Before my husband quit his job and his insurance ran out, he and I got checkups and dentist appointments. We got new glasses and signed up for a few therapy sessions.
My therapist was awful. I talked about my occasional panic attacks and insomnia, and she gave me homework, a process, it turned out, that made me more anxious.
My husband's therapist, on the other hand, had him talking about his childhood and his recurring dreams about breathing underwater and not being able to find his soccer cleats. His homework was to write a long, angry letter to his mother that he didn't ever have to send.
When our insurance ended, we wrapped up therapy and went on with our lives. A few years later, however, I hit a mental wall and was willing to pay out of pocket for good therapy. I asked Dave if I could go to the guy he had seen during our top-notch insurance glory days. He said sure.
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Dave's therapist was fantastic.
He had read my novels and poetry collection when Dave was his patient, and right from the start he was able to make groundbreaking connections between my writing and my life. He asked me pointed questions about my childhood and I cried. He took lots of notes.
When I confessed during a session that I wanted to be of more use, my therapist told me to read Marge Piercy's poem “To Be of Use.” When I complained about critics, he showed me a poem by Frank O'Hara in which the poet compares critics to assassins.
And then, at the end of one session, he handed me a piece of folded paper and told me to read it later.
I assumed it was another literary pick-me-up. I read it in my car.
It was a poem. A handwritten poem. One he had written about me, for me. The poem included a divining rod, butterflies and a lush description of my lips.
There seemed no away around it: This was a love poem.
Was it a breakthrough?
I drove home and gave it to Dave. I told him who had written it.
“This is a bad sign in a therapist, isn't it?”
My first reaction? I thought it was “interesting.” Being in therapy, I thought about things in terms of whether they were interesting. This clearly was.
I confided in one of my girlfriends – who had run through a lot of therapists on her own – while playing badminton.
“Call him up and break things off on the phone,” she said. “It's my preferred way of breaking up with a therapist.”
“Are you kidding?” I said. “Of course I'm going back.”
What was I walking into? Did the poem mean something that, if I read it correctly, would lead to a breakthrough?
Leading a session
I led the session that day. I asked him if he had a therapist. He did. I suggested they discuss the poem and his decision to give it to me.
“OK,” he said, uncertainly.
“Did you tell your wife about the poem?”
I told him he should reflect on this.
Finally, I leveled with him. I told him he had stepped over the line. He defended himself, saying the poem was an attempt to make me be more committed to my therapy. “I want to get you into therapy, not into bed.”
At that point, he admitted the poem maybe wasn't the best approach, but he said it was a sincere, creative attempt to make me engage.
On the way home, though, I started to harbor doubts. Maybe he really had just meant to be provocative. My therapy with him was doomed.
Time to quit
During the sessions that followed, I wanted to return to my childhood, my anxiety, my insomnia. He wanted to talk about our issues, everything the poem had stirred up.
When I started having what seemed like therapy sessions with my husband about my strained relationship with my therapist, I knew it was time to quit. And I did it, just as my friend suggested, over the phone.
The strange thing is my husband and I miss him.
The angry letter he had Dave write eventually became a calmer, more substantial letter that my husband did give to his mother, leading to a watershed moment in their relationship. I still wonder if my anxiety and insomnia are issues he could decipher.
Sometimes Dave or I will say something about how we feel, or what we think we might be feeling, and we'll look at each other and ask, “Is that interesting?”
And neither of us will know the answer.