By Leighton Schreyer (He/Him)
She drew in a breath and let it settle, holding the air and, by extension, herself in a kind of limbo as she contemplated how to respond.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” she admitted, letting out a sigh of resignation.
Someone else might have baulked at a therapist brazen enough to admit that she didn’t know how to respond when you’d just poured your heart out, aired all your grievances, surrendered your soul, admitted defeat; a therapist who didn’t have all the answers. But I appreciated that about Ashley—her humanity. She didn’t pretend to hold a crystal ball, parrot pity scripts, or possess an infuriatingly steadfast aura of serenity, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to coddle you after a fall. Her wisdom wasn’t delivered as a neatly wrapped gift with a bow tied on top, just for good measure; something to be received gratefully, opened carefully. More often than not, it was delivered like a slap in the face: shockingly, forcefully, jolting your entire body into being. I needed that.
Ashley was the kind of therapist who listened to all my tired excuses for why I didn’t make this change or achieve that goal, nodded along while I convinced myself I’d do it tomorrow—yes, definitely tomorrow—and, by admitting she didn’t know what to say, somehow say it all: I wasn’t fooling anyone.
Looping a long, slender arm up and around her face shield, Ashley took off her glasses, which usually trapped her face in a kind of playful malevolence, a mischievousness that simultaneously welcomed and warned—their chic, upswept edges paralleling the natural angle of her high cheekbones and strong jawline, but which had become more of a cripple than a crutch as her warm breath blanketed the cool glass in a blinding layer of fog.
“I really don’t know what to tell you,” she repeated. “You know just as well as I do that, you’re making excuses. Procrastinating. You’re treading water, finding solace in the fact that you’re in the water—you’re coming to therapy, after all—but you’re refusing to swim. To actually do. the. work.” Ashley pounded her fist against the table to punctuate these last words, as if its enlistment would help get her point across.
I nodded sheepishly, embarrassed that I’d been caught red-handed and, even more so, that I’d been pleading innocent, denying the truth, believing there wouldn’t be enough evidence to prove my guilt.
“What’s holding you back, Leighton?” The heated passion fueling Ashley’s voice had faded into a warm concern. “What are you so afraid of?”
“It’s just…” I paused, unsure of how to explain the despair; how to make sense of the fear that swallowed my very existence, the fear that bullied me into believing I was not enough—would never be enough, the fear that taunted and teased me, reminding me of all the times I tried and failed to get better. “I guess I don’t think it’s possible to get better,” I said before quickly clarifying, “And I mean really get better, like free of the eating disorder or whatever they say.”
It was what all the treatment centers advertised, a chance to break free from the eating disorder’s authoritarian regime; no scars to mark your years of confinement, no recollections of the corrupt dictator who stole your very self. Freedom. Absolute freedom. If you asked me, it was all just PR bullshit.
“I mean, look at me!” I exclaimed. “It’s been years and, sure, I’m doing fine.” I held up my hands, ready to count off the points that proved my claim—the things I told myself every day when I faltered, unsure if I could go on; the things I told my mom when she called to ask how I was doing, the angst of losing her child still dancing in the shadows of her voice. I practically laid out my entire CV for Ashley before reeling in my point. “No one would know I have an eating disorder by looking at me. Most people don’t. Most people envy my life. They tell me how lucky I am, how smart, how strong, how successful, and on and on and on, swooning over my future’s potential,” I scoffed. “Objectively speaking, I'm recovered, right?”
Ashley grimaced and shook her head “no”. I knew my reasoning was flawed—it was the internal, not external world that mattered—but I wasn’t asking for an answer. I was trying to make a point.
“I’m not recovered!” I cried, giving credence to Ashley’s objection. “My days are just carefully choreographed routines. Performances, really. And I’m exhausted.” I threw my hands up in exasperation. “I just don’t think it’s possible.”
Ashley smirked and shook her head again. “Not with that attitude it’s not,” she fired back. We looked at each other, momentarily baffled—her by having said aloud what she’d only intended to think, me by the sting of truth radiating from her slap—before breaking into laughter.
“I’m sorry, that just slipped out,” Ashley apologized. “My mom used to say that to me, and I could just hear her voice in my head, ‘Not with that attitude you won’t’,” She imitated her mother using the high, nasally tone teenagers use with each other to melodramatically rehash how their parents’ issued a cruel curfew or unfairly dismissed their outlandish demands. Ashley went on, “I always hated it when she said that. It seems insensitive and harsh at first, but she kinda has a point.”
“I know, I know,” I waved Ashley off.
“Look, I get it. You’ve been at it for years. You’re frustrated. You’re exhausted. This illness has consumed most of your life. But you’re frustrated because you’ve been treading water, convinced that you’re swimming.” She placed her hands on the table, palms up. A peace offering. “It’s easier for you to think that it’s not possible to move forward or make progress—to recover—than it is to admit that you’re not doing your part. If that were the case, you’d have to make changes, take risks, step into uncertainty.” Ashley sighed, letting the weight of her words settle before starting again, more gently this time. Her voice was soft, her gaze firm.
“You can sit there and pity yourself,” she jutted her chin towards me to suggest that that’s exactly what I’d been doing, “or you can do something about it.”
“I am!” I countered.
Ashley raised her eyebrows, unimpressed. My answer was cold. Very cold.
“Okay, maybe I’m not,” I conceded. Warmer. “But I’m trying.” Hot.
“That’s the problem!” Ashley exclaimed, practically jumping out of her chair.
“That I’m trying?”
“Yes, that you’re trying.” For her, it was as clear as one plus one equals two. Crystal clear, so to speak. Not for me. She’d lost me somewhere in the equation.
“You—” Ashley snatched her pen from the table and pointed it at me so there was no mistaking who she was talking to. “—are trying,” she drew out the word, holding the ei of the “y” like an obnoxious driver held a hand on their horn. “By trying, you’re giving yourself a way out. You want to recover; I know you do. You just don’t want to walk the path that’ll get you there because it’s hard. It’s dark. It’s lonely. You might get lost and, from here, you can’t see the other side.”
Everything she’d said was true, but I still couldn’t see where Ashley was going with this.
“You’re trying to get to the end of the path without walking it. Don’t get me wrong, you might take a couple of steps here and there, but you always turn around before venturing too deep, telling yourself that you tried. But did you? Did you really try? Or are you just nursing the guilt? Concocting an alibi?”
“Well…” I hesitated. I knew she was right, but I wasn’t ready to admit it. Not yet. I silently pleaded for her to carry on and she did, bringing her barrelling train to a screeching halt.
“You ‘trying’ is nothing but a way for you to feel better about not doing what you know you should—,” she stopped, shook her head, then corrected herself. “No, what you need to be doing.”
We sat in the tender silence for a while, thinking, waiting.
If we’d been in her office sitting across from each other in padded armchairs, talking in hushed voices with nothing but a coffee table separating us—the small room made smaller by overflowing bookshelves and a cluttered desk that called attention to the scarcity of space—then maybe the conversation wouldn’t have seemed as confrontational. But we weren’t in her office. We were in a too big, too bright room that had been refashioned as an office when the pandemic began to accommodate physical distancing measures. We sat on either end of an eight-foot-long table like two heads of a house, nearly shouting at each other to make up for the masks that muffled our voices and the ventilation system, which no longer hummed to life sporadically, but whirred incessantly.
The tension was palpable.
I busied myself tugging at the frays of my ripped jeans, unabated by the promise of future regret.
“What are you thinking?” Ashley asked after a few minutes, trying to snap me out of the trance I’d entered. I kept my gaze fixed on the cotton threads strung across my knee and systematically pulled on one thread after another after another, as if testing their resilience. Ashley was used to this, the way I shut down when I got overwhelmed. I’d disconnect myself from the outside world and take my mind on hiatus, leaving my body behind as a mere semblance of presence.
When I didn’t respond, Ashley—half sitting, half standing—splayed her body across the table to reach for the tube of Lysol wipes standing at its center. With her outstretched arms and desperately extended fingers, she almost looked like a baseball player who’d just launched their body into a headlong dive to secure home base and she cheered with as much enthusiasm when she finally managed to coax the container into reach. Satisfied, Ashley tore off a wipe, sunk back in her chair, and quickly cleaned her pen before setting it on the table where she pedalled it back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Levelling her gaze with the table, Ashley took aim, then curled the pen across the long, wooden surface toward me, her target. It was an impressive feat: the pen slid to a stop mere inches away from the table’s edge.
Ashley found my eyes and offered a soft smile, “Try picking up the pen.”
“What do you mean?” I asked skeptically.
She shrugged, “Just try.”
I narrowed my eyes. Deep wrinkles of thought rippled across my forehead as I knit my brows together in concentration. If Ashley had wanted me to pick up the pen, she would have told me to pick it up. How could I try picking up the pen? Should I reach for it but not lift it? Lift it but let it drop? Was this a trick?
“I’m not trying to trick you, Leighton.” Ashley laughed, astutely aware of my tendency to overthink things. “Just try picking up the pen.”
I looked at her warily, still unconvinced, but obedient, nevertheless. I picked up the pen.
Almost instantaneously, Ashley blurted, “See?”
“Uhhhh…,” I looked from the pen in my hand to Ashley and back to the pen, searching (to no avail) for an answer in the space between us. She’d lost me again.
“What did you just do?” she asked.
“I picked up the pen?” It was less of a statement than a question.
“Exactly!” Ashley beamed at me with motherly pride, but I still didn’t get it.
Undeterred by the tone of annoyance that had crept into my voice, Ashley began explaining, “I asked you to try picking up the pen, yes?”
Yes, yes, I nodded and waved her onward.
“I asked you to try picking up the pen and you picked it up.” Ashley leaned back in her chair with the confidence of a lawyer defending a case she’d already won. “You didn’t try picking up the pen because there’s no such thing as trying. Here’s a situation where you have the knowledge, the resources, the abilities, and, perhaps most importantly, the confidence needed to complete a task. Picking up the pen is not about trying. It’s about deciding to pick it up. That’s the first step—the truly important one. Now do you see where I’m going with this?”
“I think so.”
“You know what you have to do to recover, or at least work towards recovery. You have the resources and support systems to help you do those things. And, Leighton, if I know anything, it’s that you have the ability. When you want to do something, you find a way to do it.”
She was right. If you asked anyone to describe me in one word, they’d almost certainly say determined. That is, unless you asked my mom when I was three and insisting on getting myself dressed, or five and staging a protest at the dinner table about my right to not eat mushrooms, or seven and dead set on learning to snowboard despite my family’s tradition of skiing. At those times, my mom would’ve probably said stubborn. Stubbornness, however, matured into determination.
“You, my friend,” Ashley said, bringing her point to a close, “need to take the first step.” She looked at me intently, waiting for me to say something, anything, but the lump in my throat held my voice hostage. Instead, I looked at Ashley, really looked at her, for the first time that session. A spark of life flickered behind my tear-laden eyes and a glimmer of hope had begun to penetrate the shadows of despair. Ashley saw it then, the moment I made the decision—took the first step. She gave a humble nod of approval, the corners of her lips twitching into a faithful smile and, again, without saying a word, she somehow managed to say it all: this was only the first step of what would be a long, laborious but undoubtedly worthwhile journey; a journey I wouldn’t have to walk alone.
Leighton Schreyer is an emerging writer and lifelong learner, who believes stories can change the world by breaking boundaries, bridging gaps, and inspiring minds. Queer, crazy, broken, and beautiful, Leighton uses his writing to challenge the status quo while empowering others to do the same.