Couch surfing

She found her Dr. Feelgood once. But do you ever get a second one?

Published March 10, 2003 8:36PM (EST)

We were together for two years. Good ones. After spending my 20s searching and baring my soul to all the wrong people, I had finally found someone who understood, who really listened to me. Listened. To me. He always returned my calls. He saw through me and stuck with me anyway. Most important, he didn't care that I had issues; I never regretted a single hour I spent with him.

But time just doesn't stand still, not even for perfection. I moved to a nearby city, and the commute just made it too hard for me to see him. The circumstances were such that he couldn't come see me. And I had even been wondering if it might be time to move on. I wasn't really sure I had anything new to share with him.

The day we said goodbye, he smiled and shook my hand, said that he wished me the best and I should be proud of the woman I was becoming. He promised to put me in touch with people he knew in my city. He smiled deep into my eyes, squinting behind the bifocals I'd come to know so well -- and looked straight into my soul, for the last time.

Then he said he'd bill me by mail for my last two sessions.

When you break up with a boyfriend -- and have you ever been as honest with a boyfriend as you are with your shrink? -- you're expected to go through a mourning period, even a rebound or two. And when you call it quits with your man, there's always therapy to help you through the first few driftless months.

But who's there for you when you break up with your shrink, the person who in every meaningful definition of the word, is your most significant other?

It's been eight months and I'm still not over Dr. Lieberg (All doctors' names have been changed). It's not for lack of trying; I've put myself out there again and again since we said goodbye, and so far I've hit nothing but dead ends. This really shouldn't be so hard. In psychiatric terms, I'm a catch, a most eligible patient indeed, official category YAVIS: young, attractive, verbal, intelligent and successful. (Of course, I don't really believe I am any of these things, but then, I have a self-esteem problem.)

I'm also a second-generation couch-sitter, raised in the heyday of the talking-cure revolution. Other families went to baseball games together; we went to shrinks. My mom saw a Jungian, my father a Freudian. In high school they sent me to a nice doctor with stuffed animals in his office when my grades started dropping. He told me to do my homework and cut down on the tailgate parties, then sent me home.

In college, when my friends and I were supposed to be fucking like bunnies and driving cross-country on LSD, we sat around and talked about our feelings. Suicidal thoughts weren't a tragedy, but they were a terrific way to get out of a physics final. If you'd been molested, you were cool; if you hadn't you were repressing something. We were little Wurtzels without book deals. And we didn't just see psychologists, we saw the same one: Barb.

Barb. Slim, blond, hyper, straight-talking Barb. We loved her -- how many college cliques can claim their own psychologist? It's like the art-school equivalent of having your own mascot. And she was so much fun: She had us write letters to our private parts! She sent us to Toys "R" Us to buy presents for our children within! She encouraged us to journal! "Journal," as a verb!

Never mind that she gossiped freely among us about the others' progress. Never mind that she spent more time talking about her own problems than she did about ours. We knew that she was molested as a child, we knew that she permitted herself a 7-pound weight gain after she quit smoking. We also found out, two years after we'd left college, that she had a nervous breakdown in a farm-country supermarket and had to be hospitalized.

Before crazy Barb, there was Dr. Nanda, an overweight, blowzy woman who really would have done a good deal more for my mental health if she'd worn a bra. She wore Indian print tunics and turquoise amulets. She liked to say things like, "I prefer to think of myself as a stretch," and, "How do you eat an elephant, my dear? One bite at a time." Not that I disagreed with the latter, in principle, but she also looked enough like elephant to make the image pretty unpalatable. Of course, that might have been transference.

I finally left Dr. New Age Nightmare after she suggested that perhaps my biggest problem was that, being Jewish, and therefore belonging to a culture that was still suffering from a kind of post-Holocaust stress syndrome, I might have a tendency to self-medicate. When I shrank in my seat and muttered frostily that I didn't think my college drinking had anything to do with the Holocaust, she said, "Well, you sure got gassed a lot!" and threw her head back, slapping her thighs under the batik skirt.

My final attempt at finding a suitable shrink landed me in the office of Dr. Marron. I obtained the referral through the university health plan, which meant that there would be observers in the room. On our introductory session, Dr. Marron sat across from me in an appropriately imposing office -- complete with leather sofas and ivy crawling down the windows -- nodding his head shrinkily while I recited my litany of analysis-worthy experiences: single mother, a stepmom or two, seven new schools by tenth grade, high-achieving parents with funny accents, a memorable schoolyard brawl, terrible ponchos, not needing a bra until I was 15. You know, the '70s.

The whole time I was talking, two young residents stood behind him, scribbling busily on pads. After I'd finished what I thought of as a pretty compelling yarn, one that might provoke a sigh or two of sympathy, maybe even a dissertation, Dr. Marron folded his arms, shook his head slowly, and delivered his verdict:

"Well, Miss Avni. You sound like a pretty normal woman. Very articulate and intelligent. As a matter of fact, it seems to me you don't need therapy at all. You just need to connect better with your emotions. You think you have problems, but you really don't."

My face burned. At that precise moment, I was pretty sure I was connecting to my emotions -- humiliation and fury -- fabulously well.

"So wait," I stuttered. "I think I'm crazy, but I'm not? What am I then? A- a- psychological hypochondriac?"

He nodded his head helpfully. The two grad students behind him nodded too, in perfect unison. "Yes, that's exactly how I'd describe it, now that you mention it."

"Well, isn't that a disorder? You know, hypochondria? Something I might need treatment for?"

Apparently not. In vain did I plead with him, repeating verse after verse of the Latchkey Lament, all to no avail.

Finally, I pulled out my trump card: I reminded him that I had already failed out of school twice, and was concerned that I might do it again.

He sighed, shrugged, winked at the residents. See the nuts we have to deal with?

"Tell you what, Miss Avni. If you start failing out of school again, you can come see me."

He stood up, offered his hand, and smiled. "But whatever you do, don't start messing up in school just so you have an excuse to come back to therapy."

"Oh, don't worry," I sobbed, as he ushered me out, "that would really be crazy." I slammed the door behind me, and sobbed some more, all the way back to campus.

Rejected for therapy. Does it get any lower?

The combined dysphoria of these experiences was enough to keep me off the couch for almost a decade. But two years ago, blissfully insured by an HMO and ready to try again, I found my Tiresias to lead me through my own Hades, three-headed neurotic dogs and all.

I called her Tiresias because she was blind. She listened well. She had a great tear-induction time (the ultimate standard by which one should judge a shrink. How long does it take them to get you crying. Seven minutes is probably par). But I began noticing little details. Like the fact that she listened well, but that was all she did. She never said anything; she didn't seem to have any suggestions for how I could improve my life. She wouldn't let me play with her seeing-eye dog.

I started getting bored. My problems are, let's face it, not all that interesting without some astute professional input. When I found myself sticking my tongue out, jamming my thumbs in my ears, and wiggling my fingers when she wasn't looking, which was, of course, all the time, I knew that the desirable therapeutic outcomes weren't being achieved.

Fate intervened in the form of my friend Kate, an Upper West Side corporate lawyer with a troubled treatment history of her own. Her trauma was undeniable: After four years of paying $170 an hour she had essentially purchased a very expensive paid friend. Over the span of a full presidential term they had done little but commiserate about New York apartment hunting and the lines at Zabar's.

After a tense breakup, Kate moved on to someone better, a no-nonsense, tough love, efficient shrink who wasted no time on all the touchy-feely stuff. Think Tyler Durden with a Ph.D. When she asked him why he didn't spend more time validating her feelings, he retorted, "That's a job for your friends." Her oft-repeated fears that she might die single and alone were summarily dismissed with a terse, "That's nuts." His advice was so good, I found myself calling Kate every Wednesday to find out what she'd learned the day before in session. I figured our problems weren't so different; we were both Jewish, we both had mothers. And Kate could afford this guy, I couldn't.

But eventually Kate got sick of the piggybacking, and we compromised. Her shrink would refer me to a shrink on the West Coast.

That's how I met Dr. Lieberg. The One. Dr. Right. From the first session, I knew this was something special. He saw the things I couldn't, especially when they were right in front of my face. He got me, he called me on all my B.S. We put in serious time together: In two years he saw me through three dot-com layoffs, two moves, Sept. 11, another split-up in the family, and a singer-songwriter.

And when things ended, purely for reasons of convenience, I didn't think I would have a problem soldiering on with someone new. I was, after all, $9,700 healthier than I was when I first showed up at his door, red-nosed, sniveling, and positive that all my problems would disappear if I could just get my roommates to do the dishes. I am a much saner person now. Finding someone to replace him shouldn't be so hard, right?

But it's a jungle out there. I've gone out on a lot of first dates, maybe some second ones. You've been there: You walk extra-straight and quick on the way to meet this next one, on a note of hope against reason, and then there's that awkward period of sitting across from each other, asking the same old questions, giving the polite answers, standing up, shaking hands, promising "I'll call you," and then heading home alone, no closer than you were 50 minutes earlier to finding the person you were looking for.

And no matter how clear it is, right from the start, that this relationship will never work out, I keep getting stuck with the check.

By Sheerly Avni

Sheerly Avni is a freelance writer living in Oakland.

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