It’s cold outside, twenty degrees and windy. I’m eager to get inside my psychiatrist’s office, but only for this reason. It’s too cold for slush. The snow is so crunchy and dry it doesn’t attach itself to my boots, but once I’ve entered, I make a show of stomping on the mat and brushing myself off anyway. There’s a chair by the door where I can sit, or the couch against the wall. I have trouble deciding, suspecting that whatever choice I make will be analyzed. I take my time with my coat. If I sit by the door, she will think I’m eager to escape. Well, I am, except for the cold. If I sit on the couch, will I choose the end across from her, or take the other end, closer to the exit? The room is small, and the furniture is low. She is already sitting. I feel big standing there, out of place like Alice in Wonderland. I choose the middle of the couch. She looks at me, waiting, but today I have decided that I’m not playing her game. Why do I always have to be the first one to talk? A scented candle burns; beneath the fragrance, I detect pesticides and I wonder who she thinks she’s fooling.
“Hello,” I finally say.
I can’t stand her looking at me. I can’t stand the silence. I’m looking down at the floor, like a sullen child, counting the snags on the Berber carpet. I hold my hand over my brow as though I’m shielding my eyes from the sun.
“How are you?” she asks.
I have answered that question twenty-five times this week. I can answer it in other languages. Fine. Bene. Muy Bien. How am I really? I don’t know how to answer. Last night, I was driving and had to pull over, off the highway, into a neighborhood I didn’t know. I stopped because I felt my legs shaking so violently I thought my foot was tapping hard on and off the accelerator. I couldn’t see the lane dividers on the road. Other cars were driving so much faster, leaving me behind. It was one of the few times I had gone out, off the couch. Was this anxiety or the medication? I couldn’t tell anymore. I see my psychiatrist three times a week. It has been exactly forty-eight hours since we have last spoken.
“How are you getting along?” she asks, trying again.
How am I getting along? I’m having trouble putting one shaking foot in front of the other to leave my bedroom, to get down the stairs and onto the couch. My husband Bill has me working on little things.
“Please come down,” he says. “Just for a little while.” He tries to get me to set the table.
My psychiatrist looks like a television actress. She has an equine jaw, a wide forehead and perfectly placed copper hair. Her makeup looks professionally done. This is not the first time I wonder, “Is she for real? Does she know what she’s doing?” It’s hard to find a psychiatrist between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Bill had found her in the phone book. I think of Lucy in the Charlie Brown comics. Psychiatry, 5 cents. The doctor is in. It’s such a leap of faith to let someone rummage around in your head, experimenting with chemicals like an artist mixing colors.
It has been four weeks since I first walked into this office just days after Christmas, shaking and sobbing, begging to be hospitalized. There was something wrong with my legs, I kept saying, but nobody would listen. Why is it so hard to walk? Why am I so afraid? Today, she holds a pad and pen. She asks me questions and writes down notes, not about my childhood, not about my marriage, but about the drugs, what they are doing to me, how they interact. She is a dispenser. At least once a week, she changes my medicine, pulling inventory from her sample drawer. The first one gave me night tremors and muscle jerks. The next one gave me dreams that were like hallucinations. My mouth has been so dry. My memory has become fragile, like a dandelion gone to seed. I start sentences that dissolve in the air. I have known people on medications; Zoloft, Paxil, Xanax, Wellbutrin, Adderall, and Elavil are all behind my friends’ kitchen cabinet doors, sitting there boldly beside the sugar and the mugs. But this is different. I am on a cocktail of two or three at a time, each with a separate instruction. Sometimes I take one for another, or two of them when I should have had one. Sometimes, I forget to take them; other times, I forget that I have taken them, so I take them again. After a month, I am in a drugged stupor.
“You have to give them time,” my psychiatrist says. “They have to get into your system.”
But the drugs are in my system, and that is where my real troubles begin. The side effects are too great. I sit by the fire in my slippers all day, unable to talk or eat or enjoy. I can’t cope with a hideous itchy rash right now. I’m nauseous. I’ve gained weight. Sex is revolting. Adding paranoia to my lifelong phobias and fears will hurt, not help. So, we switch, and we switch. Today, she has given me huge green and white capsules. Horse pills. They are the first ones that really scare me. They look like they are for someone very sick. I don’t trust her. I think she might be killing me. I think of The Twilight Zone. I make a note to ask Bill about this, but then I forget.
“What did you do yesterday?” she asks. She coos at me in a faint baby talk.
She has forbidden me to spend the day in bed. I must resist naps, get out of the house more, and never go to sleep before ten. We are out of sync. She wants me to pursue volunteer work while I am trying to figure out how to get food in the house when choosing a cereal has become a challenge. She wants me to take classes but there are many days when I can’t drive. I am trying to put on a good face while the breath is getting sucked out of my chest. I spend my days curled up in a ball, asking, “How could this be happening to me?” I am wrapped up in my own little chicken before the egg puzzle. Am I sick because of the medication or am I on medication because I’m sick? I wonder if both are possible. My brain has become an anxiety-seeking machine. When I forget, as is often the case, what I had just been anxious about, my brain starts searching it out. I visualize a Pac Man burrowing around, looking under the couch cushions of my brain for my troubles.
“I went to the mall,” I finally say to my psychiatrist on that cold, snowy day. I only went to the mall because I knew she would be asking about my activities. It’s like keeping a log, earning points. If I get enough points, maybe I’ll feel better.
I had a nice salesgirl at the mall. She had enthusiasm. Her name was Shawna. I lied and told her I needed clothes for a party. She put me in a fitting room and said, “I’ll do the work.” Within minutes, she brought me a top in all three available colors: gold, emerald, and purple. The Mardi Gras shades were in, Shawna explained to me. She also brought me a jacket and two colorful sweaters. When those didn’t work, she brought me a camisole top and a pair of pants but didn’t take anything away. The crepe camisole was too small and felt like it would tear easily. I could get it over my head, but not over my shoulders. I got stuck in it. The pants were too small, too. Next Shawna brought in a chocolate brown wrap skirt but cautioned that it was extremely complicated to get on. It was made of a heavy, slippery silk that kept sliding in my hands. I couldn’t find the front or back. This was not an ordinary wraparound skirt. It had a peculiar geometric design. Shawna had told me it was very versatile. It could also be worn as a halter.
I think it was the colors and clutter that got to me in the end, creating a riotous Mardi Gras in my fitting room. It all clung to my skin. I had static electricity. I was closed in, half dressed in a skirt that was more like origami than garment, and my own lingerie that looked like old lady underwear. I had worn ankle height tie up boots that day and hadn’t shaved my legs. I needed to bust out but couldn’t find the energy to get dressed. My fingers were trembling too much to button my blouse, so I didn’t bother to put it back on. I couldn’t tie my boots. I shoved some of my own scattered clothing into my bag, got into my jeans, and threw my coat on over my bra. Then I sank to the floor.
“Ma’am, are you alright in there? Ma’am?”
It was Shawna with more clothes. No, no, Shawna. Please no more.
I fumbled through my stuffed bag until I found my pills. It was a little early for my dose, but what was I supposed to do? I put a pill on my tongue and let it melt. It tasted sweet, like candy. Pulling myself together, I walked out of the fitting room with a balled-up bundle of new clothes.
“I’ll take these,” I said to Shawna. I didn’t know what I was buying, but I couldn’t concentrate on sorting, and I felt bad. Shawna had worked so hard. She knew about my meltdown.
“You’re angry, and I can understand that,” my psychiatrist is saying.
That’s when I begin to cry. She hands me the tissue box and I notice that it is much emptier than it was the last time I was here, just two days ago. It’s my first realization that someone besides me visits this room, a crier, like me. Once the tears start coming, I feel relief, but I still don’t want to talk.
She had offered me an analogy, one to explain why I can be well for a while, then bereft or anxious just hours later.
“Think of a big wave crashing over the sand,” she had said. “When it pulls back out to the ocean, it leaves little puddles. As the medicine has a chance to work, the puddles will get smaller and smaller. You’ll feel better and better. The big waves will go away.”
So that’s what I have to look forward to for now, watching puddles slowly dissolve. I continue to cry, to sob, really. I know there must be mascara all over my face, but I don’t care what she thinks of me.
“You are going to get better,” she says again. “Unfortunately, these medicines take time.”
But I can’t look at her and I can’t respond. There is one thing I know she is right about. I am angry.
“I am in pain,” I want to say to her. I think my arms hurt, like I have had them raised for too long, holding up the ceiling. My back hurts. My legs are wobbly.
“This is physical,” I say, not for the first time. “Physical. Please believe me.”
“This is not physical,” she says. “Try this new prescription. Let’s see how you do.”
I have never been a crier, but now, in this room, the crying does feel good. When I am done, I can look right at her.
“You haven’t helped me,” I say. “I am not getting better.”
“I know,” she says in her soft baby voice.
I want to ask her, “How does that make you feel?”
I don’t want to hurt her feelings, though. She’s trying. I’m just too lost.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: kizzzbeth/Flickr Creative Commons