I am in a small town in Alsace for my year abroad. I started the year determined, once again, to ignore my symptoms and ‘act normal’ as advised by my dismissive college GP, hoping that this time – four years since I first got ill and still with no idea what is going on – it might work. Within a couple of months I have completely collapsed again and am iller than ever. A couple of GP appointments and one round of clear standard blood tests and I find myself sent to see a psychiatrist. I’m willing to do pretty much anything that might help me get better. I am beginning to wonder if I am actually going mad since nobody can find any explanation for all my symptoms. At worst it will be an interesting experience and I will get to practice my French.
He starts by firing questions at me. Things start to unravel when he gets to ‘Tell me about your boyfriend’ and I have to admit that I don’t have one. This is apparently NOT NORMAL and NOT HEALTHY for a young woman of 21 and is probably the cause of all my problems.
I am sceptical about the idea that not having a boyfriend could be causing overwhelming exhaustion, muscle weakness, unbearable pain, dizziness, nausea, bowel problems, constant headaches, and the myriad of other symptoms I am experiencing which are all made worse by any kind of exertion. I tell him that a) although I do eventually want to marry and have children I am currently quite happy not having a boyfriend b) I know several other 21-year-olds who don’t have boy/girlfriends who are quite healthy and c) I did had a boyfriend for a while the previous year and that seemed to make me more, not less, ill as it was so exhausting seeing him as well as trying to manage my degree.
He is excited by the former boyfriend: ‘Why did it end?’, ‘What was your sex life like?’.
I have foolishly come into this encounter thinking that honesty is the best policy so I tell him that we didn’t sleep together. He nearly falls off his chair with shock. This is even more NOT NORMAL and NOT HEALTHY than not having a boyfriend. I explain that I am aware that in wider society this is unusual but that in evangelical Christian circles it is still common to save sex for marriage.
The psychiatrist declares that this is definitely the cause of all my health issues. He interrogates me for a while on the subjects of sex, faith, and God and then considers.
‘Masturbation’ he says.
‘This will be your problem. It is not possible for a woman of 21 to live without sex. Therefore you must be masturbating, and because of your faith you are feeling guilty about this, and this guilt is making you ill.’
Seriously?! The guy is obsessed. Could he try any harder to fit the stereotype of sex-obsessed Frenchman and/or sex-obsessed psychiatrist?
I consider my response. I am beginning to realise that anything I say will be used to confirm his theories one way or the other. If I tell him he is wrong he will either a) think I am lying as he has already stated that he believes I cannot possibly be living without sex or b) believe me and see it as evidence that it is the lack of sex in my life that is making me ill.
(No way am I telling him the whole truth – that when I first got ill at 17 I was so sexually naïve that I didn’t even know what masturbation involved. Sex ed had pretty much only covered the mechanics of periods and babies and those Jilly Cooper novels we surreptitiously passed around class in our early teens were eye-opening but not remotely informative on the subject of masturbation.)
Whatever I say will only confirm his view that it is either having sex, or not having sex that is making me ill. This is not the last time in my life that a delusional psychiatrist will box me into a corner with a load of ridiculous nonsense that I cannot escape from. He has set himself up to be right whatever my answer and nothing I can say will convince him otherwise. I look him in the eye and tell him he is wrong. I am pretty certain he doesn’t believe me.
To my relief he seems to be tired of sex and changes tack: ‘What does your surname mean?’ he asks.
I am pleased to be able to produce a surname with an obvious meaning, and one which I can easily translate into French. At least it gets us away from his obsession with sex.
‘Whale’, I say, ‘baleine’.
He thinks for a while and then becomes visibly excited. ‘You became very ill during October. Do you remember those whales trapped in the ice in Alaska in October? They were on the news every day. How did you feel about them?’
I am a bit confused. What have whales trapped in the ice in Alaska got to do with me being ill?
‘They were trapped in the ice. You feel like you are trapped in your body: that it won’t move and do the things you need it to do. Like the whales. Your name means ‘whale’. Maybe you are identifying with the trapped whales?’
I am beginning to think that one person in this room is definitely mad, and I am pretty sure it isn’t me.
I am tempted to laugh but goodness knows how he would interpret that. I don’t want to seem completely heartless, as if I didn’t care at all about the plight of the trapped whales, but I need him to realise that they didn’t make me unwell. I point out that I first became ill in December 1984 and there were no whales trapped in the ice then. After some discussion I think I convince him that the whales are irrelevant.
At the end of the session he concludes that I don’t need a psychiatrist. What I really need, he says, is to ditch my faith and have a passionate love affair and this will solve all my problems. I am welcome to come back if he can help in any way. Given that he has already said I don’t need a psychiatrist I am a little worried about what exactly he is offering to help with.
I do not go back.