The Rules of the Room

The fourth rule of the waiting room is “Thou shalt not talk about the waiting room,” and the first rule of the waiting room is “Thou shalt not make the other patients feel crazy"...

The fourth rule of the waiting room is “Thou shalt not talk about the waiting room,” and the first rule of the waiting room is “Thou shalt not make the other patients feel crazy,” and the second rule of the waiting room is “Thou shalt attempt no intimacy with the other patients, not even eye contact, as that might make the other patients feel crazy,” and the third rule of the waiting room is “Thou shalt not steal the goddamn magazines, as the other patients need something to think about besides the fact that they are now incontrovertibly crazy, given that they find themselves in this room, obeying the unspoken rules of crazy patients,” but we all violate that one, ‘cause if we could make smart, unselfish choices, we wouldn’t be here in the first place. But I can tell you none of this because the fourth rule of the waiting room is “Thou shalt not talk about the waiting room,” because if you do, there might be another patient listening, around the corner, down the hall, and they might hear you and feel crazy, and the waiting room is the space between, the space between the world (where we pretend that we are fine, because everyone else demands it, because they would look at us warily if we took refuge in who we really are) and the office (where we are not allowed to pretend, because the therapist demands that we don’t, because said therapist would look at us reproachfully if we took refuge in who we aren’t). The waiting room is the high wire, the knifepoint, the breath between the devil and the deep blue sea, the place where everyone knows, and so no one demands anything of anyone either way, and the rule that is so central, so overwhelming, that it does not even have a number is “Thou shalt not fuck with that, shalt not give the other patients the opportunity to feel awkward or ashamed or comfortable or proud, because the waiting room is the only place where we can be safe from those perils and thou shalt not take that safety away for any reason but shalt content thyself instead with purloined magazines.”

And one man, a veteran of some war—probably Vietnam, because the shrink who shared Dr. Blake’s shabby, genteel tract house of healing specialized in Vietnam veterans—was sitting on a wThite wicker bench and telling the man he’d arrived with about the dreams he’d been having, dreams full of severed limbs and a pile of heads, when he looked over the potted plants at me, lost in my ruminations on waiting-room wall art, and said, “I’m sorry, Miss. Am I bothering you?” And talking about a pile of rotting heads was fine, was better than fine, was solidarity in action, dancing on the high wire and swinging your partner because you knew she wouldn’t fall, but asking if I was all right violated Rules 1, 2 and possibly 4, depending on how you looked at it. He didn’t know any better, was far too manly for therapy as a general rule, you could just tell, which didn’t matter and was no excuse, but any response other than “No, I’m fine,” violated Rules 1, 2 and possibly 4, depending on how you looked at it, so I said, “No, I’m fine.” And he—appallingly—asked, “Are you sure?” and I looked at him or, at least, in his direction and said, “I dream, too,” and he set his mouth in the right shape to be a little bit bitter, a little rueful at my naivete, but then he caught my eye, despite my bland best efforts, and I don’t know what he saw there, but my guesses begin with me, waking, gasping, night after night, from a dark place full of eyes that can look all the way through me and out the other side, though I cannot see what is behind them, and I cannot see myself, so all I know in that dark place is what they tell me, which is that I am disgusting and alone and everyone else knows it, too—and the man was silent, gazing at me a beat too long even outside the context of the rules, so I explained, gently, “We’re all mad here.” He didn’t get the reference, the literary reference, but he got the reference, the referring-to-the-two-of-us reference, and then he knew— he knew the rules, because they’re obvious once you know—and he went back to his friend and the conversation that he understood, then, was allowed because he and his companion were friends outside the waiting room and what happens outside the waiting room never stays outside the waiting room, and that’s fine, and I cherish this memory, but I cannot tell you about it because the fourth rule of the waiting room is perfectly clear on that point.

And a few years later and a dozen states away, the couple who shifted uneasily on a beige loveseat and stared fixedly at the beige carpet or the fluorescent lights was probably there because he didn’t listen any more and didn’t find her attractive anymore and she was always hitching at him and just didn’t get it, because the shrink down the hall from Dr. Fetter and Dr. Handler—yes, their names were actually Fetter and Handler, and a friend asked me, “Does a Gwen- handler get gauntlet gloves like those guys who train falcons?” and I said, “Actually, it’s more like full-body protection,” but frankly, I’d found the name Dr. Blake more reassuring, though it wasn’t nearly as good a story—at any rate, the shrink who worked down the hall from these fabulously, improbably named men specialized in couples therapy, and this couple was very, very uncomfortable. Surrounded by all the crazy people, they were not looking at me, not looking at any of us, but not looking in a way that violated Rule 1, and they were enraged by the lack of recent magazines, and it happens like that, sometimes, with the ones who only sort of belong here—the ones who have acquired a timeshare in hell just lately, just for now, and find themselves in a tasteful office in a discreet building because their parents are getting divorced, they’re getting divorced, they’ve been laid off, their son is dying; the ones whose pain comes from the outside, from a recognizable source that can and almost inevitably will be dealt with, sooner or later, one way or another; the ones who know that this is not who they are but rather what they are doing right now. And if I were saying these things to you, I would emphasize this as an important point: Sometimes these patients do not like us, Sam I am, and do not trust us and do not want to get infected, and we do not blame them, and we certainly do not wish our condition upon them—we would not wish it on anyone, except, occasionally, our therapists—but we would prefer that these patients not sit in our waiting room, reminding us of who we cannot be and making us look self-indulgent for coming here so much, for so long, just as they would prefer that we not sit in their waiting room, reminding them of who they desperately do not wish to become and making them look crazy for coming here at all. We’re all civilized on the surface, but we know. We always know. In the ‘60s, a half-dozen “sane” people conducted an experiment: They showed up at psychiatric emergency rooms, claiming to have a single, improbable symptom of schizophrenia, and once the doctors admitted them, they acted perfectly normal, and the professionals kept them locked up for weeks or months and were never the wiser, but the other inmates knew. They said, “You’re not crazy.” They said, “You’re checking up on the hospital.” Because we always, always know. We can taste much in the subtle bouquets of desperation in the air, and there is a hostility between those of us who know we will be back and those who are here now so they won’t have to be in the future, and this couple looked around them with disdainful fear, and here came Dr. Handler, wandering through the front office like a cheerful bear that had long since resigned itself to being ridiculously overbooked and that could, therefore, afford to wander places, and he found me negotiating with the pastel-clad receptionists for 15 minutes of his time, sometime in the next month, and he asked me what I wanted, and I said, “You remember I’m not taking the Gabitril anymore because of that FDA warning? Well, without the Gabitril to balance me out, I’m feeling really drugged in the morning, so I want to lower the dosages of some of my other meds,” and Dr. Handler, the Overbooked Wonder Bear, frowned and tried visibly to locate the details of my case from somewhere in back and to the left of his memory, and while he did that, he went behind the counter to make copies or get coffee or something, and he called to me as he did this, “So, you’re feeling more drugged now, without the Gabitril?” I called back yes and pointed out that the drugs had been performing a complex dance in my synapses, keeping each other in check, and so now that one was gone, the others were taking over and needed reining in, which was awkward because it was basic pharmacology and reminding a man whom your insurance company is paying you-don’t-even-want-to- know-how-much to regulate your medications for you about basic pharmacology is … unpleasant, especially since he knows perfectly well about the medications and is just trying to remember something about you, as opposed to the hundreds of other patients he saw for 15 minutes last month. And, true, this was an intimate, officially confidential discussion that we were conducting loudly in the waiting room, but that’s OK when you go where everybody knows your pain, and it’s just practical wThen the doctor is impossible to see, when you have to do something about the medications now because you can’t afford to be late to work again. But the couple didn’t understand any of that, couldn’t be expected to, and they were breathless with their desire to be elsewhere, to not hear this conversation, not know that the relatively normal-looking woman—who might, they had so hoped, have been there because she had body-image issues or something—was actually crazy, and so they might be too, and how would they know?

And worse than the couples, who are merely unsettling, are the children, who are horrifying. They are uncannily silent, mute with rage or fear or grief, and because you can hope for no better for them—because no one brings their kids to the shrink if they don’t have to—you pray they are just here because Mommy and Daddy love each other in a different way now, even though you know this can’t be true for all of them. The waiting children make the trappings of insanity—the suicide attempts and the medications and that look in other people’s eyes—seem like nothing, because it happens to them, too, and they get to watch it happen to their parents, and— dear God—how much harder must it be for them? I would have to confess, if I was telling you any of this, that I, too, think that way, although I knowr better, have been one of those children, was an impossibly blond-haired, blue-eyed, little thing with a massive vocabulary, a trace of an English accent and an unholy light in my eyes, a Child of the Damned—and Damned myself if ever a little girl has been—who was not yet expected to be OK with it, whatever it was; who did not think about the intricate unspoken rules; who thought, in fact, that they should get some books in here that were less depressing than “The Velveteen goddamn Rabbit,” preferably something where no characters were burned alive because love had made them vulnerable but could not save them. Yes, I admit to wincing when wide-eyed little girls share the waiting room with me now, although Dr. Susan’s waiting room, an inexplicable oasis in a strip mall, had a wall of exquisite miniatures and a soft, blue carpet you were allowed to sit on and was the place I was happiest during the awful, angry year when I was 8 and everyone I loved wanted me to make one hideous choice or another. The other mothers looked at mine suspiciously because she didn’t pat me or speak to me in a rapid, soothing undertone about how much she loved me, how good I was, how the doctor only asked those questions because she wanted to help. They frowned and sniffed, and their children watched my mother watching me, silently, with naked envy shining in their eyes, and 1 was more grateful than I will ever be able to say, even if I were allowed to do so, that she let me be, let me breathe, let me have my 15 minutes in the space between, and then, as now, my jaw tightened and my breath came faster when the inner door opened and the doctor said, smiling, “Gwen, I can see you now.”

About the Author

Gwen Gray

Gwen Gray is a student in the University of Pittsburgh’s Creative Nonfiction MFA program. She began writing shortly before she began therapy and suspects that she will engage in both for the rest of her life.

View Essays
What’s the Story from Lee Gutkind, Founder

Read on to hear from Lee about current happenings with Creative Nonfiction.