I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You
By Karin Tidbeck
4 March 2013
Then came that Thursday in February when I stepped into my psychiatrist's office and was presented with a goat.
I was in treatment, but it wasn't going well. I suffered from recursive treatment-resistant depression or, possibly, bipolar II disorder—my doctors wouldn't settle on a diagnosis. Whatever you called it, it was hell. Over the years, I had tried every combination of the usual substances: MAOIs, tricyclic and tetracyclic antidepressants, SSRIs and SNRIs, mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety medication. They mostly gave me side-effects. I was bloated and sweaty and twitchy, but still depressed. The doctors were trying to get me into ECT, but I was reluctant. This is where the goat came in.
Dr. Andersson was in the office already. She took a chair in what was supposed to be the cosy corner: two armchairs, a little table with a box of tissues, a vase of flowers. On the wall hung a painting of a moose cresting a hilltop. Dr. Andersson looked like she usually did. Today, her bowl haircut and shapeless green muumuu were complemented by a necklace of wooden zebras. She was holding a leash. At the end of the leash, standing beside her chair, was the goat. It was small, reaching up to my knees, and jet black with floppy ears. It was nibbling on the armrest. I sat down in the opposite chair.
"This is your new treatment," said Dr. Andersson. "It's the latest in experimental therapy. I thought we might let you have a try, seeing as you're a bit hesitant about ECT."
"I see," I said.
Dr. Andersson adjusted her glasses. "Do you know the origins of the word 'scapegoat'?"
"Sure," I replied. "Old Hebrew stuff. A goat sent out into the desert for everyone's sins."
"Exactly." Dr. Andersson scratched the goat behind the ears. "This is a Sadgoat."
I looked at the goat. It looked back at me, its horizontal pupils narrowing.
"I'm confused," I said.
"It's a technique known as transference," said Dr. Andersson. "All you have to do is keep the goat with you at all times, and cuddle it at night."
"I thought goats weren't cuddly."
Dr. Andersson smiled. "It's compliance trained."
I didn't ask what they did to train goats into compliance. "How long do I keep it?" I said instead.
"Let's say three weeks to begin with. After that you will come and see me, and we will decide if you need more time." Dr. Andersson handed me the leash. "Off you go. I'll see you in three weeks."
"Okay," I said. "But-"
"That's all there is to it, really," said Dr. Andersson. "No need to complicate things."
I nodded meekly and pulled at the leash. The goat let out a curt bleat and followed with a clip-clop of tiny hooves.
Walking home, I was wondering if the doctors were laughing at me in the lunch room. They'd given me a goat to see if I'd fall for it. There wasn't a treatment. Or they thought it was a treatment, but actually some life coach or salesman somewhere had convinced them to buy his goats. Were people staring at me and the goat? I looked at myself in the shop windows. The goat was keeping pace with me, head high. No-one seemed to give it even a glance. Maybe the goat was imaginary and I was sliding into psychotic depression. I hadn't really been to the clinic, and the doctor hadn't really given me a goat. Why the hell would they give me a goat? By the time I got home, I was shaky and sweaty and on the verge of tears. The possibly imaginary goat trotted into the living room where it started to chew on one of the dead ficus trees by the window.
I called the clinic. A secretary I was familiar with answered.
"Is it true that my doctor has prescribed me a goat?" I asked.
She asked for my personal identity number. I could hear tapping keys and mouse clicks.
Click-click. "It says here you took a Sadgoat home with you today and that you're to keep it for three weeks. Don't you have one?"
"I do. But, what do I feed it? Where does it poop?"
"Oh. You should have gotten instructions—didn't Doctor Andersson tell you?"
"No. She never tells me anything."
As was her style, Dr. Andersson had left me to suss the rest out for myself. The doctor didn't like mentioning side effects, or, indeed, volunteering any extra information that I might need in order to actually go through with a treatment.
"Well, you can feed it just about anything," said the secretary. "Leftovers, fruit peels, stuff like that. Don't give it your old coffee grounds, though, that'll just make it twitchy. And don't let it eat your plants."
"And where does it . . . go?"
"I suppose you could take it for walkies. Or try a kitty litter box. It's trained to use kitty litter boxes."
"I . . ." I said.
I wanted to yell and curse at her. I didn't, of course. I just breathed into the phone, head buzzing. My lips went numb.
"Typical," I managed. Then my jaws clamped shut.
"All right then, Anna. You have a nice day," the secretary said after a while. She hung up.
My jaws unclenched and I hissed expletives at the phone. The goat bleated. It was standing next to me on the floor. I looked down at it. I started swearing at the goat, too, but it only stepped a bit closer and gently butted my leg with its head. I gave it a scritch behind the ear. It leaned into my hand, closing its eyes. Something uncurled inside me.
"Do you even have a name?" I asked it. "Or do I just call you Sadgoat?"
I took Sadgoat's leash off and went out into the kitchen. It followed me, hooves clattering and sliding on the parquet. It watched me as I made myself a cup of tea. I checked the fridge for goat food: the only things in there were an onion and some pre-fried meatballs. I peeled the onion and put it on a plate along with the meatballs. Sadgoat started munching on the onion as soon as I set the plate down on the floor. I added a bowl of water and went back to the living room to collapse on the sofa. I had already done much more than I usually would in a day. I had trouble keeping my eyes open. The brain fog of afternoon was settling in. Just before I fell asleep, I heard the clattering of hooves beside me and something pulling at my sweater. Sadgoat was nibbling at the thready cuff. Compliance training indeed: it made no resistance as I picked it up and tucked it into the crook of my arm. I slept like a log until seven the next morning.
With most meds, you have to wait for weeks until there's any change. I hate that about starting a new medication; you wait and wait and sometimes you feel worse, because the side effects always come first, and then if you're lucky maybe you start feeling less sucky for a while . . . until the meds poop out on you.
This time it was fast. The next morning I actually got up and made breakfast for myself. I hadn't done that in ages. Not that I had much to work with, but there was a bag of rolled oats in the pantry. I made some porridge for myself and filled Sadgoat's bowl with the rest. Sadgoat scarfed it down.
I washed my hair and got dressed in clean clothes, and we went for a walk down to the local pet store. I explained to the emo kid behind the counter that I had unexpectedly acquired a goat. He cooed at Sadgoat in delight and gave me a sheet of instructions for pygmy goat owners. It said don't feed it cat food or dog food, do feed it kitchen scraps but not eggshells.
"What about meat?" I said.
He rolled his eyes. "Goats are herbivores."
"Yeah, but it'll eat anything, won't it?"
"Doesn't mean it's good for her. Goats just have really bad taste."
"You don't even know the sex? It's a little nanny goat you have there."
"Is that good?"
Emo kid shrugged. "They smell less."
I was sent home with a bale of alfalfa hay. Sadgoat didn't take its eyes off the hay as we walked home.
"Kitchen scraps," I told her. "That means I'll have to start cooking again."
When we came home I sat down in front of the TV. I was completely drained, again. I sat watching daytime shows, not really seeing them. Sadgoat clattered around on the parquet until I snatched her up as she came close. Like before, she made no move to resist, just sank into my arms. I wondered again what kind of Pavlovian training they subjected the goats to. We watched Biggest Loser and Idol and an English murder mystery. I went to sleep in my bed for the first time in a month.
We went for walks. Sadgoat trotted ahead of me, businesslike, like she was walking me and not the other way around. She liked dogs and hated pigeons. I had trouble keeping her away from eating cigarette butts and old chewing gum. Maybe she was just bleating reflexively when I made sounds, but sometimes it was like we were having conversations. I learned what bits she liked scratched. I slept with a hand on her belly, dozing off to the rhythm of the little heart drumming along.
Dad came to visit the next week. He looked around with wide eyes as we sat down in the kitchen.
"Anna, you've been cleaning," he said.
"A bit, I suppose," I said. "Me and the goat."
"Ah, the goat. Where is it?"
I shook Sadgoat's food bowl. There was a bleat and a clatter from the living room, and then Sadgoat trotted into the kitchen. Dad bent down to scritch her behind the ears.
"Cute little bugger," he said. "I thought you said it was skinny."
"Yeah, I was probably exaggerating," I said. Sadgoat had somehow gained weight during the week, even though I had fed her mostly hay and scraps. Her belly was very round. "I guess you think this is bizarre."
Dad chuckled. "You know, back in the seventies your uncle treated his patients with regression therapy."
"As in past lives?"
Sadgoat lay down on the floor with a thump. I scratched her back.
"No, as in going back to childhood. He made his patients crawl through pink tunnels, wear diapers, play with cold porridge, do primal screaming on the floor. Stuff like that." Dad shrugged. "A therapeutic goat? That's fairly mild in comparison."
I laughed. Dad looked at me. His eyes were a little glazed.
"I haven't heard you laugh in a long time," he said.
He cleared his throat. We patted Sadgoat for a while.
Another week passed, and things got really weird. I went shopping. I had a haircut. I slept less than eleven hours a night. I had coffee in a café, and realized I no longer had that feeling of looming catastrophe; I was just having coffee and it was pretty good. It was like the lights were coming back on in my head. It was disorienting.
Sadgoat, on the other hand, wasn't so keen on walkies anymore. She spent most of the day curled up on a blanket by the TV. She got fatter in a dense way, her skin stretched taut over the swelling limbs. She wouldn't eat, and barely drank.
When the day of my next appointment with Dr. Andersson came around, I had to pick Sadgoat up and carry her to the clinic.
Dr. Andersson was sitting in the therapy corner when I came in, goat limp in my arms.
"How are you, Anna?" said the doctor.
"I'm doing great," I said. "I can't believe how quickly everything's happened. The goat though, not okay."
The doctor smiled and nodded. "It seems that the treatment has been working, then," she said. "The goat has absorbed your depression. It's time for closure." She stood up, batik skirts rustling. "Come with me."
We walked through low, windowless corridors for a long time. There was an elevator that we took. Eventually we exited onto the roof. It was made up to resemble a desert. Someone had covered the roof with reddish sand, which was piled up in little dunes.
"Here's the desert," said Dr. Andersson. "This is where you'll release the goat."
I put the goat down. She stood with her legs stuck out at uneven and shivering angles, head hanging. She let out a weak bleat.
"Now repeat after me," said Dr. Andersson. "Sadgoat, I have placed my sickness upon you. Carry it into the wilderness and perish with it. Go."
I repeated her words. Sadgoat didn't move. Dr. Andersson gave her a light kick in the butt. Sadgoat stumbled out into the desert. She paused and looked back at me.
"What's going to happen to her?" I said.
"Oh, you don't have to concern yourself with that," said the doctor. "Let's go back to my office."
"We can't just leave her here. It's cold out!"
"Anna, I am starting to doubt whether you really want to be treated," said Dr. Andersson. "Do you really want to get well?"
"Of course I do. But this is just cruel."
"Would you prefer to be ill?"
"I don't know. No."
"Then leave the goat out there. If you do, you will keep getting better." She turned around and opened the door to the stairwell.
"I just want to know what'll happen to the goat."
The doctor made a vague gesture, but didn't say anything.
"Does the Devil eat it?"
"Don't be silly," said Dr. Andersson, and went down the stairs.
I looked back at the little faux wilderness on the roof. The goat was looking back at me, legs shivering. I followed the doctor downstairs.
I didn't have any major relapses after that. The depressive episodes became no more than a bit of temporary gloom. I couldn't stop thinking about the Sadgoat, though. They refused to tell me what happened to her: no closure if we did, they said. I mourned the Sadgoat. Sometimes I'd think I could hear her bleating somewhere in my flat, and I'd open doors and cabinets to find her. I was haunted by the image of her standing on the roof, eyes pleading. Would it be called survivor's guilt? Dr. Andersson prescribed me benzos for it.
I spent the spring and summer reconnecting with friends I had lost touch with. There was one guy, Emil, who I called with some hesitation. He had bipolar 1. Last time I had seen him, he had been manic and I really couldn't handle it. This time he sounded fairly grounded.
We met in a café. Emil was at the register, getting tea. He embraced me and it wasn't like being caught in headlights—he just seemed normal, relaxed. He smelled good.
When I followed him to the table, I stopped short.
"You have a goat," I said.
"Yep," said Emil. He scratched the little black round-bellied goat who was sitting under the table, tearing up a head of lettuce with great concentration. It was Sadgoat. She had lost weight, her fur matted. She looked threadbare somehow.
Emil leaned in close. "It's an experimental treatment. It's called a Speedgoat. Because, you know, I mostly have manic episodes, right. So I keep it with me."
I peered at the goat. "How's it working out for you?"
Emil smiled. "It works great. I've been getting sleep and everything."
"Did it look like that from the beginning?"
"No, no, it was really fat and lazy. It's weird, it's like it's getting more twitchy the calmer I get."
I scratched the goat behind the ears. She peered up at me. I thought I could detect a spark of recognition in her eyes. It had been five months. How many patients had she been through in that time?
"How long are you keeping it?" I said.
"Until next Friday morning. Then I'll have to give it back."
I made an appointment to see the head psychiatrist, Dr. Youssef, the following Friday. I hadn't met him before, but he looked much like I had imagined him: in his fifties, with square glasses and neatly trimmed beard, wearing a worn cardigan and corduroy trousers. His therapy corner had a painting of three cows in a meadow. We sat down in the armchairs and he asked me what was on my mind.
"The goat," I said. "The Sadgoat."
"Ah, yes, the Sadgoat. I understand your treatment was successful," said Dr. Youssef.
"It's still alive," I said. "I saw it the other day. I thought you had killed it."
Dr. Youssef raised his eyebrows and then drew them together. "Killed it?"
"Dr. Andersson said it was like a scapegoat."
"And she didn't give you any further details?"
"No. She never does."
The doctor frowned and hummed. "Part of the therapy is letting go of the goat," he said eventually. "Killing it symbolically along with your illness, as it were. Dr. Andersson should have told you it's just a metaphor." He pinched the bridge of his nose.
"I don't get it," I said. "If you don't kill it, then how does the depression disappear? Are you, are you handing out goats as some kind of cruel placebo joke?"
Dr. Youssef shook his head. "No, no, it does work, as I'm sure you can tell. However we're on a very tight budget, what with the new government and all. You see, we can't afford to buy and train goats just to use them once. We just don't have the money."
"So you recycle them."
"Not how I would have put it, but yes. It has turned out to work very well. Used Sadgoats, for example, are very beneficial for bipolar 1 patients with mania as the dominant feature."
"I'd like to buy that goat," I told him.
"I'm afraid that's not possible. Like I said, they're very expensive to buy and train. Besides, you might have a relapse from the feedback. We don't recommend prolonged exposure." He smiled. "I'm sure you could find yourself a normal pet goat."
"This is goat hell," I told him.
Dr. Youssef shrugged. "I suppose that depends on how you view the relationship between humans and animals. You are entitled to your opinion, of course."
I hung around after the failed meeting with Dr. Youssef. If I left again, it'd be impossible to be buzzed in unless I had an appointment with someone. I sat in the waiting room for a bit, went to the bathroom, took some benzos to blunt the post-confrontation shakes and the new panic that was building up. I'm not good at breaking rules.
It was latish in the afternoon, and very quiet. When I hadn't seen anyone walk by for fifteen minutes I set off through the warren of corridors in the direction I remembered following Dr. Andersson to the roof.
I had been hoping to spot a goat and gain a clue as to where they kept Sadgoat. I didn't expect to see my goat. There was a ding and a tiny clopping in the distance. An orderly was leading it from the elevator to the end of the corridor. I followed them at a distance, trying to look like I knew where I was going. The air smelled more strongly of animals and disinfectant as we went on. Finally the orderly came to an anonymous-looking door. He opened it and took the goat inside. I snuck into a bathroom and waited. After some minutes I heard steps going back the other way. No clippity-clop.
The door the orderly had gone through with the goat was marked "Equipment storage 1." For some reason it wasn't locked. It looked like an office that had been hastily converted to a goat pen. The floor was linoleum, and an almanac still hung on one of the walls. Four steel cages that came up to about chest height stood in the room, two pushed up against the windows and two by the opposite wall, their floors strewn with hay. The cages by the windows were occupied. In one of them, a grey goat lay spread-eagled on the floor, tongue hanging out. It was breathing irregularly. Sadgoat stood in the other cage, painfully thin. She had caught a corner of an office-green curtain through the bars and was nibbling at it. She twitched and jumped around to face me as I closed the door. I crouched down in front of the cage.
"Hello, Sadgoat," I said.
Sadgoat cocked her head and peered at me with one slanted pupil. She bleated abruptly. I opened the cage. Sadgoat leaned against me as I scritched her behind the ears. Her fur was thin and brittle, completely gone in patches. She was shivering almost convulsively. This ruined little thing needed air, an open sky. Sunlight and grass, like a real goat.
"I'm sorry," I told her. "I'll make it better."
I gathered her up in my arms and zipped my coat up over her. With one arm supporting the little body, I reckoned I looked sort of pregnant but not weirdly so.
I forced myself to walk slowly down the corridor, turn the corner and pass the reception at a steady pace. Sadgoat chose that moment to bleat and twitch. The receptionist peered up at me. Sadgoat kicked me in the ribs.
"Oof," I said.
The receptionist rose out of her chair. I froze.
"What's that under your coat, Anna?" she said. She knew me by name.
Sadgoat bleated again, higher this time. She started flailing her legs so bad I had to squeeze her tight.
"No-one," I said, and ran.
My dad's backyard has a gentle slope and faces the sea. I can't go home; they'll be looking for me there. I know Dad will probably turn me in once he comes home and finds us here. Still, it's the only place I can think of, at least until I can think of what to do next.
I sit down on the slope and let Sadgoat out. She stands squinting on the grass, giving the air a cautious sniff. Her legs buckle under her, and she lies down with a soft thump, resting her head on my thigh. I scratch her back, careful not to graze the bald patches. Sadgoat closes her eyes. We sit like that as the light yellows towards evening.
Maybe I squeezed her too hard. Maybe she was old, or had just had too much. She's warm against my leg, seemingly asleep, but there's no heartbeat, no gentle puffs of breath. Sadgoat's not in there anymore.
I wish there was time to give her a good funeral, but they'll take her if they find us. I'll dig a hole under the azalea and lay her to rest there; it'll be quick, she takes up so little space. But not facing the sea, because the sea is another wilderness. She's had enough of that.