The first time I visit a therapist’s office, she gestures to the beige couch opposite her armchair. It’s an unremarkable couch with square arms and painted black feet–something she might have bought from Pottery Barn. I am surprised to see it there, looking so ordinary, so clean and simple, looking so unlike the therapists’ offices in movies where women lay on chaise lounges in dark rooms lined with floor to ceiling bookcases, sobbing, their used tissues scattered around their shoulders, across their stomachs, drifting onto the floor.
Should I lay down? I ask.
If you want, my therapist says, or you could just sit.
My sister tells my mom she should slip Lexapro into my meals, the only problem is, I’m not eating any meals. Food, the sight, the smell, the taste, it all makes me nauseous. I want nothing but sleep, darkness, reruns of The Office. Weekly, I trudge to the scale in my parent’s bathroom where my mom monitors whether I am slipping into an unhealthy weight category. My ribs, my hip bones are protruding–its noticeable even under the sweatpants I never change out of. She buys me mounds of Twizzlers, sealed in family sized packets–the only thing I can force myself to eat. She no longer cares if I eat in bed–stains on bedding suddenly don’t seem so horrible. She tells my sister sneaking me Lexapro is unethical (not to mention logistically impossible), that I need to make decisions for myself, but my sister wants a solution, she wants a reason, a clear culprit–what happened? what brought this on? were you abused? were you assaulted? I have no origin story and nowhere to go. My sister has tunnel-vision and a drive to move me forward. I stop answering her calls. She gets out the bleach and scrubs her already spotless bathroom.
My dad appeals instead to logic. He brings me into his office. We face each other in opposing leather chairs streaked with brown dye my mom applied herself after the dog sat wet on the beige too many times. My dad tells me that he doesn’t understand mental illness, he doesn’t understand what is happening to me. Still, he knows it’s real, knows it needs to be corrected, knows if I had cancer, I would take the little blue and yellow pills the doctor gave to me, so why won’t I take the little blue pills my psychiatrist wants me to take?
He is calm, collected, but I can feel how bad he wants something, anything from me. I retreat into silence. I don’t make eye contact. Don’t answer questions. Don’t have a plan. I want to disappear, something I was allowed to do before, but now is forbidden.
What are you afraid of?
I shrug, mumble. Look down. I don’t say I am scared of
mood swings, headaches, lethargy, feelings of electric shock, nervousness, insomnia, constipation,
but more than that, I am afraid of the nothing, that the drugs would do nothing, that these pills are being dangled before me as magic, to pull me out of bed, past spinning thoughts, past chest constriction and hyperventilation and feelings of doom, of lethargy and trembling legs and sweat and thick lumps that sit in my throat.
I know what always comes next, the misdiagnosis, the tweaking of medications, the darkness compounded by chemicals coursing through my bloodstream. Saying yes is just the first step in a long, messy game.
In place of pills, I have therapists. So many. They take on the work that once belonged to my family. Let’s talk about taking anti-depressants. Do you think you’re ready to take them? It’s so fucking repetitive. There is nothing new to say, but she wants me to see the light, to agree to take the little blue pills. For forty-five minutes, once a week, we perform our little play.
Maybe it’s my fault, maybe I lead them on with, maybes and soons and I’m starting to come arounds. I use the lines I think they want, applying my lifelong training to these sessions: just tell people what they want to hear, don’t argue. It doesn’t work so well when I have to come back here, every Tuesday at 2pm and speak some more.
Things are getting complicated. My rehearsed lies are exposed. I’ve become a puddle on the floor everyone dances around, stares at, hoping to see something. They are disappointed to find only darkness, only their own faces, reflecting back.
The beige couches conflate, as do the therapists, their identical offices, photographs of blooming mountain laurel, textured fabrics on drapes, boxes of tissues on glass coffee tables, upright armchairs opposite mine. I can’t distinguish one of these white women from the other, their soft voices, their probing eyes, their smooth skin, their hair in tight ponytails. All of them sit across from me. All of them ask:
What are you thinking? What has this week been like?
I have no answers for them.
What is going through your head, right now?
I have learned that nothing is an unacceptable answer, but still, I can’t articulate a thought.
I run fingers across fingernails, I layer my big toe over my long toe inside my shoes, I look for a clock, even though I know there is no clock. In its place, I see a painting, three birds framed in unfinished pieces of driftwood. Everything is blue. I tell all of them I am thinking about the painting.
The birds resemble pelicans, but like most pictures of animals, like the painted wooden fish in our basement bathroom, the artist never really studied them, didn’t get their markings, their proportions, their colors quite right–
(These aren’t real fish–no fish have these markings, my sister said to my mom, jamming the wooden fish in her face, I don’t understand…why wouldn’t they just paint them like real fish?!)
They don’t want me to talk about the painting.
That can’t be all you are thinking about? What are you thinking…on a deeper level?
I have no deeper level. I am all sugar, all cortisol. All I can do is take stock of the objects in front of me–the fake pelicans, the mini-Zen-garden on the glass coffee table, the beat-up antique oak desk in the corner. But they don’t want sentences about objects, they only want sentences with words like anxiety or depression. I comply. I describe the panic attacks I had this week, but they sound like the panic attacks I had last week. They tell me that getting through panic attacks is like wading in the ocean. If you try to fight the waves, they will pummel you. Instead, let them consume your body, and then watch them roll by. But waves don’t always roll serenely by. I have been churned up before, fighting to push my head above water, salt burning my nostrils. And I have seen pelicans fairing far worse, missing legs, missing chunks from their beaks, wings slightly bent, patches of missing feathers.