You could say that I like a quick fix. When I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety my senior year of college, I didn't want a therapist so much as I wanted a cure. I was tired of my sadness, tired of being down on myself . . . tired of always feeling tired. I took a hiatus from alcohol to adjust to my new cocktail of prescription medications: fluoxetine, bupropion, lamotrigine, and klonopin. These helped most of the time. But I couldn't take shots at the bar with my friends. I couldn't get refills without a weekly visit to my cognitive behavioral therapist. I couldn't miss a dose without feeling like I was being sucked into a depressive sinkhole. My daily well-being was held captive by those little orange capsule bottles.
I don't remember where I first heard of Yefim Shubentsov — or, as he is better known, The Mad Russian. He doesn't publicly advertise, and he doesn't have a website, but there are hundreds of articles about him: the Russian shaman who can "erase" your addictions, pains, and fears. He'd cured thousands of smokers, alcoholics, overeaters, and depressives, including Billy Joel, Drew Barrymore, and Courteney Cox, and I thought he could cure me, too. I called the phone number I found on Yelp. It would only cost $65 and two hours of my life for me to be normal.
I am a skeptic. I don't believe in clairvoyance or horoscopes or palm reading or tarot cards. When a hypnotist put on a show during my freshman orientation three years prior, I was sure that the participants "under his spell" were simply compelled to perform by the expectant audience, by their own desire to be appreciated and seen in this scary new world that was college. Even after making my appointment, I wasn't convinced that The Mad Russian could fix my depression, and I had this heaviness in me that had begun to feel almost like a comfort, an excuse. I just wanted to try. I wanted to see what might happen.
His office was in Brookline, MA, a quick ride on the T from my college campus. In the waiting room, I was given a sheet to fill out. What was the reason for my visit? Depression, I wrote. The others in the waiting room were twitchy. Many had just smoked what they hoped would be their last cigarette. Almost everyone was a smoker hoping to quit; I began to doubt whether I had misunderstood, if my problem wasn't something The Mad Russian could even cure. I listened to the other patients tell stories. "My sister, she was a smoker for 20 years, and after seeing this guy, she quit cold turkey," one woman was saying. Cold turkey — I hated that phrase. It always reminded me of deli meat.
The receptionist ushered us into the counseling room, where The Mad Russian sat behind a mahogany desk, with 16 foldout chairs arranged in a U around him. He stared at us each in turn as we settled into our chairs, and I imagined that he was trying to guess what was wrong with all of us. I wondered what he thought was wrong with me. He had us go around the room and state the reason for our visit. Over half the room suffered from depression. Two people were afraid of flying, four of public speaking. Everyone but three (including me) smoked, and everyone but one drank. Everyone was anxious.
The Mad Russian stood from behind his desk. He was barely taller than me. Then, he began to speak. He spoke quickly, like a hum, like a drone, his accent maddeningly thick. I scooted to the edge of my seat, desperate to understand, and I could see everyone else doing the same. I only caught things here and there. His career as a commercial artist. His experience in the military as a parachutist, as a boxer. His discovery through a government-conducted scientific experiment with bioenergetics. Placebo effect. Common sense. Don't chew gum. No need for medication.
Then he turned to me, catching me off guard. "Why do you feel depressed?" he asked. I hesitated. I didn't feel depressed — I was depressed.
The Mad Russian persisted, and he asked again. "Why do you feel depressed? Drugs, money, family, a person, or the past?"
Because I had no choice but to choose, I chose the past.
"Then I will fix this," he said. "I will save your life."
The Mad Russian walked inside the U of chairs, his hands signing and slicing through the air as he spoke. I rested my head on the wall behind me, suddenly exhausted. Would anyone notice if I fell asleep? Snippets of The Mad Russian's rant landed in my ears, and yes, it was a rant; he sounded suddenly angry. Not a hypnotist. No mystic, New Age, religious, or magical special powers. Commonsensical behavior-modification advice. Manipulation of bioenergy. Don't be shy. Ask questions. Please, ask questions.
The woman who had been talking about her sister quitting cold turkey asked why we should believe him.
"You don't have to believe anything," The Mad Russian said.
Next were individual sessions. The receptionist led us back into the waiting room to form a line. A few people shuffled outside to smoke one last cigarette. I listened to everyone whisper. "Could you understand him? I wish he had slowed down. I just wish I could understand."
When it was my turn, I re-entered the counseling room. It had been cleared save for a single chair. The Mad Russian gestured for me to sit. He asked me again. "Why do you feel depressed? Drugs, money, family, a person, or the past?"
I found that I was angry now. Depression was a disease, the doctor had said. It was biological, neurological, genealogical. This wasn't something I could control. It was easy to say the past, but the past wasn't the answer.
"Is depression easy?" The Mad Russian asked.
Of course depression wasn't easy. Sometimes I wished that something truly horrible might happen so that people would stop asking me why I felt the way I did. So I could sink guiltlessly into my depression like a hot bath. So that everyone would understand.
"Perhaps the thing that is hard is letting depression go."
I thought about this, the idea that depression was something I could renounce, that I was the one in control all along. I realized that I was angry — so angry, I was digging my nails into my palms — because when I'd made this appointment, I had imagined this man swinging a watch in front of my face, telling me I was getting very sleepy. I had wanted a quick fix, an instant solution.
But instead, I had work to do. I was the only one who could keep depression at bay — not my therapist, not my pills, not Yefim Shubentsov. I would have to try a little harder every day to get up, to do my work, to push myself out of my head, because the hardest thing was admitting that my depression had become a crutch. I couldn't quit cold turkey, but what I could do was start to let it go.
Corinne Sullivan's debut novel, Indecent, tells the story of a recent college grad who accepts a teaching position at a tony all-boys boarding school, only to find herself deeply obsessed with a student at the risk of her job and her sanity. The book is available now.