“So what do you have today?”
“Me? I have hypomania.”
“Oh, that’s great!”
“Yeah, I like it, but it’s so exhausting. How about you?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty relaxing. You just have to sit there and mumble about how you don’t want to live anymore.”
We sit around a conference table, and we do what actors do best: We kibbitz. This is our little thespian scrum—the thirty minutes we have to hang out before acting. There are a dozen of us, and each has a pocket folder with our cases inside. In five pages, we learn all about ourselves: How old we are, our family life, when we had our tonsils out, what we ate for breakfast. Rich, a silver-haired man with glasses, has already untied his shoelaces and mussed his hair, because he’s “unkempt” and “suicidal.” Mary-Beth, the angry teen, is wrapping a bandanna around her brow, and her first words to the medical student will be (as scripted), “Fuck off.”
Kim enters the room, and she smiles. “How is everybody doing today?” she chirps. Everybody waves and nods. At the moment we’re happy—happy to be at work, to have acting jobs, to know a thing or two about Valium addiction. But in twenty minutes, we’ll go to our classrooms, and we’ll be very unhappy: We’ll have drug issues and psychotic episodes. We’ll fidget and mumble about our night terrors.
“So,” Kim says, surveying the room, “any questions?”
Kim essentially runs the SP program. She has memorized every case. She knows the answer to every question. She’s sharp and good-humored and impossibly well organized. I would guess she’s in her mid-forties, and she sports a trendy haircut and smart outfits. She is, in short, the perfect boss—the boss I always wanted, in the grim minefield of temp work and part-time gigs.
“I have a question,” Marcia pipes up. “I was looking through the case, and I couldn’t find how long I’ve had a Xanax prescription.”
“I would say a few years,” Kim says. “You’ve definitely adjusted to it, so that shouldn’t be a cause of your mood swings.”
This Q&A goes on for a few minutes. This is all the prep time we have. We’ve reviewed our cases, but once we go to our rooms, we’re stuck there. What we don’t remember, we improvise. As we eat sandwiches and talk about last night’s Steelers game, we also silently review the facts of our lives: My father is a lawyer… my mother volunteers… no siblings… I went to college for a little while but had to drop out…
“Yes,” Kim says, pointing to my raised hand.
“Does it matter what instrument I play?” I say.
“Which case do you have?”
I smile broadly, because this is my very favorite case. The one I brag to friends about. I clear my throat, raise the folder in the air, and say with pride: “I have schizophrenia.”
“OH, THAT’S SUCH A GREAT CASE!” Rita sings from across the room. “I LOVE SCHIZOPHRENIA!”
“You really do that?” friends ask. “You act at the hospital? That sounds like so much fun!”
“It is,” I say.
“Hey, did you ever see that episode of Seinfeld, where Kramer…”
Yes, I have seen that episode. Nearly every SP has seen that episode. Called “The Burning,” the 1998 episode that had Kramer working as a standardized patient for a med school, where he gets stuck with gonorrhea week after week. He tries to steal cirrhosis of the liver from his friend Mickey. Hilarity ensues.
As you’d guess, “The Burning” gets almost everything wrong—the feel, the environment, the sequence of events. But there’s one thing Kramer gets right: We’re actors, and we love weird cases. Nothing is blander to us than headaches or back-pain. What we want is some real suffering—cheating husbands, domestic abuse, dead relatives, and hopefully lots of street drugs. Some of my happiest days have been spent as a depressed alcoholic. Who gets into bar fights. And has no job. Sometimes I’ll make him a little racist, just for kicks.
In high school, I played Renfield in a local production of Dracula. Renfield is Dracula’s assistant, a madman who eats live insects. Like most B-level stage actors, I’m always nostalgic for that early role. The one that made me realize that I Am An Actor. I played Renfield as a screechy, acrobatic lunatic, all big eyes and cryptic giggles. Since then, I’ve always enjoyed crazy-man roles, and when I heard there was a schizophrenia case floating around, I begged Kim for a chance to play it.
But schizophrenia isn’t what you’d think: The case is, in a word, mellow. Mostly I just sit in a chair and mumble about how much I hate my parents and going outside. I think people are trying to steal my ideas. I stare at the floor, the walls, and every once in a while I jerk my head a little—What was that?—but it has to be subtle. This isn’t Natural Born Killers. Still, I love it. Because I get to be the Guy Who Hears Voices. The Guy Who Sees Secret Codes at the Library. The Guy Who Yells Loudly in the Cafeteria Though Not At Anybody in Particular.
“We ready?” Kim says.
Again, everybody nods, then we stand and file out of the room. We saunter down the halls to our respective classrooms. Students in white lab coats still amble down the corridor, trying to find the right door number. Today I wear a hooded sweatshirt and tattered jeans, because I’m “solitary” and have “poor hygiene.” I see my professor ahead, Dr. Rubin, my favorite psych Prof in the school. He doesn’t remember me, but I always remember him—him and his endearing sailboat ties.
I hand him a sheet of paper. There is a little paragraph that summarizes the case.
“Okay, great,” Dr. Rubin says. “So you’re schizophrenia today?”
I nod, giddy. “That’s right,” I reply. “I’m schizophrenia.”