Doctor’s office, circa a few years ago.
I was sober for over a year at the time, but my life was still far from a day spent with a unicorn spitting candy as it carried me on golden highways that I thought some people were trying to convince me that their (new, sober) life is like. I had asked to see a therapist, and bureaucracy provided me with a pretty good one.
(The office, part of my county’s Mental Health Department, has since been de-funded and the service was sold to private business by the county. In short, public mental health services are being privatized in the U.S. It was as if Ulster County, New York, declared that everyone is balanced inside and completely well. It is things like this that made the ACA necessary. My therapist and I spent our hours twice a week for a couple of months sharing stories of the bureaucratic heck we were each experiencing; he did not know whether or when he needed to start looking for work, and I did not know whether or how to apply for Social Security Disability. I do not know if I helped him, but I do know that he helped me.)
There were a few stressors in my world, and I had lived for two adult decades ignoring stress and burying my head in any emotional sandbox at any sign of impending stress of any sort, which made these bureaucratic stresses loom ever larger. A person who “does not like paperwork” often becomes a person whose entire life for a year or more is consumed with paperwork. The good news is, I did not bury my head, and I am here, and today’s column is not a how-to (or a how-not-to) about living life. That would be more boring than the usual fare.
One day, I arrived to see my therapist. I had arrived early but the one staffer available to check me in was occupied with the only person there ahead of me. It became apparent that this person was late and that this client had arrived long after “late” could be used to describe her situation: her session would have been ending right around the moment she was pleading to the staffer.
Her special pleadings were thorough, endless, falling on unsympathetic ears (paperwork that she needed to be signed was not going to be signed), and they were running into my time. My time. My ti-i-i-i-ime. (It echoed in my head.) Something inside me snapped …
… I gave her empathy. I have no idea why.
Old me would not have been in that office in the first place. Old me would have been enjoying my personal version of medicine and keeping my head in the sandbox of my choice. Old me, if old me had somehow found himself in a doctor’s office, much less a therapist’s, might have spoken a snide sentence in a snide voice with a hope that I would get a laugh out of the staffer at least, and then I would have disappeared in a snickering cloud of snide.
Old me still lives inside me, but I try to ignore his own ongoing special pleadings.
When the mental health customer who was holding things up turned around and looked about the room for an ally in her cause, she saw only me. Uh. Oh. Uh and oh. I felt my inner Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory” rise up, and then I ignored him. The single most banal and probably saccharine sentence that I could have concocted escaped my mouth like it was an prisoner who was digging a tunnel to freedom and discovered that he had instead dug his way into the warden’s kitchen: “You can always start your day over.”
What the heck? Eight times out of eight if I had spoken that bit of sugar-coated inanity out loud with my outdoors voice, I would not have meant it. This however was the ninth time out of eight. “You can always start your day over,” simply means … you know what? I have no idea what it means. To this day. But I say it to myself approximately 24 times a day, still, all these years later, to do just that, I guess: To still me.
“You can always start your day over.” The staffer behind the plexiglass window looked out at me with an expression that could only be interpreted as, “At least I have a window between this angry person and me.”
Apparently I said it like I meant it, because apparently I did mean it, and the customer running late said:
“Thank you. That’s right. Huh, that’s right.”
Old me wanted to correct her: “Not ‘That’s right.’ I’m right. Me.” My inner Sheldon did not come outside and play, though. New me added nothing further to the exchange, however, because sometimes “getting away with it” means getting away with being kind.
She left, I checked in on time, and all of this merely remains today as an anecdote. The two other people in the room from that day probably do not remember the non-incident. The universe does not change when someone grows up a little; the person’s universe changes, which is the only universe they need.
Get away with being kind. Not all of us have bubbles of plexiglass around us. And that was all my lifelong sarcasm ever was.
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