with no touch of his arm, no pat on the back, no handshake, no visible smile, no standing by the door I hold open, no hug, only a chasm of social distance.

© Lois Chapin

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