By Marlena Chavira-Medford
It’s hard to imagine a context in which one might unexpectedly encounter a nude woman balancing on her head. For psychiatrist Gary Small, however, this was another day on the job. After treating patients for more than 30 years, he’s encountered cases that are intriguing, mystifying, and outright odd. Those cases are the subject of his latest book, “The Naked Lady Who Stood on Her Head: A Psychiatrist’s Stories of His Most Bizarre Cases.” In it, he gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the world of psychiatry while illuminating the eccentricities of the human mind, revealing that, in the end, perhaps we’re not all so different after all. Here, Small sheds some light on what went into writing this book. He’ll be visiting Del Mar to talk more about his work on Tuesday, Oct. 19, at 7 p.m. inside The Book Works, 2670 Via de la Valle (Flower Hill Promenade).
What made you want to write this book?
I’ve always been fascinated by the human mind, and after encountering so many unusual cases, I thought those stories might be interesting to other people. I also thought the idea of what it’s like to become a psychiatrist might interest readers. It was the perfect storm of factors that led me to write this book.
After so many years of practicing psychiatry, I imagine you had a lot of unusual cases to pick from. How did you decide which cases to include in this book?
My wife is a skilled narrative writer, so she helped me create a story that would draw readers in. We wanted to show the arch of my career, so we decided to profile the cases chronologically. The most unusual cases stood out, but some were a bit repetitive. We wanted a variety of cases that highlight many different kinds of conditions, which I think we’ve achieved.
What was it like to look back at your early days as a psychiatrist now that you have three decades of experience under your belt?
I certainly see things I didn’t see at the time. When you start [practicing psychiatry], you don’t have training wheels, you’re just jumping in there. It’s a challenging way to learn. Those early days have given me more empathy for my trainees now.
Several of these cases deal with extreme scenarios, but in some ways, most of us can relate to how some of these patients are feeling.
Why do you think these cases resonate with readers?
Those traits we find most stirring and exciting are often so because they reveal some aspects of ourselves. In fact, in group therapy when one person comments on another, they are often commenting on themselves.
You shared some of your own struggles throughout this book. Why did you want to share that?
I wanted people to see that psychiatrists are people too, with their own issues. Their role is to help patients, so the doctor is putting aside his or her own issues to service patients. Some people might worry that if a psychiatrist has issues, it may interfere with therapy. But, if a psychiatrist has overcome issues, then that may give him or her greater empathy for patients facing similar issues.