“I AM HAVING A HEART ATTACK!” The Mrs woke me up with that scream one night some 13 years ago. Another false alarm. It wasn’t the first time – the third actually, yes I kept count. So, like the boy who cried “Wolf”, she failed to get me anxious and I pretended not to hear her cry for help. She sat up and whimpered. The sleep inertia broke my dreamworld. Even in my grogginess, I could sense that she was in genuine discomfort. Her difficulty in breathing was palpable. So, I labouriously pulled myself up and tried to calm her. “It is another panic attack, Doe”. I call her Doe, not a female deer but my female dear. Pa and Ma used to call each other “Doe” too. Theirs is an endearment shared only between themselves for over 65 years, from Ngeh Doe”, meaning blockhead in their Ningbo and Shaoxing dialect. The Mrs asked to be taken to the hospital but I thought the RAH would rather we did not, since they would have many urgent emergencies to attend to than waste their time on a false alarm. Besides it was about 4 AM in the middle of a wintry night (Ok, that’s a lie. It was late summer). I was quick to convince her a visit was not necessary. “Wait awhile, it will pass”. The lack of celerity on my part was unforgivable. As I write this, I realise the foolishness of my actions or rather, inaction. How callous, how lazy, how irresponsible. In an emergency, our loved ones do not expect us to be sclerotic. The many “What-if scenarios” didn’t cross my mind then. Urghhling. What if it was a real heart attack! It is no wonder I seldom look into the mirror. I just cannot like what I see. My shadow self looms dark and large in the reflection.
It was nearly twenty-past ten on a bright autumn morning, still ten minutes before her appointment with the psychiatrist. She arrived at the blue-ribbon leafy suburb of North Adelaide. The streets were surprisingly quiet. She drove very slowly, noting the street numbers on every letterbox. She located the surgery easily. It was an elegant Queen Victorian-style cottage with a return verandah. Without any fuss, she turned her car which she calls “my old bomb” into the carpark reserved for patients only. The driveway and carpark were paved with white gravel. They crackled like popcorns bursting as the tyres rolled and stopped imperfectly in the parking bay. The adjacent car was parked at a even more pronounced angle. What is it about people who cannot park straight?
This was the third psychiatrist The Mrs had to see. She pushed opened the heavy Jarrah door that had an antique brass knocker shaped in the Hand of Fatima. A good sign – the sign of God. Inside was a long corridor laid with stately plush Persian carpet. She could see doors opened on both sides. The first door on the left opened to the reception area. The receptionist promptly greeted her. Behind a French ornate chestnut desk, the woman in a smart navy shirt dress gave a slow and gentle smile and asked in a meditative silky tone of voice if The Mrs needed any help. The professionalism of the receptionist betrayed a sympathetic kind of gentleness – it was not so much from the heart. After all, every patient of the doctor has the same predicament. He is a honeypot for psychiatric patients. Her GP had arranged for her to be assessed for a probable mental disorder. Her mood swings, her bouts of breathlessness, and panic attacks were all tell-tale signs she needed proper medical care. Every patient who visits the surgery has to be treated with tender care. They know not to accidentally turn a patient hysterical. After her personal details were taken, she was asked to hang around in the waiting-room opposite. Besides the usual sofas and a coffee table full of magazines of all sorts inconsiderately messed up by earlier visitors, there were many paintings on the walls to keep her attention. She noticed that all the paintings in the three surgeries shared one similarity. The portraits were all distorted depictions of their subject. Like the one she was looking at. The woman’s head was lopsided, the right side about two inches too big. Her chin drooped so low it almost reached her navel. She held her baby by the head, a most uncomfortable posture that even a Yogi would find hard to do. The other painting depicted a man with one eye much higher than the other. If he wore glasses, they would sit on a 45-degree slope. A huge print of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss captivated her for much of the waiting time. How uncomfortable to be kissing in that position – the woman’s head was at a perfect right angle to her naked shoulder. She understood these were contemporary paintings. Everything was deliberately twisted, contorted, distorted and exaggerated, like her mind. While she was contemplating this, a short elderly gentleman with a bulbous reddish nose entered the room. After the normal greeting, he gestured her to his room. He was the psychiatrist, Dr. Curtis. His room was stuffy and too warm for her liking. She immediately noticed the big bar heater on top of his desk. Who uses bar heaters these days? She asked herself. This apparatus was highly popular in the seventies. Well, he looked nearly eighty. This must be the one thing left from his internship that still performs well.
She sat herself down heavily on the only available sofa while he flipped through her file. As he made the occasional ‘um um um’ sound, she couldn’t help but notice his many photographs of boats or yachts. With zero interest in anything that sails, she could not tell one from the other. She turned her attention to the podgy man. He was a man in desperate need of a strict regime of healthy diet and exercise. It was obvious from the two buttons on his midriff that were close to escaping from the buttonholes. The long fin-shaped creases on the front of his shirt did not hide the turgid belly and fullness of the fat within. The tightness of his shirt and the stuffiness of the room immediately made her breathing laboured. She was hoping an oxygen mask would drop from the ceiling. “Excuse me, how do I pronounce your surname?” She opened her eyes. Dr. Curtis asked a familiar question every Australian she encountered would. The familiarity gave her a feeling of calm. It was something she could never explain, not even to herself, why she frequently experienced the rise and ebb of anxiety and calmness. That was the reason why she was sitting on the huge sofa. He went through the reports from the other psychiatrists to get her confirmation that everything written down was correct. Then he asked the inevitable question, “So, why are you here?”
When there is too much pain to carry, the best remedy is to forget. Yet, as a patient, that is precisely what we do not get to do. The doctor’s role is to prise out what is hurting us inside our head. Every scar, every wound, every bad memory safely locked away for good. Talk about our feelings, why we feel the hurt, what troubles us. Our troubles usually start when we do not value ourselves. Why will others value us if we don’t value ourselves, right? Take the baby-steps – treat ourselves with kindness and practise self-respect. If necessary, avoid self-criticism. Don’t call ourselves urghhlings! In our darkest moments, when we are most desperate, it is common to sink to the bottom and stay there. Recently, I discovered it does wonders for our mind and soul when we give, even when we think we cannot afford it. When we give generously, our body secretes oxytocin, a hormone also known as the “cuddle hormone” or the “love hormone”. It is the warm, fuzzy hormone that makes us feel loved and wanted. Maybe it is the natural anti-anxiety drug that we need.
Some of us believe we are equal, created equal. Even if that is so, life is hardly equal. The Gini index clearly shows the harsh reality. Many are still without electricity, running water and security of food supplies. Most are still without 5G whilst some still wonder what the internet is. The Mrs and I were both born in Malaysia. She, from the East and I, from Penang, in the West. The roll of the dice meant hers was a tougher road to travel than mine to get here. West Malaysia had better opportunities, better facilities and more pathways to a tertiary education overseas. She had to dropout early before sheer guts and determination and a kind fate brought her here. Whilst it could be said we shared the same life here, hers was again tougher and much more challenging. White society is less kind to a woman, particularly an Asian with a strong Chinese accent – the combination of which did not hold her well in the automotive business we ran. I suspect the frequent bullying, harassment, intimidation both by shopping centre management and unscrupulous petrol-heads were too much for her to handle. Even the staff made her life miserable. In the early days when we had a business partner, she would come home in tears. Even a business partner who was indebted to us, not just financially, could bully her. The 18 years she worked as a store manager in our business wrecked her emotionally. She was forced into early retirement from her “baby”, our first store in Prospect. Time has flown by so quickly, it was twelve years ago she sat on that chair as Dr. Curtis extracted and expunged the scabs from her life history. Maybe he did not, we are who our lives make us. The Mrs today is a fine, strong and confident woman. Emotionally balanced, she has got her assertiveness back and decidedly imbued with self-belief. I can hear her coming………quick, I am outta here.