Chapter 10

Psychiatry Doesn't Work On Me

Poor Hector. He was completely out of his depth. Strangely, some part of me wanted to help him. After all, the man was positively flailing about.

I even wondered if I should sit him down and explain the situation in a kind and patient tone. Then I remembered that he was my nemesis. The first rule of having a nemesis is that one must never explain anything to them. The second rule is to make them believe they’re winning – at least until you reach the Step Seven, which is when you unleash the bees.

Hector’s plan to send me to a psychiatrist had irritated me, of course. On the other hand, I had to admit to myself that he couldn’t possibly know that he was being culturally insensitive. Psychiatry? Useful for some, no doubt, but what about the Inuit of Greenland? What use would it be to the San Bushman of the Kalahari? Or, for that matter, to the blokes of Thargomindah, Western Queensland?

When it comes to administering to our emotional ills, my people have certain culturally-specific practices. When a man from Western Queensland goes off his feed, for instance, he will seek out the nearest pub, become extremely drunk (or ‘maggoted,’ as we call it), and then he’ll say something inappropriately complimentary to the girlfriend of the largest man there.

This tried-and-true method has been the practice of my people for generations, and it has many advantages. First, one can generally get the measure a man’s emotional frequency by how battered he looks. A few bruises and contusions about the face is a reliable indicator that a bloke is dealing with some of the world’s harsher realities at present, and does not wish to be disturbed.

Another positive aspect to this process is that nothing inspires a man to get his internal strife back in check quite like the knowledge that, if he doesn’t, he’ll soon have two black eyes and a busted lip.

Sadly, though, these days not all Australians are like us rural folk. Imogen’s people descend from the urban variety, which in some respects is a different species altogether. Imogen’s family are the sort of people who put a cloth down on the table before they eat. Incidentally, they also place multiple forks at each setting, and some cloth serviettes, too, that are folded like origami. They even have a cabinet filled with fancy plates in their dining room, for guests to admire while they’re eating.

Curiously, Imogen’s people also believe in psychiatry, and so they assumed, like Hector, that everyone else has to believe in psychiatry as well. When I told them that psychiatry wouldn’t work on me, they smiled tolerantly and told me I was an idiot. Then, after conferring among themselves, they decided that Imogen should take me to a psychiatrist – and, further, that this would be good for me. On the strength of their faith in the subject, I decided to give it a chance. Who knows, I thought; I might even get my Pathological Problems With Authority cleared up for good.

A week later, Imogen drove me to a place on Petrie Terrace. It was pretty swish, actually; the waiting room had a tropical aquarium along one wall. I amused myself trying to catch a beautiful rainbow trout with my bare hands while Imogen nursed a headache in the corner. Eventually, I was led to an office where a middle-aged woman showed me some pieces of cardboard daubed in lewd smudges and demanded to know how I felt about them.

I am nobody’s fool. I told her flatly that I was in a relationship and not at all interested in her dirty picture collection. This did not discourage her, unfortunately. She adopted a bewildered, innocent tone and started probing for salacious details about my relationship with Imogen.

I reminded her hotly that if she had been a real doctor, she would be up in front of an ethics board for trying to pull a stunt like this. She argued that she was a real doctor. So I laughed at her then, and asked her, rhetorically, how many real doctors lock innocent people in offices with windows made from bullet-proof glass. She argued that the windows weren’t made of bulletproof glass. I knew she was lying. To prove it, I picked up a chair and hurled it at the window.

The whole wall of glass came down in a glittering cascade of color and sound. I had forgotten, in the heat of the moment, that bullets are much lighter than office furniture. She jabbed at a button beneath her desk and yelled the word ‘security.’ Acting purely on instinct, I clambered over the broken glass, through the window, and dropped onto the roof of a Mercedes parked below. Then I hoofed it down Petrie Terrace as fast as my legs could take me.

My second visit to a psychiatrist happened some months later. I met with a large, balding man who had a suspicious mustache and a curious predilection for talking about pain. He kept asking me about the nature of pain, and what I thought it felt like. Eventually, it occurred to me to take a pencil from his desk and stab him in the knee. But this did not seem to help his understanding much at all, unfortunately. He howled and stomped and ranted, and made such a fuss about everything that I ended up breaking a window and escaping down an alley in sheer fright.

Now that I think about it, he was a chiropractor. But I believe my point stands, while also illustrating that one should always be careful around men with mustaches. Worst of all, it reveals that I am yet to receive a medical diagnosis that has not been compromised by emotion.

Still, what would be the point of discussing all this with Hector? I knew he was only trying to provoke me. He’s a petty man, that Hector. I could make a fuss about it, but why give him the satisfaction? Not arguing about it would only annoy him that much more. Besides, wouldn’t it be savagely ironic if my talking with this Harvard psychiatrist actually did me some good? Hector would lose his mind.

I felt optimistic, even whimsical until I found myself sitting in Dr. Typhon’s office the following day. This was not a good idea, I suddenly realized – this was not a good idea at all! How had I let Hector trick me into coming? This Dr. Typhon character wasn’t going to be any use. Look over there – he has three graduation certificates hanging in frames on the wall!

What kind of poor student do you have to be to feel compelled to frame your graduation certificates? He must have really goofed around in school.

What’s the big deal about passing some exams, anyway? They always tell you everything you need to know before you show up. They’re evaluating your ability to follow instructions. And anyone can follow instructions; what have instructions got to do with real life?

Real life is like walking into an examination room after a semester studying Algebra, only to discover that the test is on Calculus, and written in Hungarian. And worse, instead of issuing pencils they’ve handed you a six-inch length of string. Not that you can even concentrate because, for no logical reason at all, someone in the corner is playing the sitar. That’s how real life is; it’s about coping with all that, while in the meantime someone locks the door and sets the building on fire.

Still, I told myself, what business is it of mine if Dr. Typhon is proud of his ability to follow instructions? Some people, I supposed, find it soothing to do ordinary, commonplace things. What a magical day it must have been for the man when he passed his driving test.

Dr. Typhon gazed at me as if waiting patiently for me to speak. His skin seemed thin and scaled, his eyes were lidless and unblinking. The silence continued. It could continue the rest of the session for all I cared.

Problems With Authority my foot, I thought to myself. It’s the people who don’t have problems with authority who are the real problem.

“Do you know why I wanted to become a Doctor?” he asked abruptly, his voice curious and brittle.

“Because you liked to torture small animals when you were a boy?”

“Because I wanted to help people.”

Clammy, finger-like prongs reached across the desk and absently fiddled with a pen. I watched his movements with fascination, then I told myself not to stare.

And then, all at once, I recalled that the government had conferred upon this individual the power to decide who was normal and who was not; he could lock me up if he felt so inclined.

I sat up rigidly in my chair and began to pay more attention.

“So you wanted to help people,” I said, playing along, glancing around casually.

The important thing, here, was to strike up a rapport. Show empathy and non-judgment. Above all, I must try to appear neither vulnerable nor a threat.

Stretching casually, I nonchalantly glanced behind me to check that the door was still ajar, in case I needed to get out of the room in a hurry.

Someone had closed it!

The doctor must have had a switch under his desk, allowing him to close and lock doors at whim. Never mind, I thought, willing myself to remain calm. I was sealed in here with this creature. Very well, then. So be it.

“I’m here to help you, Shea.”

“And I’m here to help you too, Doctor,” I replied thoughtlessly.

An almost alien sentience emanated from him. I could feel it probing at me from across the room. Naturally, I wanted to look away, but an intuition warned me against it.

When he wasn’t moving there was an eerie stillness about Dr. Typhon. Thick, blue veins snaked along the pink folds of his neck. His lips gaped and hung strangely beneath a curious sort of beak.

“What did you mean a few moments ago, when you mentioned the torture of animals?”

“Well, that’s how it starts, doesn’t it?” I said, improvising rapidly. “Not that I judge my fellow man, of course.”

“Have you ever felt such inclinations?”

“No,” I said, firmly. Don’t let him pull you into his world. “I am sorry, Doctor, but I am very fond of animals.”

It was only when those words left my mouth that I realized he was testing me. He was gauging my hostility towards the animal kingdom to verify that my views were sufficiently orthodox.

Think, Shea. What do people in today’s world think about animals?

“Naturally,” I went on, “most animals should be exterminated – humanely, of course, except where this might be uneconomical. The flesh of the animal must be scraped from the carcass, wrapped in sterilized plastic, chilled and freighted to the waiting mouths of our young.

“As you can see, Doctor – my views on the subject fall strictly within conventional views on the matter. All of whom we call animals are an inferior species.”

Perfect. That is precisely the sort of conventional thinking he’d find normal. The best strategy for getting around the likes of Dr. Typhon, I knew, was to confirm his worldview.

“We must not shirk from feeding the flesh of our inferiors to our smallest children – they must acquire a taste for blood early, lest they grow too squeamish and effete.”

“Mind you,” I added hastily. “if the animal is ornamental in appearance – like a giraffe or flamingo – it should be locked in a cage and put on display, for the edification and entertainment of all children.”

I then offered the doctor a reassuring laugh and lapsed into silence. He leaned forward a little and studied me intently.

This is the moment where he decides, I somehow knew. He would either determine me sufficiently normal to be free – or else I would be arrested and re-educated, via some sort of chemically augmented therapy.

Dr. Typhon’s eyes were lifeless, his face inscrutable. Then his tongue rattled a little, and he made a sound like a cough.

“Alright,” he said, “let us put all that aside for a moment. Why don’t you take a seat and tell me why you feel so nervous?”

Wait a moment – why am I standing?

“I’m not nervous,” I said, returning to my chair and blinking innocently.

“Would you like a glass of water?”

My mouth was suddenly dry, and I did want a glass of water! How did he know? It was some kind of mind trick, apparently. Naturally, I shook my head. I can’t be drinking water in a place like this.

A long, thin finger stretched across the desk and depressed a button on an old-fashioned intercom. “Nancy, would you please bring in some water?”

It took considerable effort to maintain my composure; I had to press my teeth together firmly to stop my jaw wobbling.

With detached disbelief, I watched a nurse place a pitcher of water and a frosted glass on the corner of Dr. Typhon’s desk. I did not indicate that I knew the water was laced with drugs to make me pliant and vulnerable to suggestion.

“And so,” Dr. Typhon mused. “You were saying about animals…”

“I like animals,” I said with a smile. “No more and no less than anyone else. In short, I like them about as much as is generally considered normal.”

“And how do you see people?”

“I just look around, and there they are! Ha Ha!”

I don’t know why, but sometimes in dangerous situations I can’t seem to stop myself from making jokes.

“So you’re saying there are a lot of people,” he observed. “Do you think, sometimes, that there are too many people? In the world?”

“Not at all, Doctor. People can be quite nice if you give them a chance. It may be difficult, but you should try to cultivate a feeling of empathy and then, maybe…”

I must have been gesticulating emphatically because somehow my wrist struck the edge of the pitcher and knocked it on its side.

A liter of chemical-laced water turned Dr. Typhon’s desk into a sea. He let out a sigh of despair as the stack of written notes began to dissolve before his eyes. His laptop made a faint popping noise in its death-throes, and the screen faded into blackness behind a rising mist of smoke.

I ripped all the tissues from the box and dropped them on top of the water to act as a sort of sponge. Sadly, it only seemed to make the mess worse.

The doctor sprawled in his chair, mouth wide and flapping, his carefully-practiced tranquility gone entirely. Suddenly I noticed his phone drifting across the lake, blinking and miraculously alive. Dr. Typhon saw it too; he lurched forward, fingers stretched and grasping.

I snatch the phone away, just in time. His talons flailed between us as he tried to take his phone from me. I squeezed the phone so hard it shot out of my wet fingers like a cake of soap, rocketing past Dr. Typhon’s nose and straight into the wall between two of his framed graduation certificates.

The ominous plastic crunch of the phone as it struck the floor made the poor doctor wince. He staggered, eyes flitting from me, to his desk and to his broken phone, and I observed in a detached sort of way that his face was now bright red. His lips moved, but no words came.

So you do have emotions, Doctor, I noted, pleased to discover a sliver of humanity in the man at last.

“We might yet be brothers,” I said, punching him roughly on the shoulder affectionately. He stumbled sideways and leaned on the table, overcome. He was being overwhelmed by a sudden onset of feeling, I could tell. If the tissues on his desk were not soaked in water, I’d have passed him one.

“You have to build on these emotions,” I advised. “Launch out from them, sail onwards from this craggy shore – sail out to those gentler waters beyond the breakers.”

The poor creature gaped at me, unable to speak. I smiled reassuringly.

“It will be a journey to a rich inner life,” I promised, “and if you stay true to your bearings, you may feel the birth of a new receptivity to joy inside you. And then onwards – what’s that off starboard bow? Compassion! A receptivity to music! Land-ho!”

That poison-dispensing nurse had unwittingly left the door unlocked. Out I sauntered, leaving the doctor to his voyage of personal discovery.

I didn’t even break a window this time. Perhaps I really was making progress.

“I liked Dr. Typhon,” I told Hector when I arrived at his office a few minutes later. “I can see potential in him.”

He seemed troubled and distracted. “I just got off the phone from him…”

I looked at him askance. “I hope he didn’t disclose anything that might break patient-doctor confidentiality. The Hippocratic Oath is sacred and inviolable, remember. Stuff was shared, after all…”

My supervisor stared at me for a while. “Dr. Typhon says there is no need for you to meet with him again.”

“That’s curious. He was standoffish at first, but I thought we were establishing a rapport there by the end. I mean, I obviously don’t have a lot of time on my hands for additional responsibilities, but you should let him know that if he wants to reach out and have a chat now and then, I’d be okay with it.”

Hector sighed. “So you can help him, right?”

“Well, I doubt I could help him all that much. The man’s a psychiatrist. They eat people, you know. Don’t look at me like that, everybody knows that psychiatrists have been known to occasionally eat people. There was that famous case… Honestly, Hector, would it hurt you to pick up a book occasionally?”

We lapsed into another of our comfortable silences.

I am not really one of those misanthropic types who wander about frowning in disappointment at their fellow man. If I’m honest about it, I have a tendency to like people. Not people like Hector, of course, but real people.

And yes, I tend to assume that anyone in a position of power is a bit of a threat to civilization as we know it, and it’s true that this impels me to rigorously undermine them. But that’s just an innocent habit, isn’t it?

What if there really was something wrong with me, though? Could this be, I wondered, some sort of involuntary compulsion? Am I subject to prejudice?

I felt disquieted. Am I one of those people who take an irrational dislike to certain people, just because they are different?

I glanced at Hector uncomfortably, suddenly unable to recall the source of my animosity for him.

What had he done to me? Had he wronged me in some way? Ever since I’d arrived at Harvard, he had been trying to help me. And all that had made me feel was mildly offended.

Is it me? Is there something wrong with me? After all, Brandon and Henry often said that Hector was a good person; I’d always ignored them.

Perhaps I had acted ungraciously, it seemed to me now. I am better than this, I reminded myself. I must be better than this.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Hector asked me suspiciously.

“No reason, man. It just occurred to me that we never hang out. Do you want to grab lunch?”

He almost gave a start. “What? Seriously?”

There was a knock at the door; it was Henry. He peered about, nodded gruffly in my direction and said to Hector: “You coming?”

“Let’s have lunch another time,” Hector said to me, still unsettled. “I have to head to a meeting.”

“He can come along if he likes,” suggested Henry, giving me a funny look.

“I can? Hmm. Will there be doughnuts at this meeting?”

“Two boxes of doughnut holes.”

“Doughnut holes? That’s a thing?” I followed them through the maze of cubicles. “I’ve been in your country for months, and you only get around to mentioning the existence of doughnut holes *now?*”

Henry brought us to a conference room, where we sat down together. Hector sat a little further away and started to stare at his phone. People were trickling in slowly. I was bored in seconds, of course. Why was I here? Why had Henry invited me?

I slouched in my chair, inhaled deeply and then attempted to exhale all the boredom from my body. It didn’t work. I frowned resentfully at Henry and munched a doughnut hole.

“How is it?” asked Henry.

“Disconcertingly similar to doughnuts,” I replied, munching my third. “I’m actually embarrassed that I expected it to be otherwise.”

Brandon appeared, nodded gravely and sat beside me. A few other techies from Central IT took chairs around the table, opened their laptops and became stoic. Hector, the only middle manager present, played a game on his phone.

I felt self-conscious and wanted to leave. Fortunately, I stayed. I could never have suspected that this meeting would be, for me, the catalyst which would lead me to steal the skull of Phineas Gage.

Suddenly six commissars filed into the conference room. In contrast to the rest of us, who wore t-shirts, hoodies, and baseball caps, they wore collared shirts, jeans, and sports jackets. I watched them take chairs at the far end of the table.

While we waited, Henry and Brandon discussed some project I didn’t know anything about while I sat between them with my arms folded, tuned out completely. The wait became unendurable. I was about to give up and excuse myself when a tall, thin man leaped into the room and yelled ‘hey!’

I sat up with a start and stared. Everyone around me assumed an attentive look.

The stranger offered us all a wise, benevolent smile and waved his hand.

“Hi, guys! My name is Biff Clutterbuck! And I make things happen!”