My profession, if you can stop yourself from laughing by referring to it as a proper job, was inevitable. Just look around. We all want someone to tell us to do what we already know to do. Hiring a personal trainer, as an example. Boil it down and it’s people who want to exercise but know they lack the self-discipline. So they employ someone to tell them to exercise. Someone to stand over them and be their conscience. The trainer shouts at them to do another set. They already know they should do another set, but they also know left to their own devices they’ll be home spooning ice-cream into their mouth and watching Seinfeld reruns. So they give up their hard-earned cash to someone with a firmer backbone.
Another example. A financial consultant tells you to save money. They do it well, using diagrams, statistics, and spreadsheets, so you feel your money has doubled just by seeing it in neat columns on a screen, but ultimately they tell you not to buy shit, and to save. We know this. Anyone who’s graduated from primary school knows to not spend all their pocket money at once or they’ll never save up to buy the new nintendo game. Or what ever brain-sucking console kids use these days.
But when we’re standing in front of a sleek new flatscreen without a thumb print to mar the godlike black monitor, we’re too good at coming up with a list of at least ten justifications why we need, need, this product. Recognising this weakness, we hire someone who’ll make us feel guilty when we confess the splurge. The idea of the financial advisor looking over his glasses and raising his brows in a look of disappointment and judgement is enough to keep our feet dragging past the television display and onto financial stability.
What it equates to is the need for a parent. From the moment we’re born we have someone older and wiser telling us what to do and what not to do. Clothes are picked for us, meals made, we’re told where to go and when. Statements like, “Go outside and play,” “Come in out of the rain,” “Share with your brother,” and “Stop eating that glue,” set the standard. We can mindlessly go through a day without having to question the rightness of our actions.
But we get older and this relationship changes, and we find ourselves in the big wide world with money and freedom and have no idea what the hell to do with it. We leave high-school and indulge. We drink and pass out, try whatever drugs out friends can scramble up, fuck anyone who’ll have us, eat shit and put on weight, then stagger from this stage of life knowing we cannot be trusted to look after ourselves. We are a generation of infants and adolescents and we need to be told what to do.
So we hire people to do it.
We see doctors to tell us to cut down on booze and give up the smokes. We hire dieticians to tell us McDonalds is crap; like we couldn’t figure that out from the shock-news reports on every other week telling us the hamburger bun may as well be categorised as dessert. Psychologists tell us to be more patient and forgive ourselves and others. Priest tell us the same, and to thank God for his mercy in allowing us to do so. We join clubs, hobby circles, and events so we’re forced to be productive with our time and not give in to the urge to just crawl into bed the minute we get home from work.
We hire these people to save us from our bad habits and childish impulses. We pay someone to tell us not to touch the pretty flame because it’s hot.
But there’s a flaw in this safety net; there’s not yet a profession for every poor lifestyle choice. There’s no well groomed individual to tell you not to pick your nose and instigate an action plan to overcome the habit.
This is where I come in.
I am the Life Advisor. I’m your coach, I’m Jiminy Cricket, your mother, your father. Whatever title you settle on, I’m the guy telling you what to do. You give me money to tell you to do what you already know to do.
It may not surprise you to learn I was originally a therapist. Picture me now, brown hair combed back and parted to the right, pressed suit — not black, that’s too intimidating, probably a light brown or navy — easing back into my chair with a practiced look of calm, wisdom and understanding. I know it’s practised because I performed the expression in the mirror each day before heading into work. I couldn’t let the suppressed look of eye-rolling apathy and frustration through, now could I?
Was I good at my job? Yes, I was actually. I knew the script well enough, wore the costume of an empathetic councillor so well that my clients often improved. I got thank you cards, chocolates and hugs. I also received death threats, dead mice and was spat on. Swings and roundabouts.
I was the consummate professional right until I fell on a client with my fists after he told me for the seventeenth time he really wanted to put the drink away, to stop beating his wife and straighten up, but he couldn’t find the motivation. He was depressed. I calmly explained between blows that he wasn’t depressed, he was a selfish, self-indulgent shit who enjoyed feeling powerful at the expense of others.
The message failed to get through, he got facial reconstruction, and I lost my license to listen to people’s problems. But when a door closes and all that crap.
Instead, one night, I made a website. It was a white page with black text. It read:
The Life Advisor
I know you have problems.
And you know you’re not strong enough to deal with them.
Call me to take over.
I’m better at dealing with this than you.
I had put away two and a half bottles of wine when I had the sudden insight to create the page. I laughed and drooled as I wrote the web-address, http://www.illtakeitfromhere.org, then promptly passed out as my pants filled with the comforting spread of warm urine. I was not in, what people of my previous occupation call, a good place.
When consciousness hammered into me the next afternoon my site had two thousand hits, my phone had twenty-three missed calls, and I had a new profession.
My first client was Ed, a forty-five year old truck driver. His problem: he couldn’t stop scratching his arse. Normally, I wouldn’t discourage this. A discrete dig can sometimes be the highlight of a day. For Ed, however, years of scrapping at his anus had left his skin red, sore and calloused. When he called I answered with a vague sense of unease, like a child sweating when a shop assistant starts talking to him after he’s stuffed five chocolate bars down his pants. Ed, however, seemed sincere, and more importantly, desperate. It was a state with which I could empathise. I had Ed come to my apartment, sat him down and had him explain his problem.
‘I, ah, I have an itch,’ he said in a soft voice. He had taken his faded cap from his bald head and wrung it between a pair of slab-like hands. His eyes, small in his large flat face, darted to my doorway as if considering escape.
I put on my therapist face and smiled gently at him. ‘Go on, Ed. It’s okay.’
He sketched a thankful grin and cleared his throat. ‘I can’t stop scratching my, um, backside.’
‘Could you be more specific?’
His pig-like eyes met mine with a look of pain. ‘It’s my arse. It itches like buggery. It’s itching now and, Jesus, I want to scratch it. I know I shouldn’t. But, by God, I want to.’ His cap was twisted in a tight knot and he squirmed against the rough threads of my couch.
I put my fingertips under my chin, gave one slow nod and said, ‘Ahhh.’
Hope bloomed across his round face. ‘You can help me?’
‘Ed,’ I said and extended my hand, ‘of course I can.’ He took it in his butcher’s grip, fingers curling around mine like an adult’s around a child’s, and we shook. ‘But I’m going to have to see it.’
Five minutes later I had Ed’s pale, flabby buttocks wobbling in front of my nose. He pried the cheeks apart with the care of a surgeon and exposed his inflamed rectum. A ring of hard rubbery flesh circled his button hole, the skin red and raw. I could see tracks where his nails had scored and gored his puckered back passage. I umm-ed and ahh-ed like I knew what I was doing then asked Ed to cover himself and take a seat.
Poor Ed had been scratching for over twenty years. He’d seen doctors and been tested for everything from diabetes to HIV to pinworms. Every results came back negative and all the while Ed continued to plough his furrow.
The problem was there was technically nothing wrong with Ed. One day he had simply been a little too vigorous when attending to a backdoor itch. This caused his mucous membrane to inflame; the vessels around his sphincter dilated, blood barrelled in, fluid filled the tender tissue, and the whole process designed to heal his aggravated rectum caused an even greater itch. Ed, aware of the idiom to scratch an itch, did precisely that. The inflammation process re-triggered and round and round Ed went until his anus looked like an elephant’s hide. The itch-scratch cycle.
‘Ed,’ I said, ‘you need to stop scratching your arse.’
He looked up at me from his position on the couch like a dog who knew he’d done wrong. ‘I know.’
‘If you pay me a thousand dollars I’ll brake your habit.’ The figure was the first that came to mind, something a character would say from a movie, and I readied myself for negotiation. Instead, Ed grinned and stood, wrapped his ham-like arms around me and squeezed me against his protruding gut. I could feel his heavy sagging pecs pressing against my chest. He smelt sweet, like an air freshener. I heard a sob and then Ed stepped away and blood flowed back into my extremities.
Ed knuckled at his eyes, cap crumpled in his massive fist. ‘Thank you, Mr…’ He trailed off and a slight frown folded across his broad brow. One hand absently dropped down and reached behind his backside, his fingers digging against his tracksuit pants, searching for the golden itch between his cheeks. ‘I don’t know your name.’
I slapped him as hard as I could with an open hand. It sounded like a fish smacking on a deck. His great white jowls jiggled from the impact, and a bloom of red spread across the left side of his face. I expected anger, but instead got that sad hung-dog look, only this time he was unaware of his crime.
‘My name is Joseph Mills. And don’t scratch.’
I told him to do what he already knew to do and he grinned at me like his own personal Jesus Christ.
‘Thank you, Mr Mills.’
My work with Ed begun simply. I hit him a lot. But a face like Ed’s can absorb a lot of blows, couple that with the fact that I have the upper body strength of an adolescent girl, and the therapy quickly proved ineffective. Ed would scratch, I would slap, and all that resulted was my sore hand and a blossom of red across both sets of Ed’s cheeks. Ed meekly consented to the strikes, flinching, his hand darting away from his back pocket, then continuing as if nothing had occurred. His fish-bone suggestibility led me to my next therapy.
During my university days psychology students would often attempt to hypnotise one another. These practices were taught in an offhand manner by our lecturers, more in a failed history sense than in a genuine attempt to educate us with something useful. Of course, being twenty and regularly boozed up, the idea of hypnotism seemed like a brilliant way to pass an evening. After a few shots someone would produce a coin and we’d get down to business.
The coin was largely for show. Something flashy to catch the light. We’d all seen the swinging pocket watch and considered ourselves rather advanced to have done away with the old timepiece and to be using a coin instead. We didn’t know it, but none of it was necessary; it was all down to voice.
It would usually play out like this: Student One would lay student Two on the closest approximation of a plush sofa — the floor, or, if lucky, a futon. One would sit over Two, smoothing smirks and spinning a coin between fingers, while Two rolled her eyes and tried to get into it. After ten minutes of “You’re getting sleepy. You are getting sleepy, right?” One would introduce his suggestion. Mostly this involved stripping off clothes or some sexual act. At this point Two would slap One, the room would explode into laughter, and One would go get another drink. Swap students and try again.
It was four AM when I first hypnotised Anna. Most people had passed out or staggered away into the night. Anna and I spent most of the party exploring the more intimate parts of each other and had emerged for air into a lounge room of empty drinks and unconscious psychology students. Anna dug her way onto the couch, stretched out, and asked me to hypnotise her. I’d sooner have continued with the intimate exploration, but a gentleman is obliged to attend to a lady’s request, and I am nothing if not a gentleman.
We were both half-asleep and as Anna nestled down amongst a scattering of chips I dragged over a chair and plonked into it, chin propped on my fist as I forced my eyes to stay open. I had no coin, and couldn’t be bothered finding one. I figured I’d recite the lines, fail, then encourage her back to the bedroom.
I started like this:
‘Anna, it’s Joseph.’ She giggled with her eyes shut and all I wanted was to kiss her again. ‘Where are you?’
She shrugged. ‘Steve’s apartment.’
‘No. You’re somewhere else, somewhere safe; a secret place. Tell me where you are?’
A smirk rode her lips but she thought about it, and after a moment said, ‘My parent’s laundry.’
‘I’m sitting on the floor with the clothes-dryer running. It’s warm and the room’s dark. The sound of the dryer is so soothing.’
I nodded, impressed with the answer. She was doing half the work for me. ‘Yes, that’s good. No one know’s you’re there. You can relax. You can rest and listen to the dryer. The hum as the clothes spin and spin and spin. The small vibrations radiating from the floor into your bones until you feel as if all the tension has left your body. You’re safe and sleepy and calm.’ I could see her body slacken into the futon and her face lose expression. Either she was falling asleep or it was working.
‘Anna, you can hear the whirl of the dryer, can’t you? Smell that warm fabric smell?’
She gave a slow thought-out nod.
‘And you can hear my voice, can’t you?’ I had adopted the soft understanding rumble that I would come to call my therapist’s voice. The tones of a kindly grandfather comforting a granddaughter.
She gave another nod and smacked her lips.
‘Anna, I need you to do something for me. Do you think that would be all right? You wouldn’t have to leave the laundry.’
The suggestion of a smile touched the corner of her mouth. ‘Sure,’ she muttered, her voice thick and dopey. ‘I like it here.’
‘That’s good. It’s good here, Anna. Safe.’ I huffed a breath and tried to think of something for her to do. She looked so happy and innocent curled up amongst the filth of the couch I decided to stay away from the usual requests. ‘I want you to tell me a secret, Anna. Something you’ve never told anyone before. Do you think you could do that?’
Her brow dipped then smoothed. ‘Okay, sure. I stole Emma Reeds’ birthday money.’
I straightened, watching her face for a hint of mischief. I hadn’t expected a genuine answer. Her breathing was long and smooth, her features calm. She looked asleep, not mischievous. I leant in until our faces were centimetres apart. She didn’t flinch. I leaned back and crossed my legs.
‘Go on, Anna.’
She snorted a puff of air and rolled her head to the side. ‘Emma had turned thirteen and was bragging about how her uncle was rich and gave her fifty dollars for her birthday, and how she was going to buy the new Spice Girls’ album. She knew I wanted it, that’s why she was going on about it. I mean, I was the one who showed her Wannabe. I knew all the lyrics. She just wanted it because I wanted it. The bitch.’
I had to stifle my laughter. She looked so at peace while she told the story that she had to be under. It was working. It was ludicrous. It felt good.
‘When we went to the bathroom she left her bag under the sink,’ she continued. ‘I waited until I heard her peeing, snuck from my cubicle and took the money from her bag, then tiptoed back into my stall. It was easy. I knew she wouldn’t suspect me because as far as she knew I on the toilet the whole time.’
I suppressed my smile and slipped back into my therapist’s voice. ‘And what did you do with the money, then, Anna?’
She frowned. ‘I bought the Spice Girls’ album, of course. I even let her borrow it once. I told her I’d won it in a radio contest. I didn’t feel bad; she was so spoilt. And a bitch.’
She smiled as she finished her telling and breathed a deep sigh of contentment.
I chewed my lip so as not to laugh. ‘Thank you, Anna, you did really well. Do you want to come back now?’
‘Open your eyes then.’
She stirred, face squishing as her body curled then stretched. She opened her eyes, iris’ blue and deep under the lids, and looked at me. ‘I think I fell asleep. Are you tired?’
‘No,’ I said carefully. ‘How do you feel?’ I tried to sit still so as not to break the reality I had just stepped into. It felt like walking on a lake of ice, not really believing it was taking my weight.
‘Great.’ She sat up, her cheeks dimpling with a grin. ‘You want to go fool around some more?’
I knew the right answer.
Like you wouldn’t also have said yes.
I never told my fellow students of my knack with hypnotism. I was concerned they’d want me to use my powers for evil. Also I’m lazy and don’t like attention. I did buy Anna a “Best of the Spice Girls” album for her birthday. She blushed so prettily when thanking me for it. The joke backfired when, one night, I gave into the temptation and hypnotised Anna again. She confessed that she was sleeping with two other students from our class, as well as the lecturer, all with that peaceful smile on her face.
The price of using my powers for evil.
I had Ed lay on my couch and told him not to fidget. It had been a week since he’d first come to me and his anus was as abraded as ever. I’d spent days with him, even travelling in his truck during deliveries, smacking him each time his hand took a dive. My new and completely unthought-out business was not succeeding. And, as Albert Einstein probably didn’t say, insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting different results. It was time for a new technique.
I drew the blinds and shut the doors, throwing my small lounge into a sunset-like dimness. Ed lay contentedly on my couch, asking no questions, his bulk filling every inch of the cushions. I dragged a chair beside him and sat.
‘Ed, so far your therapy’s not working.’
‘I’ve been hitting you, hard, but you’re still scratching.’
‘Sorry ‘bout that.’
I ran a hand through my mess of hair. ‘Don’t apologise, Ed. You’re paying me to fix it, remember? The fault’s mine. But today we’re going to try something new.’
‘Okay.’ Ed settled back into the couch and stared at the ceiling.
I repressed a sigh. ‘You want to know what it is?’
Ed looked at me. ‘Should I?’
I shook my head. ‘Forget it. Close your eyes for me. This should be easy.’
Ed dutifully closed his eyes. He looked like giant baby slumbering and I had the urge to slap him again.
‘I need you to think of a place. Somewhere you feel safe, and happy, and relaxed. Somewhere only you know about. A secret place. Where are you, Ed? Where’s your safe place?’
He didn’t answer for a while and I feared he’d decided to take a nap. His forehead furrowed in deep crevasses as he thought, and as I was about to prompt him, he spoke.
‘My truck,’ he said in a voice so quiet I had to lean in to hear. ‘On the small mattress tucked behind the seats. It’s night time. I’ve pulled over in the middle of nowhere and rain’s drumming on the hood. My delivery isn’t expected for days and no-one knows exactly where I am. I’m curled up under my doona, the one with the dinosaur cover, and I’m listening to the rain. It’s like the world’s forgotten me and I’ve forgotten it. My face is cold and my body’s warm. I’m tired, but not sleeping yet, just listening to the rain. ’
I raised my brows and fumbled for words. Ed’s description was so achingly beautiful part of me wanted to join him under the dinosaur-print doona and just forget the world.
‘That’s perfect, Ed,’ I said, clearing my voice and slipping on the warm tones of Therapist Mills. ‘You’re in your truck and the rain is falling and you’re safe and warm. It’s dark but not pitch, and you can smell the familiar smell of your dinosaur doona.’
Ed’s face had softened, all the frowns of confusion drained away, and I could tell he was already under. A grin stretched between his fat cheeks.
‘I like it here.’
‘That’s good. You’re in a good place.’
‘I should live here. I could get a fridge put in. Maybe get a puppy. Could I?’
I frowned. ‘What? No, Ed. This isn’t…this is a secret place, not a living place.’
Ed rubbed at an eye with a meaty fist. ‘Okay, if you say so, Daddy.’
Daddy? Ed had more issues than a just compulsive desire to scratch his arse. I decided to steer clear of his childhood subconscious.
‘I want you to focus on the sound of the rain for me. Can you hear it? It’s soothing, isn’t it?’
Ed nodded. ‘It’s like a song the world sings.’
I blinked. ‘You’re a complex man, Ed. Can you still hear me over the rain?’
Another nod, slower, as if his head was heavy. He was sinking deeper.
‘Good. Listen to my voice, because I’m going to ask a favour. Now I know your arse itches.’
A pained look washed through his face. ‘It does.’
I felt a flare of irritation and forced my voice to stay steady. ‘I know, buddy. Here’s the favour: I need you to stop scratching it.’
‘I want to, really, but I can’t,’ he whined. ‘It feels real good when I scratch it. Like a sneeze, you know? Can I scratch now?’
‘No, Ed. Listen.’ I thought for a minute and smirked. ‘I’m going to tell you something now, and you’re going take it on board. Do you understand? What I’m about to say will become real when you wake.’ I dropped my tone and leaned closer. ‘Every time you scratch yourself you’ll taste pickled herring. It’ll be like a half-masticated wad of it were rolling round your mouth.’
‘I like pickled herring.
‘Dammit, Ed!’ It was hard to resist slapping him again. I found I’d developed quite a liking for it. ‘Fine, what don’t you like?’
‘I don’t like mango.’
‘Good. Okay, so, every time you scratch you’ll have the taste of mango on the back of your tongue. But, as a reward, when you move your hand away, the taste will fade. Scratch equals mango. Have you got that, Ed?’
I huffed a sigh. ‘Good.’
‘It won’t work though.’
I looked down to see whether he was fucking with me. He still had the dopey smile stamped across his face and a thin line of drool was now creeping down his chin.
‘What do you mean, Ed? Why won’t it work? I thought it was a decent plan.’
‘No, it’s real good. But I know me; I’ll still scratch.’
‘Are you telling me even with a horrible taste flowering across your tongue every time you scratch, you’ll still go digging whenever you get an itch?’
‘It feels really good to scratch.’
‘Jesus Christ, Ed.’ I rubbed a hand through my hair and studied the bloated baby filling my couch. In his unconscious state, Ed was laying out the bare bones of my philosophy. Here he was admitting that, even with a self-confessed unpleasant consequence, he lacked the self-control to kick his habit. He needed the scolding finger, the snatching hand, because without it he would go ahead and touch the pretty flame. And what was the solution?
Let him get burnt.
‘In that case, we’re going to have to raise the stakes, Eddy boy. You won’t like it, and God knows neither will I.’ I breathed out a sigh and hoped what I was about to do constituted as using my powers for good rather than evil. It was a fine line. ‘Here goes. Ed, are you still with me?’
‘Yeah, I’m here, Mr Mills. Any chance I could have a quick scratch? All this talk is making it flare.’
‘No,’ I barked. His face crumpled in sadness. ‘Ed, Listen to me now. Every time you give in and drag your nails across that sore sorry arse of yours, you will shit yourself. The tickle of your fingertips will trigger your sphincter to open and unload a steaming mess into your underpants. Am I understood?’
Ed nodded happily. ‘I’ll poop my pants.’
‘That you will, my friend.’ I sat back and briefly worried about the ramifications of my decision. It was a throw of the dice, but I consoled myself that it was Ed’s money I was gambling with. Or, in this case, his underwear. ‘Do you think it’ll do the trick, Ed?’
‘Should do. It sounds horrible.’ The simple-minded smile never even trembled.
‘Let’s find out, shall we. I want you to wake up now. Just slowly, come back to me and my living room. You can see the light around my blind, my dirty ceiling, my shit-hole apartment. No pun intended there, Ed. You’re waking up and opening your eyes.’
The big man squirmed and stretched his neck before fluttering open his lids and opening his little pig-like eyes. He rolled up and wiped the sticky spit from his chin. He looked around the room then settled on me.
‘Did anything happen? Did you fix me?’
I squeezed his shoulder and stood. ‘Time will tell, Ed, time will tell. I want you to take the week off. Just stay home. Somewhere close to a shower. Focus really hard on not scratching. Come back and see me once the week’s up and we’ll talk about how you’re progressing, okay?’
Ed grinned and stood, his huge hunched frame tense with excitement. ‘Okay, will do, Mr Mills. Thanks.’
‘Maybe hold on to your gratitude till you see me next week.’ I put a hand on his back and guided him towards my door. His chunky fingers drifted towards the back seam of his pants and I snatched his wrist in a tight grip. ‘Don’t you dare scratch while you’re still in my apartment!’
Ed’s brow furrowed with confusion but he nodded. ‘Oh, sure. Sorry. I’ll see you in a week.’
‘See you then, Ed.’ I pushed him through the doorway, closed the door with a sigh and wondered if I could be arrested for hypnotising people to make them defecate themselves.
A few seconds later I heard Ed’s muffled curse from down the hall and a stampede of footsteps as he hurried down the stairs to his truck.
It seemed the treatment had worked.
* * *