(first published in The Flash Fiction Press May 5, 2017)
by Michael Bloor
Jenny Birkett was sitting in the bar with five fellow psychiatrists at an academic conference. A quiet middle-aged woman with quiet clothes and a gentle manner, it wasn’t unusual for her to take little part in professional chitchat. The discussion was about some remarks that the opening conference speaker had made in his plenary address. He had referred to a famous paper that the great Swiss psychotherapist, Carl Jung, delivered to the annual meeting of the British Medical Association in the summer of 1914, “The Importance of the Unconscious in Psychopathology”. At the time, Jung secretly feared that he himself was suffering from schizophrenia. Two days after he delivered his paper, the First World War broke out. In the middle of that collective European madness, Jung’s recovery was slow and painful: he later interpreted his initial disturbance as a precognition of the European slaughter.
The conference speaker had suggested that personal experience of mental illness could be valuable to psychiatrists in caring for their patients. The suggestion had sharply divided the group in the bar. Old Danny McCafferty, who knew Jenny better than most, noticed not just her quietness, but a clouded, troubled expression. Hesitantly, he asked her if she had an opinion. Jenny spoke so gently that they had to strain to hear her above the hubbub of the bar: “I don’t say that personal experience of psychiatric illness is going to be helpful to us in diagnosis or treatment. But there was an occasion when I felt sure that I was going mad and I’ll never forget the sheer anguish that I felt then. It’s got to be valuable for us to understand—to know from our own experience—the awfulness that our patients are living through. I hope it’s helped me to bring more compassion to my patients.”
There was a pause. Jenny reached for, and swigged, her dry white wine. She ran her finger over the wet ring her glass had left on the table. “I suppose, after a declaration like that, I owe it to you all to tell you what happened…
“Nearly twenty years ago, I went to Poland on an EU exchange scheme. I learnt the language at my mother’s knee: she had fled Poland during the war. I spent six months in an academic psychiatric department in Warsaw and a Polish colleague, Darek, came to my unit in Edinburgh. I had his flat in Warsaw and he stayed in my cottage in Roslyn. You probably know that the ancient centre of Warsaw was painstakingly recreated after the destruction of the war. But most of the city’s population don’t stay in the chocolate-box city centre: they live in the countless high-rise flats in the suburbs. Like everyone else, I used to travel in and out to work on the bus, down long, long avenues of these post-war workers’ flats. A dreary journey.
“One autumn evening of murk and rain, I was absorbed in an article I was reading and almost missed my stop. I scurried into the downstairs lobby of the flats and into the battered lift. Darek’s flat was on the eighth floor. There was no light on the landing and it was always a titanic struggle to locate and operate Darek’s battered door-lock. So it was a relief when, finally, the lock yielded. But once inside the flat, it always used to feel homely. The living room used to be lined with books in Polish and English—literature and philosophy, as well as medicine. Darek was evidently a polymath whose learning put me to shame.
“But that night, when I switched on the light, I got a stupefying shock. The books and the book shelves were gone. So were the warm Afghan rugs and the rich red curtains.
“I dropped my briefcase and almost collapsed myself. I sat down abruptly on a battered dining room chair (never previously seen) and, not daring to lift my eyes, stared at the unfamiliar scuffed lino at my feet. The lino was patterned with entwined pink roses on a green background: the thorns on the roses seemed unnaturally large. I struggled against the panic, tried to control my rasping breathing, and sought desperately for some rational explanation of the changes. Sought and failed: how could somebody (a relative of Dareks? a housing official?? the security police???) have entered the flat and, in a few short hours, completely refurnished it with this old tatt—this scuffed lino? In truth, I knew that nothing could explain the transformation of the flat. There had to be something wrong with my perception: I, a psychiatrist, was delusional. My eyes filled with tears; I have never known such pain.
“I thought back to patients I had known, trying and failing to recall similar cases. And then I was mistrusting my recall, as I had already mistrusted my perceptions. Inexpressible wretchedness. My breathing was now quite out of control, my heart was banging like a gong. I felt faint and I got up to open the living room window, to breathe some cold air. As I stood at the window, struggling with the catch, I glanced out to the evening street below…
“It was a different street.
“And then, in a flash, I knew. This was a different street: it wasn’t Darek’s street and this was not Darek’s flat. Unknowingly, I had got off the bus at the wrong stop. Unknowingly, I had run through the rain into the wrong block of flats. Unknowingly, I had contrived with Darek’s key to open the shoddy lock to the wrong flat.
“Such relief. But my understanding of my patients was changed utterly.”
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