Last night I went to a mental health support group meeting. I hadn’t been to one in years but the stars and neurons had aligned. The crisp 65-degree weather reminded me that the holidays were upon us all yet those very same stars in the night sky seemed to shine only on me.
This particular meeting is held in the exact same building where my first psychologist had his practice in 1985 when I was 13, and a pill’s throw away from where I was institutionalized the following year, after my first suicide attempt. That psychologist resembled the actor who portrayed the dad Steven Keaton on Family Ties: Michael Gross. This did not endear him to me. Whenever the doctor spoke, he seemed to lean forward in his chair, which in turn made me sort of reflexively lean back in my own.
Even though my attendance has been spotty at best, these mental health meetings have, at times, been beneficial for me in several ways: identification, empathy, shared experience, self advocacy, medication successes and horror stories, admitted dark humor, free coffee, stale cookies and bottled water, etc.
I’m totally at home in 12-step meetings but, even though I’ve always been welcomed with shaky, mood-stabilizer-affected arms, it’s a different flavor. Not a worse flavor. Just different.
Last night it was a small group, if not microcosmic, group of nuts: someone with PTSD, someone with schizoaffective disorder, and me representing the bipolar disordered.
We all shared a bit, but PTSD, who chaired the meeting, pretty much bogarted the meeting. At one point they demonstrated their singing voice, and did a second time as well.
“The hiiillllsss are alive, with the sound of muuuuussssicccc…”
During the break, I went outside.
There was a giant, dark-blue, late-model Chevy pickup truck parked at an angle directly in front of the building.
That is a really nice truck, I thought.
Suddenly the driver started honking their horn at me, even though their window was down and I was about seven feet away from the front bumper.
I walked around to the driver’s side window.
There was a woman in her late sixties wearing a large sweatshirt, and sporting giant, outdated-style glasses in the driver’s seat. A maybe-20-year-old girl sat in the passenger side, decked out in European football gear, engrossed with some app on her phone. She looked up, gave me a dismissive glance, and looked back at her phone.
“I’m looking for the doctor who works here,” said the older woman.
She had an accent that sounded like a mixture of Spanish and Transylvanian.
“Well, it’s after eight so there’s no doctor here,” I said.
She told me that she used to “fly to Virginia” to see her psychiatrist, but now drives, and last night was “too tired to drive.”
“Well, if you need medical help, you could drive over there to the main hospital and talk to them,” I said, somewhat imperceptibly backing away from the window, out of a sort of instinctive self-preservation.
“No, no, no,” she said, emphatically. “I’m fine now.”
“Well, if you’re looking for a shrink, my doctor is great. She’s really helped me,” I said, instantly regretting aiming this increasingly curious woman toward my now-possibly endangered doctor.
“Oh! You are so nice,” she said, almost welling up with tears.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Barcelona,” she smiled.
“I love Barcelona! I played a gig there once in 1999. They lisp the ‘s’…like ‘ethpresso’…Spain has some of the greatest painters of all time…El Greco (even though he was Greek), Serrano, Dali, Picasso…I hung out in a Pachinko parlor…But ceviche? I don’t like shrimp…”
I guess I was so nervous that I decided to recount my entire experience in Barcelona to this lady.
Right before I admitted that while there I only ate at the same Kentucky Fried Chicken (“I had the tres piezas box…”) — her eyes widened behind her giant glasses.
“Oh, you are a very nice man!”
She then told me this long-winded albeit pointless story about how she was a massage therapist and once dug her fingers into a man’s forearm for some reason that I couldn’t comprehend as she told me.
“Let me see your arm.”
“You’re not digging your fingers into my arm!”
“No, no. Let me show you.”
So I reluctantly leaned my arm on the opened window of the car door. She gave it a feeble squeeze.
“You see? You see?”
“Uh. Yeah, that’s quite a squeeze.”
“Close your eyes,” she said.
“I have a gift for you.”
And here comes the meltdown, I thought, stepping back from her window, waiting for her to forcefully push the car door open.
The young girl in the passenger seat rolled her eyes.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” laughed the Barcelonan Bughouse Candidate.
I closed my eyes. I heard a rustling, like someone rifling through a bag.
“Open your eyes.”
I opened my eyes as she handed me a monstrous Ferrero Rocher chocolate, wrapped in a golden ribbon, capped off with a red-and-green bow.
“Oh no, I don’t even like chocolate,” I lied.
“You take this,” she said forcefully. “I was going to give this to the doctor, but he’s gone and you are a good person. You are my angel.”
I accepted the chocolate.
“And don’t give this to your wife or girlfriend,” she said with a wink, tagging on an odd conditional clause to the gift.
“Okay, I won’t. Well, if I were you I’d go over to the hospital,” I said, punctuating the end of the encounter by hurrying back toward the building’s entrance.
I walked back into the room where PTSD and schizoaffective disorder were sitting in blue plastic chairs.
“Hey, who wants this giant Ferrero Rocher?” I asked, holding it in my hand like a bomb ready to go off.
PTSD was diabetic and declined.
Schizoaffective disorder won out.