Same Same But Different 

I’ve only been in two psychiatrists’ offices my whole life, one back home in South Africa and one here in Taiwan. The experiences have been as different as chalk and cheese.

My first psychiatrist was female. I think she must have been in her late 40s/early 50s. She was ever so stylish – always in fashionable, low heeled shoes and swooping summer dresses (Durban is perpetually warm – on the occasional cold day a light jersey will suffice). Her pixie haircut was always neat and she wore minimal, natural looking makeup.

Several members of my family have been to see her over the years and, as guarded as I am, I trusted her. She was like a safe, well put together, in control mother figure.

Her office was very quiet. The radio that sat in one corner, playing softly, was often the only sound. Her secretary was friendly but not overbearing. Sometimes there would be another patient waiting for an appointment, but most of the time it was just me sitting on the comfortable couches arranged decoratively around a big table. On the table were piles of magazines and books available to peruse through, and there was always a full bowl of sweets there to provide some sugary comfort.

She was almost always on time. I never had to wait more than 15 minutes before she ushered me into her room with a smile, and often it was less than that.

Her office was as stylish as her. The walls were decorated with modern art. Her desk was a huge wooden thing, with hardly anything on it. The few papers and pens that were there were meticulously organized. There were two chairs in front of her desk. They were wooden too, with plump pink cushions fixed on the seats and backs. For some reason I always sat in the one on the right.

I was never in there very long, such is the nature of psychiatric appointments, but I always felt comforted during my time with her. She was kind and caring, but also up front and to the point. I could tell from the very beginning that she wasn’t someone who would take any shit. Perhaps that’s why she is so successful. When I left home last August she wasn’t taking on any new clients, that’s how crammed her schedule was.

My current psychiatrist is male. Not my first choice – I’m more comfortable with women – but since he is the only doctor in my area that speaks English I can’t really be fussy. I would guess that he is in his 50s. He always wears the same thing – black work pants, a white work shirt and smart black shoes. He’s all business.

The first time I met him I was in a very vulnerable state as I had just moved to Taiwan and had only been back on my medication for about a week. Even though he can speak passable English the language barrier still freaked me out big time. When I mentioned the word bipolar he looked at me quizzically and said “bipolar… what is bipolar?” – causing me to promptly burst into tears. Only after I used the term manic-depressive did he understand what I meant (phew).

His office is the complete opposite of my first psychiatrist’s. It is consistently crowded. The waiting area is separated into two spaces, downstairs and upstairs. On arrival I present one of the secretaries with my health card, which she scans, and then I’m told to wait. He is always running late.

I sit in one of the less than comfortable, backless chairs surrounded by other people. There is a tv hanging on one of the walls but it is on mute. Despite this it’s still loud downstairs. Patients of all ages talk to each other or on their phones at full volume. One lady who is always there at the same time as me constantly makes clicking noises with her mouth, a bewildered look permanently painted on her face. I smiled at her once and she smiled back. I’ve only ever seen one other westerner there. He looked to be in his 40s and had red hair. We sat next to each other in silence.

After about 45 minutes I’m told to go upstairs. There the chairs are more comfortable and the doctor’s sliding wooden door is within a few feet. Once I’m up there I know I’ve only got about 15 more minutes to wait. It always shocks me to see how people often just open his door during a session, to hand him their health card or say something in Chinese (hopefully along the lines of hurry the fuck up). It’s never happened during one of my sessions. I don’t know how I would react if it did (depends on my mood I guess). Things are done very differently here.

When it’s finally my turn he calls me into his room. His desk is also large but is covered in papers, stationary, medication and computer equipment. Two plain, black chairs sit in front of it, and again I favour the one on the right. Beyond the area I sit in is another open room that I’ve never been in. The floor is wooden and I can see that you are meant to remove your shoes before entering – a common custom in many places in Taiwan. There is a long black couch on one end, and a plush purple armchair on the other. A lamp on a ridiculously long stand curves from behind the chair to hang just in front of it. Is this where he conducts psychotherapy? God knows.

Something that is completely new to me is the process of getting medication here. Not only is the price of it drastically lower (I’m talking about one tenth of the cost) but my doctor has his own dispensary downstairs. After each session, instead of getting a script like I did back home, I go back down to the secretaries and they give me all my meds right then and there. It’s very convenient but I can only get one month’s worth at a time, as opposed to a six month script in South Africa. This means I have to go back every four weeks. I wouldn’t really mind – if it weren’t for the waiting time.

I won’t lie, I miss my previous psychiatrist. Nothing can really beat having one who has the same first language as you. I’m grateful that I’ve found my current one though. It was challenging at first but I’m getting used to it. I have to make it work, as going without my medication is just not an option.

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