I envy paranoids; they actually feel people are paying attention to them. — Susan Sontag
I didn’t want to see the doctor. I never do. But my options were running out — pills made me stupid and yoga was irritating. And, of course, there was David. At first I thought he was simply making gestures, that his furrowed brows and increasingly frequent visits to my office to “check on me” were devised attempts to demonstrate his devotion. But when David told me he was afraid I might die as a result of my erratic heartbeat, I picked up the phone and made an appointment.
Sometime between the taking of my blood pressure (which was high) and the reading of the electrocardiogram (which was normal), I started crying — and continued crying for the next five hours. Between sobs and endless mopping of my wet face, I managed to communicate to my doctor that my friends and family said I might be a little stressed out. She suggested I try yoga and then sent me blubbering down the hall for blood work on the off chance that I might have some kind of iron deficiency or thyroid problem (which I don’t). I wept my way home and into David’s arms. Hours later, as we sat in the living room and watched the clouds in the west shift from orange to pink to purple, David gently released the words he’d been withholding for weeks: “Babe, I worry that you might be cracking up.” The next day, I picked up the phone and made another kind of appointment.
I’d only been to a therapist once before. Her name was Judy Finch, and she had a twitch in one eye. I was 16, and my parents had found a notebook containing a choice collection of poetry that melodramatically portrayed my teenage misery. After inviting me to sit on a brown leather couch, she asked me to read her one of my poems. I tore my gaze away from her convulsing brow and opened the book on my lap. “This one is called ‘Pain,’” I said. When I finished, I looked up to find the shrink twitching thoughtfully. She asked me why I’d come to see her and mentioned that I seemed to be “in touch with” my emotions. I said, “Exactly,” and left.
This time, I chose my own therapist by googling every female name on Blue Shield’s website and selecting one nearby who listed among her specialties “anxiety” and “stress.” In the days before my appointment, I grew anxious, nervous that I might show up late or unprepared for such a momentous meeting. I plotted and rehearsed whatever I thought would be important to divulge. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in my relatively short, neurotic life, it’s that my expectations are rarely met.
I imagined the session would be like an in-depth interview, during which I would answer questions and the psychologist would provide life-altering insights. I like attention. The idea of talking about myself for an entire hour to a willing listener was more tempting than dark chocolate and a sip of aged tawny port. For all my nervous daydreaming, however, I never anticipated how inordinately stupid I would feel. Once my ass was seated on the floral-print couch, I had one goal: to justify my presence in a psychologist’s office. As if I had to prove how crazy I was or else she’d show me the door. I gushed one confession after another, hardly taking breaths between stories, all the while watching the chasm between reality and expectation grow wider. It was so disturbing, so uncomfortable, and I was so embarrassed, that it wasn’t long before I had a “breakthrough,” by which I mean I was, once again, frantically wiping away tears in front of a stranger. The poor woman hardly got a word in edgewise. Then my time was up. I made another appointment because I didn’t want her to feel bad, and I left, feeling mortified by what had just happened.
While having drinks with a few friends at Laurel, Amy asked how my appointment had gone. “Great,” I said. “It’s amazing, actually. I’m cured!”
Kristen laughed and lifted her glass. “I can’t believe you’d never been to one before.” She went on to explain that during a recent period in her life she was so happy and carefree that she sought counseling for fear she might be repressing something.
“Actually? It was kind of weird,” I said. “I mean, she wore bejeweled jeans. How can I trust someone to navigate the dark caverns of my mind if she can’t even manage her own closet?”
“You don’t have to keep seeing her,” said Amy. She suggested I try others, as if it was a particular herb in the seasoning and not the meat itself that I had a problem with.
A second “first session” was out of the question. The woman was nice enough and seemed experienced. If a psychologist was what I needed, why not her? I didn’t want to admit it, but the real reason I talked shit is because I came away from my embarrassing session with the impression that I hadn’t done my best to be liked, and therefore she probably didn’t like me. I wanted to go back, not only to prove that I was not an unlikable freak, but to give the whole therapy thing a real shot. If not for me, then for David — who has to put up with me. To my friends, I said, “I’ll give her wardrobe one more chance. When you’re pouring your heart out, you expect, in the least, office casual. If she wears those jeans again, I’m calling it.”
The second time, I still felt dumb. It didn’t help that the therapist wore smart black slacks with a gorgeous periwinkle cardigan. This time, it had to be me. I wanted her to read my mind and then, I don’t know, tell me how wonderful I was. Instead, she asked me if I’d had any anxiety during the week. “I had a nightmare that I’d forget to bring cash for my co-pay, does that count?” No response. “Okay, well, I did have a bit of a moment yesterday.”
When I’d finished explaining how I’d freaked out over something relatively minor, the virtual stranger sitting across from me asked if I’d like to try something called a cognitive exercise. I said sure. She grabbed a pad of paper, and we wrote down the thing I’d freaked out over and the thoughts going through my head while I was freaking out. Then we picked apart those thoughts, transforming them from emotional extremes (e.g., I’m a bad person) to neutral statements (e.g., There are qualities about myself that I like, qualities I don’t like, and qualities I am impartial to).
When we were finished, the evidence before us clearly demonstrated that I’d overreacted. “How do you feel about this?” asked the therapist, a woman who knew less about me than people I meet on the street who have read my diary entries.
“How do I feel?” I was buying time. How did I feel? I looked at the paper, at her, at my shoes, and finally, at my hands, clenched tightly together on my lap. “Stupid. I feel stupid.”
“Are you stupid?” Was she challenging me?
“Right. Okay, time’s up. Do you want to schedule your next appointment?”
I stood and gathered my things, walked over to her desk, and said, “Same time next week?”