Another semester goes by and I ought to be feeling great. I’ve gotten straight A grades and a national honors award that could earn me admission and scholarship to any 4-year program I choose. Teachers and classmates are heaping on the praise, certain that I will make a great therapist. My bosses say I practically am one already, because the clients I’ve been assigned are really enjoying their time with me. I’m well on my way to a respectable, rewarding career. I’m “making a difference.”
But I don’t feel great. I feel like shit.
I’m in and out of doctor’s offices with various stress-induced ailments. I’m experiencing fits of depression, days going by without the energy to leave the house if I don’t absolutely have to, crying for no reason, fighting off self-destructive impulses. I’m stuck behind my desk all night while I can hear my roommate and friends partying in the next room and I resent them for having fun. My friends in the music scene tell me what they’re up to and I get jealous, wondering why I dropped that life. In class, I’m staring out the window wishing I was somewhere else. I remind myself about delayed gratification and patience and perseverance, but the Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul, Protestant-Work-Ethic platitudes are sounding dumber by the minute.
I wondered if I was in any condition to help my clients. I wondered if I needed any less help than they did. It didn’t help that the most troubled of them were utterly resistant to change and the least troubled were already on the up-and-up before I came along. I felt ineffectual.
I’ve been accused of being crazy for my entire life. My parents sent me to a succession of doctors and remedial schools. Teachers warned me that I was throwing my life away. As an adult, many of my peers have questioned my ability to make sound decisions and feared for my plight. Why such concern and consternation?
My parents were freaked out that I didn’t talk. Years later, I read that this is a sign of high IQ and that many such kids flourish in gifted-and-talented programs. Those teachers who chastised me for my defiant attitude out of one side of their mouths praised my creative and critical thinking out of the other. As for those skeptical peers, their idea of a sound decision is a white-collar job they think so little of that they get jealous when I tell them I make my living doing paid medical studies.
Who has the right to decide who’s sane or not? Sigmund Freud, the cokehead who thought that all women had penis envy? The policy-maker who cuts you off in traffic on his way to Capitol Hill and then screams obscenities and threatens to sue when someone does the same to him? The numerous people who wonder why I don’t want to participate in the rat race while they loathe every waking second they spend in it?
None of these people has any right to pass judgment. And neither, I realized, did I. As the cliché goes, I had become what I hated most, an authority figure who assumes he knows what’s good for others when he doesn’t even know what’s good for him. Sure, it pained me to see my clients down in those depths, but it’s nobody’s problem but theirs, and to adopt it as my problem was plain narcissistic. That pain spoke volumes about me but revealed nothing about them.
I thought about the Native American tribes who believed that those we call “developmentally disabled” are actually possessed of an intelligence too great for the average mind to grasp. I thought of the countries where governments subsidize their artists, in contrast to America, where I’m told that the pursuit of the artist’s life makes me unfit for society. And I had to tell myself what I had told everyone else my entire life: just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. I quit my jobs, changed my major to studio art, and everything went back to my twisted idea of normal.
The best times I had with these jobs were the times when I wasn’t doing my job, the times I left the clients’ issues alone and treated them as peers, just swapping stories, talking about our favorite music and movies, telling inappropriate jokes. We were happy, relaxed. We were ourselves. I think these were the only times I did them any good; all they wanted was for someone to appreciate them just the way they were.
And I realized that that’s all I had ever wanted too.