I’ve known three therapists in my life and disliked two of them. One of those I never talked to. I found his number on my insurance database and left a sprawling voicemail about being gay and depressed and a Christian and not having friends in Oregon and realizing I needed therapy. He called back to leave a voicemail with the passion of Ben Stein: yes he had an opening; we could begin at any time; I could reach him from that point on through his receptionist.
The other I visited for six months, driving half an hour each way to his office. He wore a different sweater vest every week and wouldn’t show his teeth when he smiled. His professional biography claimed he was a Christian psychologist who specialized in sexuality and gender issues, but in half a year I never learned what that entailed. He rarely spoke, occasionally scribbled down an observation, and less occasionally responded with his lips pursed in a slight, upturned line. He influenced my first break up from my first boyfriend but did nothing to stand in the way of a rebound relationship, weeks later, or a more foolish yet thankfully brief return to that first boyfriend.
I acknowledge the blood of those relationships was on my own hands, and throughout therapy I considered his reticence my doing as well. Our first session I laid out my goals: to find answers to specific questions, not specific answers to questions—does that make sense? “Mmmmm,” he said with his terrible little smile.
Whether he then felt barred from imparting wisdom and direction I don’t know. When I asked for his opinion he employed that blunt trick of asking what did I think I should do. Toward the end of the six months I finally pressed him, posing it as something to the effect of “What is wrong with me?” I remember he wavered a minute and then said his half year, thousands of dollars analysis: he sensed that something was just a little off. I quit the following week. I’d wanted to for months but am often too polite for abandonment.
Four months ago, still reeling from a dangerous depressive episode, I tried therapy again. I had new insurance and therefore a new list of names. I resolved to avoid the rut of committing to a therapist I never really liked; I left another meandering voicemail on half a dozen office lines. The first to return my call was a woman named Michele who had a lovely voice and who turned out to be lovelier in person: fifty-something with streaks of gray hair like the mother in Poltergeist. Heterosexuality emerges in me among post-menopausal women. I developed a crush on her just speaking over the phone.
For the last four months we’ve met every week. She says “fuck” charmingly, and apologizes every time even more charmingly. She’s a yogi who practices transcendental meditation and understands Christianity about as well as I do. On my best days we recount the work week, delve into mommy issues, and discuss the similarities of our faiths. On my worst, when I’m anxious about a crush on a Christian singer-songwriter in Chicago, she normalizes my psychosis and advises me on how to live with it.
I used to think the saddest moment in Transamerica was when Felicity Huffman lists only her therapist among her friends. To some degree I can empathize now. Therapists, like the best friends, will see you at your most broken and honest. Those situations naturally create intimacy, and if I was an ounce more insecure I might consider Michele a friend. She meets all the lovely, spiritual, and wise criteria I hold for friendship. But it’s fortunate she’s not. The most value she brings to my life is a perspective a little removed. She’s as near to me as she needs to be: close enough to speak candidly, distant enough to exchange advice without risk of hurting each other.
That’s the benefit of therapy I heard about but didn’t encounter until finding Michele. It can be an expensive relationship but by the same token priceless. Even pastors can’t maintain that balance of aloof intimacy. For that reason I tell everyone get to therapy. Whatever you’re doing, however stable you think you are, it’s worth it.