The silence in the living room of the Hartley home was deafening, tension thick enough to be cut with a knife. Carefully choosing his words, Alex had just recounted his recent conversation with Jeremy to his parents, telling them that he had decided to go and see a counsellor for gambling addiction.
Rendered speechless for a moment, the middle-aged couple briefly glanced at each other before looking back at their son. Alex eyed them nervously, awaiting their reaction. He regretted not asking Liz to come with him to provide moral support. She would definitely know how to break the awkward silence.
“So, I thought you guys should know,” he shrugged, ready to get up and leave if they didn’t respond soon. He wondered if they were worried or just taken by surprise, as he never gave any indication that he was considering seeing a counsellor.
Gaby was the first to move from her spot, scooting over to her son and suddenly enveloping him in a warm hug.
“Oh, sweetie, I’m so glad you told us. You know your dad and I will always worry about you and always be on your side.”
“That’s right,” Nicholas confirmed. He followed suit and moved closer to Alex, but merely patted him on the shoulder. His wife was always the more affectionate and sentimental type. “And if going to a counsellor is something you want and need to do, we’re fully behind it.”
“Nick and I did talk about it so many times, but we just didn’t know what to do. You seemed to have been getting better and we thought maybe it wasn’t necessary, maybe it was just a phase you were going through. But I’m glad you’re going to do it. After all, it can’t hurt you. Did I tell you about that article I read, about that actor who lost two million on gambling? He was earning three hundred thousand per episode of that TV show and…” Gaby went on a tangent before her husband interrupted her.
“Yes, you told us all. Ten times.”
“Ok then,” the woman looked offended. “It’s a cautionary tale, so it bears repeating.”
Alex rolled his eyes and seized the moment to extricate himself from his mother’s grasp and get up from the couch.
“Honey, do you want us to go with you? I can take a day off or ask to change my shifts, it’s no problem.”
“No, that’s ok, but thanks. Jeremy’s gonna be going with me. I scheduled the first appointment for Monday,” he rejected her as politely as he could. If she were to come with him, the whole process would last twice as long and be about ten times as embarrassing.
“Alright. But call me as soon as you’re done. Or at least send me a text, so I don’t worry,” his mom insisted.
Alex nodded, knowing he couldn’t win, as Gaby never took no for an answer. Sometimes he wondered if his dad really proposed to his mom as they always said, or if she pestered him until he finally gave in and said yes.
“Ok, I’ll call you when I’m done,” he promised before turning around and going upstairs to his room.
It was around ten when Alex arrived at Appleton Bakery that morning. Even though his appointment with the counsellor was not until noon, he had to stop by the bakery first to pick Jeremy up. Even before he entered it, Alex could hear loud banging and drilling sounds coming from the inside and knew that must have meant the repairmen had already started working on fixing the damage from the fire.
Once he went inside, he saw three men working in the kitchen. Most of the old kitchen elements - cabinets, appliances and tables - were already taken out, and the workers were just in the middle of removing the final pieces. After that was done, they could start working on repainting the burnt walls. Jeremy was nearby, watching the men work and trying to make enough space in the front area for all of the new furniture that was to be installed. Even though he wanted to help more, the workers assured him they had everything under control. Besides, he was not exactly the embodiment of physical strength, so he could hardly help move the heavy furniture.
The baker turned around when he heard the front door open and saw his boyfriend come in.
“Hey, how are the repairs going?” Alex asked, approaching him and giving him a hug.
“So far so good,” Jeremy replied, glancing over in the direction of the three repairmen. “Please say thanks to your dad from me once again. I don’t know how I’ll ever repay him.”
The week before, Alex’s father had contacted the same company that did some work on his basement a few months ago. He was friends with the owner and managed to strike a deal so that Jeremy could pay only a portion of the fee after the job was done, and the rest once he got the insurance money.
“Maybe I can bake him something? What does he like to eat?”
“You don’t have to do that,” Alex let out a surprised laugh. “But if you really want to, he likes those strudels with cinnamon and apples.”
“Your dad or you?” Jeremy asked, raising one of his thin, blond eyebrows.
“I mean… both of us,” Alex grinned. “But really, it’s nothing, he was glad to be able to help,” he brushed it off like it was no big deal. “And I’m glad too. I know you didn’t wanna take money from your mom…”
“Yeah,” Jeremy nodded, going silent for a moment as Alex took him by the hand. “She calls me every day now, just to see how I’m doing.”
“Oh… And are you ok with that?”
“I guess. At least she seems to be trying,” Jeremy shrugged. “I talked to Emily too, she says mom really wants to make things right, so we’ll see.”
“As long as she doesn’t force you to do anything. I know she’s your mom, but I’m still pissed at her for how she treated you,” Alex replied without sugarcoating. Even though Jeremy could never be that brutally honest, Alex knew him well enough to know that he appreciated Alex’s openness.
The two guys chatted and laughed for a while, until it was time to head to the clinic. Jeremy drove, while Alex sat in the passenger seat, suddenly no longer in the mood for laughter. He stared at the road ahead silently, trying to distract himself by watching people, cars and buildings they were passing by. He had been meaning to check the clinic’s website a bit more, just to know what to expect when he got there, but he never actually got around to doing it. Now there he was, cursing himself for procrastinating and wondering what the counsellor would be like. Would they judge him? Would they even be able to help him?”
“You’re awfully silent,” Jeremy said in a soft voice, but somehow still managing to startle Alex. “Are you worried about the meeting?”
“No, not at all,” he replied, not wanting to show how nervous he actually was. “Why would I be worried? I’m just going there for a meeting.”
“Alright,” the blond guy nodded without taking his eyes off the road. “It’s gonna be alright, you know? And I’ll be there waiting until you finish.”
“Are you sure? It could take a while. You’re gonna get bored sitting there.”
“That’s ok. It’s not like I can do anything in the bakery until the repairs are done.”
“Ok. So you brought your Switch?” Alex asked, glancing at the back seat.
“Yeah,” Jeremy said, a slight smile dancing on his lips. “Pokemon will keep me company.”
The young couple sat in the waiting room, a large and open area with lots of light coming through the glass wall. Jeremy, whose eyes were not used to that much sunlight, found a convenient spot in the shade, next to a large ficus. Alex sat next to his pale boyfriend, nervously bouncing his leg without even realising he was doing it. He wished the counsellor would appear sooner rather than later, as the anticipation was killing him.
Luckily for him, the woman he had the appointment with appeared merely a few minutes later. Carly was a fit, slim woman in her early forties - at least as far as Alex could tell. He tried not to stare at her weird haircut, which looked like a modern reimagining of a mullet. Laughing on the inside, he got up from his seat to greet the woman who approached him.
“Alex, hello, I’m Carly Donovan. We spoke on the phone,” the woman greeted him politely, offering her hand. Alex shook it and nodded.
“Nice to meet you.”
“And this is your moral support?” she smiled, turning to look at Jeremy.
“Yeah. I’m Jeremy, nice to meet you,” the blond guy responded.
“You too,” the woman shook his hand as well.
After the brief introductions were over with, the doctor led Alex into her office, in the hall around the corner.
“I’m not sure how much you know about our clinic and this process in general, but I am going to start off by explaining the treatments we provide and what today’s session will be all about, alright?”
Alex nodded, looking at the doctor and trying to focus. He felt as if he was back in college, attending his lectures. For a moment he got sad that he had to drop out and never got the chance to put everything he learned to good use. Instead, he was working in a car wash, while the four years he spent studying and taking exams were going to waste. He quickly returned to the present and continued listening to the doctor.
“We offer different treatment plans, depending on our patients’ needs. These include one-on-one counseling sessions, as well as a four-week rehab plan for more serious cases. That is what the purpose of this initial session will be - for me to make an assessment and see what kind of a program you would benefit from the most,” Carly explained. “These sessions are usually ninety minutes, so why don’t you start by telling me why you decided to come here? Of course, everything you share here is confidential.”
Alex gulped, looking at a potted plant on the edge of the doctor’s desk, just by the window. He was unsure where to begin. Should he be completely honest or sugarcoat it to make it less embarrassing for himself? As tempting as that sounded, he realized it was probably not a good idea, and decided to offer the full story to the doctor, with no embellishments.
After clearing his throat and looking up to meet her eyes, he finally spoke.
“I, uh, I’ve been having some gambling problems for a while. It all really escalated when I went to Paris earlier this year,” he said in a tone that was not exactly brimming with confidence.
“Alright, and what happened in Paris?” the doctor asked.
Alex let out a sigh and started telling her all about how he gambled away his tuition money for the entire semester in casinos and bookies in Paris, which led him to have to drop out of college and have a big blowup with his parents. He told her about his high school days, when he would watch football games with friends and make small bets from time to time, more out of fun than anything else. He mentioned how he had an old debt and borrowed money from Brandon to pay it off. Finally, he shared what happened the previous week, when his sister found him in a betting house, ready to gamble some of his hard-earned money in order to help Jeremy.
Carly barely spoke during this time, instead letting Alex get his whole story out. He noticed her write in her notepad as he spoke, and couldn’t help but wish he could see her notes. Were they positive or negative? What did she think of what he was telling her? It made him feel nervous, but he somehow managed to say all he wanted to say - at least for the time being.
The doctor must have noticed what he was feeling based on his expression, because she offered him a friendly smile. “You don’t have to be nervous, Alex. Remember, I’m here to help you. And this is just an introductory session, so we can get to know each other, so I won’t be asking any difficult questions, ok?”
“Ok,” Alex nodded, trying to put a smile on his face.
“You know, many people don’t have the strength and courage to even share their problems with their family or a counsellor. Some are embarrassed or afraid, which only makes things much more difficult, because not only do they have to deal with addiction, but they also have to keep that secret from everyone. But you’ve already made this step, which is very important, and I’m so happy to see you’re willing to cooperate,” the doctor said, giving Alex an encouraging look. “Also, having a strong support system is very important, and it looks like you already have that with your family and boyfriend.”
“I do,” Alex nodded. “They’ve been a big help.”
“Alex, based on what I’ve heard so far, I would strongly advise that we continue with these counselling sessions regularly - say twice a week,” Carly said around sixty minutes into the session.
“Alright,” Alex replied without hesitation, relieved that he would not have to quit his job while he went to rehab. While he was thankful his parents would pay for the counsellor, he still needed the money if he was to save up for college tuition, which was a plan he was not ready to give up on.
When he was finally finished, Alex was surprised to find that he did not feel embarrassed at all. The world didn’t collapse all around him and no one was staring at him, judging or laughing at him. On the contrary, he felt relieved and even a little proud of himself. He had taken the first step to dealing with his problem and it made him feel empowered, even if only temporarily.
He left the office and found Jeremy still sitting in the waiting room, playing games on his Switch and sipping on orange juice.
“Hey, you’re done! How was it?” the blond guy asked as he noticed his boyfriend next to him. He quickly stood up and wrapped his arms around Alex, giving him a warm hug. The unusually shy smile on Alex’s face told him the answer before the guy even spoke.
“I think it was ok. I’m coming back on Thursday,” he nodded. “Come on, I’ll tell you all about it on the way back.”
“Alright. You hungry?”
“Yeah, let’s go to Pizza Hut. My treat,” Alex suggested, suddenly feeling as if he had a hole in his stomach.
“Sounds great,” Jeremy smiled proudly as they left the building together, hand in hand.
I'm sorry for the long wait and I hope you enjoyed this chapter!