Shrink Rap

Finding a new shrink is like finding a new boyfriend – the most interested ones somehow aren’t appealing, and the ones you like best are always unavailable. That’s what I discovered after a harrowing, six-week therapist search-a-thon that took me all over the isle of Manhattan. I planted my rear in half a dozen cushy leather chairs, stared at odious waiting room wall hangings, and blew my nose into every variety of Kleenex, telling my sob story to anyone who’d listen. I came out with a shrink – but I almost lost my mind along the way.

I’d been in therapy before, for two years, with a woman I’ll call Gail, who helped me probe into my family and relationship issues but wasn’t as hard-hitting as I would have liked. Sometimes her explanations seemed simplistic, other times I didn’t have much to say and we wound up critiquing movies, so I finally told her I wanted to stop.

About a year into my shrinkless period I went through a high-drama relationship and found myself returning to some of my old patterns – fantasizing constantly about the future, crying often when it seemed it might not work. Around the same time I got hit with a bad bout of writer’s block and I decided a new therapist might help me better understand my relationship to my work.

While the factors that made me want to go back into therapy were relatively manageable (I wasn’t suicidal, hurting myself, or incapacitated), other people’s triggers can be more extreme. The American Psychological Association says one sign that a person should start therapy is that her actions are harmful to herself or others. Other signs include “an overwhelming and prolonged sense of sadness and helplessness,” lack of hope, and emotional difficulties that make it hard to function. Donald K. Freedheim, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Case Western University, says a person should start therapy if “they’re not working efficiently – they can’t get to work because they’re daydreaming or too anxious” or if “there’s something wrong with their communication with others – they feel distant, they feel like they’re not understood.”

Once I decided to re-enter therapy, I had to decide which type of therapist to go to. There are about four hundred different types of therapies, according to Sol Garfield, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Washington University. Five of these are the most widely known, says Garfield, “psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, behavioral, interpersonal, and eclectic.”

Psychodynamic psychotherapy, which includes Freudian and Jungian analysis, can be long or short term. It focuses on looking into childhood experiences and the unconscious as a way of helping the patient overcome emotional problems and deal with present-day feelings. 

Cognitive behavioral psychotherapy, according to Garfield, “is a combination of cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy. Cognitive therapy focuses on the disruptive beliefs, distorted thoughts, and misperceptions that make a person feel he or she is inadequate. Behavioral therapy focuses on changing the patient’s behavior.” Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on both the dysfunctional cognitions and the behavior. Someone with a fear of flying or eating disorder might do well with a cognitive behavioral therapist, says Garfield. Interpersonal therapy focuses on the patient’s current life, feelings and interpersonal relationships, while eclectic psychotherapy combines different approaches.

I began my search for a new therapist by calling different types of psychodynamic therapists. My only requirement was that my therapist be male, because I felt strongly that my deepest issues were with my father. The first therapist I went to, Dr. Pink, was recommended by a former patient of his, a friend of mine, who had since moved to Los Angeles. I left Dr. Pink a message and he left me one later that day, but before I had a chance to try him back, he called again. We made an appointment but I was a little put off by his aggressiveness. It was like a guy who doesn’t let you come to him.

He was tall, with bushy gray hair, and wore an ill-fitting suit. His vibe was very Gene Shalit – homey but weird. He asked what made me go into therapy the last time. “My old boyfriend, David, told me I should,” I said, “which was really very good, because the therapy helped me realize maybe I was too dependent on his opinions.” 

I laughed. He didn’t. I cleared my throat and said, “Why don’t you tell me about how you work?”

“I’m a psychoanalyst and therapist,” he said, “and I try to help people figure out how their fears are affecting their choices. Why don’t you tell me a little more about that relationship you were talking about?”

“Oh, you know – the old push-and-pull,” I said. “I felt I was loving him but he felt I was chasing him all the time.” As I kept speaking I started to choke up. I grabbed a Kleenex from the box on the table next to me and sniffled, “I just kept feeling that if I shook him by the ankles maybe he could finally see how much he loved me.”

“It was like trying to draw blood from a rock,” said Dr. Pink. I knew this was probably a line he’d used before but I didn’t really care.

“It is like that,” I said. “The only blood you ever draw is your own.” He nodded gravely.

I kept talking, about my guy problems, and my family, and at the end of the session he said, “One of the things we might work on together is figuring out why you might feel that a relationship that ends means you’ve failed in some way, and what it is that makes you look for love in people that may not be able to provide it.”

Suddenly I felt a little defensive. I knew I’d had a lot of romantic frustration but a part of me believed I just hadn’t met the right guy. I didn’t want to see myself as this neurotic this soon.

“I have this hour open if you’d like to continue to use it,” he said, “or you could think about things.”

“I’d like to think about things,” I said, but as I wrote out the check I had a feeling I wouldn’t see him again.

The next therapist I went to, Mr. Blue, was a Jungian. Before I went I called Gary Toub, a diplomate Jungian analyst and director of training at the C.G. Jung Institute of Colorado, to get a brush-up on Jung. What distinguishes Jungian work, says Toub, is the idea that there is a creative center in the unconscious. “When we look at a dream,” he says, “there’s an idea that [it] has information about our possible future. If people have dreams about relaxing or playing, their unconscious is showing them that they need to make more room for relaxation or play in their life.”

Mr. Blue’s office was in a suite of therapy offices in an apartment building. There were little white noise machines on the floor by each door, whirring away. I thought about buying one for myself – I live in a street-level apartment and I’m always scared that people walking by can hear me doing the nasty. 

The first thing I noticed when I walked in Mr. Blue’s room was a brown water stain on the wall. I didn’t think that boded well for his success. But he seemed nice enough – in his late 30s, with a feminine, high voice. I talked a little about what I was looking for in a therapist and then I got onto my love life again. “I met this guy over the summer, Ethan,” I said, “and it was good at the beginning but then he started to act cold. And even when I should have known it wasn’t going to work I felt like I’d be ashamed if it ended.”

“What was it that drew you to him in the first place?”
“I felt totally confident that he could love me. He seemed so passionate and solicitous. He seemed like the kind of man I could imagine a future with.”

“Jung might say your psyche was seeking an archetype.”

“What’s that?”

“Jung believed the psyche created symbols that would show up universally and over and over again in time. One archetype might be a husband, or man.”

“So I was drawn to him because of something I was trying to complete in myself.”

“Yes – and one thing we could work on is figuring out what part of you wasn’t feeling complete before. Maybe you want a more passionate life.”

I was intrigued by that response. I wasn’t dysfunctional; I was just seeking out passion. Jungian analysis seemed so un-fatalistic. I liked that. I didn’t like that stain on the wall, though. And though Mr. Blue was pleasant, he was humorless and formal. As kind as he and Dr. Pink had been, I just hadn’t felt any rapport with them. 

Alan Rappoport, Ph.D, a psychologist in private practice in Menlo Park, California who has written on patient-therapist relationships, says the most important quality a patient should look for in a therapist is comfort. “People go into therapy to get self-understanding,” he says, “and that’s what they should experience in the session – a sense of freedom, safety, encouragement and comfort. Any theory the therapist has is secondary to that.”

In the spirit of seeking out comfort, I made an appointment with Alice Fox, a family and individual therapist who practices Therapy to Go™. She wasn’t a man, but I was intrigued by her method. She meets her clients wherever they want – in the park, on the street, in a limo – because she thinks the office setting makes patients too dependent on the therapist. 

“By being out in the world,” she says, “I am eliminating the belief that there’s any magic in the office or any magical powers of a therapist. I am encouraging you to take responsibility for your therapy.” 

She’s had sessions on a sailboat, in a swimming pool, in a spa, jogging in the park, and on airlines, but “will not jump out of a plane.” She charges $125 if you come to her office and $150 if she comes to meet you. You pick the location.

I suggested we meet in the library of the Algonquin Hotel. It was cozy and quiet and I liked the idea of getting analyzed in the haunt of another man-troubled, neurotic writer – Dorothy Parker. I spotted Alice as soon as I walked in. She was short with long blonde hair and looked like she was in her 50s. She looked synthetic and overbearing but she hugged me hello and I felt at ease. We took two seats in a corner and I ordered lunch. I didn’t know if the multi-tasking would help the therapy but I didn’t think fainting would either. 

“What do you want to talk about?” asked Alice.

“I never get what I’m looking for out of love,” I said. “I want men to give me lots of attention but I always get involved with the ones who give me the least.”

“I like to get attention too,” she said, “but I don’t need it. Maybe you’re needing it because you’re playing out some sort of drama from your childhood. Tell me about your parents.” I told her the basics – about how I’ve always been closer to my father than my mother, how he was pretty authoritarian, how his approval has always been important to me.

“I’m not so sure this is about your dad,” she said. “When a young girl doesn’t have a close relationship with her mother it can be very detrimental. Maybe it’s your mother who’s at the center of your drama. She’s the one whose attention you’re trying to attract.”

That sounded intriguing. I’d never allowed for the possibility that I was mother-issued, not father-issued. Then again, maybe Alice was just trying to convince me I was mother-issued so I’d pick her as my therapist and not a guy. 

So I kept talking. I started spilling my guts out about my childhood, and my little brother, and my teenage years, and just as I was getting weepy three Swedish tourists sat on a sofa right next to us and started gabbing. I tried to block them out but I couldn’t. I speak some Swedish and I couldn’t help but translate as they spoke. This was too much distraction. I liked Alice’s style but I didn’t feel cut out for her brand of therapy. I didn’t mind commuting far for the work – in fact, I remembered that I’d always enjoyed the subway rides home from Gail’s office.

I was starting to get destitute. I was 0 for 3 and I couldn’t help but wonder if the problem was with me. It wasn’t supposed to be this tough. Maybe I was being too picky. Then I remembered my friend Jennifer. Whenever we got together she raved about her shrink, whom she saw three times a week. She’d found her through a psychoanalytic institute and said the more often you went the less they charged per visit. 

I called up the institute’s referral service and had an intake with a woman who asked me some general questions about my issues. She said most of the psychoanalysts affiliated with the institute used a combination of couch work and talk therapy. 

Two weeks later, I got a form in the mail with the name of a guy on the Upper West Side. I made an appointment and hiked up to see him. His name was Mr. Purple and he looked like he was in mid-30s. He sat directly across from me, crossed his legs guy-style not girl, and stared at me with direct, piercing eyes. 

I spent almost the entire time talking, and my first instinct was that he was too quiet for my needs. I can talk my way out of almost anything. The whole problem with Gail had been that she seemed to let me get away with it. I began to wonder whether safety was really what I was looking for. I wanted someone who made me feel comfortable, but who guided me too. And there was something intelligent about Mr. Purple that I hadn’t noticed in any of the others. A friend had once told me you know it’s a bad sign when you feel smarter than your therapist and I definitely felt like Mr. Purple was smarter than me. I decided to go back again and give him another chance.

As soon as I sat down the second week I said, “Maybe this time you could ask me some questions.”

“Well, it seemed like there were two issues that came up last week,” he said. He spoke! “Those issues are what you think of therapy in general and this issue of not getting what you want from men.”

I figured I’d start with the second. It was so much sexier. “I just feel like as soon as I play my hand the guy runs away and I don’t know how to stop screwing up.”

“That part of you thinks you ‘screwed up,’ what does it say?”

“‘Goddamn it, you did it again. I should have kept your big mouth shut but you had to wreck everything and now he’s going to leave you.’” I sighed. “But there’s this other voice in my head that wonders whether the problem might be with the guys.” 

“I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive,” he said. “But if you find yourself frequently feeling that you can’t get what you want, or feeling afraid that you’re going to be left, that’s something we could work on.”

I nodded. “What did you think of last week?” he said.

I took a deep breath. I hate telling shrinks what I think of them – partly because it’s so boring and partly because I don’t really think they want to know. But I had to be honest if I wanted to make headway. 

“Well,” I said, “to be honest, I felt like you talked less than I would have hoped. I want to be asked tough questions. My friend describes his shrink as Eva Braun and that sounds about right. I want someone who won’t just give me the same explanations again and again.”

“It sounds like you’re making a distinction between venting and working.”

“Exactly,” I said. “I really want to work. But –”

“Yes?”

“Somewhere I’m not so sure I want to be in therapy at all.”

“Can you talk a little more about that?”

“I just don’t know if I need it badly enough. And I’m also not sure about you. At the end of this session I’ll have to decide if I want to see you again and I don’t know how I’m supposed to know so soon.”

“Is there another option?” he said, with those blank, intense eyes.

“Yeah,” I said. “I could see you a few more weeks and then decide what I want to do.”

“That’s what I was going to suggest,” he said. “That we continue for four to six more sessions beyond this one and then you figure out what you want to do.”

“All right,” I said.

“One thing that struck me as you were talking is whether there might be some connection between this search for the right therapist and this search for the right man.”

“I don’t know,” I said defensively. “Maybe I’m just being an educated consumer. I mean, this is a serious decision.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “It just seems like at the bottom of both is this idea that if something doesn’t work, someone is to blame.”

I knew what he meant. It was crazy not to explore those two issues together. But what I hadn’t told Mr. Purple was the other reason I was conflicted – because I was writing an article on him. I was terrified that if I told him it might tick him off. What if he felt duped, or misled? What if he didn’t like the line about his “blank, intense eyes”? Maybe he’d get so angry he’d terminate the therapy. Then I’d have wasted my time and come out without any therapist at all. I had to tell Mr. Purple the truth though, and soon. I just hoped I wouldn’t screw everything up. It’s kind of a pattern with me.