by Robert DePaolo
Shifting Images ran through Melanie's mind as the dream unfolded. Freud believed all dreams have meaning and some sort of restorative purpose. Perhaps that is true because there was a potentially helpful but daunting change in Melanie's dream imagery. A transition from......left the painfully shy, agoraphobic girl on center stage at the Flip Flop Comedy Club. There was no prelude to this in the dream. She was just there, dropped down before a less than enthusiastic audience. "Dream Melanie" was compelled to do a difficult thing - make a group of strangers laugh. It was a rather overwhelming task for someone trapped for years within a web of phobic withdrawal. Still, the dream unfolded.
A young couple sat in the front row as Melanie began her routine. "Good evening, ladies, gentlemen and the vast majority of you who don't seem to fit into either category." This is my first comedy gig. The only other time I performed in front of an audience was when I suffered a panic attack during a yard sale." (No laughter)
The oblivious young couple started making out while an older fellow in the back row issued a dismissive comment: "When are the girls coming out?" Dream state Melanie, saw an opportunity to ad lib. "To the older gentleman in the back; the strippers will come out after my act. which will be in about twenty minutes. Unfortunately, a quick glance at the orange spots on your forehead tells me that might be past your bedtime" (Still no laughter).
After pausing briefly and wiping a bead of sweat from her forehead, a chagrined Melanie looked out at the audience and replied: " Oh - what a nice painting! This was followed by mild laughter. "Now, there are two lovers up front here engaging in what apears to be pre-coital activity. I am usually offended when the audience ignores my act. On the other hand, I'm a big fan of romance so I want you to continue kissing. We can just replace rim shots with lip smacking to highlight my punchlines."
Now there was more laughter, even from the young, amorous couple. One member of the audience cried out: "Bravo." Melanie replied: "Bravo? What am I, a bull fighter?" (More laughter). Another suddenly engrossed audience member opined: " You're terrific Melanie - we don't need the strippers" "You're absolutely right," said Melanie. "They come out here, dance around and men stuff money into their panties. I wonder - do the ladies spray the bills with a disinfectant before handing them over to a store clerk? Would you accept payment from someone who kept his money in his underpants? "Regarding the strippers, I've got some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that they won't be performing tonight. The good news is that they will be back next week after the new environment-friendly, carbon neutral, gluten free, low cholesterol, heart healthy, unprocessed, recyclable, poles are installed." (More laughter). "By the way, isn't it impressive how they can climb up and down those poles? Sort of reminds you of a silicon fireman."
Melanie was on a roll. Laughter and loud applause permeated the Flip Flop room. A vociferous, girthy fellow put two fingers in his mouth and whistled at the top of his lips. Melanie took notice. "Well - I would like to thank the gentleman from the Audubon society for that warm reception." By the way, don't worry about your receding hair line. It's an indicator of higher intelligence. Also, it is easier to see you at night." Things continued to go well.
But now - as the dream faded into wakefulness, Melanie tossed and turned. Her eyes opened gingerly to the piercing sunlight that shone through her bedroom window. She sat up in her bed, thought a moment, then laid down again. placing the covers over her head. There was a flash of the usual anxiety. She dearly wanted to get dressed and go out but pathology blocked the way. She needed a ploy - a new strategy beyond the suggestion by her therapist that she use self-talk to override her fear of leaving the house.
Melanie had tried that, to no avail. "You can do it Mel. It's a beautiful world out there, Mel. The danger is all in your head, Mel. Just take the first step out the door and your fear will abate, Mel." Nothing! She was still frozen, psychologically paralyzed and seemingly destined to remain an indoor girl.
Then came an insight in the form of a substitution. Melanie traded her shrink's advice for the inspiration provided by a "muse" (really alter ego Melanie) to whom she began speaking while looking in a mirror. She asked: "Why am I so afraid to leave the house?" The muse replied: " Because the guy next door is probably a serial killer. He's a male between 25 and 40 - duh! Who are you going to kill when you're 60 - a woman who's' 70? He is a good family man, attends church regularly, currently attends law school and averages one savage murder a week. If not for that one glitch this guy could go places! I might add that even as we speak, you're probably being stalked by a man with a hump in his back and a tattoo of Robert Blake on his bicep. Furthermore it is quite possible that terrorists have planned another attack on a financial building - do you know those 911 guys took flying lessons for a year? If all you're going to do is crash into a building why do you need flying lessons? They could have saved money by skipping the safety and landing parts of the training and cut it down to a two week course. Heck, spend the money on a new smartphone so you can watch movies on a 2 by 4 inch screen that makes even Al Pacino look tall."
Melanie found herself laughing at the comments. Was it possible a therapist's logic could be replaced by absurdity? It was a beginning. She then asked the muse: " But if there are dangers out there. Isn't it safer to just remain at home?" The muse replied: "Of course, assuming you won't need sexual gratification from time to time." Melanie laughed. "Good point, muse, but I can do without sex. Or I could invite someone inside. That's usually where people engage." The muse replied: " Well, you'd have to make a call to get an unknown male to come over. If he became violent you'd have to run outside and ask for help, which defeats the whole purpose of being agoraphobic - and you still have to get the mail." "Another good point" said Melanie. 'That's two points, Mel" "
As she continued to laugh the mirror began to fog up. She could not see her reflection clearly and mentioned that to the muse, who replied. "Sometimes it is less about seeing yourself as you are and more about seeing yourself in a different light." "That is rather abstract," said Melanie. "What are you implying?" The muse replied: "Get the hell out of here." Doors swing two ways. They shut and they open." This rather baroque version of self help worked.
Melaine turned from the mirror, got dressed and ventured out into the light of day. Once out on the street she looked behind her. There was a man with a hump in his back, but he was not stalking her. Instead, he crossed the street to enter a Planet Fitness facility - perhaps to work on his abs. Contrary to her therapist's contention, It was not a beautiful world. There was litter in the street. Loud noises burst forth from cars, trains and barking dogs and there was a public quarrel involving a married couple. But while there was a modicum of aggravation there was no danger and Melanie decided she could live with the duress of every day life. At long last, change occured from within - sort of.