Authors note: I do not own Iron Man or Avengers or any other characters mentioned.
I come from a science and clinical background and my writing skills are not particularly amazing. I like to play around with ideas of characters from film and TV experiencing mental health problems so after seeing Iron Man 3, I just could not resist to develop that theme. There are no graphic descriptions of self-harm in this story but please be warned that it goes beyond anxiety and towards depression and severe mental illness, including suicide attempts.
Any comments are always very much appreciated. :)
Tony was exhausted. He had willed himself to stay awake for as long as possible dreading what was going to happen when he fell asleep. He'd wake up to his own screaming, drenched in a cold sweat, plagued by recurring nightmares.
During the day, it was another struggle; he was troubled by flashbacks, all relating to either New York or Afghanistan. At times he was aware that they were just products of his imagination, but sometimes they were so intense that for the short duration that they lasted he would completely lose touch with reality, reliving the experience as if it was happening all over again.
He tried to avoid any potential triggers. It became more and more difficult, even the slightest reminder was sufficient to set him off. He had become irritable and prone to angry outbursts. Jarvis and Dummy had felt the brunt of it on account of the fact that he spent most of the time in his lab, isolating himself from the world. He felt depression slowly creeping in. He hadn't felt so low since he'd been convinced that he was going to die from palladium poisoning.
Tony stared absentmindedly at an unfinished project on his desk and amongst a pile of papers, he noticed a small card with a name and a phone number. Pepper and Bruce had been trying to convince him to get some help for his anxiety for weeks. Bruce had done his best, but he was 'not that kind of doctor'. He wanted Tony to see a specialist. Dr. Sullivan was a rising star in the field of PTSD research, Bruce had said, worked closely with the military and had the necessary clearance. May as well give it a go, he thought.
Tony mustered up the courage to go. He did not call to make an appointment, however. Too much fuss. He decided to just turn up at the office, which to Tony, somehow seemed fair. When he got there, the receptionist tried to stop him, but he pushed by her with a confident smile. He stopped short at the door to the office convinced that he must have been in the wrong place. He had expected to find a male psychiatrist. Instead, behind the desk, there was a somewhat young looking woman. For a minute he entertained the thought, that she was a secretary or a personal assistant, but she looked a little bit too comfortable, leaning back in the huge chair with her legs resting on top of the desk. She raised her eyebrows in surprise and looked at the receptionist that was just behind him.
"I-I tried… to tell him… not without an… appointment!" She gasped, clutching her chest slightly.
The plump lady, obviously aged into her forties clearly struggled to catch her breath after a brisk run down the corridor. She took an inhaler out of her pocket and took a deep breath. Tony could hear a loud wheeze as she exhaled slowly. Watching the woman struggle made him suddenly uncomfortable with his own breath catching at the back of his throat. He quickly shifted his attention away from her, focusing instead on the smart interior of the office.
"It's OK, Gemma. I'll take it from here. Why don't you take a break? I think you should swing by the clinic room and see Debbie. It sounds like you may need a nebulizer."
"Thank you Dr Taylor" Gemma turned around and gave Tony an evil look. She took another puff of her inhaler and disappeared down the corridor, muttering to herself about useless security guards.
"Now, how can I help you, Mr. Stark?"
Nicola was slightly irritated by the interruption to her lunch break. This sort of thing had been a daily occurrence in a busy hospitals, but now she was supposed to be enjoying a relaxing six months of sabbatical concentrating on pro-bono youth work at the clinic. Emergency consults were definitely nowhere on the agenda. She quickly dismissed her annoyance as she quickly became somewhat intrigued. It wasn't an everyday occurrence, to have celebrities storming into her office.
"Hello, Mr. Stark?"
As she focused her attention on him, she realised that Tony's gaze was somewhat dazed and his breathing was accelerating rapidly.
"I've clearly missed the memo informing me that I've been transformed into a pulmonologist. Are you also an asthmatic?"
Tony shook his head vigorously but no matter how hard he tried, no words came out of his mouth. Nicola thought for a second, and a flash of recognition appeared on her face. "Aha," she thought, "...if this is what residing in this office is going to be like, I might look for alternatives." Dr Sullivan had reassured her, that he had made arrangements for all his patients and all he had asked, was that she kept an eye on his precious office plants. It had sounded like a perfect arrangement, whilst her office was renovated. Obviously, her friend had not exactly been forthcoming with the possibility of billionaire walk-in's.
"Are you here to see Dr. Sullivan?"
That was the man he was looking for. Tony nodded vigorously in agreement. Hopefully he was simply in the wrong office and this whole embarrassing confusion was sorted quickly. No matter how hard he tried to convince Pepper and Bruce that he was fine, his panic attacks were quickly becoming unbearable.
"It may not be the best time to tell you this, but he is giving a series of lectures… in Europe… for 6 months…"
Nicola watched, as Tony slowly slid down the door frame to the floor.
"There are many other excellent PTSD specialists that I will be only too happy to recommend. Let's deal with the urgent matter on hand first though. If you carry on breathing at this rate any longer, you' ll get nasty pins and needles all over. Try to focus on my voice, ok? You are in a safe place; everything is under control. All we need to do now is work together to slow your breathing down."
Nicola, alert at the desk now, came from around it in a calm manner and sat on the floor in front of Tony, making sure that he could see her face clearly.
"What I want you to do is take a breath in for 5 seconds, hold it for 3, and exhale for 7. I will count and model it for you. Just try to approximate what I'm doing. It will take a few minutes, but you'll get there, alright?"
Tony could hardly see with the office floating away from him and intrusive flashbacks trying to force their way in. He tried to listen to the woman. She sounded calm and reassuring. He could hear her counting in a steady monotone. Minutes passed. It seemed like hours, but he gradually started feeling calmer. The doctor's face came into focus. She was breathing calmly and counting. What did she say, inhale for 7? Tony tried to remember the instructions, but then resorted to copying, what she was doing.
"Vitals, Jarvis." he said quietly.
"You are doing well, Sir. Your heartbeat and respiration rate are slowing down and the carbon dioxide levels in your blood are back within a normal levels. I suggest, that you continue to follow Dr. Taylor's instructions, Sir."
Had he programed Jarvis to always collude with the professionals? Feeling better, Tony got off the floor abruptly and decided to leave as soon as possible. He wanted to be back in his lab, where he felt safe at least most of the time.
"Are you feeling a bit better?"
Nicola had also gotten up and was now looking at Tony in that professional, reassuring manner, that Bruce often assumed.
"Y-Yeah...uh, look, thank you. Sorry for all the trouble. I'll be on my way out." Tony, on his way out door, stopped for a moment and thought about something momentarily before turning around and pointing his fingers towards her, "Feel free to send me a bill, Sweetheart. Don't worry, I expect it to be extraordinary, considering it was an unscheduled appointment and the… ehm… collateral damage to your employee."
"It is a pro bono clinic, Mr. Stark, but I think I will consider this an exception."
Tony could swear that he had seen a mischievous smile on Nicola's face, but it had disappeared in the blink of an eye only to be replaced by the look of professional concern.
"How did you get here, Mr Stark? Have you got a chauffeur or some sort of magical robot machine to take you places?"
"Ehm… no, I- uh, drove."
"I thought so." Nicola glanced again through the window at a sports car parked nonchalantly across two disabled spaces and blocking some poor soul's Mitsubishi.
"I don't think you are fit to drive just yet. Please, take a seat and make sure you recover fully."
Tony considered this for a second. His breathing had calmed down, but his hands were still shaking uncontrollably, his mouth was dry, and he could feel a nasty headache coming on.
"No, you know what, I think I'm fine. I'll just be-"
Nicola raised an eyebrow, looking down at the hands he attempted to ball into fists to calm.
He cleared his throat, looked away and smirked, "Got any scotch?"
"A glass of water then." She corrected with a smile.
He was fully expecting to be banished into a waiting room to face the receptionist again, but Nicola led him to an adjacent room, which was furnished comfortably with sofas and an array of huge cushions scattered across the floor. He took the glass of water offered and sat on the sofa, planning to rest for just a few minutes.
"Take your time." Nicola gave him an encouraging smile and disappeared into her office, quietly closing the heavy door behind her.
Tony came around slowly, wondering where he was. He looked around the smartly furnished interior and focused on diplomas and prizes in mahogany frames on the walls . All belonging to the mystery doctor, Dr. Sullivan.
No wonder they want the guy to do a damn tour of Europe with his show. Tony got up and was glad to realise, that his headache was gone and he felt quite refreshed. He looked out of the window. The sun was going down. "That was one long nap. I'll bet the good doctor is impatient to get rid of me." As he approached the heavy doors dividing the two office spaces, he realised that Nicola was not alone. He could hear her talking with a child, who was around 5 years old. It seemed to him, that they were playing house or something similar. It isn't that surprising really, why wouldn't she have a child? Tony was about to knock on the doors and enter, when he heard the child scream suddenly and start recounting the sort of trauma, that he would never expect a small child to be a part of. He quickly backed off, embarrassed that he had intruded on what was clearly a very private interaction. He sat back down, as far away from the doors as possible.
"Jarvis, play me the 'Mob Rules' album and make it loud." He definitely did not want to hear any more of the screams or the story. Half an hour must have passed, before he saw the doors opening. He could not hear the knocking over the heavy metal music blaring in his ear.
"Black Sabbath? Good choice, bit loud though." Nicola had her suspicions, as to why Tony had decided to deafen himself with music. It was not an ideal situation that he was still around, when she had another patient next door.
"I didn't want to intrude on that girl's privacy… kind of awkward…" Tony felt himself grimace at the recollection of the snippets of the conversation and horrific screams that had reached his ears.
Tony took a look around the office as they moved next door and was shocked by the devastation. The large doll house in the middle of the room remained intact, but the inhabitants had fared less well. The floor was covered in little mutilated bodies. Nicola gave Tony a careful look, concerned for a second that this could trigger some battle scene memories or other disturbing flashbacks, but he looked calm and relaxed.
"You would think that they made those therapy dolls a bit more robust." Nicola sighed as she deposited a neat pile of casualties on her desk. "Take a seat, I will give you a list of PTSD specialists. There are a large number based locally."
Tony watched as Nicola logged into her computer and scrolled through some files. He picked up the dolls one by one and busied himself reattaching heads and limbs in an absent minded fashion.
"Could I not just carry on seeing you instead?" He asked quietly. "Jarvis told me that you are an expert in an area of PTSD yourself."
He thought that it was a long shot considering his behaviour in the morning, but he wasn't so sure he could face meeting another therapist. The more people out there, who knew about his 'problem', the more uncomfortable he felt. Plus, she seemed like someone he could get along with, an easygoing kind of person.
"I thought the props gave it away, Mr Stark. I am a child psychiatrist. I am sure though that one of my colleagues will be able to help." Even Tony could tell that the consultation was over.
On the way home Tony thought carefully about his options. The logical thing to do would be to look through the list that Dr Taylor gave him, pick up another psychiatrist and call them in the morning to arrange an appointment. Or he could ask Pepper to arrange it. Simple problem solving. That was, what adults were supposed to do. He could not stop thinking about what had happened that day though. He had had a total meltdown within minutes of arriving at the office. What was going to happen during a proper consultation, when he was asked probing questions and forced to remember… The sound of impatient beeping brought his attention back to the road ahead. The light had changed and he was blocking traffic. Better concentrate.
When Tony arrived home, he was greeted by a worried-looking Pepper.
"Where have you been, Tony? We were supposed to have dinner together, remember."
She wasn't angry, but he could clearly recognise the disappointment in her eyes. He had messed up...again. No matter how hard he tried, it seemed, he always messed things up.
"I went to see someone… that psychiatrist that Bruce recommended…" Tony avoided eye contact with Pepper.
She was surprised, and the disappointment was gone. "Tony, th-that's great! How'd it go?"
"Just great, yeah. The Doc's a natural, what can I say? So fantastic, in fact, that he spends his time touring Europe rather than seeing patients. So he's out."
Pepper's smile fell.
"There is another psychiatrist working there now, and yeah she was real helpful. I thought great, I can trust this one, let's get this project off the ground. But no, that would be just too easy. The one therapist that I seem to get along with turns out to be a pediatrician." He crossed the room, grabbing a cup with an angry swing and poured half a cup of a scotch, then paused, thinking better of it, he poured a full glass. "But maybe that's exactly what I need, everyone keeps telling me how immature I am. Don't you find it all kinda...ironic?"
Tony realised that he was rambling and that little of what he had said would make any sense to Pepper. He felt too overwhelmed to explain, and suddenly, a volt of anger rising in him, so he turned towards the elevator and headed for the safety of the lab, leaving a gobsmacked Pepper in the hallway, with concerned eyes and folded arms.
Tony spent the next couple of hours tinkering. He wasn't working on anything in particular, just trying to distract himself, focus on something else than the anxious thoughts relentlessly trying to intrude into his mind. Like evil spirits trying to fester in his brain.
He was desperately trying to avoid going to bed. He couldn't face the nightmares. He'd seen a new grey hair patch in his goatee the other day, and that..that was just about the final straw. He could not face Pepper. He knew that he behaved like a total jerk and he was surprised that she had put up with this for so long.
Bruce entered the lab and watched him for a few minutes. Tony was just flipping through old project schematics absent mindedly, half hoping that Bruce would have something other than the abject failure of a therapy session to talk about. Tony really didn't want to talk about all the ways in which he was weak, again. He'd fixed the Palladium problem on his own, he could fix this.
Of course, he'd needed dear old Dad's help for that and the one person who'd been able to help had sent him off with a list of faceless names. Fuck.
This wasn't like—he couldn't just pump himself full of antibiotics and be fixed. Not even Bruce had been able to help.
"Not that kind of doctor," Bruce muttered from over his right shoulder; great minds think alike apparently.
"Tony, can we talk for a second?"
Tony turned to face him, aware that the nap on Dr Sullivan's couch hadn't done anything for the circles under his eyes.
"Pepper told me what happened," Bruce said, "Seeing Dr Sullivan didn't exactly go to plan?"
"That's an understatement. I would say that it was a fucking disaster. It's proven to me that I'm no longer capable of interacting with another human being without turning into a quivering wreck. I'm so fucked that even a psychiatrist doesn't want to be in the same room as me."
Tony waved his hand abruptly, bringing his glass of whiskey to his lips with his other hand, making the images flickering around him disappear. Now he had to think about a way to make Bruce disappear. He was proficient at that, pushing everyone away, as far as possible.
"Wait a second, Tony. The reason why Dr. Taylor didn't agree to see you is that she is a children's shrink. Dolls, drawings, soft toys, the works... I'm fairly certain that she didn't pass any judgment on you, Tony. That is really not her style."
Bruce chuckled softly at some memory, his voice fond and familiar.
"Wait a second, you know her?" Tony was somewhat confused.
"Not really. I know that she is a very good friend of Sullivan. They worked together on a big research project at one point. I met her once in Cambodia. She worked with an NGO that set up a project in a village where I was hid-… working, I mean."
Tony gave Bruce a weak smile. "Small world isn't it."
Bruce took that as an encouraging sign. "Listen Tony, I know it must have been disappointing for you, but we can fix it easily enough. I can arrange an appointment for you tomorrow with…"
"No, thanks, Brucie-boy." Tony interrupted Bruce rather abruptly. "I'm done with seeing professionals. I can cope with this on my own." Tony brushed past Bruce out of the lab and into the dark corridors of the tower, shouting to Jarvis to prepare something Bruce could only understand half of through the thick slur in his words.
Bruce watched Tony get up and leave. He could see just how upset he was, and he briefly considered following him but after a second thought, decided against it.
"He...needs some space. Jarvis, can you keep an eye on him?"
"Of course, Mr. Banner. Already am."