Me: Sometimes you just find yourself in the men’s room at Q Bar at 6am on a Sunday morning and you think, “What am I doing with my life?”… Know what I mean?
Dr Riley: Not really.
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.
I have always felt nervous when people make notes about me. What was so heinous that they could write on a permanent file, but couldn’t say to my face? When I was a child, I wanted the doctor and the dentist to make their notes on sheets of butcher’s paper spread out on the floor, using coloured textas. Maybe we could draw a Venn diagram or do some brain storming together. Then we could stick it on the fridge and I wouldn’t have to spend every night during the third grade sitting up in bed, fretting over what all these people were writing about me.
I didn’t feel that way with Dr Riley though. He was so smart and highly regarded in psychiatry that he didn’t have to cut his hair for work. He kept ugly artworks in his office and wore light pink pants and nobody gave a damn. He took the tough cases too – people who punched walls during sessions and went home to slit their wrists, then came back to the surgery covered in blood and babbling apologies. I had to wait 4 months just to get an appointment.
When Dr Riley made notes about me, I felt special. It was like being interviewed by a famous journalist. I wore distressed jeans and big sunglasses to my sessions. I put my feet on the lounge and made jokes about his other patients.
“I don’t think you’re taking your time here very seriously,” he said at my second appointment.
“I guess I’m just not a very serious kind of girl,” I replied, winking.
Dr Riley rolled his eyes and made some notes. Presumably something along the lines of, Well dressed, biting wit, fascinating and charismatic. I tossed my hair and turned my head so that the better side of my profile was facing him, in case he wanted to make a quick sketch of my features.
By my third appointment, however, Dr Riley was making so many notes that I began to feel nervous again. When I tried to look at his notepad, he gave me a stern look and tilted it away. “These notes are just for me,” he said, and resumed writing. I scanned the room anxiously, looking for something personal. Dr Riley knew so much about me, and I knew practically nothing of him. I needed to restore the balance. I had to get some reciprocal dirt to even things out. I spotted a bicycle in the corner of the room, leaning against one wall, helmet sitting on the seat. Aha! I thought, He’s a cyclist. Interested in fitness. Probably worried about his weight. Finding it harder to keep the pounds off as he gets older. Definitely projecting that onto his patients. Was probably sexually abused as a child. Is no doubt a latent homosexual. May be inclined to violent episodes. I should leave now, this guy’s more nuts than I am.
“You know what I think the problem is?” Dr Riley said, interrupting my diagnosis.
I liked the way he said “the problem” and not “your problem.” It made me feel like I had no responsibility in the matter. It caused me to visualise an obnoxious self-sustaining problem floating in the room; something we would tackle together. I found this comforting because I am inherently lazy.
“What’s the problem?” I asked, looking closely at my cuticles.
“You only have two conscious emotions or states of being. You’re either shit, or you’re okay. That’s it. That is the full spectrum of your feelings as an adult. Shit or okay, shit or okay. Shit… Okay…”
“Hmmmm.” I considered this for a moment.
“Well?” Dr Riley asked, “How does that make you feel?”
“Okay,” I replied.
“I thought so,” he said, and went back to making notes.