That day at school was difficult for Timothy. He was troubled by the disquieting thought that there was something hidden behind the façade of reality that seemed to be laid before him. The real world felt hazy, thin, and grainy, like an old, faded photograph, such as he’d seen in a collection of stuff from his grandmother’s house after she’d died. The real world, if that was a proper name for it, seemed stitched together from cobwebs, and if he simply reached his hand out and brushed it aside, the truth of reality would be revealed—a reality of moiling monstrosities that lurked in bedrooms to crouch atop sleepers at night…and a swarm of things far worse even than these.
Needless to say, he would never seriously consider moving those cobwebs aside. Not really. Not seriously. If anything, there was just a tiny little morbid curiosity, a trace of self-destructive fancy, like the temptation to stick a knife into an active toaster to see if it really was as dangerous as people said.
It was just a weird figment of his imagination, anyway. But if it was real, he still would never have tried to move it.
Of course not…
Such bizarre thoughts were interrupted—and thankfully banished—by a sense of significant guilt and distress when Timothy saw the girl he had so berated a few days ago. She too looked mildly stressed, as though perhaps she was still having trouble coping with the changing fortunes of her favorite music group. Timothy realized that this probably wasn’t really the cause of any angst that she felt. There were countless possible sources of disquiet for a teenage girl, some of which were probably similar to things that bothered Timothy himself, and others of which he probably would have never guessed. It didn’t really matter. The sight of her brought up memories of that event, only a few days before, but which felt like things that had happened to another person. Timothy was horrified, not so much by what he had said then, but by what he had felt. His words, the terrible things he’d said to the girl, had been the truth of his heart at that moment.
He didn’t recognize that heart now.
“Hey,” he said quietly to the girl as she sat down, her head bent slightly forward.
She glanced at him, but she didn’t seem to recognize that he was addressing her.
He couldn’t remember her name, which was shameful enough for him, since he saw her every school day and she sat diagonally next to him in class. He was forced simply to repeat, “Hey.”
She looked up, seeming to recognize now that he was trying to get her attention. She didn’t say anything, but she looked suspicious. He could hardly blame her.
Timothy was much more embarrassed by this situation than he would have been about asking his mother if he could crawl into bed with her last night, but he was much more motivated to fight his embarrassment here. He said, “Look, uh…I’m sorry about what I said the other day.”
The girl lifted an eyebrow, gazing at him warily. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“I mean, what I said about…about what you said,” Timothy replied, knowing he was being vague, hoping that the fact of their limited interactions made it clear to what he must be referring. “I mean…I mean, you were just…just talking to your friends and everything, and I was…well, I was really a dick. I’m sorry about that.”
The girl looked at him with frank surprise, but the suspicion at least began to fade from her expression.
When she didn’t say anything, the awkwardness forced Timothy to speak a bit more, and he said, “I just…I mean, I want you to know that it…it wasn’t about you. You know? I mean, I know, it’s obvious it wasn’t about you. How could it be, right? But…anyway, I was really…I wasn’t feeling right that day, and…and that’s not an excuse or anything, I know, but…but anyways, I was a real asshole, and I wanted you to know I know that, and I’m sorry.”
The girl tilted her head, and her expression was difficult for Timothy to read. Her face softened visibly, and there might have been the slightest hint of a smile there. Maybe.
In some alternate future of that moment, it might have happened that the girl finally did smile and said that she didn’t mind, that it hadn’t bothered her all that much—though it had bothered her. But she would say that it meant a lot to her that Timothy had made it a point to apologize. Then, a bit jokily, she would reach her hand out to shake and declare that there were no hard feelings, and she would formally introduce herself.
And in some versions of that future, she and Timothy would first become friends—would start talking to each other in class on a regular basis, and eventually would decide to go out together, and would become a couple. And in some versions of that future, they would stay together after high school, and would eventually get married, and have children, and live a long, mainly happy life together, occasionally reminiscing with amusement about their inauspicious first interaction.
In the world Timothy experienced, though, at that moment, when the girl opened her mouth to reply, she was interrupted by a sudden, minor crash from the front of the room. Another student, who had just been walking into the room, had bumped into and knocked over a globe near the doorway, and the globe came loose from its base, rolling across the front of the class like a badly kicked ball. Minor chaos, with laughter and confusion, followed, and the unlucky student was still trying to fix the globe when the teacher returned to the classroom, only a minute or so before the start of that lesson. With good humor, the teacher reassured the student that it was fine, that there was time to fix the globe later, and the student went to his seat, embarrassed but smiling at himself, his friends ribbing him good-naturedly.
Timothy never expected to share another significant interaction with the girl in his class. He expected never to know just how well they might have gotten along if they had just by chance come to know each other better. Unfortunately, given the dark nature of what had led to their first shared words, he thought it was simply not acceptable to the universe for good to come of it.
Timothy was called in to see Dr. Putnam early the next week, since his mother reported to the doctor that she was not going to let him take any more antidepressants or anything like them. That weekend, Timothy made it a point to go out and scrub the back wall of the building, to get as much of the burn markings off as he could. The wasp nest had further disintegrated even in the few intervening days, and the surviving wasp was nowhere to be seen. Timothy found himself hoping—weirdly enough, he had to admit—that it had found or would find another mate, or whatever, and built a new nest somewhere, and that it would have whatever passed for a successful life among wasps. He knocked the remains of the burnt nest off the wall with a rake handle, scooping it into the garbage can with a dustpan, unwilling to look too closely at it.
The burn mark did not come off completely, but it was noticeably improved. Weather and time would gradually wear it down, but as long as the building stood, there would be a faint residuum of the fire that Timothy had lit in the charcoal starter fluid along it.
His appointment with Dr. Putnam on Tuesday, which took him out of class again, was a long one. At his age, it didn’t occur to him that the doctor was spending more time with him than he must spend with other patients, and that he often saw him in his proper office rather than an exam room, but he would think about it later. Dr. Putnam asked him to tell him more about what had led his mother to flush his meds away and to declare categorically that no further such trials would be attempted. Timothy, who had come to believe that his mother’s wisdom in this was unassailable, told Dr. Putnam about things his mother could not have known, including his interaction with the girl in school, and the thoughts that went through his head when he decided to burn the wasp’s nest. He also told him about the general character of his mind on those few days, how dark but calm, how sinister—how evil, from his own point of view—it had been. Dr. Putnam received this information with clear surprise and plain curiosity, as well as undisguised alarm.
When he asked if there had been anything else, Timothy hesitated. It was stranger, more difficult, more worrisome to tell of what had happened the other night. He didn’t honestly know whether it had anything to do with the medication—as far as he could tell, it had been completely real, not a state of mind. But he felt that Dr. Putnam would want to know about it.
So, with hesitancy, with embarrassment, and with real, recollected fear, he did his best to describe what had happened when he had awakened to find the unearthly monstrosity lying atop him, and how he had felt afterwards.
Dr. Putnam watched him intently, not interrupting, allowing Timothy to tell the tale himself in his own words and his own time. Timothy was good at such things, despite being a boy with few close friends. Perhaps because his interactions had tended usually to be more with adults than with others his age, he was surprisingly more articulate than most of his peers, at least about matters such as this. Though, to be honest with himself, his ability to convey that night’s experiences, thorough though he was, could never truly explain the profound terror he’d experienced, the fear that had undermined his very sense that he knew anything at all about what reality was.
When he finally came to an end, Dr. Putnam eyed him closely for a moment, then said, “Interesting.”
Something about the tone of that word surprised Timothy. He would have expected the man to say something more along the lines of, “What the hell are you talking about? Are you crazy?” Though, to be fair, Dr. Putnam would probably have been more diplomatic, but the doctor’s lack of deep surprise was startling to Timothy.
“What’s interesting?” he asked, though he had to admit it was a silly question on its face.
“Well,” Dr. Putnam said, “it sounds to me like you experienced an episode of what’s called sleep paralysis.”
“Huh?” Timothy said, quite unable to articulate anything more intelligent.
“Well, it’s a phenomenon that happens to a surprising number of people, if only once or twice in their lives. It’s…well, let me start at the beginning a little. When we sleep, and particularly when we dream, our brains set up a kind of…interference, or interruption, in the signals that normally go from our brains to our bodies. This seems to be a protection, so we don’t act out what we’re experiencing in our dreams.”
“Oh, okay,” Timothy said. “I…guess that makes sense.”
“And you’ve probably heard of sleepwalkers, haven’t you?” Dr. Putnam asked.
Not sure where the man was going, but trusting his guidance, Timothy said, “Yeah, sure. I mean…in cartoons and stuff, mainly.”
Dr. Putnam gave a tiny laugh, saying, “Well, yes. It is something that’s played for comedy at times. But it’s real. It happens when there’s a kind of…slip-up in that movement-blocking system, and people move and behave as their dreaming minds lead them to. There have even been…well, anyway, people do things they would never do in their regular waking lives, though usually it’s a more or less benign process. The biggest risk is mostly that someone will injure themselves by tripping or falling, or falling downstairs, when sleep walking. The official name is ‘somnambulism,’ which more or less literally means ‘sleep-walking,’ but we doctors can charge more for talking about it if we use Latin words.”
Timothy laughed, appreciating Dr. Putnam’s self-deprecating humor. In his turn, Dr. Putnam smiled, and Timothy suspected that many of his adult patients wouldn’t be as quick to appreciate such jokes as he was. Then he berated himself internally, if not all that harshly, for getting too full of himself. If he was so clever, why was he the only one in his high school who had to see a doctor because he couldn’t control his rage?
Dr. Putnam went on, “Well, in any case, just as sometimes the sleep movement shutdown system can malfunction so as to let people move about while sleeping, sometimes it fails in what you could call the opposite way. People become conscious—or semi-conscious—but their bodies are still in a state of paralysis, with their movement inhibited, even though they are becoming aware. But generally, they aren’t fully conscious when this happens. They’re still in a near-dream state. After all, the reason their bodies are unable to move is because that system is there for dreaming. But when they return to near-consciousness, and are unable to move, the brain, which is still more or less in dreaming mode, seems to…create or invent reasons for that lack of movement. Often this involves the presence of something or someone sitting or lying upon the sleeper’s body.”
Timothy’s mouth dropped open as he recognized some of what Dr. Putnam was saying. The doctor continued, “These images are often terrifying, because the…the victim of course finds the inability to move frightening and assigns its cause to some malevolent force. It’s thought that, in ancient times, this is the source of many myths such as the succubus and incubus, and other nocturnal demons and spirits. Some people used to see witches and so on. In the modern era, it’s thought that many experiences of so-called ‘alien abductions’ are attributable to sleep paralysis. I’ve even heard one neuroscientist describe her own experience of waking to find herself beset by a Cylon centurion from the old Battlestar Galactica program.”
Dr. Putnam smirked, but Timothy did not really know the reference. He was too overwhelmed, in any case, by what Dr. Putnam was saying, for it described his own nocturnal experience so well, but in such normal, ordinary, real terms. It was both reassuring and frightening in its own right.
Apparently recognizing Timothy’s disturbance, Dr. Putnam stopped smiling and said, “Anyway, one thing that seems almost universal is that these experiences are terrifying, and that they seem extraordinarily convincing. The fear they engender can last for hours even after the victim wakes up…even when they recognize what’s happened for what it is. For some people, even when they are told that there is a very clear, and reasonably well-understood, explanation for their experiences, they feel that what happened was real. As witness, the many people who really continue to believe that they’ve been abducted by aliens.”
A pause followed, while Timothy struggled to absorb the doctor’s explanation. Finally, he asked, “So you…you think that’s what happened to me?”
Dr. Putnam shrugged, but the gesture somehow conveyed certainty rather than indecision. Timothy wondered how he pulled that off, even as he listened to the man say, “I’m pretty darn sure. I could practically write your…experience up as a textbook description of the phenomenon, based on what you told me.
“Also, interestingly, I’m pretty sure that I’ve read case reports of people who’ve come off SSRIs—that’s the kind of medication that Paxil is, by the way. The case reports might actually have been about people coming off Paxil, come to think of it. Anyway, I’ve read of people who’ve abruptly come off this class of anti-depressants—which is not the recommended way to stop them for people who’ve been taking them for a long time—who’ve experienced sleep paralysis, among other symptoms.
“What’s odd in your case, though, is that you were taking the medications for, what, three days? And at the very lowest dose. To be honest, most adults wouldn’t have even noticed that they’d taken any medication at all one way or the other on the dose we started you on. But it looks like I was right to be extremely cautious in your case.”
“Yeah,” Timothy said, certainly pleased about that caution in retrospect. He couldn’t even imagine how he might have reacted when taking a larger dose, what sort of atrocity he might have committed. And even more terrifying, if coming off three days’ worth of a tiny dose had made him see and feel what he’d seen and felt the other night…well, Jesus, he couldn’t even imagine what he might have felt suddenly stopping a larger dose.
Probably he would have simply gone insane with fear. God knew, he’d felt close enough to that as it was.
“Of course,” Dr. Putnam went on, “this just convinces me even more that the source of your bouts of uncontrollable anger is something very much innate, something biological. Anyone who’s had any real interaction with you for more than a few minutes, on anything but a superficial level, would know that it’s nothing about character. I’ve known seventy-year-olds with less emotional maturity than you. Though, to be fair to them, I don’t tend to see people at their best.”
Dr. Putnam smiled as he tried to rescue the reputations of what Timothy felt sure were real people of whom the doctor was thinking when he made these comments. Timothy, however, found the statements oddly disquieting. If he really was more mature even than people who had lived for seven decades, and if such people were common, then what did that say about the human race? No wonder the world was such a mess, if Timothy, at his age, with his problems, was above average in maturity level.
Dr. Putnam sighed and said, “Unfortunately, as your mother has clearly recognized, this…this fact, this very powerful aspect to whatever triggers your bursts of anger, makes it extremely tricky to know how best to manage it. If even that tiny dose of Paxil can make you become almost…sociopathic in your thoughts and actions, then I’m not sure how safe it is to try anything else, and I think your mother would make a categorical statement about that possibility. And, unfortunately, I think she’s right. No matter how much research has gone into making them, and how much data we ought to have about them given the huge number of people who take them, antidepressants, as well as the other psychotropics, are fantastically blunt instruments, and we’re dealing with the most complicated thing in the known universe.”
Timothy was trying to keep up with Dr. Putnam, who very much seemed to be speaking to himself out loud at the moment, but he thought he might have lost track somewhere. He asked, “What is?”
“Sorry?” Dr. Putnam asked, reinforcing Timothy’s impression that the man had been merely speaking his thoughts as they arrived.
“What’s the most…complicated thing in the universe?” Timothy asked.
“Oh!” Dr. Putnam said, seeming almost embarrassed. “Sorry. I meant the human brain. Or the human mind, if you prefer. Of all the things we know about in the universe, it’s by far the most complicated thing, and we are a looong way from understanding it fully. And we hardly put any effort into trying to understand it, at least relative to its importance. Which is impressive and everything and gives us a nice excuse to pat ourselves on the back for how smart and how complicated we must be, but…it means that when we have troubles like yours, we have a really hard time finding the best way to deal with them.”
“Oh,” Timothy said. He now understood what the doctor had been getting at, but it didn’t make him feel better, as understanding something usually did. All it made him feel was that he had an issue that was so difficult—because of that fancy, complicated nature of the human brain, apparently—that there was no obvious way to fix it. Except, of course, the option that he’d long ago decided to give himself if it looked impossible for him to avoid hurting other people.
Dr. Putnam appeared to recognize Timothy’s threatening despair, for he leaned forward and gave a bracing smile, saying, “Don’t get too discouraged. I meant what I said about how sharp and how together you are, and that’s going to make a big difference here. I think you’re capable of handling problems that other people might not be able to deal with.
“Just because we can’t use antidepressants to help your problem doesn’t mean we’re out of tricks. Maybe we were trying to use artillery on a problem when we should have been thinking of using a scalpel.”
Timothy, far from completely reassured, was at least distracted by the fact that he didn’t follow Dr. Putnam’s metaphor. “Huh?” he said, recognizing that he probably sounded stupid, but not really caring.
Dr. Putnam chuckled. “Sorry,” he said. “I just mean that, maybe we need to try something more subtle. I’ve been thinking for a long time about this in your case, but I thought we’d try some more…well, conventional approaches first. Still, there’s a growing body of data on some other things, and I thought maybe it would be worth giving something less traditional—or, well, in some ways more traditional—a try.”
Timothy thought the doctor was beating around the bush a little too much, possibly because of a personal sense of insecurity with something. It was a little irritating, but he could handle it. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well…have you ever heard of mindfulness meditation?” Dr. Putnam asked.
Timothy didn’t have to search his thoughts very hard before replying, “Well, I’ve heard of meditation…or read about it, or whatever. But I don’t really know anything about it, other than that it’s people sitting around really still and like…humming or chanting or something.”
“Well,” Dr. Putnam said, “that’s not far from right. Well, actually, to be fair to you, that does actually describe some types of meditation. But mindfulness meditation is something rather specific. I’m not an expert in it, and I wouldn’t presume to try to give you any real detail about the practice, but it’s really about training your mind to simply experience whatever you’re experiencing, to focus on it without expectation, without reacting to it emotionally.”
Timothy didn’t think this sounded any too fancy, despite the talk of the complexities of the mind. Still, if it were possible, and if it was useful, then it might be worth a try. “Okay,” he said. “I guess that sounds good, and everything. If it works. I mean, it’s not just…like superstition or something, right?”
“No, no,” Dr. Putnam said. “Not at all. I suppose there are some people who think superstitious things about it, like the Transcendental Meditation people who thought they could influence world events or whatever just by meditating about them, but mindfulness meditation’s ability to produce changes in the actual, physical structure of the human brain—good changes, by the way—has begun to be demonstrated in some studies that I’ve seen, and more and more of these are coming along all the time. No, its benefits seem to be very real.”
Timothy nodded, still quite unclear about any specifics. After a moment, he asked a question he thought might be rude, but which he couldn’t resist. “Have you tried it?” he said.
Dr. Putnam gave a smile that looked a bit like a wince, hunching his shoulders, and he replied, “I’ve…thought about it. It sounds very intriguing. But I’ve never taken the plunge. However, if you’re willing to give it a try, and depending on what you find…well, I think I may give it a go as well.”
“Oh,” Timothy said. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that answer. It seemed to him that he was some kind of experimental subject here, being used to test out some process for the doctor’s own personal curiosity. However, he also didn’t think Dr. Putnam would have recommended such a thing if he didn’t think it would help, even if it was also a matter of personal curiosity. And Timothy supposed that being able to kill those two birds with one stone—helping himself and being helpful to Dr. Putnam at the same time—might be a pretty nice thing to do. Who knew, maybe he could do something that would really make a difference to Dr. Putnam in some meaningful way, and it would change his own life as well.
Then, abruptly, a more adult sort of thought—unpleasantly more practical and mercenary—intruded, and he asked, “Is…is that sort of thing gonna be covered by my mom’s insurance?”
“Ah,” Dr. Putnam said, clearly impressed by Timothy’s recognition of this concern, though at least he didn’t seem put off by it. “No, it’s not,” he said.
Timothy, rapidly feeling discouraged and recalcitrant, was stopped from making some nonspecific, hesitant comment by Dr. Putnam’s upraised palm, and the man said, “However, this is a big city. Which has its disadvantages but also its advantages. And I know of a vipassana center—‘vipassana’ is the original word for mindfulness meditation, in…Hindi or some other far eastern language, I’m not sure which one—that’s recently been opened by a friend of a friend of mine. And, however spiritual and transcendental this person might be, he’s also, I think, shrewd enough to know that if he treats you—my patient—well and does you some good, that you won’t be the last person I’ll be sending his way. And recommendations from a local doctor who has a pretty good reputation, if you don’t mind me saying so, it definitely not going to hurt his business.”
Timothy sort of got Dr. Putnam’s point, or he thought he did, but he wanted to be sure, so he asked, “Does that mean he’d, like…teach me for free?”
“Well…maybe not free,” Dr. Putnam said. “He has to be at least somewhat practical about short-term costs. But I think he could probably be convinced to give you a very good rate. It might end up not being much more expensive than the copay on a prescription would be. And the other good thing about it would be that you wouldn’t need to keep going over and over. Once you’ve really learned how to do it—or so I understand, though I I’m not much more expert than you are—you don’t need anyone else to be around to do it. It’s a bit like going to a class to learn how to do some kind of exercise properly, but once you’ve learned it, you could just do it yourself.”
“Oh,” Timothy said. “Sort of like learning to play music or something, huh?” This comment stemmed from a regret he held hidden deep inside him that he’d never learned how to play an instrument of any kind, and was unlikely to learn in the future, since his school had no band or orchestra program, and private lessons were expensive. They were also nothing that would have occurred to his mother to seek out, she never having had a musical education nor any particular fondness for any version of the art form.
Dr. Putnam seemed surprised by the comparison, but the set of his face told Timothy that he took it seriously, though it seemed never to have occurred to him before. “Well…maybe so,” he said. “I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you may be exactly right. Your mother certainly hasn’t raised any stupid kids, has she?”
Timothy, far from comfortable with what seemed to him an unmerited compliment, said, “I don’t know about that.”
Dr. Putnam’s face became more serious, and he said, “I do. I know it very well. Trust me, I’ve known a lot of bright people in my life. I mean, I did go to a good undergraduate university, and then to medical school, internship, and residency. I wouldn’t think any of those people would have IQs below a hundred—though there were some who couldn’t have been much above that, God knows—but you would easily fit in amongst some of the best of them.”
Rather distracted by this unexpected level of compliment, and feeling surprisingly gratified and hopeful about it, Timothy said, “Really? You think so?”
“Absolutely,” Dr. Putnam replied. “I’m not a fan of blowing smoke up people’s…rear ends. Which, by the way, was once thought to a life-saving technique against drowning, apparently, and that’s where the saying comes from.”
Not distracted by this peculiar tidbit of information, Timothy asked, “So, you think I might be able to go to medical school, even? That I might be able to be a doctor?”
Dr. Putnam looked surprised, almost completely thrown off his train of thought, but he recovered quickly and said, “Well…I don’t see why not. If that’s the sort of thing you decide you want to do.”
Timothy honestly told him, “I’ve never really thought about what I want I do. Mostly I’ve thought about what I don’t want to do.”
“What’s that?” Dr. Putnam asked.
“I don’t want to hurt people. I don’t want to make my mom’s life harder than it is. I don’t want to make her feel bad or sad.”
“Ah,” Dr. Putnam said, apparently thinking he should have known all that without asking. “Well, that’s all very good, and I couldn’t disagree with you that those things are important. But you also deserve to think about what you want to do with your life for your own sake, not just what you don’t want to do for other people’s sakes.”
“Maybe,” Timothy said. “But you’ve gotta keep from starving before you start worrying about…about buying fancy clothes or…or getting a tattoo or something, I don’t know.”
Dr. Putnam grimaced, and he said, “Well…I guess that’s true, though I don’t like the notion that someone as young as you has to be troubled by it. Which, I guess, means that we really do have to try and get this process going. So, with that in mind…I’m going to call that friend and then that friend of a friend this evening, and I’m going to talk about my proposal. And if that goes well, I’ll be getting in touch with your mother and seeing what she thinks about it.”
“Okay,” Timothy said. Then, as the notion occurred to him, he asked, “Do you want me to hold off before talking to my mom about it?”
This thought seemed to surprise Dr. Putnam as much as it did Timothy, but he quickly replied, “No, no, there’s no need for that. I mean, you can if you want to, but don’t feel like you need to. I imagine she’ll want to know how the appointment went, particularly considering recent events.”
“Yeah,” Timothy said. “I guess you’re right about that.”