“Compassion Fatigue” Excerpt— by Greg Brian (Published January, 2022)

(A new micro-fiction piece is forthcoming on Amazon, but not until January. In the meantime, give a read to the opening few pages to set up this tale. It’s loosely based on a real incident.)

The ad for “Marilyn Benson L.M.H.C.” immediately caught my eye in my morning newspaper. She was offering mental health counseling to anyone, yet practicing without face to face contact. It allowed her to hide her identity in a shadow, but still dispense real therapy advice to her clients.

I conceptualized this as a form of confession booth, something never before tried in the field of therapy. It was an attractive idea from someone like me who’d been to numerous therapists, yet always froze when having to talk in the open to someone about my personal problems. 

My newest particular issue was one pulverizing my soul. It involved the search for a relative of my former nanny, Mrs. Honeycutt, who cared for me from infancy to the age of four.

It was my nanny’s niece who I remember visiting and becoming close to. She seemed to understand my infantile problems and bonded well enough where she became almost like a close blood relative. After a while, she nearly usurped the duties of my nanny, albeit only for a couple of years. 

Her name was Theresa, and she always remained relatively vivid in my subconscious, despite losing touch after she moved away to another state. It’s been over 35 years with never any attempt at recontact. Then I took a recent whim in attempting to reach out by using a basic online people search.

What I found was an initial dead-end of names that involved having to dig deeper to find her married surname. 

It was enough information to track down what appeared to be a bare bones social media account where I attempted to reconnect. My initial internal message to her sat idle for two weeks, waiting with the assumption she’d have the same quality of past memory I have.

After the third week, I was hit with a devastating reality: I was blocked by her because she seemed to have no idea who I was. No response was ever going to happen only because she clearly had no knowledge of who I was as an adult.

This flung me into a private, unwavering, cavernous depression. While I’d managed to reconnect with other old friends in my life after 20 or more years of no communication, this one turned out different.

It made me wonder what I might have said wrong in my initial message and if it seemed overly intrusive. I also brought a weighted pall on myself for seemingly waiting decades to reconnect with important people in my life.

This led me into an inexorable identity crisis that had me looking for therapists to work out whether it was me…or the world at large. 

“Marilyn Benson’s” new therapeutical methods seemed just what I needed after wanting something different from the usual. Experimenting with a new form of therapy was theoretically appealing to cleanse my mind and find new ways to look at what my life really is.

She’d have to help me examine how I communicate and whether words I created were consistently misconstrued. Going in to her office with that frame of reference was still a risk, not knowing if I’d run into yet another therapist who acted as personal dictator in telling me how to overhaul my life.

When I arrived to Benson’s office two weeks later on a Friday morning, I noticed she designed her property so all clients could enter from the back area. I found this attractive at first sight considering the front façade was a busy part of the city where everyone in town could see me go in.

The trip here was not short either. It required traveling to another state to partake in her therapy experiment.  

I booked a nearby hotel for one week with the assumption I could get helped within a short time. That was also to give more flexibility in case Benson’s therapy experiment was just a little too off the wall or too much to tolerate.

Along with the entrance in the back, the building itself was basically an unmarked structure. While I’d heard that some therapists used less obvious buildings or apartments to hold their therapy sessions, this one was almost like a ghost brownstone.

It appeared she’d rented out the entire building as her work and home base, something very noticeable when going in the back entrance. The first thing I could see was she was very careful not to reveal anything about the confines of her living spaces. Partitions were put up to hide personal photographs, furniture, or any sign of the living room.

Signs with arrows pointed how to get to her office. Before reaching that door, she had a masculine-looking woman secretary stationed at a mahogany desk. I took that as the probable reality the secretary knew a million martial arts moves to protect this area if someone tried to do anything violent.

I didn’t make any attempt to say I thought it was Benson’s bodyguard, though I politely asked if she was “Mrs. Benson’s personal assistant.” 

She uttered in the affirmative, though she didn’t know I arrived using an alias, just in case this was a sick therapeutical joke that could drag my real name into dirt.

At least I knew they hadn’t vetted me beforehand based on the secretary uttering my name three times to Benson on the phone before going in. Benson had finally found my faux name on her schedule, a calendar apparently very full.

“You can go in. But watch your step. It’s darker than the typical therapist office,” the assistant said in a deep timbre.

I walked up to the door, stopped a second to think it over, then opened the door slower than I ever had any other.

The door had a slight creak as it opened, making it feel like entering a locally-produced haunted house for Halloween. All I could see was a dark void for a minute, then my eyes adjusted enough to see this was an attractive office. 

Along the side of the walls were modern wooden cabinets with what looked like lacquerware vases and bowls. On another nearby cabinet, I spied what appeared to be Ikebana flower arrangements. 

An ambiance like this made me contemplate Benson was an internationally cultured therapist, a good sign she wasn’t the biggest professional joke on the planet.

It felt like walking up to see the Wizard of Oz, an eerie parallel when Benson called out from behind a dark partition without any pyromania. 

“Come in! You know my rules. Feel free to relax on my chaise lounge, but use your time wisely. I’m here to help you get through any life conflict,” she said in what sounded like a put-on performance art cadence.

I could see the outline of Benson, though she was sitting in a dark void with curtains drawn and no artificial lighting around. It was clear she was a real woman based on her shape, even if I could only see the top part of her body. 

“Hi. I’m…just glad you’re seemingly real,” I blurted while not hesitating to settle into her chaise. It was the most comfortable lounge chair I’d ever sunk into in a therapist’s office. I took this as a deliberate way to make her clients overly comfortable. 

“I see your name is Charlie Daley. That doesn’t sound like a real name to me. Do you want to come clean before we delve into your troubles?” Benson said without a beat.

All I could do was stare into the dark void for a few seconds to process what she just said. She’d apparently seen far too much bullshit in her career and wasn’t about to let anyone make a mockery of her unusual practice.

“Ok, it’s not”, I uttered. “Can we just go ahead with the conceit for a while to give me a feel for what you can offer me?”

“We’ll see whether that really brings your truth out,” Benson replied. 

Her vocal timbre almost snapped me out of any pretense. It seemed her voice was locked into my brain like a form of ASMR, giving me the impulse that I had to cooperate. 

Still, I had to assure her my problem was real and I was a real person rather than a performance artist.

________

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