I keep returning to the moment in Dr. Sullivan’s office where I’m breaking down in tears and he’s shouting, “Don’t be such a baby.” That’s how our divorce unfolded. I remember it like a film reel, to create distance I suppose, make it hurt less.
There was an intolerance to Dr. Sullivan that made him unrecognizable that day. With my legs dangling from the exam table, I cried inconsolably. Unwell and unheard. Dr. Sullivan wanted me to shut up and be fine, but I was far from fine, and no amount of shouting would change that.
Noted the arms, taut as a slingshot across his chest. That’s when I realized. He blames me for this. The accusatory stance made me cry. Not the spasms. Well, the spasms too, but mostly I was crying because of him.
“Don’t be such a baby.” He practically spat it. Acted like I was deceiving him, making him confront/an aspect of himself/he refused to accept. Was I? Funny, this condition was the version of myself I refused to accept. That’s why I was there.
My eyes had that bloodshot feeling where you just know they’re red as fuck. Tears clung to my cheeks like a dryer sheet, nose running. It was an ugly cry, almost hiccup-level, in early May. No sleeve, of course, to wipe with.
I’ll admit I was hysterical. Before the vanity a week earlier, I’d watched in horror as the spasms rippled in waves, from right to left and back again. There were the eyes, pulsating, clenching, clamping shut. The tongue writhing wildly in the mouth. It snaked in twists and turns that no human could replicate. Suspecting all of this was permanent, I sobbed.
In Dr. Sullivan’s office seven days later, the madness continued. Fiery tingling beneath the skin, the kind of burning that could char your insides. “It’s just a nuisance,” Doctor Sullivan was saying. As if I were the nuisance.
“A fly on the shoulder is a nuisance. This is frightening.”
The respectful tone I’d long been accustomed to had a toxic edge now, like the rest of me. Felt myself glaring and very much the object of someone’s shame. Was it mine or his? “You’re fine, Marybeth,” the doctor insisted.
Desperate for an out, my gaze locked on the far corner of the ceiling. It was the look of a woman being silenced by her doctor. Not just any doctor. One I’d had, one I’d relied on, since forever ago. Sitting in Dr. Sullivan’s office, age 36, I’d been his patient for half my life. He should have known me, I thought he did. How could he not? In the tear-stained seconds spent eyeing the ceiling, something detached from my being. Felt like upheaval, probably looked like it too. An iceberg breaking loose in Arctic waters.
I came to Dr. Sullivan one summer, when a man stood before the tanks in Tiananmen Square. Communism was falling in Eastern Europe, car bombs exploding in Belfast. The world was rising up. Tapering off medicine at 18, I felt the pull of change as much as anyone. Given one more chance at a drug-free life, I took it.
When the seizure came, it was in the style of a teenager — at a music festival out in some pasture. Crossing the field with Kelly when the lights appeared. With the pressure coming on, I placed the cigarette on the grass and lay myself at the feet of strangers. The mud had dried, but not completely. The chill of rainwater seeped into my side, ice cold. Kelly crouched beside me, saying something I couldn’t hear, and the world faded into oblivion. It’s a lonely experience having a seizure among thousands. Even with a friend by your side.
Dr. Sullivan had the warmth of a woolen cardigan. I liked him from the start. It takes a special person to make you laugh after a seizure, and he could do it. Got me in for an appointment, put me back on pills. Writing out the script, he sensed my dejection. “It’s just for now, Marybeth.” The words made the decision easier to accept.
Dr. Sullivan didn’t rush me through like other doctors. Never in 18 years did he rush me through. You know how rare that is? Instead, he worked the room with the precision of a surgeon. Sharp, efficient, masterful. “Follow the flashlight with your eyes.” “Walk across the room, balance beam.” “Touch your nose, touch my finger. Nose to finger, nose to finger.”
He started every appointment by washing his hands. Working up the lather, the harsh scent of medical soap filled the room. With the suds growing upon his palms, I imagined how funny it would be if he clapped his hands together with a flourish, sent the suds spraying. Wished he’d do it, just once.
Went to Dr. Sullivan by default, too old for the pediatric neurologist. Dad picked him, so I went. Dad didn’t pick just anyone, you know. I viewed Dad’s choice as an endorsement, treated it as such. Over the course of 18 years, I trusted the doctor blindly. He was the best, and he knew best which decisions were right for my health.
Coming up as a child through the healthcare system, I spent my youngest days being terrified by doctors. In the earliest record on hand, age 3, my fear is documented in the chart. Over time, fear gave way to trust. It was an innocent trust with no agenda. I believed in the good of doctors because I believed in the good of Dad.
After a while, there was no distinguishing the doctor’s office from my own genetics. Going to the neurologist wasn’t simply a business transaction, it was a community. Lollipops and smiles and hugs, you know? Dr. Sullivan was the adult version of the community for the adult version of me. No more lollipops, just the relief of a laugh when I needed it most.
Now here I was at 36, begging for an out. Was it the brightness of the lights or the nausea in my gut that made it so apparent we couldn’t continue? The doctor-patient relationship had changed because we had changed, and the tension between us grew too fraught to ignore. Where had the tension even come from? It looked like the death of a relationship. Chalk it up to a loss of faith in each other.
“Go downstairs and get an EMG, then come back and see me,” he said.
Given the damage done in the 15 minutes prior, it’s strange to know these were the words that led to our demise. Even before the EMG, I knew it was the last appointment with Dr. Sullivan. Knew it shuffling past the people in the waiting room. Pushing the down arrow for the elevator. And dabbing away the dejection that had dried on my face. Still, it was the EMG, in all its innocuity, that slammed the door shut.