The Other Eye by Ana Matias
Every other day, my therapist gathers fallen branches from outside her office. She arranges them haphazardly, like a reminder, placing them in a glass vase next to the open tissue box. It’s a small habit I find endearing. Once, I asked why there were never flowers in her arrangements. Their lives were already brief enough, was my therapist’s reply.
Today, I tell her about last night’s vivid dream. One she told me to expect, given the course of treatment. This type of psychotherapy (called EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is known to accelerate the healing of emotional pain and easing the mind’s access to traumatic memories. During our sessions, my therapist asks me to focus on a recollection, or a particular nightmare. She then places a set of headphones over my head, telling me to close my eyes and follow the sounds that click in my ears, first the right, then the left, a movement mimicking the restlessness that summons the motion pictures of dreams. This conscious movement of the eyes causes internal associations to arise. Glimpses, physical sensations, a sudden feeling.
In our first session, my therapist asked me to imagine a calm, comforting place. “What kind of place are you picturing?” she asked after a few moments of silence. Nothing came to mind, and I was overcome by an inexplicable sense of failure. Frustrated, I decided to picture a beach, the waves coming and going as the noises clicked in their alternating rhythm. Then, out of that imagined blue, came a sob, followed by another. It took a while to realize that I was crying, a while longer to figure out why. According to my therapist, the clicking sounds persuade the mind to make associations: shards of childhood memories, rushed symbols, the face of someone you hadn’t thought about in years. The treatment would help lift the dust, any uncovered clue offering potential value. The meaning behind these associations are mere suggestions, a distant voice hailing from across the dunes, one we stumble after hoping it will lead us somewhere. Vivid dreams are a common side effect to all this rummaging around. The way I understood it then was that once you convince it to talk, the mind gets a taste for it. Once acquired, it can’t help but want more and more.
My therapist keeps her books on proud display in her office. Some rest under the table, others on the bookcase behind the chaise lounge, its black leather upholstery hinting at her clinical approach. For this reason, my therapist’s interest in my dreams never really surprised me. I suppose the dreams of a repressed person are more interesting to interpret than those of a healthy, well-adjusted one. The more someone is unwilling to see, the more the mind becomes roundabout in its messages. More poetic. I admit that a part of me appreciates being pried open, being considered interesting in some way. Another, however, resents being observed so clinically, a feathery, caged-in sort of feeling.
The dreams my therapist favors are, of course, the ones that most confirm her theories. These dreams typically narrow down to a single scene, an impression. They often begin in the middle, like changing the channel to a movie that is halfway towards the end. One of my therapist’s personal favorites is the dream where I am lying on the grass, enjoying the sunshine. I am wearing a summer dress, one that exposes my bare legs. Sensing something is amiss, I look down, to find them covered in blisters – watery, pulsating, about to burst. The physical sensation is so realistic that my half-awake body moves on its own, frantically removing the bed covers to slide my hands up and down my naked limbs, just to make sure. It takes a while to shake off the burning sensation, even when the skin under my fingers is palpably smooth. “So much repressed anger,” my therapist whispered after I was done, leaning forward with interest. She said it under her breath, to no one in particular.
Though my therapist and I share a name, it never feels the same as talking to myself. Her tone is firmer, more motherly, perhaps because some part of me needs it to be. It is with this tone of voice that she informs me that it will take a while to transform the meaning of this pain on an emotional level. Insight, much like hope, can’t be forced. One day, she carries on saying, I will simply realize that I am not as afraid, not as tense, and wonder when exactly that happened and why I hadn’t noticed when it did. My dreaming mind has a lot to contribute to this conversation, though it can only speak in its old, seafoam language, through fear-spells and the odd, misplaced muscle pain.
“You have issues surrounding control,” my therapist remarks after we vivisect a nightmare I had the night before. Her voice, both definitive and kind, goes on to say: “Enjoyment, for you, is always followed by some form of self-punishment,” a concept that is equal parts disheartening and comical. Her words confirm my long-standing suspicion that there is a self-imposed divide between my conscious efforts and the other part, the shadow that keeps hounding and shifting behind me, one that I have been, throughout the years, unknowingly feeding. She, the other eye, the one that remains open through the night, is more than used to winning.
Aside from the childlike greenery-picking, I like my therapist because of how summarily she addresses my issues, an academic approach that is strangely comforting. These detached explanations seem to settle something in me. My therapist also isn’t thrown by any of the palm-sized horrors I show her, giving the impression that she has seen much worse. I tell her of the horrible, jump-start thoughts, of the nightmares. Of the man on the pier, feeding an oil-slick mass of sea creatures from a bucket – inside, a pile of baby corpses, their sickly skin iridescent in the dark. I tell her of the screaming woman lying on her back, of the man pinning her down, each thrust of his ramming her head into a meat grinder. I tell her of the times I wake up paralyzed and find a shadow next to me in bed, faceless in the room’s clinging darkness. I seem to know, somehow, with a clear, piercing sort of certainty, that this person-shaped void is smiling at me.
“Tell me about the last time you were angry,” my therapist then asks, dismissing these dreamscapes. I am ashamed to admit that the last time it happened, I was thirteen. For a week or so, the boys in my class had pestered me relentlessly, backing me into corners, pulling at my sleeves, at the hem of my skirt, their laughter emboldened by my rule abiding, nervous temperament. Then, during art class, one of them was dragging his sweaty, heavy palm through my hair, forcing my head back with each downward stroke. He kept cooing, this careless, pig-faced boy, calling me a good little puppy, a nice, quiet little girl. I was indeed quiet, obediently working on the assignment with my head down, the teacher’s attention held elsewhere, or so it seemed.
I had my first glimpse of her as I was cutting paper mâché flowers. “Keep doing that and you’ll regret it,” is what I heard myself say. My right hand was trimming a blue petal, the left holding it up and keeping it still. There was a brief pause, followed by disbelieving laughter. The boy’s hand became heavier, his needling voice dripping with newfound power. I remember inhaling, exhaling. Then, I saw her stand, saw her turn the scissors in her grip so that the blade faced backwards. Then, in a single, sweeping movement, I saw her strike behind her without even looking, burying the blade on the wall next to his shoulder. Stunned into silence, the other boys stared, their wide eyes moving from my classmate to her, and back. Moments later, she pulled the scissors out of the punctured plaster and pointed them at the boy’s slack-jawed, pudgy little face. “Next time, I won’t miss,” she said over the blade, looking him dead in the eye. Then, she sat down and went back to her paper flower arrangement, demurely smoothing out the petals’ edges.
For weeks, I was horrified that that was all it took to set me off. Since then, I lived with the certainty that there was a part of me I was unable to control, a part that could take over if I became too lenient, too overcome. Sometimes, I could almost feel her hand curling next to my ear. These were distinct, blunt thoughts that I knew were mine but that felt, somehow, apart from me. They were piercing, ember-like, telling me exactly what to say to inflict the most possible pain, proving I was always a moment away from destroying every good relationship in my life. “Try as I might, I can’t be Dr. Jekyll all the time,” is all I have to say about this matter now, addressing and evading it all at once. My therapist’s eyes crinkle with amusement, and a shriveled, starved part of me, feels validated.
“What Dr. Jekyll failed to realize,” she says, “was that hiding his urges and calling them ‘Mr. Hyde’ only made them more violent than they had to be.” A brief pause, just enough for a pin to drop. “That and Victorian society,” I add, regretting it instantly. To my surprise, my therapist laughs, conceding to the humor in my deflection. “That too,” she says, sneaking a glance at her wristwatch. “Besides,” she continues, almost as an afterthought as she reaches for her notebook, “why choose Dr. Jekyll? Sounds boring to me.” It’s my turn to laugh. In a way, our sessions have started to sound like variations on a theme, their repetitiveness a lingering melody that shifts with the leaves in the morning sunlight. “Control is an illusion of power” remains the concise, inescapable truth that slowly seeps into my bones. These sentences, short and memorable, return to me as mantras, lighting up like street lamps in my head as I go about my day. “Guilt is such a useless emotion,” is one. “Pleasure and rest are not things to be earned,” another.
Today, I tell my therapist about a recent change in a recurring dream. In it, I leave home with all my belongings and rush to the airport. The narrative moves within a familiar structure, an anxiety dream where the bad thing never actually happens, but the fear that it will just grows, and grows, like a wave about to crash. Sometimes, I can’t get to the airport on time despite being meticulous, on schedule. Sometimes, I get on the wrong bus, or they ask for documents I didn’t bring with me, or I’m at the wrong side of the building and struggling to find my gate. I never actually miss the flight, just thrash about in my mind’s uneasy waters until I wake up, gasping for air.
For the first time, I dream about the worst possible outcome. When the dream begins, I am sleeping in my car with all my things. To add to the pitiful picture, it’s raining. While dreaming, I distinctly recall finding this image overly dramatic, a little amusing, even. Then, an older woman raps her fingers at my window, trying to get my attention. She sees my predicament and invites me to stay at her house for the night. When I come in, I notice every single room is covered in boxes and shopping bags, blocking all possible entryways, hardly leaving any place for me to lie down. Even so, I accept her hospitality. When morning comes, the older woman and I take the train and she leaves a stop before mine. Wishing me good luck, she insists that I call her if I need a place to stay for a few more days. Touched by her kindness, I thank her, and we say our goodbyes. Then, I notice the man in front of me is staring, having clearly eavesdropped on the conversation. He seems worried on my behalf. I find this stranger’s concern endearing, a vague feeling that wafts from the dream version of me to my own sense of being the one dreaming, my consciousness, my thin, papery sense of lucidity. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asks, glancing at my lap. Only then I notice I’m clutching a bag against my chest, one that is full of containers with food the older woman had given me. I reassure the man that he has nothing to worry about, and I mean it.
As I finish telling her my dream, my therapist smiles. “That’s progress,” she says, sounding proud. She seems to mean it, too. “You think so?” I still ask, needing to hear her say it again. “Tremendous progress,” my therapist replies, not bothering to take notes.
Ana Matias was born in Macau in the early nineties. She writes short stories, poems, and essays. During business hours, she is also a translator and is writing her Ph.D. thesis in comparative literature. She lives in Lisbon, Portugal.