I recall with certainty that this event took place during the earliest period of my practice. I had checked my calls and heard the voice of a man identifying himself as Mike. Along with his phone number, he left a simple message stating that he was referred to me and wanted to set up an appointment. It was a cheery moment because any time a new patient was sent my way, I was thrilled—building a practice takes years of work if the goal is a self-perpetuating business based on patients recommending you to their friends, acquaintances and relatives.
I immediately called him back. He was at home, informing me he was on vacation for the week and available to come in any time. What a relief that was. I didn’t have to reveal that I had openings here or there every day of the week. I suggested the following day and he quickly accepted. I noticed the red arrival light go on about five minutes before the scheduled appointment time. When I opened the door to greet him he stood to shake my hand and then sheepishly walked into the office.
He was a very quiet man who seemed almost awkward speaking. He stood about five foot eight, hefty and strong. His hair was black, wavy, thick, and fairly long—he combed it straight back but the length in the front permitted it to fall down the forehead such that he unwittingly had the habit of brushing it back with his right hand. His eyes were deep set, leaving no mistake that he was a private soul. He’d worn holes in the grimy, stained jeans that were no doubt his uniform when performing hard labor for a living—he turned out to be a steel worker, as rugged and proud a group of men as you’ll find.
“So why are you here today, Mike?”
I had to ask the question though I would have bet my lunch money that I knew the answer. Typically there would be only one subject that would bring a man like Mike to his knees, love. You know by “the look” that a man like him can cope with about anything, except a failing romance. This sort of solid citizen will die working for their family yet never comprehend how it is possible that in spite of that grand sacrifice they might be in some areas disappointing the ones they’re doing it for.
One of the early doctor-patient exchanges between he and I went something like this:
“Mike, you have to talk sometimes. You have to share what you’re feeling. You know, she wants to understand you, know what’s going on inside. When you seal off, it makes her insecure and frightened, she starts to wonder if you love her…”
“Love her? I work my ass off, risking my life twenty stories high, tossing steel beams every day. If I’m lucky I’ll have only about two hours of overtime. By the time I get back to the house I’m feeling like shit, my bones ache and all I can think about is if I’ll be ready to hit it the next day…and she wants me to open up? No, I don’t think she does, doc.”
Several of our initial conversations were strained, the subject of that discomfort always brought about by the confusion he was experiencing regarding his marriage.
Sometimes colors are very helpful in describing personality types: I see crimson red all over this one-of-a-kind man. Crimson is associated with a person who is intelligent, silent, durable, dark and mysterious—there’s also a twinge of blood in this shade of red. The character is bold. Each of these traits was observable on the surface for Mike; witnessed at a deeper level the better I came to know him.
Yet what about the other features that this tone incorporates? Crimson red refers to a person that speaks with wisdom, has hidden great meaning in their being, and displays beyond secretiveness, a sweetness and caring.
I found no sign of those features. He typically conversed little, politely answering my questions but without offering embellishment. It was as if he were tolerating me but beyond that had no idea what to do.
When he arrived for the fourth meeting he was carrying a wrapped package. He placed it in the corner and sat down. He looked at me for a moment and then began speaking.
“I spent two years in Vietnam on a special assignment. I had one partner for an entire year. We were assigned to secure a specific sector. Our location was in the jungle not far from the Cambodian border. The instructions we were given were simple: kill anyone that comes within our territory. How does that sound?”
“Well, I’m not a military man so to me it seems pretty horrifying.”
“Not to me. Those were the best days of my life. It was beautiful. Nobody ever told me a thing about what I had to do. I slept, ate, walked, thought…whatever I wanted whenever I chose to have it. It’s a great way to live.
All the time Mike was explaining this to me, there was not a single sign of emotion. While we might expect some tightening of the neck muscles or grimacing of the face to suggest he was not conscious of the underlying tension the situation he was describing had to have evoked, he appeared no different than if he were sipping a coffee. Likewise, if the experience was so gratifying, shouldn’t he be displaying some indication of contentment, even glee? Might he become animated in his speech, his face light up or he offer a hand gesture of enthusiasm? He didn’t; his affect remained flat. Instead of describing a daily experience of life threatening circumstances, he might as well have told me he’d spent a year cleaning horse stalls.
Then he stood up. He walked to where he had set down the object he brought with him. He carried it back to his seat. As he unwrapped it I noticed it was a painting. At first when he held it for me to view I gasped. In turn, he flinched. He might have thought I was about to strike him with a blow.
“Don’t like it?” he asked tentatively.
“It’s…like nothing I’ve seen. No, I need some time to absorb it, to let the feelings it evokes sink in.”
What I was looking at was indescribable. The images had been entwined such that the stories they told seemed to be increasing by exponents. The colors were rich and emotionally transcendent, varying from divine to majestic to horrifying to pacifying—you name it, they were all there, all the missing feelings leaping off the page as if he’d painted the innards of his heart on canvas.
The tidbits of information I’d gleaned from him up to that point spoke to his wife’s needs and his failure to provide for them. Yet I couldn’t help thinking that the resolution to the dissention was in the images I was looking at—had she paid attention, her dreams might have been satisfied but she’d have had to recognize grace in the visual form.
Suddenly the remainder of his crimson was on display. The words of wisdom were beaming from the expressive faces he’d created. A remarkable gentleness and tenderness delicately presented through the brushstrokes: I soon learned that all of his graphic drawings—and there were many he allowed me to inspect—were packed to the brim with astonishing meaning.
I kept gawking at this work. As I was doing so, he began speaking. “I started doing this in Nam with pads and color pencils. I found that it kept me still. Since then I’ve been at it. Nancy never takes notice of what I do. My work may not be good to anyone’s eye but to me they’re a release, they let me get out what’s inside.”
“I’m awed. Thank you for sharing it,” I expressed.
“I had in mind giving this one to you,” he offered humbly.
“No, no, I couldn’t do that,” I pled. “But what I’d like more would be to see some of the other works you’ve done.”
He nodded his head to assure me he’d bring additional pieces with him in the future.
My favorite painter is Salvador Dali—Mike was as good as any artist I’d ever seen. My client shared none of the jerkiness of character the great master had, but I’ll defy anyone to examine both artists’ works next to one another and judge Mike’s to be inferior.
Over the coming weeks he was true to his word, honoring me to examine a treasure chest of material displaying human feeling and thought, all in a passionately raw and naked form. These creations then served as the catalysts for the therapy. As he became more comfortable with expressing himself and practiced in communicating, the new skills were brought into the marriage. How do I know?
“We’re good now,” he announced to me when he was leaving after what I would soon learn was to be his last session.
“I’m happy for you,” I replied.
I never heard from him again but I believe his creativity served to literally save his family life.
Mike seemed closed on the surface when I first met him, but that initial impression was misleading. He was a man who had been expressing himself for years. He was as easy to open and look into as a book
The first time I saw him, I would have never believed that his world was so vast, thrilling, grotesque, adoring, fanciful and laughable as he projected in his works of art. We all have our own style of sharing ourselves, our uniqueness and wonder as human beings. Even if we attempt to keep the mystery of our self buried deep down for one reason or another, it’s still there to observe for anyone who cares to stop and look.
I thought a lot about Mike when writing The Making of A Madman. It wasn’t that he had a likeness to Nick Ferris, in the sense of being a potentially violent and crazed man. It was that Nick, who likewise found an outlet for his scrambled and distressed inner confusion, was never able to employ it toward easing his suffering.