The Light

October 19, 2010

It’s no secret to those who know me – or those who stand near me long enough to hear one of my frequent gushings – that I adore the show In Treatment.  I think it’s brilliant.  The writing, the direction, the acting… everything.  It’s a show that relies on subtext – on what’s not said – on silence, or tone, or a person’s expressions to do its telling.  Nobody holds a gun sideways and demands that a terrorist “give [him] the password!”  Nobody makes fart jokes.  There are no slutty vampires or crime-busting cops or lusty doctors.  It’s just people and their problems… sitting in one place… talking.  I can’t think of another show like it, and I doubt I’ll ever see anything like it again.

That’s due almost certainly to the subject matter.  What better setting is there to explore human drama than a therapist’s office?  What better way to chronicle the slow unfurling of a character’s psychology than to plop them on a couch for a few weeks and slowly strip away their preconceptions and untruths, those red herrings of the self we’re all guilty of creating, only to expose a deeper, quiet pain.  A personal truth.  A fear they can’t face.  A wound so old that it’s passed entirely from their conscious mind, but seethes, relentless in the undercurrent.  In Treatment chronicles the discovery of the Self.  Dramatized and inaccurate, for sure – but still… in terms of television drama?  It’s damn impressive.

For analytical psychos like me… this is cat nip.  I’m a people-watcher.  Always have been.  I’m always trying to understand why people do the things they do – to an almost compulsive extent.  And here’s this wonderful show… so eloquently phrased, and powerfully performed… on demand… ready for watchings and rewatchings.  All I need is a remote control and a couch.

I remember watching the first season with an ex-girlfriend of mine.  We’d ignore the show all week (at that time, it showed an episode a day, Monday through Friday)… and then gorge ourselves on a five-episode marathon over the weekend – the two of us together on the couch, my eyes almost certainly wet… hers almost certainly dry.  It became for us a welcome diversion from a relationship that had, after four years, begun to exhaust its own supply of interesting topics for discussion.  How many times can you talk about work before one finally ups and murders the other?

I’d watch the show alone, too.  I would tear through each character… graciously accepting the perspective the show afforded me.  The audience of In Treatment gets an interesting lens to the drama: we’re granted not only a view of the patient… but the shrink as well.  In so doing, we witness the development of two psychologies… the patient – through his or her stories, and the doctor – through how he listened, what he’d say, what he’d not say.  And, of course, we’d get to see him on the couch once a week, too.  This makes us in the audience a kind of meta-therapist.  Here we have this whole universe of people exposing who they are, completely unaware of our watching.  It’s a voyeur’s dream.  We see everyone for their blindness – and how they, over the course of the season, come to sight.

This is an exciting prospect to a person like me.  Despite my grouchy nihilistic belief that nothing really means anything (in the long run, I mean) – I’m also a firm believer (almost to the point of zealotry) that there is not a single behavior that cannot be understood.  Everything we say has meaning.  Even the things we don’t mean.  I’m the worst with myself – I introspect and ponder and navel-gaze chronically.  My brain is like a mortar and pestle – I grind my behavior to the point of pulverization… and then play around in the dust.

This is, of course, tremendously unhealthy.  I can often get lost in my own head.  Spend a weekend in my apartment, reading old letters, writing in journals, leafing through photo albums… just kinda thinkin’.  I don’t mean to sound morose – I go out, too.  I like karaoke bars.  I enjoy drinks and cigarettes with friends.  But whenever I return home from some outing… I always tend to dump the night’s events back into the mortar and get a’poundin.  I’ll wonder what someone really meant when they said a certain thing.  Then wonder why I wondered what they meant.  Then wonder why I wondered why I wondered.  And down I go into a psychotic cascade of meta-redundancy.

I fall into these cascades a few times a year.  One day I’ll be fine – chipper, charming, “dashing” (as I was called tonight… which was delicious to hear).  The next, I’ll be sweeping around my apartment like an opera villain… casting my eyes this way and that.  “I’m going to die.  My cat’s going to die.  The sun is going to explode.  Nothing means anything.  But I’m okay with that, right?  Why shouldn’t I be?  What if I’m not?  Why can’t I just turn my brain off?  Other people don’t do what I do.  Or maybe they do.  I’m not special.  Why do I think my experience is so special?”  I’ll Hamlet around like this for a while, until I’m reduced to reading Emily Dickinson poems and eating $30 worth of Chinese food in the bathtub.  Some call it crazy.  I call it complicated.

It’s dawned on me in the past that I should probably see a shrink.  I was required to see one after my mother died – we had two sessions.  She was some surly looking frau-bear in a peach-colored pantsuit.  She asked me in our first meeting how my mother’s death made me feel.  I told her it made me hungry… and then I ignored her.  I resented the requirement – that some organization of hand-wringing school administrators deemed it necessary that I endure some stranger’s fee-for-service curiosity.

But then there was this wonderful show on my television.  One where people who were way more fucked up than I am sat down and talked to a swarthy Irishman about nothing… and after a few weeks experienced some revelation.  A breakthrough.  What would it be like to experience a breakthrough like this?  Do they actually happen in real life?  I was entirely aware that In Treatment, regardless of the research its writers had done when crafting the storylines, was still just a television show.  People don’t experience catharsis in seven weeks.  It takes years… if it even happens at all.  But still – there seems to exist this thing – this ending.  An answer.  Some kind of clarity.  One they can’t see on their own – because they need someone to guide them.  Someone who isn’t blind.

And now for the internet oversharing:  I started seeing a therapist a few months ago.

Actually, I’m on my second therapist.  The first was a protoplasmic tumor of a woman with a southern accent and thinning hair.  Her office walls were an eggshell-colored stucco, and her shelves were lined with little glass figurines of angels… their dainty little hands pressed together in sharp, frozen prayer.  She had hung a native American art print on one of the walls – an awful airbrushed mosaic of moon-baying wolves, and a stone-faced brave… in the background, silvery moonlight filtered through the dense webbing of a dreamcatcher.  It’s the kind of image one would expect to see emblazoned across the t-shirt of some Appalachian meth-addict, not hanging in a doctor’s office.  The decor was enough to drive me away… but I forced myself to be open-minded.  That was… until she told me she was a psychic.  “I come from a long line of readers,” she told me… her voice all wispy and faraway.  “Oh yeah?” I said.  “Yes.  My mother had Sight.  My grandmother had Sight.  And I have it.  I feel that it connects me to them.  And with that Sight, I think I can help you.”  I leaned forward and laced my fingers together.  I looked up at her, a little corn-fed Buddha in a spangled, billowy blouse.  “Well.  Here’s the thing:  Were you really clairvoyant… you’d have known better than to tell me such a thing.  Nothing personal, but I put absolutely no stock in the supernatural.  I appreciate your perspective… but I’m looking for a doctor… not a shaman.”

She spent the rest of the 50 minutes backpedaling.  I had her in the palm of my hand, and I hadn’t even finished my first session.

I found my current therapist the next week.  He’s a quiet, clever, pudgy gentleman with white hair.  I told him about the psychic moon goddess in our first session.  We spent the next thirty minutes laughing about it and talking about books.  He reads Joan Didion and Susan Sontag.  “I take a very scientific approach to therapy, Andrew,” he told me, switching one pair of glasses for another – a behavior he repeats several times each session, “were you to decide to come back here, we’d approach whatever you want to discuss from several perspectives – psychodynamic, cbt, neuropsychological should you require – but I can promise you… no incense.”


Here I’ll begin to pull back – there are some things even I am unwilling to share with the internet:

I’ve been seeing him for the past few months.  In that time we’ve argued, exposed, bullshitted.  We’ve gone back and forth a lot.  Some days I’ll leave his office exasperated, my arms all aflail, utterly convinced of the uselessness of the profession.  But that’s rare.  Most days, I leave feeling refreshed.  Unburdened.  Lighter.

I often find myself comparing my experience in therapy to In Treatment.  For the first two months, I’d embroider my language (something I tend to do anyway… but especially in this case).  The patients in In Treatment all speak in florid prose.  Their descriptions are colorful – their recollections vivid and tangible.  Most people don’t talk like this.  Even with my overwrought vocabulary and silly, mock-pompous manner, I fell short of their dialogue.  I realized that I couldn’t live up to this standard because people really just don’t talk like that… but nevertheless… for those first few weeks with my shrink, I found myself waxing prolix – lapsing into elaborate runs of overdescription.

I wanted to get what those patients got.  I wanted catharsis.  But not one excavated through actual introspection and vulnerability – instead, I wanted it manufactured – something built rather than found.  I’d emulate what I saw in fiction – play the expressive neurotic – but when he would actually counter with a specific point, something worth exploring, I’d reel back… assume a ponderous tone and respond, “well that’s fascinating.  I wonder why people would do such a thing?”  I came to realize over time that I was hiding in words – something I do in my own writing – something I do all the time, really.  I was bullshitting… and after a few weeks, my shrink called me on it.  “You’d rather think than feel, Andrew,” he told me one day, “we go somewhere vulnerable, and you intellectualize it.  You jump back – avoid the issue and make a theory out of it.  I can’t help but wonder if this is worth your money.  I’d happily sit here and talk to you about ideas and abstractions all day – especially if you’re paying me for it – but it’s not really helpful to you.  And that’s what I’m really here for.  To help you.  So cut the shit.”

I can’t think of many people I’ll let talk to me that way.  It helps that he was completely right.  So for the past two months now… I’ve been trying to be open.  To really feel things.

I had a session with my shrink today.  And that’s really what I’m writing this for.  Because I had a breakthrough today – one I won’t be sharing with you.  Apologies.  It arrived so suddenly.  No pensive lead-in – no swelling minor chord.  It wasn’t like television at all.  It was like ping pong: a seemingly endless volley of jaunty back and forth, finally punctuated by a sudden explosive strike, far too fast to comprehend.  The patients on In Treatment herald their breakthroughs with tears.  Every character cries.  It’s part of the formula.  I didn’t cry.  I haven’t cried yet in therapy.  To be honest – I’m really nervous about it happening… which should grant you some insight into my shit.

In truth… tears wouldn’t be the appropriate garnish for my realization today.  It just wouldn’t fit.  It would be like sprinkling rainbow jimmies on a baked potato – the intent is nice… but the result: ridiculous.

Instead I just clamped my hands to my head, sat back and said, “Holy fuck…”

And then I laughed for five minutes.  Though, maybe I laughed so I wouldn’t cry.  I don’t know.  It’s a tangle in here.

So why am I telling you this?  I can hear you now, “No shit, Andrew… therapy isn’t like television.”  Well I know that.  I knew that then… I know it now.

I’m telling you this because, even though I know therapy isn’t like television – I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with what I learned today.  On In Treatment… the patents take their breakthrough, slip it in their pocket, shake their shrink’s hand and walk out into the light.  And then the credits roll.

My session ended with my shrink and I telling jokes.  Then I walked out into the light and got in my car… and realized that I’ve got to keep going with what I’ve learned now.  I’ve got to try and reconcile myself to this new realization (I’ll give you a hint, only because this level of obfuscation is obnoxious even to me: It was about my mom, and the person I’ve become as a result of her death), and right now… with all these student essays to grade… I find myself thinking about what I learned today.

I’ve been thinking about this one Annie Dillard essay all night… it’s called “Seeing”.  It’s one of the first chapters of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” and I suggest everyone read it.  It’s one of my favorite things in the world.  There’s a section of the essay where Dillard talks about a book she’d been reading – it’s a book about blindness.  In it, she relays quotes from people who had lived blind for years, and as a result of an operation, had regained their sight.

“Some delight in their sight and give themselves over to the visual world.  Of a patient just after her bandages were removed, her doctor writes, ‘The first things to attract her attention were her own hands; she looked at them very closely, moved them repeatedly to and fro, bent and stretched the fingers, and seemed greatly astonished at the sight.’  One girl was eager to tell her blind friend that ‘men do not really look like trees after all,’ and astounded to discover that her every visitor had an utterly different face.  Finally, a twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks.  When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, ‘the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How Beautiful!'”

I find myself experiencing these same three reactions all at once:  I look at my hands, and I am not myself – I am not now what I seemed to be.  I look at others, and they are not now the way I saw them before – men are no longer trees.  I am bewildered by the light, my knowledge of myself has changed – those things I felt so purely before, now are harsh and strange.  I’d like to think they’re beautiful… but at this point, I’m not sure I can.

I’m blind from all this seeing, today.

How do I move beyond this?  How do I choose where next to step, when I can’t even see where I’m going?

It’s frightening, actually – to consider something like this.  To begin to see something, a pattern – a Self you never knew was there.

But scarier still is the thought that it’s not the not knowing – it’s not the dark that slows me anymore.  It’s the light.


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