I sometimes forget that people react to therapy the way I react to the loud Jesus freaks on the street: discomfort, irritation, confusion and a smidge (give or take) of judgment. I was a reluctant therapy convert at first — I was basically forced into it by my exasperated parents in ninth grade since I took my teen angst out on them and, once in a while, their liquor cabinet. I went a few times over the course of high school without much success. I didn’t particularly like the therapists nor were any of us convinced I really needed to be there. I was, however, pretty excited to talk about myself for an hour. Don’t mind if I do.
A decade and a couple breakdowns later, I’ve come around. I know plenty of people feel like psychology is just as deluded/intoxicating/self-promotional as religion, but I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, and I just want to say: therapy can be pretty great. My dad says that “every intelligent person needs therapy at least once in their life, whether or not they get it.” There are plenty of people who say therapy isn’t for them, and maybe a few of them are right (but probably not), but I think everyone can benefit from a little therapy from the right therapist.
Let’s face it — while it can feel uncomfortable, excessive or self-indulgent to talk about yourself to a stranger for 45 minutes, we all have burdens and battle scars, it’s all relative, and sometimes it’s good to get perspective from an intelligent, insightful third party who is not related to you or got drunk with you last weekend or had sex with you last night. Nah mean?
Anyway, my real point is that I’ve been to therapy enough that it’s become completely normalized. I basically assume that everyone in my daily interaction either goes, has gone, or is related to/ getting drunk with/ sexing someone who goes/ has gone/ should go.
Until I end up on the elevator with Melody, a cool, nice and refreshingly direct colleague of mine who is German-born and South African raised.
“Where are you off to?” she asks conversationally.
“Oh, just therapy.” I respond, also conversationally. It bears noting here that while I can occasionally be a bit theatrical about things, I didn’t look pained and say, “oh nothing, I’m just you know… [significant pause] going to therapy” in a thinly veiled attempt to garner sympathy or curiosity or whatever. I said it like I’d say I’m going to the grocery store or the dermatologist, because (1) it’s not a big deal and (2) she and I have a friendly, casual relationship.
Her eyes widen. “For what?”
Uhh… what? I stare at her blankly. Nobody has ever asked me WHY I’m in therapy. I mean… I’m educated, employed, not homeless and half Jewish… isn’t it obvious? But I am actually shocked. Not because it’s presumptuous (obviously if one is in the habit of disclosing to colleagues in elevators that one is in therapy, one cannot then get offended if they inquire further about it), but because I assume most people have enough angst, drama and battle scars to talk about in therapy (whether they have the financial resources, the interest and/ or the willingness to admit it might be useful is another thing entirely).
“Oh, you know… normal quarter-life crisis stuff.”
She looks at me expectantly.
“I have anxiety about stuff,” I offer.
Melody looks at me a bit skeptically. “So nothing’s wrong?”
What?! What the hell do I say to that? On the one hand, obviously some things are wrong, I don’t sit in therapy and talk about this great YouTube video I saw this afternoon, but I mean, I’m not a sociopath and nobody I love just died, so I’m not about to shank someone or jump off a bridge.
At some point, a woman from another office entirely gets on the elevator. I’m not sure how much of the conversation she overhears, but enough of it to know we are discussing therapy.
I stumble around verbally for a bit and then mumble something to the effect of “no… not really… panic attacks?” It doesn’t help that in my head, my therapist is already asking me questions about this encounter: “Why were you embarrassed about your anxiety? How did it make you feel when she asked if something was wrong?”
The elevator finally opens into our building lobby and I regain some composure as we walk out behind the other woman. “Sometimes it’s just nice to bounce ideas off a third party,” I say knowledgeably. At this point, the other woman is about 10 yards in front of us, and she stops, turns around and smiles at me. I smile back, thinking I’m having some cute little New York moment, and then she stops and waits for me and Melody to catch up.
When we reach her she smiles sheepishly and says, in a low, confidential voice: “I think I’m dating a narcissist.” After a few seconds of staring at her I realize she expects a response, and she’s sure as hell not going to get one from Melody, who is watching us both with real interest.
“Umm… that doesn’t sound good?” I try.
“Yeah, you know, everything I read about it I’m like ‘oh God, that’s him!’ but I don’t want to break up with him, because he’s so sweet!”
I stare at her again. She continues: “I think I should talk to someone but I’m afraid they’re just going to tell me to break up with him!”
I nod, dumbly.
“I just don’t want to, you know? He’s sweet. But ugghh he makes me so mad!”
“Sometimes it’s good to bounce things off a third party…” I offer lamely, for the second time in 30 seconds.
The woman nods, smiles gratefully and walks off, refreshed from her brief and totally ineffective elevator therapy.
Melody, to my surprise, does not seem even remotely perturbed. I desperately want to convey to her how abnormal this is, that we are not all touchy-feely, tactless Americans, that it is not normal to seek counsel about your relationship from complete strangers in an elevator, at least not when sober at 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, but I’ve lost her to what is probably yet another “this country is freaking weird” moment, which is of course entirely my fault since I couldn’t say I had a doctor’s appointment like a normal person.
I picture her going home and telling her husband about how she doesn’t get Americans and their compulsive need to talk about their personal lives to anyone who will listen… and I go off to pay someone to listen.