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The Crazy One

Annita Sawyer, Nonfiction

I wondered what we looked like to others in the small, candlelit restaurant: two well-dressed, late-middle-aged women, fingering our tableware, smoothing the napkins in our laps. A few times our eyes had met. Sarah smiled. I looked away. Once or twice our glances locked, and we stared as if to read the words inside each other’s brain, perhaps to spare ourselves this awkward dance. When the space between us grew too large, we reached for water glasses. We hadn’t made it past a few self-conscious “Hi’s.”

“Hi,” Sarah repeated, after a sip.

“Hi,” I said. She hates this, too, I thought.

The dinner had been my colleague Megan’s idea. She and I had shared a small clinical study group for years. Sarah was Megan’s best friend. Although we had been introduced at professional meetings, I knew Sarah primarily by her reputation. She had a long waiting list for patients. Her trauma seminars were always full. I tried not to feel puny by comparison.

Megan had decided that Sarah and I would benefit from knowing one another. We were both psychologists, and we both had a secret. It had sounded reasonable at the time.

For me as a licensed psychologist, my clients’ names as well as their lives are confidential. I feign ignorance if they come up. Socially, I hold my tongue when I think of tidbits I might add, but don’t, to others’ conversations. Even as a child, I knew there were things I shouldn’t repeat. What my mother thought of my aunts, for instance, or that my little brother wouldn’t eat. I know, but I’m not saying. It made me feel grown up.

I had always liked having privileged information. I felt special. With good news, I could savor it and avoid others’ envy at the same time. You don’t know this, but I’m cool. When I received a small faculty award a few years ago, I reveled in my good fortune, but I didn’t tell my colleagues. I swaggered in secret, safe from that dreaded label, Show Off.

In my own psychotherapy during graduate school, my therapist’s child fell seriously ill; he spent months in a coma. I kept to myself what I thought was private information, out of respect for her, and because I believed that I was one of the few people who knew about it. Despite the therapist’s centrality in my life, I spoke of her circumstance to no one, not even my husband. Shortly after that, as an intern, I found myself among psychiatry professionals who freely gossiped about my therapist and her child. I was stunned. I played innocent, because I didn’t want anyone to know I was in therapy, but I was disappointed to lose my imagined privileged status. It turned out that those confidences, which I had cherished as mine alone, had never been secret, or exclusive, at all.

Hiding information could take on a life of its own.

I attributed my strength as a psychotherapist in large part to my biggest secret—my years as a mental hospital patient. I knew firsthand almost every symptom in the book: nightmares, depression, paranoia, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia, obsessions, seizures. Symptoms I hadn’t experienced myself, I’d witnessed in others. I’d seen defiant teenagers locked in circles circumscribed by their compulsions, begging for relief from staff they cursed the rest of the day. I’d watched terrified women scream at monsters only they could see. Those people had been my friends.

When I became a clinical psychology intern on an inpatient psychiatry ward, I took pains to conceal my affinity with all sorts of patients there, the wild-eyed to the immobilized, that pasty white crud of medication showing at the corners of their mouths. Later, on visits to our local mental health center, where I gathered data for my dissertation or attended lectures in the auditorium, I feigned indifference. In reality, I felt wistful, as if I had wandered into my old neighborhood.

During a preliminary interview for my first clinical position, the interviewer, a newly hired psychologist, asked me to explain certain high school and college years not covered in my resume. Unprepared for her question, I blurted out the truth about my time in psych hospitals. I must have made a good case for inpatient experience as a worthwhile addition to postgraduate psychology education, maybe also for my resilience: I was hired.

After my orientation the young interviewer took me aside. “Next time you talk to anyone, but especially a professional,” she said, “you need to find a better explanation for those gaps in your resume. You’ll go farther.”

As therapists, wasn’t our mission to engage with patients in pursuit of truth?

Dinner in a restaurant is a good place to start a friendship or meet someone new, because you can discuss the menu, maybe share food interests or dining stories. There’s some structure. The waiter arrives. You order. You wait. You comment on waiting.

Carefully, from a distance, Sarah and I acknowledged the elephant we were circling. We began with generalities about life and secrets. “There’s always holding back,” we agreed. “Not being fully honest. Feeling different from everyone else, but trying to hide it, pretend.”

We had just met. Yet each knew as we talked that we were moving toward revealing ourselves in ways that could prove personally devastating and might never be undone.

Something had happened when she was eighteen, Sarah explained. She’d tell me later what it was. “I can’t go that far yet.”

I asked if Megan had talked to her about me.

Sarah nodded.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I told her she could.”

Sarah turned to her menu. I retreated into my thoughts. I tried to imagine what youthful scenarios might have damaged Sarah enough to still require secrecy after decades as a psychologist in a successful career. She seemed so professional to me. She was raped and bore a child when she was fourteen? Sold crack? Time in prison? When Megan told me our stories were not the same, I had assumed she meant code for It wasn’t incest. Sarah was head of a clinic and a respected clinician in a town full of therapists. I’ll bet she didn’t spend her adolescence on a psych ward.

A tall, reedy young man in a white jacket arrived to take our orders. Sarah, who had dined there with Megan a week before, knew she wanted the tilapia special. I chose pumpkin ravioli. We each ordered a glass of wine.

“I always ask for white,” I said. “That way I won’t make a mess if I spill.” Sarah laughed. She slipped off her cardigan and laid it across her lap.

After several more interminable minutes, the waiter returned with our drinks. He set them on our table next to a basket of bread and a small tray of condiments he had brought with him.

“What exactly did Megan say to you?” I asked once he left.

“Just that you were in a psychiatric hospital when you were a teenager.” She took a roll from the basket. “And that you were given shock treatment.”

I felt inebriated, although I hadn’t yet swallowed a drop of wine. A familiar sense of being controlled from outside myself, as if I were someone else’s marionette, had taken over.

“I feel really weird,” I said, testing the waters.

Sarah raised her eyebrows and cocked her head, the placid tell-me-more look of a professional listener.

“I think it’s dissociation,” I said.

“Yeah, me too.” Sarah fumbled with the butter. Her shoulders drooped. “This is hard.”

With uncomfortable half-laughs, we smiled sheepishly at each other.

I’d once heard Sarah give a lecture. She had described years of work as therapist with a woman with multiple personalities—like in the book “The Three Faces of Eve”—who had been horrifically mistreated by her family when she was a child and later by subsequent partners. Sarah described painfully tiny increments of progress, her sadness when her patient suffered, fighting for her in court, keeping her out of prison, the triumphs they shared as she grew stronger. Sarah’s modesty only increased the sense of her authority. The audience of experienced therapists had been shaken and impressed.

Across the table from me, Sarah appeared to be as shy as I.

“Did she tell you the part about the hospital records?” I asked, just as the waiter arrived with our entrees. We fell silent and ate.

The sweet pumpkin-filled raviolis in their fragrant sherry cream sauce comforted me. Maybe I just needed some food. Sarah liked the tilapia. We discussed dinner for a while—her fish was nicely done, my pasta filling would taste great in a pie. Our talk felt empty. Scents from passing entrees, glasses thunking into place, clicking forks, knives scraped on plates distracted me.

After a few sips of wine, I felt myself slip, as if I were on ice, propelled forward in a perpetual, uncontrollable skid. Words tumbled from my mouth.

“When I was seventeen, I was determined to die. I was hospitalized, diagnosed with schizophrenia—a popular diagnosis at the time—and given eighty-nine shock treatments. Those only made me worse and erased most of my memory. After six years in two hospitals I was discharged. I went to school, married, had two kids, and became a psychologist.” I took a deep breath. Then a sip of water. I glanced at Sarah. She looked alarmed, and I became confused. I didn’t know whether I should halt right there or hurry to the end. I leaned forward, looking past her. I talked faster.

“Five years ago, after my children were grown, I wanted to find what I called my ‘lost life,’ so I sent for the hospital records. When I read them, my body was flooded with sensations that must have been flashbacks. I began to remember traumatic stuff from my past. It wasn’t schizophrenia; it was incest. I became pretty desperate. But I had a good therapist, and in time I got better.”

I wobbled to a stop. The room fluttered, as if it were painted on silk.

“I kept that part of my life hidden,” I added. “Except for my family, few people knew. I only told Megan and the study group after we’d been meeting for a year and a half. I needed their input for a paper.”

Lines from a deep frown froze on Sarah’s face. Her silence drowned out the restaurant noise around us. Oh God, maybe I’ve blown it, I thought. It’s too late to go back. I wiped my mouth with my napkin, then stared at both hands clasped tight in my lap. If I had truly believed in God I would have been praying. Did Sarah share my faith in therapy—that it had the power to undo mental illness—or was she seeing me now as less than I had been?

By the time I reached graduate school, psychotherapy had become my religion. I questioned the existence of God, and I resisted anyone who presumed to tell me what to believe. I was forty-four when my daughter suggested our family try a Quaker Meeting. Quakers had no clergy and no creed, which I liked. I felt comfortable sitting in silence among other people who were seekers like me. I loved the Quaker focus on integrity and peace. Most of all I loved their openness. Among them, I could be myself.

After I formally became a member of the Religious Society of Friends, as Quakers are officially known, I joined a committee which oversaw the spiritual and emotional needs of the community. In our first meeting, as part of a bonding exercise, each of us was supposed to tell the others a secret—“something no one here knows about you.” One person had always wanted to live in Alaska. One was contemplating a divorce. One hated her job. One man told us his middle-aged son still lived with him, because he was learning disabled and couldn’t function on his own. The committee leader told us that while he was growing up his mother had experienced periods of depression, during which she had been hospitalized and received shock treatment. I told them about my mental-patient past.

I left the meeting reassured that I was accepted without prejudice by that group of kindhearted individuals. Yet it was also clear what even they believed: in the world beyond Friends, responsible people did not reveal such things.

After what seemed like ages, Sarah’s face relaxed. “You are brave to tell me,” she said, gently.

“I’m grateful to feel I can speak.”

“I was eighteen,” Sarah began, “a freshman in college, away from home for the first time.” The words came out slowly, while she stared at her plate. I had to strain to hear. “My older brother really was schizophrenic. He killed our mother in a paranoid psychotic rage. My father had always been depressed. My mother had been the stable one. My family came unhinged.”

Sarah had grown pale. The frown had reappeared above her darkened eyes. She chewed her lip—a confused, grief-stricken child. My arm moved toward Sarah’s. I felt a need to touch her, for comfort. Then I caught myself. We barely knew each other.

I withdrew into reflection. Her brother had been the sick one; she hadn’t even been at home. My history revealed true weakness, a permanent, personal stain. The crazy one wasn’t my brother. It was me.

“The hardest part, besides losing my mother, was the shame of having a brother so disturbed. I had loved him. Now I hated him, too. I had to keep what happened secret to protect him. And to protect myself from the disgrace of it.”

She does understand!

I loved the sense of liberation I discovered the first time I attended a writers’ conference. Among strangers I could share my secret and not fear the devaluation I was sure would come if I were to tell people back at home. I expected my professional colleagues to lose respect for me, once they heard I’d lived in hospitals and been considered schizophrenic. Wouldn’t they always have doubts? Wouldn’t they look at me, see my social awkwardness, and diagnose pathology? Would they still refer patients to me? Would they disparage me behind my back?

I could be open among writers. They knew a lot about neuroses, and if they weren’t suffering themselves, they were aware of issues for their characters, or a relative, or a friend. Some confided their own stories of depression, despair, hospitals and ECT. I felt honored to hold those secrets.

At dinner during the conference each of us described our work. Embracing my new freedom, I talked about my past. “Wow!” said a young woman across the table from me. She seemed on the verge of tears. “So did you use medication for the depression?”

“Uh, uh, no.” I said. I couldn’t bear to admit the truth. “No medication.”

“Really?” She looked startled. “If you were that disturbed, I’d have thought you’d need something.”

I stayed silent.

A psychologist relies on her integrity to succeed. Trust is the fulcrum of the process. How could I lie, yet claim to be a person of integrity?

Sarah sat taller in her seat. She was smiling. Tears streaked her cheeks. She leaned forward, eyes fixed on mine, and took my hand. For a few moments I grew as huge as the universe. Eventually, we let go.

My well-respected colleague, a woman whose professional accomplishments gave her standing that seemed far beyond my reach, carried a secret, just like me. Each of us had absorbed shame attached to a category of individuals that we perceived to be disdained. For all of our adult lives we had worked to disguise that aspect of ourselves: we had “passed.” At least for the moment, the pretense was gone.

“I can’t believe how good I feel,” I said after a long pause. That sounded really lame. I kept repeating the same, simplistic things, but Sarah said them, too. “You understand…to be so alone…such relief…” Fidget, fidget. I picked at my fingers in my lap. “I’m not the only one.” Smiles. Knowing stares. More tears.

I wondered what would happen if I no longer saw my essence as blighted by a past I sometimes lied to cover up. Could I let go of prejudices and rationalizations I had nurtured in isolation all my life? Although my ideas about myself filled me with shame and cut me off from others, I had woven them into the fabric of who I was. As if they were beautiful fishes or glorious birds, I had hidden them and cherished them; they were defining. I am not who I appear to be had become a way I knew myself.

Would I be me, if I were not secret?

Recently I learned from a young professional friend about Long Termer’s Day, a jailhouse celebration for convicts sentenced to life without parole who had achieved twenty-five years of good behavior. Several years ago, this friend had been one of scores of volunteers who had joined two hundred and fifty convicted murderers at a state penitentiary for the day.

“I spent most of my time with Horace,” my friend told me. “For the first few hours we conversed about general things—his home town, his dog, music we both liked. But after he became more comfortable, his talk changed.”

“It’s really not so bad, right?” he had said to her. “I mean, if a person doesn’t mean to…to…” As he continued in this way she had realized he was referring to the murder. “Things can happen…get out of control…” He had seemed compelled to speak. I guessed that Horace was trying to connect with that earnest young woman, hoping to persuade her that he was a reasonable human being, not an incomprehensible alien defined by his crime. He had needed her to see him.

“A surprising number of other volunteers had the same experience,” my friend continued. “These guys, all in for murder, had to talk to us about their crimes. Not right away, but as the day went on, after they got to know us. It was really important.” I am not who I appear to be.

Perhaps those Long Termers’ existential needs for recognition weren’t essentially different from mine—or Sarah’s. Earlier events had determined how we knew ourselves. I am not who I appear to be meant you don’t see me. Even for murderers, the loneliness of being emotionally cut off from others’ regard might become intolerable. I wondered if Sarah’s brother, who was no longer incarcerated and now lived in a distant state, similarly was longing to be acknowledged and understood.

As Sarah and I talked that evening, divulging our secrets, expanding our confidences, my harsh, judgmental picture of myself began to soften. Compassion felt easy as I reacted to the injustice of her shame: an innocent young woman engulfed in catastrophic circumstances beyond her control. We had been roughly the same age—when her mother was killed, when I was hospitalized. The chasm between Sarah and me had shrunk.

Perhaps I had overrated the power of secrets. Certainly I had exaggerated the humiliation I expected to follow upon admitting the truth: my secrets had proved inconsequential after all. Instead of nursing private drama, I was deep in real, present-day contact with someone like myself. This lightened a loneliness that had been part of me for so long I had lost awareness of it.

All of me sat across from Sarah. I was no longer unique and exotic, but I was whole. I could not have imagined the relief.

Our waiter, who had been watching from a distance, moved toward the table as we finished the last food on our plates. He suggested dessert.

While Sarah and I awaited our next course, I surveyed the dining room. Several patrons looked tired. I wondered if other secret identities cluttered the room, what shameful ghosts might be haunting conversations around us. A pale, gray-haired woman at a table near ours stared into the distance while her partner chatted on, oblivious. A young-looking couple appeared deep in some sort of philosophical discussion. Diners laughed and coughed. Voices rose and fell. Dishes clattered. The din felt comforting.

Before long the waiter returned with our order. He brought a pot of tea for Sarah, a mug of decaf coffee for me. After setting a piece of chocolate cake in the center of the table, with a smile and a flourish, he handed us each a fork.