A Comic In Therapy.

The waiting room has a couch and an armchair and a sideboard carrying a tank with tropical fish. It has a diver in an old fashioned diving suit and bubbles come from its helmet. There is a table in the middle of the room with magazines. The top one is a National Geographic that has lost its cover. Max would like to pick it up but doesn’t because it looks tatty and would reflect on him if someone came in. Instead, he straightens his tie and picks up a copy of ‘Diagnosis Today’ and absently flicks to an article on how quickly a stomach ulcer can turn to cancer and, once it has, how it more than likely will kill you within six months, chemo or no chemo. When he finishes the article, Max puts the magazine down, makes a minor adjustment to his tie, and decides if he ever develops an ulcer that turns into a cancer he will take his own life rather than let something like that kill him. It will be a point of honour and self determination. The tablets in the foil strips of his hypertension medication are marked with the days of the week, with one labelled, ‘Take this first.’ Max always makes sure he takes that one last because no strip of medication is going to dictate to him.

This is Max’s first visit to a psychiatrist. He’s been referred by his general practitioner Dr Bailey, because there’s nothing Dr Bailey can do for Max, Max’s problems in this instance being inside his head, a part of the body alien and somewhat frightening to Dr Bailey. So he’s referred Max to Dr Bachmeier PhD Psy., and this is his first visit.
After putting down the magazine, Max gets up and wanders around the room, touching this and that, and he has a finger in the fish tank when the door of the consultation room opens and a woman comes out, red-eyed and blowing her nose. Clearly she has been crying. Dr Bachmeier, who follows her out, is smiling. He watches her leave, then, still smiling, says to Max, ‘Mr Wilson, please come through.’
Max stands and straightens his tie and says, ‘She didn’t look very happy,’ but Dr Bachmeier doesn’t respond except to stop smiling, perhaps as an indication of forbidden territory being crossed, and Max mentally shrugs and walks through into the consulting room.
Dr Bachmeier makes a gesture that indicates Max should sit on the couch, which he does, and the doctor sits opposite in a padded leather armchair and adjusts his glasses. They settle themselves and Dr Bachmeier takes out a pen, picks up his notepad and flips through to a fresh page and write ‘Max Wilson – Session #1,’ across the top. Then he looks up, smiles at Max and says, ‘So, Mr Wilson…’
Mr Wilson smiles back and the interchange stalls there for a moment until Max, uncomfortable with the silence, says, ‘This is my first time with one of these. How do we work it exactly?’ and the doctor says, ‘Basically we talk,’ and Max says, ‘Right,’ and the doctor continues smiling and Max finally says, ‘About what?’ and the doctor makes a broad gesture and tells him, ‘Anything you like.’ Now there’s another pause through which Dr Bachmeier continues to smile, occasionally adjusting his glasses, until Max says, ‘Right, I think I get it,’ and he straightens his tie and says, ‘So, I guess you’re wondering why I’ve called in here today,’ to which the doctor replies, ‘That would be a good start,’ and Max says, ‘Well, I know who the murderer is.’
Dr Bachmeier stops smiling and frowns instead, until he remembers his patient’s occupation and he says, ‘Ah.’ Although he continues frowning.
Max says, ‘It works best in lift full of strangers. You say – I suppose you’re all wondering why I called you here today.’
‘Do you actually do that?’ the doctor asks, and it’s a genuine question as the doctor finds it impossible to imagine taking such a frivolous risk in front of a group of total strangers, particularly in such a confined space and the consideration causes him to vigorously manipulate his glasses, moving them to different positions on his nose.
Max replies, ‘Of course,’ and the doctor asks, ‘Why?’ and Max tells him, ‘For the laugh I guess.’
‘But what if they don’t laugh?’ Dr Bachmeier asks, the whole concept being so treacherously open to all sorts of disasters the doctor is aghast.
‘They always do.’
‘But what if they don’t?’ The thought is a blood chilling embarrassment to the doctor.
‘But they always do,’ Max says and attends to his tie which has acquired a mind and life of its own as far as Max is concerned and is quite out of control.
‘But how can you be sure?’
‘Because I’m funny. Or I think I used to be. I don’t know now.’
‘I see,’ the doctor says, but Max feels his tone is uncertain and he says, ‘Try it for yourself. Do the lift joke.’
‘What do you mean?’ Dr Bachmeier asks and Max says, ‘Do the lift joke for me,’ and the doctor says, ‘I don’t see the point,’ and Max says, ‘Just do it, you’ll see. I’ll laugh.’
‘No,’ the doctor says and shakes his head. Then, ‘What do I say exactly?’
Max says, ‘I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve called you here today?’ and the doctor straightens in his chair and says stiffly, ‘I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve called you here today?’ and Max says, in flat tones as though he’s working on some sort of auto-pilot, ‘Don’t tell me…you know who the murderer is.’
The doctor looks confused and Max says, ‘Sorry, force of habit. Sorry, try it again,’ and the doctor clears his throat and says, ‘I suppose you’re wondering why you’ve called here today,’ and Max says, ‘Yes I am wondering that,’ and Dr Bachmeier says, ‘Well it’s because I know who did it. The murder,’ and Max because he’s promised, makes a noise that he feels is pretty close to a laugh.
‘Extraordinary,’ says Dr Bachmeier. It’s his first joke.
Max says flatly, ‘You’re a natural,’ and Dr Bachmeier determines he will get himself into a crowded elevator at the first opportunity.

The talk then turns to the actual reason Max has called in today. He tells Dr Bachmeier, ‘I don’t feel right.’
‘In what way don’t you feel right?’
‘I think I may be depressed.’
‘You think you may be depressed. Why?’
‘I don’t feel funny.’
‘In what way don’t you feel funny?’ Dr Bachmeier, who has pretty much never felt funny in his life, is a little confused by this declaration.
‘Well, if you can imagine going through life feeling pretty funny, and then suddenly, one day you don’t feel funny any more, well, kind of like that.’
‘But you’re still making jokes.’
‘Sure,’ Max says, and he checks his tie knot as he explains, ‘I know the stuff’s inherently funny, because people laugh, but to me now, I just don’t see it.’
‘Could you give me an example? Can you tell me something funny that you don’t think is funny?’ the doctor asks and Max says, ‘Sure. Here’s one that should be right up your alley, as the bishop said to the actress,’ and Dr Bachmeier nods. He has a look of serious concentration.
Mr Wilson continues, ‘Freud and Jung are at a psychiatrists’ convention in Vienna in 1903 and they’re talking in the foyer when suddenly Freud turns to Jung and says, “Dear God Jung, did you just fart?” to which Jung replies, “Of course I did. Do you think I smell like this all the time?” ’
‘Ah, Freud,’ Dr Bachmeier says in a slightly dreamy tone. ‘One of the greatest minds the twentieth century ever threw up. And dear Jung of course.’
‘But was if funny?’ Max asks, to which the doctor replies, still in a slightly dreamy state, ‘Freud and Jung? Funny? I don’t think so Mr Wilson. Such great men. Such great minds.’
Mr Wilson tries once more with a joke in which Freud and Jung are talking with Mrs Schmidt. He says, ‘Freud and Jung are talking to Mrs Schmidt when Freud says to Jung, “Gott Himmel Jung, did you just fart in front of Mrs Schmidt,” whereupon Jung replies, “I’m terribly sorry, I did not realise it was her turn.” ‘
The doctor looks confused and asks, ‘Where did Mrs Schmidt come from?’ and Mr Wilson, beginning to see the futility of the exercise, flops back into his seat and says dispiritedly, ‘I don’t know doctor. Where do you think she came from?’ He feels his tie may have slipped but he doesn’t touch it as, in this situation, he’s beginning not to care.
In answer to Max’s question about Mrs Schmidt, Dr Bachmeier says, ‘I don’t know. Was she the wife of one of the other psychiatrists? I’m assuming it’s still 1903 and they’re still at the Vienna Psychiatric convention.’
Here Mr Wilson abandons Freud and Jung altogether and says, ‘It’s not the point. The point is, I don’t find the joke funny.’
‘Neither do I,’ confesses Dr Bachmeier. ‘And I don’t understand why you’ve brought Mrs Schmidt into it.’
Mr Wilson is back to adjusting his tie now and he tightens the knot, then, finding it uncomfortable, loosens it again. He says, ‘The reason I’ve come here is because I think I’m depressed and Dr Bailey says he can’t help me.’
‘What did Dr Bailey say, exactly?’
‘He said he couldn’t help me.’ Mr Wilson looks at his watch. He has forty-five more minutes of this and he readjusts his tie in preparation and continues, ‘I said to him, “Isn’t there some kind of medication?” and he said, “Yes.” ‘ Max leans forward slightly and says, ‘Do you know Dr Bailey at all?’ and Dr Bachmeier says. ‘Yes, I do actually,’ and he fiddles with his glasses.
Max continues, ‘It’s like pulling teeth. I said, “Yes, but…” and he said, “Yes but I’m not giving it to you.” ‘ I said, “Why?” and he said, “Because I’m sending you to Dr Bachmeier instead.” I said, “Wouldn’t it be easier to just give me the pills?” and he said, “Definitely.” He’s a funny man, Dr Bailey. I asked him, ‘Why don’t you just give them to me?’ It seemed to set off his twitch. He’s got this nervous facial twitch. He looks like a demented winker. He said, ‘Because you have to see Dr Bachmeier?” and he left the room and didn’t come back. I waited, but he didn’t come back. I took three of his pens and a prescription pad.‘
Max pulls at his tie and Dr Bachmeier pushes his glasses higher on his nose and says, ‘Did Dr Bailey say anything else?’
‘Probably, I can’t remember. He didn’t say goodbye. I asked his receptionist if he often disappeared like that. She said not often. Then she asked for the prescription pad back. How do they know that stuff, receptionists. Anyway, even not often is still a little odd though, don’t you think?’
Dr Bachmeier jots a note on his pad and Max says, ‘So, are you going to give me the pills?’
Dr Bachmeier says, ‘He didn’t say anything about me? Anything at all?’ and Max tells him, ‘He wrote out the referral and said, “Give this to Dr Bachmeier.” Then he got up and walked out. That’s about it‘
Dr Bachmeier makes another note and Max asks again, ‘So, are you going to give me the pills?’ and Dr Bachmeier tells him, ‘Possibly,’ and Max asks, ‘Out of a hundred, how possibly?’
Dr Bachmeier ignores this and asks him, ‘During the times when you think you might be depressed, what does it feel like?’
Max thinks, then says, ‘It’s like…do you know the joke about the two psychiatrists trying to start some sort of a machine?’ Dr Bachmeier doesn’t know the joke and Max tells him, ‘They’re trying to start this machine and one psychiatrist reads, “To start machine, depress the red button,” and the second psychiatrist tells the red button it’s worthless and stupid and will never amount to anything.’
Dr Bachmeier stiffens and says, ‘A psychiatrist would never say that.’
‘He’s talking to a red button,’ Max tells him.
‘Still…’ Dr Bachmeier says and Max abandons the joke, saying, ‘Okay, it’s like I’m in the middle of a heavy black fog and there’s no point to anything and nothing’s funny. And the thing is, and this is how bad it’s getting, now, even when the black fog’s not there, it’s still like nothing’s funny.’
Dr Bachmeier tries to think whether things not being funny would ever effect him at all but, in the way that saying the same word over and over again can make it become meaningless, the idea of things being or not being funny has become spongy and elusive for the doctor. He covers this by pushing at his glasses and asking, ‘How important is it to you that some things are funny?’
Max pulls at his tie and says, ‘I’m a comic, I write my own material. I do a lot of TV, late show spots. TV rips through material like a diesel thresher. I can’t write any more. I write something, I don’t know if it’s funny, I chuck it out. I could be throwing away solid gold, but you see, I don’t know any more. I can’t tell. I haven’t written anything funny for months. Or maybe I have and I’ve thrown it away. I’m just doing old material now. I don’t know how long I can get away with it.’
Dr Bachmeier says, ‘Hmmm…’ and taps his pad with his pen.
Max says, ‘So, about the pills…’
The doctor says, ‘There’s a lot of ground to cover before we begin looking at medication. Analysis, therapy, it all takes time. Medication is a long way off yet Mr Wilson.’
‘How long away?’ Mr Wilson wants to know. ‘My career’s being held for ransom here doctor. Couldn’t you give me the pills and then we do the analysis later.’
‘No,’ the doctor tells him and Max asks, ‘Why?’ and the doctor says, ‘Because, basically, that’s not the way it works.’
Max sighs and thinks about re-setting his tie, and Dr Bachmeier takes off his glasses, which have become smudged with all the touching and fiddling, and cleans them. Squinting at Mr Wilson he asks, ‘So, do you feel depressed now? At this very moment?’
Mr Wilson says, ‘I’m starting to,’ then, realising what he just said he asks, ‘Was that funny?’
Dr Bachmeier says, ‘Depression is never funny. That’s why it’s called depression,’ and Max adds, ‘Instead of being called “laughing all the time.” ‘
Dr Bachmeier puts his glasses back on and adjusts their position, saying, ‘So, what does it feel like, now that you’re slipping down into depression? Can you describe it for me?’
Max says, ‘It’s like my brain’s let itself go and it’s stopped shaving and washing and eating properly and it’s been living on pork rinds and ice cream for the last six months. Or if you can imagine one of those homeless people and they’ve been sleeping in the street, probably since the mid nineties, and they stink and they’re drunk on methylated spirits and a group of skinheads has been systematically kicking the crap out of them, pretty much on a daily basis, probably out of boredom. Well, like that homeless guy. Possibly worse. Maybe the guy’s got hepatitis as well. Or cancer. Maybe both. And crabs. Pubic lice, and we may as well throw in gonorrhoea as well.’ He’s about to go on but Dr Bachmeier holds up his hand as he’s trying to get down every detail. He adjusts his glasses then goes back to writing. When he’s caught up he looks up and says, ‘Yes, go on.’
Max pushes up his tie knot and wiggles it and says, ‘That’s about it really. Homeless person, no washing, metho, skinheads and kicking, VD, cancer, pubic lice.’
Right,’ says Dr Bachmeier and he waits in case there’s something else Max may want to add, which, from the silence, it appears there isn’t, but he asks anyway. ‘There’s nothing else you’d like to add?’ at which Max looks at the ceiling, counting off points on his fingers, ‘Homeless, no washing, methylated spirits, skinheads, kicking, VD, cancer, pubic lice. Nope, that’s about it.’
‘Right,’ says Dr Bachmeier and he flips to a fresh page and writes, occasionally adjusting his glasses, while Max sits back in his chair and fills the time adjusting his tie.
When he’s finished his notes, the doctor puts down his pad and pen and, clearing his throat and attempting a look of nonchalant disinterest says, ‘And Dr Bailey didn’t say anything about me?’
Max says, ‘No,’ and the doctor checks him for evidence of lying but Max is looking down, his chin tucked into his chest, fiddling with his tie knot which constant adjusting has gotten into a mess so it’s a lengthy operation this time and Dr Bachmeier is forced to say his name to get his attention. He says, ‘Mr Wilson,’ and Max looks up and the doctor asks again, ‘So, Dr Bailey didn’t say anything about me?’ and Max tells him, ‘No,’ and Dr Bachmeier narrows his eyes and looks hard but there’s nothing in Max’s face so he’s reluctantly forced to take him at his word.
The doctor checks his watch and, standing, says, ‘Well, that brings us to the end of our session for today, Mr Wilson. Shall I pencil you in for the same time next week?’
Standing, Max says, ‘I don’t know. I had hoped you were going to give me tablets. That’s what Dr Bailey led me to believe.’
‘Did he tell you that?’
‘He hinted at it.’
‘Hinted at it…’ The doctor has adopted an airy tone which is intended to put Mr Wilson off his guard. It is an interrogation technique, derived from the good-cop-bad-cop routine, but where the one person plays both roles. It’s called good-psychiatrist, bad-psychiatrist. ‘Hinted at it…’ he says again dreamily, leading Mr Wilson to the door. ‘Hinted at it…’ but at the last minute he suddenly switches from good-psychiatrist to bad-psychiatrist and he says in his most forceful, formidable tone, ‘And what did Dr Bailey say about my unusual habit?’
Max looks at him for a moment. Dr Bailey has said nothing to him about any unusual habits Dr Bachmeier may have. As he tries to form a response, something suddenly seems to turn over and he feels an area of his brain twitch and begin to open up. Words begin forming and he feels a warm tingle rush over him as he says, ‘He told me you’re a bit unusual around sheep. Sometimes around pigs as well, but mainly, if you’re going to be unusual, you’ll be unusual around sheep.’ Max finds this funny but he stifles the laugh, obeying the first rule of the dry comic – never laugh at your own jokes. He wonders if somehow Dr Bachmeier has managed to cure him.
‘Right,’ says Dr Bachmeier. He’s relieved as clearly Dr Bailey has thrown Max a decoy to put him off the scent, but he decides to fish a little deeper, just in case and asks, ‘That was all?’
Max is experimenting now, slowly flexing flabby comedic muscles. He says, ‘That’s not enough, with the sheep and the pigs?’
‘I was just curious,’ says Dr Bachmeier. ‘Dr Bailey and I have…ah…what shall we say…a connection.’
Max isn’t really listening now. His focus at this moment is more internal. As an experiment he’s trying to make up a joke about psychiatrists. After a moment he says, ‘A man walks into a psychiatrists office and all he’s got on is some cling-film wrapped around him.’ Max makes motions to indicate he has cling-film wrapped around his genital area. ‘The psychiatrist says to him, “Sir, I can clearly see you’re nuts.” ‘ Max finds this incredibly amusing and he looks around the office for inspiration for something else funny.
For the moment irritation overcomes fears of any disclosures Dr Bailey may have let slip and Dr Bachmeier says irritably, ‘We never tell patients they’re nuts, even though in the main they are, clearly, or they wouldn’t be seeking psychiatric help. Telling them the truth would only reinforce the thing and make them even more…’ but here, overcome by the absurd and infuriating level of ignorance shown by the general public towards mental illness, the doctor flounders and is reduced to ending the sentence with, ‘…nuts.’ Shaking his head, Dr Bachmeier says bitterly, ‘You should be careful with remarks like that Mr Wilson, particularly seeing you’re…’ and here the doctor puts his head on its side, narrows his eyes and hisses, ‘nuts yourself.’ He opens the door and leads Max through.
Good afternoon, Mr Wilson,’ he says sternly.
Max, however, is seeing jokes everywhere now and finding them all quite hilarious. He says, ‘Doctor, if you’re treating someone with a split personality, does Medicare cover both of them?’
‘Of course,’ Dr Bachmeier tells him irritably.
Max laughs, claps the doctor on the shoulder and turns towards the front door. Clasping the handle, he looks around and says, ‘You’ve been extraordinarily helpful, Dr Bachmeier. Seriously. Perhaps you could look at my brother if I can get a referral from Dr Bailey.’
‘Of course,’ says Dr Bachmeier. ‘Depression as well is it?’
‘No, he thinks he’s a dog.’
‘Seriously?’ Dr Bachmeier’s interest is starting to become tickled. ‘How old is your brother?’ he asks.
Max says, ‘In human years or dog years?’
‘Human years,’ the doctor says and Max tells him, forty-nine,’ adding, ‘That’s seven in dog years.’
‘And how long has he been suffering this delusion?’ the doctor asks.
‘Since he was a pup,’ Max tells him and he takes off his tie and undoes his top button. The doctor says, ‘Hmmm…interesting…’ and vigorously adjusts his glasses in anticipation of his new patient.