On Being Diagnosed

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I wrote this piece a fair number of years ago. It’s just a sketch of what i went through on my first visit to a shrink to try to get help for “my problem”. This was about a year after I got sober. Life was not going well at the time.

She sat there reading a year old Time magazine. She was too thin and had dark circles under her eyes. There was something stretched about her.

She and I were alone in the small waiting room. Was she crazy too? What hell had she been living in? I thought, watching her study ancient news.

The room, like any other room in this new hospital was seriously neutral in color, browns and beige’s, the lighting indirect. Functional comfortable furniture lined the walls. There was a low table in the middle of the room covered with old magazines with the address labels peeled off. I couldn’t read. I wanted to smoke, to pace, to be anywhere but here. On the wall were pastel watercolors in gallery frames, I wondered if they were chosen for their calming effect.

The secretaries laughed about something. The sounds muffled by the sliding glass window that separated them from us. I looked over at the girl. She hadn’t moved. She hadn’t looked up when I came into the room and was, even now, fixated on her magazine. I had chosen a seat on the far side of the room– there was something about her that said not to get too close. We sat there. The only other sound, the occasional rustle of a well-read page being turned.

Earlier, when I came up to the hospital, I could see that they had begun the demolition of the old facility. Sitting there I could feel an occasional rumble as the wrecking ball undid in seconds what had taken years to build.

That’s where it all started, I thought, twenty years ago, in the old main hospital. Life sure seemed to be circular at times. Now I was back to see if I could start again.

Remembering the dark, shiny green and yellow walls, the cloudy worn tile floors, the small heavy rooms. Sights, sounds and smells came back to me. Antiseptics and decay. My draft board had assigned me to work there. The worst of the worst jobs were given to me. It was policy. Total isolation, that’s where I worked. I cleaned the rooms of those so sick that no one could go near them without being gloved, gowned and masked. Tuberculoses, meningitis, pseudomonas, unknown viral infections. After finishing I would have to dispose of my protective clothing in special receptacles near the door and then disinfect myself. Then on to the next room and the next over and over. My hands and arms became raw from scrubbing with those little Betadine sponges that smelled so much of cinnamon. I remembered some of the patients.

Cid was a student at the U. The doctors had been amputating one of her legs, piece by piece, just ahead of the bone cancer. Her stump had become infected with pseudomonas. She was from Australia and her family was unable to be there. Her fiance was in the army, stationed in Europe. I was one of the few people that would sit and talk with her. We became friends. She married shortly after getting out of the hospital, was pregnant in a couple of weeks and died a few months later. The Doctors said that her pregnancy had caused the cancer to explode, wildly and decisively.

My remembrance was cut short when the door across the room from me opened and a gum chewing secretary called out my name. I followed her down another beige corridor to another beige room. This office had a window overlooking the destruction of old main. The view partly obstructed by the thin white slats of venetian blinds. There was a desk, empty except for the telephone with three of its buttons lit, a forth blinked on as I watched. Three chairs in the same style as the waiting room, a potted plant and another pastel on the wall finished the room. A comfortable neutral room. Sitting there waiting, I watched the silently swinging wrecking ball. I could see what was going on out there but I couldn’t hear it. The sealed window keeping not only the sound but the heat and dusts out of the air-conditioned beige. A section of wall fell after the impact of the ball, raising a large cloud of heavy dust. I remembered the asbestos wrapped pipes that had snaked everywhere through the old hospital. Wondering if they had removed all the carcinogen before knocking down the building, I made a mental note to make sure I stayed upwind of the demolition.

“Hello, I’m Doctor…” Something.

Turning to the door I saw an attractive woman at least ten years younger then me. Her badge said Department of Psychiatry.

Keeping my hands in my lap I said, “Hello.”

Twenty years I thought. Be honest. Don’t minimize.

Memories of what I had seen when visiting a friend at the state hospital came unbidden. The pain, the insanity.

I thought again, be honest. You’re not that crazy.

“Tell me about it.” She said, sitting back in her chair. Behind her I could see, outside the window, the wrecking ball swinging.

“I used to work there.” I nodded my head in the direction of Old Main. “One day I took my work home with me.”.

That’s almost what it is, I thought, a job. Twenty-four hours, seven days a week.

“How much has this affected your life?”

I laughed out loud. “It’s what I do. Affected my life? It is my life.”

Staring out the window behind her I thought about how it had affected my life. Two failed marriages, the lost jobs, the lost opportunities. I wasn’t living anymore I was just existing. Outside, another large cloud of dust was rising.

“I’m going to ask you a lot of questions now.” She said, pulling a stack of preprinted forms from a drawer in the desk.


“Do you ever hear voices or sounds that no one else hears?”

Not since I stopped doing drugs. I thought. “No.” I said.

For over an hour the questions came. I answered yes too often, the memories of the state hospital coming again. I had kept this problem hidden from everyone that I could for twenty years. Now I had laid it all out. I felt naked, defeated.

She placed the papers on the desk. “I need to get another doctor down here, she said, I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”

A few minutes after she had gone I went to the window and looked out. From four stories up I had a good panorama of what was going on at the demolition site. I stood there awhile watching the construction workers run their silent jack hammers. Most of them were shirtless and had deep tans. I wondered how many of them would die from melanoma. Hearing voices coming closer, I returned to my chair and tried to look normal.

Three people entered the room. All wearing those short white lab coats that must come with their diplomas. My original interviewer introduced a man as the Clinical Director and another woman whose badge said she was a Clinical Nurse Specialist. I didn’t shake their hands either.

The Clinical Director asked, “Ok, what do we have here?”

My inquisitor said, “We have a 39 year old male presenting with…”

They talked back and forth as if I were not there. For some reason I found this amusing. They talked–I watched the wrecking ball. The crane operator swung it in a long slow arc. I watched it hit the wall. Felt the vibration as another large section crumbled to dust. As the dust cleared I could see an entirely new view that until moments before had been obscured by yellow brick.

The Clinical Director looked at me and said, “What we have here is genuine OCD. We can treat that effectively.”.

Twenty years, I thought.

I felt the vibration as another wall came down.

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