All the men swooned is another Preston story to make you think, laugh and relax.
Bernard Preston tells in his second book of coalface anecdotes, Bats in my Belfy, how good inter-professional relationships help patients to find a higher place; even drug addicts.
Sandy MacDonald had that effect on those of us from Mars. She walked onto the stage looking like a goddess and all the males in the audience fell into the lap of her seduction.
Every year we had a clinic outing to dinner and a show. I figured I owed it to my staff and, in any event, the Receiver of Revenue paid for nearly half of the cost. To my mind, good staff, well paid is what makes for successful business, and the odd evening out with their spouses was always fun anyway. The office manager had made the choice: dinner and ‘Private Lives’ with Sandy MacDonald in the lead role.
By day Sandy was a psychologist by profession and was as hard as nails. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, particularly those whom she perceived as simpering, depressed females. ‘Face the pain, get off your butt and live life.’ Not many doctors referred her patients, which didn’t bother her in the slightest. Sandy knew she was a goddess and her ego was entirely tied up with her success on the amateur stage.
"A guidance counsellor who has made a fetish of security, or who has unwittingly surrendered his thinking to economic determinism, may steer a youth away from his dream of becoming a poet, an artist, a musician or any other of thousands of things, because it offers no security, it does not pay well, there are no vacancies, or it has no ‘future’."
Henry M Wriston, President, Brown University
I had to give it to Sandy, though; she had succeeded with a few of my patients where everyone else had failed. Of course, she had also put a few even deeper into the pit with her tough, no-nonsense approach. A good many women hated her, not only because of the effect on stage that she had on their menfolk, but because she treated depression harshly and without much compassion. For some it worked, but in her letter of thanks for the referral of John Sampson, Junior she made it quite plain that he wasn’t going to be one of them.
Bats in my belfry is the second of Bernard Preston's three chiropractic books. It's available in hard print in the USA and RSA and as an eBook from Amazon; all the men swooned is one short story.
I walked down the long passage to my consulting room without the usual spring in my foot. I didn’t notice the warm winter sun streaming in. It was another glorious twenty-five degree day in South Africa but I wasn’t thinking about the weather.
As I walk into my office my eyes usually sweep around the paintings, all originals done by patients and a few glossy photographs of gliders. I didn’t give them a glance that day.
Even the wood panelling that I had so lovingly crafted in my workshop was ignored. It was a beautiful room, perhaps as beautiful as any chiropractor’s in the whole world, but I was worried and I roughly ignored my daily indulgence. When it comes to drugs, I’m beat.
I sat for a long time looking at the young man sitting in front of me. John Junior, in turn, looked back. He was unkempt, in his mid twenties, with long straw-coloured hair and flat blue eyes. The eyes of an addict.
‘You don’t know what to do with me, do you?’ he said.
‘Mental telepathy must be one of your strengths.’
‘Not at all. I have seen that look on many people’s faces.’
John Junior had been a patient for over ten years. His dad had first asked me if I could help JJ with the pain in his shoulder. Actually the pain was in what we call the scapula, the shoulder blade, and came from a heavy electric lead guitar that hung over his shoulder for five or more hours every day. He had been a pimply school boy who spent all his spare hours, every moment, either making an unbelievably bad noise with his guitar (so his dad and the neighbours said) or writing music at the piano. His class teacher had called his parents in, telling them that JJ would, in all likelihood, fail his final matriculation exam.
They wouldn’t have been so critical, none of them, not the neighbours, nor his teachers or his parents; had they known that John was destined to be the only millionaire on that street and the only mega-rich person ever to graduate from Graystone High, all before he turned twenty-one.
A real millionaire, in pounds sterling.
In the early morning he could be found at the piano, quietly tapping out sequences of notes and jotting them down on bits of paper that lay all over his den, when most other boys his age were still fast asleep. John was untidy as well as a prodigy. He would then spend hours at the computer typing his melodies onto a computer program his parents had finally relented and bought him one Christmas. I still remembered the day when both John Senior and Wendy came to the clinic for consecutive treatments. They came in together, taking it in turns to sit on a stool while the other was being treated.
Joint consultations work with most couples but it certainly didn’t with the Sampsons.
‘I really don’t understand it,’ Wendy said.
‘JJ just wastes hours and hours on that damned piano.’
‘And drives us crazy with the din on his guitar. He has the damn cheek to call what he plays music. Yes, that’s what he does, he plays when a boy his age, nearly a man should be working.’ John was angry.
‘He has cost us an absolute fortune with his guitars and amplifiers, and computer programs and God knows whatever else.’
‘It was your mother who got him started on the piano lessons. Remember she paid for the first six months and then left us to foot the bill for the next ten years,’ he said accusingly. ‘We would be rich, if it wasn’t for JJ.’ JJ’s father was prone to gross exaggeration. I might as well have not been present.
‘Now they tell us he’s going to fail matric. It doesn’t surprise me actually; he doesn’t do a scrap of work. He makes me so angry!’ This Wendy said to me. She was lying on my table and I could feel the anger surging through her body under my hands. It came as no surprise that she was in knots. I suppose it was cathartic for them to get all that anger out but I resolved to treat them separately in future. They fed off each other’s anger, and the bitterness was turning into a deep active myofasciitis that made my treatment sessions very difficult. It raised an old question that always gets chiropractors arguing: Do muscles in spasm cause subluxations of the spine? Or do subluxations cause muscle spasm? Absurd, of course, because both are true.
John and Wendy were both lecturers at the University. True academics, John in the natural sciences and Wendy in mathematics, they could not understand how they had spawned a totally non-academic son. Their elder three children all went into university careers. But John Junior!
Actually JJ was very bright. In the last two weeks before his final high school exams he put away his musical instruments and put the same amount of energy into his school books as he did into his music and surprised everyone. He easily obtained a university entrance and an A for Mathematics. That unfortunately only made his troubles worse.
It’s strange how one remembers conversations as though they had happened yesterday. John’s parents managed to continue to have joint consultations with me despite my objections.‘There’s no security in the arts,’ Wendy said. I sighed, knowing where this conversation was going, knowing too that I was helpless to cut if off. ‘He’s not going to be a John Lennon or a Freddie Mercury.’
‘You can be pleased about that. They both died long before their time!’ I said, thinking how dated their knowledge of the modern music scene was. I suspected they had no idea that both Lennon and Mercury were dead.‘There’s no future in music at all,’ John Senior said, ignoring me. ‘I can see we will be supporting him until we are old and grey.’‘Music makes a great mistress, but a lousy wife. He must go on and do a good solid degree.’‘But Wendy, isn’t your daughter a lecturer in the fine arts department?’ Finally I managed to get another word in.
‘She and I are the exceptions that prove the rule. Very few women end up in the careers where they studied. They go and have babies and by the time they come back to the work place they usually do something quite different. Women should study their passion.
’‘Yes, men must go into a career where they can provide for their families. There’s no money in music. They just become bums and drug addicts." John Senior was right in one respect.
I couldn’t believe the blatant generalizations I was hearing. "You mean young women can go into the careers they dream of, but men are not allowed to dream dreams? I think you two are amazingly sexist," I went on, trying to make a joke of it.
No future, no security, no money. That’s a musical career in a nutshell. How wrong they were. Perhaps they were unwittingly trying to steer their son away from a path in life that was to bring him – and them – much pain but their gaze into the crystal ball of life was very fuzzy. There were pots of money at the end of JJ’s rainbow, a glorious career and a stunning wife. I couldn’t see it either.
John and Wendy were utterly against their son continuing with a career in music. A Bachelor of Music degree at the university was out of the question. It was quite clear to them that the astonishing grade in Mathematics was where JJ’s future lay, not realizing that maths and music were more than just alliteration.
If only JJ had obtained an ordinary D pass they would perhaps have left him in peace. Why couldn’t he see it? Anybody who could get an A with the amount of commitment that he gave to his studies must be a natural: all his career-blind parents could see was a great future in Mathematics or one of the sciences.
I watched with sadness the deterioration of the family relationships as JJ’s parents refused to pay for his musical studies. The knots in Wendy’s neck grew worse and ultimately JJ packed his guitars and his computer and moved out. John and Wendy rarely heard from their son, an angry and hurt young man, though he kept in contact with his siblings. For some unknown reason, he also dropped me the occasional card.
Generally I avoid the Sunday newspapers. You can waste a whole day reading the week’s Bad News. But a visitor had left the paper and I spent half an hour perusing the sports page. Just as I was about to toss it aside, John Junior’s photo caught my eye in the Arts section. Long unkempt hair in dreadlocks, numerous rings and studs cluttered his ears and an unusual looking ring and chain connected his nose to his ear, caught my attention. I didn’t like the dull look in his eyes but the paper was raving about South Africa’s newest rage: The Larney Boys. They were destined for fame according to the writer.
Next morning Wendy was my first patient. ‘You saw JJ’s picture yesterday, I presume,’ I opened the conversation.‘Yes,’ she sighed. ‘Didn’t he look awful? I’m so ashamed of my son.
’‘Why ashamed, Wendy? He apparently has a great future in music.
’‘Bernie, you and I both know that for every thousand music groups, only one makes it to the Big Time. He’s going down a cul-de-sac. He looked so awful with those rings and chains. And his hair!’‘
"Those are only the symbols of a youth that wants to do their own thing. That’s their way of expressing their independence, Wendy.’‘
"I’m sorry, Bernie, John and I just don’t share your optimism. I can only see him becoming a millstone around our necks and I’m terrified of him getting into the booze or drugs scene.
’‘Well, that’s true, but pushing him away from you is just going to make matters worse. He needs you, Wendy. It’s time to mend some bridges.’
She just shook her head and never said another word during the remainder of the consultation. I did some painful cross-friction on a muscle in her neck and showed her how to do some new stretches that I had learnt at a sports congress. After adjusting two bones in her neck and another between her shoulder blades I dismissed her, sadly watching the strained, tense lady go on her way. I had a bad feeling about their family.
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The Larney Boys did make it to the big time, and amazingly quickly. A South African tour was quickly followed by their first CD release and then their first real break. A contract for a tour of England that smashed the records for the last decade of the twentieth century. John junior and his pals were rich.
Very rich. That’s when JJ’s trouble really started: it is only to the very unfortunate that wealth and success come so early in life.
‘JJ, you need help. I’m not telling you something you don’t know. When you are ready I suggest you consult this psychologist,’ I said, passing him Sandy McDonald’s card. ‘Don’t be deceived by her pretty face,’ I warned.
John Junior turned over the card in his hands looking at it in a dull way – everything seemed to be going at half speed that morning. Finally he asked: ‘Are you going to make the appointment for me?’
I thought about that. I had learnt the hard way that when parents and friends made appointments for others, they often don’t arrive. Whilst I usually make the appointment when it comes to referrals, I quickly decided that it was important for JJ to have enough commitment to pick up the phone and make his own arrangements.
‘I could, JJ, but I want you to make the appointment. She practises from home but her secretary will make the appointment for you. Shall we get on with the treatment of your back?’
My examination was a particular sadness for me. I hadn’t treated him for some years. The huge bulging deltoid and forearm muscles that JJ showed off when he left school were wasting. Part of my treatment in those days had been a consultation with a biokineticist that led on to a gym contract. We had also designed a new strap that spread the load away from the muscles of the shoulder and neck.
As JJ had started to work out, together with my spinal adjustments, finally the pain in his neck and shoulders from long hours hanging over his musical instruments had begun to abate. Just as important for the pimply teenager, the girls had started taking notice. His ego had taken a battering from his parents and teachers but the combination of pumping iron and strumming guitars had begun to work its magic on the fairer sex.
But now the increasing kyphosis of his mid-back and what we call ‘disuse atrophy’ of his muscles, coupled with the effect the drugs were having on his neurological system, was seriously depleting JJ’s health. I treated him and, as a passing remark, said: ‘Please also renew your contract at Andre’s gym.’
JJ had come, despite his wealth, close to the gutter. He was fortunately wise enough to know it, and honest enough despite his drugged state not to lie to himself, even if he lied to everyone else about his drugs. Sandy McDonald’s secretary was also a patient of mine. A few days later she said: ‘I’ve never heard such a commotion! The shouting, and the swearing – you should have heard it!’
‘It must be fun at your offices from time to time,’ I said.
She smiled back: ‘He left in a storm, but he did phone later in the day to make another appointment.’
Silently, I was pleased that the prodigal had come home. There was only one problem: in this case it was the prodigal’s parents, not his brother, who were displeased with JJ’s return.
Some weeks passed before I heard. John Senior’s consultation for a severe headache, tension induced, brought back to me all the pain that this family seemed destined to experience. JJ was in hospital after an overdose. It was the season of good cheer, that time of the year when people are on holiday, without the pleasant distractions that work can bring. A season which brings many a family into crisis. It’s no coincidence that suicides and family quarrels increase, and psychiatrists’ consulting rooms are full at Christmas. During the rest of the year we can sweep the unpleasant stuff under the carpet.
John Senior was miserable. He didn’t want to talk and I gave him space while I worked on his neck and shoulders. The muscles, it seemed, had been replaced by cords of steel causing serious fixations in the joints. Finally he said: ‘We were so wrong about JJ. He has made more money by his 21st birthday than Wendy and I together will earn in our whole lives. Fat lot of good it’s done him, mind you.’
‘Have you told him?’
‘Told him what?’
‘What you have just told me. How wrong you were.’
‘I couldn’t! What would I say?’
‘Just exactly what you said, without the last sentence about how little good it’s done him.’
‘What would that achieve?’
‘What do you think?’
‘I just couldn’t, Bernie. I don’t know what I think.’
I thought back to the days of my own children’s youth: ‘I remember the first time my son grasped something important that I couldn’t understand, John, and how shocked I was. Actually I was quite angry, I’m not sure with whom. It took me several months to realize how pleased Helen and I should have been that we had produced such an intelligent son.’
‘Look, I know we really screwed up, Bernie. He’s actually brilliant and we made him think he was dirt.’
‘Keep talking, John. You’re on the right track, and any minute now you are going to add 2 + 2 and finally get 4,’ I said rather sarcastically.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean you are finally beginning to be honest with yourself. It’s not my job to give you answers. You wouldn’t like them anyway but when you work it out for yourself, then you will know how to deal with it.’ I had been in the doctoring business long enough to know that folk have to reach that higher place themselves, the doctor’s job is to ask the right questions, not give the answers. I suspected the only way JJ was going to recover was when his parents admitted to him that they had totally screwed up, hugged their very talented son and apologized for their meanness of spirit. Only then would JJ’s ego begin the long climb back to feeling good about himself.
All the men swooned tells of an adoring public.
The call from Sandy McDonald was something of a surprise. ‘Bernie, I haven’t made any progress with JJ, but his parents are coming in, and you know I really think I see some movement in their lives. Ultimately that is probably where the healing has to come from. One day in the near future I am going to suggest to JJ that he go to a retreat for addicts called Shekinah. They do some good work there, but I will only put it to him once his parents have reached out to him. I think it’s going to be soon.’
‘What’s your diagnosis, Sandy?’
‘He’s definitely psychotic. He has some bizarre false beliefs and, if you challenge him, he goes ballistic. He reacts so inappropriately.’
‘I heard about the shouting! Sorry, I don’t know too much about psychosis. Can it be caused by drugs?’
‘Oh yes, absolutely, there’s heaps of evidence. A very old study from Sweden on 50,000 army recruits showed that those who smoked marijuana had a six times greater chance of becoming schizophrenic. Quite a recent study by an epidemiologist from the Royal College of Surgeons showed that of those who smoked dagga only three times before they were 16, have a ten per cent chance of becoming psychotic.’
‘Whew, that’s high. I remember reading something about how safe dagga was. Safer than cigarettes.’
‘Balderdash. You might want to read the latest New Scientist. They spell out the research done, particularly how dangerous it is for those who start early with marijuana. Actually, we shouldn’t write JJ off, though. It is the very young who are the worst affected and he didn’t start until after he was 20, and there are some very good drugs today for the management of schizophrenia. His real danger is that he has also now started experimenting with hard drugs.’
‘Is that what put him in hospital?’
‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘I have achieved one small success though. One of his fixed, false beliefs is that he is a hopeless guitar player. Quite extraordinary. For two years he has denied himself his greatest gift, the very instrument that brought him so much joy. He was so passionate by all accounts.’
‘No doubt about that. His parents told me he used to play for five or more hours every day.’
‘Well, he has finally started playing again.’
It was some months before I bumped into a member of the Sampson family again. In fact it was JJ himself who came over and greeted Helen and me at the local Folk Music club. We liked to go occasionally. ‘Hey, Doc, it’s nice to see you here. I didn’t know you were into this kind of music.’
I stood and shook his hand. ‘You are looking really good JJ. Yes, Helen and I love music, and good guitar music is my own favourite. I’m so glad to see you’ve finally picked up your instrument again. How long has it been?’
‘Nearly two years.’
‘Take a seat with us. Can I buy you something to drink?’
‘I’d love to but I’m up next. Can we chat afterwards?’
A girl with a sweet voice ended her piece, and then JJ went up onto the makeshift stage. ‘Welcome back, JJ,’ someone called. Everyone clapped and there were a few cheers and wolf-whistles. This was where JJ’s musical career had begun some ten years before.
He started with an interesting fusion of Jazz and Classical guitar, and went on to sing a soulful song about a boy who had lost his way in the maze of life, until he finally came to himself. The small audience clapped and stomped their feet and his friends gathered around him; there was a lot of shoulder thumping and high fives. Later he came and sat with us.
‘That was lovely, JJ,’ Helen said. ‘Bernie told me how talented you are. How right he is. That heavy rock CD you once gave us was not quite to my taste, but this was fantastic.’
He smiled at her and said nothing for a while. We listened to the next artist. Finally he said to me: ‘That’s quite a woman you sent me to. She gave me both barrels, and we had some real humdingers.’ He winked.
‘I am glad she could help. She’s not everybody’s favourite!’
‘I can believe it! But she said something to me from which I just couldn’t escape.’
‘What was that?’
‘Sandy said that either I had to face reality or reality would come staring at me in the face. It’s not very nice when reality starts to deal with you. I couldn’t escape her words, and finally started being honest with myself.’
‘Did it come right quite quickly after that, JJ?’ Helen asked.
He shook his head. ‘Finally she said that she had completely failed with me and suggested I go to a retreat place for addicts. It took me a while to get there, but that’s where I started facing the reality of my life for the first time in a long while. I realized that I was literally going crazy and I could see it in those around me too.’
‘So you managed to give up the drugs? Was that the big jumpstart to getting well again?’
He nodded. ‘It was really tough giving up, but in the end I did it cold-turkey. I even gave up smoking. They encouraged us to plant strawberries, and pick Chinese guavas and make jellies and jams. In the end though I think what really made the difference was another guy at Shekinah. He had a delusion that he was a great guitarist, but he was hopeless. It so irritated me that finally I picked up his guitar and, for the first time in two years, started to play properly again.’ He paused, listening to a new youngster on the makeshift stage. ‘It was only then that I came to terms with my own delusion: that I was a hopeless guitarist and should never play again. I even started playing the drums, but there I really was hopeless.’
‘Picking up your instrument was your way to getting well?’ Helen enquired, intrigued.
JJ nodded. ‘And you know what? Mom and Dad have been really good.’
‘That’s fantastic, JJ. Thank you for telling us. And now?’
‘I’m not sure. I’m in no hurry, I don’t need the money, so I thought I would start in this old jaunt for a couple of months, and I’ve been giving some guitar lessons to a few kids. I go out to Shekinah once a week for an afternoon, and help out, and well… I’m just happy to be for the present.’
A couple of months later we got the surprise of our lives. Helen and I were having dinner in a quiet steak house after a movie, when in walked JJ and Sandy – hand in hand. She wasn’t much older than him, and that way (so she told me later) she was less likely to be a widow for ten years.
Short stories, like those of legendary James Herriot are not that easy to find; if you enjoyed them then you'll love these; easy reading before you drop off at night.
All the men swooned is just one such story from Bats in my Belfry.
Now available for a song as a digital book.
MEET BERNARD PRESTON
Writers are just ordinary people, though a few think the are sitting
atop a pedestal. Mostly we like to eat, and sleep, we enjoying hugging
our children and grandchildren, and some of us want to live to a healthy
ripe old age. I do anyway...
MEET BERNARD PRESTON ...
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