I first had the dream my first week at the Academy. I would die the next day in the dream. Talking with my family everyone knew, knew that this night was my last. Yet I felt the fear, the total fear. Walking around my flowing dream I realized soon the end would come and I had accomplished nothing, had done nothing. The fear was too much and then I awoke. Laying in the dark strange room, realizing after a minute I was in the Academy. I was not in my safe little room at home. I was here to prevent the dream, stop my life from meaning nothing, because they would help me make it something. Help me actualize my existence. I didn't want to die a failure.
2. The Academy of Social Interaction and Adaptation
Mentor Jim was the first person I met upon entering the Academy. He greeted me with his large smile and bald head. He extended his hairy hand to me and assured me everything was bliss. As we walked through its long hallways and multitude of rooms he pointed out all the amenities with a pride in his voice. The 'exercise rooms', dressed in varying scenes; that day a supermarket checkout, classroom, and restaurant. The counseling centers, young people laying on couches in private rooms, discussing their darkest fears. The living quarters, small rooms with only enough space for a bed and a desk.
His newest attraction at the time was the phone bank. A large room with tables full of phones. At each phone sat a student who would call a long list of numbers.
"Wrong numbers you understand. All they have to do is dial the number, ask for a made-up person, have the other end of the line say it is a wrong number, apologize and hang up. For most this is a very difficult experience initially, yet soon they become acclimated," he said.
I did not know what to make of the Academy at first. I seemed a fantasy in itself. Maybe a cross between a hospital and a playacting troupe. It was unusual for something like this to exist in the world. But I knew I have nothing on the outside, it had always been a failure for me.
I was 17 years old upon entering the Academy. I had dropped out of high school because its social obligations had grown too much. The necessity to be part of a clique, have friends, go out on the weekends, speak to others. I had to separate myself, I was a social cripple. But the Academy would help me change, it was their mission statement.
The first day after Mentor Jim had given me the tour I was left alone in my room for the night. They did not want to start me too quickly on the therapy and I laid on my bed and stared into the skylight above me. There were no windows in the residence rooms, only skylights to provide light in the daytime. I watched the blue sky slowly fade to black and felt a fear in me. I had never been away from home for more than a night or two. Yet I was here at the Academy, to have treatment for at least on year. I would face the experience myself, alone.
My real room at home called to me, beckoned as I laid looking at the sky. I got up and tried the door but it was locked, they had locked me in. I found out later it was a precaution, for many new friends tried to leave their first night. I ended up falling asleep and waking up to Mentor Jim's smiling face looking down on me.
"It is time for your initial talk session, " he spoke, his white teeth shining at me.
Talk sessions were conducted in a large number of comfortable rooms they had constructed on the east side of the Academy. One could walk down the corridor and see the rooms lining each side. Each had a large window that looked into the room. Most had a curtain pulled, but as the friend became more open the curtain was opened, opening up the friend to the world at least on a small scale.
Walking into one of the rooms I felt a warmth. It had plush carpeting, a couch, and other wooden furniture. It seemed more like a living room than a counseling office. On the walls were pictures of peaceful images: tropical beaches, country fields, star strewn night skies. All were devoid of people as the Mentors realized pictures of smiling faces only tended to aggravate friends.
"Tell me what you did last Friday night, " was Mentor Jim's first question to me at my talk session.
"I stayed at home and watched television," I replied.
"Hmm.. why did you not go out?"
"I have no one to go out with."
"No friends, no girlfriend?"
"Hmm... " he said, all the time writing in his notebook.
I looked at a picture across from me of a large mountain, the sky behind it orange and red with a setting sun. It was peaceful to look at. Mentor Jim's questions were beginning to edge the nerves in me.
"Can you name the last time you did something outside your home?" he said.
I hesitated a moment, scanning through my mind. All I could see was myself sitting in my room. I rarely went anywhere besides school.
"I remember going to a restaurant with my mom about a month ago. Does that count," I said.
"Maybe," he replied, seeming to take great thought in my answer.
He remained silent, continuing to write more things into his notebook. I felt nervous and wanted to leave, but knew I couldn't. I began to question the entire place in my mind. Maybe it was only a cheap psychiatry hospital. He asked all the same questions. Yes, I was a social recluse, you knew that when I came in.
"Why are you asking these questions?" I finally said, managing to break my inhibitions for a moment.
He looked up at me with his half-reading glasses.
"This is the beginning of the treatment. I must ascertain to what extent your problem entails so I can help design the perfect treatment for you," he gracefully replied.
I let him continue and he asked more questions. Ones that tried to splice me apart and see how much of an outcast I really was. "Have you kissed a girl?","How does your mother make you feel?", "When engaging in social conversation, what is your anxiety level?", "Do you masturbate?".
I answered all his questions and he let me leave. It was only the first of the talk sessions. They were one of the centerpieces of the Academy's treatment. Their belief was one had to be able to purge all his inner demons to be able to get past them. I realized it was a takeoff of some sort of Freudian psychoanalysis. I went along with it thought, let Mentor Jim hear all my dreams and fears. Yet after the talk sessions, the exercises began.
4. An Encounter
They had the room dressed as a bar that day. Complete with a wooden car at one end, tables, and even a jukebox playing a rock song. I walked into it, not realizing it would be my turn that day. Friends most times would only be actors in an exercise, with only one or two other people being the actual subjects. Actors only cursorily participated but were there to learn from others mistakes or accomplishments, incorporating rules of social living into their own personalities. The subjects were the ones that the exercise had been specifically designed for. If one deftly feared ordering food at a restaurant, they would have to do it in a faux restaurant set-up, honing their skills so as when the real situation came they would be prepared.
The bar was for me and I soon realized it was to help me eliminate my fear of approaching strange women. I, like most of the friends at the Academy, had never had any romantic experience. I had never kissed a girl, never even taken a girl on a date. Yet I had had an unusual amount of crushes on girls. I would fixate on certain girls that I was attracted to and watch them from afar, never having the courage to actually go up and talk to them. The prospect of doing such an action terrified me and prevented me from having any sort of relationship. The girls remained in my mind, where I did not have to deal with the reality of them possibly rejecting me.
Mentor Jim knew this when he designed the bar exercise. He stood there as I walked in and smiled at me.
"Adam, today is your day. Are you ready?" he said.
I stood still, a sudden intense fear overtaking me. Yet I remembered the techniques Mentor Jim had taught me to help overcome my fear. I began to breath deeply and steadily and tried focusing on the situation, not he fear. I looked and saw my fellow friends walking around the fake bar, pretending to be patrons. They were talking to each other but I realized it was not real, only them assuming characters for the exercise. Many people at the Academy had the uncanny ability to speak easily if they were not supposed to be themselves. If one assumed a character's identity who was outgoing, the painfully shy person could talk freely. It was only when the person became the subject of the exercise and were forced to play themselves did the fear surface.
"Now Adam. The exercise is for you to approach that girl over by the bar and start a conversation with her," Mentor Jim said.
I looked over to the bar and saw what girl he was referring to, Julia. She was attractive, petite, with long brown hair. I had seen her before and realized the talk sessions with Mentor Jim had truly gotten deep into me, he knew what girl out of all the others at the Academy I would be most attracted to. I felt the blood rush through me and my heart beat faster.
"Are you all right Adam?" Mentor Jim said. I looked down at my hand and saw it was shaking, a nervous gesture I had picked up.
"Yes," I replied. He smiled and saw the determination on my face. I wanted to talk to her, to show her and everyone I could be better, transcend my social isolation. This was my first real test, a true test. Yet at the same time I felt I could runaway and hide in a hole and be happy.
"Good, we will begin," Mentor Jim said, raising his arms in the air and shouting, "Let's begin," to the room.
I walked towards Julia and felt every footstep beneath me as the room seemed to shrink and grow. I could hear the soft rock song playing but it sounded distant, as if it was coming from underneath a muffled sheet. I looked at Julia and she held her character as she stood staring at a glass of wine she held. Finally I reached her, trying to act casual and placing my arm on the bar.
"Hello," I said, a mock enthusiasm in my voice.
She looked up at me with her large green eyes and then I realized something was wrong.
"You disgusting freak, how could you even think I would want to talk to you," she said angrily and threw her drink in my face. I stood stunned, the liquid dripping down my cheeks. Everything was quiet and then I heard Mentor Jim's voice.
"Good, very good Julia," he said, walking up to us.
I realized it had been part of the exercise. He had ordered her to do it. I looked at Julia and saw her mouth I'm sorry.
"Sorry Adam to inundate you suddenly. But my thought is to act out your greatest fear first, so as to make the subsequent times less fearful," Mentor Jim said.
"Ok," I quietly replied, still slightly off-put by the entire situation.
"Good, then we do it again," he said and I saw him go over and whisper something in Julia's ear.
The scene was set up again and I again walked over to her, placing my elbow on the bar and saying hello.
"Hello," she replied, her voice changed. Now the anger was gone, replaced by a trace of a sensual tenor.
"I just saw you over here and thought you looked lonely," I said. I believe I had heard it in a movie.
"Thank you, I am very lonely. Would you like to go to bed with me," she said, touching my arm with her finger. As I looked wide-eyed at her I heard Mentor Jim interrupt.
"No, no Julia, I said to lead up to that. Not say it immediately,," he said in a disappointing tone.
"Sorry, I messed up, I'm sorry," Julia replied. I could see how the sensual voice bleed out of her immediately as she talked to Mentor Jim. Her real voice high and sweet, the existence of niceness showing through. I saw her real self for a moment and it was intoxicating.
"It's ok Julia. Ok let's start again, but this time both of you just try to have a normal conversation," Mentor Jim said.
This time I dispensed with walking over to her and we started immediately by saying hello to each other. I realized she was using her own voice and became more nervous, this wasn't a character, this was a real person.
"I saw you over here and thought you looked lonely," I repeated.
"Thank you, do you come her often," she said, slightly awkward.
"Occasionally. I'm not a big bar-type," I said, not believing how good it sounded.
"Me neither," she replied.
Then we hit the roadblock. Neither of us could fish out another phrase and we stood in silence. We were both like everyone else at the Academy, grasping for words in a frightening universe. Words rolled through my mind but they all seemed wrong. I quickly tested them out mentally and they all fell flat. I could see by her eyes she was doing the same thing. Both of us desperately trying to think of the appropriate thing to say, our nerves pulling on top of each other, the air between us growing thick. The silence surrounding us.
I looked over and saw Mentor Jim had said something. Scream? what did he mean.
"What?" I questioned.
"Scream!" he yelled forcefully and then I realized what he meant. I screamed, a loud bellowing scream that sounded through the room. I grabbed the bar tightly, feeling all the energy in my body forced out through my lungs. I continued and saw Julia had joined me, her face growing red as her high scream connected with mine to form a cacophony of noise. After a minute be both stopped, slouching against the bar, our bodies weak.
Mentor Jim walked over to us and spoke.
"Good. Primal scream therapy is a good way to break tension. I saw you both had the nerves built up too much and needed a release. Now of course one can not do that in normal society. But for the purposes of this exercise it is a good technique.
I was out of breathe but realized the scream had worked, the nervousness had seemed to escape my body. I felt at that moment I could talk normally to Julia, express myself as I truly was. She stood there, leaning over and I could see her chest move in and out as she grasped for breath. I was about to say something but Mentor Jim cut in.
"Good. Now we should probably take a break. We will leave this up for tomorrow. Tonight though I would like both of you to study the social interaction chapters in your text book," he said.
I nodded and soon began to feel the effects of the scream wearing off. The nervousness and anxiety rushing back into my body. It was only a temporary fix and as I looked at Julia she seemed to became more an object of fear. Something distant I could not talk to. A wall between us, between me and the other people who inhabited the world.