Infrastructure means never having to say you’re sorry

My longtime mental-health-care provider, Dr. Sigurd Froyd of Strategic Coping Ltd., has two offices, one on the southeast edge of downtown Minneapolis and the other in Fridley. I had always seen him at the Minneapolis location, but when I arrived for my August appointment (Dr. Froyd is the sole in-network shrink my insurance company offers, and I get a maximum of one mental-health session per month), there was a Post-it Note slapped on the glass door of his two-room office suite. “Clients seen in Fridley only until further notice,” read its scrawled message. In the dimness beyond, I could make out the familiar acrylic-tweed couch and the modest waiting-room library: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Chicken Soup for the Caregiver’s Soul, Iron John, and a few back issues of Sports Illustrated and Redbook, which I knew from experience were as limp as old towels.

In Fridley, Dr. Froyd had no anteroom. His office was situated in the middle of a strip mall, flanked by a Dollar Holler store and the Rising Dragon Tae Kwon Do Academy. The Post-it on this door said, in different handwriting, “Be right with you—please wait in your car.” I slid back into my rust-pocked Accord and tapped my wedding ring on the steering wheel until Dr. Froyd poked his balding head out and motioned for me to enter.

We sat across from each other at a folding conference table in a narrow, carpeted room, beneath eggcrate light fixtures and water-stained acoustical tile. Dr. Froyd saw my glance stray upward and said, “Flat roof. Lousy drainage.” Then he pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets and added, “Strategic Coping—my parent company and my lot in life.” I laughed politely. He gave an apologetic grimace and asked how I was doing.

I was just commencing the preamble to my tale of psychic woe when he heaved a deep sigh and held up his hand, palm out, like a traffic cop. “Look,” he said. “We both know what your problems are. We’ve been over them a hundred times. We know what’s wrong with you, we know what you need to do to make improvements, and we both know, don’t we, why you never get around to doing it.” There was a buzzing fluorescent silence. I stood up and edged toward the door. My hand was on the knob when he asked, “Do you know why you’re in Fridley?”

I didn’t. I hadn’t been in Fridley since 1965, when the killer tornadoes came through and leveled a big chunk of the town, and my family drove up from St. Louis Park a few days later to rubberneck. I was 7 years old.

“Um,” I said. “You’re trying to jolt me out of my normal patterns?”

“This isn’t about you,” he said. “You’re here because I can’t cross the Mississippi anymore. On August 1, at 6:05 p.m., I would have been on the 35W bridge, but my five o’clock called to say she was on her way to check back into rehab, so I came home early. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays I was always on that bridge at 6:05.”

“Wow,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize for something that’s beyond your power to control. How many times have we been over that?”

I stopped myself, just barely, from saying I was sorry again.

“You’re here because of a failure of infrastructure. I’m not talking about the bridge. I’m talking about my mind. I’m 57, and I really thought it was good for at least another 20, 25 years. I thought I had my phobic bases covered. I mean, I’m trained in this stuff. I’m not the world’s greatest therapist—if I was, I sure as hell wouldn’t be working for Strategic Coping Ltd. It’s embarrassing, frankly. But look at me. It’s not just that I can’t cross the river; I can’t ride in an elevator or drive my car or watch television when it’s raining outside. I can’t even think about getting on a bus or a plane or a carnival ride. I can’t push my grandson on the swings. Everywhere I look, inside myself and out, I see shoddiness and atrophy and loose threads and duct tape with curled-up edges, and it all scares the living crap out of me.”

He held up the end of his tie as if presenting evidence. It seemed a perfectly good tie to me. I had one very much like it—navy with fine gold stripes—in my closet at home. I bought it in 1996 at Dayton’s for my boss’s boss’s wife’s funeral.

“Those inspectors,” Dr. Froyd said. “All through the years, they presumably took into account everything they knew or could learn about steel and concrete and physics and weather and load patterns and road salt and pigeon dung and barge-horn vibrations. They saw issues, but, bottom line, they thought the thing would stand. Same way with me. I took into account that I was born via emergency C-section, so my mother was all drugged up when my drunken father gave me my stupid name. That both my parents always liked my sister best. That Chad Pilkington gave me 26 bloody noses in the third grade. That I didn’t get into Harvard. Or Hamline. That my first wife left me for a cabinetmaker and my second wife left me for a female drywaller. Cumulatively, and adding in the positive elements, like the fact that my third wife has no interest in the manual arts, I was confident that my psyche was within normal tolerances.”

Dr. Froyd was having to raise his voice to compete with a growing din of kid-yells from the Rising Dragon next door. Now he tilted his head toward the guttural noises, smiled wanly, and said, “Those children are learning an ancient physical and mental discipline of respect, concentration, and self-control. Lucky bastards.” He gave a tiny shrug. “Then again, when they get home they’ll be playing Grand Theft Auto and surfing for porn.”

We listened to the kids’ bare feet slapping the floor mats.

“It isn’t the death toll that has paralyzed my mind,” said Dr. Froyd. “I wish all aid and comfort to the bereaved, of course, and not to be cynical, but, in purely numerical terms, this is on the order of a car/van crackup on prom night. This is a good day in Baghdad. It isn’t grief and it isn’t quite terror and it isn’t oh-my-God-I-should-be-dead. It’s something I can’t identify, and so far it’s untouchable by talk and medication and fresh air and brisk exercise and music and board games and the warmth of my family.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. I couldn’t help myself.

“Dammit,” he said. Then: “All right, I’ll give you that one. But don’t let it happen again.”

Soon I was back in the parking lot with a referral for a new therapist—out-of-network; unreimbursable—in my hand. Kids were doing martial choreography behind the Rising Dragon’s painted plate glass. People at the Dollar Holler were getting great deals on odd-lot T-shirts and Chinese toothpaste. The asphalt beneath my feet was festooned with cigarette butts and Diet Coke cans and shiny stains from oil and coolant. One last time, at least for that day, I said I was sorry, and then I climbed into my car and drove to my home on the other side of the river.

Contributing editor Jeff Johnson wishes more politicians could at least pronounce the word infrastructure.