Systematic Desensitization by Ed Peaco

Ed Peaco

One summer night in the not-too-distant but long-forgotten past, when Max Headroom was a cult hit on television and the home-improvement boom was in its infancy, a dense whine haunted Duane Dyer’s dreams. As his sleep receded, the noise grew louder, and at last he bolted from bed and followed the roar through the house to the garage. Blinking into the dust, he found his wife, Sue, in goggles, jeans and bra, scouring a table with an electric sander.

An air-traffic controller, Sue worked nights while Duane worked accountant’s hours, and sometimes they woke each other up. Sue shut off the sander and removed her goggles, revealing wild eyes still energized from her job.

Duane squinted at the paste of wood powder ringing Sue’s belly button. ‘I c-c-could have slept through it if I knew what was c-c-c-coming,’ he said, stuttering, as he had all his life, when he felt nervous or tired.

‘I want you to meet a phobia guy I ran into,’ she said. ‘I think you have a phobia, not a speech impediment.’ They had worn out an army of specialists with nothing to show for the hourly fees, and Duane was sick of Sue using every opportunity to nag him about a new treatment. The fear of stuttering had tormented him for years, but he had learned to work around it. He anticipated feared words and steered his sentences around them, as if madly paddling a canoe to avoid boulders that didn’t exist for anyone else. But now people at the office were on his case more than ever about his speech.

They connected Duane’s stuttering with the behavior of pop-culture hero Max Headroom, who seemingly stuttered through faulty guerrilla transmissions onto television screens in his weekly struggle against a Big Brother broadcasting enemy. Not much for TV, Duane had only a dim awareness of Max Headroom. But the series gained appeal, and stuttering became the inspiration for on-the-job theatrics, with jerks jumping in to finish Duane’s sentences or imitate Max Headroom. So-so-so-sue me! was Norman Carter’s office refrain, delivered with Max Headroom’s rhythmic head jerk, demolishing in a crush of laughter anything serious Duane was trying to say. Fed up, he felt a rekindling of his faith in experts, and he agreed to make an appointment.

Grantz, the phobia guy, said Duane’s stuttering was a learned response to some unknown stimulus from the past. The goal would not be to discover what caused the response, but to work on unlearning it. ‘Your brain is not a VCR,’ Grantz said with a devilish grin that threw Duane a little. ‘True, we can rewind if we want, but when we view the old tape, we get garble. The best button to press is play!’

Grantz proposed a therapy called systematic desensitization, by which the patient masters the phobia by encountering it in increasingly stressful but controlled increments. He asked Duane to make a list of nine uncomfortable speaking situations and rank them in order of increasing stress. He gave Duane a mission: start with number one, put himself in the situation and do the thing he was afraid of doing, but do it in a purposeful, controlled way. He told Duane to intentionally stutter, listen to himself, and observe the reaction. When he mastered the situation, he would move up to the next one.

Grantz then asked Duane to name the most frightening speaking situation he could imagine. Trembling, Duane described delivering a speech at the annual meeting, with all staffers and the fearsome CEO listening.

‘No problem. Make that number ten!’ Grantz said, cackling. Then, more calmly, he said, ‘Maybe you won’t have to climb that far up the ladder before we see some change.’

In Grantz’s office, they tried step one, a phone call to a stranger. Duane called auto-service shops and asked the price of a t-t-t-tune up. ‘You see, they’re just waiting for you to finish,’ Grantz said afterward. ‘No problem. If someone has a reaction farther up the line, note how you feel and how the situation resolves itself.’ Grantz told him not to feel pressured to change his behavior, just focus on the exercises. ‘Make the biggest bomb you can, and see what happens when it goes off!’

Grantz helped Duane refine his list by rating the types of stress he would face, then he turned Duane loose to perform the exercises. Over several weeks, he threw himself into the process of unlearning, making rapid progress up the ladder:

2) Phone conversation with friend or acquaintance. To the receptionist at the office: ‘Any m-m-m-messages for me?’ (Nothing from the other end but businesslike shufflings and keystrokes, and then a friendly rundown.)

3) Face-to-face with friend in private. To a handball foe: ‘N-n-n-nice serve.’ (Gr-r-r-r-reat ceiling shot’ came the mocking reply. Easily ignored.)

4) Benign stranger in relaxed, public situation. To a police officer:
‘W-w-w-which w-w-w-way t-t-t-to W-w-w-walnut St-t-t-t-treet? (Nothing but a not-unkind gaze, even after all this exaggerated stuttering, a self-caricature.)

5) Benign stranger in a more pressured public situation. To a grocery bagger at a crowded checkout station: ‘P-p-p-paper, p-p-p-l-lease.’ (Briefly strained, quizzical look of impatience.)

6) Potentially skeptical stranger. Duane’s original plan was to accost someone sitting on a bench outside his building. But he noticed the new backyard neighbor, watering her garden on the other side of the chain-link fence. She looked convenient, and she was wearing nothing but cutoff shorts and a bikini top: ‘Those zu-zu-zu-zuchini sure are th-th-th-thriving,’ he said. (Quizzical glare and attitudinal pose with hand clutching slender hip.

‘Is this some kind of Max Headroom pickup line?’ she asked, confirming the wildfire appeal of the TV character. ‘Wait a few weeks, and I’ll show you my tomatoes,’ she said with an ironic twitch of her nose. More trouble than expected, but fun.)

7) Potentially skeptical acquaintance. To a client, one on one:
‘Th-th-th-that would be a s-s-s-savings of f-f-f-four per-c-c-c-c-cent.’ (Double take, then a slight smile of gratitude.)

8) Small group of strangers. To a stutterers’ support group ‘ Duane figured he might as well have a little fun: ‘H-h-h-hello, y-y-you can call me
D-D-D-D-Donnie. But th-th-that’s not my r-r-r-real n-n-n-n-name.’ (Were they laughing because they thought he was lying or just joking around? He went on telling jokes, making up lies, stuttering at turns intentionally and uncontrollably ‘ it didn’t seem to matter. He paused to observe the reaction and found that his fellow stutterers were glued to every tortured burst.

He seized the thrill of a breakthrough: It wasn’t whether he stuttered, but whether he cared. ‘Everything I said is f-f-f-false,’ he said as he wrote a fictitious phone number next to his admitted pseudonym on the new-member info card. More laughter. ‘Nobody stutters when they laugh,’ he said fluently as he skipped out, leaving behind these poor people and their pathetic impediment.)

9. Small group of acquaintances. Presentation to work group: ‘It’s not
s-s-s-something we’ve tried be-f-f-f-fore, but it’s the direction we sh-sh-sh-should to be m-m-m-moving in.’ (Norman Carter said, ‘Suit-suit-suit me up. I’m ready to play!’ whereupon the director told him to stop imitating Max Headroom during an important planning session. Duane noticed he wasn’t worrying about his stuttering. Instead, he saw, for the first time, what an oaf Norm was.)

From that moment, Duane felt fearless. Instead of avoiding speaking situations, he threw himself into them just to see what would happen. His stuttering blocks turned anticlimactic; the overwhelming importance he attached to them vanished.

At home alone the next evening, Duane couldn’t help noticing the now-familiar figure, this time in cut-off T-shirt and shorts, working in her garden. He ambled over to the chain-link fence. She asked him why he disappeared so quickly the evening before, and they introduced themselves. Wendy said her husband, Vern, worked nights at the post office, and she was between jobs. ‘I just sit around and go crazy,’ she said. Duane, staring at her glistening belly, said his wife worked nights, too.

‘Want to come over for a drink?’ she asked.
Her offer threw Duane. ‘I d-d-d-don’t know,’ he said, feeling the first wave of authentic stuttering anxiety since his transformation. But he collected himself, noted Wendy’s reaction, which was minimal, and moved on. ‘Maybe we could get together sometime, all four of us.’

‘I don’t know when,’ she said.

After that meeting, Duane took special care to position himself in the back yard in early evening. He often found Wendy across the way, coaxing him. He went over once to check under her lawn mower, once to admire her zucchini vines, again to taste her zucchini casserole. Her tomatoes were coming along nicely. He always resisted her invitations to enter the house, and later, fantasies inflamed, wished he hadn’t.

They discovered each other one night when the electricity went out on Wendy’s block. She passed through the gate in the back fence and knocked on Duane’s back door. She was wearing a long T-shirt that stretched to her knees and covered whatever else she might have been wearing. She asked for a candle.

‘It’s all dark on our street, and I saw your light.’ She stepped inside, and they didn’t get any farther than the firm yet springy living room carpet. He appreciated the ease of it all.

The next time, Wendy led Duane through the gate to her house. He worried about being spotted, but Wendy said she felt safer using her own couch so she wouldn’t have to make up reasons why she didn’t answer the phone if Vern called. They created a system: She kept the back light on until after Vern would be finished with his ten o’clock break, the latest time he was likely to call. Then she would shut off the light, a signal for Duane to creep into the no-man’s land of facing back yards, shadow to shadow through the sparkling night of harsh yard lamps, dim interior bulbs, and a neighbor’s insect-killing light, a lurid molten violet, crackling with each dispatch.

Duane based his hopes around those evenings. Upon fulfillment of those hopes, he retraced his steps and, using earplugs to shut out Sue’s arrival, settled into a contented sleep. He wasn’t so much rejecting Sue, whom he once desired intensely; he was celebrating the joys of Wendy, like scrunching her heavily teased, heavily moussed hair. And, best of all, no stuttering!

At the office, Duane faded into the business-as-usual environment of the firm, which, he now grasped, was how he had always fit in before his impediment became a fad. Eventually, Norm noticed the change in Duane. ‘Hey, pal, you need a refresher course in stammering,’ Norm said, handing Duane a videotape of a Max Headroom episode. ‘Check this out. I think you and Max were sep-sep-separated at birth!’

That night, Wendy’s back yard went dark, and Duane ventured through the gate, but the floodlight switched back on. It was a photon ambush, and Duane hit the turf, a lust commando pinned down on the open lawn. Wendy popped her head out the back door and grimaced in fear when she spotted him. ‘Go back!’ she shouted in a hoarse hiss. She closed the door and shut off the light. By the kitchen’s inner glow, Duane spotted Vern chatting with Wendy. Duane slunk back, his cranium pulsing with fear worse than the fear of stuttering. Back home, he paused to note his surroundings, and he understood that, as far as anyone else was concerned, nothing had happened.

Early the next evening, over the chain-link fence, Wendy told Duane that Vern had come home early to burn off overtime. Duane had a sudden thought. ‘Th-th-this isn’t easy, but do you mind if we stop?’ he asked, glaring in a way he thought might look stern, although he had no idea because he had not prepared himself. Wendy stared back.

‘Are y-y-y-you mad?’ he asked.

‘No. But shouldn’t one of us be?’

‘N-n-n-not if we can avoid it.’

She smiled in a sad way then frowned. ‘That talking problem of yours. Is it a put-on, or is it real?’

‘It was fake only the first time.’ Duane watched confusion overtake Wendy’s face. It was the perfect note to leave her on. ‘See you around, neighbor.’ He turned away, into the gathering darkness, and wondered what he should do now. Could he rediscover Sue? Lately the two of them were at a standoff: She had her power tools; he had Wendy. Now things were out of whack.

To distract himself, Duane popped in Norm’s Max Headroom tape. It was strange ‘ television executives with British accents, a petulant adolescent computer whiz, and a young man outfitted in electronic gear. Max Headroom seemed to have only a minor role of bizarre outbursts. He appeared on a screen, or seemed to live inside the screen, within the matrix of the broadcast process.

Against a background of modulating parallel lines, now horizontal, now diagonal, he said things that made no sense, such as ‘Don’t let the bedbugs bite. Sleep on your feet! Feet! Feet!’ The animated head, which Duane thought sounded a little like Grantz, didn’t stutter at all; he simply repeated himself in the sputtering manner of an electronic glitch. The office jokes were misguided, and Duane chafed at the idea that people had been making fun of him in a way that wasn’t funny. He stopped the tape and slouched off to bed, his mind drifting to Wendy, not with disappointment but, if anything, relief.

The next morning, Duane woke up next to Sue, who was sleeping like an antique sideboard gathering dust in a junk shop. It was Saturday, their day together, until Sue went to work in the afternoon. He rose first, made coffee, and reviewed the Max Headroom tape over breakfast. Max was trying to prevent Network 23, the Big Brother network, from broadcasting a dangerous form of advertising.

These commercials blasted gusts rapidly shifting images that meshed with brain activity for maximum effectiveness but also caused some viewers’ heads to explode. Max, digitized and occasionally hiccupping in epigrammatic techno-babble, was prowling the electronic pathways to subvert the diabolical scheme. Max wasn’t just a quirky TV creation; he was a self-sacrificing hero, reducing himself to electrons and an unforeseen glitched existence to fight the forces of social control. The story intrigued Duane in a way his colleagues would never understand.

While Max unknowingly took on fake stuttering while striving to do good, Duane willingly threw off actual stuttering while floundering as a cheat. Duane kept replaying this formulation in his mind. He admired the similarities and the oppositions, how everything balanced out, sort of like a spreadsheet, left to right and top to bottom. Maybe he could put everything together and take another giant step forward.

He heard stirring from the other end of the house, and Sue appeared, yawning. ‘What’s this blip I’m detecting heading toward the living room?’ he asked. She floated over, squinting, and he took her in his arms, brushed a few flecks of wood dust out of her hair, and kissed her neck.

‘Why so affectionate?’ she asked. ‘You must be hiding something.’

‘Not anymore.’ He pointed to the television.
On the video, a man’s head exploded as he watched a supercharged commercial. Then Max interrupted a similar broadcast: ‘If you’re watching me, who’s watching Network 23? ‘ a network with a great future behind it.’

‘So this is the crap I’m missing by working during prime time,’ Sue said.

Duane went to the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee for Sue. On his way back, he looked out the window and saw Wendy and Vern on the deck. She was wearing a bikini top and shorts, as usual. For the first time, he regretted having betrayed Sue. It occurred to him that she could still find out, even though it was all over. This fear felt worse than the merely negative feeling of regret. He noticed that his emotions, dissociated from the thoughts that had provoked them, resembled the old stuttering anxiety. Could he master this discomfort as well? He had a reckless desire to confess, but maybe not so reckless. Perhaps he could confront what he dreaded under conditions he could control.

Duane picked up his empty cup and went to the kitchen for a refill, and on his way back, he checked out Wendy again. He viewed sections of shiny flesh between horizontal deck slats. ‘What are you staring at?’ Sue asked.

‘Nothing.’

‘The hell you aren’t. It’s that girl who prances around in her swimsuit.’

‘Well, yes.’

‘I knew it. I’ve seen you out in the yard, staring at her. It would be really embarrassing if she saw you. And I’m sure her husband wouldn’t like it.’

Duane knew his opportunity for mastery had arrived. ‘You don’t know the half of it,’ he said. It was a reckless thing to be doing, climbing the ladder by leaping to the highest rung. ‘Her husband works nights, too,’ he said, willing a light-hearted leer. ‘Wendy and I have been seeing each other for weeks, creeping around at night while our spouses were hard at work.’

‘You even know her name?’

Max Headroom said, ‘Don’t let the bedbugs bite. Sleep-sleep-sleep on your feet!’

‘Silly boy,’ Sue said. ‘You’ve been acting weird ever since you started going to the phobia guy. He fixed your stuttering but warped the rest of you.’

Another burst from Max: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, clear your screen and try again! Try again! Try again!’

‘Who me?’ Duane said. ‘I never felt so good in all my life.’ He had to remind himself that, to Sue’s way of thinking, nothing ever was particularly wrong. He listened to himself and noted Sue’s reactions. He accepted his last remark as essentially correct. She smiled at him condescendingly, as if he were some kind of nut, gleefully telling teasing lies. That was good. She did that when they were getting along. No problem.

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