Brace for Impact
Updated: Nov 22, 2021
A lifetime journey of mental illness and medication begins with a single step: visiting the child psychiatrist.
“Have you ever thought about running away?”
The tiny colored rings danced around inside their clear plastic cage as my little finger assailed the plunger button. Through this intriguing device, I could just make out the watery shape of a man: squat, middle aged, sporting thick glasses below twin puffs of curly dark hair.
Dr. Ackerman eyed me for a moment. I had answered him quickly … a little too quickly, and with a hint of a smile. Not because I was lying, of course; at the age of ten, I had honestly never considered running away (nor later in life, for that matter). I was smiling because this was the very question my sister had mockingly recited when she filled me in on her first visit to this man.
Amy had come for different reasons though. Anxiety, basically. She'd seen something freaky go down on Unsolved Mysteries while my parents were watching it one night, a killer on the loose, and every night thereafter, she subsequently became more and more paranoid about someone breaking into our house. Couldn’t sleep, the whole nine yards. After all, we have always been a family of very respectable basket cases.
He was still staring at me, beady eyes inscrutable behind those glasses. We had been at this for the better part of an hour, his battery of standard intake questions meeting with a litany of mostly monosyllabic replies as I struggled to snare those damn floating rings around the little goal post. Clearly, a new strategy was called for.
He cleared his throat. “Do you like to draw?”
Startled by this apparent non sequitur, I shrugged noncommittally.
“Well, I’d like you to draw a picture for me. Can you do that?”
The red ring just glanced off the tiny goal post. Dang it. “I guess.”
He disappeared momentarily from my guarded field of vision, returning with a blank sheet of typing paper and a pencil. He slid them over to me, jostling my plastic diversion. I took the hint and grudgingly set it aside. “What do you want me to draw?”
We made eye contact for the first time in a good fifteen minutes. “I’d like you to draw your family,” he told me earnestly.
“You mean … just a picture of my family together?”
“However you like. Just draw each person in your family – your mom and dad, your sister, yourself, doing the things you do in your family. There’s no right or wrong way, just whatever makes sense to you. Can you do that for me?”
“Sure.” The smile was back, and I did my best to hide it as I bent over my paper, pencil in hand. This doctor thought he was so smart, but I knew this trick, too. Not from my sister, though; I had seen it on an episode of Full House. An earthquake had struck while the father was away from home, and the rest of the family didn’t know where he was at first. One of the daughters, Stephanie, got really traumatized by the event – nightmares or something – so finally, they took her to a child psychologist. The woman asked Stephanie to draw a picture of her family. Her finished product depicted everyone inside the house – except her father, whom she had drawn outside, because no one knew where he was. Thus they figured out the source of her anxiety, and the father made some lame reassurance that he would always be there for her, and everything was solved nice and neat in just one therapy session. Cue the credits, go to commercials.
Well, I was onto this guy and his sneaky techniques, and I was smarter than transparent little Stephanie. Did he really think that just because I was ten, one drawing could crack the code to what was going on in my head? Thus I resolved to draw the most mundane picture of my family that I could – something he couldn’t possibly get a read on. Smug in my assured success, I set to work.
I started by dividing the paper into four quarters, so I could focus on each person separately. (Correct: Little me unwittingly gave away the truth about our family with the very first stroke of the pencil.) Me first, of course – that was the easy part. What kind of stuff did I like to do? Putting my stick-figure self on horseback was a no-brainer. I added a little riding cap for a dash of panache.
Next up, my sister. What did Amy like to do? She was thirteen, and even though we still got along fine and played together sometimes, her interests made less sense to me by the day. I decided to play it safe, portraying her brushing her hair. Never mind that she never actually used a hairbrush in real life (her hair was super curly, and brushing turned it into a giant puffball); it was about the most boring symbol I could think of for typical older-sister crap.
Moving right along: Mom. This was trickier. Like my dad, my mother spent most of her time at work, but my notions of what actually went on there were pretty vague; I really only knew her in Mom mode. What do moms do? That seemed pretty basic: I put her in front of the stove, frying pan in hand. Big, curly Afro squiggles. Smiling. Maybe that part was exaggerated, but hey, everyone’s mom cooks, right? Nothing noteworthy there.
My hand hesitated as I reached the final square. Dad was trickiest of all. He spent even more time at work than Mom, and I had even less idea of what he actually did there. But it’s not like I could draw him cooking or anything; clearly, that was Mom’s job. What did I usually see Dad doing when he wasn’t working?
Well, that was easy enough; usually when Dad wasn’t at the office working, he was away doing something else. Like boating. I wrapped up with a shot of my dad standing alone in his motorboat, fishing pole in hand. Don’t forget the mustache.
Satisfied, I slid my masterpiece of subterfuge back across the table. No way in hell he’d get anything out of that.
Thirty-one years later, I’m still on medication.