(Crackerjacks was an honourable mention from Esoterica’s Inaugural Short Story Competition)
By Myna Wallin
When I was eighteen, a flamboyant psychiatrist-cum-fashion model strutted into her office wearing six-inch heels and a cape. She chain-smoked, indoors, flaunting perfect red talons. Her eyebrows were plucked so voraciously there was only a pale blond shadow left behind. She touched her dewy red lips together, in a half pout and sympathetic frown, as I cried. As my sobs escalated into choking and sputtering, she pressed a button on her phone, signalling the pharmacy and had a prescription brought to me immediately.
“I don’t need anything,” I insisted, trying to halt the tears, running of their own accord now.
She proffered an orange capsule and a tiny cup of water, soothingly, “This will help calm you.”
“I don’t want to be calm!”
A lifetime of pills taken to soothe the people around me—because they were uncomfortable. How often have I taken them for my own benefit? Of my own volition?
Dr. Fashion Model sighed and puffed her way through another six months of therapy, prescribing—as was common then—mega doses of pills. One thing she did was quite unusual and has never happened again.
“I’d like you to come to my house this weekend. Just us. We’ll have tea and chat. But it will be social. No problems, no crying. Just a social visit.”
I arrived that day, finding a sumptuous apartment filled with pictures of her and her handsome broadcaster husband. It seemed like a cruel ordeal to put me through, looking at her idyllic life. I gave her a gift that day, a vase I’d made in pottery class. Psychiatrists, like shamans and prostitutes, are always amassing hordes of treasures.
I heard years later that she split from her glamorous husband and that she’d become some sort of advocate for women’s rights. I couldn’t imagine her in that role at all. Perhaps she got bored and decided to change costumes for a while. I wish I had that vase back now. She didn’t deserve it. Many years later, I saw her at the bar of a restaurant, waiting for a table. I approached her, recognizing her fair brow line, and said hello. I even introduced myself by name and she had no memory of me at all.
One of the strangest experiences I ever had with a shrink was in the halcyon of the “I’m OK, You’re OK” days of Transactional Analysis in the 70s. I met with a wizened little man, whose office consisted of a shag rug and some brightly coloured oversized cushions.
“Nightmares are easy to cure. You must learn how to fight back. Come along . . .”
He pinned me down on the floor, his stubby knees on my legs, his hands on my forearms, bad breath leaning into my face, “tell me to get off you. Scream it!”
It seemed ridiculous until I realized I was stuck underneath this odious man. My voice was hoarse before he let me go.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he smiled afterwards with a salacious smack of his lips.
I was too young to think of reporting him. The nightmares continued. I never saw him again. He received several honours from the psychiatric association in our city over the years. I did not mourn him when I heard he had died.
There was a psychologist, too, a tall ex-dancer with black hair past her waist and startling blue eyes. She worked at home and was always being interrupted: her kids needed something, she took calls, her dog needed something—you name it. An
ever present bowl of muesli sat in her lap, and she spooned glops out of it from time to time. She loved to hear about anything sexual, sounding like a teenaged girlfriend at a pyjama party.
“Ooh, then what’d he want? Do you think all men like that?” she’d ask, conspiratorially, slurping her cereal and tucking her long legs underneath her like a swan.
One day I looked at her and she looked oddly different. I couldn’t place it at first: same long black hair, loose flowing outfit, clear striking brown eyes?
“Coloured contacts. I rotate them. Blue, blue-grey, green. Only today they were bothering me, so I didn’t wear any. This is my natural colour. What do you think? I like the blue best since they go so well with my hair.”
I felt I’d been defrauded. Of what I don’t know. But just how honest could that sympathetic gaze have been, surrounded by tinted plastic? Liars, all of them.
A particularly twisted psychiatrist I saw insisted I sign a waiver stipulating I would not resell my prescription medication on the street. That is not something that had ever occurred to me. The idea was ludicrous, I should have gotten up and walked away right then and there. And when he promised, a bit too cockily, “I’d never violate the doctor/ patient trust. I’ve seen a lot of indiscriminate behaviour in this field—” while glancing at my legs and letting his eyes rest on my breasts a moment too long, I should have run.
“Nothing can or ever will jeopardize my position,” he asserted. Sometimes a screwed-up girl likes a challenge. Maybe I could expose Dr. Fraud, stir up a little trouble.
There can be a lot of sexual chemistry between a psychiatrist and his patient, and it makes for a very dangerous relationship, even when it isn’t acted upon. My so-called therapy consisted of a man sitting in his swivel chair, groin tilted towards me, chewing on his pencil eraser. Orally fixated, he was always chewing or sucking something. I told him about all my relationships with men, embellishing here and there, taunting him with details.
He never directed the questions, preferring me to lead our sessions. Similarly, he practically let me write my own prescriptions, some of which I chose simply because I liked the sound of their names. He took no notes and after a few months I started to realize he had no memory of what I had or hadn’t told him. Finally, the game got boring, and I got angry.
“Where did you get your license to practice? Out of a box of Crackerjacks? And you framed it and everything, how cute!” I sneered.
“I’m not perfect, no.”
“You’re not even close to perfect. You’re a joke, an excuse for a doctor.”
“If you want to fire me, go ahead,” he stopped smirking and scowled.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
Then he did something I have never seen a psychiatrist do, before or since. He retaliated.
“And you?” he said, his voice rising with anger. “I suppose you’re perfect. You’re out there screwing guys you don’t care about, you’re totally out of control and you want to blame it on me?”
His face was like a blowfish now, magenta hot. I shuddered, stunned. I felt like I was having a fight with a boyfriend, not dealing with a doctor. He said quietly and vehemently, “I think I’ve had about enough of you.”
“You aren’t supposed to attack the patient. You can’t do that.”
“You attacked me first,” he said, “Am I supposed to be your whipping boy?”
I left, crying incoherently to the secretary on my way out. He followed me out of his office, ranting, “Don’t involve my staff; they aren’t trained for this sort of work!”
That was the end of him. (I heard recently he had a full-blown breakdown of his own to deal with. Can you say schadenfreude?)
Now, I wait around like a stupid lab rat, for the next drug to try. Or cocktail of drugs. I still ask myself if it’s a moral weakness, a lack of willpower, that allows me to remain rat-like, chasing the cheese. I look to the white coats, the never-ending succession, expecting them to dole out the right chemicals, hoping they’ll get it right sometime soon.
It took seventeen years to find a therapist I could trust. And she managed to diagnose me, after many others’ mangled attempts. She came to her conclusion, after several months of diligent research. She collected old files; assessments made by as many other doctors as she could find and followed the trail. She showed me some of them and we both had a good laugh.
Some commented on my “good grooming” and “attractive appearance” as if that was somehow at odds with emotional problems I seemed to be having. How can someone be truly depressed or suicidal if they’re dressed presentably, seemed to be their reasoning.
Jennifer insisted I call her by her first name. She was delightfully unpretentious. She took notes, ordered blood and thyroid tests, asked refreshingly insightful questions, and used both Gestalt and psychotherapy to arrive at her conclusions. One day, after a few months of therapy, she made us tea, sat down and said calmly, “I think I’ve figured it out.”
“What?” I looked at her, strangely queasy.
“You’re manic depressive. Or as it’s called now—Bipolar.”
Words. Just words. All my life I’ve seen doctors, been depressed, elated, confused, or suicidal. I’ve been more emotional, led a heightened existence. Didn’t I have an artist’s temperament, flair, a penchant for high drama? That was all, wasn’t it?
I came out of my reverie hearing the words “chemical imbalance, . . . lithium . . .”
Then I cried tears of profound relief mixed with humiliation. There was a word for what made me unique. A chemical disturbance in my brain. Still, I was damaged goods. It would take a mood stabilizer to put my serotonin levels back into their proper alignment. If they could.
In the days and weeks that followed that appointment, the words “manic depression” became my mantra. They explained everything. Why else would I lose touch with reality after my mother had died, instead of grieving like anyone else? Manic depression. Why would I feel my mother’s spirit passing through me? Manic depression. At seventeen, I wore my mother’s silk blouses, classic suits, while the university students around me were wearing ripped Flashdance sweatshirts and jeans. I thought I could give her another chance at life, channel her through me. I wore her fox fur hat indoors. People thought I was eccentric.
Eventually my father had all her clothes removed. I cried and screamed as though they were taking her away all over again. The plush seal coat smelled of her perfume. She was not dead, why could no one understand? They could take her clothes but she was still there: in the teacups, the chairs, the walls. I could hear her sometimes at night, soothing me while I cried. Her presence was palpable. I refused to let that go, even if it meant I was delusional.
When mania hits, I’m free, elated, and transcendent. I can’t sleep. Time slows down and I speed up. Everyone else seems false and measured. I question everything. I want to buy things; it becomes a physical need. I want sex, badly. It’s a highly alert state, one that seems utterly clear and visionary while it lasts. The mysteries of the universe fall into place, but no one wants to listen. It never lasts. It comes crashing down, several weeks or months later, crushing me with its opposite: depression.
When I lie in the muck of depression, I’m caught in a hellhole of anger, confusion, bitterness, and apathy. It always comes back, like a homing pigeon, like a recurring nightmare, like my mother’s cancer. The lows are so abysmally, indescribably low. I wonder why I can’t duck my head under that searing hot water in the bath. Why can’t I swallow too many pills and slip quietly away? I see a knotty, thick rope dangling above my bed. I’ve only to reach its roughness, embrace it. These fantasies comfort me. But I struggle on. Perhaps, underneath it all I’m an optimist. I always wonder, “What if things improve? What if I’m destined for a chunk of happiness, after all?”
Foul, sullen, that blackness is a curse. One that’s written right into my D.N.A. I resisted the drugs as long as I could. One day, when I couldn’t bear it any longer, I caved. I wish I could say they were the answer, the palliative that made my days and nights flow smoothly into one another. At first, they were. Then, there were complications. I had to stop taking them or risk the proper functioning of my kidneys. When I took them, I was wrapped in a soft cocoon, less edgy, and less sensitive. When I stopped taking lithium, it was as though I was living with a perpetual hangover: everything hurt, from voices to traffic noises, to the thoughts in my head. The buffer was gone and now it was worse than it had ever been.
There are a whole range of anti-depressants and mood stabilizers. The strange thing about them is that no one really knows how or why they work. So, one is prescribed, and it’s a while until you can tell whether it’s going to do anything. Or are the side effects going to deter you from taking them? One drug I took made me clumsy; I bumped into things, hurting myself. The odd thing was, I was convinced that things were bumping into me, not the other way around. Another drug woke me up in the middle of the night, causing me to sleepwalk. And yet another drug made a third of my hair fall out. A male psychiatrist I consulted with insisted that this was a superficial thing.
“Self-worth is too precious to be dependent upon our appearance. Appearance shifts.”
That was easy for him to say: a homely, balding, scrawny man who had probably never had a shred of confidence about his physical appearance. He probably didn’t start to look attractive to women until he had a battery of initials following his name. Suddenly he’s got prestige, a great salary and his self-worth rises considerably. Beautiful women, the kind who wouldn’t have flicked their dandruff flakes his way, are suddenly sitting in his office, telling him the intimate details of their lives. No, of course his worth had nothing whatever to do with his looks.
Today my doctor calls to tell me that the results of my bloodwork came in. The levels are excellent: the tegretol and the epival are both within therapeutic range. My mood has been consistently good for about a month now. I keep a mood calendar, noting the ups and the downs. When I’m okay, it’s easy to forget the extremes are looming around the corner, like greedy fat cells, waiting to plump up again.
Meantime, now I have a word, Bipolar, to cling to. Instead of being stigmatized by it, it’s my lifeboat. Bipolar I, the more severe kind, finally answers all the unanswered questions. It’s a lot less humiliating when you learn you have a medical condition, and the erratic, impulsive behaviour isn’t your fault. I’m reminded, with every pop of a daily pill, that this disease is controllable; there’s hope I won’t be flailing around in the dark forever.
Myna Wallin is a Toronto poet and prose writer. She has 3 published books: A Thousand Profane Pieces, poetry, (Tightrope Books, 2006) and Confessions of a Reluctant Cougar, novel (Tightrope Books, 2010) and Anatomy of An Injury, poetry (Inanna Publications). Wallin was recently long listed for the New Quarterly’s Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest. Upcoming poems will appear in Event Magazine.