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West Side Story

January 16, 2014 | by

psychiatry-Head

Image: Design of Signage

I like my psychiatrist, but I often find that occupying fifty minutes with an account of my tedious life feels like a high price to pay for responsible prescription.

“Do you try to make him laugh?” my dad asked, when he picked me up from my first-ever appointment. “Do you want to be his favorite patient?” (My dad visited a therapist briefly in the 1970s, hence his expertise.) I explained loftily that this was a medical situation and not like that at all, and that the doctor had been amazed that with my family history I had never been treated before. Then I admitted that yes, of course I wanted to be his favorite.

“When I saw my guy,” said my dad, “I sang to him.”

And he began to sing, very beautifully, to the tune of the Love Story theme,

Dog food is the king
I wish it weren’t but I can’t do anything
It’s so damn good it even makes the sparrows sing
And grown men weep and angels cry.

There was a moment of silence.

“What did he do?” I asked.

“He made me turn around so I wasn’t playing to his reaction all the time and had to actually engage.”

* * *

“You’re an M.D.,” I once said to my doctor. “You spend your days at the hospital”—I happened to know this—“and presumably deal with really unwell patients, then you come here and listen to people like me, and our nonproblems. You must despise us so much. I would. Do you despise us?”

“No,” he said, making a note.

* * *

I have been to the psychiatric ward at that particular hospital, visiting friends and loved ones, a number of times this year. Each time I sort of hoped I would run into my doctor. I wouldn’t have given him away, if I had. I was planning on a quick, roguish wink. It would have been our secret.

Maybe I have unrealistic expectations for such encounters. The first time I visited a psychiatric ward was in college. A friend was suffering from depression and campus health services had sent her to the university hospital for a brief stay. The nurse went to fetch my friend and instructed me to wait for her in the sort of group lounge where most visitors congregated. And there, sitting on the couch and watching a Terminator film, was a girl who lived in my dorm. I did not know this girl terribly well—although she was distinctive for always sporting a Henry Higgins–style tweed hat—but I did know that she was supposedly at home in Hawaii on some extended vacation, because people had been vocally envying the weather she must be enjoying.

She was wearing a hospital gown, and the tweed hat. She gave me a wink, said, “Mum’s the word,” and turned back to the movie.

* * *

Only once has a fellow patient engaged with me in the waiting room of my psychiatrist’s office. It was a teenage boy, and when I greeted him, he launched into an excitable monologue about the age and architectural style of the building in which we were standing, the architectural tropes of its era, and Manhattan architecture generally.

“Daniel, that’s enough,” said his father gently, and then, turning to me, “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s fine,” I said.

 

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