Windshield wipers beat in frantic tempo as trucks splashed great rivers of water onto the hood of my car, forcing me back from the torment of my mind. My years at music school translated their dance into sixteenth notes, slap, slap, slapping their rhythm in long lines of slow-moving traffic. The relief was welcome. I’d been stuck in a spin cycle of unsettled dreams and all that was wrong with my life, mucking about in one negative scenario after another. Tail lights shone in blurred crimson and orange as I fingered the leather steering wheel, stole a glance in the rearview mirror and turned up the classical music station – 89.9 FM.
I was headed south to Salem for a doctor’s appointment, a new fellow who came highly recommended. Having spent much of my childhood in hospitals, I had little trust in doctors and none at all in conventional medicine. But I was stuck. My body was rebelling. I needed to change my life but felt powerless. My immune system was shutting down and my belly tied in knots. In short, I couldn’t stomach my life. I arrived in a torrential downpour, found a plastic bag in the backseat, held it over my head and ran from the parking lot to his office. A large sign on the front door read:
Leave your animal in the car until it is time for their appointment. (My first missed clue to turn and run.)
I dripped inside, smiled at the receptionist and grabbed some paperwork. My friend had said the doctor used, “innovative muscle testing to diagnose difficult problems,” and I saw myself as a difficult problem.
It was warm in the office. I took a courageous breath and sat down, looking around the room for distraction from my constant upwelling sadness. There was a small wooden table beneath the window supporting a giant television set, but no magazines in sight. Reading material had been replaced by a large television screen, where an older man demonstrated the doctor’s healing technique.
“Don’t you have anything to read?” I asked the receptionist.
“Oh no,” she said, looking up from her appointment book. “The doctor wants patients to watch the television program so they’ll understand what he’s doing.” The woman smiled a very grandmotherly smile and went back to work. “He’ll be with you in just a moment.”
I hated television. It reminded me of the Orson Welles film, 1984, and his depiction of a totalitarian world, government surveillance and the voiding of citizen’s rights. In the film, the government learned that it didn’t need to monitor people to control them. They simply needed to make the box entertaining and citizens would become brain-washed of their own free will. If I’d been alone I would have turned it off.
A door cracked open, drawing my attention. A four-legged fellow stuck out his black furry head and wet nose. A female hand with red polished nails pulled him back. The doctor was running late with his last patient.
I sat for a moment in disbelief, than rose and approached the receptionist. “Excuse me, ahhhh, does this doctor treat dogs as well?
The receptionist looked up again, her grey hair done in a tidy bun, fingers fidgeting with her pen.
“Oh dear yes. You would not believe how many animals need adjustments. They are just as much in need as humans, you know. He won’t be long now, just a few more minutes. Take a seat.”
I went back to my uncomfortable chair, the steadiness in the woman’s voice an anchor against bolting from the room. A middle-aged woman dripped in and sat across from me, rain gleaming jewel-like on her plastic cap. Her dog would have the appointment after mine. “Just checking in,” she hollered at the woman behind the counter. Obviously a regular.
I can be broadminded, I told myself, but inside I was screaming, “Dogs, dogs, I’m seeing a doctor who sees dogs? What the fuck!”
I paced the polished floor, stuck between the moving images of the television and the sudden awareness of canine products on a display shelf. I was jolted back by the voice of a lanky man dressed as a cowboy. His boots were snakeskin, his jeans tight. He wore a string tie over a brightly colored shirt, his thinning hair cropped short. Blue eyes penetrated as he extended an indifferent hand.
“I am Doctor Bristol,” he said. “Come this way.” I noticed with some relief that we detoured the dog room. I was invited to sit on a low rounded stool inside a pale blue room, blinds closed on the window facing the parking lot, a massage table filling the space. He sat across from me, running a finger over the answers I’d penned on the intake form.
“Lots of surgeries as a child?”
“Yes, but that was obviously long ago.”
I usually lied about that part by leaving it blank.
He narrowed his concentration. “You clearly eat well, exercise and take the right supplements.”
A sensitive body made me an expert on self-care, that and the training I received from living with a naturopath and helping in his office. The doctor continued reading, flipped the sheet over and moved his thin finger to question number seventeen.
“This is my favorite question,” he laughed. “How can we make you happy? I like the way you answered it, a plane ticket to Italy or Hawaii. Well, we can’t do that but maybe we can get you well again.”
A surge of hope stirred in my belly.
“Oh I see we share a common accident,” he said, “falling from a horse. I have horses too.” I could feel him wanting to talk about himself, wanting to be admired. The woman who recommended him said he was amazing. I was beginning to understand that he thought so too. I sat in silence studying the small brown hairs that sprang from his fingers, waiting for him to get back to the reason for my appointment as he went on and on listening to himself talk. Eventually the light dawned in his eyes and he remembered why I was sitting in front of him.
“In the presenting issues column you write that you can’t get well, that your immune system is weak and that you’re just getting over shingles. Have you had any unusual stress?”
I resisted the urge to answer immediately, measuring my ability to trust a stranger against my desire to get well. Rain pounded the window as I gathered my thoughts, the sky appearing purple through the blinds. When I spoke it was from a core of deeply resigned sadness.
“My mother died two days before Christmas; I’m dealing with a difficult family situation, her will and belongings. On top of that, I am signing divorce papers from a man I still love. I moved to a retreat house in the middle of the forest five years ago because I was depleted from seeing too many clients. That’s been productive because I’ve written books and recovered my energy, but now it feels too isolating. It’s time to move again, but I don’t know where.
“My daughter and granddaughter are here and friends I’ve had for nearly forty years. I love the people, but these unrelenting dark, wet months are killing me. I guess I’m dealing with big decisions and a lot of letting go.”
“Sorry about your mother,” he said, as if inquiring about my zip code. “Let’s talk about diet. How do you feel when you eat bread?”
An abrupt change of subject, but I could follow.
“I don’t eat much bread. I usually buy sample crackers from New Seasons that are very thin. I eat those instead.”
His eyes flashed with unexpected anger. The room went still. “That is not what I asked. I am going to say this one more time and I want you to listen carefully.” He stood up and glared with impatience, as if dealing with the mentally challenged.
“Well, I don’t eat much bread, but I guess I would say I was okay when I did.”
He looked down from his superior position. “Do you remember a, 50’s television show called, ‘Dragnet,’ staring Joe Friday, the detective?”
“Just pretend I’m Joe Friday. His famous line was, Just the facts lady, just the facts. Please narrow our conversation to essential facts.”
I felt sickened and thought immediately of my neighbor, whose job it was to counsel medical doctors. Only last week she’d reported teaching them to take their hand off the doorknob while speaking with patients. Research showed that patients responded better when they thought doctors were more interested in listening, than running to the next consulting room. What a huge flash of insight that must have been!
Dr Bristol asked me to lie down on the massage table and pulled at my feet. “These are some boots you’ve got here,” he said cheerfully.
Their large size and fur linings made them worthy of Alaskan wilderness. I wanted to tell him about buying them in Los Angeles while visiting my son, Clay, but his command to “narrow conversation to facts” silenced me – my eyes misted over.
The doctor continued muscle testing as I stared at the ceiling, feeling detached and unhappy. Maybe that’s why he works with dogs, I thought. They can’t talk back and are happy to please their master. I watched his lips move while I fantasized revenge. If I were a dog, I decided, I would grab his ass on the way out the door and tear a big hole in his cheek, leaving his denim pants flapping in the wind and threads dangling near his fancy snakeskin boots.
Doctor Bristol completed his testing, placed his hand in the center of my back and pulled me to an upright position, exam paper crinkling beneath my hips. “I bet you were wondering what I was doing,” he said, eager to explain.
“No, not really. You’re not the first person I’ve seen who works this way,” while thinking to myself, “although you‘re surely the worst.”
His smile dropped, clearly disappointed to miss an opportunity to showcase his knowledge.
“What did you find out?” I asked, wanting a serious answer.
“I’ll need to study your case. Make another appointment later this week. I’ll give you my findings at that time.”
“Can you tell me anything?”
He stood erect in full cowboy mode and made his declaration. “You’re behind the eight ball. There is no way to get rid of the stress you’re dealing with; you just have to do the best you can.”
The old woman behind the counter sat in the muted glow of a computer screen as I opened my wallet. Writing his check was painful, like flushing money down the toilet.
“No, I don’t know when I will schedule next. I’ll check my calendar and call.” A cold day in hell, I thought. I longed to tell him what an incredibly insensitive doctor he was, but didn’t want to spoil my friend’s relationship by creating tension. Besides, his next patient was already annoyed and barking in the adjoining room.
I stepped into the assault of rain-pounding, sideways-blowing wet that could only be understood and endured by Oregonians. It was the kind of unrelenting weather that had folks from California, who bought houses in the summer, running into real estate offices everywhere screaming, “Sell, sell, sell. I don’t care what it costs. Just get me out of here.”
(Dr. Bristol is not his real name, obviously. There is no money for a lawsuit in my budget this month.)