I keep a bowl of chocolates on a table situated between the two chairs that accommodate patients in my office. It is a simple gesture, a small attempt at creating a friendlier environment for conducting the sometimes scary business of genetic counseling. I spread enough bad jujus as part and parcel of my work; I can try to do a little something to offset the negative karma. And it is decent chocolate, not Halloween rejects or forgotten treats that have been lurking in the back of the snack cupboard since the Clinton administration.
Although my chocolate stash has not provided great insight into the psychological complexity of genetic counseling, it has been a surprising and at times amusing source of insight into human behavior on a micro-scale. As they used to say on the old Candid Camera television show, I catch people in the act of being themselves.
Guys, for the most part, walk in, see the chocolate, and say “Hey, great, chocolate!” and then unabashedly help themselves to a few pieces. Many women, however, tend to have a more complicated relationship with chocolate. Here I share a few examples that illustrate this tangled web.
Maybe He Won’t See Me: This is the most common scenario. They want chocolate but do not want to be “caught” eating in front of me, as if somehow it violated social norms or might shape my opinion of them. As we engage in the counseling process, their eyes involuntarily sneak sideways glances at the bowl, the siren call of the miraculously transformed pods of Theobroma cacao too alluring to resist (One patient actually begged a là Odysseus “Please, before I eat it all, tie my hands to the arms of this chair.”). They can get wily too, waiting for an opportunity that distracts my attention, such as when I turn my back to them to complete a test request form or leave the room to photocopy some paperwork, and then sneak a piece or three. Either they quickly unwrap and eat it, hoping that I did not detect the maneuver, or sequester their pilfered pleasure into their purses. If I happen to notice their covert actions, they voluntarily offer an explanation along the lines of “Oh, I just wanted to bring home a piece for my son. He really likes chocolate.” What, like your kid expects a treat every time his mother has a doctor’s appointment?
Get It Away From Me: Here will power is a serious problem. They sit down and unthinkingly pluck pieces out of the bowl without ever taking their eyes off of me, their uncannily accurate radar guiding them to their personal dark or milk chocolate preference. After a few minutes they realize that they have worked their way through four or five pieces and plead “Please, take this away and hide it in a drawer.” It reminds me of the slyly clever Cookies episode from Arnold Lobel’s delightful Frog and Toad children’s books.
Oh Heck, Why Not?: Like good Christians shunning Satan’s temptations, these patients nobly avoid the chocolate for the duration of the session. But as they prepare to leave, they steal a longing glance at the bowl, torn between desire and decorum. I usually suggest that they take a piece to reward themselves after an emotionally exhausting counseling session or to recover from the physical trauma of their upcoming blood draw. “Oh, I shouldn’t ….. well, alright. I guess I can have one piece since I didn’t get chocolate syrup drizzled on the whip cream on my morning mocha. I will save it for after lunch.” Perhaps in the complicated calculus of calories and diets chocolate has fewer calories after lunch or the mocha counts as Morning Calories and the chocolate as Afternoon Calories.
Calories and Insulin: These patients first pass the chocolate under their noses before popping it into their mouths, like an oenophile sniffing a Premier cru Bordeaux. They savor the pleasure of the silky sweet sensation on their tongues and palates, torn between swallowing and lingering on the moment and sometimes emit a quietly restrained orgasmic “Mmmm.” Then I think back to my review of their medical records and recall multiple appointments at the Diabetes Wellness Program or the Weight Control Clinic, and I feel like a bad clinician who should have planned more carefully for the needs of my patients.
The No Holds Barred Chocolate Addict: Social etiquette is quickly abandoned as these patients unselfconsciously dig into the bowl like Hansel and Gretel in the witch’s cottage. They think nothing of emptying the bowl and leaving only the crumpled wrappings, making it look as if a swarm of locusts had descended on my office. A patient once asked “Do you have any more dark chocolate? My sister just ate the last piece, and I really don’t care for milk chocolate.”
Should Seymour Kessler or Jon Weil reads this piece, no doubt he will roll his eyes and think “For crissakes, Bob, didn’t you learn anything from my teachings? You need to be attending to the profound psychosocial aspects of genetic counseling and the alleviation of human suffering.” Well, Jon and Seymour, I do strive to be a serious and insightful counselor. But sometimes patients – and I – need a piece of chocolate too.