The Psychiatrist and the Lightbulb

The husband and wife sat stiffly, as far apart on the stiff divan as the laws of physics would allow. The intervening silence froze the air.

“Well?” the cordial voice of the psychiatrist punched through the waiting silence, and it shattered and fell tinkling to the office floor. The man glared at him malevolently. The woman raised her eyebrows and nodded to the psychiatrist knowingly, while making a barely perceptible motion with her chin in her husband’s direction.

“I SAW that, Gladys!” the man accused angrily, rising slightly from the couch and shifting to face his wife. Gladys sat up primly, pursed her lips and folded her hands, gazing straight ahead beneath hooded eyes, her blue permanent curls trembling slightly.

“Now,” said the psychiatrist soothingly, “why don’t we start at the beginning?” And as there was no offer of a beginning, he took the more direct approach and asked the man:

“What brings us in here, today?”

“What brings US in here today,” snarled the husband, “is my WIFE! If you want to know why we’re here, ask HER, since she knows so much.” And he shut his mouth with a snap that could be heard all across the office.

Even I heard it, and I was just a second year medical student. This was my first time observing a psychiatric office visit, and it was turning out to be much more interesting than I had expected.

The psychiatrist sighed and tried again.

“Well, Mrs. Jones, why did you accompany your husband here today?”

“Thank you, Dr. Smedley. As you know, I had to lie to get him here, and he’s awful mad about that.” Mr. Jones snorted like a bull. “You can say THAT again. That’s the last time I fall for THAT line of__”

“Mr. Jones,” purred Dr. Smedley, “Your wife is only concerned for your well being.” Mr. Jones fell into a seething silence and glared at the doctor from behind thick black-rimmed glasses that made his eyes look twice as big as they actually were.

“Now, Mrs. Jones, if you would like to tell us all here what you told me on the telephone, I think that might be a good way to begin.”

“Well,” began Mrs. Jones uncertainly, darting anxious glances in the direction of her husband, who seemed to be occupying himself by entraining a psychic death-ray in her general direction, “It all began a few months ago when Gerald here started talking to the light bulbs.”

“I wasn’t talking to the lightbulbs, you little idiot, I was talking to the ALIENS who use the lightbulbs as an instrument of communication!” Gerald exploded, spraying saliva all over everything in his immediate vicinity. I had instinctively jumped back, but Dr. Smedley was wiping his eyeglasses with his pocket handkerchief.

Mrs. Jones simply nodded, shrugged her shoulders a bit and raised her palm as if to say, you see? This is what I’m talking about. Dr. Smedley frowned, scribbling furiously on his steno pad.

“Mr. Jones, may I call you Gerald? Thank you. Gerald, how long have you had this delusion that aliens are communicating with you through the light bulbs?”

“Delusion? DELUSION? What kind of an idiot do you think I am? Better yet, what kind of an idiot are YOU? HAH! YOU’RE the kind that they would NEVER speak to, so of course you don’t know. Of course you think it’s a delusion, because you’re a petty, ignorant little pissant that aliens wouldn’t waste their precious time on. And their time IS precious, too.”

Gerald climbed up and stood on the arm of the divan, directly beneath the ceiling light fixture, and cocked his head to bring his ear closer to the bulb. He closed his eyes and listened, nodding his head vigorously from time to time. His wife wept silently at the other end of the divan.

Here I got a little excited, hoping that he would go on and tell us more about the lives of aliens and their experience of time, but my hopes were dashed.

“Gerald. Please sit down. Now, I am about to demonstrate something about the nature of light bulbs, and I hope that after I show you this, you will be able to understand that light bulbs do nothing more than convert electricity into light. They are not capable of transmitting sound or any other kind of means of communication.” Dr. Smedley opened his desk drawer and produced a light bulb and a hammer.

Gerald’s eyes grew large with fear. “No. Doc, please. Please don’t do it. Those are very important. They contain essential classified secret emissions.” Dr. Smedley wrapped the bulb carefully in a tea towel. “No, Doc, you don’t understand. Once you bust those things, it’s all over. All is lost. You can’t go back—” CRUNCH! With a satisfied smile, Dr. Smedley carefully unwrapped the tea towel to reveal the shards of the light bulb, its now naked element quivering in shame.

“Do you see now, Gerald? This is nothing more than a piece of tungsten metal attached to a special piece of glass. No one could possibly use this as a communication device, even if there WERE aliens,” he said kindly.

“Gladys, get up. We’re going. This man is dangerously insane.” Gerald collected his wife and hustled her out the door. She kept her eyes down, this time, no longer seeking the eyes of Dr. Smedley. He had discredited himself a little, I think.

“Well now, what did you think of THAT for your first outpatient psychiatry case?” Dr. Smedley turned his high beams on me.

“Well,” I began carefully, “personally, I really wanted to hear more about the aliens in the lightbulbs. Like, what did they say to him, and how often did he talk to them, that sort of thing.”

“Ms. L_,” Dr. Smedley glared at me. “Aliens do NOT talk to people through light bulbs!”

I knew I was pushing it but I had to advance my case. “Dr. Smedley, isn’t it true that each person experiences reality in his own unique way?”

He nodded, “Of course.”

“In that case, is it not possible that this man’s reality happens to be that aliens communicate with him through the lightbulbs? I mean, whether or not this is the objective truth, it’s still his reality, right? So who are we to argue with him about what is real or not real for HIM?”

As I delivered my speech, I observed Dr. Smedley becoming redder and redder in the face, but somehow I could not stop myself. All of the outrage that had been building pressure during the absurd and degrading occurrences of the interview with the Joneses came pouring out all at once. I felt suddenly, triumphantly, at peace.

But oh, no! What’s this? Dr. Smedley climbing upon his desk–where just five minutes before Gerald had stood upon the divan—and Dr. Smedley is jabbing his forefinger at me, for emphasis, and shouting “WE—ARE—THE–AGENTS–OF–REALITY!” Over and over, again and again. WE. ARE. THE. AGENTS. OF. REALITY!

Aghast, I backed slowly out of the room and closed the door, never to return. Just like Gerald and Gladys Jones.


Postscript~with very little poetic license, this is a true chronicle of the first day of my psychiatry rotation in medical school, in 1983.  Proving, once again, that truth IS stranger than fiction.


ⓒ 2012 Laura P. Schulman, all rights reserved. All reproduction without express written permission of the author is prohibited.


Leave a comment


  1. Incredible! I would have said something very similar to that doctor. How is it going to help someone if you get in their face and tell them that they’re wrong? Reality is completely subjective. Who is to say that he’s wrong? We don’t really have evidence to the contrary anyway. The doctor didn’t even hear the man out!

    And that, right there, is the reason why psychiatric medicine has failed to flourish.

    • I can’t believe it’s taken me almost a year to respond to your comment, Lulu! It’s been very busy in my corner of the subjective universe, but that’s no excuse. I hope you’re well–how are things going in your world?

  2. David A. Brose

     /  January 3, 2012

    You know those New lightbulbs?—the ones that are spiral shaped and last three-five years???? Thus far I can only hear transmissions of Clearwater Bombers fast-pitch underhand baseball games and when the wind vectors are coming from the northeast to the southeast I sometimes hear Tuvan throat singers bedding down their reindeer with night herding songs in the key of Eb so that wales sing mating songs and Paul Winter wakes up from a dead sleep in a sweat wondering why his saxophone is spinning gently in its hard shell case. I like the old lightbulbs better—-more resonance and an overtone serier that is remarkable

  3. First thing I learned, the hard way, in the VA Alcohol Treatment Unit, was to not block the door. My angry patient decided to walk out of the session through ME! Full of screaming epithets. And threw a potted palm tree towards me in his anger at the world.

    I guess I survived. I’m still here.

    Its great to read your work. Thank you.


    • LOL!!!!!! Potted palm on deck, fire in the hole!!!!! Uh, sorry, TD, the image struck me funny. Hope you’re not offended.

    • TD, you worked in a VA hospital? My kudos to you. I’m a veteran’s daughter. I know all about that. My dad spent a lot of time in the Augusta and Pittsburgh VA. You had your work cut out for you there. Men like my father had a particular distaste for “shrinks”.

  4. What an excellent story. If it wasn’t true, it would make part of a great sitcom!! Great writing!!

  5. bessie minette

     /  September 10, 2012

    I wish I could click “like” on comments, as well as posts.

    • Bessie Minette, I apologize with hanging head for not responding to your comment within the year. I don’t know what happened–I think I was busy with the lightbulbs. Blessings to you, dear friend.

  6. No! He climbed on his desk? “We are the agents of reality!” that sounds like something I might be caught screaming after a night of sad drinking. I loved reading this, it felt very familiar!


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