This excerpt is from my new memoir: Windowshopping for God, out in the fall of 2021.
The first time I went to a shrink, I wore sunglasses – not because I was worried that people would recognize me. No one knew me in Saskatchewan. I had a nervous tick in my left eye that made me look like I was winking at people. I kept chanting to myself, don’t wink at the shrink. A few days earlier, my boss had called me into her office and said, “I am worried about you. I think you might be depressed.”
The word “depressed” was not a medical diagnosis in the late seventies. Words for your feelings had not yet come into vogue. If you were sad, you “had a case of the blues” or were “suffering from nerve trouble.” Nerve trouble was any behaviour that people in your community deemed odd. That covered a wide berth of symptoms, from something as simple as serving carrot cake instead of pie to trying to shoot your family in an alcohol-fuelled blackout.
When my boss mentioned the word “depression,” I wanted to joke it off. Of course, I am depressed. I’m working in an advertising company writing pithy slogans for the NDP. Wouldn’t you be depressed if you worked at a place for socialist civil servants who argue for hours over where to place an ‘a’ or a ‘the’? The Bible hasn’t had as many rewrites.
When the darkness visited this time, I wrote it off as homesickness. A thousand miles from home, living in a place so flat, the wide-open spaces caused me to hyperventilate. I was an Ontario girl and needed hills and trees to feel secure. Natives of the province would try to cheer me up by driving me out to Fort Qu’Appelle to show off their only mountain. Sheer hyperbole. It was a mere bump, the one spot where God burped a bit of cleavage across Saskatchewan’s bare chest.
The winter was endless. In this place, people bragged about surviving minus 33°C weather. “It’s a dry cold,” they’d say, but any temperature that is measured by how long you would survive if you fell into a snowbank is cold. I found this out one night when I got drunk and fell into a snowbank, and the weather guy at the radio station dragged me inside and told me the survival rate in a military measurement.
After the snowbank incident, I quit drinking for a while, which took me back to weeks of insomnia. I would pass the wee hours of the morning reading books about Ukrainian mail order brides. Besides being married off to some man they had never met before, they had come from Ukraine to end up in this cold, flat place, as bad or worse than the place they had just left. At one in the morning, I’d lie awake wondering which would be worse: living in this land of infinite cold or having sex with a man you didn’t know? Go to sleep, Deb. Count your lucky stars. You’re not a mail-order bride.
But now, in the dry, cold Regina winter, the darkness was back. I began fearing that an evil force would overtake me. I went back to Sunday Mass, then a second mass on the first Friday night of the month. Before I knew it, I went to church four or five times a week, often during my lunch hour. While others were eating tuna sandwiches in a food court somewhere, I was sneaking off to genuflect and spritz myself with holy water.
However, the night terrors didn’t subside, and I upped the ante by performing charitable acts. I began by helping an old lady called Eva. Or maybe she was called Ava. Or Ada. I can’t remember her name, but she sat in the pew ahead of me at church, and one day I cornered her after mass and asked if she’d like to go for coffee.
After church on Sundays, she served me pickled herring with sour cream, which made me gag. But every week, I ate jars of the stuff, hoping the herring might get me holy enough to get some sleep. I didn’t like Eva, Ava, Ada. She was a hoarder, and her apartment smelled of urine. After one hour of her long, sad stories about surviving the Holocaust, I was more depressed than when I started. Buck up, Deb, thank the lucky stars you’ve never been to a concentration camp.
I’d smile and try to look holy in all the right places, but I kept bursting into tears. I hoped Eva, Ava, Ada would think my tears were because of her sad stories about losing her family during Nazi Germany. But one day, as I sat there crying, Eva, Ava, Ada looked up at me and said, “You are too sad. You are too, too sad.” When a Holocaust survivor tells you that you are too, too sad, you know there’s something very wrong.
All this praying and crying led to my boss telling me I was depressed, which led me to my doctor, which led me to a psychiatrist in the same week. The medical establishment is the only place where if you get excellent service, you get worried. When I checked in that first appointment, the shrink’s nurse gave me tons of forms, endless pages of multiple-choice questions.
“Fill these papers out so he can assess you.”
I had to poke holes in the true or false questions that best described my mental state. Some sample questions:
1.Do you have suicidal thoughts? I drove a hole in the “yes” column. (I never thought of suicide but felt they wouldn’t take me seriously if I hadn’t.)
- Do you want to harm others? “No.” (I did want to harm others, but I wasn’t going to tell them that.)
3,) Do you lie? (Refer to questions 1 and 2).
My favourite question of the bunch was number 84: Does your family find you strange? Of course, they do! That’s why I am in Regina, trying to get away from them. A much smarter question would have been, “Do you find your family strange?’ I could’ve aced that question. But there is no essay portion when you are getting a mental health assessment, no real chance to explain yourself. Which ones will make me look sane enough to stay out of the hospital but crazy enough to get some help? I got desperate and began randomly poking as many holes in the form as I could. When I walked into the psychiatrist’s office, he sat at his desk and waved the test sheets. There were so many holes in my test papers; they looked like they had been caught in the crossfire of a mafia hitman.
He looked over his glasses, “Well, it would appear you are a sociopathic paranoid with schizophrenic tendencies.
“No wonder I couldn’t sleep.”
“Has this kind of insomnia ever happened before?”
“Yes, when I was 17. I was afraid to close my eyes.”
“Yes, you know, because if I went to sleep, Satan might take over my soul.”
“Of course, I said the rosary, and I wore extra underpants.”
“Excuse me, you thought extra underpants could stop Satan?”
“No, you can’t stop Satan with extra underpants.” Who is this guy? Does he not know anything at all about the Lord of the underworld?
I said, “No, it can’t stop him. I thought the extra pair might just slow him down.”
“I see. Uh-huh. Uh-huh? Was there a man in your life who may have crawled into your bed? A man who might have wanted to hurt you?”
“No. No. There was no man near my underpants. Listen, it’s not like that. I am talking about the real devil here, you know. Have you ever seen the movie The Exorcist?”
“You watched this Exorcist movie, and now you are afraid someone will crawl into your underpants?” The psychiatrist was shaking his head and furiously taking notes. “And did you ever get help back then?”
“Help? No. I just went to church. I confessed to a priest, and he said…”
“What did he say?”
“He said despair was a sin.”
“Good grief. Despair is not a sin.” The shrink’s face suddenly softened, and he smiled as if he felt sorry for me. “It’s going to be okay. You come back here next Wednesday, and we will talk. Oh, and you will need this.” He tore a sheet off his prescription pad and handed it to me. I was sure it was for drugs. It was not. Why do doctors never give me any drugs? Do they take one look at me and think drugs would be redundant? Written on the paper were two words: “Father Tom.”
“You’re sending me to a priest?”
“Yes. Tom works at the university with young people like you with umm spiritual issues.”
“It appears you’re extremely Catholic.”
“I am not Catholic. I quit being Catholic a few years back.”
“Oh, then why are you going to church every day?” My one eye began twitching, and I was now winking at him like crazy. He smiled. “It’s going to be okay. Father Tom will help.” I left the office, confused.
Why would someone call you extremely Catholic then send you to a priest? Maybe it’s like getting a flu shot. If you inject more of the virus into the body, it will create immunities against the disease.
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