The PAO was the type of woman that wouldn’t mind being called a crone. I knew them well; that’s what they call themselves. They flock to the profession of psychotherapy. They populate conferences with their shocks of coarse gray hair and woolens, like a herd of sheep. Their new age necklaces emit so many positive vibes that negativity would not dare raise its head. They are goddesses, all of them, and dub every woman they meet a goddess, too, although I’ve never heard them call a man god.
“I used to be a PAO,” I informed her, “and always found that the office got in the way of the function. People get intimidated by the power we have over them. We can take away their freedom with the stroke of a pen and have them committed, changing their lives forever.”
She gave this a slow nod, the kind you have when you are hearing something true, but totally unexpected, and don’t want to show your reaction too soon.
“When people perceive we have power over them, they will either tell us just what they think we want to hear, or they won’t tell us anything at all.” I didn’t add that there’s a significant third group that will mount a futile opposition to any authority they see and a tiny fourth group that resorts to trickery.
“Counseling works best when the counselor can offer no practical benefit or harm to the counselee: when there is nothing we need to sign, no calls we can make, and no commodities we can broker.” I continued. “Only when they think we are powerless will they trust us to help them change.”
She seemed confused as to why I was lecturing her on this and laying on the irony so thick. I, for one, couldn’t believe what was coming out of my mouth, for I was making this up as I was going along.
“Patients will sooner unburden themselves to a peer, even someone totally untrained in listening and someone who may not have good advice, than any counselor.”
I could see the feet of Charisa, which must have been the name of the round-headed waif, standing right outside my door. She may have been guarding it for me, or just wanted to stay close.
I lowered my voice, motioned for the PAO to come nearer, and said, “She’s right outside and I don’t want her to hear. I quit my job as a PAO and went into practice as an undercover counselor. I try to pose as a patient so that my client will trust me, then I provide psychotherapy.”
She pulled back and squinted her eyes. “No one told me you were coming in.”
“Oh, no, can you imagine a hospital administrator going for this? Or an insurance company? None of them can know, they would ruin everything. They’d make me wear an identification badge and fill out a million forms and sit in on meetings. No, if they knew, I’d have to suspend operations. We have to keep this from them or my patients risk abandonment.”
The crone nodding more briskly now; she completely understood how hospital administrators and insurance companies botch everything up. “But how do you get paid?”
Here I paused and thought. How do I get paid? That is, if any of this were real, how would I get paid then? “Their families,” I said. “Families pay me because they are frustrated with the mental health system and are desperate for any way of reaching their loved ones.”
The crone smiled. It was so easy to delude her, she must’ve been a Jungian. I was beginning to convince myself this could be real, even if, for the time being, it wasn’t. It was a brilliant, exciting, credible business model because every family is frustrated with the mental health system.
I stood and hopefully said, “I’m done here for now and I’d better be going.”
“But, don’t you have to stay and work with her?”
“Oh, no, once I establish myself as a peer, I can go. I’ll come back and visit.”
She wasn’t moving. I needed her to get up and sign some papers, releasing me, but she wasn’t moving.
“Do you have any credentials?” she asked from her seat of awesome authority. “Something that says all this is true.”
“Where would I have credentials?” I cried, letting more desperation seep into my voice than I intended. “All I have is this hospital gown.”
“Of course, the guard has them.”
“No, I can’t leave them with the guard. He can’t know, either.”
Now, she was nodding slowly again.
“I have a website,” I claimed, counting on that no crone would willingly check the internet or understand how easy it is to create a website. “www.undercovershrink.com. Look it up, my picture’s right there.”
She stood up. Praise God, almighty, she stood.
But then she turned and asked, “So, what did she tell you? Charisa?”