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The Experience of a Lifetime

By Lisa Adams You don’t chew the cud, you vomit the vitriol,
Avoid all the vacuous, eschew the inane.
You despise any vagrants, abhor the infirmities,
Covert the clever and invest in distain.
Why bother with small talk or dull talk or chattering?
You detest the dull-witted and ally with arcane.
If only within your quest for the meaning,
You had given more time to engage with your brain.

Don’t wonder or ponder on life’s cruel anomalies,
Don’t suffer in silence and hatred and pain.
Be brave for once.

Reading Ben’s poem, she instinctively thought ‘you don’t have to feel that way’. Maureen recalled their latest conversation, or ‘encounter’, as Ben had started to refer to them. He sometimes seemed to have the ability to extract years of hard won experience with the clinical ease of a practised surgeon, all the more extraordinary for his tender years. When Maureen asked Ben what was most important to him at this precise moment in time, Ben had replied ‘answering your questions’. She drifted back to that time in her office.

“Why is that, Ben?”
“You’re trying to help me and if I can be of assistance, then its only sensible to comply. At this moment, this is the most important thing.”
Maureen had never asked such a question in a session before, and knew immediately how unprofessional it was. But at least it gave her a foothold in the ascent, and allowed her to ask, “How can I help you, Ben?”
Leaving no gap for thought (he never did) he replied, “How would I know?”

Several minutes had passed in discomforting reverie.

*


One year ago Ben’s parents had sat opposite her, intensely quiet and deeply deferential. While presenting the issues afflicting their thirteen year old son, their anguish became tangible, as if a fourth creature was materialising in the room, a manifestation of guilt, fear and regret, a culpability monster.

Gently peeling back the layers of parental angst was a challenge well within her professional ability, but meeting with Ben was a wholly different experience. Rather than conversing with Ben’s parents, it became apparent she had simply interviewed his keepers, in a zoo of Ben’s making.

“Ben, why do you think you’re here?”
“Do you mean that physically or metaphysically, Mrs Stanton?”

*

Maureen was fully aware that Ben had not volunteered for counselling, so she wasn’t expecting him to be asking questions or initiating discussions, as was more usually the case with her patients. But it was a shock to find it so hard to elicit anything from this boy. She once had the uneasy feeling that Ben was using the sessions to help her treat his parents.

“Last week we started to discuss value, and what makes people feel valued. Do you think people need to be valued, Ben?”
“I believe value to be notional. Perhaps we could agree on a scale. I could invent a Downing Scale of Value and we could use it to place people on a continuum.”
At last, a chink, a comment you might expect a precocious child to make.
“Do you like inventing things, Ben?”
“Do you have a sense of humour, Mrs Stanton?”
Ah, back to base camp.

*

Maureen had spoken to Ben’s parents as a couple, and then individually. “Mrs Downing, I feel I now have a perspective on your concerns about Ben, but could you try to summarise for me how you personally perceive the problem?”
“I could try to explain my feelings, but it might be easier to let you read this. Ben wrote it about six months ago. I found it in his room. I was cleaning, you understand, not searching. I think he meant me to find it. I think he’s deliberately summarised my feelings for me, in the event of discussions with a professional such as yourself, to save any fumbling uncertainty.”
“That’s an interesting comment, Mrs Downing, and I must say a little surprising.” Maureen took the offered sheet and read the poem.

“You’re convinced this is Ben’s work, it’s not plagiarised?”
“I’m sure, my husband isn’t. I’ve found other work in a similar vein, but you will need to make up your own mind when you meet him.”
“Mrs Downing, I believe I can help Ben, but at some point I may need to recommend medication. How do you feel about that?”
“Whatever it takes, Mrs Stanton, I so want my boy back.”
Maureen was shocked at her own reaction to Mrs Downing’s desperation. She held on to her chair to avoid rushing over and embracing Felicity Downing, comforting her and telling her everything would be alright. That night, Maureen dreamt exactly that scene.

*

“What does your father do, Ben?”
“You mean vocationally? He’s a landscape architect.”
“Do you have any idea what you might want to do.”
“I’d like to be a vet.”
“Oh, you like animals?”
“Animals? No.”

*

At various times Maureen encouraged Ben to bring in samples of his poetry. She expected his writing to be clever and maybe even insightful, but immature. At least she was right on two counts, and like Mrs Downing, she was sure it was Ben’s work.

Towards the end, Maureen began to feel more and more uneasy. She didn’t want to label Ben, but categorising was sometimes a necessary duty, and a form of personality disorder was the preferred dish on this particular menu. The word psychopath glided menacingly just beneath the surface. As a psychiatrist she knew of a variety of tests she could perform, but somehow they all seemed inappropriate in this case. Similarly, medication seemed to have no specific target. Ben never suggested he was particularly unhappy. He agreed that his parents were, but did not admit to deliberately causing their melancholy, conceding only that he may be the unwitting origin.

“Why do you think you might be making your parents unhappy, Ben?”
“I strongly suspect I’m not the child they were expecting, and in some sense I’ve let them down.”
“Do you want to change?”
“Into what, Mrs Stanton?”
“I mean, if you had the chance, would you like to be the child they were expecting?” Maureen was surprised at herself for asking this.
“How can I say? I don’t know that person. Certainly I would like my parents to be happy, but how much should I be prepared to pay for that?”
“I’m sorry, Ben, I shouldn’t have asked that.”
“I know.”

*

What if I hide?
Will they fish for me?
Will they trawl the depths of me
Until they land their catch?
Will they throw me back?

*

“Do you feel alone, Ben?”
“Never, Mrs Stanton.”

*

“Do you have any hero’s, Ben, people you really look up to?”
“Yes.”
“Could you give me a couple of examples?”
“I don’t know their names.”
“What do you know about them?”
“They live off their wits in the most terrible circumstances.”
“Like the street children of Bombay or Sao Paolo?”
“Worse.”
“Worse? Who?”
“Old people.”

*

“Mr and Mrs Downing, please, come in, take a seat.”
Maureen still didn’t really know how she was going to explain her thoughts.
“I’m tempted to believe Ben has a developing personality disorder. If I’m correct we can work on this through cognitive therapy and perhaps medication.”
“Why do you say ‘tempted’, Mrs Stanton?”
“Well, I’m unsure, Felicity. A typical case will involve an underlying belief pattern which would fuel a fantasy and result in the observed behaviour.”
Mr Downing asked, “You think Ben is developing the belief that he can psychoanalyse people and that he should then ‘treat’ them in some way? His behaviour is a manifestation of this desire to administer treatment?”
“Well almost, Mr Downing. I think that would be a reasonable interpretation if it wasn’t for the one extra element here.”
“Which is?”
Maureen sighed deeply. “I have an idea. Please try to remain open-minded, its just an idea.” She paused. “I’m not convinced his fantasy really is a fantasy. I think he may be capable of analysing people to such an extent that he really can detect issues and work out ways to address them. Perhaps the real problem is that we don’t expect or want that behaviour pattern from a teenager.” There, I’ve voiced it, she thought.
“Are you suggesting he has some sort of natural talent for psychoanalysis?”
“Possibly. A genius for it perhaps, and he doesn’t know how to turn it on or off.”

As Ben’s parents left, Maureen wondered how much they had taken in, and whether they even thought she was delusional herself. They certainly agreed that the boy was very able, but they questioned where he would have gained the experience to manipulate adults in that way. A fair point. She was even prepared to admit the possibility that her hypothesis was a way of avoiding the uncomfortable thought that Ben was simply too bright for her to really understand.

How to proceed? The only way to prove or disprove a hypothesis is through experiment. She couldn’t immediately think of an obvious, foolproof and safe experiment that could be conducted, and even worse, if she was right, what would happen next? Was she unleashing a monster, caging a beast, or treating a child?

*

Ben arrived on time, as usual. Unknown to Maureen, this was to be their final meeting.
“Ben, come in, close the door please.”
Ben sat down. “Mrs Stanton, can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, what is it?”
“Do you think I have a personality disorder, that a delusional fantasy is fuelling my behaviour?”
Unlike Ben, Maureen needed to pause before answering.
“Well that’s interesting, Ben. Why do you think I believe that?”
“Because your behaviour in these sessions suggests it.”
“I’ll be honest, Ben, I’m not sure. You are an extremely able young man, so I can’t easily compare your behaviour to someone more ‘typical’. We all live a fantasy life to some extent, but that’s OK if it doesn’t effect other people detrimentally. You do seem to have an extraordinary talent, if I can call it that. Perhaps that’s all there is to it.”
“Can we play a game, Mrs Stanton?”
“Explain it to me, Ben.”
“I want you to think of something, and I’ll tell you what it is.”
“Ben, how can this be helpful?”
“You’ll see. Please.”
Despite her better judgement, Maureen played along. She thought of her grandmother’s grand piano, from childhood, shining black, her distorted reflection returning from within it’s depths. She nodded to Ben, who was looking at her intently.
“You’re thinking of a beach.”
“No, Ben, a piano”. She paused, then nodded again. This time, she saw an apple.
“A pair of shoes.”
“No Ben, an apple. One more?”
“An aeroplane,” said Ben.
“No”.
“You see, I’m not delusional. I don’t really think I can read minds, or understand the nature of every person I meet.”

Realisations don’t dawn, they snap into sharp relief as a whiplash. Maureen rose from the chair. “My God, you knew about my experiment, you saw it coming. I don’t think you’re delusional either.”

He’s a freak, a monster in a child’s body. She became rigid with fear, all the more terrifying for not understanding exactly why she feared him.
“Its alright, Mrs Stanton, I’ll go shortly. No need to fear me.”

Then it happened. Ben looked within her. How she had underestimated just what he was. Pitched deep in the mine of her mind a voice was calling, a projection of all she ever was. It spoke of love and loss, of school, and friendships and journeys, of regret and high praise. It was a dam burst of data, a crashing wave encoding all before it and it would not be stopped. He took it all from her, except of course, her final understanding, which naturally he knew well enough. A lifetime had passed. She slumped exhausted in the chair, then leaned forward, sobbing with disbelief and relief. When she recovered, he was gone.

*

From time to time thoughts of Ben intruded on her daily routine. There were times when she believed she might understand. Was his game a method for tuning his mind to your psyche? She wondered what other techniques he might use.

She received one letter.

Congratulations, Maureen, you had the conviction to believe, I know that for certain now. Sometimes I fear too, take comfort in that. Remember who you are and why, and revel in your experiences, just as I do.

And there came in that time a great and powerful being,
Whose kingdom lay within, and whose gift was to remain un-given.
You will remember him, but not as he remembers you.
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Upload Date: 31/12/1969

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