Warning: This poem contains intense and controversial topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It includes the inside of Shiv's head, because the inside of Shiv's head is always a warning, emotional stress, frustration, fatalism, past reference to child abuse, trauma triggers, meltdown, mild self-destructive behavior that is quickly replaced by violence against inert objects, vulgarity, reference to past self-injury, stress-induced breathing difficulty, emotional overload, inconvenient truths, not listening, trust issues, self-recrimination, past therapeutic abuse, inability to meet unreasonable expectations, insecurity, mess anxiety, and other stress. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
"A Weird Tension"
Shiv didn't know what
to make of Dr. G.
The guy was goofy,
but he saw everything
and he listened to people
and it was just weird.
Shiv tried to follow along,
but he knew sooner or later
Dr. G would start pushing him
to do things, and that would suck.
The art stuff had been okay,
though. Shiv liked art.
As long as Dr. G didn't
bug him about what he drew,
they could do that forever.
Shiv had also learned that
if he gave the guy something
to chase, Dr. G would usually
run after it, so all he had to do
was pick a topic and hope
the trick kept working.
"More art today?"
Shiv said when Dr. G
came to his cell door.
"Yes, but we have to use
the small group meeting room,"
Dr. G said. "A team of guys
from the privileged wing have
rented the art room and hired
a teacher to show them how
to make marbled paper."
Shiv sighed. "Yeah, I heard.
I wanted to go, but it costs extra
for the standard wing and nobody
from the private wing can go at all."
Losing access to the art room
left him feeling frustrated and
unsettled, but there was nothing
that Shiv could do about it.
"Well, things like that give you
something to look forward to
when you move up," Dr. G said.
"I don't look forward to things,"
Shiv said. "It's less disappointing."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Dr. G said.
"Come on, let's head to our room.
The table is plenty big enough for art,
and I brought some supplies with me."
So Shiv followed him to the room
with big windows in the yellow walls.
Green chairs surrounded a wooden table,
and Dr. G removed all but two of them.
"Ambrose tells me that you're enjoying
the colored pencils Drew brought you,"
Dr. G. said as he unpacked his case.
"Yeah, they're pretty neat," Shiv said.
"Different than the creme pastels."
"I thought you might like to try these,"
said Dr. G. "This set has something
called 'woodless art sticks.' See how
they're medium colors? Now this set
has colored pencils in lighter and
darker shades." He put them in
a row from lightest to darkest.
"For highlights and shadows,"
Shiv said, catching on quick.
"Exactly," said Dr. G. "What makes
the sticks so useful is that they let
you lay down big swipes of color for
the background. Then you can
add fine details with the pencils."
"I like the colors," Shiv said.
"Having somewhere to start is
nice too. I like the journal with
the weird designs ... sometimes
I draw or just color between
the lines instead of writing."
Shiv looked up through
his fringe to see if it was okay,
but Dr. G was smiling at him.
"Aida will be delighted that
you're having fun with it,"
Dr. G said. "She hated hers."
"Yeah, it made her brain itch,"
Shiv said. "Drew told me that
Aida likes stuff to stay organized."
"Which is wonderful when she
puts away her things, and terrible
when she fights with her siblings,
some of whom are ... less orderly,"
Dr. G said, shaking his head.
Shiv tried to imagine Edison
being orderly at all, and sputtered
a laugh. "Yeah, no. They're messier."
He picked up one of the art sticks.
It looked kind of like a peeled crayon,
but square instead of round. It had
a similar plasticky feel, only stronger.
Shiv dragged it over the paper
and left a wide turquoise band.
"Wow, that does go on fast."
Then he put a green band on
the bottom and a yellow on top.
"Those are interesting choices,"
Dr. G said, watching him.
Shiv's fingers walked down
the page. "Sunset. Lake. Land."
"Ah, I see it now!" Dr. G said.
Shiv pulled out colored pencils
to make tufts of green grass, then
a line of gray stones for the shore.
He put indigo shadows and
white wavelets on the lake.
He sketched clouds in drifts
of pink and orange, with the sun
a sliver of red just above the water
and making warm-colored crescents
in a path from the sun to the shore.
"That's beautiful," Dr. G said.
"Is it somewhere you've been?"
"There was this ... sort of camp,
in the woods," Shiv said slowly.
"The lake there was pretty."
It was a boot camp, instead of
a summer camp, and the rest
of it had been pretty horrible. But
the scenery really had been nice.
Shiv cut a crescent moon across
the sky, then pushed the paper away.
"I like these art sticks," he said.
"They make it go really fast, and
they feel sturdier than creme pastels."
It had only taken him a few minutes
to draw a complete landscape.
"Which do you like better, these
or the cremes?" Dr. G asked.
"Probably the cremes, but
these are nice in their own way,"
Shiv said. "They're strong."
"You have time to do another
if you want," Dr. G said. "Do you
mind if I draw something too?"
"Go ahead," Shiv said. "There's
three whole boxes of stuff here."
Well, two packages, but the one
with highlights and lowlights had
two separate trays inside it.
"Thank you for sharing,"
Dr. G said, like it wasn't
all his stuff in the first place.
He took some of the pink ones
and started sketching clouds
in one corner of his page,
just little rippled lines.
Shiv wanted to see if
the sticks would work
in layers, so he dragged
the black and the purple over
one side of a fresh page, then
brown and yellow on the other.
The first came out shadowy lavender,
the second a lighter sandy shade.
Yeah, that worked pretty well.
The dark side reminded Shiv
of things that hid in shadows, so he
traced out a few ominous shapes
before that started to bother him.
Then he crossed over to
the sandy side and tried to think
of happier things. He couldn't,
so he just doodled soft shapes.
"It's good to see you planning ahead,"
Dr. G said, making Shiv flinch.
"What do you mean by that?"
Shiv said. "I'm just scribbling."
"You used two art sticks on
each side of the page, and now
you're drawing over that, using
the changes in color to suggest
things to draw," said Dr. G.
Shiv looked down at the page.
Well, fuck. He hadn't meant
to do that, except for the layers.
"I'm impressed," said Dr. G.
"You're doing well with the art.
I brought a few worksheets in case
you'd like to try some other goals --"
Shiv saw the ladder and freaked the fuck out.
"I knew it, you're just like all the others!"
he snarled, scrambling away from the table.
"Shiv, what's wrong --" Dr. G said.
"The fuck you care?" Shiv said.
"It doesn't matter what I do,
it never fuckin' matters!"
He shoved his chair,
nearly tipping it over,
legs screeching on
the smooth floor.
"It's all the same,
I go," Shiv said. "Doesn't
matter what I do, it's never
good enough for anyone."
He paced back and forth --
the room was long enough
for it, and let him build up
a good head of steam.
Shiv dragged his knuckles
along the cold radiators,
making them clang, but
that hurt, so he had to stop.
Instead he grabbed a pencil
and raked it over the coils,
That was better.
He wanted, needed
"People just push
and push and push --"
His voice cracked.
"Easy, Shiv, try not
to strain your throat,"
Dr. G said. "Here, have
some water if you want."
Shiv grabbed the bottle,
drained it, then threw it
clear across the room.
It clattered against the wall,
then rolled over the floor.
Shiv waited for Dr. G
to scold him for it, but he
just repeated, "I'm listening."
So Shiv went back to pacing,
now kicking the bottle with
every few steps, chasing it
around the meeting room.
The punishing blows
soon pounded it into
a flat little puck.
That wasn't as
satisfying to kick,
so Shiv scrabbled
a hand along the wall.
"You're seeking sensation,"
Dr. G said. "What would help?
What things make you feel better?"
Shiv wasn't falling for that one,
oh no, he knew better than that.
What he really wanted was
a knife and something to stab.
Or a knife and somewhere private
to turn the blade on his skin and let out
his fury in streaks of red, each scratch
like a scarlet scream on his skin.
That wasn't safe to think about,
though, because Dr. G spotted
things Shiv hadn't meant to share,
which was sometimes nice that he
didn't have to say it out loud and
other times goddamn terrifying.
"Dunno," Shiv hedged, looking
away from Dr. G. "Just stuff."
"That's a starting point," Dr. G said.
"Let's see what I have in here."
He unpacked a few more things
from the case. Several stress balls --
Shiv grabbed those and threw them too.
Dr. G just said, "Yes, those are safe
things to throw," and unpacked
some strips of different colors.
"Do you like ripping sounds?"
Shiv loved ripping sounds,
but every time he'd torn up
the shitty clothes people got him,
he got his ass beat for doing it.
"I know some people who like
to make chains with these, then
tear them open again," Dr. G said.
Shiv picked up a blue strap.
It was fuzzy on one side,
rough and almost sharp
on the other. Velcro.
He pressed his fingers
against the rough side,
feeling the points prickle
against his damp skin.
They weren't sharp enough
to cut, but they helped
clear his head a little.
"You like that," Dr. G said.
"Can you tell me what
feels good about it?"
"It's ... edgy," Shiv said.
"Helps me focus."
"You like things that
are rough or coarse?"
Dr. G said. "Or soft?"
"Rough, like ..." Shiv
squeezed the strap
in his hand, unable
to say any more.
"You liked throwing
things too," Dr. G said.
"Okay, I have an idea."
He went to the door and
opened it to talk with a guard.
Shiv skittered back against
the far wall, not wanting
to attract any attention.
Soon Dr. G came back
and said, "All right, that'll
take a few minutes, but
I think it might help."
"Whatever," Shiv said,
pacing along the wall.
He came across one of
the balls that he'd thrown,
red with an angry face.
He stomped on it, then
kicked it across the room.
Chasing it, he found
the blue one with
a sad face, then
another blue ball
that looked scared.
Dr. G's vidwatch chirped,
and he went to the door.
Shiv went still again, watching.
Dr. G took something and
shut the door firmly behind him.
He covered one end of the table
with paper and taped it down.
Then he took a lump of clay
and kneaded it against
the surface, sprinkling
a jar of stuff over it.
Curious, Shiv drifted
closer to watch him.
"I'm going to make
some noise," Dr. G said.
Then he picked up the clay
and threw it at the table.
The loud thud made Shiv jump,
even with the warning first.
Dr. G did it again, and then
sprinkled more whatever-it-was.
He kneaded the clay, picked it up,
and dropped it back down.
"Care to test the texture?"
he said, offering it to Shiv.
"What is it?" Shiv said.
He wasn't sticking his hands
into anything he didn't know.
"I started with clay, which feels
smooth and sticky," Dr. G said.
"Then I added diatomaceous earth
and sand for texture. They have
sharp edges, but they're tiny,
so they just feel sort of rough.
People use them in gardening."
"Huh," Shiv said. Hesitantly
he reached out to poke the clay.
It felt ... interesting. He rubbed
his fingers against it, feeling
something raspy and gritty.
"You can tear it, too,"
Dr. G said. He pulled
the clay in half, and it
left a ragged edge.
Shiv ran his fingers
over the torn part.
"That's ... different."
"The additives change
the texture," Dr. G said,
throwing it again. "If we can
keep this on the paper, I'll have
less to clean up later, but don't
stress over it. Clay's just fancy mud
and it comes right off with water."
"Cave mud doesn't," Shiv said.
"The red color stays in."
"I didn't know that,"
Dr. G said, looking at
the clay. "This is gray.
Hopefully the craft label
was right and it washes off."
It better. He had clay all over
his stupid blue-and-orange sweater.
Shiv poked the clay again, watching
how it smeared. "Yeah, maybe."
"Go ahead and work with it if
you like," said Dr. G. "Clay can
help get a grip on strong feelings."
Shiv took the clay and then
squeezed it in his hand,
feeling the stuff ooze out
between his fingers.
Then he slammed it
down onto the table.
"Good one!" said Dr. G.
"Give it another go."
Shiv put one hand on
the clay and pulled up
the other side, tearing it
into two big pieces.
That way he could
throw them down
one at a time and
keep up a rhythm.
Thumping the clay
really did help him
get rid of the feelings.
Shiv worked with it until
he began to get tired.
Then he pushed it away.
"Can you tell me how
you're feeling right now?"
Dr. G said. "If I know what it's
like for you when this happens,
then maybe I can help you more."
"I feel trapped," Shiv said, groping
at the air. "I have a weird tension in
my head or my arms that I have to get out."
"Nobody likes to feel trapped," Dr. G said.
"I'm afraid I can't do much about that one here.
What else are you feeling? I'm listening."
"Everything around me suddenly feels
too real, like -- like sandpaper on my skin,"
Shiv said. "I'm panting, like I’ve just come out
of the water, and it's -- hard to breathe."
"That's not good," Dr. G said. "Try lifting
your chin and putting your shoulders back.
Take a deep breath, slow as you can,
then huff it back out, hard. That's better."
It was, a little, but just a little.
"I feel all sorts of emotions,
all at once, and I want to run away
from them all," Shiv said. "When I
can't, it's like I want to crawl out of
my own skin to escape them."
"Is that why you rub or scratch
yourself sometimes?" Dr. G said.
"Or drag a hand over the wall?"
"Yeah, yeah," Shiv said. "It helps,
some, makes the hairs lie back down."
"Okay, you get goosebumps, and
you want to make them go away,"
Dr. G said. "That's useful to know."
Shiv didn't see how, but then
he wasn't a shrink either.
"I lose sight of what I'm not
allowed say and start belting out
things I've wanted to say deep down,"
Shiv said. "Whenever that happens,
then I end up hurting someone or
confusing everyone and I just
get into even more trouble."
"It sounds like that happens when
people don't listen to you and miss
the signs that you're getting upset,"
Dr. G said. "I could tell that you
were uneasy, but it didn't seem like
more than your typical level of stress.
I'm sorry I didn't back off in time.
I'll try to do better in the future."
Shiv shrugged. "It doesn't matter.
People always blame me, whether
I try to be good or not," Shiv said.
"So why waste the effort? I might
as well just be a supervillain.
At least I'm good at that."
"It matters to me," Dr. G said.
"I can see that you have put
a lot of work into earning points
for things that you want to buy.
People should appreciate that."
"All they'll care about is that I
had another meltdown," Shiv said.
"Don’t forget that you’re human,"
Dr. G said. "It’s okay to have
a meltdown, just don’t unpack and
live there. Cry it out, then refocus
on where you are headed."
"Oh yeah?" Shiv snapped.
"When was the last time
you had a meltdown?"
"Just this spring," Dr. G said,
looking down at his hands.
"But -- why?" Shiv said.
"Your life is just fine!"
"I know Drew has told you
that people attacked him,"
Dr. G said quietly. "When
I found out how just hard
it would be to get any justice
at all -- I lost my grip for a bit."
"Huh," Shiv said, leaning back.
"I thought you were always Mr. Cool."
"I try very hard to be," Dr. G said.
"When we meet, I do my best to stay
professional. In my private life, I also
strive for calm, but I don't always succeed."
He spread his hands. "Nobody's perfect,
Shiv, and that's okay too. That's human."
"That's not what people usually say,"
Shiv muttered. He picked at
the clay drying on his hand.
"What do they usually say?"
Dr. G asked him then.
"That I'm a fuckup,"
Shiv said, shrugging.
Dr. G scowled. "That is
unfair and inaccurate," he said.
"Everyone will melt down under
enough stress. Your life includes
a lot of stress, so of course you
melt down. That doesn't mean
anything is wrong with you."
"But ... I'm in here," Shiv said.
"I break the law for a living.
I couldn't keep my temper
if I locked it in a cash box.
How is that not fucked up?"
"I've learned to ask 'What
happened to you?' instead of
'What is wrong with you?' and
that has taught me a lot about
why people do the things they do,"
Dr. G said. "Would you like
to talk about that today?"
No way in hell was Shiv
touching that landmine.
He shook his head frantically.
"Okay, we don't have to talk about
your past if you don't want to,"
Dr. G said. "Shall we discuss
what each of us did right and
wrong, so hopefully we won't
have this problem again?"
"Whatever," Shiv said.
It was too much hope
that he'd pitch a fit and
then not get lectured for it.
At least Dr. G wouldn't hit him.
Shiv eyed the man's belt.
Well, probably. Maybe.
"What I did wrong was that
I missed your signals and didn't
ease back to safe subjects in time
to avoid setting you off," Dr. G said.
"That was a mistake, and I'm sorry.
I'll work on paying more attention."
"Uhh ..." Shiv said, staring at him.
He'd never heard anyone start
a lecture like that before.
"I hope that I managed
to do some things right,
like helping you find ways
to calm down," Dr. G said.
"Yeah, the clay was ... cool,"
Shiv said. He looked around
the room. The balls had rolled
into the corners. "So was
some of the other stuff."
"I'm happy to hear that,"
Dr. G said. "Do you want
to tell me what you did wrong or --"
"Everything," Shiv said.
"I imagine you've heard that
before, but I don't agree with it,"
Dr. G said. "What did you do right?"
"Nothing," Shiv said. Wasn't it
obvious, after all? He'd thrown a fit
and made a mess and he was
sure to hear about it forever.
"Hmm," Dr. G said. "It sounds
like you're new to this kind of
conversation. Would you like
for me to help you out a bit?"
"I guess," Shiv said. The less
he talked himself, the less chance
he'd dig the hole any deeper.
"Okay, what you did wrong was
that you didn't tell me when you
started to feel like you couldn't handle
your emotions any longer," Dr. G said.
"I can't help if I don't know what's wrong --
and you're always a little wary in here,
so that makes it hard for me to tell
when you're getting too wound up."
"Oh," Shiv said. He wasn't about
to invite anyone to punish him sooner.
"What you did right was focusing
your anger on objects instead of people,"
said Dr. G. "You did a great job of expressing
emotions in reasonably safe ways today."
Shiv's jaw dropped. "But I threw things."
"Most of those were safe things to throw,"
Dr. G said. "I'm afraid that red pencil is shot,
though. The lead tends to break easily."
"Sorry," Shiv muttered. "Shoulda
been more careful. This is why
we can't have nice things."
"There are plenty of pencils
left, so it's not a big deal,"
Dr. G said. "Next time,
you'll know that I carry
stress balls and you can
make different choices."
Shiv shook his head.
"I can't think when I get
like this, doc. There's
no time, not even much
of a warning before --"
His hands flew apart,
miming an explosion.
"Ah," said Dr. G. "My wife
is like that, actually. I think
you two would like each other."
"You're nuts," Shiv said, staring.
"Some people have said so,"
Dr. G said. "I choose to call it
optimism instead, though."
"I guess," Shiv said. "So ...
now what are we supposed to do?"
"Shall we try this again?" Dr. G said.
"I'll describe what I'm observing, and
you try to stay with me instead of
getting lost in the past. If you
fall in, I'll pull you right out."
"Why would you ... how ..."
Shiv said, frowning. "It
doesn't make sense."
"Shiv, that's my job,"
Dr. G said gently. "I help
people deal with difficult issues
that make them feel like they're
drowning. I teach them how
to handle that safely, and if
they slip, I put them back
onto firm ground again."
"That's not what shrinks do,"
Shiv said. He knew that much.
"Let's agree that you've had
terrible therapists in the past,"
Dr. G said. "I'll try to avoid
repeating their mistakes, and
you can help me steer."
Shiv had about as good
a chance of that as he did
getting a driver's license.
Which he'd never trained for.
"Do you know what snapped
your temper?" Dr. G asked.
"Them fuckin' ladders --"
Shiv said, then snapped
his teeth closed on the rest.
"You don't like ladders,"
Dr. G echoed. "Okay, then
we won't use that image anymore.
There are many other metaphors
for illustrating goals and progress."
He spread out a few examples,
minus the ladder worksheet.
The colors were beautiful, but
the ideas just made Shiv's head hurt.
"The fuck people see in these things
anyway, I don't know why they can't
just leave me the hell alone," Shiv said,
skidding from word to word, unable
to stop now. "They push and push,
and the higher I go, the more
I feel like I'm gonna fall --"
A faint touch startled him.
Looking down, Shiv saw
that Dr. G had brushed
just a fingertip over his hand.
"We are NOT doing ladders.
They upset you. That's in the past.
It is not happening now," Dr. G said.
"Um ... okay," Shiv said, disoriented.
He didn't understand what was going on.
"If something doesn't work for you,
please tell me," Dr. G said. "I will
help you find something that does."
"How can you do that when I don't
know?" Shiv said. "I mean, if I knew
how to do shit, I wouldn't be ..."
He waved at the walls.
"I know how to help people
find solutions to problems,"
Dr. G said. "That's what
therapy is all about."
"It's just ... too much,"
Shiv said, putting his head
in his hands. "It always is,
and nobody cares."
"You feel overloaded,"
Dr. G said. "People make
too many demands on you."
"Yeah," Shiv said. "Those ladders."
He shuddered. "I couldn't ever be good,
not really. Everyone else could stay in
the green. I always wound up in the red.
So I just learned to drop down as soon as
the ladder went up. At least then I didn't have
to wonder when they'd slam me down."
"The certainty makes you feel
more secure, even though it made
other people unhappy," Dr. G said.
"Yeah, yeah," Shiv said, nodding
hard enough for his fringe to flop.
"Huh. You really get it. Nobody
ever got it before. Weird."
"Most people hate feeling
insecure," Dr. G said. "I know
the prison uses a point system,
though, and you seem okay
with that. Am I wrong?"
"Nah, it's fine," Shiv said.
"I know they're manipulating us
with that shit, but at least they're
honest about it. Stuff pays what it says
and costs what it says too. You always
know where you're at. They hardly ever
take points away, either. I'm okay with it
'cause I know how to game the system."
"Then I'm glad it works for you,"
Dr. G said. "That's a good thing."
"Yeah," Shiv said. "I can usually
do enough tricks to earn the treats
that I want the most. It doesn't suck."
"Was there anything else about
the goal ladder that -- ah. I said
'goal' and you flinched," Dr. G noted.
"I don't really do goals," Shiv said.
"Life's hard enough without me
setting myself up to fail."
"A good goal is one that
you can reach if you stretch
a little," Dr. G said. "It shouldn't
be too hard or too easy."
"News to me," Shiv said.
"Okay, now I'm hearing that
goals aren't familiar or comfortable
for you," Dr. G said. "It's not just
the ladder, it's the whole idea
of setting and pursuing goals."
"Yes!" Shiv shouted. "Now
will you leave me the fuck alone?"
"Do you want me to leave right now?"
Dr. G shifted, ready to stand up.
For some reason that made
Shiv's heart gallop. "Wait, no."
"I'm listening," Dr. G said,
settling back into his seat.
"What do you need from me?"
"Just ... stop pushing?" Shiv said.
"I don't know what the fuck I'm
doing. I didn't ask for any of this!"
"All right," said Dr. G. "You're not ready
for goals right now. That's fine. We'll need
to revisit that another day, but we can take
more time getting to know each other first."
"Really? Just like that?" Shiv said.
"It's what you need today, so yes,"
Dr. G said. "I thought you were
ready to explore goals; I was wrong.
We will wait until you are ready."
Which would be never, but Shiv
wasn't blowing his cover now.
He'd ride it as long as it lasted.
"Okay. That's good," Shiv said.
He rubbed his hands together.
"You'll need soap and water
to get the clay off, but I have
wet wipes for now," Dr. G said.
"Yeah," Shiv said, holding out
a hand. "That'd help some."
Dr. G took out a packet and
handed a couple to Shiv.
It took more than those
to clean his hands off,
but there were plenty.
Dr. G wrapped up the clay
and said, "I'll stash this in
the art room in case you
want to use it again."
"Yeah, maybe," Shiv said.
"Thank you for listening
and talking through this,"
Dr. G said. "Do you want
to go back to your cell now,
or try drawing again? We
still have some time left."
That was surprising.
It had felt like forever.
"I broke the pencil,"
Shiv said with a sigh.
"Just the lead in the red one,"
Dr. G said. "There are others."
Shiv looked around the room.
He really should pick it up,
but he was just so tired.
"Don't worry about the mess,"
Dr. G said. "I'll clean up later."
Shiv picked at his sleeve.
"The art sticks were nice."
Dr. G slid a new page toward him.
"Go on, then, give them another try."
Shiv picked the blue and began to draw.
* * *
This poem is long, so the notes appear elsewhere.