Elephants and Flamingos

Olga Runciman, Cand Psych BSc
23
167

I am walking through my local park in Copenhagen, Denmark, early in the morning breathing in the fresh smell of damp soil and late summer blooms. I am feeling slightly sad that summer is soon over and in a short while the park lake will be frozen, the trees bare. I am thinking about my thesis that I have just handed in and the fact that if it is passed I will be a certified psychologist! But, I will not be just any psychologist. I will be Denmark’s first official ‘Mad’ psychologist, joining the ranks of others such as Rufus May, Eleanor Longden, Arnhild Lauveng, and Pat Deegan.

I find myself reflecting back in time as I continue my walk. I remember when I was a child at school desperately unhappy, bullied and reviled. Yet I was a child with a passion for reading as well as writing, excited when we were given the week’s assignment in English class to write the next story. Sometimes we were even given the first sentence; firing my imagination, which went leaping off in all different directions, filled with enthusiasm and excitement. Yet, regularly, my cherished little stories would be chosen for the specific purpose of ridicule, read aloud to a class who was encouraged to laugh and mock.

I came to hate these assignments and I came to fear writing as it symbolized the message of stupidity, something that has been reflected in my voices ever since. I chose to live in other countries where I always had the excuse that not being a native speaker was why I could not write correctly and cultivated illegibility for the many unavoidable occasions when writing was unavoidable. Yet here I am walking through the park, thinking “if I pass I will symbolically have proven that the message of stupidity given so many years ago was a cruel act of a school, which saw fit to hurt a little girl rather than a message of truth.”

I am reaching the far end of my park and as I near the end, I hear the trumpeting of elephants and turning the corner I see them; there is even a little baby elephant standing between the front legs of its mother.

My mind moves forward in time. I am now the psychiatric nurse gone mad, locked away in the sectioned ward, worrying about the exam I was due to take. But that is not what the staff and psychiatrists are speculating about. No, they are far more worried that this severely ill patient thinks she can be a psychologist and much is mobilized to quash that delusion. “Olga, you are a schizophrenic, think about that… (pause) that’s not realistic now is it?” Pity was also used. “Olga” while holding both of my hands, slowly shaking their heads from side to side, “we know you think you can be a psychologist but…”

In time I found myself feeling embarrassed that I was so foolish to think that I could ever be anything let alone a psychologist and the day I announced that I had officially dropped out of the university much praise flowed my way. “Clever girl!” (I was 30+) “We knew you would realize that psychology was not for you. We are so proud of you for finally acknowledging that.” Sadly, they really were. What they didn’t know was that I had lied or rather one of my voices would step in each year when it came time to renew my place at the university and say “Sign! Sign!” and I did. So for years I was what was called an ‘eternal permanent’ student, something that is no longer possible in the present day economic climate. Lucky for me, I got out of psychiatry before that permanency was no longer permanent and I could join a program for mature students returning to take up their studies from years before.

I walk past the elephants and, turning the next corner, I now see flamingos splendid in their bright pink feathers, curved necks and their big beaks sifting for food in the shallow water. I stand there admiring them for a short while, watching how the cool northern wind ruffles their feathers before I continue my walk in the park.

My mind moves forward to the present I find myself speculating; will my life be any different now I am a psychologist? Probably not, I think. What is different is my sense of victory. “I did it!” I find myself whispering, “I did it!” Even though I am still waiting to hear if I passed or not, I have conquered the demons of my childhood. I have overcome a system that almost obliterated me. I did what I had been told I could not do. “I did it!” I throw out my arms and suck in the air, suddenly not caring that the winter will soon be changing my park from green to white.

I walk out of the park, a smile on my face and suddenly a thought pops into my head. What if I was to meet a psychiatrist who does not know my park and he was to ask me about my walk in the park. What if I was to say I had had a wonderful walk, strolling along the paths, joggers running past me, mothers and fathers pushing prams, watching children playing on the grass and dogs straining on leashes, noses seeking out the world of smells? What if I said I had seen elephants and even a little baby one standing between the front legs of its mother and later I had seen beautiful pink flamingos wading in the shallow water? What if this psychiatrist had access to my papers, papers that said I had a history of schizophrenia? Eyebrows would go up. “Elephants and flamingos in a park in the capital city of Denmark! The cold north! Scandinavia! I think not!”

I would swear that this was true, that I had seen elephants and flamingos but he would insist that this was delusional and that my schizophrenia previously in remission was back with a vengeance. What if the next question he asked was; what do you do in your daily life? And I was to say I work as a psychologist. The psychosis, in the eyes of psychiatry would be complete, would it not? I would find myself back in the psychiatric hospital insisting there are elephants and flamingos in the park and that I am a psychologist. As for the staff they would be shaking their heads pityingly, saying “she never did get over her dream that she would be a psychologist, poor schizophrenic woman.”

And what about you my readers? Do you believe there are elephants and flamingos in my park? Well, if ever you come and visit I will show you that indeed there are, and I, as Denmark’s first official “Mad” psychologist, will show them to you!

23 COMMENTS

  1. I liked this article because I could relate to the story, and to the author as a role model. I find being written off by psychiatry very discouraging, but that great feeling of having succeeded despite what they said or might say is priceless (as is reading about someone elses)!

    Role models are recognised as a very positive influence by the hearing voices movement, so I’d like to ask why we are not hearing many more people’s stories like this? I’d be willing to bet that with each role model and their successes that we hear about, (multiple) more people are moved/inspired into gaining confidence to do just as well. There also seems to be less male role models too currently, and I’d love to hear from a greater and more divers range of professional/surviors here at MIA.

    Best wishes for the thesis!

  2. Another inspiring post Olga, thanks for sharing your story. It was like being there with you in the elephant and flamingo park. And well done on completing your thesis, a psychologist in waiting, being mad is the most important ingredient. I am sure you will be in much demand.

    All the best, Chrys

  3. A beautifully written personal story. I don’t know if this is an appropriate (I hate that word) comment, but your English is wonderful. I see posts from you on Facebook, and I am surprised that sometimes they are in Danish. It took me a while to figure it out. Your English writing is nice and free and fluid (sometimes), which one rarely sees from someone whose native language is not English.

    Best wishes for your thesis. I just got off Facebook, exchanging messages with a friend who is still working on her thesis for a psychology Ph.D. She is in New York, at the same school and psychology department where I was a Ph.D. candidate many years ago. Is this cosmic or what?

  4. Thank you for this beautifully written post.

    It reminded me of a story involving my family when reality became so absurd that I have been questioning reality ever since.

    A mental health worker from the local government agency called me on the phone to discuss my daughter. Turns out that my daughter told her psychiatrist (who she was court ordered to see) that there was a herd of wild goats on our property. The psychiatrist was concerned that my daughter was delusional and hallucinating. Problem is, the psychiatrist lives in the city where goats are not common, whereas, we live in the country, where freely roaming animals are more common than people.

    There were really goats on our property. In fact, they were technically in our house.

    The neighbor’s goats came onto our property while we were away and ate our garden. Then they made their way into our mudroom and kicked the door shut behind them. Eight goats were stuck in an 8 by 10 foot room attached to our house, jumping from shelf to shelf, freezer to workbench, knocking over cans of washers, nails, staples, and hooks. When we came home, it was a nightmare. Pounds of hardware lay on the ground mixed with goat pee and goat poop. While I and my son shooed them out, one of the goats went deeper into the house, and wandered into my daughter’s bedroom.

    My daughter, having been released only days before from the state mental hospital, lay calmly in her bed viewing the goat in her room. While I am my son are running around the house, chasing goats with brooms, screaming and acting crazy, my daughter is as serene as can be, viewing the goat in her room with a mixture of bemusement and non nonchalance, proving that life is more crazy than anything one can fabricate in one’s mind.

    This is a true story. Sh*t like this happens all the time in our family, reinforcing my belief that my daughter, the one labeled with ‘schizophrenia’ is the sanest member of our household. If the world was teetering on the verge of collapse, my daughter is the one whose company I would seek because she has seen it all and she is a survivor and she would know what to do.

    Olga, if I were having a crisis in Copenhagen, you are the person I would call for help. Good luck with your test!

    • Hey, after what your daughter witnessed in her stay at the state hospital seeing the goat in her bedroom was probably tame to her! No big deal!

      Thanks for sharing this; it reminds me of some of the things that happened to my family when I was growing up. Truth is often stranger than fiction but you can’t convince the quack psychiatrists of that since they’re the so-called “experts” on everything!

  5. As I sat reading this I could see so clearly in my imagination the elephant child and the beautiful pinkish-red feathers of the flamingos fluttering in the breeze. Thank you for sharing this. I am so glad that Copenhagen has a “mad” psychologist! I wish that we had more people like you here in the United States.

    You write so beautifully.

  6. “And what about you my readers? Do you believe there are elephants and flamingos in my park? Well, if ever you come and visit I will show you that indeed there are, and I, as Denmark’s first official “Mad” psychologist, will show them to you!”

    One more reason to come to Copenhagen. Next year I’m going to ride on my bicycle the 555 km to the north in 5 days to see elephants and flamingos. It’s a crazy idea I just made up, but this doesn’t mean I will not do it.