Day 47: Space Oddity

The first time I saw a psychiatrist was nearly two years ago. I’d been in therapy before but I’d never seen a psychiatrist. [1] I wasn’t depressed. I didn’t think that I needed any medication. I was just dogged by a persistent sense that something had shifted, something wasn’t right, and the feeling wouldn’t go away.

There were only a couple of other people in the waiting room. One rocked back and forth muttering to himself, spitting out expletives. The other, in distress, explained loudly and confusedly to the receptionist that she had thought she had an appointment but that now she wasn’t sure. The receptionist patiently reassured her and called her doctor from the front desk.

I am clearly in the wrong place,” I thought to myself. “I’m not like these people! I’m having an existential mid-life crisis! I’m not mentally ill!” I was eager to draw a sharp distinction between me and them. I’m reminded of a conversation at a conference lunch long enough ago that it concerned the spectacle of seeing people strolling around talking on their Bluetooth headsets. One person quipped, “now you can’t tell who’s crazy any more!” There was a pause, and then someone else in the group gave him a hard, curious stare and asked, “you thought you could tell before?” Her point was that, as the Cheshire cat famously puts it, “we’re all mad here.”

If anything, my initial visit to this psychiatrist reassured me that, even if we are all mad, I could nonetheless take a certain smug self-satisfaction in the rarefied quality of my madness. The psychiatrist I saw that day wasn’t taking any new patients, so, after we’d talked for about ten minutes, she gave me a list of other therapists along with the following advice: don’t plump for the first person who has an available appointment, she urged; rather, I should wait until I met someone with whom I had a good rapport. “You’re very high functioning,” she observed casually, “you’re articulate, you’re a dream patient, so you can afford to be choosy.”

There’s nothing I like better than getting an A+, so I remember feeling rather puffed up upon hearing this. I’m very high functioning, don’t you know. Surely I can put that somewhere on my c.v. It’s a bit of a backhanded compliment, though. When I do a Google search for the phrase “high functioning,” it appears in front of the following words, in this order: alcoholism; autism; sociopath.

Moreover, recently it’s occurred to me that I’m not a dream patient so much as a psychiatrist’s nightmare. Consider the various crosses that the long-suffering Dr. F must bear. In the first place, I have turned her into a character on my blog. [2] In the second place, I email her whenever I feel like it because she agreed that I could as long as I understood that she would not respond to any of my missives except to acknowledge receipt. Except that she often does reply, seemingly against her better judgment. In our session last week, she mused, with genuine puzzlement, upon why she does reply to my emails. “You’re very convincing,” she finally declared, by way of explanation. [3]

On the plus side for Dr. F, I’m also dead easy to interpret. While I’d like to imagine that my unconscious is mysterious and inscrutable, in fact it is embarrassingly heavy-handed. For example, when I’m worried about something at work, I’ll typically dream some variation upon being at a faculty meeting and suddenly realizing that I’m naked from the waist up. Uh-oh, my dream-self will think to itself. Just sit very still and don’t do anything to draw attention to yourself and no-one will notice, I’ll counsel myself.

Or, consider the following dream, which I had a couple of nights ago.

I dreamed I was an astronaut. I was wearing a space suit and was floating in space. The cable connecting me to my spaceship had somehow become untethered. I was tumbling, drifting, deeper and deeper into space. I understood that rescue was not possible and I realized that I would die in space. Immediately a feeling of panic engulfed me, but then I reasoned with myself that everyone has to die, everyone dies alone, ultimately, and so what difference would it make where I died? But this thought didn’t give me any comfort; instead, as I tumbled further and further into space I grew distraught at the idea that after I died my body would shrivel in its suit and that I would tumble through space forever, never coming to rest.

Is that not, possibly, the least cryptic dream you’ve ever heard? And yet, I related it to Dr. F without the least sense that it might have any symbolic resonance at all but much more in the spirit of, “hey, you’ll never guess the crazy dream about outer space that I had last night!”

Dr. F did not see it as a random space odyssey fantasy. Indeed, as I was relating this dream to Dr. F, her expression grew animated. Her eyes lit up. This is not because she took some perverse pleasure in my ridiculously bleak dream but rather because, in the light of a conversation that I had just related to her, my dream seemed blatantly suggestive in a manner to which I was comically oblivious.

“So … that dream seems … symbolic,” she ventured, gently.

Does it?” I asked, genuinely baffled as to what she could possibly mean.

Dr. F stared at me incredulously.

“Drifting,” she repeated. “You’re drifting because the cord—almost like an umbilical cord—has been severed. The dream embodies your fear that you will always be alone,” she concluded.

By contrast to my own hunch that this was a dream about the Mars One project, Dr. F’s interpretation seemed, by contrast, so blindingly obvious that I actually started laughing out loud at my own obtuseness. It was as if I’d expressed shocked surprise at the very idea that the Cambridge University Library might be considered a phallic symbol. [1]

Emboldened, Dr. F added, helpfully, “The part about shriveling, that’s about your fear that you’ll grow old and wrinkled all on your own.”

“Jesus,” I said, wincing. “Well, now I’m depressed.”

In case the same gloomy thought is now passing through your minds, dear readers, let me leave you, this Sunday evening, with an uplifting thought: perhaps tonight I’ll dream the sequel, in which, in an unforeseen twist, George Clooney’s ghost will guide me back to earth. Or something like that. That could totally happen. Right, George?


[1] The Cambridge University Library’s phallic symbolism was something we observed often as undergrads (we were English majors in the early 90s, after all!). Its identification as such was further encouraged by the persistent rumor (which no one I knew could actually confirm) that the tower housed the university’s porn collection.

[1] As the daughter of an analytically trained psychotherapist, I have an inherited bias against psychiatrists. However, as the daughter of an analytically trained psychotherapist, I also have a bias against analytically trained psychotherapists. Analyze that!

[2] Yes, Dr. F. reads my blog. (Dr. S doesn’t, so far as I know, which is probably a good thing.) Dr. F is now, to an extent that I feel slightly guilty about, highly self-conscious about her use of exclamation points. We have had some extensive conversations about punctuation since I wrote that post.

[3] I get this a lot, this “you’re very convincing” line, and, because I’m bloody-minded I’ve decided that it’s really an insult. I mean, let’s think about the kind of people you might describe as very convincing. Satan, for one. (“Darling, I’m sorry, but he was just terribly convincing,” is probably what Eve actually said to Adam.). Lady Macbeth, for another. I rest my case.


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