“So, you’re here for anxiety?” Dr. Bartlett crossed his legs, and leaned back in his seat. With his trim sweater, glasses, and hair greying slightly at the temples, Phoebe thought that he looked a bit like if you were casting a psychologist for a movie.
“Yeah,” she responded quietly, glancing around. If the therapist looked the part, the room, not quite as much. This was a home office, a wing off of a larger house, and it felt like one. In addition to the more expected bookshelves, a desk by the window, the leather couch in which she sat, there was a daybed covered with paperwork, some cardboard boxes, a dresser drawer and mirror in the corner. It read a bit more like a guest room.
“Do you want to tell me a bit more about it?” the doctor asked evenly.
“Sure. I mean— it’s just, pretty constant. It’s social anxiety, it’s general anxiety, it’s dating anxiety. You name it. It’s pretty much the background music of my life,” she smiled grimly.
“Have you sought therapy before? Are there causes you’ve uncovered up to this point?”
“Yeah, I’ve tried. I just— ha, even talking about it gets me edgy.”
Phoebe tugged at a strand of her jet black hair, an old habit. It was short- falling barely past her ears. She wore a baggy sweatshirt to hide her ample figure— yet another source of emotional discomfort.
“That’s all right,” reassured Dr. Bartlett. “How about we start with an exercise where you don’t need to talk, and once you’ve relaxed a bit we can continue. Why don’t we try a meditation?”
“I’ve tried like three different meditation apps. It never works for me.”
“Well, in-person guided meditation is often a great place to start if you’re having trouble letting go on your own. An audio file can’t replace another human being. It’s easier when you don’t have to think about what you’re doing if I’m taking you through the experience. Let’s give it a try. Just once, and if you don’t like it we can revisit it.”
Phoebe nodded, and shifted on the couch.
“Good, try closing your eyes, and listening to my voice.”
They started with some of the stuff Phoebe had tried before— breathing, counting, focusing on her body. At first, all she could think of was how she was supposed to be feeling, whether or not it was working. But this guy was good. Soon she realized she was taking in more air with each breath, feeling it fully.
“Your body feels better, doesn’t it, Phoebe?”
“Yes,” replied Phoebe, her voice sounding almost unfamiliar without the note of tension.
“That’s very good. You’re filled with a softness that’s really just getting better the more I talk to you. It’s because you trust me to guide you through your feelings. Being here, in this space, with me, makes you feel safe.”
Phoebe nodded, and moving her head made it feel lighter, somehow.
“Wonderful. Open your eyes, and let’s have a chat.”
The rest of the intake flew by, and Phoebe found herself capable of sharing the way she hadn’t with other therapists, articulating triggers for how she felt, her guesses as to why. At the end of the hour, she felt like a burden had already lessened from her opening herself up.
“Phoebe, I think we can absolutely work together, if you’re willing to trust me,” said Dr. Barnett. “I want to emphasize that this can be your safe place. I will go as far as to guarantee that no matter what the outside world holds, when you’re here, you’ll feel better. How does that sound?”
Phoebe smiled a bit nervously.
“Yeah, I’d like to give it a try.”
“Thank you! Same time next week?”
And so every week Phoebe would come to Dr. Bartlett’s office. They would begin with a short meditation, and he would remind her she was safe there. Like magic, her anxiety dissipated in the first few minutes, and they were able to talk about her life, and her issues. Each day she wasn’t in therapy she looked forward to it, imagined what the doctor would say when she told him about a problem.
Admittedly, her anxiety was still ever-raging. But Phoebe treasured the breaks therapy afforded her, knew if she gave it more time she could feel like that always.
“Welcome, Phoebe,” said Dr. Bartlett, inviting her in. “Have a seat, and let’s get started.”
Phoebe practically leapt onto the couch, and laid down, closing her eyes. She had been slumping over recently, from how relaxed her muscles got, and the doctor had told her it was alright to lie down, even if it did seem like therapy from the movies.
“Very good! You’re coming along so quickly that already you’re relaxed and comfortable. More than you were last week, even.”
Phoebe felt a muscle that she hadn’t even noticed was tense unclench.
“Right now I want you to focus on your breath, and my breath. My breath is speaking, and your breath is listening.”
Phoebe breathed, and Phoebe listened.
“Yes, exactly. This is your safe place, and you feel relaxed here. Whatever needs to happen will just happen without you trying at all.
“After all, last week we spoke about how you often feel anxious when you’re overwhelmed with little details, trying to decide what to do, and when, and how. I just want to remind you that when we’re together, you can trust me to do that work. You don’t ever need to worry about what’s happening because I can take care of things. In fact, even if you weren’t paying attention, or forgot, the work we do together will still stick. You don’t need to hold on to every little detail. Maybe bits of what I’m saying drift away, but you still feel just as good. Better, in fact.”
Phoebe’s head felt slightly fuzzy. Or was she slightly glowing, somehow?
“In fact, I know how important it is to hold onto the details of our sessions, how they ground your week. But after today what we talked about is going to feel a bit hazier. And you’re going to still feel better. In fact, I bet the less you remember of this session, the better sleep you’ll have this week, and I know that that has been a struggle for you.
“Now, I’m going to ask you to open your eyes, and we’ll just chat the rest of the session. But you’re going to keep breathing, so you’re also going to keep listening. OK, Phoebe, open your eyes.”
When Phoebe returned the next week, she was a bit more relaxed before she even came into the office. She had been anxious as ever, but had managed to get more sleep than normal, and that at least had made her life easier. She walked into the room and lay down on the couch.
“Hi,” she smiled.
“Good afternoon, Phoebe, you’re looking well today,” said the doctor. “Get some much needed rest?”
“I did, actually,” said Phoebe, “I mean, a little.”
“That’s wonderful. Before we begin, can I ask you a bit about last week’s session? How was it for you?”
“Hmm. Well, the meditation was really nice, as always. And we talked a bit about exercise and body image stuff, right? Yeah, that was OK.”
“Good. Anything else? Any details that stick out?”
Phoebe searched her memory.
“Not really? I dunno. It was helpful stuff. You know, that as long as I’m exercising it doesn’t matter what my body looks like. Right? Sorry, I’m not sure what you need from me here.”
“No, you’ve done really well,” replied the doctor. “Now, I want you to close your eyes and start breathing, and listening.”
The heaviness flowed into Phoebe’s body.
“Excellent. Exactly. The good feelings just get greater each time. I’m so proud of how good you feel. And if I feel good, it means you’re doing really well.
“And I’m so proud that you’ve learned that you don’t need to remember everything that happens. That when you don’t hold onto everything, there’s less to worry about. In fact, let’s make this an even better trick. Sometimes therapy can bring up a lot of unexpected and sometimes difficult responses. Now, this is your safe place, and it makes you feel good. But if something here ever feels less good, that just makes it easier to forget. You can hold onto and remember your favorite parts of our sessions, the parts that make you feel really good. But anything else, you just don’t need to hold onto when you leave this room.
“Now, that idea is settling into your body with each breath. When it feels like it’s filled up your lungs, spread out across you, you can open your eyes and talk to me.”
After about a minute, Phoebe stirred, and sat upright on the couch. She didn’t speak, but kept breathing deeply and looking at Dr. Bartlett.
“How are you doing there, Phoebe?” the doctor smiled.
“Good,” she sighed.
“Yes, very, very good. I think you’re at a perfect place to talk about our next topic. Phoebe, we’ve discussed your romantic life, and I know you’ve been with men in the past, that you haven’t dated in a while. When was the last time you masturbated?”
Phoebe shook herself a bit at that.
“Now I know it’s a personal question, but masturbation is a huge stress reliever, and completely healthy. So how often do you do it?”
“Um, almost never? It’s been months, I guess? I don’t know. I don’t usually, uh... finish?”
“Oh, Phoebe,” Dr. Bartlett shook his head. “I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed.”
Phoebe’s heart sank. She didn’t want to disappoint her therapist.
“Um, should I... try?”
“Yes, why don’t you try sometime this week and we can follow up about this soon.”
The next week, Cassy felt extra nervous coming to therapy. The feeling eased, as her anxiety always did, as she was buzzed into the office, but she was still dreading telling the doctor that she had failed. Would he bring it up this week? Did she have more time to try?
“Hi,” she said, trying to sound casual as she entered the room.
“Good afternoon, Phoebe. Have a seat— upright please.”
Phoebe sat, a bit stiffly, as she waited.
“Phoebe, are you not as comfortable here as you usually are?”
“What? What do you mean?”
“You just seem a little tense. I’m disappointed. I thought this office was your safe place.”
“It is! What’s wrong?” Phoebe shifted her weight, the all-too-familiar feeling of anxiety beginning to creep in.
“You don’t even realize when your anxiety is about to flare up. It’s a good thing I can catch it. For example, did you know you’re feeling anxious right now?”
“I am?” Phoebe asked, but already she knew he was right. Her guts tied back into knots.
“Yes, I’m afraid so. Your anxiety is so severe that it’s prone to flare up occasionally even in the office. But I promise, by the end of this session, you’ll feel better. Let’s meditate the whole hour today, OK?”
“So, I can lie down?”
“Yes, thank you for asking. Let’s begin.”
When Phoebe went to leave at the end of the hour, she walked out into the foyer and stared at the final door. That step outside was always so difficult, when the tension and anxiety would flood back into her body. She looked back at the room, her eyes filled with tears.
“I’ll see you next week, Phoebe.”
Taking the deepest breath she could, Phoebe left.
The next few weeks were difficult. Phoebe’s anxiety was worse than ever, and they were spending so much time on meditation and relaxation techniques that there was barely time for talk therapy. At home, she kept forgetting that her therapy homework was to masturbate; it just kept eluding her. On the couple of occasions she did try to get herself off, she froze up.
“Another bad day you can’t shake, eh, Phoebe?” Dr. Bartlett asked as soon as she walked into the room.
“Um, yes?” Phoebe waited for the presence of the room, of the doctor, to calm her, but her anxiety remained spiked at his words.
“But don’t you always feel better when you’re in my office?”
“I do,” sighed Phoebe. “It’s just... Can we start meditating? That helps.”
“You’re very reliant on meditation to feel calm and relaxed,” said Dr. Bartlett matter-of-factly.
“Yeah. Couldn’t I learn to meditate on my own? That might help me get through the week. I was too anxious to go to work last Friday. I took a sick day.”
“You are welcome to try,” replied the doctor. “But can you even explain to me what exactly we do during meditation time?”
“I breathe, and I listen. And I let go of what I don’t need.”
“Yes, that’s well and good here, but you’re listening to me, and relying on me. I just worry that on your own you won’t be able to provide the focus to clear your mind and really expel your anxiety like you can here.”
“But I’m only here like, a tiny fraction of my life!” At this, Phoebe started to shake.
“I understand... Well if your anxiety is that severe, why don’t you start coming twice a week? Shall we say, same time on Thursdays?”
Phoebe nodded immediately.
“Good. I feel really good about the progress you’re making. And you can lie down and we can start this session in earnest.”
Relieved, Phoebe went to the couch and assumed the position.
“Thank you. Phoebe, begin your breathing, in and out, as you listen to my voice. Are you listening?”
“Yes,” breathed Phoebe quietly.
“Good. Now, you have been doing a really excellent job of letting go of what you don’t need here, of only remembering what makes you feel good. And I think we can make this work even better.
“Do you know what’s causing all this anxiety? Overthinking. Every little detail, every decision of your life catches in your mind and sends you spiraling. But we can work together to actually tune those out, to have you think a little bit less when you’re here. Did you know that you can still listen to me when you’re not thinking about what I’m saying at all? The words I’m saying can make you feel good and relaxed no matter the topic.”
Phoebe took a breath in, and out, and felt just a bit duller, and...
“Phoebe, we can still engage fully in therapy without you having to think about it. Let’s do that now, as an example. Phoebe, I want you to tell me three words that describe how you’re feeling.
“Good. Calm. Quiet.”
“Very good. I want you to also add the word ‘empty.’ What does that do? Use as many words as you need.”
“The words are coming from nowhere now.”
“Interesting. But everything comes from somewhere. Where else might your words be coming from when you don’t have to think?”
“Very good. And when I praise you, when I tell you you made progress, how does that make you feel?”
“Exactly. So when I am doing the work, I am thinking, you don’t have to think, and you can feel good. If you think thoughts I give you, those are nice thoughts, ones that make you feel relaxed and secure.
“Now Phoebe, do you have any idea what I just said?”
“Good. But you still know what makes you feel good. Tell me.”
“When you say so.”
“Good girl!” Phoebe had never heard the doctor so effusive, and without processing any of it, a shudder ran through her body.
“Phoebe, in a minute I’m going to tell you to continue thinking again, and we’re going to continue this session. Everything I’ve told you, whether you’re thinking about it or not, can still work and be true and help you.”
“I think,” he added, “We’re about to make our best progress yet.”
“Hi,” Phoebe said nervously as she entered the office the next week. “How am I today?” The doctor could always tell, and it was a relief, even if she was having a high-anxiety day, to know for sure.
“I’m afraid you’re especially tense. Please, have a seat, and let’s have a chat.”
Phoebe sat down, and the feeling of anxiety grew. It felt incongruous to be in her safe place and still carry these emotions. An alien invader.
“Phoebe, you know that we’ve talked about whether you’ve been able to masturbate.”
She suddenly remembered, and then remembered she had failed.
“I’m sorry, doctor. I did really try. I just... forget, or get all up in my head. Some nights I don’t even sleep well, still.”
“No, it’s fine,” he reassured her. “This makes sense. I have an idea.”
“Phoebe, this is your safe place, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps, you can’t masturbate to completion at home because your anxiety is so much worse there.”
“So how can I feel better at home?”
“Well, I think that would take some time, and this is more urgent. So I’d suggest, you try it here, for now.”
“What?” Phoebe’s head was swimming. She wanted to get mad, or get up, or ask for something else to do. But instead she felt relief at the suggestion, waited for the next cue, despite herself.
“I can leave the room, if you like,” said Dr. Bartlett. “I can go into the house. But you’ve never been alone here without me, and it might not be enough to make you comfortable.”
“I...” Phoebe studied the doctor. He seemed placid and patient as always. She was so afraid of disappointing him.
“Phoebe, think just a little bit less. Do you see that when you think less you become more aroused?”
He was right, and the voices in Phoebe’s head grew quieter as her body felt warm, a warmth quite a bit like how she felt meditating on that couch. But something still tugged at her.
“What would I even do? How do I even—” she sputtered.
“Phoebe. Look at me. Breathe.”
The corners of her vision immediately dimmed, but the doctor came into sharper focus, almost radiating with the rhythm of her breaths.
“Phoebe, stop thinking.”
Now it was just the breaths, and the doctor, and nothing else.
Therapy was going really, really well. Phoebe was up to three sessions a week, for two hours at a time, and she felt more amazing every time she went. As her anxiety grew worse outside, she looked forward to her time in the office, to listening to her doctor, to learning new skills for relaxation. She had used up her sick days from work because of frequent panic attacks, but in other ways she was functioning— eating regular meals, exercising at home. When her feelings threatened to be too much, which was all the time, she would think about her safe place, and her therapist, and the sense of being there. She didn’t even reach for the specifics.
Phoebe walked in the office door, hurriedly taking off her clothes and folding them into a neat pile. She knelt in front of the couch and breathed, waiting for the calmness she so craved to finally wash over her. She gazed up expectantly at Dr. Bartlett.
“I’m sorry you’re having such a bad day,” he said sympathetically. “Your anxiety is the worst it’s been in weeks.”
Almost immediately, Phoebe started to sob from the floor. How had she not noticed how bad she felt?
“I was thinking— please just let me sleep here tonight. I can use the bathroom inside the house, but I won’t bother you. It’s just— it’s here I can function like a normal person.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” chuckled Dr. Bartlett. “You’re much better than that. But no, you can’t stay here tonight.”
“Please,” she urged, “Can we at least do a meditation?”
“I don’t think we can quite yet,” said the doctor. “Have you masturbated, as I asked?”
“Oh no. I keep forgetting. I’m so sorry. I did try last night! I just— I just couldn’t make it happen. I’m so sorry. I tried.”
“That’s a shame,” sighed the doctor. “That’s only going to make your anxiety worse outside of this office.”
“But what can I do?” cried Phoebe.
“We’ll work on it. What’s important is that you feel safe and happy here. Please stop thinking for the rest of the session.”
As Phoebe put on her clothes to leave, the room momentarily came back into focus. She felt something that suddenly made sense, and looked up in a daze.
“Do I masturbate here?” she slurred.
“Yes, and the fact that you remember now means it must be feeling better for you. Good girl. But it’s not convenient, so I want you to forget that, for now.”
That night, Phoebe remembered her therapy homework, tried to masturbate, tried thinking of her session that day to relax. But she couldn’t remember enough about it to capture it outside of those walls.
She was hyperventilating as she entered the office the next week.
“I’m going to lose my job,” she told Dr. Bartlett. “I mean, maybe I could take medical leave. But I haven’t showed up in days. I couldn’t leave the house. It was all too much.”
“You got yourself here,” remarked the doctor.
“Well that’s different,” said Phoebe. “This is my safe place.”
“It certainly is. And what do I do?”
“You make me feel good,” she replied automatically. “But it’s not enough. I can’t function when I’m not here.”
“You need me to feel good.”
“If I make you feel good, the bad thoughts and feelings will go away, right?”
“Yes, please. Please, make it stop!”
She tried to breathe deeply, but it came shallow and shaky. The doctor just stared.
“Please, I’ll do anything. Please make me feel better. I need it. Please.” She sank to the floor, huddled in fetal position. She felt trapped in her own body, in her own thoughts.
It felt like an eternity, but finally, the doctor spoke.
“Very well. Play with your breasts.”
Phoebe hurriedly sat up and pushed her hair back— it had grown long in the months of therapy— and reached under her shirt— she had stopped wearing a bra and panties, but she didn’t remember when.
Something snapped. She moaned a little reflexively as her panic dissipated, almost instantly. As she began to squirm, she felt a tear run down her cheek that had left her eyes only seconds prior. It felt so distant.
She felt another flush and realized her therapist had praised her, was saying more nice words that reshaped the scary parts of her mind. She was reaching under her skirt now, playing with her cunt. If only she could feel this way all the time. She forgot why she was even upset in the first place.
“All that stress is melting away now,” said the doctor. “Do you know why?”
“...No?” muttered Phoebe, tweaking her nipple.
“Good. Tell me why, anyway.”
“Because when I’m turned on I can’t think enough to feel bad.”
“Good girl. Stop.”
Phoebe stared at the doctor, panting, her clothing disheveled. Her thoughts were still dull but a few began to trickle back in. She hated them.
“Phoebe, have a seat. We are going to have a chat about your treatment, and you are going to listen to me, and think about what I’m telling you, understand?”
Phoebe nodded dreamily, found her way to the couch. Thinking wasn’t so bad when it was the doctor’s idea.
“Why don’t you work for me?”
“Work for you? Doing what?”
“As my secretary. I haven’t touched the desk in the foyer in who knows how long. You can feel just as good there as you do in here.”
Phoebe smiled reflexively.
“Phoebe,” Dr. Bartlett said, as excited as she had ever heard him. “Move in. You can live in your safe place. You can be here all the time. You’ve never been in the main house, but I promise you, it all feels this good.”
“Wow,” she exhaled happily. Then, her brow furrowed, despite itself. “But will we still have our sessions?”
“Absolutely. You’ll always need them. Get on all fours and hike up your skirt.”
Phoebe eagerly did so, forgetting the question she had asked as she felt herself growing wetter. Somehow, she knew this was an important moment. She shook from arousal, and thought vaguely of how nice and empty she was. But, suddenly, she still had one more nagging question that tumbled out of her.
“Doctor, do I need to think a lot to be a secretary?”
“Honey,” replied her therapist, finally getting up and unzipping his pants. “After I fuck you, you won’t ever have to think of anything I don’t tell you to ever again. How does that make you feel?”
“Um- good, right?”
“Happy and horny,” he said, finally sliding into her. “And that’s about it.”