Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shrinks Who've Shrunk Me

When I was about to begin my career as a university undergraduate, my dad was aghast to hear that I intended to avail myself of the free psychotherapy the university offered. He was from a generation in which mental illness wasn’t seen as a way of thwarting The Man, as a sign of superior sensitivity or creativity. 

The first guy to try to talk me out of the crushing depressiveness to which I’d first realized myself susceptible at six was jovial, square-jawed, young, and ineffectual. Between us, we would get through a great many of his Marlboros over the course of a 50-minute consultation. He didn’t make me feel better, except in the sense that I enjoyed having someone to talk to. 

As I reached the finish line of my undergraduate education, the prospect of being invited to fight in Vietnam loomed ever larger. An organization in the business of helping young men not get drafted put me in touch with an antiwar shrink who looked exactly like Warren Beatty and didn’t smoke Marlboros. I was very commonly late to our sessions, which a psychotherapist would have interpreted as a passive-aggressive expression of hostility. He wrote a letter suggesting that I wasn’t emotionally fit for service in the armed forces, and pointed out that I occasionally confused my pronouns when speaking of my dad, using I when I wanted he, and vice versa. Uncle Sam was apparently going to demand a second opinion, and Dr. Beatty suggested a colleague, who beamed delightedly when I told him that my mother was by far the stronger of my two parents. “Exactly the sort of environment that produces homosexuals!” he proclaimed delightedly. In those days, homosexuality kept you out of uniform. 

Most of a decade passed. I invoked my having been circumcized and bar mitzvah, and got myself seen by a kind woman therapist in Santa Monica who taught me to meditate (using a Hebrew word as my mantra, of course). I bruised her feelings by confiding that I viewed her as maternal. She couldn’t prescribe medications (in this case, the godawful Elavil), for which I had to consult an MD. Before writing my prescription, said personage tried hard to get me to “admit” that I was gay, though I was quite sure I was not. I was much discomfited by the possibility that my great unhappiness was the product of my lifelong self-deception. Thirty-four years later, though, I continue to lust after gals, which isn’t to say that if I were shipwrecked on a remote island with Cillian Murphy and the novelist Joyce Carol Oates, I’m pretty sure it would be the former I’d invite out for a frappuccino.

I moved to California’s wine country and told a Sonoma County Mental Health therapist how very agonizing I found it to be poor and obscure at 37 after having been rich and famous at 24. “So,” he said, sneering a little bit, “you think the world owes you a living?” It might have been the most — what’s the word I want here? — salient thing a mental health professional had ever said to me.  Salient, but not very comforting.

Having benefitted so little from one-on-one treatment, I consented to join a therapy group in San Francisco. Waste of time. Some weeks after its dissolution, I went into a severe emotional tailspin and hurried over to Kaiser Permanente (my HMO, you see) to appeal to the psychiatrist who’d led it to…do something — anything. His refusal even to confer with me for five minutes made me hate him even more than I had previously. I thought it might be great fun to break a window with his smug, smirky little face. Dr. Zoloft, I think his name was, or maybe I’m thinking of one of the many miracle drugs that’s failed me. 

Steven B. Jacobson, his far kinder colleague, specialized in the treatment of the adult children of alcoholics, of which he said I was one, for all intents and purposes, though Mom and Dad had never touched a drop. He treated me free when I was unable to pay, and when my Kaiser coverage lapsed, and I will never forget his kindness, though he did give me some advice that didn’t pan out. He told me I needed to tell my parents how angry I was for not having realized the pain I’d been in as a child. The problem was that once I started telling them, I couldn’t stop. They suffered my rage until their respective deaths, and I will never cease to be ashamed of myself.  

Living in England, I told the National Health Service that I was suicidal with despair. They jumped right on it, and only 11 months later advised that I could, if I wanted, be a member of another therapy group that turned out to be populated by women self-harmers who hated me for being American and having unscarred forearms, and a lapsed chef too depressed even to notice anyone, much less hate me. For around 10 minutes, I savoured [did you see what I did there?] the consolation of feeling the best-adjusted person in the room, only to realize how very, very little that was saying. 

In Beacon, New York, four years ago, I conferred with a nice lady called Rita who told me that instead of being pained by the fact that my blog hadn’t attracted thousands of subscribers, I should try to feel good about the fact that it had attracted 28. I gave her an earful for her habit of nodding solemnly and musing, “Isn’t that interesting,” after I’d confided something horrifying. She responded fairly graciously. 

It can be sort of pleasurable talking about yourself for 50 minutes, but I don’t think psychotherapy works. Trying to change a feeling by understanding it intellectually is like imagining that reading a biography of M. Escoffier will make you a wonderful cook.


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