Originally published in How Does that Make You Feel? True Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch
What I’ve learned from ten therapists over thirty years, in four states, seven towns, and one foreign country:
1. Social workers can work miracles.
At your first appointment, right after your first therapist—a chubby, middle-aged social worker—jots down a list of the thirty-seven drugs you’ve taken in the past year, she asks, “What brings you here? What’s troubling you?” And this is what you tell her: pregnant in high school, twenty-one now with a four-year-old kid, on welfare, stuck in a dumpy public housing project, arrested for possession of your friend’s marijuana with intent to sell, named the leader of a drug ring on the front page of the newspaper. You’re bad news, bad luck, the town pariah, and you sleep sixteen hours a day.
Your social worker responds: “You’re an intelligent young woman. You should be in college,” and you burst into tears as she plots a way to make it happen.
2. If you tell your psychiatrist you hate your breasts and he suggests you take off your shirt in therapy, don’t do it; you may end up sleeping with him.
You do. And you do.
It’s a bad idea to sleep with your psychiatrist.
When the psychiatrist who runs the clinic announces to his staff that he’s looking for an interesting, intelligent patient, the miracle-working social worker hands you over. It’s flattering to be thought interesting and intelligent, and after the first session you’re dizzy with love. He has a beard to his chest, a ponytail, and sandals, and recommends books by Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley. . . . You talk about those books, but mainly you talk about sex, because that’s what you think you do in therapy. After you tell him having a baby ruined your breasts and you’re ashamed of them, he suggests you take off your shirt. It takes two months of analyzing, ruminating, and fretting, but the shirt finally comes off, and it feels the opposite of liberating; it’s humiliating. You never take it off again and soon afterward you quit Dr. L, because—or so you believe—you’ve won a scholarship to an elite university and have too many books to read and too many miles to drive. But you think about him constantly and in the spring return for a couple of sessions. He thrills you by suggesting that instead of therapy you do co-counseling. That means you will be therapists for each other. You think: jackpot! Every Friday you drive to his house and swoon as you lie together on a hammock chatting. One night you have margaritas at a Mexican restaurant and then have sex. You think it’s the fleshiness around his middle that disgusts you. A few days later you tell him you want a prescription for Valium, which he will not give you. You think if he were your friend, he’d give you the drugs; if he’s going to act like your therapist he never should have slept with you. Now you have a “legitimate” reason to dump him.
3. Shrinks can be crazy but good for you.
You graduate from college, move to New York City, get hit by a car, go to graduate school for creative writing, can’t write a word, work too many hours, sleep all the rest, drink too much, and show up at the hospital clinic where you’ve been in therapy twice a week for half a year and are told that, unfortunately, the resident-in-training you’ve been seeing, Dr. F., “won’t be in and we don’t know for certain when he will return.” Your heart beats so hard you feel that your eyeballs may pop out of your head. This is worse than a betrayal of trust, this is an affirmation that you’re out of your mind to count on anything or anyone, ever—and that something about you drives people, even paid therapists, away. You cry hysterically walking along Avenue A; the people you pass blur through your tears, not that you’re looking at them. You, who barely let a week go by without a man in your bed, are so in love with this young man that you’ve been celibate since the first day of therapy. You know this is transference, but knowing it makes no difference. You are a kitten left by a garbage can on a sub-zero night. Dr. F. calls you up, his breath trapped in his chest as he whispers conspiratorially, “My father—not the administration of Beth Israel Hospital—my father has decided I need a vacation.”
“When will you be back?”
“They told me not to call my patients. But I wanted you to know.”
He does care about you. You remain faithful, crying every night, fearing he will never return, reciting your litany of repulsive faults and personality traits that drive people away, despairing that you will never find love, never be happy, never have energy, joy, interest, and humor. Then he returns. He helps you believe it wasn’t your repulsiveness that drove him away. You stick with him, never letting him forget that you know he must be crazy; you ask him a thousand times, “How can I trust you?” It’s not his being crazy (aren’t we all?) that frightens you; it’s his desertion.
Eventually he will graduate and go into private practice yet charge you no more money than you were paying at the clinic. At the clinic, for the first year, he barely said two words, such as, “Why are you hiding your face in your hands?” which you did every session, twice a week, for over a year. Now he not only asks but occasionally answers questions and even sometimes offers advice, which you don’t always listen to but appreciate nevertheless. You are in therapy with him for five years when you get a book contract and begin your transition out, graduating before you leave New York City for a summer of writing in New Hampshire from which, for your own peace, sanity, and betterment, you never return to the city.
Years later Dr. F. will write, congratulating you on your book, and enclose a check he never cashed with a note saying he thought it might make a nice memento. Years after that, when you receive a letter from his niece telling you that Dr. F. died of AIDS and that “He was very proud of you,” you wish you could remember what you did with the memento.
4. Trust your own intuition over your shrink’s.
You’re living in a place where after a year you have not made one single friend, you have to drive two hours to buy decent Parmesan cheese, and one day the farmer’s wife across the road stops by to chat as you stack wood, waves to a Volkswagen bumping down the dirt road, and then comments in a smug, singsong voice, “That’s Alice. Alice used to live in your house. She’s an artist. With her it was always, ‘I wonder why. I wonder why.’” And you wonder why you’re still in this backwoods, backbiting place. You tell all this to your Jungian therapist, who tells you, “Stay put; wait it out; things will change.” Don’t listen to him. Fly away fast.
5. Some shrinks are drunks.
If you read in the paper that your psychiatrist’s car, which he’d parked by the bay, had to be retrieved by the Coast Guard after the tide came in, and then you read he got a DWI, dump him. He may sober up, but don’t let it be on your dime.
6. If your therapist suggests you meditate, listen to her.
If she also tells you that some people find believing in a God that loves them unconditionally will help them heal, do not run the other way with your hands over your ears, screaming. Try to believe. You may somehow miraculously find faith, and you may heal.
7. Avoid shrinks who are not as smart as you.
If your social worker/therapist doesn’t understand what you’re saying because you use “big” words like “apoplectic,” run the other way.
8. Sometimes they tell you to do things that you don’t want to do, which are good for you, even transformative.
If your therapist keeps harping on you to confront your parents about your lousy childhood, do it, even if by then they’re practically geriatric. Your mother may deny that she was a rage-aholic who slapped and pinched and pulled your hair, because her fading memory has become selective to protect her from pain. But maybe she will apologize anyway, saying, “I don’t remember, but if I did, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry,” and hearing this, you may lose the bite of anger and take her hand. When you confront your father about hitting you, though, he may say, “You deserved it,” which makes you go apoplectic and yell, “You were a brute. I was a kid. You’re a bully,” to which he responds, “You’re craaazzzyyy.” You won’t speak to him for six months, but when you call him, afraid he could die and you will feel terrible, you say, “Dad?” and he says in a tone that breaks your heart, “Let it go, Bev, please, just let it go.” You do let it go, and being around him begins to feel different. You let him chop the garlic when you cook and stir the pudding for the pie, marvel at how tender he can be, and one day discover that for the first time since you were four years old you actually love your father.
9. If a therapist tells you to paint mandalas and record your dreams and bring them to therapy, dedicate yourself to it.
You may learn that you long for the wilderness, that solitude feeds you and so does your family. Those sessions will plant the seed that eventually roots you back east—within two hours of your son, grandchildren, siblings, parents—up in the Catskills with your dog, and forests all around.
10. Some of the best therapists have no license or formal training.
If she does cleansings using a turkey feather to douse you with smoke, if she makes a fire in her fire pit and invites you to sit all night till sunrise with a dozen other women passing a talking stick, if she invites you to stay in her cottage on what she calls her “Holy Land,” after you’ve been raped and are writing a book about healing from it, accept her invitation—even if it means you can eat no animal products on the Holy Land and you have to tolerate women howling at the moon and taking their shirts off the minute they step out of their cars. Howl at the moon, too, if you can make yourself, sit bare-breasted under a tree on a moonless night and wait for the owl to land overhead and talk to you. It may be the voice of the God that twenty years ago a therapist suggested you believe in.