I sit in my classic white lab-coat clutching a pen and a pad, entombed by the shelter of my desk. She sits twiddling her thumbs opposite me. She looks up at me over the landscape of my desk knitting her fingers into shapes unknown.
“Start from the very beginning”, I flash an encouraging smile. The seconds tick by. In our profession we are taught to gently prod the patient and never to coerce them. “They pay you for your time, listen attentively”, they would say. Every psychiatrist will probably carry this old saying to her grave.
“It all started in the fourth month when he came home one evening from work”, she begins with a stammer. “He seemed to have had a bad day and we got into a fight over something so inconsequential, I cannot even remember anymore. When our argument seemed to be reaching no conclusion, he gingerly shoved me into the cupboard. When I yelled at him to stop, he turned around and hit me across my face”
Her deep, dark secret out in the open, she looks up at me for any signs of shock, maybe even disgust. “ Was this followed by many other such incidents?” I ask calmly.
“Again after a month. Drunkenly, his strong hands grabbed hold of my waist and pulled me close enough to growl at me in my face. When I refused to back down, it was followed by the same fate” she continues more confidently.
I stare at her, my face impassive. ‘Medicine is an art of observation’, my mind chants. Her choice of adjectives, her entire demeanor- it dawns upon me that she might actually enjoy it, might even derive pleasure from it. Yet,if that were true, she surely would not be seeking help for it, would she?
“Was this the first man who treated you this way? Maybe you were witness to this before in your past?” I ask. Carefully gauging her every expression, I try to decipher why there was more reverence than disgust in her voice when she speaks of him.
“My father used to hit my mother” she begins slowly. “At first, it used to be only when he used to lose at chess and was in an inebriated state. Then, it began to happen more often. My mother’s cries stayed with me through my adolescence and into adulthood. They reverberated off my college dorm and the images haunted my every dream. I promised myself that I would never allow myself to be a victim of the same. Yet, now, in the face of love, stuck in my very own limbo, I cannot seem to leave” she finally looks up from her fingers. Her half bitten fingernails seem meek compared to the injuries sustained to her soul.
She is trying to seek approval more than an escape route. She just wants a logical explanation for her behavior. She’s completely at crossroads with herself- one path is her logic and her sense of reason, the lessons of what we are taught right and wrong is. And the other denotes who she is beginning to realize she really is. It occurs to me that this is what she wants. The thought of being dominated over is not as repulsive to her as she once assumed it would be. She’s looking at me in all her confusion and her most heightened sense is, her sense of guilt. Her guilt at how gratifying she finds it. I slowly begin to unravel that the only thing that brings her to my office is society’s opinion on how it should be. Maybe she whispered her woes into the wrong ears and they absolutely insisted that she seek help immediately.
So how exactly does one explain this? We live in a time where every billboard, every speech or school play is preaching women empowerment. Yet, she stands as a lone exception, clothed in her own definition of oppression. Was she just a patient of Stockholm syndrome or maybe just a victim of her own deluded ideals of self worth? Is it an absurd idea to enjoy your captivity, to feed off the drama? We could pin this on the demons of her childhood, throw her into the basket we reserve for damaged goods. However, we cannot ignore the fact that people like her still exist.
So now what? Does this make her mentally ill? Or even completely bonkers? Where we see freedom, she sees a long lonely stretch of land. Where we see equality in love, she seeks to be the submissive.
The chiming of the clock interrupts my thoughts. I watch her silhouette pass through the swiveling doors. The sound of her retreating footsteps takes her story with her. They bring the reality of how during the hour, she has managed to teach me more about life than I could have ever taught her.