I sat in an oversized leather chair outside Dr. Anthony Evan’s office. His waiting room had lots of photographs of athletes and inspirational messages. The door opened and he looked into the waiting room. He was tall, dark, and well built.
“You must be Jonah,” he smiled softly, extending his hand.
I sat up straighter and shook his hand, nodding.
“Come on in.”
I walked into his office holding my board game. I scanned the room quickly and settled on his large office window. I thought of the window in the boys’ bathroom at school and my stomach started to hurt. Then I took a deep breath and turned to Dr. Evans.
“Where should I sit?” I asked, feeling nervous.
“Wherever you like.”
I watched Dr. Evans take a seat in an armchair in front of his desk. There was a matching chair next to it, with a side table in between. He probably expected me to sit in the matching chair. I tried to turn my fear into bravery and walked around his big desk and stood next to his chair. I did not want to be in therapy, and I wasn’t going to make this easy for him. I flopped into the chair behind his desk and put my board game on top of the papers spread across it. I looked up at him with a slight grin.
He laughed out loud. “Okay,” he said. “Dr. Jonah. What would you like to know?”
I looked around at his office walls and saw framed degrees and some action photos of guys playing college volleyball, I assumed Dr. Evans was in these photos. Also, a photo of him playing college baseball. There were a few more where he was posing with large groups of kids.
“I’m supposed to talk to you every day for two weeks. And then once a week after that. I guess I’m expected to tell you everything going on inside my head, but I don’t know the first thing about you.” I surprised myself at how calm, and a little defiant I sounded.
Dr. Evans smiled. “Fair enough. Ask away.”
“Tell me about these pictures. And about yourself. Why did you become a therapist?” I sat back in his large comfy chair, twirling one of his pens, waiting for him to answer.
Dr. Evans quickly glanced at the photos and degrees and then took his glasses off. He crossed his legs and got a little more comfortable in the armchair.
“I grew up in Texas. Without a father, it was just my mother and I. And much like you, I played a lot of sports. Eventually all my hard work paid off, and I earned an athletic scholarship to California Baptist University, playing men’s volleyball. I also played baseball there. My junior year, I made the United States Men’s National Volleyball team. My goal was to represent the US at the Olympics. But I sustained a very serious back injury during a volleyball tournament the summer before my senior year. The injury obliterated any chance of continuing my volleyball career.”
I listened closely. This was interesting. Dr. Evans continued.
“After two back surgeries, I slipped into a very deep depression. I then became addicted to my pain medication. No longer able to play volleyball competitively, I dropped out of college and turned to drugs and alcohol. I lost my way. But after a couple of years my family and friends staged an intervention. And once sober, I went back to school and finished my undergraduate degree in psychology.”
His story and his openness surprised me. “Why psychology?” I asked.
“Because I was severely bullied as a young boy. I wanted to understand the behavior…and make a difference.” As Dr. Evans answered, he looked down at his hands folded in his lap.
This took my breath away. I couldn’t imagine anyone messing with this man. He was an imposing figure. He looked up at me and smiled. He could tell I was intrigued. I blinked quickly, swallowed hard and nodded.
“Well,” he took a deep breath and continued, “I went on to complete both a master’s degree and a doctorate degree in Christian counseling. I eventually became a psychologist.” He motioned to the pictures of him posing with the large groups of school children. “I also spent a lot of time coaching young athletes in youth sports and doing ministry work.”
“Do you counsel a lot of kids like me?” I asked, looking him straight in the eye.
“I do. Alright, enough about me. Why don’t you come around to this side and show me your game? Let’s try to have some fun.”
When I was told that Dr. Evans asked me to bring a board game, I knew what he was up to. He figured the game would break the ice and distract me enough so I would talk. I didn’t want to be in therapy, so I decided to bring a very nerdy game. One that was complicated, so Dr. Evans would have to spend more time figuring out the game and less time figuring out me.
I came around from behind the desk and told him we were going to need more space. We moved over to a small sofa and I began clearing his coffee table. He tossed me a couple of pillows. I sat on the floor while he sat opposite me on the sofa. I looked at him and forced a smiled. I pegged him as clueless about the vast world of board games, he was probably expecting Monopoly or Battleship. As I set up the game, I explained it in painstaking detail.
“This is my favorite board game right now. My dad and I play it a lot.”
“I have to admit, I have never heard of AquaSphere,” he replied.
“That’s okay. You see, AquaSphere is a spherical research facility stationed deep below the ocean’s surface. Each player gets a team consisting of an engineer, a scientist, bots, and submarines. There are two main areas. There's a research station, where your scientist conducts experiments, and then headquarters, where your engineer programs the robots. There are four rounds, and in each round, you take several turns. On your turn, you either use your engineer or your scientist. As I said, the engineer programs a bot, and then you can choose from several actions. Or, you can have your scientist bring a bot to a sector to perform an action.”
“What are the actions?” Dr. Evans asked, looking somewhat intimidated.
“Well, there are many. Like improving your lab, sending out exploratory submarines, collecting crystals, examining invasive octopods. You see, all these actions help your team gather knowledge points. You need those to win. Then there is your lab. You have to increase the size of it. Because when you grow your lab, it makes things easier, but it uses valuable time.”
“Oh boy. So, how does one win at this game?” asked Dr. Evans, looking slightly confused.
“By gathering as much data as possible. That’s the goal.” I said it as if it should have been obvious.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my choice of this particular game had revealed a lot about me to Dr. Evans. About half an hour passed.
“I think you’re getting the hang of it, Dr. Evans. You’re a good strategist. It’s a good brain burn, right?”
“Yes, it certainly is, Jonah. It requires a lot of advanced planning. And it’s clear that you love the sea.”
And then Dr. Evans made a comment that caught me off guard. “I imagine that you have to strategize a lot of your moves at school these days.”
We hadn’t talked about school the entire session. My face turned deep red and I suddenly felt hot. I kept my head bent and my eyes on the game.
Dr. Evans sunk back into the sofa, obviously taking a break from the game. “Tell me a little bit about how you’ve been navigating the dangerous waters at school, Jonah. You’ve probably become quite good at it, I imagine.”
I took a deep breath before answering. “I have a pretty good system in place. It took me some time to figure it out.”
“Tell me about it?”
I hesitated. Here we go, I thought. “Well, the guys…I mean, the bullies, at school…they’re ninth and tenth graders and I had to figure out where all their classes are and avoid those hallways and rooms. I also avoid my locker at certain times. And I don’t eat in the cafeteria…I stay in for recess. Stuff like that.”
“Has it worked?”
I shrugged and busied myself with pieces of the game.
“So, it’s not fool proof…you are still running into a sneak attack every now and then.”
I looked up at Dr. Evans and swallowed hard.
“It’s okay, Jonah. Everything you say in here stays between us. You have my word.”
I sat quietly for half a minute. Looking down at the board game.
He sat forward. “Jonah, I realize what you are up against at school every day.”
I remained silent.
“Jonah, look at me. I’m black. I grew up in an area of Texas that was mostly white. I had kids beating me up at school because I was black. They would corner me at recess and tell me to go home and not come back until I scrubbed off my dirty black skin.”
I dared to look up at Dr. Evans. My eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry they did that to you.” And then I had to ask him. “You’re a big guy though, weren’t they afraid of you? Couldn’t you just push them around?”
Dr. Evans smiled widely. “I didn’t grow until sophomore year of high school. I was pretty small in elementary and middle school. And I didn’t have a father to teach me how to defend myself.”
I nodded, surprised at his honesty and the fact he was actually small at one time.
Dr. Evans continued. “Jonah, I think I know what school is like for you. Each day is like trying to maneuver your way through a minefield.”
This broke me, and before I could stop myself, I just unleashed it all on Dr. Evans. “It’s worse than that, I feel like I have a bomb strapped to my back! It’s loudly ticking away, it never shuts up, constantly reminding me that at any moment it can go off!”
Dr. Evans nodded and leaned forward. “And what happens when the bomb goes off, Jonah?”
“It’s humiliating!” I looked down.
“I know it is,” he said softly. “I know just how unbearable it is. Tell me what happens when the bomb goes off Jonah.”
“No!” I started to cry.
“Jonah, you can tell me. You’re safe here.”
I blurted it out. “It could be…anything…I’m shoved inside a locker. Or they stuff my head into a toilet. They pull down my pants when I’m changing in the locker room and laugh hysterically at my body. They grab my cell phone and won’t give it back. Or my backpack. And they dump everything in it all over the hallway. I get chased or jumped on my way to school. And home from school. Or suddenly, I realize that the whole damn school is laughing at me because there’s some hideous picture or video of me going viral on social media. It’s all so…so fucking exhausting, living like this! Sometimes I fake I’m sick just so I don’t have to go to gym class. Some days…I…I just want to die.”
Dr. Evans said nothing for a moment. He handed me a box of tissues while I cried. Finally, he spoke.
“That’s an awfully heavy burden, or as you put it, bomb, to be carrying around all the time, Jonah. No one should have to go through life being treated this way. Trust me, all of the emotions you are experiencing are quite normal given your situation. The dark thoughts, feeling scared, angry, humiliated, and alone in the world.”
I finished wiping my nose and answered, “Yes, I feel all of those things. All the time.”
Dr. Evans nodded and rubbed his chin. “These feelings can swallow us up. Leave us feeling trapped. Paralyzed. Would you mind telling me some of your most intense feelings? Maybe what you were feeling when you sat on the window ledge in the boys’ bathroom?”
I looked at him and blinked. More tears rolled down my cheek. Dr. Evans raised a finger and got up. He walked over to a small refrigerator and grabbed two bottles of water. He put one in front of me and then sat back down. I quickly twisted the top off and took a giant swig.
“I don’t want to talk about the boys’ bathroom.”
“Alright,” Dr. Evans said patiently. “Tell me something else. Why don’t you tell me something positive about your current situation.”
“Positive?” I repeated in a question, frowning. “What could possibly be good about any of this? Other than you getting a new patient.”
He chuckled. “I prefer client, and you tell me.”
“Whatever.” I said, rolling my eyes.
“The term ‘patient’ can often imply that you are sick, that something is wrong with you and there is an expectation that I will fix you. But ‘client’ better defines our relationship as a collaboration. Emphasizing that you are a functioning person who is stuck in a problematic situation. And I am here to guide you. My goal is to empower my clients.”
“Got it.” I said, shrugging.
“Good. So let’s continue. Tell me something positive about your situation.”
I exhaled loudly and looked up at the ceiling for a few seconds. Then I blurted out, “Being alone.”
Dr. Evans nodded. “You think being alone is something positive. Go on.”
“Ya, I guess. I don’t know.”
“Try Jonah,” he encouraged.
“I mean…even when you don’t choose to be alone, it’s not as bad as you might think. It’s actually… kind of nice to have some space for just yourself. Not all the time, but sometimes.”
“I agree,” he replied, smiling. “And I was definitely a loner when I was your age.”
I cringed a little at Dr. Evans’s comment because one of the nick names that the bullies had given me was Jonah the lonah. I decided to keep this to myself.
“Is it weird that I kind of like being alone sometimes?” I asked.
“Not at all,” he began. “Alone time is different than loneliness, of course, which actually carries some health risks. But having some ‘me time’ can be a good thing.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because our brains need to rest. Recharge. It helps clear the mind, which is important for focus, processing, and reflecting. Constantly being ‘on’ doesn’t give your brain a chance to rest. Being by yourself with no distractions is important for revitalizing your mind, body, and spirit.”
“Huh. Well, I read more now. And I sketch a lot too. I think I’m more creative when I’m alone.” I added.
“Solo time absolutely helps with creativity and productivity. Okay, good. So if you can, tell me about the most difficult feelings you are dealing with, Jonah.”
I stared back down at the board game. This one wasn’t easy to put into words. I couldn’t deny that I had feelings of wanting to give up on life, but what specifically had pushed me down that dark hole couldn’t be neatly summed up in a sentence or two.
“I think it has something to do with doubting what I believe. Everything I believe. Like someone has played a really sick joke on me, where everything I thought I knew, is now a lie. And everyone is in on it except me. I don’t know. I guess I’m not making much sense.”
I could tell by the look on Dr. Evans’s face that this answer was unexpected.
“Let’s zero in on the first thing you said. Being bullied has left you doubting your own beliefs.”
“Yes. Because if you don’t believe in anything, you have no hope.
Dr. Evans was nodding and added, “So all the bullying you have endured this school year has worn you down to a point where you have been drained of all hope.”
We were both silent for a moment as he let this sink in. Dr. Evans closed his eyes. I drank from my water bottle.
He opened his eyes and was smiling again. “Tell me about your specific doubts, Jonah.”
I took another gulp. This guy smiles too much, I thought, it was kind of annoying. And having him dissect my brain was irritating too. Maybe it was my heart though. I couldn’t tell.
“Okay,” I began slowly. “Well…I don’t know if I believe in God anymore. I guess I doubt my belief in God.”
He interrupted me. “Maybe you’re just angry with God.”
I shrugged. “I doubt myself too. Pretty much everyone at school. Maybe my faith in everything.”
“In humanity,” he offered.
I felt myself getting mad. “Right. I had a happy life before all of this. I had lots of cool friends, great parents, everything was working out fine. But now…I hate my life. And everyone who has ruined it. And left me. I can’t do the things I want to do. And I don’t feel hope about anything.”
Dr. Evans leaned forward. “I hear you, Jonah. Your anger, your doubts, the hopelessness, this entire belief system that you have relied on, it feels like it’s all gone to shit. Doesn’t it? Your faith has been deeply shaken. And that is obviously important to you.”
“Yeah…I guess it is.” I replied. “Yeah, because when you were injured and couldn’t play volleyball any more, you lost all faith. You must have, because you became depressed and turned to drugs and alcohol.”
“That’s true. I did. My faith was tested, and it did not hold up. Many people rely on their faith to help them get through the difficult times in life. But as you said, I lost my way.”
Dr. Evans continued. “At some point, Jonah, all our lives become complicated and we experience loss and maybe even hardship. There will be obstacles in our path. And what we have to remember is that it is not the obstacles themselves that matter. It is how we choose to face these conflicts. How we navigate our way around them says so much about our character and our faith. A strong faith is an advantage when coping with these seemingly impossible challenges.”
I nodded. “My Dad said something yesterday, I’ve been thinking about it.”
He said, “Everyone fights their way through life.”
Dr. Evans smiled, “Do you agree?”
“Yes, I think he’s right. I think everyone has troubles they have to face.”
Dr. Evans nodded. “And during those times, we must walk in faith and not in fear.”
“How do I do that?” I asked. Then added, “And please don’t tell me to pray. That hasn’t worked.”
Dr. Evans smiled. “Being raised Christian, I imagine that you have been taught a certain view of God. But I don’t believe there are rules that we have to follow to the letter to have a close relationship with our God. I believe that Jesus wanted to free humankind from those rules, giving us the ability to walk in the Spirit. So we’re free to have a personal relationship with God. I believe our faith is quite individual. God is big enough to love us as we are.”
“Okay. So does having faith in God makes us stronger?” I asked.
“I believe so. But it’s more than that. It’s important that we develop an awareness or ability to be present. This gives us an open heart. What I have noticed about you in just this first meeting, Jonah, is your ability to listen. And observe. When we are able to really hear people and see people, we are allowing ourselves to be more aware of others. More open to others. And this fosters understanding, compassion, and empathy. An inner growth that translates to an open and loving heart. One that can forgive. This gives us strength. It lifts our faith in humanity. Do you follow what I am saying?”
“I think so. I think that they should teach compassion in school. Maybe if we were taught how to be compassionate and we had to practice it, like teaching us math and then doing practice problems, then kids would grow up being kind.”
“That would be brilliant, Jonah. We would certainly have a much different world. We could call your class Compassion 101.”
“Or Compassion for Dummies.”
Dr. Evans chuckled a little. “Do you have any more questions or comments before we wrap things up today?”
“Actually, I was a little worried that you were going to put me on drugs for depression and make me go to a hospital.
Dr. Evans raised his eyebrows. “No. Why do you think I would do that, Jonah?”
I shrugged. “Because I’m probably pretty messed up.”
“Jonah, there’s nothing really wrong with you. You aren’t the one with the problem. It’s the bullies who have the problem. You are a victim of their actions. And you are feeling depressed and afraid because of how you are being treated by them. Tell me, back when I was being bullied as a boy for being black, who was the one with the problem, me or them?”
“Them obviously. Those kids were racist.”
“Exactly. I was just being me. And they were being racist. How is your situation any different? You are just being you and there is nothing wrong with you. All humans have hearts and feelings and deserve to be treated with kindness and dignity. Their bullying of you is their issue. It’s on them.”
“So they should be sitting here in therapy.”
Dr. Evans chuckled again. “Yes, actually, they should.”
“But instead I’m here.”
“A single bullying incident can have a lasting negative impact on a person. By meeting regularly with me, we are going to work on preventing that.”
“Now, the other part of this is making sure the bullying stops. And although your parents, and the principal, and a few teachers are going to be working hard to put a stop to the bullying, that can only happen if you are completely honest with them and you are completely honest with me.”
This raised an important question for me. “Are you going to tell my parents and the school what we talk about in therapy? Because you said our conversations are private.”
“Yes, I did say that, and you are correct. Our conversations are private, I am bound by a code of ethics but there are exceptions. And those relate to the possibility of violence or violence that has already occurred. So, to be clear, as your psychologist it is my duty to protect the health and well-being of my client. And that means protecting you from either possibly hurting yourself, inflicting injury upon others, or being hurt by someone else.”
“I guess that’s fair. It sounds tricky though.”
“Well, it can be. I’m glad you understand the limits. I’m pretty good at what I do, Jonah. With some hard work, I think we can make your life a lot easier at school and also help you to feel a lot better about yourself. Do you have any other questions for me today?”
“No. I’m definitely done for today.”
Dr. Evans stood up, walked over and patted me on the shoulder. “You did well, son, I’m proud of you. Your ability to be direct and honest will help a lot. You shared some painful feelings today and that alone is a big step in processing your situation and ultimately healing."
Hearing this actually made me smile a little. He kept talking as we walked to the door.
"We’re going to cover a lot of ground in here. Coping skills and assertive communication and boundary-setting; things that I believe will help you get through school and build an even stronger sense of self.”
He paused for a second and then pulled out a business card from his shirt pocket. “Here is my business card, it has my cell phone number on it. You may call me any time, Jonah. I mean that.”
I reached out and took the card and studied it. “Thank you,” I whispered. Then I stuffed the card in my pocket and shook his big hand. He noticed that I didn’t want to let go. He turned back to his desk and as I was leaving, I heard him sigh.