“When was the last time you masturbated?” the psychiatrist asked me matter-of-factly.
A tall, elegant older man who wore a bow tie, he read from a list of questions for first-time patients. I was a grief-stricken, 40-year-old woman whose father — also a psychiatrist — had recently died from a rare, aggressive cancer after only an eight-month illness. I’d erupted into a state of frenzy unlike anything I’d previously experienced. I needed to calm down, care for my family, continue working and cope with my mother’s bursts of rage. I could barely pay attention when my two sons spoke to me; my heart raced and skipped beats. My blood pressure had shot up dangerously. I was obsessed that the misshapen mole on my inner thigh was melanoma. Masturbated? Seriously?
When I shook my head, he asked, “Have you ever killed anyone with your fist or your car?”
“Yes,” I laughed, “the time I accidentally ran over a pedestrian while I was masturbating.” It was the giddiest I’d felt in months.
The doc prescribed an antidepressant that he promised would fix my “genetic mood disorder.” I’d never wrestled with panic before but I needed relief and if this pill could give it, I’d swallow it. I was too old to fully believe this one man’s assessment. But then a cousin (a psychologist) and her psychiatrist husband agreed with the idea of a long-dormant condition. I imagined panic hibernating inside of me, on the cellular level, just waiting for this chance to spring awake.
Even as a young child I lived in a hothouse of worry and grief. Therapy was a family tradition. My parents sent me to my first shrink when I was 4 (they had both seen psychoanalysts themselves). When I was 9, my uncle Michael died of Hodgkin’s disease. His illness informed my childhood. I remembered his visits to our house with my young cousins, how he couldn’t bear the weight of his 2-year-old daughter on his lap, he was so frail. My father’s agony and ultimate sorrow — the wails coming from his bedroom when he learned his brother had died — terrified me. I curled myself into a snail-shape on the bathroom floor.
My father worked appallingly long hours, leaving at 7 in the morning, returning at 10 at night, papers bloating his briefcase, his hug hello a balm. The best way to get his attention: “I have a stomachache again”; “I’m nervous I’ll fail my math test.” We’d sit on the couch while my mother and siblings slumbered upstairs. By the light of the television, as Johnny Carson quipped, I’d grow drowsy. Often, in the middle of the night, I’d crawl back downstairs and find my father asleep, mouth open, emitting soft puffs. I would wake him and we’d drag ourselves back up to bed. He’d pat my head, “Don’t worry, Nikki. I love you.”
Defying his first analyst’s proclamation that running was neurotic, my dad continued the habit he’d developed during his track days in college to help stave off depression. He’d take me with him to the high school track, just the two of us — both slender, small-boned, dark-haired — and we’d jog in circles. When he discovered Transcendental Meditation, he signed me up as well, a possible antidote to the insomnia we shared. He steered me away from too much soda, gave me his Mylanta and wrote occasional prescriptions when my gut acted up. Once, when my pediatrician wasn’t available, my dad stitched up a wound on my leg in a perfect, clean line that never scarred.
Even when I had grown, he was there. When my second son made his dangerous entrance into the world, sending me into non-stop contractions, I was knocked out with heavy anesthesia and ripped open horizontally. While my husband accompanied our son to the neonatal intensive care unit, my dad was there in the recovery room with me. His was the face I saw once my eyes could focus. His hand was there to hold mine.
Four years later, when my father was ailing, I was his symbiotic buddy. During his chemotherapy and radiation treatment I lost 20 pounds. My brain was abuzz with a sense of danger: every lump and bruise was suspicious.
The day before he died, my father was rushed to the same hospital in which I’d had my emergency C-section, in which I, too, had almost died. The mustard glow of the lights, the woman hollering in Mandarin on a gurney, the sight of my father, wretched and wasted, eyes awash in yellow, skin hanging off his hands as if he were shedding: I froze in anguish. After his death, I feared contracting his disease.
Dread leaked into other areas, too, until the ordinary became potentially life threatening. Galloping from one doctor to the next, I sought to cure both my mind and body. Suddenly, I was muscling my way onto a bus to Manhattan, sweating through the tunnel, trudging up flights of stairs to avoid elevators, dizzily gripping the handrails of escalators. On airplanes, I popped tranquilizers and dug my nails into my husband’s arm. I woke in the night with my heart thumping in my ears, the sound like hoofed beasts running from predators.
I switched to a new psychopharmacologist (not the bow-tied gentleman) with a mass of hair and pen stains on his shirt. But I didn’t trust anyone to prescribe for me without my father’s blessing, and this man graciously worked along with me. No pill went into my mouth without my father’s posthumous authorization. “Would Dad use this antidepressant? What about that one?” I asked my mother who’d been privy to her husband’s pharmaceutical preferences. At one session the doctor suggested I find a hobby other than psychiatry to share with my mother. “How about bowling?”
The next year was a rush of appointments with shrinks, cardiologists, radiologists for mammograms and ultra sounds, and dermatologists for the removal of three moles. My teeth went rogue, resulting in root canals, an agonizing abscess, gum surgery and two implants. I had a benign tumor extracted from my arm, which the plastic surgeon and my husband joked resembled gefilte fish. An insect bite blew up, became infected and stubbornly resisted weeks of antibiotics. I was reduced to a mass of hot spots, a shivering mess. On long walks I’d beg my father for signs — orange paint on a building or a branch in the road — that he was there to guide me.
A compassionate therapist, this time a social worker, finally acknowledged, “Your world was shattered.” Grief, post-traumatic stress, and the terror of death: all of this plagued me. My dad had been the slayer of family monsters, of ulcers of the mind and body, of despair. He was gone and no pill could replace him. No other wise and kind medicine man would love me the way he did. I realized: my dad had been my Prozac.
But unlike my father, I slowly recovered. As the years passed, the alarm bells stopped ringing in my head and the vibration of the world quieted. Now, more than a decade later, I ride easily through tunnels and in elevators. I can fly without a sedative. I’ve stopped torturing myself with medical emergencies that don’t exist and I’ve trained myself not to require a warm rapport with each doctor I do visit. I recognize that my father is not in the room. But sometimes, if I listen very hard, I can still hear him whisper: “Don’t worry, Nikki. I love you.”
This piece originally appeared in the NYT in 2103.
Nicole’s last book was What Matters Most (Penguin/NAL 2006); her debut novel Redeeming Eve was nominated for both the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction. She’s published in The New York Times, Parents, More.com, and The Forward. Her new novel, in progress, is The Happiness Thief.