Fictional conversations with the real and imagined

by Kat

April and PaulSo dear readers, I’ll begin with a preface I spent much of my youth immersed in novels, so it doesn’t surprise me that I would have created my own fictions during incredibly stressful times in my life. Also, I think I’ve mentioned the emotional connection I developed with the 2008-2010 psychotherapy drama, In Treatment, how it helped me to see myself with a bit of distance and be self-compassionate. If not, now I have.

In Treatment is composed of a series of half-hour episodes depicting therapy sessions between Paul, a nearly burnt-out therapist who’s probably in his 50s, and clients from a variety of backgrounds. One of these clients is a 20-something architectural grad student named April who has recently experienced a health crisis and lacks familial support as she deals with that ordeal. She comes to therapy because she just needs someone to listen. And so that synopsis should set up the following scene in which April and Paul discuss the imaginary conversations she has with her therapist:

April: It’s funny I’ve had so many conversations with you in my head over these last two weeks. I mean, literally every day we’ve talked for, like, hours at a time. We’ve had whole arguments in my head and then we’ve made up.

Paul: And what have we argued about?

April: Whether life is just bullshit or there’s something deeper behind it.

Paul: And what do I say?

April: You don’t say much even in my head, which I find frustrating. But when I asked you if it was all worth it, you said, “Of course it is, April, if you make yourself and others happy.” What?

Paul: I’m such an optimist in your head.

April: You wouldn’t have said that?

Paul: What you’re essentially doing is giving yourself advice in the form of my voice.

April: I know.

Paul: And very sound advice it is. You’re taking very good care of yourself.

I marathoned In Treatment seasons 1 and 2 the summer before my senior year of undergraduate studies and remembered the series resonating with me then. I identified with Sophie’s narrative, as I’ve written about earlier, and found Paul’s story of being a wounded healer compelling. Summer before last, as I drifted off to sleep, I began to imagine conversations with a fictionalized version of Paul. Looking back over my writing from that summer, when I still kept a journal, I noticed how terribly lonely and isolated I felt during that time period. Fictional Paul and I would talk about the day and what was going on with my life. I rarely made up dialogue for him to say once I reached his office; I mostly just talked.

I have a feeling that I got the idea for these conversations from the dialogue that I posted about April’s fictional conversations, and yet that fall, I started reading Emily White’s book, Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude, trying to make sense of what I was feeling then. I’ve always assumed that if I could just reason through things (difficult emotions or perplexing situations), I could manage them, but I’m realizing that is rarely the case.

Also, I talk to myself in 2nd person, using soothing tones, when I get incredibly anxious. I remind myself that what I’m encountering is really difficult, but also manageable (using the cognitive-behavioral therapy questions probably burned into my brain at this point like those emergency alert systems they play on TV once a month, just to make sure they’re still working). “None of this is easy, but I do believe that this is manageable.” “You’re going to be okay. I get how hard this is, but right now, let’s _________ [insert self-soothing activity].” “Remember that list of ways to challenge irrational beliefs that you left under the coffee table for moments like this? Let’s look at that.” Over the past year or so, I’ve gradually learned to talk myself through anxiety-provoking scenarios.

Recently, as I’ve been shelving books at my campus job, I’ll notice myself having imagined conversations with my current therapist, especially in the days leading up to our session. Mostly, I just inadvertently rehearse what I’ll say and wonder what she’ll say back, but occasionally I’ll picture how she’d respond. I mentioned this to my therapist during a session, and she responded, “What do I say?” “Mostly you just sound like me or remind me of things we’ve talked about in here,” I said. “Although the fictional version of you is probably more critical than you actually are. I have a feeling that’s coming from me and my own self-effacement.”

In managing my generalized anxiety (oh GAD…), I’ve come to realize how important self-talk can be to seeing things as they are (or seem anyway), not how I’m afraid they could be. Sometimes, I’ll recall monologues that remind me of ways to manage anxiety-inducing situations or that I simply find comforting. I suppose in these moments, I’m “giving [myself] advice in the form of [their] voices, as “I see [myself] for all the things that made [me] so different from all the awful normals” and remember people are “grateful you have empowered yourself to not stay silent.” These words ground me when I’m having trouble grounding myself.

  1. Dialogue from “April: Week Five,” In Treatment — Springfield! Springfield! TV and Movie Scripts Database  http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=in-treatment&episode=s02e22