“He fell in love with Drunk Maisey. That was the problem. When he met me, I was up on stage singing karaoke--some sloppy rendition of Just a Girl, too angry and not peppy enough to capture the layer of irony.”
I look at the woman on my sofa. Maisey Brown. She’s in her late twenties with a petite frame and nondescript light brown hair. She could almost fade into the soft taupe sofa upholstery, but there’s something about her that draws me in. Her features are delicate and angular, and her face is smooth, save for a single worry line that’s etched into the center of her forehead. Her voice is soft, almost flat, but somehow still expresses so much. “Go on…” I encourage her.
“He came up to me at the bar later that night. You’re not just a girl. He almost shouted his pick up line over the din of rowdy voices and the thump of the sound system. Sorry? I shouted back, almost in his ear. I mean, you’re not just any girl...he stammered, and asked to buy me a drink. I took a rum and coke. The caffeine in the coke kept me going after the rum would have knocked me out. We sang breathless, sweaty duets into the same microphone--we knew the same songs, we realized--and danced with abandon under the strobe lights. The way his hands encircled my hips was thrilling, and the way they slid down my legs or up my ribs was electric. I remember thinking, my god, I’ve fooled him!
“Fooled him,” I repeat. “How do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” she hesitates. “Into thinking I was interesting? Captivating. Sexy.”
“You don’t think you are, normally?” I ask.
“No.” Her voice is clipped and firm. It’s not sad or angry, just matter of fact.
I want to explore this further, but she’s not ready. I decide to keep her moving forward. “What happened then?”
“I took him home to my apartment. I don’t remember so much of what happened. Fireworks, generally,” she gives a shy smile and bites her lower lip. “But I remember waking up the next morning--naked man underneath my lace duvet, and he’s not bad looking: a little definition in his shoulders, nice hair--the kind your fingers can get lost in, with a stray lock falling across his forehead. I was almost afraid to look at his face. Not because I thought he’d be ugly; it just felt too intimate.”
“That’s an interesting thing to say about someone you were literally just intimate with,” I note.
“Yeah, I guess so.” She shrugs and settles into the sofa, thoughtfully. “But this was different. I was going to have to look at him and talk to him. I was almost paralyzed by the thought of him looking through my bookshelves or talking to my house plants. Or figuring out that I talk to my house plants.” She laughs, a wry huff.
“I see. Yes, some people can be very protective of their private domain. How did that turn out?”
“Surprisingly good,” she says, brightening. “Eventually my stirring woke him up. He threw an arm casually over me and said, Good morning, Beautiful. He rolled over toward me and I looked just long enough to see his eyes were this alluring shade of turquoise. I barely recognized him in the daylight. There were things I didn’t see before, like the little scar over his left eyebrow (it’s a trick I’ve learned--if you look in the vicinity of someone’s eyes, you don’t have to look into them--don’t have to open yourself up to them).”
I peer deep into her eyes for the first time and see them dart away. They are brown eyes, but instead of drawing me in deeper, they shut me out like murky water. “Are you doing that now?”
“Of course. I couldn’t tell you these things if I weren’t,” she said. “It’s weird, maybe, but for me, looking into someone’s eyes is about as personal as looking into their book shelves.”
“Please, continue,” I encourage her.
“Well, his face wasn’t familiar, but his mouth was. Mine was drawn to it, like it was muscle memory already. So I went with that. I kissed him before he had the chance to look around or ask any questions. I think he took it for boldness, not fear. I was so excited not to have ruined things that I offered him some coffee. That morning went really well. Aiden was very easygoing. He was not overly curious. He takes life in the moment. I never felt like he was trying to pry me open or ‘coax me out of my shell.’ I’ve come to realize that, having first encountered Drunk Maisey, he didn’t know I lived in a shell at all. It just wasn’t an issue. I was pretty comfortable. So I put on a nice smile and tried to keep up the ruse.”
“Was it such a ruse?” I wonder aloud. “It seems you two just got along.”
“He got along with the person he imagined me to be--the girl he’d met the previous night. But she’s about as different from me as Dr. Jekyll from Mr. Hyde.”
This seems important. I scribble a note. “Tell me more about that,” I say evenly, leaning forward enough to show interest but not enough, I hope, to be intimidating. “How would you characterize that difference?”
“Well, Normal Maisey--me--is terrible with people. I’ve just never felt comfortable with them. And they can tell. Sometimes they try to overcome it. Maybe they’ll talk extra loud, or ask a lot of questions, or crack dumb jokes. It only makes things worse, them trying to fill the gulf between us with all the wrong things. I feel sorry for them for making themselves ridiculous. I feel bad about myself for putting them through it--why can’t you just be normal?--and come out of the experience feeling exhausted.”
“But you have relationships? Friends?” I prod.
“Yes, a few. I still feel that need to be with people, to be understood. I just don’t always have the ability to go out and get it. Isn’t that cruel?”
I watch her hands, crossed over her body, fingers fidgeting over the elbows they clasp. “Cruel. As if someone did this to you?”
“Life, I guess,” she sighs. “Certainly no person. I get that sometimes--people wondering if I’ve been hurt or abused, as if that’s the only thing that could make me so closed. That’s one thing I hate about people. They’re always imposing their ways of thinking. But my parents were wonderful. They tried all kinds of things to help me. Playdates. The worst was when I was put together with another shy kid. People always think we might be compatible in that similarity, but we’d both sit around trying to think of what to say. We took a special trip to the Blarney Stone when I was nine. They said if I kissed it I’d have the gift of gab-- never be at a loss for words. Maybe they thought they could psyche me out, that the placebo effect would be strong enough to melt my inhibitions.”
“How did that work out?” I ask.
“I’ve come up with strategies to pass for normal in a world dominated by insistent extroverts,” she says with a thin smile, leaning back on the sofa. “I listen to the questions people ask each other. If I ask a lot of questions, people forget to notice I’m not sharing anything back. I’m sharing my attention. I suppose that’s about the most valuable thing I could offer, anyway.”
“Wisely said,” I interject.
“You charge a good living for your attention,” she says, a sparkle coming to her smile. I can’t help it, I laugh out loud.
“I manage,” she continues, the smile spreading a light across her face that changes her features for a brief moment before it disappears. “But I’ve only found one thing that will really melt my inhibitions: alcohol.”
“Yes, tell me more about...Drunk Maisey, I think you called her?”
“Right. I don’t know if she’s more me, or less me. Probably both? After a few drinks, the pressure I feel being around other people just melts away. I can say or do anything I want--things I wouldn’t dream of, sober. It’s like everything that was stuck inside me, everything I’ve tried to hide from the world, comes spewing up. I’m a happy drunk, I would say. The life of the party.”
She sighs and I watch her shoulders rise and fall as she draws that air from the depths of herself.
“I used to just save drinking for parties--social lubricant--until I met Aiden and he met Drunk Maisey. He liked her. He’d say things like you’re so fun and I just love your energy--things I’d never heard before from anyone. It made me feel so good. He’d text me during the week--let’s go back to the club, or I want you to meet my friends--and I found I could get by with a few drinks. I could get a room full of people laughing. At first I thought I could control it--the drink was just my secret weapon. I’d party hard, then come home and crash and bury myself in my piles of books and confess my sins to my spider plant. Then Aiden started coming around more often.”
“And all this time he thought Drunk Maisey was the one and only version of you?”
She squirms deeper into the plush sofa and averts her eyes. “More or less. I tried to tell him once. I said, You know, I don’t really like being around people very much. It was the understatement of the year, but I wasn’t sure how to explain it any better. He laughed. You? Good one, Maze. You’re the biggest people person I know. I could have told him right there that it was all a lie. But I realized it wasn’t entirely. I liked being around Aiden. I didn’t want to risk losing him by making him feel a fool, or even by showing him how dull I really was. So I laughed back. You’ve got me. I’m a hopeless social butterfly, and I kissed him before he could say another word. After that I started drinking most days. Drunk Maisey took over. Sometimes I even fooled myself into believing it’s who I was.”
“And how’s that been going?” I venture into her silence, feeling the opportunity to shift the conversation.
“I get by,” she says without any conviction. “Usually it’s just a few beers a day. I can manage my work. I work from home, anyway. Sometimes it made me better able to speak up in a conference call. I liked the effect. I’d start drinking before meetings. It went beyond just Aiden.” She pauses again, fingers fidgeting at her elbows. “But I stopped seeing my family. I didn’t want them to see how I’d changed, so I kept making excuses until they stopped asking.”
“Have you tried to quit or cut back before?” I ask her.
“Yeah. But the headaches I’d get were unreal.” She lifts a hand to her forehead. “It just felt like my brain went to pieces inside.”
“Is Aiden aware that there’s a problem?”
“Not at first, no. We’d drink together. He’s they type to throw back a couple of beers in the evening. But now…”
“Now you’re here.” I know I’m interrupting. “Now you’re seeking out change. Why?”
Maisey seems to grow smaller in her silence, as if she’d like to sink into the sofa cushions. I let her live with that feeling--experience the force driving her.
When her voice does come, it’s small. “The baby.”
I feel a pang in my chest. “You’re…?”
“Eight weeks preganant,” Maisey finishes for me. “I know it’s not good for the baby. I’ve tried to stop, but I haven’t been perfect. Now Aiden’s worried and I’m a wreck. Maybe he knows I have a problem. He’s the one who suggested I get some help. I don’t want to poison our baby, but I don’t want to lose him, now more than ever. These images keep running through my mind--what if I leave the baby in the car? What if I black out and can’t wake up to feed it?” Her words come rushing out in a torrent.
I know how to avoid getting carried away by it. “How long have you been together now?”
“Almost two years,” she says in a shaky voice.
“And you want this baby?”
“I do,” she says. “I really do.”
I believe her. “There are things we can do. But it begins by being honest with Aiden.”
Her face, which has been a combination of blank expressions and wry grins, crumbles like a landslide. She lets out a single, choked sob.
“You told me earlier that you don’t feel yourself to be interesting.” This is the time to circle back, to dive into the plan. “But I’ve found you to be very captivating today. You’re self-aware, well spoken. One of your first steps is to change your thought pattern. Every time you want to call yourself dull, or unworthy in any way, you need to change that narrative. The good parts of Drunk Maisey are there inside you. It’s who Aiden loves. That person is not going to go away as you begin your recovery. There’s nothing wrong with being an introvert. I can prescribe something to help with the anxiety, but you need to plan your life to meet your needs. You’ve been ignoring that basic self care.” I pause to let that sink in. I see it register in her face, in the flickering movements of those dense brown eyes.
“I don’t think I wanted to care for that part of myself,” she says slowly.
I think about every patient who’s said something similar. I can’t repeat it, can’t repeat their names. Each woman sits anonymously in her own HIPPA-compliant box in my mind. I think of the parts of myself I’ve tried to discard to fit into others’ boxes, and I’m hit with a surge of feeling. But I know how to navigate this kind of turbulence. It’s not about me right now. I shove that feeling back down, into a box.
“You’re not alone,” I tell her. I want to reach out and grab her hand, wrap her in a hug, but instead I look at the clock on the wall. Ten minutes left. “You’re not alone and you’re worth caring for,” I repeat. “Come back next week and we’ll make a plan for it. Let’s spend our last few minutes today discussing what you’ll say to Aiden. It sounds like having a script has been helpful to you before.”
Maisey runs the back of her hand over her eyes, and in that gesture, she sits up a little taller.
“Okay,” she says.