by Steve Slavin
Psychological disorders are no laughing matter. They can take years to cure, and bankrupt you along the way. And even then, the chances are you’ll still be nuts.
Growing up in Borough Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood that has more religious Jews than all of Jerusalem, I knew this kid named Hymie. He was always in trouble, and always for the same reason. He liked to steal.
When he was five, he was already the most renowned shoplifter on Thirteenth Avenue, our main shopping drag. So, his mother took him to Dr. Freudstein, the most prominent psychiatrist in the entire neighborhood. For years, Hymie saw the good doctor three times a week. But his stealing problem got progressively worse.
By the time he was seven, he was stealing bikes left out on the street. A few years later, he had moved on to home burglaries. But whenever Hymie’s mother would ask Dr. Freudstein what was wrong with her son, he explained that before he could provide answers, he needed to ask Hymie still more questions.
This went on for years, while Hymie’s stealing became more and more serious. Before he was in his teens, he was robbing local stores, usually by passing a note written in Yiddish to the owner, demanding all his gelt (money).
When the police heard rumors that Hymie was planning a bank robbery, they warned his parents to get their son under control. They discussed this problem for hours without deciding anything. All night, while Hymie’s father slept peacefully, his mother tossed and turned.
The next morning, his mother finally decided she had had it with the famed psychiatrist. She marched herself to his building, walked right past his receptionist, and into his office. The doctor was eating lunch at his desk. Ever the gentleman, he asked her to sit down and have a nosh.
She remained standing.
‘Doctor Freudstein, for twelve years, you’ve been seeing my little Hymie. My husband and I have shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars, and all you can tell us is that you’re still asking questions? Well, I am not going to leave here without answers.’
‘Well, it just so happens that yesterday, Hymie and I made a tremendous breakthrough.’
She looked at him expectantly.
‘ Yeah. Your son Hymie?’
‘Tell me, Doctor. Whatever it is, please tell me!’
‘Your son, Hymie? I think he’s a ganef!’ (Yiddish for thief)
Dr. Freudstein is a colleague of mine, but I am no Dr. Freudstein. To be perfectly truthful, I’m not exactly a psychiatrist. In fact, I’m not even a psychologist. Or a psychoanalyst. What am I? I am a paranoid’s assistant.
I’ll tell you right up front that I have no training in this area, having taken just one introductory psych course. In fact, I barely got through college. Like my fellow Brooklynite, Senator Chuck Schumer, I boast about having street smarts – whatever that means.
It doesn’t take me years to figure out what’s wrong with my patients – and I don’t waste time trying to cure them. In fact, most of them can never be cured. Crazy is crazy.
So, what can I do? I can make my patients more comfortable with their illnesses. I can improve the quality of their lives. And it takes me just days to get results – not years.
Allison is a classic paranoid. Her biggest fear is that someone is going to sneak up behind her and do something to her – although she has never specified exactly what it is that person might do.
When Allison is in a restaurant, she needs to sit facing the door. When she is standing on the sidewalk, talking with two or three friends, she always asks if they would stand next to a building, so she could have her back to the wall.
She didn’t care that her friends thought her a little nuts, but she would get tremendously upset if they did not accede to her requests. So, she came to me for help.
I let her go on and on about this problem until she had talked herself out. I waited for twenty or third seconds. And then I said, ‘Pay them.’
‘Yes, as in bribe them.’
I watched her mull this over. Slowly, she began to grin.
‘Of course! I have plenty of money. Look how much I’m paying you!’
‘That’s right, Alison! You’re paying me to tell you to pay your friends.’
‘So how much should I pay them?’
‘Whatever it takes.’
Another client, Jackson, was in constant fear that someone might steal his wallet. He patted his back pocket almost constantly when he was in the street, in a restaurant, at a party, or any place but home.
Because of his wallet problem, he could not date women in the winter. Well, of course!
He provided a very logical explanation. In the winter, it snowed. It was unsafe to drive. But if he took the subway, then someone might steal his wallet.
I needed to really think about this.
Finally, I asked, ‘Why are you so afraid someone will steal your wallet?’
‘Because I keep everything in there – my driver’s license, my registration, my insurance card, and my credit cards.’
‘What about your money?’
‘Well, that too. But money I can easily replace. Replacing the other things would be a tremendous hassle.’
‘Jackson, this is a little complicated. But I promise you that by tomorrow, we’ll have a satisfactory solution.’
‘I sure hope so. It’s almost Thanksgiving.’
At our next meeting, I warned Jackson that he might not like my solution, but that it would solve his problem.
‘Your problem comes down to this: You can’t date girls in the winter.’
‘Fine. Here’s my solution. You can take the subway. But don’t carry your wallet.’
‘But I need my wallet! That’s why I always carry it.’
‘Well, you don’t need your driver’s license, registration, or insurance card.’
‘No, but what about my credit cards?’
He liked the idea. But then he raised another objection: ‘But what if, when I was out on the date, someone broke into my apartment and stole my wallet?’
I could see that he liked my solution. Then, I thought of another solution to his winter dating dilemma.
‘Jackson, how come, if you don’t like to drive in the winter, you don’t sometimes have women come to your apartment?’
‘I never allow women into my apartment!’
‘What kind of a question is that? When I’m asleep, they could steal my wallet!’
My favorite client is Bert. You’d think he was perfectly normal until you hear his psychiatric history. He had been confined in Downstate Mental Hospital for more than two years. He calmly explained to his doctors that there was someone who was out to get him.
How many times had they heard that before? Bert was a classic. Groups of medical students were invited to hear him describe his impending assassination. He would be walking down the street and a car driving by would slow down. A guy with a submachine gun would quickly do the job, and the car would speed away.
The students would look at each other and smirk. A few wondered if maybe Bert was just putting them on – telling them what he thought they wanted to hear. But his psychiatrist assured them that this was not the case. Bert genuinely believed that if he ever left the hospital, his days would be numbered.
Amazingly, long after all hope was gone, Bert finally began to accept his paranoia. Soon, he was sent to live in a halfway house until he was ready to live independently. And it was while I was visiting someone else at his living facility that I met Bert.
He confided that he still really did believe there was someone out to get him, and he repeated the story about the drive-by shooting. Bert had heard about my services, and he hired me on the spot.
Now, it would appear that I was completely out of my league, and should not have taken his money. But I had an idea. OK, on the surface, it did sound a little crazy. But consider my client.
I took his measurements, and the next day I returned with a set of body armor. Bert loved the way it fit snugly under his street clothes. Until then, he had been afraid to leave the halfway house. But now he could safely do so.
The next evening, it was the lead story on the six o’clock news. The news anchor explained that a middle-aged man who had been walking along Bay Parkway, in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, had been the target of an assassination attempt.
The police reported that a late model black SUV pulled alongside him, and someone with a submachine gun fired at least thirty shots. But the intended victim managed to survive without serious injury. A police spokeswoman explained that what had saved the man’s life was the body armor he happened to be wearing.