Hershey, Pennsylvania, United States
Janus. Original work by Dahlia Mukherjee
I was walking back home from school with my friend. It was a typical gloomy English day with the grey clouds swirling menacingly on top of us threatening rain. We were excitedly talking about my friend’s birthday party next Saturday in her backyard. “I can’t wait to be at your party!” I squealed. Jumping up and down I look at my friend, anticipating equally overzealous approval. She turned her lovely, friendly, white, now red face towards me and whispers, “Oh you can’t come—my parents don’t allow brown people in our house.”
“Hey, Dahlia, Macy is all yours.” Fast forward several years, and I am now a clinical psychology intern. I grimace. I have no reason to, because if I play my cards right I would still have time to grab lunch from the cafeteria and eat while finishing my notes.
“What’s she in for?” I ask.
“Sounds like a manic episode. She was found shouting on the streets. But don’t worry, she is stable now.”
I drag myself out of the worn chair and walk down the harshly lit corridor, passing the nurses station, and reach her room. I knock loudly on the blue door before stepping in without waiting for an answer. Before I could even see the patient, I am overwhelmed with the stench of homelessness. I instinctively cover my nose and mouth with my hand and hold my breath for a few seconds. I grit my teeth and march into the room. I could see the outline of Macy under a thin white bedsheet. Her back is facing me but her uneven breathing gives away that she is not asleep.
“Good morning, Macy, how are you this morning?”
I remain standing with my back against the white wall. I see Macy’s back stiffen against the bedsheet as I wait for her reply. She slowly gets up and turns around to look at me. Her wide-open eyes look at me and suspiciously ask, “Who are you?”
I notice that her front teeth are missing as she tries to flick her disheveled black hair from her face.
“I am Dr. Mukherjee, a psychology intern, and am here to help you.” I intentionally make the British accent more pronounced when using my “professional” voice. For some ridiculous reason probably rooted in unconscious colonialism, I think it makes people take me more seriously.
Macy probably detects the discrepancy between my name, skin color, and the accent and pointedly asks “Where are you from?”
I feel the hackles rise on my neck and I swallow the momentary hostility I feel. “What nerve! She is hardly in any position to judge me.” But I cover that with a spritely “How is that relevant? Tell me about yourself.”
She doesn’t pay attention and bluntly asks, “Are you from England?”
Taken aback, I blurt, “Yes, I spent some years in England as a child.”
“Do you read?”
She swings her legs to get out of the unkempt, white sheet ridden bed. I take a step back apprehensively, wondering whether her sudden animation is the initial symptom of an impending manic episode. I am also insulted by her question.
“Well of course I do!” I think. Instead I retort with, “Yes, do you?”
I instinctively regret asking that question, thinking it insensitive of me to ask a homeless, Black woman whether she reads or not.
“Uhh huh,” immediately followed with a, “Do you like British literature?”
“Ok this is getting out of hand.” But curiosity gets the better of me and instead of changing the topic and taking charge, I cave. “Yes. I love British literature.”
Macy’s black luminous eyes light up. “Who are your favorites?
“You wouldn’t know them,” is my instant unadulterated thought. But the polite me responds with “Well. Dickens, the Bronte sisters.”
“I love the Bronte sisters!” squeals Macy.
Skeptical me continues to clinically appraise her for mania, pressured speech, grandiosity—the typical symptoms of a manic episode.
“Next she’s going to tell me she and the Bronte sisters are siblings!” Outwardly, polite me: “You do? Do you have a favorite book?”
Macy says, “Yes!”
Polite me: “Which one?”
She answers, “Jane Eyre.”
The cynicism vanishes and my disparate selves merge into one excited whole as I finally believe Macy. “Oh my goodness! That’s my favorite too! I love it.”
Macy asks, “Have you read Keats and Wordsworth? ‘Seasons of mist and . . .’”
“mellow fruitfulness,” shocked and amazed, I finish the line.
“Close bosom friend of the maturing sun,” we exclaim in unison.
Macy leaps up and down and switches gears to, “Love is not love which alters . . .”
“‘When it alteration finds.’ Macy, that’s Shakespeare and one of my favorite lines ever.” I am flabbergasted.
Tears are threatening to pour down my red brown cheeks and Macy’s excited face fades as my mind cringes with embarrassment. I have the most intense ambivalent emotions churning inside of me. I am ecstatic to be spouting poetry I have loved and buried away for so long. But mired with that wonderful feeling is excruciating shame. The tide of racing thoughts gradually quietens within me as Macy’s euphoric, remarkably patient face gradually resurfaces. Our eyes lock. Macy smiles and her hand gently reaches out to hold my shaking hand. The blue doored gloomy room fades as two ordinary people resume their animated conversation of a common love.
DAHLIA MUKHERJEE, PhD, is a clinical translational scientist focusing on biological, neural, and behavioral markers of mood disorders. She divides her time between research and psychotherapy treatment interventions for adult patients in both individual and group settings. Born in England, UK, she moved back to India at the age of nine. She completed her undergrad and postgraduate education from the University of Calcutta followed by another postgraduate degree from the University of Glasgow, Scotland. She completed her doctoral training in clinical psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She currently works as an assistant professor at Penn State College of Medicine.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Kimberly Myers, PhD, and Ifesinachi Ndukwu, MD, for their support and encouragement.