My awakening begins in the office of my beloved therapist, Rachel. And it comes in the form of a six-word inspirational quotation that I am not supposed to notice as the impressionable little-old me leafs through a book full of much more appropriate quotes, meaningless bat-shit crazy quotes, during my final session with her.
I am so going to miss Rachel. She never once squeezed my hand in a patronizing way and told me I was special because my synesthesia allowed me to experience so much more of the world than most others. She never pushed antidepressants on me either, at least not successfully. And best of all, at least according to my parents, she was free, her services provided once a week to me and Miami’s other vulnerable teens, thanks to a rich benefactor’s generous donation.
Unfortunately, everything nourishing has a shelf life. I knew this would be the case with Rachel. Knew that a woman of her obvious talent and grace would eventually build up her practice enough that she no longer needed to perform cut-rate sessions with fucked-up kids when she could do the same at full price with fucked-up wealthy adults. Knew that it was nearly time to say goodbye once Rachel had relocated from the back of a dingy shopping mall, where she answered her own phone and wrote out her own receipts, to a fancy office with a beautiful secretary who always blanched when she remembered I was a charity case.
I kind of regret that I didn’t open up more to Rachel in our sessions. I avoided the worst of my secrets and fears, the ones that seemed to announce to the world what a whiny little loser I had become. Anyway, I always told myself I was working up to talk about them. Just the same, Rachel was great, sometimes even sharing her difficulties with me, usually loneliness, which I found hard to believe, because she was so smart and pretty. When I would tell her I couldn’t believe she wasn’t in some exciting romance-novel relationship, she would say something Yoda-wise, like, Life doesn’t always work the way you think it should.
That makes me sad, I responded once, leading to a long discussion about tempering one’s expectations.
In my very last session with Rachel, she spends the first 15 minutes talking up her replacement, a woman named Belinda who obviously hasn’t yet grown her practice enough that she could afford to jettison the subsidized cases like me.
She’s a friend of mine and you’ll love her, Rachel says. I’ve told her all about you and she can’t wait for you to set up your first appointment, which I keep telling you that you need to do right away.
Rachel tries to get me to call right there from her office. I refuse, saying I forgot my cell phone, which contains my very busy calendar. I hope Rachel can’t detect my iPhone’s faint outline in my hoodie pocket. She studies me for a little too long, and then writes out Belinda’s name and number on a piece of paper, for the third time that month, and pushes it into my damp palm.
We spend much of that final session reviewing my so-called progress, with Rachel, for a change, doing most of the talking. She focuses on one of her favorite topics, the inner and outer worlds we live in. Remember, she says, the inner is the thoughts and feelings and perceptions that make up your own personal reality, the outer the more concrete physical world that makes up our shared external reality. The two are connected, and each one can affect the other, right?
Like if you got hit by a bus on the way home. That would be the external world impacting your internal world. Might make you forever scared of buses, right, assuming you survived?
I nod again, wishing I had never mentioned how much I hate taking the bus to see her.
So, can you give me an example of how your inner world could affect the outer world of the oncoming bus in a positive way in this same situation? How your feelings or thoughts could change something in this exterior world?
I think carefully, pretty sure this is like a final exam question that will give me access to a more enlightened world, pretty sure, too, that I will disappoint her. I guess I could use psychic power to move the bus. You know, make it fly into the air over my head at the last second so I don’t get hit.
How about something a little more plausible and grounded in reality?
I think some more. I could go into the future, see that I’m about to get hit by a bus, and take a different route home.
Or, she says, you could make sure you have your shit together. That you’re mentally in a good place so you don’t have your head lost in thoughts as you step off the curb, or worse, so you don’t deliberately step out in front of the bus.
I always like it when she swears. It is her way of telling me she means business.
You need to keep working with a therapist, Ashlee. There are no shortcuts. You need to get stronger to endure the difficult world we live in. Or else you will never be safe from that bus.
I can see she’s right about the connection between what happens in my head and in the outside world. But I must admit, the answers I gave about how this works are far more interesting.
As my session winds down, Rachel hands me a book of inspirational quotes. Pick one that resonates with you, read it to me, and we’ll see if we can both use it in the weeks ahead to change our worlds, internal and external, for the better.
I’m not really trying to be a little shit. But many of the quotes are so sucky. I find a good one from Einstein: The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. But, screw it, at the last second I substitute it with something even better.
I lean forward and say, It’s by Pablo Picasso. ‘Everything you can imagine is real.’
Do I notice Rachel sigh like she wishes she had ripped that damn page from the book? Can I almost hear her familiar words, delusion can’t save you, trying to claw themselves to the tip of her tongue? Listen, I admire your creative mind, she says, but I can think of much more appropriate quotes. Maybe for discussion with your new therapist, you can find one about perseverance through difficult times.
She stands, and I leap to my feet and hug her before she can stop me. I know therapists aren’t supposed to get emotionally attached to their patients, especially the suicidal ones. She squeezes my back gently, which is more than I expected.
You’ve really helped me, I tell her as she steps back.
I am sure this remark will make her smile, even if we both know it is an exaggeration.
But instead, her eyes look the way I suspect they would when she watches a sad movie curled up alone on her couch. And as I leave Rachel’s office for the last time, I realize again how right she is about my feelings having the power to impact the outside world. About this mysterious correlation.
On the way to the bus stop, the piece of paper with my new therapist’s name and phone number makes itself known from inside my jean pocket. The damn thing is heavy like a rock. I remove the paper from my pocket and a pen from my purse and, oh yes I do, scratch out Belinda’s name and number with a flurry of blue ink. On the other side, I write the Picasso quote, Everything you can imagine is real, before stuffing it back in my pocket.
I pass the same homeless guy as always, sitting in his regular spot outside a liquor store with Georgie, his glam but dirty white-haired poodle. Funny, I don’t know the homeless guy’s name, but I do understand he needs cash to feed himself and Georgie, and he hasn’t had a drink for going on two years, even though I have more than once peeked back to see him go inside the store after I give him the usual three dollars of my babysitting cash. Of course, I also understand that sometimes we all need to take the dangerous little shortcut that never gets us where we are supposed to go but does give us a teeny bit of pleasant distracting relief from the exhausting shit.
In the distance, I can see my bus, a small square of vivid blue that pops out of the surrounding dull expanse of sun-bleached grey, like it is screaming to me, Remember, girl, what you learned today. And I do remember.
I think about all the great ideas and inspiration I have gotten not just from Rachel but from books and the Internet, even if it meant many lonely, nerderiffic nights, lying on my bed and reading the latest non-fiction work on the nature of reality or the newest blog on what the universe is made of. I especially love how science, over the years, has exposed the greatest untruths of our existence. That the earth is flat. That the universe revolves around our little blue and green planet. That time and space and everything we see before us are real.
Just then a rotten smell reaches my nose, and I assume it comes from the overflowing garbage container to my left. The supposed garbage container I can smell and see and even touch if I choose to get closer.
As I plug my nose, I consider the Picasso quote, Everything you can imagine is real, and marvel at how this genius had so long ago come to the same conclusion as today’s scientists. Everything we imagine is real, because that is all we do: We construct in our minds the world we live in, including all the people and objects and animals. Scientists agree our eyes don’t actually see any of the things we think we see, because none of them exist. What actually does exist in our world are plain-old electrons and binary codes and magnetic fields, which are pretty damn boring and not that helpful. So our minds instead create icons like birds and trees and rocks and the homeless guy down the street. I almost lose my shit each time I realize that each of our wonderfully unique lives can all be summed up in a single mundane sentence: we create in our mind a world that gives our species enough information to navigate where to find shelter and food and how to avoid danger, so we can survive long enough to mate and pass on our genes. Anyway, our species may be able to eradicate polio and send astronauts to the moon, which sounds like amazing progress, but it simply means we are becoming better masters of our own interface, like the 12-year-old girl who reaches the highest level in her favorite video game.
I study the garbage can and understand that it looks and smells and probably feels so repulsive because it is filled with germs that can make me very sick. My brain and eyes and nose and fingers all want to keep me safe. But they also want to keep me from discovering and messing with a deeper truth, because some of the best scientists agree there is something profound hiding next to the electrons and magnetic fields and all that stuff that we choose not to see.
And what is it? And is it connected to the mysterious dark energy that scientists say is the dominant type of matter in our universe? And is it awesome? I feel I am on the verge of figuring this out, this one answer that would allow my very existence to suck far less and maybe even become bearable.
The bus stop has no bench or shelter, and I sit on the ground meditation-style, avoiding most of the spit. I stare down and think, like really think. Nothing happens other than my bus passing by. I don’t know how many other buses pass or how many long breaths I exhale in fear and frustration or how many times I rock back and forth or how many strange looks I get or how many times I pray for Mom or Dad to show up and take me home before I feel a burst of anger, and like it, and I give up thinking and start feeling. Which is better, even if much of what I feel is a dull pain rising through the concrete and into me. My legs are crossed, and near the spot where my open-toe shoes come together, I notice a clump of dandelions growing from a dirty sidewalk crack. There are three yellow flowers that look like tiny umbrellas and a third that has gone to seed, its white globe joyfully perched atop an erect stem, eagerly sharing itself with the world. People call dandelions a weed, douse them in poison, rip their heads off, try anything to destroy this unexpected beauty they can’t control. These dandelions, I sense, have deep roots and screw-you grins and kind souls. Tough little motherfuckers.
I stare at them as the sun drops low, my fingers and eyes caressing their soft flowers, whose colors grow brighter in the twilight. It’s the strangest thing; it feels like they’re staring back at this girl who is the pesky dandelion of the human world, often judged for taking root where she shouldn’t, frequently trampled on by careless others, usually never seen for what she is. I smile at this thought, and then something even stranger happens. The dandelions start moving, their straight stems swaying like tall trees in a storm. Only there is no storm. Just a late-day calm, a sticky heat crying for any breeze. I cup my hand around the dandelions, the way you would protect a match from the wind. Again, there is no wind. And they keep moving, locking, and popping like hip-hop stars doing a happy dance they surely want me to notice, parachute-like seeds floating up and catching in my hair, on my eyelids.
I watch until my new friends are spent, until the three flowers and the once-seedy globe pull close for the long night ahead. I stretch my back and close my eyes and don’t so much think about what I witnessed as let it wash over me. I begin sensing a larger and gently loving natural world that is aware of my presence. That is making me aware of its presence. It comes to me fast, a sudden rainstorm, and I cry out because it’s too much, then it slows, a warming sun on a winter day. I want to analyze it with my conscious mind, with my wildly spinning three-pound brain, though I understand this is not the way. So I take it in like you would a hard kiss or comforting embrace.
At first, it communicates only in feelings, welcoming and loving, until a voice heavy with the experience of infinite lifetimes abruptly puts these feelings into words. It whispers, Your gracious soul needs to understand that humanity is a blight and family is a blight. Unless you free yourself.
Then it says, It’s not safe sitting here so long after sunset. You need to get up and go home.
I open my eyes to see that darkness has fallen like a huge eyelid dropping over the earth. The busy street has gone ghostly quiet except for the occasional passing car or groups of noisy people lurching home from a bar. No one has checked to see if I am okay, and no one will. I am on my own, except I am not, because I have my new connection with the natural world, this universal consciousness older than the time that I have been allowed to join.
I nearly crap myself when I look at my phone and see it’s past 11, which means my bus is no longer running, and, worse, I have been gone almost seven hours without getting a single call or text from anyone. As I stand and start the long walk home through the human-created outer realm of my city, I sense the collective inner world opening wide for me with more hard-won knowledge. Take the busier street a block up, it’s safer. You need to stop to eat and pee at the all-night McDonald’s on the right. Don’t make eye contact with that shirtless man standing on the corner. Don’t let your beautiful, beautiful heart grow heavy.
As I walk, I whisper words of encouragement to myself, not caring if I look crazy to the few people I pass, because, who knows, they may not even see a teenage girl reluctantly returning to a home where addiction has become a number one priority, where she’s less like a daughter and more like a friend who comes and goes on her own. By the time I reach home and climb the stairs to our apartment, where music blares, I feel like I have tapped a source of support and knowledge that will allow me to exert some control over my life. More than that, I have become part of a far truer world that most people have been conditioned not to see.
I go inside and stand in the middle of a whacked-out Friday night gathering that smells like cheap wine and puke. Everyone, especially Mom and Dad, is too wasted to notice me; it’s like I am not really there, which of course is possible. Mom’s ginger-haired friend Zoey finally sees me and pulls me against her pregnant belly and starts dancing, if her crashing around the room in bare feet can really be called that.
I should be mad at my parents, but I am not. Because I do see that, like most other people, they are a weight on everything good and authentic in this world. More so because I love them, because I am bound to them like a leaky boat I have paddled deep into the Everglades.
So when super-blitzed Mom finally lays her bloodshot eyes on me and rips me from Zoey’s arms and whispers that she loves her girl and spins me around like we are sharing some precious mother-daughter time and not just stumbling through another messed-up night of epic hurt, I don’t even bother telling her I no longer want or need her.