The following is an excerpt from the novel Making the Rounds: Defying Norms in Love and Medicine.
A requirement of the honors program was that we engage in a research project. David and I chose one together. Animal research was in vogue and ours involved a young spider monkey. We were investigating his kidney function following the administration of a drug. It required putting a catheter in his penis and inserting an intravenous line.
“You do it,” David said, wrinkling his nose and closing his eyes.
My hands shook, and it took too long for me to slip the catheter into him. The monkey squirmed and whimpered, and I grimaced, feeling his pain and terror. By the time we finished putting in the IV, holding him down and trying to ignore his cries, I was in tears.
“I’m never going to hurt an animal in the name of science again,” I told David, whose face also revealed distress. Not all men were indifferent to the suffering of animals.
Afterward, we enjoyed the first of many compensatory prime rib dinners at the Balsam Embers.
Over wine, David asked me, “Do you think animals have souls?”
“Of course they do,” I said, still upset.
When it came time to do my psychiatric rotation that fall, we had a combination of didactics and clinical time with a professor of psychiatry, Dr. Nyla Cole. She was a masculine-looking woman with short-cropped silvery hair and a severe, angular face. Like a vampire, I thought. I found her intimidating, yet I spoke up with my observations of patients, often ahead of my classmates.
At the end of the rotation, she called me into her office for my assessment.
“How do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m doing well,” I answered, never one to downplay my achievements.
“Why do you think you are so competitive?” she pressed.
My shoulders tensed. “How else would I have gotten into medical school?”
To my astonishment, given her butch appearance, she said, “You should soften your manner. Don’t be so aggressive and competitive. It’s very unbecoming for a woman. People won’t like you.”
I didn’t hear the rest. I clenched my jaw, gathered my things, and stormed out of her office. She no doubt admired the same qualities in a man. Why isn’t she helping me to succeed instead of giving me this offensive advice? A couple of decades older than me, she’d likely internalized the misogyny and homophobia even more prevalent in her day…
During our semiweekly phone call, Mom mentioned my father’s behavior had changed. Rather than spending most of the day in bed, he was getting up early and had taken up tennis. He took the bus to the library most days and brought home stacks of books he never read because he could not sit still long enough. He invited my mother to go out dancing which he had not done for years. When Mom passed him the phone, he told me jokes and laughed, filling me with hopeful excitement.
Is Dad crawling out of his chronic depression? Now in his late fifties, I thought I might see the return of the father of my early childhood—at least until the next episode of depression.
Two weeks later, there was a knock at my door. I opened it to find Dad standing there with a big grin. He had no luggage, just a small fanny pack around his waist.
“Hi Dad. I didn’t know you were coming. Come in. Does Mom know you’re here?”
“I took the bus by myself to Luke Air Force Base and flew standby.” He told me he’d gotten a ride from Hill Air Force Base to Salt Lake City, then walked almost four miles, much of it uphill, to my apartment. Stunned, I listened with wide eyes. He talked nonstop, insisting he was finished with doctors and treatments. He described his last residential stay, how he often could not sleep because his roommate brought in prostitutes and was up most of the night having sex.
“Stop, Dad. Take a breath. I need to call Mom.” My surprise had turned to alarm. This was not a return to normal.
On the phone, my mother broke down in tears. “He is making me crazy, up all hours of the night, taking taxis all over town, out dancing, and strange women have been calling the house. I’m worried he will drain our bank account. He is irritable and angry. I’ve called his doctor at the VA, but they do nothing. I’m scared.”
Fresh off my psychiatry rotation, I realized my father’s chronic depression had swung wildly into mania, his brain flooded with excitatory neurotransmitters. This was new.
When I first spoke to his doctor at the Phoenix VA, he resisted my diagnosis of mania. “He is too old to develop mania all of a sudden.”
Lithium had recently been approved in the US for treatment of bipolar disorder. I insisted he prescribe it for my father right away and carefully detailed his behavior.
With the help of one of my professors (not the vampire), I got my father stabilized and on the plane to Phoenix. His doctor at the Phoenix VA relented and put him on lithium.
This was the beginning of my medical advocacy for my parents, the reversal of our roles. Though alarmed by my father’s sudden onset of mania, my ability to handle his illness, to help my parents—instead of being a victim of their difficult circumstances as in childhood—was gratifying. I could not cure my father’s illness, but I was no longer a helpless bystander bobbing in its wake.
About the Author
Patricia Grayhall is a medical doctor and the author of her debut novel Making the Rounds: Defying Norms in Love and Medicine, a memoir about coming out as a lesbian in the late 1960s and training to become a doctor when society disapproved of both for a woman. Patricia chose to write using a pen name to protect the privacy of some of her characters as well as her own. She lives with the love of her life on an island in the Pacific Northwest where she enjoys other people’s dogs, the occasional Orca and black bear, hiking, and wine with friends. For further information visit, www.patriciagrayhall.com.