The Diagnostician

Linda McMullen

Feb 10th 2023


I had told my mother repeatedly that I didn’t want to go to the diagnostician, but she insisted.  Reminded me that she was allowing me to live at home post-degree, rent free, while I “foundered”.  And suggested that if I wished for that state of affairs to continue until I could finally go out and get a job, I would be surrendering a certain amount of autonomy.

Now, Mom grasps me by the shoulders, frowns.  “A bright young woman like you,” she says, “should have…”

I fill in the gaps myself, courtesy of my mother’s previous suggestions:

 “…some prospects.”

“…a boyfriend.”

“…a hobby, beyond ordering the lives of fictional characters in a stack of spiral-bound notebooks.”

“…more ambition.”

“…a social life.”

“…a plan beyond sitting on the couch and reading novels.”

I tell her that I’m fine.

My mother sniffs audibly.  “We’re going.”


The Diagnostician’s office has a stack of literature about the service.  “Cutting-Edge Healing at the Nexus of Biology and Psychology” reads one pamphlet.  The intake forms on a gleaming chrome tablet erode my will to live.


I rise.

I’ve seen the office on TV, of course, but it’s no match for the real thing.  I can’t help but shudder at the floor-to-ceiling array of automated medical devices and a supercomputer surrounding a dentist’s chair on the victim’s – patient’s – side.  Opposite, the Diagnostician sits, enthroned, before a next-gen desk with its tripartite screen. 

“Come in and make yourself comfortable,” she says.  Commands, really.  I sit.  The machines spring to life, conducting my bio-scans and bloodwork with zest, sifting through my records, and analyzing the slightly archaic Scantron personality exam I completed in the previous hour in the waiting room.  (After that, I had gone back to my notebook, while my mother huffed.)

“Your vital signs look good,” she says, her eyes skimming the screens and briefly making contact with my own.

“Thanks.” I guess rapport-building has gone out of fashion.  But I suppose it must get wearisome, having so many disappointing people shuffling in and out of your office all day.

“Your ideal weight is six-point-six pounds below the current figure.”

“Is that all?” I replied, thinking of the peanut butter M&Ms that had formed a bright spot in recent weeks.

“You seem to have minor depression.”

“Given the state of the world right now, that sort of seems like a sign of sanity.”

The Diagnostician isn’t wearing glasses, but I feel as though she’s glaring at me over them, nonetheless.

“Your biosigns are – well.  You don’t seem like a good candidate for pharmaceutical intervention – and I see you’re spending rather more time online and less out-of-doors.  I prescribe less doom-scrolling and more exercise.”

I feel both seen and attacked, so I don’t say anything.

“High levels of academic intelligence… high levels of intrinsic motivation… you are perfectly capable of succeeding in a chosen endeavor.”


“You also test high for defensiveness and obstinacy,” she observes.

That’s not news. 

“To the extent that anything does,” she asks, changing tacks abruptly, “what makes you happy right now?”

“Peanut butter M&Ms.”


“I dunno,” I say.  “That’s why my mother dragged me here.  And your job, I think.  To figure out why I’m adrift.”

She spots my purple notebook.  “What’s that?”

“I write.”

“You write what?”

“Character sketches.  Short stories.”

“May I?”

No, actually, she may not, they’re no one’s business… but having the argument seems exhausting.  I don’t bother to get up.  She strides across the room, takes it from me, and returns to her seat.  She speaks not a word for a full ten minutes.  I close my eyes and imagine myself in my most recent piece, which takes place at a distant mountain cabin.

“You have a good grasp of people and their motivations,” she says at last, closing the notebook.  “You render different personality types persuasively… and you have a strong voice.”

“Thank you.”

“Have you considered work as a diagnostician?”  She punches a few buttons on the computer – she must be looking at my college transcript, because she adds, “Or, a diagnostician’s assistant?”

“How original.  I bet you suggest that to all the washed-up twenty-somethings.”

“Just the ones who need to hear it,” she returns. 

I frown, but I can’t think of a single thing to say.

She says something about testing and credentialing, hands me a card with a monogram and a website.  “Well.  Good luck.”


“Well?” Mom demands, when I return.

“It wasn’t useless,” I say, tucking the card into my wallet.

Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, daughter, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over one hundred fifty literary magazines. She may be found on Twitter: @LindaCMcMullen. 

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