“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” ~Fred Rogers
The brisk knock was right on time, and Major Nathaniel Spencer called, “Come in!”
Ellison limped into the room wearing jeans and a loose t-shirt, looking very much the worse for wear, which would have surprised Spencer if he hadn’t received a heads up from Janet Frasier at their morning check in.
“I heard you had a little trouble,” Spencer said, watching as Ellison gingerly settled on the oversized couch, furnished as an inside joke from Spencer’s predecessor.
Ellison’s lips quirked up into a rueful smile. “You should see the other guys.”
Spencer looked him over carefully. “Anything we need to talk about?”
“Blair’s fretting,” Ellison replied. “And I know Dr. Frasier insisted on a few sessions for him, too.”
Spencer nodded, but didn’t offer anything else on the subject of Dr. Sandburg for the moment. “I know that you’re on stand down until your ribs heal, so we’ll have plenty of time to work through what happened. We don’t have to dive in right away.”
“There’s nothing to dive into, doc,” Ellison replied. “I got tortured, it sucked, I escaped.”
The funny thing was, Spencer knew that Ellison was telling the truth. Over the past year or so, he’d developed a good feel for the man, who hadn’t been entirely pleased when Janet ordered him into counseling after Sandburg had been injured.
“Colonel O’Neill raised the concern that he might be reckless in the field,” Frasier explained at the time. “And he’s likely to be a tough nut to crack. If anyone is up to the challenge, it’s you.”
She hadn’t been entirely wrong, but she hadn’t been right either. Ellison had been reluctant at first, but when he realized that he could tell Spencer things he couldn’t tell Sandburg, the dam had broken.
“I just want things to go back to the way they were before,” Ellison had grumbled. “I don’t even feel human these days.”
“Who says that’s a problem?” Spencer had asked in return. “You seem to get on quite well with Teal’c, and he’s not human.”
“It’s not the same,” Ellison said, and Spencer replied, “Then tell me how it’s different.”
Ellison had made it to every one of the mandatory five sessions, and then checked in regularly after that, mostly to deal with the things he couldn’t talk to Sandburg or Major Carter about.
Granted, Spencer thought it might do both Ellison and Sandburg good to have a frank conversation about the things they were avoiding, but they functioned in the field and at home. That was the important thing.
“Is there anything you want to accomplish today?” Spencer asked.
He found that was the best place to start with a lot of his patients. They were generally goal-oriented people who viewed talking about things as a waste of time. Giving them an objective helped them to buy into the process.
Ellison shifted uncomfortably. “Is there somewhere else I can sit?”
Spencer read Ellison’s medical chart that morning, so he understood why Ellison was asking. “Let me grab another chair.”
He kept a straight-backed chair in his office for those who preferred it to the couch, and he pulled it out of the corner and turned it so that the seat faced Ellison.
Ellison settled down gingerly. “Thanks.”
Spencer noticed he hadn’t answered the question, and he tried a different tactic. “The first thing you said today was that Blair was fretting.”
Ellison scowled. “He thinks I should be more traumatized than I am.”
Privately, Spencer thought that Ellison used Blair’s distress as a means to deflect his own, but he knew better than to say so at this juncture. “Is there a particular reason this mission wasn’t as hard on you as your physical condition would indicate?”
Ellison shrugged, winced again, and said, “Like I said, I escaped, I got rescued. Hell, I wasn’t even missing eight hours.”
“But Blair thinks it should have been harder on you.”
“It was easier knowing it was just me there,” Ellison explained. “Sandburg takes on too much. He thinks everything that happens to me is his fault because of the dissertation.”
“And whose fault was this mission?”
“No one’s,” Ellison said firmly. “Meers certainly didn’t do me any favors, but it looks like they were after me, and their focus on me probably helped the others escape without additional casualties.”
Spencer hesitated, then asked, “Do you think Blair’s presence would have been a liability?”
Ellison stared down at the taupe carpet. “I know he would be.”
“Are you worried about what might happen in the future?” Spencer asked. “If you’re captured together?”
Ellison blew out a breath. “Yeah. Tactically, I can see why keeping us on the same team isn’t a good idea, and it’s hard to explain why it’s necessary in spite of the risks.”
Spencer was silent, waiting to see if Ellison would add more without prompting. When he didn’t, Spencer said, “You’ve intimated as much before, that your relationship with Blair is different. I’m not asking, and you certainly don’t have to tell me anything, but—”
Ellison made an impatient motion with his hand. “This is why I don’t like talking about it. It’s not like that.”
Spencer dropped the subject, knowing when not to press. “There are a number of teams who feel very strongly about one another. That can be an advantage in the field.”
“The advantage I get from having Blair with me is worth the risk,” Ellison admitted.
Spencer sensed that there was more Ellison wasn’t saying, and he let the silence hang. Silence was his best therapeutic tool at times.
Ellison shifted. “They had a symbiote.”
Now they were getting to the meat of the issue. “You prevented them from implanting one.”
Ellison looked up, meeting Spencer’s eyes. “Yeah, I did, but if I hadn’t, I don’t think I could come back from that.”
There was a deep certainty in Ellison’s eyes, and Spencer had to school his expression into one of placidity. “Others have. There are ways to remove a symbiote, Jim. It’s not the end of the road.”
“For me it would be,” Ellison insisted. “That kind of loss of control—it’s my worst nightmare, and I don’t think I’d come back from that.”
Spencer thought that what Ellison meant was that he wouldn’t come back from an experience like that with his sanity intact, so he suggested, “I think this might be one of the things that isn’t worth worrying about. It’s a possibility, I know, but maybe that’s a bridge you should cross when you come up on it.”
Ellison nodded. “I hear you.”
“Have you had nightmares about it?” Spencer asked.
Ellison smiled. “When don’t I have nightmares?”
For the rest of the session, they focused on techniques Ellison could use to ground himself, mostly when he came out of a nightmare, or if he had a flashback, although those were few and far between.
Once again, Spencer thought that Ellison’s physiology probably made him unique. Because he seemed to work best when his system was flooded with adrenalin, the heightened state of arousal that PTSD caused in so many didn’t necessarily bother him. The nightmares were the one symptom that seemed to shake him, because those nightmares were all about Ellison losing control—or losing Sandburg.
It was one of the reasons that Spencer worked so hard at trying to let Ellison feel as though he was in control of these sessions.
“Thanks, doc,” Ellison said when the hour was up. “I’m sure I’ll see you again next week.”
“Take it easy,” Spencer replied. “I know you want to get back out in the field, but overdoing it at this stage of your recovery would be counterproductive.”
Ellison smiled. “Dr. Frasier already said as much, and I think she had a word with Teal’c. He was talking about meditating in place of our usual sparring sessions.”
Spencer was curious. “Does it help?”
“Oddly enough, it does,” Ellison admitted. “It was always hard to take it seriously around Blair. I chalked it up to his woo-woo New Age crap before—well, before. But it’s essential to Teal’c being able to function, and it was easier to accept it that way.” He paused in the doorway. “Look, if you need to tell Blair something about our sessions, to make it easier for him, you have my permission.”
As Ellison left, Spencer thought the man was probably one of the most fascinating subjects he’d had, so full of contradictions and unique issues.
Not that he would ever say as much out loud. Even at the SGC, among colleagues, such a comment would bring heavy scrutiny given Ellison’s past. No, what Spencer usually said, if asked, was that Ellison was one of his most challenging patients.
Only those in the know understood what he meant by that.
Spencer had two other patients before he was due to see Sandburg, both struggling with acclimatizing to life in the SGC. One was disappointed not to be with his friends on the front lines in Afghanistan, rather than guarding the gate room in a safe posting he couldn’t discuss with his buddies overseas. The other had been overseas and had a hard time adjusting to the pace of the SGC.
On the surface, they were very similar problems, but not if Spencer dug a little deeper, which he always did. The first patient wanted to be in on the action, and Spencer had seen that kind of restiveness before; it often ended with a couple of Article 15s if he couldn’t curb his aggressiveness.
The second already had a serious case of PTSD and was hanging onto his career by his fingernails. Spencer hoped to bring him back from the brink.
And then, there was Sandburg.
Dr. Sandburg walked into Spencer’s office right on time with a cheerful smile on his face. “Hi, Dr. Spencer.”
“I think we agreed you’d call me Spencer,” he replied—patiently, because they performed this dance every time Janet mandated counseling.
Sandburg’s smile was rueful. “Sorry. Spencer.” He glanced at the chair, now back in its corner. “I hope you didn’t make Jim sit on the couch. His back—”
“Dr. Frasier shared Major Ellison’s medical records with me, as she always does when ordering counseling,” Spencer replied. “You know that.”
“Yeah, yeah, I do.” Sandburg sat on the edge of the couch, his fingers drumming a nervous rhythm on his knees. “Sorry.”
Sandburg was also in civvies, with dark circles under his eyes and his hair in disarray. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Spencer watched him silently, waiting to see if Sandburg would fill the silence.
“Just tell me that Jim is as much of an asshole as I’m being right now,” Sandburg said.
Spencer hesitated. “You know, Jim said a funny thing as he was leaving.”
Sandburg frowned. “What’s that?”
“He said I was free to tell you anything I thought was helpful about his sessions if it would help you,” Spencer replied.
He smiled. “That sounds like Jim.”
“How does that sound like Jim?” Spencer asked, finally sensing an inroad past Sandburg’s defenses. He had permission from Ellison, without prompting, and that gave him a little more leeway.
Sandburg shrugged. “You know. Jim’s always worried about protecting others, taking care of the tribe, that sort of thing.”
“And you’re not?” Spencer countered. “People don’t sign up for the SGC without wanting to help protect the tribe, as you call it.”
Sandburg shrugged. “No question.”
“But that’s not why you joined the SGC,” Spencer supplied.
“I’m here for Jim,” Sandburg said frankly. “The opportunity to get my Ph.D. was great, and the travel to alien planets and learning about alien civilizations is exciting, but I’m here for Jim.”
Spencer nodded. “Do you know what the first criterion is for a diagnosis of PTSD?”
Sandburg frowned. “A traumatic event?”
“Yes, but that event could happen to you, or someone you know,” Spencer pointed out. “Which means that when a traumatic event occurs to one member of a team, it’s my job to assess all members of the team for trauma-related disorders.”
“I wasn’t even there,” he protested.
Spencer had his own reasons for believing that Sandburg wasn't as unfazed as he always insisted that he was. “This is the second time Major Ellison was captured and tortured, and the second time you weren’t there to prevent it from happening.”
The hit was palpable, and Sandburg shifted uncomfortably. “That wasn’t my fault.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Spencer agreed. “But…”
“But reality often has very little to do with feelings,” Spencer said.
Sandburg got to his feet and began pacing. “I can’t say me being there would have made a difference. Jim seemed to think if I’d been there this time, they would have been able to use me against him.”
“Could you have sat by silently while they tortured Major Ellison?” Spencer asked.
Sandburg shook his head. “No, but I should have been there.”
“Your presence is not a talisman against bad things happening,” Spencer replied.
“I know that!” Sandburg snapped. “You think I don’t know that? You think I don’t know that I can’t save him?”
“I think you’re so caught up in all the times you didn’t save him, you aren’t thinking about all the times you did,” Spencer countered.
Sandburg stopped cold. He ran a hand through his hair, and then pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. “There’s so little I can do to make his life better. I know how much he struggles.”
“And yet he functions well in a high stress environment, in a difficult job, earning multiple commendations, because of you,” Spencer replied. “Now, I know you’re experienced at using relaxation techniques, so have you been using them?”
“Not around Jim,” Sandburg admitted. “I didn’t want him to know I was having a rough time.”
“Maybe let him support you,” Spencer suggested. “And maybe have an honest conversation about how you both are feeling about all of this.”
Sandburg nodded. “I’ll try.”
“And will you maybe take a page out of Major Ellison’s handbook and make an appointment to see me when you’re feeling rough?” Spencer asked. “And not wait for Dr. Frasier to make it an order?”
Sandburg smiled. “Yeah, I’ll try.”
“Good enough,” Spencer replied. “You want to have a seat and finish the session?”
Sandburg sat down. “Sorry for being so difficult.”
“Oh, I’ve seen far worse,” Spencer replied with a smile. “Shall we get to work?”
The session went a little easier after that. Sandburg was an expert at meditation techniques already, so it was really a matter of gently uncovering the feelings that Sandburg was doing his best to hide.
Sandburg didn’t think he had the right to be upset when Ellison was the one who had suffered so badly, and that thinking would take time to unpack.
Really, they were two sides of the same coin.
By the end of the session, Spencer thought Sandburg was in a slightly better place, and he said, “I would suggest that you join Teal’c and Major Ellison in their meditation sessions.”
“I have a few times before,” Sandburg said. “I just didn’t want to intrude too much on their friendship.”
Spencer nodded. “It was just a suggestion.”
Sandburg smiled at that. “Yeah, but a strong one. I’ll see you next week, Spencer.”
Well, that was progress.
Spencer had a couple of hours after that to finish some paperwork and update his client notes. He would have to send a report to Dr. Frasier at the end of the six week’s of down time Ellison had been ordered to take with a recommendation as to whether he was fit to go back into the field.
Spencer already knew what he would say, though.
Janet poked her head into his office just as he was about to pack it in for the day. “How did things go?”
“About like you’d expect,” Spencer replied, waving her into a seat. “If Major Ellison weren’t physically incapable of going back into the field, I’d send him back out today.”
Janet nodded. “And Blair?”
“He will be ready, but it’s probably not a bad thing that he has to wait six weeks,” Spencer admitted. “You know that I’ll probably always clear Major Ellison, unless I believe he’s a real danger to himself and others.”
Janet frowned, but didn’t argue. They had talked about it in the past, how Ellison would likely always operate better when he was acting as a Sentinel. Eventually, someday, he’d probably face mandatory retirement, and frankly, Spencer was betting that’s when the PTSD symptoms would get bad.
“Just let me know if I need to extend the order on Dr. Sandburg,” Janet replied. “He’s a little too good at hiding his emotions.”
“From pretty much everybody other than Major Ellison,” Spencer agreed. “Who definitely has his number.”
Janet laughed. “I just wish…” She sighed. “Well, if wishes were horses. How are you doing, Spence?”
Spencer shook his head. “We’re going to lose Brandeis, I think.”
Janet closed her eyes. “I thought—”
“I don’t think he’s ever going to be deployable again,” Spencer admitted. “We could see if General Hammond is willing to let him go to the National War College for a year. I have a colleague there who might be able to help him, but…”
Spencer saw his own dismay reflected on Janet’s face. They both hated to lose patients, however it happened. “I’ll talk to General Hammond,” she promised. “He’s a promising young man.”
She gave him a hard look. “Make sure you take care of yourself.”
“I’m seeing someone already,” Spencer replied. “I won’t let it get that bad again, Jan.”
“Good,” she replied. “Because I’d hate to lose you.”
She left it at that, and Spencer finished packing up for the night, musing that one of the things that made him so good at his job was the fact that he’d been in his patients’ shoes.
Trauma, as he well knew, tended to accumulate, and there was a good reason that the SGC’s staff psychologists had a very high turnover and burnout rate.
But Spencer had a responsibility to his patients, and he didn’t take that lightly, which meant he’d do everything in his power to be healthy enough to care for them.