The ground is covered with stones. Our host is squatted down, touching each stone passively then rearranging them according to color. He’s engaged mindfully. It’s an impressive coping skill. Even a psychiatrist has to admit that. (The psychiatrist is me, by the way, though I never confess that in public.)
Nearby, a group of very hungry onlookers stand about trying to look relaxed and patient, trying not to stare at our host and his stones, trying to understand what has happened. He’d invited us to his house for barbecue, right? That was three house ago, right? So where’s the barbecue?
Or maybe it’s just me: I’m the hungry onlooker. I’m irritable and hypoglycemic and have call later tonight. Hunger and associated toils have pushed aside all reason. Sorry, but social graces disappear when I’m hungry.
Am I really throwing existential daggers in the host’s direction?
I’m about to tell him what I think when a voice interrupts me: “I work at the hospital, that big one on the hill.” Someone is speaking, and by the tone of her question, it seems I’ve been on the exchange for some time now. I don’t remember the subject, but I act like I do: I nod. “I do housekeeping,” the speaker continues. She’s a red-headed woman, fat and sexy, her voice surprisingly deep. “I work at the ER, been at it 4 years now. Before, I cleaned restaurants, floors, but now I’m at a better place.”
I don’t know what to say. I know the hospital. I work there too. “Uh…do you like it there?”
“The hospital is great. Everything great, really, except for the 6th floor. They keep the crazies there. You know, the crazies: the ones with no hope.”
Booiiiing, now I’m listening. I work on the sixth floor, and I like crazies. And it dawns on me she doesn’t know I’m a psychiatrist. This is how I get the REAL information. “What don’t you like about the crazies?” It’s a cautious question.
She sips at her drink and leans forward. “They scare me. Sometimes they’re aggressive, and these docs will show up and hold the crazy down, and one of the doc gives the crazy a shot. They really give shots, no kidding!” She chuckles. There is some private joke here. I don’t get it, but I laugh with her. “The docs are worse than the patients The psychiatrists. They’re all rude. Never have time to listen. They walk off without letting you finish. They always complain they’re too busy. And they like giving shots. They don’t listen, and they give shots. Now that’s weird.”
I do what any decent psychiatrist does: I listen. No shots, but I listen.
She tells me about her husband and children, the long journey it took to get from Mexico to North Carolina, and about her boss who secretly has a crush on her. By the time the barbecue arrives, my new friend has told me her life story. With dessert comes all her secrets: the unusual triadic integration, recurrent ego-dystonic dreams, myriad of underdeveloped coping skills, and several problem cognitions that cause weight gain. I listen. I just listen.
She never did learn I was a doctor. Nor that I’m one of the “crazies” too.