“Annie, come down. You’re going to be late!” My mom called from the bottom of the staircase.
“I’m in the kitchen!” I yelled to her before I stuffed the last bite of Pop Tart into my mouth.
When my mom walked into the kitchen, seeing me dressed and having eaten breakfast, she arched her eyebrows at me, “You’re not fighting me to take you to therapy today?”
She sounded surprised, but this had been a progression. For the 7 weeks I have been seeing Dr. Crowe, twice per week counting the days I had to sit at the reception desk and help check her patients in, I have been feeling less and less anxiety about the ordeal.
“It’s okay, mom. Today is just a Tuesday, so I am only going for an hour anyway.” I told her. Thinking about it at the time, I was happy to not feel frightened to leave the house, even if only for a couple of hours.
I knew that emotionally; I was still a mess. But today, for the first time in a long time, I felt hope that things would eventually get better. Stepping out the door was a bit nerve-wracking. I kept my eyes focused on my mom’s car and after a few steps, all my hesitation had fled.
The ride to Dr. Crowe’s office was short. Before the incident, I would have said it was within walking distance from my house, maybe a couple of miles only.
“Do you need me to walk you up?” My mom asked.
“Not this time, mom.” I managed a weak smile. “Thanks for asking though.” I said after I got out.
I walked into the lobby about 10 minutes before my appointment. Becky checked me in, and I took a seat.
There was nobody in the waiting room. Sometimes one or two people would be sitting there; patients or family members of patients. Over the last few weeks of me working here, I had found some books and magazines that Dr. Crowe had in a box in the closet. They were now arranged on a small square table in the center of the room. I wasn’t in the mood to read anything at the moment, but I took some time to organize them. Magazines arranged by title and month; books arranged by author. I had my system.
The door opened and a young woman, maybe a few years older than me came out of Dr. Crowe’s office. I had seen her once before; I think her name was Sandy. She looked like she had been crying, based on her puffy eyes. She didn’t look at me as she headed out the door.
“You can come back now, Anne.” Dr. Crowe told me.
I followed her back to her office to start my session.
“And how are you feeling today, Annie?” Dr. Crowe asked. Dr. Crowe wasn’t a warm person. Stern is the best term I can think of to describe it. She asks a question, and she expects an answer, no nonsense. I think that’s kinda unusual, since in this field, you probably to run into a lot of nonsense.
“I’m okay.” I told her sincerely. “I…”
“Annie, I need you to think about your answers before you give them.” Dr. Crowe interrupted. “You’ve been ‘okay’ for the last 4 weeks. Are you the same as last week? Better? Worse?”
“Hmm… better, I think…” I started.
Dr. Crowe sighed. “I don’t think this is working. In seven weeks, you’ve barely made any progress. I feel like I’m failing you, Annie.”
“Today, I was ready before my mom asked me to be.” I told her. I felt like my lack of progress was somehow hurting her. I didn’t understand how exactly, but felt guilty for it.
“That’s great, Annie. But you are still holding back. I want you to trust me. It can only work if you are able to really open up and explore you thoughts and feelings. Something is holding you back.” She said.
“I… I think I do trust you.” I said slowly. “More than my other therapists, that’s for sure.”
“But you are hiding yourself. I need to help break down your emotional barrier so we can move forward.” Dr. Crowe said.
“I don’t know how to do that.” I said. “Maybe I am still scared of what happened to me.”
“It might be a good time for us to take a break for a while. The progress you’ve made already at least lets you leave the house. It’s possible that…” Dr. Crowe told me in a lecturing tone.
I cut her off this time though. “NO! School starts in a few weeks, and I am not ready to go there; not without Craig for support. You have to help me break through on this, please.”
Dr. Crowe nodded approvingly. She had never done that before. “I think I can help, but you will really need to trust me in this.”
“I’ll try.” I told her.
“Okay.” She said before asking, “How many layers of clothes are you wearing?”
“I’m… three I think.” I told her, trying to remember.
“Show me.” She said.
I reached down and pointed to the dark blue shirt I was wearing. “One.” I said. I lifted the hem of it up slightly revealing a light blue shirt underneath it. My hand began trembling as I lifted that shirt up, revealing a yellow tee shirt underneath it.
Dr. Crowe watched as I did this. When she saw me start lowering the shirts, she said, “Stop. What’s under the yellow shirt?”
“Under?” I asked. “Just my um…” I didn’t want to tell her.
“Yes, under the yellow shirt. What are you wearing next to your skin?” She pressed.
“My bathing suit.” I told her.
“Why are you wearing a bathing suit under your clothes? Are you planning to go swimming later?” She asked.
“No.” I said. I felt my face start to turn red from the embarrassment of this. “I always wear a bathing suit, now. It makes it easier for when I want to shower later.”
“You shower in your bathing suit?” She asked.
“Why?” She asked.
“Because I don’t want to be naked anymore.” I told her. “Not even when I’m by myself.”
“Annie, in your head, this bathing suit is like a knight’s suit of armor. It is protecting you from dealing with certain emotions.” She told me.
I nodded. “That makes sense.”
“I’m sorry Annie, but this is preventing you from progressing in here.” She said.
This caused me to shiver. I imagined showing up at my next appointment in just regular underwear. “I think I’m willing to try.” I told her.
“Okay, I want you to take off your bathing suit.” She said.
“Now? I’ll be naked!” I screeched.
“You may put back on one layer, whichever you like, but we need to have you vulnerable if this I’m going to be able to help you.” Dr. Crowe said, firmly.
“But… but…” I protested
“Or you can just go home. I don’t think we should be wasting each other’s time.” Dr. Crowe said, flatly.
It took me a few minutes to build up the courage. The part of me that wanted to go home was warring with the part of me that knew I had to get better before school started in a few weeks. Finally, I slowly started peeling of layers of clothes.
I pulled off my sweatpants and folded it neatly on the chair next to me. Then I took off my outer shirt and did the same. Next came my inner shirt, leaving me wearing the yellow tee-shirt and a pair of blue jeans. These I also took off, but didn’t fold. Instead, I lay them carefully over the back of the chair.
Dr. Crowe didn’t say a word, she just watched to make sure I did as instructed. Finally, standing in only my bathing suit, I tried to show her a brave face. I’d been wearing my bathing suit for so long that I couldn’t remember the last time I wasn’t wearing it. It was a black, one piece bathing suit that had a large strap over each shoulder and covered all the way down to my hips. It fit so snug over my body, I felt invincible with just this one thing on.
Closing my eyes, I stripped out of the bathing suit. I could feel my body quivering, not from the cold, but from standing naked for the first time in more than a year. I then felt down and found the yellow tee shirt. Once that was on, I put on the blue jeans. Only then did I open my eyes and take the time to fold up the bathing suit before setting it with the other clothes.
“How do you feel?” Dr. Crowe asked.
Feel? I felt the fabric of my tee shirt and jeans rubbing against my body. I felt like at any moment, someone would yell at me, “She’s not wearing anything under her clothes!”
My only answer to Dr. Crowe was, “Naked.”
“You are not naked.” Dr. Crowe assured me. “You have a shirt and jeans on.”
“I know.” I said solemnly. “I just feel like I am naked.”
“Have a seat and tell me about your week.” She instructed.
I did. She didn’t interrupt me. Not much had happened since Thursday. I told her everything I could remember, and she nodded along. It was a much more casual conversation than previous weeks. She didn’t press for details, but was content with whatever I told her.
“Time’s up.” She told me.
“Can I have my clothes back?” I asked.
“Not just yet. We’ve finally found a point of vulnerability with you. Let’s explore that this week.” She told me.
If I was quivering before, the idea of me leaving this office without my bathing suit on under my clothes made me start to visibly shake.
“It’s going to be okay, Annie. Your mom is going to pick you up and you will be just fine.” she assured me.
I wasn’t buying it. “Please.” I begged. “It’s my only one.” Referring to my bathing suit.
Dr. Crowe shook her head and then got up and opened the door to her office, a clear indication that I was no longer welcome. I refused to cry, but inside I was balling. I got up and walked to the lobby where my mom was waiting for me.
“Annie, I have a surprise for you!” She exclaimed. “Since you did such a good job this morning getting ready, I’m taking you clothes shopping.”
“Now?” I exclaimed.
“Yes!” She said, still excited at the prospect, “As long as…” looking to Dr. Crowe, “Is it okay?”
“Shopping, now?” Dr. Crowe mused before saying in an almost musical tone, “Of course, it would be a great time for Annie to get out of her rut. Make sure she tries on everything.”
The traitor just set me up. She knows I am naked under my shirt and jeans, and she just… I tried protesting further, but in my mom’s eyes it was settled.
That was how I found myself in the department store dressing room, trying on everything my mom had a whim to see me in. Of course, taking off my clothes was an ordeal. She would bring an outfit for me to try. First, I would hang the clothes on the hook so that I knew where they were. Next, I would close my eyes and undress, taking careful measures to lay my clothes just so that I could find them without opening my eyes. Then I would reach to where I knew the clothes were hanging and put them on before reopening my eyes to study myself in the mirror to make sure everything was on correctly. Finally I would step out and show my mom before starting the process over again.
Each time, while I was changing, my mom would reach in and pull out the clothes I had just tried on while I was dressing in my normal clothes. Then she would bring me something else and I would do it again. Over and over. After about seven changes, I was wearing a pink halter top with white polka dots and a white mini skirt.
My mom always told me I looked adorable, but for me this one showed way too much skin, especially since I wasn’t wearing any underwear. I shut my eyes and stripped them off. Just then, I heard my phone ring. Pulling it out of my pure, I had no way of knowing who was calling me without opening my eyes, which I refused to do, so I just answered it.
“Hello?” I asked.
“Hi Annie, this is Jenny Miller, from your school. Do you remember me?” Asked an extraordinarily perky sounding teenager.
“Yes, I remember. We had chemistry together last year.” I said.
“Awesome!” She exclaimed, as if I had said something amazing. “We’re signing up girls to do cheer this year. I saw you did gymnastics for the past 4 years. Would you be interested in being a cheerleader this year?”
I was taken aback. I was never part of the cheer clique, but I had heard that some girls had moved away over the summer. I suspected that they were shorthanded. Actually, I was excited to be asked. But, honestly, I wasn’t ready for this while I was still dealing with my other issues.
“Oh, Jenny.” I said honestly. “It sounds like it would be a lot of fun, but I don’t know if I can commit to that this year. I’m kinda dealing with some personal issues.”
“You mean those pictures?” She asked. “I saw those. They are sorta creepy.”
“Thanks.” I said.
“I’m sorry. I just meant… Well, anyway, it won’t be a problem for us. If you are interested.” She pressed.
“Can I think about it?” I asked.
“Sure!” She exclaimed. “Just let me know by Friday.”
“You mean tomorrow?” I asked, skeptically.
“Yup. Have an awesome day!” She said and then hung up without waiting for a response.
I shook my head. How could someone be so upbeat talking to someone they were clearly creeped out about?
I reached down to find my tee shirt and jeans. They weren’t on the bench where I left them. I moved my foot around on the floor; nothing. My clothes were gone. I tried to find the halter top and skirt, but they were gone too. Frantic, I got down on my hands and knees, feeling every inch of the floor and bench. Aside from a couple of leftover pins that poked my hand, I didn’t feel anything.
I didn’t know what to do. I stood back up and felt along the walls, nothing on the hooks. I almost yanked the curtain down when I initially thought it was something to wear. Fortunately, I stopped short of that or I might have been standing in full view of the department store this way.
Slowly, with my eyes focused where I knew the floor would be, I opened my eyes. Immediately, I confirmed that the floor was empty. As was the bench. I raised my eyes up to the hooks on the wall on the left. Next my eyes swept toward the mirror where I saw…
Suddenly, I saw purple… purple… black… nothing.