Car Wash psychiatrist
So I’m at the carwash. My car was a little dirty, and I like to keep it clean, preserve that new car scent. I’m no stranger to this place and I know my mission is the inside-out wash and hand wax. Actually, my mission is to manage to sit through it; I’ve been exiled to the waiting area for two hours. Two freaking hours! It’s a Saturday…don’t all these people have better things to do? As I sit down, my mind roams my subconscious, and I realize that the carwash is one of the few errands that I actually do myself. Thankfully, my amazing wife Debbie handles all the errands and other household stuff with great aplomb; good thing too, because waiting anywhere, for anything, transforms me into a sixteen year old with severe, untreated ADHD. I look at my watch. That little self exploration on errands took a whole 1 minute, 48 seconds. As I continue to sit, bored out of my freaking mind, I look at the other poor saps waiting with me. Most are on their phones, probably ‘gramming about being bored AF at the carwash, and in my best UK-accented-newscaster-voice-in-my-head, I have a running commentary going on about how this is what modern society has come to. About how there’s really very little reason for us to leave our homes, how we can order everything online for delivery and blah, blah, blah, I’d talked about all of that so many times that even I couldn’t take any more of it. Time check, 11 minutes, 22 seconds gone. Insert long loud sigh here…
I started watching people getting out of their cars and handing over their keys- I noted what they were wearing and how they carried themselves, how they reacted to the news that they’d be imprisoned here for more than two hours- and I thought this was a great example of how the vehicles we each choose to drive say something about us. They project a mindset or act as a status symbol. The hippie girl in the Prius, the midlife crisis dude in the Corvette, the family man in the Tahoe wrestling with the kid’s car seat. Watching him get red faced and frustrated with it reminded me of all the crap you have to bring with you for an outing with a baby. I remember it being like preparing for a paramilitary exercise. That’s probably why God made babies so cute…to help you overlook what a pain it is to do anything with them. It’s so much easier when they get older and you can just throw ‘em in the car and go. Those days were long gone for me. Man, tempus fugit! Am I old? Do people who people-watch me see me as old? I don’t feel old. Hmm. As I pondered this disturbing thought, a big bronze Hummer drove up and a dude got out. This guy was destined by God to drive a Hummer. He was a little over six feet tall. From what I could see, his appearance was pretty average, save for one attribute…he was built, huge. Like a freaking mountain. His head was perched atop a neck that was the girth of an old banyon tree trunk, with his trapezoid muscles as the roots on either side. When he came into the waiting area, everyone looked at him. This guy needed a theme song to follow him as he moved. I got the feeling he was used to turning heads. There weren’t many free seats, but two of them flanked me, and he took the one to my left, dwarfing the chair as he sat. I glanced at my watch. Only 20 minutes 3 seconds gone; a lot of time left to be insanely, hopelessly, mercilessly, miserably bored….
I don’t usually hit people up in public, but when a giant sits right next to you in a confined space, it is more awkward to ignore them than it is to start a conversation. God knew I had the time, so I turned to acknowledge him, saying, “Hi, you clearly spend a lot of time working out. What do you do? Are you a personal trainer?” Even as I asked, I was assessing him….occupational hazard. He was in his very early thirties and had short blondish hair that was thinning and balding, kind of oily broken-out skin with little deep red pimples, and maybe a day’s worth of stubble on his chin. He was wearing cargo shorts and a tank top that didn’t cover much of his expansive chest, with muscle bound arms attached to broad shoulders. I noticed that he had the same acne on his back, shoulders and chest as he had on his face. With these signs, it took me all of 3 milliseconds to conclude that this dude used a lot of anabolic steroids. To my questions, he answered with a smile “I spend so much time at the gym that I probably should be a trainer, but I’m actually a police officer. My name is Roger. What do you do?” With that, he extended his hand. As I shook it, I said, “My name is Mark Agresti. I’m a psychiatrist. My office is on the island.” I’m always a little reluctant to tell people what I do because I know where it’s usually going next, but as we exchanged some social pleasantries, I learned that he wasn’t from Florida, that his family has a vacation house here on the island and he’s down because he’s really just been overwhelmed lately, he’s had some family drama and wanted to get away. More often than not, this is what happens when I tell people what I do…It’s like I’ve issued an invitation for a free session. So here’s the dilemma: he’s laid it all out that he’s troubled, having family issues, so do I ask what’s troubling him or do I not? Time check, 35 minutes, 12 seconds gone. I’d be bored to tears without this exchange, so it’s a pretty good time to hit me up for advice and to ask me questions, so we kept talking. Before too long, the topic of weight lifting and bodybuilding came up, I mean duh, it had to happen. I felt pathetic talking to Lou freaking Forrigno the Incredible Hulk about my workout routine, but I told him I lift weights and work out, that I run to and from the gym everyday, about five miles. Then apropos of nothing, he says “I’m on steroids.” and I’m thinking like well, yeah, duh, but instead I said, “You look really muscular.” At that point he said, “Yeah, but I’m a little upset because now I’m growing tits.” People tend to unburden themselves in conversations like these, even though they aren’t patients so there is no expectation of cofidentiality. I replied simply, “That’s to be expected; taking testosterone makes dudes grow tits.” He bravely forged on, saying that his scrotal sack has shrunk and oh by the way, that he’s now impotent. He said it like ‘Nice day today, wish I could get it up!’ like BOOM! Knowledge bomb! I could clearly see that this dude had more issues than National Geographic, but he’s not a patient and this is obvi not my office, it is a carwash. I didn’t want to get too deep with him. He didn’t share that reservation, and he continued on, telling me that he has been depressed lately. Now, I could’ve just made some non-committal comment and shut him, and the conversation, down, but then again….time check: only 49 minutes, 5 seconds gone. So I said, “Steroids are a bad idea. They are without a doubt the root cause of all of the issues you’re having.” To this he replied, “Oh, I know you’re right. I know all about it, but I can’t stop. I like the juice, the rush of it.” I thought to myself, in for a penny, in for a pound, and I dove in. I said, “Look, me, moi, if it caused impotence, if it in any way affected my drive or ability to have sex, I wouldn’t take it. I mean, if something turned my nuts into raisins, I’d avoid that something like the plague. But that’s just me.” He laughed, and flexing his arm to pop his biceps, he asked, “Not even for these?” I replied, pointing at my lap, “Nope, I’d rather have this.”
Now, you would think that there was no way this conversation could get deeper or more personal, but you’d be wrong. The saying goes that you shouldn’t discuss religion or politics in polite society, but evidently Roger had never heard that saying. He proceeds to tell me that he’s a Christian; he was raised in a Christian home, went to a Christian college, he’s very active in his church, that it’s the focal point of his life. Now, as I said before, when I tell people I’m a psychiatrist, most invite themselves to an on-the-spot free session. The flip side of that coin is that it’s almost like my profession is a free pass for me to find out what’s going on with virtually anyone, anytime- I can choose anyone I want, and I’m able to just walk up and say, “Hello, Dr. Mark Agresti. I’m a psychiatrist. What’s up? What’s going on in your life?” It’s a strange thing. I’ve been a psychiatrist for a long time, since 1988, so 31, almost 32 years I guess. Anyway, at this point in my conversation with Roger, I basically said ‘What’s up?’ At least metaphorically, anyway. I was now invested. So Roger is a Christian and his faith is of utmost importance to him, but he’d said he had problems lately. So I’m thinking okay, maybe he’s got a girlfriend, maybe she’s married or something. Or, being a big muscular cop, maybe it’s a brutality thing, he got into a fight and beat someone up. Or maybe he took a bribe, or he has a drinking problem or he’s addicted to drugs. But I was floored with the real problem. He began, “My father…..” He told me his father’s name, and it turns out that he’s a fairly well-known individual in politics, a highly respected pillar of his community. I won’t say his name or what he was and where; it doesn’t matter for the story anyway. He tells me that one month ago, his father sat him and his sister down and told them that after 36 years of marriage, he was leaving their mother. He had filed the divorce papers a few months ago and expected it would be finalized in the next few weeks. I said, “That’s a shame…” and then stuck my foot in my mouth, asking my assumption, “…Girlfriend?” With a wry chuckle, he said, “Nope. Boyfriend. My father came out of the closet; he told us he was gay and that he’s going to move in with his lover. Then he said he was sorry, and told us what for, then begged us to not say a word of it to anyone.” Shocked, I said, “Wow, that’s pretty intense.” He said, “Yeah. My entire life has been fake. Everything up until now, the relationship I thought they had, the family I thought we had, growing up in the church in a normal American family. My father as a well-known political figure, lying to the constituents, all the people who made him. All these years, I thought that my life was one thing, and now I find out it’s another thing, all fake. Like gold plated bullshit.” I was lucky enough to have been born into a family that had never seen a divorce for generations, since it’s inception really. But I imagine that divorce would shake anyone to the core, regardless of how old they may be at the time it happens. I mean, your parents are always your parents, and you want the nest to always be there, even if you’re no longer living in it. All I could say was, “Man, that’s pretty rough.” He went on to say that with this new perspective of his father being gay, he’s reliving his entire life, reviewing every moment of it for clues, trying to understand if he should have, or even could have possibly seen that his father was gay. He used his father’s admission like a prism, and looking at his life through it, things started to slowly fall into place and make sense. He saw the reason that his father was always working so much, why he had a separate apartment in town and only came home on weekends, and why when he was little his mother used to cry a lot, but how her tears had dried the older he got and eventually just stopped falling. It all started to make sense to him. He came to believe that every part of his childhood, everything he did with his father, and therefore with his mother, was counterfeit, tinged with deceit. He told me that now things are very awkward with his father, because he’s realizing that he doesn’t know who his father really is anymore, and this new revelation of him being gay and moving in with a man he didn’t know anything about is super awkward. On the flip side, he feels deep sadness, because he realizes that his father had lived most of his life as a lie; he had sacrificed his wants and squelched his true desire to be with men, instead exchanging it for a false life, presumably out of love for his children and even for his wife. It was a lie of a life built of love and guilt and regret….a tangled mess. So Roger felt sorry for his father and for his mother, but for very different reasons. Despite feeling sorry for his father, he also felt angry. Regardless of his motivation, everything his father did was total manipulation. He was a practiced liar. He lied to his mother, he lied to his sister, and he lied to him. His feelings toward his father were complicated, but not mutually exclusive. He was angry at him for being a liar, but he sympathized with him at the same time, because he thought his father’s motives were pure. It was a mixed bag to be sure.
To further complicate matters, his father was also prominent in the church, and their position has always been, and likely will always be, quite clear: homosexuality is unacceptable. But divorce? That’s okay. Ironic, right? Anyway, the family had to disclose the pending divorce and carefully craft the “reasons” behind it, and that was of course a very sticky wicket. Ultimately, fearing a news leak in the parish as to the full truth of the matter, they decided to leave their church. Leaving that church vacated a huge component of Roger’s life, and ultimately left him questioning his Christian values. Those values are intolerant of being gay, and they disallow homosexual relationships, the type his father is in, so if he supports his father, it’s in direct conflict with the Christian values of the church, a church in which he had always placed his faith. All of this left Roger very confused, and rightfully, it was very upsetting to him. He told me, “On one hand, I feel like I can’t really trust my father ever again. On the other hand, he’s always been a good father; he put me through college, he supported my choice to go into law enforcement, and he helped me become the man I am today. But, my mom was amazing, too. She baked cookies, kissed boo boos, packed lunches, drove my sis and I to soccer, boyscouts and dance, and made our house a home. And she was so hurt by his affair, gay or not. It destroyed her, and that pissed me off. It still pisses me off. She was totally devoted to him, and he repaid her by cheating and lying.” I could see his point. Not only did he have to deal with his feelings about his dad and the family strife, but he also had an obligation to help his poor mother heal from them as well. She was leaning on him and his sister a lot as they all tried to get over it in their own way. And the more his mom leaned on him, the more resentful he became of his father. It was unfair to his father, but it was impossible for him to stay objective when his mother was so needy, holding sway over him. When he finally asked me, “So, what do you think, doc?” I paused to formulate my response, how to couch it, if to couch it. I went with the direct approach, saying, “Well, the whole resentment thing will not work. It will not serve anyone. Whatever has happened, has happened. You can only look forward to what is ahead. The only way you will find any peace is to forgive your father and accept his choice to love whomever he loves. And you may not like this, but bear in mind that your mother must’ve known. This situation is not solely your father’s fault, and he should not get all of the blame. Your mother has some degree of complicity as well; some responsibility falls on her head. I know it probably sounds bizarre to you, but at some level she knew, and I think she was part of the big lie, the cover-up. I watched his face as he took that on board, then realization dawned. He said, “You know, thinking about it now, I think I remember something about a letter he wrote her many years ago, when my sis and I were just kids. There was a big blow out fight because mom found a videotape in the house. I never saw it, but now I assume it was gay porn. She was angry, I think maybe because it wasn’t well concealed, my sister and I could’ve found it and taken it or told somebody, something to that effect. I think he wrote a letter to her apologizing and saying he was scared because he thought he might be gay. It was a big fight, but it blew over; it seemed the coast was clear as far as us kids were concerned. Barely a blip on the radar.” I had to call him on that, and I said, “I’m sure there were other signs, other pieces of the puzzle, you just weren’t aware of them. It wasn’t just one letter that was the be all, end all. There are some issues between a man and woman in their marriage that are hidden beneath the surface, yet they bring to light facts that both, for their own reasons, would prefer to remain in the dark. The husband being gay is most definitely one of those kinds of facts. I’m certain that both of your parents knew the fact, but one of them, your mother, wanted to deny it, so she shoved it deep down into a dusty corner of her brain. So both were complicit in making and keeping it a secret. Your father finally could not, or would not continue the lie, and when he took a stand and told your mother that he was gay, wanted a divorce, and was moving in with his lover, the truth shattered your mother’s denial. But on some level, whether he had told her or not, somewhere deep down, she always knew he was gay. There’s a level of intimacy and sexuality that a gay man cannot reach being with a woman, and I’m sure that a woman would pick up on it. Women’s intuition is legendary, not cliche or an old wive’s tale. Regardless, it takes two to tango. It was a marriage and both played their parts. Although he did lie, you can’t place all the blame on your father, just as you can’t place it all on your mother. But for the sake of your own serenity, hold them both accountable, accept them, warts and all, and then forgive them both. That’s your only path to peace, man.” Roger had been nodding periodically as I went through all of this, and now when I finished, he said, “You know, I get it. I think you’re right on all counts. I’ve been racking my brain, trying to divide up the blame, like dad gets 90%, mom gets 10%; then I think, well, maybe I’m being too hard on dad, so I decrease his and increase mom’s. I’ve literally been doing that in my head, and I think it’s been driving me crazy. Like I’m the freaking blame police, parceling it out and assigning it to one or the other. So stupid and pointless! From now on, I’m not going to blame either one or be angry at either one. Nobody’s perfect nor blameless and I have to concentrate on the future and my relationship with them.” Happy that he got the idea, I said, “That’s a good start. You should make the effort to repair your relationship with your father. You must first accept his choice to love someone other than your mom, then accept that it happens to be a man. It will be awkward at first, but your love for him needs to outweigh the awkwardness. When you feel less awkward, he will too, and eventually it will all dissolve with time. Make the decision to forgive both your parents, and with time and patience, your relationships will grow together and be stronger than ever. Anger, resentment, shame, guilt, culpability, blaming this one, blaming that one, it doesn’t help at the end of the day. It’s just a mind screw.” He said, “I totally get it. I walked in here blaming my dad for everything, sure I was right about it, with no solution or path to move forward. You turned everything on its ear and made me see it all in a different light, and you gave me suggestions for how to move forward with my family. And for the first time since this all started, I feel hopeful when I think about my relationship with my dad, instead of feeling anxious, with my stomach in knots like I’m going to puke.” As he clapped me on the shoulder with one hand and shook my hand with the other, he said, “I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders, and I am so grateful to you for that. To be honest, I never would’ve actually thought to see a psychiatrist for the things that happened with my family and the way I felt about it, but you’ve changed my mind on that too. I see why people come to you….it’s really cool to talk things through and hear an objective point of view.”
Just then, the carwash announcer guy shouted “Agresti!” I said, “Here!” as I stood up. I extended my hand to Roger and told him it was good to meet him. He shook my hand and said, “Thanks again, doc.” I went outside to my inside-out washed and hand waxed vehicle and I got in, inhaling the new car scent. As I drove out, I caught a glimpse of my watch: 77 minutes, 46 seconds. That’s how long it had been since I’d last checked my watch.…. I’d spent all of that time speaking to Roger, and I didn’t regret a single second of being a carwash psychiatrist. That’s the whole story, nuts (or raisins) and all.