The other people in the waiting room

“I HEAR THEM! THEY ARE CALLING ME A CHEAP PROSTITUTE!”

Her shouting is like a gas: It completely fills the space, regardless of the size of the container. The sound originates deep in her abdomen and bellows from her mouth before reverberating throughout the room.

“THESE DISGUSTING MEN,” she shouts, “KEEP CALLING ME A WHORE! I AM NOT A WHORE!”

Her wrinkled hands flecked with liver spots loosely hold a fashion magazine open. Long strands of her gray hair are falling into her dark eyes.

“I HATE ALL OF THEM! THEY ARE SO DISGUSTING!”

Spittle flies from her chapped lips as she roars. Her eyes are focused on the empty chair directly across from her.

“IF THEY KEEP CALLING ME A DIRTY WHORE, I WILL SLIT THEIR THROATS! ALL OF THEM!”

A receptionist, a doctor, a nurse, and a dietician all stand around her in the waiting room. The shouting woman is waiting for her appointment. The staff are waiting either for her to calm down or for the last cue to escort her out.

Silence fills the room like a gas. The woman’s lips are stretched into an uncomfortable grimace.

Seated directly to her right is an older man. He still has not looked around the sheet of newsprint he is holding. He has not shifted position. The newspaper does not rustle.

Seated to her left is another man who is holding a small cell phone in his right hand. His right thumb periodically pushes a button on the phone and his eyes remain fixed on the small screen.

Two men and one woman are seated across the room. The woman continues to dip her crochet hook into the yarn; the hook has not stopped since the shouting began. One man has his arms crossed; his chin is tucked in and his eyes look closed. The other man rests his elbows on his knees, his fingertips lightly touching, and his eyes stare at the floor. If he has flinched, no one has noticed.

“STOP CALLING ME THAT!”

This story isn’t about her. It’s about the other people in the waiting room.

What happened in their lives that gave them the stoicism to completely ignore her?

They didn’t get up. They didn’t change seats. They didn’t stare with curiosity or fear. They didn’t look at each other with knowing eyes.

None of them had met her before, but they were already familiar with her behavior.

What happened to all of them?

Did their parents only scream at them? Was a shouting parent more comforting than silence, as that meant that at least a parent was present? Did they learn to tune out the shouting when they were incarcerated? Were they beaten as adolescents, such that shouting like this was a benign alternative? Did strangers only shout at them, making this situation nothing out of the ordinary?

How did they learn to cope like this? Who or what trained them to react like this, to react with nothing at all?

Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at In White Ink.

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  • AKMaineIac

    Clearly the woman has psychological issues, and the staff are attempting to deal with it. An animal, if not the object of scrutiny of a predator, will stand still when one is around. Rather than move and attract attention to itself, it will attempt to be disinterested while closely following what the predator is doing. What the people in the waiting room are doing is what comes naturally to a species that has developed and learned to remain safe and alive in a dangerous environment over many generations.

    I’m not sure that any of the individuals were actually “conditioned” through life experience to respond in such a way. I’ve worked in law enforcement and EMS prior to returning to school to become a physical therapist. My own response would have been to monitor the situation and not respond unless I needed to to protect either myself or another person in the room.

    The staff members are handling the situation. I hope they have a primary individual conversing with her, and will rotate to another if she doesn’t respond well to one. I hope they’re not all interacting with her at the same time. But there isn’t any way to know those things. We’ve got a snapshot of a situation..

  • JD

    Dr. Yang, I am not sure I see your point. Any sign of reaction from the others in the room could easily turn them into the next “target” for the woman, who clearly has some issues. What do you expect them to do, stare at her with pity? Leave in panic? I don’t think that the other people needed to be abused when they were younger in order for them to stay very still, not stare at her, and avoid the risks of getting their throats slit. Trying to avoid a unclear, potentially dangerous, situation seems like an appropriate response to me.

  • Nelson

    Is it not common courtesy to politely ignore a medical issue being experienced by someone in the waiting room of a medical facility?

  • http://twitter.com/DiNovia DiNovia

    Consider the possibility that the other people in the waiting room are examples of the culmination of a) a lack of physical community where people now are connected on-line more than they are in proximal space and b) the age-old admonition from our mothers for decades: “Don’t stare! Don’t be rude! Don’t look!”

    They are not bad people. They are not victims of abuse. They are disconnected from each other and the screaming woman by a sense of communal isolation.

    If the woman with the crochet hook had accidentally stabbed herself with it or the young man watching the smartphone screen received a call about the death of a relative and began to cry silently in his chair, no one would have stopped what they were doing to offer assistance any more than they did with the screaming woman.

    • Kris

      “If the woman with the crochet hook had accidentally stabbed herself with it…”

      I would feel safe approaching someone who had suffered an accidental injury. I would not feel safe approaching a highly agitated psychotic.

  • Guest

    My midwestern parents were as kind as could be and rarely raised their voices, I was never struck as a child, never beaten as an adolescent, none of those things.

    The one time I was attacked, though, it was out of the blue by a woman behaving much like the one in your waiting room, only she was on a train. I was sitting across from her, and made eye contact as I was about to ask if there was anything I could do for her. She leapt up, started screaming even more excitedly that I was staring at her and “raping” her “with my eyes”, then screamed “rapist!” again and raked her long filthy fingernails down my cheek, drawing blood.

    I was actually mortified. And terrified. I was 18 years old, a college freshman away from my small friendly town for the first time, and I learned my lesson: keep your head down around this kind of person, make yourself as invisible as possible, do not do anything to call attention to yourself, and just hope it’ll be over (with no blood drawn) quickly.

  • Ginger

    I don’t know why the other people, who’re waiting quietly for their appointments have become the object of your scrutiny. Should they abandon an appointment they’ve made, presumably for some reason, and flee from someone who is has some mental problem but is not actively brandishing a dangerous weapon?
    Unmentioned is how long this woman has been waiting! If I were there I’d be hoping they’d reshuffle the appointments a bit and get the woman into her appointment and out of the waiting room.

  • buzzkillerjsmith

    The old woman was crazy, known to be so. Other pts Ignoring non-threatening crazy people is completely normal behavior in a doctor’s waiting room.

  • azmd

    As a psychiatrist I would agree with others who have commented that the other patients in the waiting room are displaying completely appropriate coping behavior for the situation described.

    To me, the story is this: why on earth have the staff not escorted an obviously agitated, psychotic patient back to an interview room where she might feel safer and might no longer frighten the other patients in the waiting room?

    If the clinic doesn’t have a clearly communicated protocol for such situations, it should.

    • Mandy

      Concur.

  • Mandy

    “Did their parents only scream at them? Was a shouting parent more comforting than silence, as that meant that at least a parent was
    present? Did they learn to tune out the shouting when they were
    incarcerated? Were they beaten as adolescents, such that shouting like
    this was a benign alternative? Did strangers only shout at them, making
    this situation nothing out of the ordinary?”

    Good grief. You’re inappropriately pathologizing your other patients’ completely sane and rational responses.

    Ridiculous.

  • Theresa Bubenzer

    Not sure what the people in the waiting room were expected to do. The woman was psychotic. The staff was there to deal with it. What else could be done?

    • Guest

      Actually the staff seems to have been sitting by, watching the entire situation unfold, writing blog posts.

  • Jim Jaffe

    join others in asking, “so, what’s your point?” perhaps a slacker but have gotten along fairly well until now by not intervening in such situations if there were others present who had responsibility to do so and seemed to be exercising it. tend not to challenge bus drivers or cops who are handling unruly folks, even if I’d do it a bit differently.

  • DeadPatient

    Gee, talk back to the psychotic woman, have her attack you, and YOU go to jail for assault and battery. Oh yeah, the old witch will SUE you, too!
    Seen that happen, with my own eyes.
    Therefore, given the current “legal” environment (where the loonies are running the asylum), the sane cope by keeping their heads down and mouths shut.
    The key question, doctor, is “What happened to the legal system such that psycho’s like this are free and not in an institution?”

  • southerndoc1

    What was doing Dr. Yang doing staring at the other people in the waiting room rather than dealing a disturbed patient?

    • Guest

      Gathering material for her blog, one assumes. Bizarre.

  • meyati

    An almost interesting piece of creative writing. Dr. Yang, you never said what your role was supposed to be in this scene. You seemed to have some official role, as you knew there was a dietician, nurse, doctor, and a receptionist, but you spent your time analyzing other sick people waiting for an appointment. At this point, I should say- don’t give up your day job, but you seem to have been unfocused yourself-with a disconnect to all of the patients. Were you raised by a robot-where you are disconnected from everybody?

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