It was 1989, and the internist the insurance company assigned me to in Philly was flummoxed. I’d given her a list of the peculiar symptoms that had plagued me in the previous weeks–dizziness, blackouts, numbness, explosive anger–but she couldn’t make heads or tails of it. All these things, after all, were happening while I was sober. The blood tests had come back negative, so it wasn’t a blood sugar thing. All her other tests came back negative, too, so she began farming me out to other doctors, some of them specialists, others, in theory at least, just smarter than her.
Every week, I’d go see another doctor in another hospital or clinic. I’d explain the situation, they’d shrug, then I’d report back to her with the results, and she’d give me the name of another doctor.
"If we don’t find something soon," she warned at one point after I’d already been examined by several of these doctor pals of hers, "you might want to consider seeing a psychiatrist."
I didn’t much care for the implication. Way I saw it, if it wasn’t a physical problem, it was demonic possession. I had every suspicion that it was the former, and every hope it was the latter. The one thing I knew for sure was that I wasn’t nuts. Not that way, at least.
I don’t remember what most of the specialists specialized in. I don’t remember most of these doctors at all, to be honest, apart from the fact that none of them seemed to have any answers.
Well, that’s not true. One of the doctors she sent me to had an explanation for me. A very simple one, in fact.
After sitting in his waiting room for an hour, the doctor finally retrieved me and led me down a long hallway to an open examination room. Then, like all the other doctors before him, he told me to strip down to my underwear and hop up on the table.
Dr. Keloid was a large, stern-faced man who avoided looking his patients in the eye. As I ran down the symptoms one more time for him, he shuffled through folders and files that had nothing to do with my case, offering only an occasional, half-thought "mm-hmm," over his shoulder as I did so.
When I was finished, he sat down in his chair and said, "You know, I can see right now what the problem is."
"Yeah?" I asked, straightening up on the edge of the examination table. Maybe I’d finally found the one doctor in Philadelphia who knew what the hell he was doing.
"Hyperventilation," he said, with an unflinching confidence.
"Hyperventilation," I repeated at him, waiting for him to smile, to reveal the joke. But it was no joke to him.
"Yes," he confirmed. "Hyperventilation. It’s remarkable–nearly 80 percent of the patients who come in to see me are suffering from hyperventilation. Their symptoms vary, but at the core of it all is hyperventilation."
"Really," I said. "Eighty percent." It was clear that he had made up his mind about this long before I told him my symptoms. Probably long before he graduated from med school. Unless someone came into his office with an awl sticking out of his skull, you could bet it was a case of hyperventilation. He’d probably be able to explain that awl in terms of hyperventilation, too.
"Really, yes. So here’s what you do–the next time you feel one of these episodes coming on, breathe deeply and slowly into a paper bag for two minutes."
"You might even want to start carrying one with you at all times."
"But that’s–" I started to say "insane," but I was stopped when the telephone on his desk began ringing. He turned and picked it up.
"Dr. Keloid," he said into the receiver. He paused, then, with some enthusiasm (more than I’d seen so far, certainly), he said, "Yes, yes–good–I’ll take it."
He placed a hand over the receiver and turned back to me. "This is a very important private phone call," he said. "Would you wait in the hall, please?"
I stared back at him for a moment, my mouth open. Then I looked down at myself. I was wearing nothing but my underwear. I’m in the middle of an examination (in theory at least) wearing nothing but my underwear and he wants me to wait in the hall of a busy hospital wing. Okay.
I started to protest this as well, but he was already talking to the person on the phone.
"Hello, Dean Klingman? Yes, this is Dr. Keloid–thank you for calling me back."
I slid down off the table and snatched my clothes from the nearby chair. I glared at that fucker’s back as I stepped into my pants. I was at least going to put my goddamned pants on before I stepped outside. I’d take care of the rest once I was out there.
"…I realize that Davey has had some problems there," he was saying into the phone, "but I can’t see why you don’t just reinstate him."
There was a pause. "Yes, I know you reinstated him once before–which is why I’m wondering why it’s a problem now… I can assure you that sort of thing won’t happen again–"
There was another pause. I reached for the door. As I slipped into the hallway, shirtless, shoeless, I heard his tone shift from easygoing to pompous ass.
"Mr. Klingman, perhaps you don’t realize this," he said, "but I am an extremely important physician here in Philadelphia–and I have made many significant donations to your school…"
I leaned against the wall outside the door as I dressed, and listened to the perfectly audible pleadings of a pathetic, insane quack as he tried to bluff his loser son’s ass back into college. Right after he’d tried to bluff me into thinking that I could solve all my problems by breathing into a paper bag.
I knew that pharmaceutical companies had been accused of bribing doctors into prescribing their drugs, but I had no idea the paper bag industry was in on the scam, too.
Once I finished buttoning my shirt and tying my shoes, I thought about things for a moment, nodded, then walked back down the hallway, through the waiting room, past the receptionist’s desk, out the door, and home. I didn’t much think he deserved that $15 co-pay for telling me to breathe into a paper bag.
It took three more doctors–bringing the total to 12 in all–before someone finally decided to give me an MRI.
Jim Knipfel’s latest book–and first novel–The Buzzing (Vintage, $12) has just been released. Here’s what Thomas Pynchon had to say about it: "The Balzac of the bin is at it again. With his paranoid Valentine to New York–and to a certain saurian colossus noted for his own ambivalent feelings about large cities–Mr. Knipfel now brings to fiction the welcome gifts which distinguished his previous books–the authenticity, the narrative exuberance, the integrity of his cheerfully undeluded American voice."