tagNovels and NovellasThe Outsider Ch. 27

The Outsider Ch. 27


Chapter 27 -- Non-verbal communication disorder

The semester was drawing to a close. No one was more aware of that than counselor Dr. Lynn Hartman, because she was bombarded with frantic calls from many of her clients, some of whom were going to fail classes, some of whom were worried about leaving the university for the summer, or for good, and some of whom simply were stressed out about not having anyone to talk to. During the final days of the semester she thought about a science fiction story she had read years before, by Isaac Asimov about "Multivac" a computer that had been programmed to counsel the entire world and was so overwhelmed with everyone's problems that it wanted to self-destruct.

Multivac...Hartman muttered to herself...I know how you must have felt...

Among Hartman's dilemmas was what to do about her client Ruthie Burns. There were nineteen years of pent up problems and stress in her client's mind and no one she could share them with...so over the past two semesters Ruthie had unloaded in Hartman's office.

For eight months the counselor had listened to Ruthie's deluge of problems and complaints. She had a strong professional interest in Ruthie, because she considered the girl one of her more interesting patients. The girl's mind and memories were like a jigsaw puzzle that the counselor had to re-assemble, with some of the pieces missing and others hidden in places where she had to spend her time looking to retrieve them.

Hartman may have been interested in the intellectual challenge offered to her by Ruthie, but also she felt a growing personal bond. Ruthie was an intense and difficult person to deal with, but she had a lot of positive points. When a person truly got to know her, she had a lot to offer. She was sincere, extremely knowledgeable and intelligent, and talking to her was a nice break from Hartman's normal dealings with spoiled rich people, who had messed up their lives because of too much partying, bad romances, and substance abuse problems.

By the end of the semester Hartman felt that all those hours with her client had paid off, because she was convinced she could diagnose the underlying cause of Ruthie's unhappiness throughout her life. Explaining the situation to Ruthie would require some tact, because many of her problems with social adjustment were due to an ingrained physical condition instead of life experiences. Hartman's hope was that Ruthie would realize that most of what had happened to her was not her fault and that with the right knowledge she could avoid getting into situations where she could get hurt in the future. However, there was no guarantee that she would handle hearing the diagnosis the way Hartman was hoping.

The counselor was convinced that, whatever the risks, she had no right to withhold information from a patient. If she did, Ruthie would continue to have the same problems and her collection of bad experiences and unhappy memories would only increase. To have any hope of coming to terms with her life, she needed to be aware of herself to avoid repeating mistakes and move ahead. Anyhow, a large part of Hartman's job consisted of getting her clients to understand themselves better, to look at them from an outside perspective and say: "here is what I think is going on, and this gives you an explanation that you can work with to make changes in your life."


Hartman set aside a two-hour block of appointment time during the middle of finals week. There would be a lot of end-of-the-semester issues to discuss, including how she was going to occupy herself over the summer, the relationship with Mike, the ongoing problems of her parents, her horrendous financial problems, and the struggle with her sexuality.

That girl's plate is full...I really wonder if I'm doing the right thing, thought Hartman to herself.

Ruthie already was not in a good mood. Her mother's situation upset her tremendously, partly for purely selfish reasons. With her mother gone, she'd have to rely on Mike for a place to live, because her only other alternative was to go to Nebraska.

"It's funny...how life sucks, with all its ironies. I wanted to go back to Lincoln for five years. Go back there...and now that I really should be going back there, it's the last place in the world I'd want to go."

Hartman leaned back in her chair.

"You've changed. As you'd put it, you've evolved, you're an organism that adapted to a new environment. Your original environment no longer suits you. And maybe it never did."

"I 'spose that's true, Dr. Hartman. But I'm not adapted to this one either, 'cause if I was, I'd be a lot happier."

Hartman took the cue; that was the opening she needed to give her client the diagnosis about her situation.

Ruthie was staring at the floor in front of her feet, but she lifted up her eyes to look at her counselor. It was apparent that Hartman was planning to tell her something important.

"Ruthie...we've been talking for almost eight months now. You've told me a lot about yourself, and about many of things that have happened to you. There's a lot that you don't 'get' about why your life has been the way it has been. As you put it, your life has always 'sucked', and your life still 'sucks', although maybe now it 'sucks' a little bit less because of Mike. The point is to figure out how to make it so your life won't 'suck' in the future. That's what we need to focus on."

When Ruthie did not respond, Hartman continued:

"There's something about yourself that you need to understand. It's probably going to be hard hearing what I have to say, but it's something you'll need to know to better comprehend yourself and move forward."

"What's that?"

"I don't know for sure, because for an official diagnosis you'd have to be formally tested, but from everything I have observed about you and what I know from my training and education, I believe you have a condition that we call 'non-verbal communication disorder'. Have you ever heard that term?"


"There are several technical names for your situation, but we'll go with 'non-verbal communication disorder'. The short explanation is that your brain is not wired like an average person's brain, because the only way you can learn things is through rote-memory. Social interaction is more of a challenge because the nuances of non-verbal communication and body language are not something you are capable of picking up. It's difficult for you to understand anything unless someone actually tells it to you or you read it. I suspect that's the reason you spent a lot more time with books than with people when you were in high school. It is sort of a learning disability, but not one that affects you in the classroom, which is why it often goes undiagnosed. Usually people in your situation do just fine in their studies, because our educational system relies on rote-memorization and that portion of your brain is the most developed. The challenge is dealing with real life."

Ruthie stared at the floor. Tears started flowing down her cheeks.

"So this...non-verbal communication shit...it's 'cause my brain's all fucked up? There's nothing I can do about it?"

"Ruthie, your brain is not fucked up. It just works differently and processes information differently than most other people. It means that you have to work harder at certain things in your life, but everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. The important thing for you is to be aware of your situation...understand why you might have missed non-verbal cues in the past...learn...and apply what you learn from each experience for the next time. If you had been diagnosed earlier, with counseling you could have developed better coping strategies, and that might have given you an easier time in school. But you do have to look at the bright side. You're just 19, not even done with your first year in college. You are more aware of yourself than you were a few months ago, you've got the rest of your life to learn from your experiences and work on coping strategies. Just that, just knowing yourself, is a pretty good start."

"I don't see why it would be. The only thing I've found out today is why I'm a fucking freak. I always knew I was a freak...I just didn't know why. Now I do. My brain's fucked up."

Hartman's heart sank. No, her client was not taking the news well. She spent the rest of the counseling session trying to convince Ruthie that she was not a freak and that her condition was not rare at all. By the end of the appointment, Ruthie understood that she never "fit in" not just because of her screwed-up parents, but also because of a condition that had a name, was identified by science, and was diagnosable. Unfortunately, the only "cure" was learning about coping strategies. In other words, lots of hard work just to live a normal life. Well, that sure sucked.

Ruthie left the counselor's office with a hand full of articles about the deformity in her brain that had totally messed up her existence and made her into the miserable person she was. She could tell that her counselor was extremely worried, but at that moment Ruthie didn't care. She left without saying goodbye or making any arrangements for their next session.

It all made sense...starting with Shannon and going back...through all those rejections in high school...middle school...now it made sense. Everyone hated me because I'm such a fucking freak...and I bet it wouldn't have been any better if I'd stayed in Nebraska...'cause I would've been just as big a freak there too...

Now she was convinced more than ever that she did not belong in the world. The sooner she smashed or blew apart her defective brain, the better. She thought about that path to the ocean...the one that led to the cliff she always had in the back of her mind as her jumping-off point into the void. She needed to get out there and get her jump taken care of. Today was the day. It was totally stupid that she didn't take care of it back in October. Oh well, better late than never...


She returned to Mike's room. She knew that he was out, taking a final. Anyhow, she was so upset by what Hartman had told her that she wasn't thinking about him. She was about to go back out and kill herself; smash her freakish brain on those rocks. And yet, out of pure habit, she logged onto her computer, for what would be the very last time in her life. Why? Maybe she ought to find out more about this "non-verbal communication disorder" bullshit that was messing up her life...

Find out about non-verbal communication disorder? What for? Why find out about that shit? Now I know why my life's always gonna suck. Yeah...and when I go for a job interview? What's gonna happen when I show up with non-verbal communication disorder? Like I'll ever get a decent job with my fucked up brain and not even being able to look at people or talk normally? I don't wanna spend the rest of my life serving fucking coffee. Now I really have had it. I'm done. It's over...

She took a deep breath. She was about to log off...shut down...for the very last time. Her conscience pulled at her. She couldn't just go down to the cliff without leaving some sort of explanation for Mike, or else he'd think it was because of something he did wrong. Ruthie logged back on with the intention of going to one of the suicide websites that she had bookmarked. She remembered the webmaster had posted drafts of suicide messages...she'd find the right draft for her situation, type in her information, print it up, leave it on Mike's bed, and then head out.

She got into the website and looked through several drafts of suicide notes. She had expected to quickly find one that suited her situation, but unfortunately none of them seemed to really say what she wanted to express. Fuck...that would mean she'd have to write her own, which would take time, and she had wanted to be out of the room before Mike got back. Sighing with frustration, Ruthie started typing. She started out by telling Mike how much she loved him...but then thought: no, that needs to go at the end. I need to start out with telling him about my fucked-up brain and this non-verbal communication shit that I've got. She tried to explain, but didn't think her sentences made any sense. Fuck! Fuck-fuck-fuck! That means I've gotta go into one of those websites Hartman gave me and get a definition...I'll just cut and paste.

Finding a decent explanation took up more of the afternoon. Finally she found a good couple of paragraphs. She copied them and pasted them over what she had already written. She cussed yet again, because two hours had gone by and she still was just starting her suicide letter. She typed a couple of sentences about her conversations with Dr. Hartman, but then deleted them and started over with some words on how she was useless because she was so "fucked up". She didn't like that either, so she deleted yet again.

I ought to be fucking dead by now...and here I am still writing this stupid note...

When Mike got back to the room, Ruthie was no closer to finishing her final letter than she had been when she logged on to her computer. She jumped as he opened the door, agitated and totally irritated. She had expected to be peacefully floating in the ocean, but no...here she was... in her boyfriend's room and still very much alive.

Mike had come back in a good mood, because he had just finished his last final, which meant that he had successfully completed his sophomore year in college. However, Ruthie was acting very strangely, much more so that usual. She was fidgeting and seemed very angry, but he couldn't tell if she was mad at him, at herself, or at life in general. One unusual detail was that she was fully dressed, as though she was ready to go out.

He glanced at the note on her computer screen. She immediately blocked his view of the monitor with her body and forced a hard shut-off of her computer. Clearly whatever she had been working on was not something she wanted him to know about.

"Ruthie, what's going on? What are you doing?"

She hugged him, but then pulled away.

"I...I...you know...like...I...uh...can we...go out?"

"I guess..."

Ruthie said nothing more. OK, Mike thought to himself, go out. Go out where? After an uncomfortable silence, he suggested nearby Bonnie Doon beach. She nodded and changed into a pair of shorts and over-sized t-shirt. Mike changed as well.

After they drove out of the university and turned onto the coastal highway, they passed right over the path that led from campus past some fields and ultimately to a high cliff where the waves crashed far below. Ruthie's emotions were in turmoil, because once again circumstances had thwarted her final journey down that path. She was angry at herself for having failed to carry out her plan to escape from her awful life, but she also was relieved. Ultimately she would have to kill herself, but meanwhile at least she could enjoy the beach a couple more times.

A few minutes later they were safely in the clothing optional part of the secluded beach. They stripped off their clothes and waded into the cold turbulent water. As they felt the waves against their legs they could appreciate the chance to forget about the uncomfortable moment in Mike's dorm room and the uncertain summer that lay ahead.


Later that night Ruthie returned to her own room. Jen and her boyfriend were packing up her stuff in anticipation of her return trip to her home in Aukland. It was clear the boyfriend was totally depressed, and equally clear that Jen could barely contain her joy of finally getting to go home.

Secretly Ruthie was every bit as depressed as Jen's boyfriend, because yet another of her sexual fantasies was destined to go unfulfilled. How many times had she studied Jen's body, thinking about touching her and being touched...but it was all illusion, no different from the illusion she had years before when she sat in class admiring Mrs. Peters. Just like the imaginary Mrs. Peters, the Jen of Ruthie's imagination, the one who responded to her sexual desires, existed only in her fantasies.

Ruthie reflected that in one way all that time with Dr. Hartman had helped her, by allowing her to understand her habit of projecting her sexual fantasies onto other people. As painful as that truth was, at least with Jen it prevented Ruthie from doing or saying anything that would make her look stupid or offend her roommate. She accepted the reality that the Jen who existed in her fantasies was not the Jen standing in front of her. Jen would be leaving the next day, without any unpleasant rejection that would have soured Ruthie's memories of her.

Jen and her boyfriend said goodnight to Ruthie and went out, presumably to have one last night of "snogging" before Jen had to go to the airport. Ruthie was just about to strip and get ready for bed when she remembered...

Shit! All those printouts about her fucked up brain were still in Mike's room! She had to go back and get them! Like she needed him knowing about that non-verbal communication disorder bullshit!

She ran down five flights of stairs and winded herself rushing over to Mike's dorm. She did not see any irony that the only reason she was still alive was because she had wanted to write a suicide note explaining something to Mike, that she now was desperate to keep a secret. She entered the building, then cussed at herself because she forgot her cell phone and couldn't call him. Fortunately the night clerk knew who she was and buzzed the door for her. She ran to Mike's door and knocked, terrified that it was too late and that he already had seen the articles.

Mike opened to let her in. He was on his cell-phone, clearly very upset. Ruthie glanced at the papers lying next to her computer. The articles were right where she had left them. She breathed a sigh of relief and collected them with some other papers, trying to act as though she was just straightening her desk. Then she paid closer attention to what was going on with her boyfriend.

Ruthie correctly figured that he was talking to his sister and that she was updating him with yet another piece of bad news about their parents. Sure enough, that was exactly what was happening. From listening to Mike's portion of the conversation Ruthie realized that the Sinclairs had separated and that Mike's mother had left California.

Colleen related that their father had sunk into a deep depression and had become impossible to deal with. As much as both his wife and his daughter had urged him to get counseling, he had refused. He became totally morose and all he wanted to talk about were topics related to death and oblivion. Finally Mrs. Sinclair couldn't stand him any longer and gave him an ultimatum: either he see a counselor or she would go to her parents' house in Arizona. The deadline she set came and went. There was no indication Mr. Sinclair wanted to do anything apart from spending his free time sitting in the living room listening to Kansas songs on an old cassette recorder. So...she left.

Ruthie could tell that Colleen and Mike disagreed whether or not their mother was justified in abandoning her husband during his moment of crisis. Mike was furious, but Colleen defended her.

"Dad's getting more and more messed up. He won't listen to anyone: it's kinda like he's off in his own world. I can't deal with him, and Mom shouldn't have to deal with that shit either."

"What if I talked to him?"

"OK...talk to him. And say what?"

"I don't know. I'd think of something..."

"Oh really? Something? God knows, I tried with every 'something' I could think of, but every time I try to cheer him up, all he does is get more pissed and depressed. He keeps saying stuff like: 'most people live too long. Life passes them by, and they don't know when to call it quits'. I know I shouldn't say this, but being around him is like 'the night of the living dead'. I can't deal with him any more. If you want to talk to him, you'd better think long and hard what you want to say. If you can get him out of his funk, then you're a better person than me."

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