3. The day of...

I awoke to the feeling of my thudding heart.  The rate was the same old 55, but it was pounding. 

This may just be the unholy by-product of malaria prophylaxis and the alcohol from last night’s impromptu dinner party, but it likely has something to do with the fact that I’m off for my mission today.  Packed and stoked, I am! First to Berlin for a briefing, and then Amsterdam for another briefing, and then to Chad on the 17th, I think. Nobody’s given me tickets to anywhere except Berlin, so that’s where I’ll go. I feel like the humanitarian equivalent of a sure thing.

“How are you feeling?”

This is the question that I’ve been asked more than any other (yes, there may be a bias here in that lots of my friends are in the psy discplines...). Mostly, I’ve had a bland response. Other than some non-specific giddiness that could just be gas, my feelings haven’t betrayed (until maybe this morning) an imminent six-month trip to do cultural psychiatry in war-torn central Africa. And I have a guess as to why: I’ve got nothing to compare it to. I’ve never worked abroad, nor have I really travelled in Africa. I was born in South Africa, and immigrated to Toronto when I was 3 years old. And despite heading back every summer for about 7 or 8 years, I feel no more than a vague-yet-oddly-meaningful kinship with the place. A white privileged kid in an apartheid nation cannot validly empathise with the whole continent any more that a glass-bowl goldfish can with the open ocean. But more than that, I realise that I’m being careful with my assumptions.

"Are you always analyzing people?" / “Are you analyzing me?”

This is probably the most common question I get when I tell people that I’m a shrink. (The second most common is “Are you serious?” to which I like to answer “Hell, who lies about that?… If I was gonna make something up I’d tell you I was a surgeon.” This doesn’t make things less awkward, but somehow it does make it less weird.) The training for this job is 5 years. That’s 3-4 years of medical school, plus an extra five to specialize. It’s a bloody long haul, and a few ingrained habits are (hopefully) beaten out of you, the most entrenched being the idea that you can know something or someone quickly and surely. Yes, first impressions and intuition are invaluable tools, and you’d be a fool to discard them, but they’re just guesses that more often tell you about yourself than the other. As Anais Nin said: “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” She was clever.

In my view, you gotta listen to a lot before assuming anything to be the case. How many jokes are there about the psychoanalyst who just sits there, like some inert rock, for the first 6 months of therapy, repeating in some nauseating voice: “and how did this make you feel.” The kicker is that despite this being some mix of cliché and farce, it’s a stellar question. It’s the answer to this question that hints at who someone is in the world, and you’d never know otherwise.

When a patient’s partner or parent dies and you say “I’m so sorry for your loss,” it’s more common than you’d think to get a “I’m glad he’s dead… he was an asshole!” in response. Or you congratulate someone for a promotion or accolade, and they only see it as a way for the higher-ups to substitute better pay for some empty title. They’re fuming inside. It simply pays to ask….

Back to Chad. I’ve simply got no clue what it will be like… I have nothing to meaningfully compare it with; I’ve got no ability to empathise with my projections. Just some vague notion of something coming that’s gonna be big. My dreams have some danger, adventure and disorientation, though, so that’s a place to start guessing, for what it’s worth.  In some way, though, I do feel ready.