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David Baxter

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The Shrinks I've Known
By C.W. Wolff, The Boston Globe
December 16, 2007

Sometimes, pouring out your heart can cause unfortunate spills along the way.

I'm not opposed to shrinks. Some of my best friends ? in fact, almost all my friends ? have had therapy. It got them through divorce, bad jobs, a parent's death, a dog's death, angst, chronic anxiety, Weltschmerz, and overeating, not to mention menopause.

I, on the other hand, have had little luck with mental health providers. At best, they've helped me tread water, which is better than drowning, but it doesn't exactly move you toward shore. There have been insights. Maybe two. One was when a therapist said: "Cathy, You're never going to fit in. You should quit trying."

The first time I saw a shrink was at the University of Missouri. Boyfriends were difficult. I wasn't sleeping. The woman in university counseling listened while I poured out my heart, telling her things I hadn't yet told myself. Then she announced her maternity leave began the next day.

Four years later, I was in Chicago. I was miserable. The elephant on my chest made breathing difficult. A friend tried kitchen-table therapy, having me move back and forth between two chairs, talking to myself. It was not a constructive conversation. Soon I was yelling at the mirror. I failed to consider that the Chicago winter, no money, and sleeping in the closet of a friend's apartment might be contributing to my unhappiness.

I made an appointment at a clinic, wedged between a bar that sold pickled hardboiled eggs and a shop that sold lava lamps. The shrink kept his eyes on my knees the entire session. I kept my eyes on the top of his bald head. I wished I'd worn slacks. When I finished my monologue of misery, he told me I was manic-depressive. "You're going up and down like a roller coaster."

"But don't those ups and downs inspire creativity?" I asked.

"What have you done lately that is creative?"

He had a point. But I declined the drugs he offered. Months later, I was working for the Associated Press and had moved out of that closet. The elephant had lost weight, but was still on my chest.

The next shrink I saw had a waiting room filled with sick people, some with walkers, others in wheelchairs. He specialized in helping people die, especially poor people. I was young, healthy, and had a job. I felt guilty and inadequate. Despite the interesting questions he asked about my father ? "He's a short man, yes? Like the men you date" ? I stopped seeing him.

It was around that time when I had insight number two: I was not big on self-exploration. I was never going to dive into the dark hole I felt inside. Peeking over the edge was enough. Introspection in my family is usually dismissed as selfish and silly. That's why I was surprised when my 88-year-old mother reluctantly visited a psychiatrist recently. She was having auditory hallucinations. When the music in her head shifted from Onward, Christian Soldiers to Bolero she sought help. The psychiatrist asked if she had suicidal thoughts. She said at her age, she was more interested in staying alive. He asked about her sex life. She laughed. After he assured her she wasn't crazy, my mother apologized for wasting his time and left. The music continues, but now she hums along.

I avoided shrinks for many years. Then my marriage began to disintegrate. Our counselor, a Three Stooges fan, suggested my husband and I shoot each other with shaving cream when we began to fight (but cautioned us to avoid scented cream). My husband came home the next day with two cans ? both labeled "musk." Naturally, we argued, and it only escalated when I took a glob in the eye. The marriage ended. And the elephant was back. To get sleeping pills, I had to see a therapist, and after a few meetings, I worked up the nerve to ask her to not answer the phone during our sessions. She yelled, "What do you think? Everything is about you?"

These days, I rely on my friends for insights, along with a few laughs and glasses of wine. The elephant still visits, but I can usually banish him to a corner of the room. And, like my mother, I've learned to hum along.
 

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