One Girl, Six Shrinks
I always start therapy with the hope of accomplishing a particular goal, but is there ever really an end? I could do a different kind of work with a different kind of therapist every day and there would probably never be a terminus.
Illustrations by Joel Benjamin
It's the day we spend 20 minutes talking about Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin that I realize I can no longer afford my therapist. She doesn't take my insurance, and the cost is like a monthly payment on a luxury car. This is a different kind of breakup than I've ever had with a healthcare professional. I don't leave for lack of love. It isn't her. It's Blue Shield.
Now I look back upon our 50-minute sessions with euphoric recall. The beautiful boundaries we set: work boundaries, parental boundaries, sex boundaries. Granted, I never actually upheld any of those boundaries, but the inspiration was there. Most of all I miss her modality: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy combined with mindfulness, which did more in nine months to help me with my anxiety disorder than over a decade of psychodynamic therapy. I'd been in many long-term therapist-patient relationships, but it was never this good.
I approach the Psychology Today therapist finder as one might approach Tinder for the first time: nervous, excited, fantasizing about all of the hot possibilities for "doing the work." Yet my eagerness is quickly squashed by what I find. Have any of these therapists ever used the internet? How can I respect someone with an Earthlink email address? Many of them ask vague, open-ended questions: Not sleeping well or sleeping too much? Feeling depressed or anxious? A few of them are making duckface.
Like Tinder, the mediocre ones start to look good compared to the disasters. There's one therapist who seems like she has what I want: an anxiety specialist, well-educated, takes my insurance. I immediately position her as the therapy It Girl, a must-have. What if I don't get her? I must get her! I set out crafting the perfect email: one that depicts me as fucked-up yet also a real pleasure. She doesn't respond.
Of course, it's always the ones you don't want who want you. Dozens of responses from the Earthlink therapists come flooding in. One woman, we'll call her Therapist #1, has a crazy amount of availability. Like, every day of the week is free. Sorry, but you should at least play a little hard to get. I don't trust that she isn't desperate. But I'm kind of desperate too.
I schedule a session with her and it goes OK. She's compassionate, but definitely too deep in the let's-talk-about-Mommy game for me. Perhaps I am just comparing her to Judy. It's like when you get out of a relationship and your first new fuck is just mediocre. You just want to go running back to that last relationship. I try to remember that Judy wasn't perfect either. One time she even quoted ee cummings.
Therapist #2 doesn't give a shit about my childhood, which is a great sign. Also, her office is three minutes from my house so I try to make myself like her. But halfway through the session I notice that she has a dark hair-dye stain across the front of her scalp and forehead. I try to ignore the stain. Yet I feel like the stain is talking to me.
"Can you accept life advice from someone who can't figure out Clairol?" says the stain.
"Is that what this is really about?" I ask.
"I suggest you move on," says the stain.
I've never had an easy time breaking up with therapists, in part because they don't readily accept the ol' "it's just not working for me." They always want to process the breakup over the course of multiple sessions. You spend more time breaking up than you did working together. But with therapists #1 and #2 it's very easy, because it's less of a breakup and more of a not scheduling a second date. It's basically just swiping left. I start to think that maybe it's better to never commit to a therapist. Could I just see a different therapist every week for the rest of my life?
Therapist #3 has a good vibe—no hair dye issues, and she wears Dansko clogs, which is a good sign. Dansko clogs say, I am comfortable with myself and with my life. I prioritize myself and my own well-being over looking hot for others. I vote Green Party.
Unfortunately, Therapist #3's skill set stops at the clogs. She encourages me to do some "breathing work" around my panic attacks. Sorry, but no. There is nothing worse for a panic attack than focusing on the breathing. The more I pay attention to my breathing the more convinced I am that I'm suffocating. You have to ignore the breathing.
Therapist #4 is actually pretty great. She does a hybrid of CBT, mindfulness, and something she calls psycho-education. In a mere 45 minutes she makes it clear that I have no idea what any of my emotions are. The physical sensations I always interpret as "dying" are misplaced emotions. But do I want to feel my emotions? Fuck no. Also, now I'm really enjoying being single and playing the therapist field. I'm not ready to commit.
I arrive at Therapist #5's office sweating, having just self-flagellated myself by running for 45 minutes in the hot California sun.
"Oh," she says. "Did you just come from a run? That is such amazing self-care! Way to be kind to yourself! Good for you!"
Clearly this therapist has somehow never encountered eating disorders, body dysmorphia, or compulsive exercise. Doesn't she know anything? I don't run to be kind to myself. I run because I'm terrified. I imagine a relationship with this therapist in which she co-signs all my bullshit. I'd probably be dead in three months. Thanks, but I can do that myself.
Then, out of nowhere the It Girl therapist contacts me. It's like she senses all my dates—how popular I am—and now she wants a piece! But I wonder if it is too late for us to begin a real romance. How special can she be? In a sea of 50-minute appointments, all the therapists start to blend together. It's depressing, actually. I'd like to believe my therapist has special powers. But when I see how many of them there are, they just become a crowd of humans. It reminds me that no one knows the answer any more than I do.
What's also illuminating is how never-ending the therapeutic road can be. Like, I always start therapy with the hope of accomplishing a particular goal. Things begin so tangibly. But is there ever really an end? I could do a different kind of work with a different kind of therapist every day and there would probably never be a terminus. Where am I trying to get?
I suppose the end is not really the point. I guess you never get to that mystical place where everything is OK forever. It's always the hope when starting a new relationship that I am finally on my way—that this is it this time! But whether in love or therapy, it's annoying that no one else can fix me.
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