Open letter to a psychotherapist

By “Name Withheld”

Stress. That most common and potentially lethal of demons we create for ourselves! The situations in which we sometimes find ourselves feed that demon, and if we allow it to, the demon will overtake us and set us invariably on the path to self-destruction. It was on this path I found myself once again, in recent months, for a variety of reasons. When the possibility of losing a job (not a career, mind you, just a job) and hurting those who love me, thereby adding to the sum total of THEIR stress, became a reality, I knew it was time to seek help. I sought help from you, and what I got instead, was a valuable lesson. As clichéd as it may sound, I now find that the only one who can help me is myself. That having been said, I must impart to you—since so many of your ilk encourage others to express themselves—my very justified anger at what transpired as a result of your professional judgment, all because I sent you an email, after having two sessions with you, that said: “I am afraid I am going to do something.” Consider this part of my therapy.

I was told that if I didn’t get to your office or go to an E.R. for a psychological evaluation, you would have no alternative but to have the police escort me from my workplace for an evaluation. I went to your office, accompanied by my husband (twenty-four hours after the email had been sent, still very much alive, incidentally). You called the cops anyway and off I went.

Albeit, I am now aware that you did what you did because you are required to by state law—I suppose. However, I would still like to impress upon you the indignity of that particular experience, the utter humiliation of being escorted by a police officer to wait on the porch for a police vehicle, more commonly known as “the paddy wagon,”—NOT an ambulance, as you said it would be, but the dark box plopped on the bed of a pick-up, that special treat reserved for those who break the law—and evidently for those who seek help and reassurance, not to have the control of their own destiny taken away from them—to sit on a locked ward for five hours waiting to speak to a psychiatrist.

As I stood there on the porch of that lovely, well-preserved building I thought about the names on some of the doors we—the police officer and I—passed on our way down from your office: “Dr. Dreading,” and “Dr. Grave,” and how ironically named these “therapists” are and how I might have changed my name if I were in the business of “helping” people to something that wouldn’t send patients into a paranoid tailspin or convince them that the names of their therapists were a sign of things to come…I thought about other things, as well. The police officer who escorted me is acquainted with one of my childhood friends who became a police officer. His (my childhood friend’s) father was both physically and verbally abusive to his children and to his wife and now he (my childhood friend) works with the K9 unit of the Worcester Police Department. I thought about other things, as well. I wouldn’t have gotten very far if I’d tried to run; that officer had at least 10 years on me and was in the sort of shape I haven’t known for at least twenty. My husband had already left. He left his wife there with a police officer. He left his wife there with a police officer because he thought an ambulance was coming for his wife. I leaned against the railing and then leaned in front of the railing and then sat on the steps. Then the paddy wagon arrived.

The young female officer driving it opened the back door. I stepped up and into a world entirely unfamiliar to me—until that day. It reeked. It reeked of vomit, urine, and stale body odor. When the door clanged shut behind me I knew panic as I had seldom known before. In the dark, hot stench of this unique space reserved for criminals, there was a squalid square of light somewhat obscured, through which I could see the officer driving, quite comfortable in her air-conditioned cab. The box lurched all over the place, my heart bounced at my ribs, my purse slid up and down the filthy, sticky seat, and I grabbed onto the bars behind me as I had been instructed to do, crying as quietly as I could—I did want to cling to some dignity, some measure of composure—hence, my blank stare as I shook your hand as we left your office (I cannot believe I shook your hand!) and throughout most of the ordeal. I did think about other things, as well. I wondered what I had done to deserve what was happening to me.

We arrived. The door was opened. There was a man in a suit talking to one of the EMTs, leaning against a concrete support beam in front of the E.R. I made eye contact with him. I stared at him as if to say, “Yes, I am crazy. Do you have a problem with that?” We found the Triage. An old officer switched off with the young one, who left. I was asked why I was there. “I was put in a paddy wagon and brought here,” I said. Then I went to “registration.” I thought it was interesting that, while I was there for a psychological evaluation, I was considered sane enough to consent, to sign this form and that form—someone has to get paid, after all. Then the jolly old officer brought me over to the locked ward, and on the way mentioned something about a “Section 12.” “Is that anything like a Section 8?” I inquired, images of Max Klinger, that lovable M*A*S*H character, parading through my brain. He did explain, but I wasn’t really interested. I was making conversation. This is what sane, polite people do, after all.

He dropped me off at the locked ward. There was an aide there, to keep us (those pending assessment) company and see to our immediate needs. At the time of my arrival there were already three others present. One of them was a large woman in shorts with her johnny flapping in the breeze. There was a bald man perhaps my age, perhaps younger, who displayed a myriad of tattoos. I later learned that his name was Meschach. One of his tattoos was of two tears from his right eye. Inky black tears permanently etched into his skin. “Perhaps he can no longer cry,” I thought. A heavyset woman taller than me who couldn’t stop crying rounded out the crowd. I gingerly took my seat. And waited.

The ward is not an unpleasant place. The aide was very nice and it was evident that every effort was made to make it a comfortable, non-threatening, safe, sort of place. This was a welcome change, after the ride in the paddy wagon. I calmed down and assessed my situation. It could have been worse. The bathrooms were locked. The door to the outside of the ward was locked. I was not allowed to keep my purse. There was a locked area for clinicians. There was a television. If not for the locks, one might never presume the ward to be a way station for the potentially insane. It was a safe place.

Finally Dr. Dearest (no kidding!) spoke with me. He is not a psychiatrist, he is a medical doctor. Then I sat some more. And waited. A homeless guy named Antoine arrived. He was clearly a veteran of the mental health system. As was Meschach. They exchanged previous admission stories and inquired from me as to whether I would be “admitted,” as well. I said I didn’t know. I was hungry and asked for a sandwich. The very nice aide that was there got me a turkey sandwich, and got one for Antoine as well. I gave him my mustard packet. Antoine doesn’t like mayonnaise. I went to the door to the foyer outside, and pressed my hand upon the glass. My husband got up and pressed his hand against the glass on the other side of the door. “I am sorry, darling,” I thought.

A new patient arrived. In her pajamas. I think her name was Christabel. Evidently she hadn’t slept in several days. She made no eye contact with anyone. I am not sure whether her condition was drug-induced or the result of something else, but she was very entertaining—and a bit disturbing. It had been awhile since I have observed such behavior first hand—and I think it was handled well. Much better than the way those hateful nuns from my past would have handled it. “She must be on some good shit,” Meschach remarked. She was inconsolable for awhile and then she collapsed and fell asleep. And I waited. We waited.

It was “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel. Antoine reminisced about how he had gone to the Florida Keys with his girlfriend two years earlier and swum with dolphins. She was killed in a car accident, and he has been inconsolable ever since. He had been arrested for a B&E (breaking and entering) the previous day, and had been living on the streets. He was starving. He finally got another sandwich. Evidently they don’t give out more than one at a time.

At 10:30 pm or thereabouts—five hours after being dropped off—I was invited to one of the rooms to talk to Dr. Tambe, the psychiatrist. I had seen the clinician earlier. Can’t recall her name, but she was pleasant enough. I assured her that I did not have a plan to harm myself or anyone else. I did not have weapons nor did I have access to any weapons. I admitted frankly that while it is always pleasurable to ponder being privy to the sight of those we dislike getting what they deserve—I am aware that there is a distinction between fantasy and reality and assured her that my view was that once played in the mind, these skits have served their purpose.

Dr. Tambe asked how anyone was supposed to take me seriously. I advised him that I never requested that anyone take me seriously. I explained that had I realized what I had done would be taken in such a way, I certainly never would have admitted to feeling uneasy, or in a state of panic, or in fear that I might do something stupid. We came to an agreement that what transpired was all about the therapist in whom I had confided not really knowing me very well, and having a need to cover her ass. He asked me if people think I am “funny.” I advised that many people do think I am funny. Evidently that is part and parcel of my personality—to joke—to make light of—to give the impression that I don’t care—“bravado,” he called it. A mask to conceal the pain, whatever that pain may be. I do not regret having spoken with Dr. Tambe, who evidently found that I was stable enough to leave the locked ward and go home. I actually liked him.

My husband came in and we both met with the clinician before we left. I said goodbye to Antoine and told him to take care of himself. It occurred to me that he needed a mother. We went home. I apologized to my husband for putting him through that ordeal. He said there was no need to apologize. He loves me and I have a lot to be thankful for. I have supportive, loving friends and (some) family. For the first time I feel sorry for my boss, who did not know how to handle the matter of having a nut job to manage…but I don’t feel that badly—it is doubtful to me that he now feels badly about having put a crazy person on written warning without getting all the facts.

However—I am not certain that a person with a melancholy temperament can necessarily be “changed,” to what others think he or she should be. History and literature both are crammed with the documented thoughts of nihilists, and while I certainly do not count myself among them (since I have not, as yet, written anything worthy of note) I am certain there are others like me. Incidentally I do not include Ernest Hemingway among them; I have often thought it is only too bad he didn’t shoot himself before he polluted the body of American Literature with his inanities, however acidic a thought that might be—but Virginia Woolf, on the other hand—that was truly a tragedy. Sylvia Plath was a tragedy. I am not certain that what I feel is like the bell jar descending so much as the absence of feeling. Plath described it as feeling like a “dead baby stopped in a jar,” which she had once seen at the lab at either Yale or Harvard Medical School with one of one of her boyfriends—but it isn’t like that for me. It cannot be explained so succinctly.

“How are you with words?” asked Dr. Tambe. “I am very good with words,” I said. Perhaps too good, I thought. Words can and do often get us into trouble. Particularly if the words we use to give our thoughts shape make others uncomfortable. “Then why can’t you say how you feel?” he said. A good question. I thought about that. I thought about other things as well. My response was this: that feelings are a private matter. Talking about feelings is like showing the world your hand. It gives others power over you. Look at what happened to me when I expressed how I was feeling.

Now I ask you, as well as your other learned colleagues (by the way, have you ever considered that there is only one letter’s difference between “Freud,” and “fraud?) I ask you: do you think that I will ever want to be explicit, or tell you what I think or feel, if the consequences of doing so are to be what transpired on that day? What do YOU think? How do YOU feel? Do you think you have actually helped me? You have not. I have had to help myself. You have charged my insurance a good $600.00 and I have had to help myself.

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It is now just shy of two months since that experience. I have tried in vain to find a psychiatrist. Dr. Tambe isn’t taking any patients. Every time I call anyone I have to have my name taken down by someone who does “intake,” and never get a call back. Had that psychologist really cared what had happened to me she would have dropped everything as soon as she got the email. Instead she waited twenty-four hours, by which time I could have been dead, to tell me to either come to her office or that I would be escorted from my workplace by police for a psychological evaluation. I advised her soon after the ordeal that I wouldn’t be keeping any other appointments and haven’t heard from her since. I am not dead, I cannot find help, and I am still in need of it.

Nevertheless, I have greater internal resources than most people, and I do harbor hope—that most precious, powerful and human of all emotions! I harbor hope despite the fact that my faith in the “mental health system,” is what it might have been in the glory days of Bedlam, where the frenzied antics of people not unlike myself were displayed for the amusement of the wealthy. What of the Antoines and the Christabels caught in the system? The other poor sods walking in circles with their johnnies flapping in the breeze? It is most unfortunate that in the year 2009, in the United States, robbing a convenience store, disturbing the peace, stealing a car, assaulting another human being, driving under the influence of alcohol, and a cry for help should all merit the same ride in the paddy wagon via police escort. My husband later confided in me that, had he deemed it necessary, my “therapist,” would have had me committed, he had only to say the word!

Clearly, some things have changed since my 1887 exposé on the conditions at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, but not enough. Let us never cease to champion for the downtrodden, the powerless, the atypical, the unusual, the unique—the Individual, she or he who is so often despised in this cookie-cutter world, and let us never cease to hope, and be the change for the better we want to see in the world.

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