Though you’ve been my therapist for many years, you are shrouded in mystery. I’ve only unearthed some basics through online searches. (You are Jewish. You are probably married. You have an adult daughter and you write well.) Though I’m a naturally nosy person, I abide by the general code of therapy and rarely brandish you with questions about your life.
But after watching Shrinking, the amusing Apple TV show starring perpetually rumpled actor Jason Segel, I’m left pondering the therapist-patient relationship. As I wax on about the central issues of my life during our sessions, are you ever vexed by my longtime inertia/Groundhog Day recital of the same tired problems? Do you, as Jason Segal’s character asks his therapist mentor (Harrison Ford), ever get so mad at a patient that you want to shake them?
I can’t blame you for growing weary of my rigmarole after six years of once a week treatment. Compassion fatigue is real! Just imagine how cross I am with myself–the same blasted anxieties squirreling through my brain for decades. You get off easy compared to me!
Though you seem to be a traditional therapist who shies away from radical/unorthodox methods like those used by Jason Segal, e.g, bringing his veteran patient with anger management issues/PTSD to a boxing ring to spar, a field trip once in a while would be welcome! Flushing, Queens for shaved ices shaped like ogers? Pickle ball? A studio in Brooklyn to make cute tufted rugs! I’m on it!
Sometimes, I wish we could pause the angst and analysis and have some uninterrupted fun. Perhaps I’ll concoct some outrageous Tony Soprano-grade problems just to observe how you’d react to something hair-raising and unusual. When I was a young child, I would sometimes lie down on the couch in my mother’s office that was in our apartment. I’d make up elaborate, grown-up problems for us to discuss. (This is the weird variety of fun we children of therapists enjoy. My best friends Maya, Wendy and Zoe were also children of therapists and I remember us making up a game, Divorce Court, based on the courtroom show that was popular at the time. We took turns being bitter spouses or the judge and threw ourselves into our roles with gusto. Gosh, I loved the late seventies /early eighties. I figure kids wouldn’t get away with playing this game these days. Parents wouldn’t see it as creative fun, more a sign of early sociopathy.
Or how about some other stress-relieving distractions? Consider the Simpsons therapist who gave the family foam-padded mallets for hitting one another. Perhaps, I’m not talking out of left field here, for once you brought your fluffy-ball-of-perfection therapy dog to the office, so voodoo dolls or an indoor fire pit to write names of those who have crossed me on paper and watch them burn, seem like a natural extension.
That said, the fun gear I suggested above would clutter your elegant yet inviting office that reveals so much about you. I’d wager you don’t have ADHD from the way you’ve decorated your office as if every piece has purpose and meaning (rather than my “style” of scattering a hodgepodge of objects everywhere and hoping no one jumps too vigorously to cause objects to tumble off shelves and tables). You’ve spared us the generic art master posters and “real” coffee-house art that seem to outfit every doctor’s office. You manage to rock that modern/vintage aesthetic that I’ve not been able to master in my own home. See the bursts of mauve in your tastefully worn-looking rug. A few soothing, neutral-colored chairs that are stylish yet comfortable enough to burrow into after a hard day. Even the dollhouse you keep for your patients is more Le Corbusier luxe than the sort of Calico Critter tchotchkes that litter my house. Plus your office faces Central Park West and has the ideal amount of shade and sun (thanks to some blinds on your windows). If I had to rate your office for style, comfort and good vibes, I’d give it an A. (My last therapist’s office would get a B minus because its windows faced a dark, littered side street and my therapist chose a stiff backed 1960’s mod looking patient chair that forced me to sit upright when my natural inclination is to slouch. Consequently, I always felt morose and tense in our sessions. My therapist’s severe countenance— her fixed grimace and a mess of frizzy curls draped across one eye, didn’t help the situation. She had angry clown vibe.
Though I know you’d never do anything unprofessional, do you ever dream of issuing an ultimatum like “leave that dead-end job you have been moored to for decades or stop coming to therapy” the way Jason Segal told his abused client to leave her boyfriend or stop seeing him for therapy? If you have contemplated this type of radical/unprofessional outburst, kudos! You are human. And not to be an alarmist but this is the time to showcase your humanity. See the flood of news coverage about new A.I/ChatGPT and even therapy replacements. (Pinky promise. I’d never leave you for one of these bots).
I’d like to hear you fess up to having dark, frustrated thoughts because you seem kind of perfect.( I imagine if I was a therapist, these blistering thoughts would occupy a great portion of my mind. I’m a judgmental, impatient fuck). I have surmised that you are perfect based on your carriage, voice and dress. You have good posture, are slim and wear spare but high-quality jewelry. I’ve never noticed you wearing anything rumpled or stained. Your shoes are impeccable. Let’s call it a Hepburn kind of style. I see you in delicate pearls. A bespoke cardigan. Jodhpurs and tall boots. You have a calm, podcast-worthy voice and a laugh that’s neither restrained/unnatural or overly hearty/snortey (unlike my chortle that veers in loud and embarrassing ways).
Despite this (or possibly because of this seeming perfection), I would be your buddy if we weren’t patient-therapist. You get me after all! (This reminds me a little of this guy I once met years ago who seriously droned on about how he was in love with a stripper he’d met once at a strip club. He swore they’d had a connection and his friends and I laughed our heads off at him because he had misinterpreted a classic professional interaction). But for real, the friendship between the therapist and the veteran patient in Shrinking looks like raucus fun. Hence the drawing above that I made of us scaling a fence like the show’s characters. (Note that I didn’t draw you dressed stylishly because that’d take some research and I was racing against pesky daylight savings last night).
Your references suggest you like the kinds of art, film and literature that I do. (You are the one who recently told me about Shrinking). You, and a small sample of others in my life, have encouraged me to find a bounty of creative joy in my life so pardon me if I put you on a pedestal. I often struggle to find friends now that want to see art exhibits and venture to the unknown as my ADHD-self craves. I imagine you’d be someone who would reply yes to my annoying group emails about creative activities (art club, craft night, pink curler experiment etc), which quite understandably, recently provoked a friend to tell me I should consider my privilege and frame my emails not in terms of my latest passing fancy but how the venture would benefit my friends’ lives. (I think you know when to analyze me and when to leave me alone.)
I know about confidentiality but is it deluded to hope that as friends you’d humor me at times and share some patient stories (of course scrubbed of all identifying details)? As a therapist’s kid, it’s no wonder I enjoy hearing random stories of human dysfunction. My mom and I used to stay up late talking about people we knew and their issues (no, not her patients). Pure rapture! I’ve had a bunch of medical school friends/ doctors regale me with details of their patients’ gruesome medical conditions/stories but these aren’t as fun as therapy tales.
In one of Woody Allen’s films, his character calls his therapist “Donny” as a nickname. How would you feel if I gave you a nickname? It sometimes strikes me as so odd, the one-sided yet intimate relationship of therapist-patient. I always find it awkward when I begin our phone session with small talk and ask how you are. I know you will not answer in a meaningful way but I feel compelled to do it. Of course, I’d love to know your minutiae, e.g, do you ever think “oh fuck it” when you are lying in bed drowsy and just peel your disposable daily contacts from your eyes and shove them uncased into your night table drawer to discard properly later? Do you ever ruffle up some pages of your hard copy of the New York Times that you have recently started getting delivered because you are embarrassed that two days have gone by and you haven’t touched them? Do you sometimes wear the enormous puffy hood on your down coat that swallows your head so that you can avoid small talk with parents at school pick up? Me too!
Now that therapy consists of a phone call are you wearing bunny slippers, pink curlers and one of those infrared face masks as we talk? Is there a half-eaten box of Nutter Butters in the crack of the couch you recline in? Why not cultivate a bonsai tree hobby; I see you trimming one into poodle like shapes with shears while I lament my inability to make real progress on my novel. Perhaps you’re full blown watching Emily in Paris part 2/Love is Blind season 3 simultaneously as I share my guilt over living so far away from my elderly mother who raised me on her own. Well, power to you! You have the same right to sometimes quiet quit as the rest of us are doing.
To plow through a day of sessions, are you, like the female therapist in Deconstructing Harry who sits behind a reclining Woody Allen as he drones about his problems, hysterically opening the caps of many medicine bottles and indelicately pouring their pills into your mouth. (I assume the answer is no to all of these questions but these scenarios tickle my funny bone).
I get the reasoning behind keeping us patients in the dark about your private life. After all, we (at least in the past) expect our Presidents/politicians to be perfect and maybe the same goes for our therapists. I recall a time my former therapist told me she was moving lots of boxes of her possessions out of her apartment to explain her request to reschedule one of our sessions; when I asked her why she was moving her boxes, she told me she was getting divorced. (I remember wondering how I could treat her as a relationship guru as she was divorced and not even able to habitate her own home. Kind of how as a young woman, I was skeptical that a very overweight yoga teacher could be a serious yogi. Now I think I’ve got a more nuanced view of human kind). So maybe continue keeping the curtain closed, Oz, but by all means pop out on occasion to reveal snippets of your own life experiences.
I admit, I crave your approval. Do therapists rate their patients like Uber drivers/Airbandb hosts rate passengers/guests? (I just found out that you can check your Uber rating and I have a 4.85 rating out of 5, which supposedly isn’t amazing. Bananas!) If so, do I get points off when I call in late or when I gnaw indelicately on dried mango slices as we speak? I am the kind who wants my Uber driver/Airbandb host to like me. It goes beyond the fear of bad reviews and practical implications. I just don’t want to go to sleep thinking how someone in this world is disgusted/annoyed at me. For an adult who is not anal retentive/very neat and who often struggles to tidy up my own home, I spend an inordinate time checking for crumbs/mess after I’ve left an Uber or making sure I’ve followed House departure rules for an Airbandb. No dish left unwashed! (Yes, family, I have written those words). Relatedly, I tend to over tip largely because I think low-wage workers should be compensated better but also because I like being liked. (Is that messed up? Pray tell!)
Indeed, when you laugh at things I say, I feel like jumping and yelling “aha, success!” for it means I’ve pierced the professional veil and you might find me genuinely entertaining. I am well aware that I’m basically a trope (though not quite sure which trope this slightly neurotic Korean-American Jewish adoptee legal services attorney/mother/wife who lives in Manhattan falls into). Given this fact, I admire how you listen to me and dispense advice without a hint of “oops she did it again,” in your voice. I note that some therapists are terrible at hiding the predictability of human experience. Their yawns are audible. Their eyes downcast as they peek at their watches. Thankfully, you are a prodigy when it comes to seeming interested in what I have to say! On the other hand, you aren’t inappropriately exuberant as I would be as a therapist. (“Holy fucking cow” would fly right out of my mouth with some regularity). You’ve hit the right balance!
It’s at once comforting and disheartening to realize my everyday problems are pretty generic and widely experienced. I have always enjoyed reading advice columns and recently discovered The Guardian’s amusingly specific letters, letters that the writers who submit them wish they had sent but never did. On a bad mood day, these letters and advice columns I peruse make me feel dumpy and unoriginal. On a good day, I recognize commonalities as reassuring and instructive.
As comfortable as I am with you as my therapist and how valuable I find you, I hope I don’t linger needlessly until I’m an octogenarian.(I’ve been in that situation where I overstayed my welcome/didn’t read the situation. I think comically of a dinner long ago in which my good female friend, my male friend and I went to dinner and the two of them a few drinks in, started putting hot candle wax from the table’s candle on their fingers and then rubbing it on each other’s hands seductively while I blabbed on and on–oblivious).
The problem is, I see no end game. I’m always going to be essentially me; though ideally, my flaws and anxieties will be better concealed at times. And there’s the inevitable future decline of my body and faculties and empty nest syndrome to look forward to when both of my kids clap the dust off their hands and flee our parental grip. Just as I joke with my friend Deb that in a few decades, we will both be wheeling into our legal office–oxygen tanks flailing behind, the same goes for therapy. Will I be like the people at my liberal arts college that stayed well beyond four years to hushed whispers or those men with graying temples who lingered too long in our small college town to party with college students when their contemporaries had long fled? I’m not sure how long is too long in the therapy context but feel free to give me a sign, e.g. wiggle your ear and rub the tip of your nose, if it’s coming to that point. No words necessary.
P.S. Thank you for being a top-notch therapist. I hope your life is as I imagine it: composed, joyful and purposeful.
As one of my client’s once texted me after I had helped him with his employment case, “Thanks, I hope you reach all of your goals, and I hope you solidify the elusive notion of happiness.” I loved that. (See below screen shot of the text I saved minus my client’s name).
See you next week,
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