Thursday, March 14, 2013

Writing Biographical Stories

I was asked last night what I was writing.  I answered, not much.  I'd just sent a short story off to a magazine.  My blog has over a hundred thousand hits.  I'm always writing poetry.  But then I remembered.
Everyday I listen and I "dictaphone type" the 'stories' of my patients.  They tell me the complaints of the day.  They tell me what they are doing.  It's a regular archaeological psychiatric dig. It's not what I want to write per se.  For 12 hours I'm listening to schizophrenics, bipolars, personality disorders drug addicts, alcoholics, psychopaths, sociopaths, neurotics and psychotics and otherwise normal successful people.  Most of the day I'm typing what they're telling me. I'm recording their biographies.
When I see a new patient I ask them to tell me what's bothering them. Then I ask if they've seen other psychiatrists, physicians, surgeons, addictionologists, lawyers, probation officers, been in hospital, treatment centres or jails.  They tell me about their experiences.  The ones who've been to jail or treatment centre usually list a number of people and places they found utterly despicable.  They often have many doctors and judges who they say were prejudiced, corrupt, incompetent or useless.  I hear true and untrue conspiracy stories and often what I hear later appears in the newspaper.
A day doesn't go by that I don't hear a complaint about a colleague or some other person in authority.  There's a stigma to illness and especially psychiatric illness and most importantly brain injury either mechanical from assault or chemical from self induced.
I then ask about family and hear about the wonderful parents and siblings and the evil twin sisters and the mothers who had sex with the sons and the fathers who brought their buddies home to have sex with their daughters. I hear about the dirty secrets of the homes of the rich and famous.  I record all the 'stories' of the patients lives , typing down verbatim what they thought about their brothers and sisters.  I learn what became of them and what became of the person I'm seeing. I hear about their children.  Many people I see haven't seen their children in decades.  Others live together still as old people.
I then record, typing verbatim, the stories of their lives, where they were born, the pros and cons of childhood, the schools and jobs and sexual lives. I record what they like and what sports and activities they participate in and the awards they achieved. I've seen so many olympic stars and film stars and heroes and leaders of governments, mafia, Hell's Angels, and veterans.  Mostly though I see normal people often leading lives of quiet desperation.
There's a gap between the promises of media, politicians, schools, jobs, temples, and churches and what they are feeling.  They are anxious, depressed, self pitying, disillusioned, defeated, but more and more just angry, really angry, very angry. They've been lied to all their lives and they don't like it any more.  At the end of their rope they're seeing me, sometimes because a judge told them too, occasionally because a friend suggested it, maybe because they saw an ad in the newspaper. They've usually had to find a doctor they don't know to get a referral to see me and wait anywhere from half a year to two years even to see me.
They all have broken hearts, broken lives or broken minds.  I'm a stranger and they're a stranger.  Sometimes they try to kill me that first meeting.  It's happened many times.  Sometimes they tell me that they plan to kill themselves but waited till that first meeting.  That first meeting is at least weekly a terrifying place for me and certainly for them.
They don't even have privacy anymore.  Insurance companies and government and courts all demand that whatever they say to the psychiatrist can be used against them.  They often want me to lie for them.  Complete strangers, often without power or money. They want me to say they don't do heroin, they didn't have sex with a child, or that they're not hearing voices telling them to kill their boss.
I write their stories for them.  I'm a 'spin doctor'.  I put the most positive spin on a person's story I possibly can.  I often say they didn't mean to do something they did, like kill their best friend, when I don't really believe it.  But I'm their scribe.  When I'm working for the courts or am working for an insurance company I'm 'their scribe'.  Only occasionally I'm the company doctor.  There's way more money working for the 'man' but I'm just used to doing my job.  It's a Canadian thing. I couldn't explain to people.  I was promised what I try to give in my day to day work but don't find much anymore when I go looking.  When I'm the company doctor though I put a light on the patient's story like the lights they have in an interrogation rooms. But in my humble office I'm just an old doctor, curious, mostly, caring. I  shine the light of love, Agape Love, into the dark recesses.
I always believe there was a child who wanted to love and be loved and they set out in life and now are here in my office, not where they wanted to go, for sure.  But together I hope to  find out by careful history taking and ultimately active listening, where they really wanted to go and how they got off course.  Mostly angry some people want me to listen to the whole of their lives for the years that it took them to get off course, detail, by detail, reliving every wrong turn, and excoriating every ex husband, wife or lover, angry if I don't 'listen' to their misery and mad as hell if I interrupt them because they need to be 'heard'.  I have to ask so many times then where they wanted to go now and is it the same place they wanted to go a half century ago when someone first did them wrong and the world turned on them and they've always been the victim.  If at all possible I can tell them how to get back to where they were going or onto where they want to go.  But that's where therapy begins.  Mostly I'm just recording their biography, that crucial first draft.  It's sometimes taken years to get to this stage and few are even willing to consider a re write and rarely do they want an editor.  Many want a publisher and almost everyone wants to be paid for their mistakes.  Mostly they blame someone else for their mistakes and more and more they blame me for recording their lives as they have told them.  So many more are thankful though. I live for those days.
I write their stories.  I take dictation from all these people and worry about my fingers.  Some days I'm like the honky tonk piano player in the east side bar remembering studying the classics and wanting to play mozart at the Royal Albert Hall.  I remember my sewing grandmother's fingers and my journalist mother's fingers.  They were curled with pain and use.  I've written tens of thousands of stories.
There are no Pulitizer Prizes for these stories.  The stories get the patients thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars of pensions, and services and medications.  Untold the stories were just a burden to the patients, sometimes festering.
Lots of times the stories I've written for the patients have put dozens of people in jails.  Often I'm a 'translator' and the way the patient tells me the story they were the bad one and then I tell them they were 'raped', 'bullied', 'sick' and somehow their story changes.  I've taken their stories and found dozens of brain tumours and hundreds of metabolic and infectious diseases.  I've not introduced these story tellers to publishers or agents but I've sent them on to people who've taken their stories and turned them into gold.
Rarely I've let their story get them a vacation in a government run facility where the waitresses wear white and they are protected from mainly themselves though sometimes I've put a man who had a hit taken out on him into a psychiatric hospital to protect him so the police had time to do their job.
Many times I've encouraged patients to write their stories and they've published the very same stories in the New Yorker magazine, Reader's Digest, literary magazines and poetry anthologies.  I've edited dozens of my patients' trauma stories that later went onto be published in mainstream journals like the ones I've mentioned.
I get paid for an hour of my time. I work in front of patients, under their critical eyes, sometimes haunted and usually angry and needy eyes, 12 hours a day.  At night I've spent hours and weekends reading about them, sometimes learning about the wars they came from, their religions, their cultures, or even their politics.  I've read the books they were reading and when I worked with adolescents and children I read the story books and comic books.  I don't see children and adolescents anymore.  I was once an assistant professor of psychiatry and head of marriage and family therapy.  I spent years studying and reading and living that world but today I don't do that anymore.  I say 'no' because my life and work depend on my refusing to help keep families together. I once saw a hundred families consecutively on the verge of divorce and turned them back from divorce. I delivered a hundred babies but the state thrives on divorce today. There's a fortune to be made and lost in the destruction of families. Abortion is a growth industry. And now they're promoting euthanasia. I'm an anachronism in that world.  Community has been replaced by corporation.
I'm glad I don't have to write political history.  I wouldn't want to be the scribes in the places of power. I'm happy to write the stories of the powerful when they are ready to come into a psychiatrists office.  Many of my patients were on the front pages of magazines and newspapers and their stories were written by famous journalists and writers. They bring me in clippings.  Sometimes they were models and famous people when they were younger and they have pictures.  I have a picture of my friends and I in a science class in grade 6 with our favourite school teacher who killed himself. It's on a bookshelf with books I read over and over and over again hoping somehow to understand and comprehend what the writers had learned in their time about the people I'm seeing in my time.  Many books I've read were chemistry and neurology and endocrinology, genetics and immunology as well.  Some are just great fiction.
The stories are always unique but they're usually just the human drama. There's tragedy and comedy.  Much of what I have to do is show the patients the story they're telling me and that's often enough to make them laugh, not at themselves but with themselves.  It's harder to turn hatred into sadness. The fear is always there.  It's the same old fear.  But sometimes there's love.  I like a love story and encourage romance but everyone calls that sex these days and to the government sex is dirtier than it's ever been.
We're in an age of censorship and mostly my patients stories were never supposed to be heard.  I like that I've recorded them. I like the truth. There's a kind of truth in the fiction/non fiction of biography.  There's even truth in psychosis.  Sometimes the fool is the only one the Kings and Queens of the land won't kill outright.
I'm thankful that I've been able to tell these stories, the tens of thousands of individual tales.  I'm thankful to have heard them.  It's been a privilege and an honour.  I prefer the poetry and song though and I've always wanted to write a novel.  Maybe one day.  I pray my fingers remain strong enough.
For now I've being of service and I'm thankful for that.

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