Even now, I adjust the image in my head, the term. Not stalked. Researched, I preferred to say. I knew where she lived and how many children she had. When she got a divorce, and the kids’ names and ages appeared in the court records, I felt a tingle of glee, just for knowing, which made me feel a little sick. My heart sped up as I scrolled through those records or ones from the county recorder’s office online. Available for anyone to see, I told myself. Public records.
I was seeing Dr. Smith—Karen, I called her, later—because I had bipolar disorder, she claimed, and maybe something more drastic and dark, like a smidge of a personality disorder.* Mental illness tended to run in my family in the way kudzu covered everything south of the freeze line. I wondered if I had some illness: anything to explain my way of existing in the world. But that was later. For now, I was sick and in need of care.
According to Robert Muller, Ph.D., professor of psychology at York University, and the author of Trauma and the Avoidant Client, there are five kinds of stalkers. They are overwhelmingly male, lack skills to negotiate basic social interaction, and frequently stalk their victims as an act of revenge. The victims are overwhelmingly female, like my psychiatrist. The types include, in order of ascending creepy magnitude: rejected suitors, intimacy seekers, socially incompetent stalkers, resentful or revenge seekers, and predatory stalkers. Most stalker fantasies include intimacy or violence. They’re mostly of average to above average intelligence, tend to be well-educated, and just over a fifth of them stalk due to mental illness or related factors; the rest do it for anger, retaliation, or control, and they are incredibly good at rationalizing away inappropriate behaviors. Women are far less likely to stalk; when they do, it’s with the hope of increased intimacy, erotomania, or a hope for friendship. Maybe that one was me.
I was 18 when I first started seeing Dr. Smith. A junior in college due to early admission and community-college credits, I attended a huge state school many miles from home, and felt lonely in an intense and overwhelming way. I took graduate coursework in one program where I referred to everyone in my class as “30 and had visited Tibet,” and worked in a lab for another department where I was one of four or five native English speakers. At departmental meetings, which I somehow attended, I stuck out with my brown hair and Irish freckles in a sea of Chinese faces, the only undergraduate who worked in the department at all.
Karen was tall and beautiful and thin in a way that would suggest future osteoporosis, with blonde hair that reached her shoulders. She wore bright colors with sandals whenever possible, and for the most part, seemed strong and practical, and stubborn—a firstborn child, like me, but with a silly streak, as evidenced in toes dabbed with pink or blue or green nail polish. Most strangely of all, she seemed to like me. Here, she said, offering me a prescription, then sent me to book an appointment with a therapist.
I’m not sure where it started. The furnace. The dishwasher in its final cycle. The TV turned down so you couldn’t make out the words people were saying. The guy on the radio, with a lisp. I had seen a number of mental-health professionals over the years, starting at three when I banged my head against the floor for hours at a time. My mom thought I was either brain-damaged or on my way, so she took me to the pediatrician, and then to a children’s social worker, who said I was encountering difficulty adjusting to the birth of my brother. Then I was too “odd” for elementary school, then secondary school. I preferred books as company to the companionship of people, wore comfortable clothes instead of what everyone else was wearing, found eye contact invasive at best. I slept with stuffed animals, struggled with waking up, with transitions of any kind. My mom dressed me every morning until fourth grade, when I changed schools again, and school started late enough I could mostly get myself together on time. I had always been different somehow. When I did connect with someone, it was usually an adult several times my age. Karen seemed to get me right away.
She had an abrasive sense of humor. When I asked for side effects of one of the many medications I would come to take, she said, “You know, the usual. Coma, death, developing the head of a Golden Retriever, sausage fingers …”
“Yeah, you gotta watch out for those,” she said, smirking. Inside everything lay the possibility for humor, for snark. Sarcasm was our method of relation, the way things made sense. I had seen a variety of mental-health professionals before, but she did things I had never seen other psychiatrists do, like slurp Diet Coke from a giant plastic cup on her desk or wear scarves she had clearly knit herself, scarves with the edges left unbound, a string dangling from each end. She had a tendency to let her glasses slip down her nose, like mine did, and put up giant quilts she pieced and sewed herself on the walls of her office. I saw her more frequently than I saw any other human in my life and she remained a constant for over five years.
What’s more, I liked her. I trusted her.
And I took 26 different medications while under her care. I didn’t behave as expected when I took them; nothing seemed to “fix” me—so she switched one for another, over and over again. Often, I’d be the one to ask for another option. I was sensitive to everything and didn’t like the side effects, of which there were many. Lithium made me nauseated and didn’t seem to alleviate much of anything. Perphenazine made me chew my tongue ragged, and the antipsychotics all made me feel crazier than I was before I began taking medication at all, locked in a swimmy, cotton-brained confusion. When I tried to talk to her about it, she seemed distant. You’ll adjust, she explained. But I didn’t.
More than anything, I was bad at describing what was happening to me. Newly adult and expected to shop for my own groceries, I struggled with the noise and the color in the grocery store and what to buy once inside. Frequently, I came back with the wrong things, or nothing at all. I didn’t have an eating disorder; I’d just get inside the grocery store and my stomach would flip-flop at the low drone of fluorescent lights, the intensity of the citrus display. And food frequently changed locations within the store. If they moved something from an endcap display where I’d found it the week before, it would take me hours to find it again. I’d wander the aisles in a daze, hoping to get something to eat. For weeks I lived on grape juice and Triscuits, or bananas, or string cheese, or prepackaged lunchmeat. I knew how to cook. I was an excellent cook, had worked as a pastry chef’s assistant during high school. But grocery shopping was a baffling, dizzying experience, so I avoided it whenever possible. Now, my fiancé does the grocery shopping. I cook now, flatten garlic with the side of a knife, grow basil in pots by the back steps to make into pesto, deglaze our saucepans with white wine.
But then, I drove. It had taken me a long time to learn, and I wanted to make up for it by driving as much as possible. I cast loops around town, putting thousands of miles on my car without ever leaving the state. And with little to do between occasional school attendance, feeding horses, and attending medication-management appointments, as Karen called them, I found myself driving on the main road by her house. Or her old house, as by then, she’d started the process of getting divorced from her husband and had all but moved in with another psychiatrist in her office. I saw them at my early morning appointments, looking guilty and freshly showered. Just one car parked behind their office, I noticed. So I memorized her car, his truck, her ex-husband’s car. Then I started driving near the new house.
When they bought that house, I knew almost immediately how much they paid for it through public records online. When the house went on the market, later, I clicked through the pictures, fascinated by the colors: a blue bathroom, a cantaloupe kitchen, the forest-green dining room. I scrolled through the pages on the ad, trying to justify her choices. I worked as a real-estate assistant, too, so I rationalized away the experience of looking up Karen’s information. And, because I worked in the same office as her listing agent and my boss had another listing across the street, I got to hear feedback, juicy tidbits on the colors, from those who had shown the listing, even going so far as to tell Karen, though I never told her I knew it was her house. I was a knitter and made quilts. I fantasized about how it would have been if we had met under other circumstances, like in a quilter’s group.
I never wanted her to actually see me outside of the office: When I coincidentally ran into her and her daughter at the grocery store in our small college town, I ducked into another aisle and pretended to be fascinated by the rows of jarred pickles or canned tuna fish to avoid even the possibility of interaction. I wanted to feel close, to connect in some way that wasn’t possible.
I don’t know what I was looking for. Even now it feels strange and horrid to me, not me. In the meantime, the drugs started piling up, each more debilitating than the one before. Saphris was sublingual, slipped under the tongue, and sounded beautiful but left an acrid taste in my mouth, made me feel subhuman, like my thoughts weren’t even my own. Zyprexa drowned me, like a swimming pool slowly filled to the brim, the chlorinated smell sharp on my nose. I still thought of Karen as friendly, helpful. I’d argue about taking the drugs, stop taking them, start taking them—I was a terrible patient—but ultimately tried my best to do whatever she said. I wanted to do the right thing, even if she didn’t always seem right.
The first indicator that she might not be right came after a discussion we had about Facebook. “People say you’re ‘friends’ with them on Facebook, but Facebook friends aren’t real friends,” I complained. After the appointment, I found her profile, new and mostly unlocked, under her maiden name, and filled with pictures of her weekends with the new psychiatrist husband, drinking at Jimmy Buffett concerts, smiling, laughing with other similarly-aged people. Parrotheads. At the following appointment I suggested that she talk to her children about how to make sure her profile was friends only. She blanched, wide-eyed, stared at me, quiet for a minute, then recovered. “Of course,” she said, an edge to her voice, and immediately the photos were gone again.
Sometimes she was caustic, bitter. She asked me to be her guinea pig, told me that she had gotten these drug samples for free and could I let her know what I thought of them? The guinea pig part was a joke, I thought, but wasn’t sure. I wasn’t always the best at figuring out whether or not someone was joking. But there was a sweetness, a humanness, too: Early on, she’d seem to speak my language, took my hand to lead me down the street to the hospital when the depression settled heavy and flat across my chest. We took the stairs instead of the elevator because I couldn’t figure out what expression to make with my face if we were to share the elevator with other people in the hospital. So she walked up four flights of stairs with me instead.
Years into our psychiatric relationship, I went to see a neuropsychologist at the suggestion of my therapist. “You might have a learning disability,” I was told. I had some vague recollection of an ADD diagnosis as a kid, and hoped that maybe there would be some sense to the strangeness about me, how I missed all the social cues, how I felt so irritable and brittle all the time. Brittle—that was a word the neuropsychologist would use—but it felt right to me. I spoke too quickly, my speech came from a pressurized can, made inappropriate or nonexistent eye contact, and had a tendency to talk in circles when nervous. And then there was the depression, like a dark and suffocating foam. I had tried all the drugs and nothing worked.
The neuropsychologist determined I had anxiety and something called “nonverbal learning disability,” a neurological, developmental disability with components similar to autism, not bipolar disorder. The depression likely came from a vitamin D deficiency and untreated hypothyroidism made worse by the addition of lithium. So I started taking medication for my thyroid, and vitamins. Dropped the rest. Felt better. And stopped following Karen altogether.
Some time after I stopped seeing her, I requested my records. I flipped through them, startled by her descriptions of me: Was this the way to explain myself to myself? What had I done? I was “casually dressed” or “on time,” or “WNL” – code for Within Normal Limits. It made me think of a long-distance trucker with two logbooks: one for the police, and one of what really happened. But what really happened?
Now, years later, when I think of having followed her, I’m seasick. Karen never said anything to me about it and may not have even been fully aware. I mentioned that I had looked up information about her online to my therapist, who was in the same office, and she reminded me, of course, that that was not a good idea. That it gave a false sense of intimacy, or created an environment that wasn’t real or true. Like the stalkers I read about, I thought—what Dr. Mueller described as the intimacy seekers or the socially incompetent—and I wondered if I was one of them. So I read memoirs of psychiatrists who had been stalked. Was this me? I asked myself, flipping the pages.
But the truth is I don’t know the truth. Don’t know if maybe I could have been crazy and just resistant to all those drugs she prescribed, that in trying to design a life for myself I missed out or forgot about the times when the drugs worked. Might have driven past, or not driven past, any number of places I admit to now, like a fog in my brain that had not yet cleared. There were differences in my behavior at times—and I could have or can attribute those to certain drugs, maybe. But I could just as easily attribute them to something else. In a sense, all of those hundreds of visits and hundreds of pages of records I requested—trying to make sense of the person I was at the time—may or may not mean anything at all.
Now I’m happy, anxiety largely tempered. I teach writing to my students, revel in their successes, their accomplishments. My then-boyfriend, now fiancé, remembers the experience too. “You drove me past her house. Repeatedly,” he reminded me. What a date, I joke. But the past is colored by a twinge of shame and a sense of loss, though less and less now. Still, I’m reminded of who I was and what I did, the loss of that time, those years, many friendships, my odd behaviors—some chemically induced, others from my undiagnosed developmental disability, my inability to read social mores—and whatever possibility I might have had in living a different, less bizarre, isolated life.
I looked Karen up recently after years of forgetting. Wanted to know if she was still practicing, and where. They moved their practice to a new building across town. Still doing the same thing she did before, in fifteen or twenty or thirty minute increments, tens of times a day. Just beneath the link in the search results for her new office, her new last name, her new practice, is a review from another former patient: “She just wanted to give me drugs.” Me too, I want to tell the former patient, but instead I close my laptop and go outside to sit in the sun.
*The name of my doctor has been changed.