In spite of having an explanation that seemed to make sense to both of them, Buffy and Joyce agreed that she should probably move up her scheduled appointment with Dr. Swinson. The doctor's staff quickly arranged for Buffy to see her the following morning.
Dr. Swinson greeted Buffy warmly, hugging her and leading her into the familiar office with its comfortable chairs. They exchanged small talk for a few minutes, Buffy happily recounting how she'd driven there herself with minimal assistance from Joyce.
"I've been taking driving lessons from a professional driving school, and they think I'm ready to get my license. It's going to be so much easier on Mom when she doesn't have to arrange her work schedule around taking me to school and work."
"Doesn't your father help out with that?"
Buffy's face clouded briefly. "Well, sure, he does. But you know, he's always busy and his work takes him away a lot, and...." Her voice trailed off.
Dr. Swinson studied her face for a few seconds. "Okay. Well, it will be a great day then when you get your license, won't it?"
Buffy nodded, eager to bring the conversation back to the things that were going well in her life. "Yep. And since I have a job, I should be able to buy myself a used car and not have to depend on them at all. For transportation, anyway."
The doctor smiled at her enthusiasm, then sobered. "So, are you ready to tell me why you needed to see me a week early?"
Buffy frowned, then briefly recapped the night's events, including Joyce's guess as to why Will's words had triggered memories of Spike. Dr. Swinson listened and sat in silence until Buffy began to stir restlessly. She immediately lifted her head and smiled with reassurance.
"I think your mother might well be on to something," she with a small laugh. "If this young man is harboring romantic feelings towards you, I can see how it would trigger memories of the last man you remember falling in love with you."
"Last vampire who fell in love with me," Buffy corrected. She hesitated, and then said, "There's more."
Dr Swinson raised her eyebrows.
"Will... he kind of, sort of... looks like Spike. I mean, no bleached hair or fangs, but he's the same size and build, and his eyes are the same color...."
"Coincidence, Buffy. Surely you realize that? How many men with that build and blue eyes do you think there are living in the greater Los Angeles area?"
"With British accents?"
"Okay, I'll give you that. They may be less common. But Los Angeles is a multicultural city. People move here from all over the world – including England. All those actors who come here from England or Australia, plus anyone else who moved here for other reasons like Will apparently did. It's a big coincidence, I'll grant you, but that's all it is. That's all it can be. You believe that, don't you?"
"Oh, yeah. I understand that. It's just that it really freaked me out, you know? Like all those memories were so... so real. And I couldn't stop them. I almost called him Spike!" Buffy paused and bit her lip. "Okay, I have another question for you"
"Okay, you explained that Will looking like Spike is probably—" Dr. Swinson raised an eyebrow and Buffy hastily amended, "is a coincidence. But what if I know other people who remind me of people in my delusion? How many coincidences can there be?"
"That's an easy one, Buffy. I'm surprised you didn't come to this conclusion yourself. More likely than your meeting new people who remind you of those in your imaginary world, is that you will find many of the characters in that world actually remind you of people you have already met. Incorporating them into that world would have saved you the energy required to replace everyone in your life completely." She smiled at Buffy. "Your mother and father had the same roles – even though they behaved differently – so they stayed the same. However, I'm sure most of the other people in that world were based on people you already knew or had seen somewhere. In fact, if you'd met Will somewhere before you got sick, I would say that you'd probably based Spike on him." She looked at Buffy intently. "Is there any chance of that?"
Buffy frowned. "I...I don't think so. I never asked him where he went to high school, and he's older than me... but I guess if he was a senior... or somebody's older brother.... I'll ask him tonight!" she said with excitement in her voice. "Wouldn't it be weird if he went to Hemery? That means Sean would have, too – which explains why he seems familiar sometimes."
"I don't think it would be weird at all," Dr. Swinson smiled. "I think it would make perfect sense. And it would explain why you invented a character that seems to resemble him."
Buffy gave a sigh of relief, and sank back in her chair.
"It would explain a lot," she said, slumping with relief. "I knew you would have an explanation. You know everything!"
Dr. Swinson gave a soft laugh and looked embarrassed. "I don't know everything, Buffy. When it comes to you, I'm amazed at what I don't know. But I do have an idea..."
Buffy sat up and waited for the doctor to continue.
"I thought about doing this as soon as you began to get well, but I wanted you to remove yourself from that world as much as possible at that time. However, now that you seem to have such a good grip on the real world, we— you may find this useful. I want you to get two notebooks. In one of them, I want you to jot down every time you have a flashback. What set it off, if you know what it was. What was it – real 'memory' or just a flash of something familiar? Was it a person, a place or an event? How long did the flashback last and how did it make you feel? What emotions did it elicit?"
"Dr. Swinson, you keep calling them 'flashbacks' and 'memories', but if that world was all in my mind, aren't they just... nothing?"
"I call them 'memories' because, for you, that's what they are. That world is where, for all intents and purposes, you have been for the last several years. Your body was here with us in Shady Pines, but your mind was somewhere else. Those memories are all you have of that time – and all you are ever likely to have. I cannot imagine, as deeply as you were into your imaginary world, that you are likely to have any conscious memories of anything else. I'm sure anytime the real world managed to intrude into that other life, it was quickly explained away as a dream."
"So, my dreams were my real world, and the real world was a dream?"
"Basically. I would love to think that at some level you knew what was really going on around you, and that we were trying to help you; but except for whatever your subconscious may have picked up from the television, I seriously doubt it. You were fighting us too hard." She shook her head, saying, "You said yourself that you think you must have incorporated many of the things going on here into your delusion. We hated to use restraints or force on you, but as you know...."
"Yeah." Buffy sighed. "At least some of the times I thought I was fighting minions, or chained up—" She stopped to shake her head free of the memory of Spike's unique method of telling her he loved her. "At least some of the time, I guess I really was fighting... somebody or something."
"You were," Dr. Swinson said kindly. "It was all we could do for so many years – just try to keep you safe and quiet. If you remember what I told you when you first came back to us, it wasn't until we started you on the new anti-psychotics that you began to be here long enough for me to begin serious therapy."
"I'd almost forgotten about the drugs," Buffy said, her eyes narrowing. "I'm not sure I like that I was on drugs. How could I have forgotten that?"
"It wasn't necessary for you to remember it. As soon as you were able to remain mentally here – with us – for extended periods of time, we began to wean you off the meds. They're very powerful and can have unintended side effects; but in your case, they were what it took to break the hold over you that your imaginary world had. Once the hold was broken...."
"So, I could go crazy again at any time?" Buffy's willingness to openly express her deepest fear brought a quick response from her doctor.
"I certainly hope not!" Dr. Swinson said. "I'd like to think that once we broke you out of that world, it lost its hold over your imagination. However," she said, staring hard at Buffy, "if at any time you feel yourself slipping away—even if it's just a dream from which you wake up in the morning – I want you to come in immediately. I would much rather you come in willingly before things get bad, than for your parents to have to bring you in because you've lost touch with reality again."
Buffy nodded. "I wouldn't want that to happen, either. I've done enough to screw up their lives already."
"They love you," the doctor said quickly. "Please don't think of yourself as a burden to them."
Buffy shrugged. "So, what's the other notebook for?"
"Ah, that one I want you to use to write down everything you know or can remember about your other world. In chronological order."
At Buffy's shocked reaction, she smiled.
"I know it sounds strange that I want you to remember it, but this is where you've been. These are the experiences you think you've had." She hesitated, admitting, "In all honesty, it's as much for me as for you. I can rationalize much of what you seem to know, but I'm having a hard time understanding how you went from a high school freshman to a college freshman without ever having cracked a textbook. Or, that your mother tells me about the books you've "read" that we know we don't have here at the hospital. There are some really intriguing gaps in your experience that you seem to have managed to fill somehow, and I'd like to try to figure out how. It could help me cure someone else someday."
"Ooookay," Buffy said dubiously. "I don't think one notebook is going to do it, though..."
"Probably not." Dr. Swinson nodded her agreement. "But let's just begin with one notebook and see how it goes. You'll basically be writing the detailed history of the past several years as you think you lived it."
"Don't you already have most of this on tape?"
"I do. I have a great deal of the major events and facts: that you believed yourself to be Chosen to slay vampires; that those creatures actually exist; and the names of the people who were important to you in that world. What I don't have is the day-to-day record of that life. The incredibly detailed structure that you created to make the delusion work as well as it did."
She paused and looked at Buffy's worried face, smiling her reassurance.
"If you just start writing, almost like you were keeping a daily journal – except, of course, that you will have to remember the events from years ago rather than writing them down as they are fresh in your mind – I think it will work. You can always go back and fill in other details as they occur to you."
"So, I'm not sure I get this: instead of trying to avoid remembering stuff that never happened, you want me to write it down? Just like it was real?"
"I do." Dr. Swinson nodded firmly. "It may actually help you to maintain your grip on the real world, as you record these somewhat... um... unusual events."
Buffy gave her a wry grin. "You mean you think having to admit to myself that I think there are such things as vampires and demons and witches might embarrass me out of it?"
"Something like that." Dr. Swinson smiled warmly. "Let's give it a try. If you think it's becoming too stressful, or that you're dwelling on that life too much, then stop immediately and give me a call. I don't want this to backfire on you."
"I'm game if you are." Buffy felt a strange sense of relief that she was no longer going to have to smother the memories that popped up from time to time. She looked at the doctor eagerly. "I'm going to get those notebooks on the way home—but I'm going to get three of them."
"I'm going to keep track of everybody I can remember from before I got sick – and I'm going to try to figure out who I might have made them into in my delusion."
"That's an excellent idea, Buffy. The more you understand where the imaginary people came from, the less likely you will be to go back to believing that they are real."
"This was great, Doc! Thanks so much." Buffy jumped from the chair, ran around the desk and gave Dr. Swinson a hug before bolting out the door and grabbing her mother's hand. "Come on, Mom. We've got a stop to make before we get home."
As Buffy tried to explain what Dr. Swinson wanted her to do, she could see Joyce's face tightening up.
"It's going to be okay, Mom. Really. It's like I'll be writing a story – and it will be so weird and unreal that it will help me understand why it can't be true. And, bonus, I don't have to feel guilty or worry every time I think I'm remembering something that isn't real. I can just write it down and go about my business. It'll work. You'll see."
"I hope you're right, honey."
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