I was sitting in Dr Riley’s office, thinking about who I would invite to my funeral if I had the option, when he interrupted my train of thought by suggesting I participate in a month-long outpatient program at a nearby hospital. I was immediately alarmed, having only heard the term “outpatient” used in relation to treatment for eating disorders and drug addiction. I had flirted with both those things, but more out of boredom than anything else. I certainly didn’t need to participate in any sort of formal treatment.
“What kind of program?” I asked Dr Riley suspiciously.
“Oh nothing too intense,” he replied. “It’s a full-time day course involving a lot of group therapy. The main focus is on anxiety and anger management.”
Anxiety and anger management? I could see where he was coming from with the first part. I had spent roughly 8 months prior to this hiding under my doona watching Dawson’s Creek all day and refusing to answer my phone or empty the letter box. On the rare occasions I left the house to get food or cigarettes or a bottle of vodka, I wore baggy clothes and went shopping at odd hours to avoid as many people as possible. Doing your groceries is usually a fairly stress-free task, but if I found myself caught in the after-school rush at Woolworths, I would suffer dizzy spells and heart palpitations. By the time I ended up in Dr Riley’s office, I had gained 15kg, dropped out of uni, quit my job, and moved back to my parents’ house because it had become evident I was incapable of dealing with the basics of life. I was twenty years old, and while I could score 98% on my statistics final and organise lavish birthday parties for my friends, I couldn’t get it together enough to open my mail or wash my own clothes. So I could see why a little anxiety therapy wouldn’t go astray, but anger management? Was he being serious?
I put down my magazine and sat straighter in my chair. “I don’t really think I need to learn how to manage anger,” I told him. “I dont have any.”
“Ah but that’s the problem!” Dr Riley said, “You need to learn how to express your anger, rather than being in denial about its existence in the first place.”
“But what if I genuinely don’t have any?” I asked.
“You do,” he replied. “It’s there, you just can’t feel it.”
This troubled me deeply. If not feeling something meant that my brain wasn’t letting me feel that very thing, who knew what might be lurking underneath the surface? Maybe I was feeling all kinds of things, but my brain was blocking those emotions and tricking me into thinking they were never even there? Maybe I was compassionate? Maybe I cared about the environment? Maybe I was a lesbian?
I stared at Dr Riley for a few seconds. Then I tilted my head back slightly so that I could look down on him from across the room. “I don’t feel the need to rape children,” I said. “Should I go and do a course to learn how to express that too?”
“Please be serious,” Dr Riley said. “I think you’ll find that if you simply let yourself feel things, they won’t be all that bad.”
He had no idea. My feelings (the ones I knew about, anyway) were all-encompassing, omnipresent, and dangerously powerful. If they were all let out at once, my head would explode, the nearest 12 blocks would lose power, and every small animal within a 10km radius would drop dead. Planes would fall out of the sky, the ground would tremble, and Sydney’s elderly population would overheat and wither in their nursing home beds. A national crisis would be declared and a large-scale emergency team would need to be assembled to clean up the mess, and it would all be Dr Riley’s fault.
“I’m not angry,” I repeated.
“There are certain emotions which are healthy and normal, and their absence indicates a problem,” Dr Riley replied.
“Don’t you think that’s a little arrogant?” I asked nastily. “Who the hell are you to declare what the entire human population should or should not be able to feel?”
“Look, you know I can’t work with you when you’re being inflammatory,” Dr Riley said. “I need you to calm down if we’re going to talk about this outpatient program properly.”
“We don’t need to talk about it properly. I’m not going.”
“Will you actually consider this, rather than being so stubborn about it?” he said.
“Actually, you know what? I think this is really helping, cause I’m feeling pretty pissed off right about now,” I said, gathering my things.
“Are you sure you want to finish up on that note?” he asked, looking bored.
“Yes I’m sure. You can shove your anger management course.”
As I left the office, Dr Riley smiled and shook his head, and I felt furious.