May 7th to 13th
People say, “Your life will flash in front of your eyes,” and “You will see the light at the end of the tunnel.” I thought it was true. Must’ve been, right? Those sayings got so popular, they were used in fiction books and movies like they were proven facts. Seeing the best moments of my life would have been better than the salty water burning my eyes, and the light in the tunnel would have certainly beat the deep darkness grabbing at me, pulling me deeper into its grasp despite the life vest—and despite the efforts of my tired limbs splashing in the unforgiving waves.
Gasping for air, when there was none to find.
Lungs burning from the effort.
It wasn’t supposed to be like that. And the fear? Nobody tells you about the gripping fear; they tell you fairy tales about peace that engulfs you as you smile into the face of whoever is waiting on the other side. The pain is gone now, but the fear has stayed with me. I’m afraid it will never leave again.
My mother advised me to go to therapy, no matter the costs, because professionals know better how to deal with traumatic experiences. I could start moving on with my life.
As if life had stopped after the accident.
As if I had stopped living.
I don’t even have the chance to take a breather. I am moving on, together with life and everybody in it, but I am dragging the past with me in a light grey luggage bag with four wheels and a retractable handle. It isn’t hard covered like some of the suitcases are, closer to a rollable duffel bag—a lot like the one I lost. I can even imagine the sticker around the handle stating the location it was supposed to end up in but never did. Maybe therapy will help me finally leave it all behind.
Forgotten. In the depths of the ocean. Together with my favourite jeans and sweater, Canon EOS 200D, new pair of sneakers, and the rest of my things.
Renewing half of my wardrobe isn’t the worst part. You can always buy new things. What I can’t live with are the nightmares, the terror that has lingered at the edge of my consciousness every day since the crash.
I leave my car in one of the hidden gems of parking lots, where nobody asks for payment, and walk the rest of the way to the address saved on my phone. I thought the short walk would calm my nerves, but I am even more anxious when I stop in front of the red-brick building fitting the address in my notes. Even though the sign at the building’s entrance clearly states Counseling and Therapy, I double check the email and Google Maps before trusting to step inside. The metal door creaks a little when I push at it, and it closes heavily behind me, mercilessly trapping me in the foreign space.
Inside, the receptionist looks at me expectantly when I stop to glance around. There is a small waiting room left of her. Green, leafy wallpaper covers a wall opposite the windows, and a line of cheerfully colourful chairs stretches underneath the high windowsill. Two vending machines stand proudly next to a big palm that matches the wallpaper to perfection. One provides snacks and the other drinks. My stomach grumbles, reminding me that besides sleepless nights, I’m also not eating enough.
Through the glass doors I see an older woman sitting among the greenery on one of those colourful chairs. She has a book open on her lap but keeps looking up from the pages impatiently. When her eyes drop to the book again, it doesn’t look like they really take in the words sprawled across the paper.
A well-lit corridor painted in soft yellow glides past the receptionist and seems to lead to where the therapy rooms are. Several closed doors are visible from where I am standing. Pictures and quotes I can’t make out hang on regular intervals adorning the walls.
Everything looks intentionally warm and welcoming.
Just like the woman smiling at me from behind the counter. “How can I help you?” she asks.
“Umm. I have an appointment?” I bite my lip, looking behind her at the posters that are hanging from the walls.
Five Steps to Manage Emotions, one reads, while the other one promises me that whatever I say will stay between me and my therapist. I am hoping it is an older woman with kind eyes and a comforting smile, saying things like, “You are not alone.”
The receptionist nods, typing away at her computer. “Your name?”
“Amber. Amber de Brock,” I say, turning away from the posters.
If all goes well, I will be seeing them every week for the next year or so. I really hope I will like the woman, older or not. She’ll be able to help me sort through the experience I can’t seem to leave behind.
“Take a seat. Doctor Alfons will call you in shortly.”
More nervous by the minute, I stumble into the waiting room, where the other woman is still impatiently looking around every couple of seconds and pointedly not reading her book.
“Hello,” I say as I sit down, leaving two chairs open between us.
“Hi,” she responds absently, barely glancing at me.
A minute later, a brown-haired woman with striking blue eyes comes for her and they walk into the yellow-walled corridor. She seemed nice but clearly isn’t going to be my therapist. My appointment starts—I look at my phone—in three minutes.
Relaxing jazz music plays quietly in the background. It does nothing to calm me down. I am not waiting long, but by the end of it, I feel like vomiting. My heart is trying to jump out of my chest, and I almost feel like I am underwater again. Drowning in my own stupid nerves.
“Hello. You must be Amber.”
I look up from my phone, finding comfort in its familiar shape in my hand and the WhatsApp group chat, where Idy messaged the girls about dinner plans for Wednesday night. A dark-haired man is standing by the glass doors to the waiting room, his dark brown eyes assessing me patiently. An easy smile adorns his face, which is hidden under a slight beard that covers his chin all the way to his hairline. His dark jeans and the pullover he’s wearing do nothing to diminish his good looks. He could be an Instagram model, for all the perfection I see.
“Doctor Alfons?” I ask, hoping it isn’t him. I bite my lip and stare at him some more. How could I talk about the nightmares and the fear to someone like him? He doesn’t look like someone who’s ever been afraid. Would he understand me at all?
“Call me Adriaan. Please,” he says with a warm smile. “If you’re ready, you can follow me.”
Oh, sweet lord above, help me.
I slip my phone back into my purse and stand up. What if I’m not ready? Could I sit in the waiting room for another hour? I think not.
He leads me to a bright room with a big window looking into a small patch of trees behind the building, and my eyes land on a man outside. He is walking two corgis on a footpath in between the green heaven. The dogs pad around wiggling their tails happily in the sunlight. The simple joy in the animals makes me smile.
I wish I could be that easily pleased.
“You can have a seat, if you’d like,” Dr. Alfons—Adriaan—says, and I look around the room to find a very inviting sofa across from an armchair that would clearly be his seat for the session. Further in the room, a desk faces toward the entrance, and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf covers the whole back wall behind it, leaving no room for posters telling me to Relax and Just Tell my Story. The creamy walls and the sun shining through the trees outside the window fill the room with warmth. It’s not as bad as I feared. Not a cold white-walled box to trap me in.
“Make yourself at home,” my therapist says when he notices I still haven’t moved from the doorway. “Would you like something to drink? Water? Tea?”
I nod slightly. “Water sounds good.” I haven’t realised how dry my throat is before he suggests it. He moves around in the room, and I notice a mini fridge with a glass door in the corner opposite the table. Cans of cola and water bottles are lined up neatly inside, and a coffee machine takes up a significant amount of space on the small countertop next to it.
When I am still standing stiffly after he passes me the drink, he must’ve decided leading by example is better than his light suggestions pointing me toward feeling more comfortable. He lowers himself into the armchair across from the sofa, placing his own water bottle onto a low round table right next to it.
Reluctantly, I inch towards the sofa as he waits. I feel like a child being scrutinised by a very attentive parent. I do not enjoy the feeling. His eyes on me do nothing to ease my nerves.
When I lower myself to the seat, I am not expecting to be hugged by the many pillows on the sofa like they are meeting an old friend they haven’t seen in a while. Chill out. I’m new here.
Sitting down does feel great. So much so that I am wondering if I will ever get up again.
Dr. Alfons adjusts a notebook in his lap and takes a pen out of his breast pocket, which makes me stare more pointedly at his form. He is lean and taut. Broad shoulders make me wonder what he has going for him under the layers of clothes he’s wearing. He is in good shape, his body being just as attractive as his face. How in the world did he end up as a therapist and not a movie star?
When Adriaan clears his throat, I realise I’ve been staring and sharply look at the cap of my water bottle in my hands. His attention on me makes me skittish and shy. I am supposed to tell this man my life story, and I can’t even look at him without my mouth watering.
“Okay,” I say nervously before Dr. Alfons has a chance to say anything himself. The room feels heavy, and I’d honestly rather be a corgi flopping my tail around outside in the park. “Let’s be honest.”
He quirks an eyebrow. “That would be the most beneficial, indeed.”
“I’ve never done this before.” I absently unscrew the water bottle and then close it back again. “I’m not sure how this works. Do I just say anything that comes to my mind or …?”
Adriaan smiles at me from the armchair. I like that look on him. “That’s one of the things we are going to discuss today and see what would work best for you.”
I nod, unscrewing the cap and taking a sip before closing the bottle again.
“I saw your file, but I would like you to tell me about yourself. What brought you here?”
Uh oh. Let’s talk about that right away, then.
“An airplane,” I say, and in a way it’s true. If he has read through the medical history I sent—a file, as he calls it—he would surely know what I mean. “That and the nightmares.”
He nods thoughtfully. “Are the dreams about anything specific?”
Is he asking if I dream about the accident? What else would make me wake up in cold sweat, dreading to see nothing but waves around me? I didn’t think I would be talking about the horrors in my head right away. I feel uncomfortable sharing my darkest side with a stranger, even if he is a professional.
“The same every time,” I say, staring past him out of the window. There is another dog owner taking their beloved pet out on a leisurely stroll. This one is a German shepherd walking contentedly right next to its owner.
I hear Adriaan shift in his chair to follow my gaze. “If this distracts you, I can close the curtains,” he offers.
“Please don’t.” I drag my gaze away from freedom and look toward him instead. “It’s normal, right? To have bad dreams after …” I can’t seem to say it out loud. His warm eyes study me, like he is used to waiting while people search for the correct words. “… accidents?”
There is a gleam in his eyes as if he is proud of me for finishing the sentence. I feel like a five-year-old again, trying to explain to my mother that the reason the walls were scribbled on was merely because I couldn’t find any paper.
“Posttraumatic nightmares are a common occurrence in my patients, yes,” he replies. He studies me a second longer, clearly realising that despite how nice the sofa feels, I am not comfortable enough to share about that yet. He clears his throat. “Why don’t we get to know each other this session? Hi, Amber, I’m Adriaan.” He smiles a little, as if we just started from a new page. “I like to read, take walks in the forest, and I love to help people who need a little guidance.”
My heart leaps inside my chest, and I try to calm it down. It’s not a date. I don’t have to live up to his standards.
“Hey,” I say softly. “Umm… photography could be called one of my hobbies. I mostly snap pictures of nature or cityscapes. I lost my camera, though,”—what a downer!—“so that’s on hold for now.”
“Lost it?” he asks curiously. It’s like having a normal conversation.
“Oh yeah, you know… It must’ve sunk.”
Understanding crosses his eyes, and he doesn’t let me ponder long about the loss. “What else? Any other activities you enjoy?”
“Gardening?” I suggest, as if he would know the answer. Living in an apartment, I don’t even own a garden. Taking care of plants, however, feels satisfying. “I have a tomato plant on my balcony and a few herbs. Clearly, it is not gardening per se, as no garden is involved in the process.” Do I see amusement flicker in his eyes? “But it’s as close to it as I can get right now.”
“That’s good.” He’s trying to keep himself from saying anything further and loses the battle. “The most I do in my garden is mowing the lawn.”
Oh? Is he suggesting he needs help designing his backyard? I look away from him, unscrew my water bottle again, and play with the cap. There are two more dogs outside the window, and I blurt, “And I love dogs. Never had one, though. My mother always said I couldn’t possibly take care of one, and she couldn’t stand all that hair around the house.”
I tilt my head curiously. “Now?”
“Why don’t you get a dog now? You’re old enough to decide on your own.”
He’s right. I am old enough. Twenty-four is old enough to make big decisions like that. Hurray!
“I … I don’t know. I guess I never thought I could … Besides, I live in an apartment. It’s not ideal for a dog.”
“There are plenty of dogs that wouldn’t mind apartment living,” he informs me.
I hesitate at that. Yeah. I know.
“It’s just that … I always thought I would like to have a bigger dog, one you can wrap your arms around and know—It’s stupid. Are we seriously discussing dogs right now?”
“It’s not stupid, Amber. Know what?”
Adriaan, my therapist, got me to talk about something completely other than the reason I am actually there. I guess that’s a start. I guess I could give that part of me away, right?
“Know that they’d be strong enough to protect you if you ever got in trouble,” I say quietly. Childish dreams. Thinking a dog could stand up for you when you weren’t brave enough yourself.
I see him writing something down, but he is not laughing at me. He must have been taking notes the whole time because when he flips a page, I can make out a few words on a filled page.
“Do you think,” Adriaan asks, “that you wouldn’t be able to take care of yourself?”
So much for light conversation. I stop talking.
There are so many things I still can’t do on my own: process my tax return, hang lamps in the apartment, I never learned to bake. Of course, there are things I’m good at too, but not nearly as many.
“Your apartment,” he says, when I don’t say anything for a long while. “Do you live alone?”
That’s a question I can answer.
“And your parents?” Adriaan nudges.
“Just my mother. What about her?”
“Is she reachable? Do you talk often?”
The conversation we had before turns into a one-sided game of Questions and Answers. Although, the topic is still acceptable.
“She lives in Eindhoven, less than a two-hour ride on a good day. We chat a few times a week. She was the one who suggested I … reach out? Get help, that is.”
“Your father, is he—”
I interrupt him, “He left when I was young. I can’t remember much about him.” If anything at all.
He shakes his head lightly while writing this down, thinking I won’t notice.
“I never cared for him. It was just another thing I didn’t have.” Oh. Now that I put it that way, it sounds rather sad. “No. Seriously,” I try again when he looks up from his notebook, “it didn’t affect me.”
I don’t have daddy issues. I was alright growing up without a father. A few other kids in my age group who were experiencing the same abandonment took it a lot harder than I did. I always thought a dog would be better than a person, anyway. Loyal and loving. I used to walk all our neighbours’ dogs. At least, that my mother didn’t mind.
“I think that’s one of the reasons I like dogs so much,” I wonder out loud. “They are a complete opposite of what my mother ever told me about my father.”
“I see,” Adriaan says, obviously writing that down.
I bite my lip, daring a look at him.
“So, dogs, photography, and gardening? Sounds like a great combination.”
“Add a walk in the forest in the mix and it’s perfection,” I reply, my heartbeat picking up again. Shut up, Amber, you are not here to flirt with the man.
He lets out a surprised chuckle, and I stare out the window again to avoid his eyes.
I feel a little better by the end of the session. More confident, too, in my decision to talk to someone. Adriaan Alfons kept the topics light, asking me about my work and why I chose interior design and what’s my favourite memory from growing up. I tell him a little about my friends. As he is wrapping up the session, he gets more serious again.
“Are you available for next week at the same time?” Adriaan asks me, standing up from his chair.
I nod, struggling to get up from the sofa. “Monday morning. There’s no better time to spill your guts to a stranger.”
He smiles again. He did that several times during the one and half hours I spent in the room.
“I would like you to write down your dreams for the next session,” Dr. Alfons says before I even have a chance to step closer to the exit, making me freeze in my tracks.
“Just one is enough,” he encourages me while studying my reaction.
“Okay. I’ll try.”
“Good, see you next Monday, Amber.”