MY LIFE IN THERAPY
by Marion Winik
Not long after I moved to Baltimore in 2009, I realized that I needed help. I was still a mess about the implosion of my marriage, I was having no luck with dating, and neither hot yoga, white wine, or what was left in the prescription bottle from the last time I sprained my ankle was killing the pain. However, having been in therapy on and off since seventh grade, I knew well that finding a therapist is no easier than finding a boyfriend and often “help” is not a good description of what you get.
The first psychiatrist I ever saw was a Chinese-American woman with a son in my middle-school honors science class. I was sent to her after I wrote a long, spooky, cry-for-help type poem and swallowed a bottle of Excedrin. A C- in seventh-grade English (I think we would now call this a Jewish F) and a broken heart were the nominal causes of my nervous collapse but I was also fascinated by mental illness as portrayed in books like I Never Promised You A Rose Garden and The Bell Jar. Ah, that Sylvia Plath. An ongoing danger to America’s young romantics.
I would later realize that by limiting her responses to mmhmm-mmhmm and tossing any question I asked back to me, my inscrutable therapist was following classic psychoanalytic procedures. At the time I thought she was one of the most annoying people I’d ever met. To her credit, she did manage to explain some of my self-esteem issues to my bewildered parents, who were as always just trying to help me. But the approximately fourteen doctors I was seeing at the time, including a speech therapist, were making me feel like The Elephant Man instead of just a somewhat chubby, slightly pigeon-toed, crooked-toothed, lazy-eyed preteen. The physical issues were all eventually fixed or went away on their own; my sad little soul would prove more intractable.
My teen years featured an old-hippie psychologist my sister Nancy and I both saw, sometimes together. He said we should bring as many of friends as we liked. He smoked bidis with us—Indian clove cigarettes rolled in leaves, very popular in the ’70s—and hypnotized me to help me lose weight. One session involved me descending into an imaginary theater and visualizing my favorite food making an entrance on the spotlit stage. My favorite food was Dannon vanilla yogurt.
He explained to me that this symbolized the male orgasm.
Also around this time I participated in a therapy group run by the mother of one of my high school friends in her basement. Grassroots-style group therapy was quite a craze back then, as were bean bag chairs, blond-veneer paneling and shag carpeting, and everyone in our drama-club clique crowded down the stairs to the bi-weekly meetings, not wanting to miss a moment of the action. “Group,” as it was known, was less like therapy than like an MTV reality show thirty years before its time, with all the parties to every slight and betrayal on hand for its confession, a domino-effect freak-out waiting to happen.
For example, when I stupidly messed around one night in a red Chevy Nova with Billy Donnelley, who was not my boyfriend but who reportedly had porn-star type anatomical equipment so often discussed by the boys in our crowd that it was difficult not to be curious about it, the big showdown occurred in a room that contained Billy, my boyfriend, me, all of our various siblings, other girls who had had indiscretions with Billy Donnelley, their menfolk, and our well-meaning, middle-aged group leader. Though Billy and I had not gone all the way, things were never the same again for me and my sweet, young boyfriend. Ah, those stupid ’70s. Like Sylvia Plath, another wellspring of dubious inspiration and poor moral guidance.
In college, where I had developed a pioneering case of bulimia, I saw a Student Health psychiatrist who made me so mad with his insistence that my eating problem was really a sexuality problem that I threw my purse at him in our second session. I was a little edgy after the vanilla yogurt thing.
Still I wasn’t completely discouraged, though I continued to have meager success. More obsessive love, more body image issues, now throw in substance abuse . . . in my twenties, I practically drove a young Jungian therapist into another line of work. I was losing patience, too. At one point, I actually threatened to sue a guy who listened to me for a couple hours, diagnosed me with ADD, wrote me three prescriptions, and sent me a bill for $1,369. Multiple couples counselors threw up their hands at both my first and second marriages. When I started to believe one of my kids was a dangerously manipulative charmer who had everyone around him bewitched with his lies, I of course sent him to see a therapist as well. She called me after a few visits to tell me that I shouldn’t worry about my son. Everybody lies a little! And he was so charming.
Unbelievably, none of these experiences had destroyed my faith in therapy and so I set out once again to be healed, this time in the living room of an elderly, cadaverous, former Episcopal priest whose main advantage was that he was right in my neighborhood. On our first visit, he said he wasn’t sure he could help me with my problems, since they were so severe. On our second visit, he decided he’d rather not hear the pages and pages of dreams I had written down at his suggestion (though they seemed at the very least to be full of lottery number picks.) On our third visit, he pulled out his Bible and started reading aloud. When I called him the following week to cancel our next appointment, I got the impression I had barely beaten him to it.
Then I sprained my ankle for the third time that fall, and my friend Ken insisted I go the emergency room. Against my better judgment, I let Ken drag me to Patient First. While we were waiting I noticed a paperback copy of the book Desire, a memoir of sex addiction by Susan Cheever, on the chair beside me, atop a crocheted blue shawl. I picked it up to see if they had used a quote from the review I’d written of the book. They hadn’t, and I put the book back. Who was the person who had left it there, I wondered. When a friendly-looking, blond, blue-eyed woman gingerly carrying her hurt left arm in her right returned to claim her things, I told her I had looked at her book.
“Oh,” she said. “I’m a therapist!”—obviously wanting to dispel the impression that she was reading it because she was a sex addict.
“And I,” I quickly replied, “am a book reviewer.”
She was taken away to have her arm fixed. But as I sat there, I thought about the woman, feeling more and more drawn to her. This, I was sure, was my therapist. So I sneaked down the hall and peeked in the cracks between the curtains of the treatment rooms until I found her. She and her attending physician looked up surprised as I boldly swept in. “Can I have your business card?” I said.
I saw Tracy on Tuesdays, right after my hot yoga class. We talked about my ex-husband, of course, whose anger and blame were still very live issues for me, and about my recent bad experiences with the race-car driver in Annapolis. This seemed to exemplify another disastrous element of my character: the power of good looks and good kissing to blow my circuits. One does get to a point in life where it’s sort of exhausting filling in the same old back story, and then even more discouraging to realize how similar the new stories are. But Tracy was a good listener, neither a pushover nor a super-confrontational critic, and I never had to throw my purse at her once.
God knows I have always been too restless and impulsive and impatient for my own good, sometimes drastically so, and I have long suffered with the burning desire to climb out of my head and go someplace else, often with some sort of chemical assistance. While motherhood has made me a much healthier person—as it couldn’t Sylvia Plath—it didn’t fix every glitch. Tracy wouldn’t either, but she did help me out of the post-marital pain pit and onto more solid ground. I miss her, which is more than I can say for most of my old pay-pals.
Just like love, therapy is always worth another try.
Marion Winik is best known for her commentaries on All Things Considered since 1991 (collected at NPR.org) and is the author of eight books, including First Comes Love, The Lunchbox Chronicles, Telling, and The Glen Rock Book of the Dead. She is a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times and an expert on the ethics of creative nonfiction. A performer in the tradition of David Sedaris, she has read from her work in large and small venues all over the country. She is a professor in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore and writes the Answer Lady advice column for Ladies Home Journal.