Merv Kaufman approached psychotherapy as he would a real estate scam — kicking and screaming. Fortunately for him, it helped anyway.
It was my wife who nudged me into therapy—someone had recommended a man she thought I should see. I couldn’t laugh off the referral, much as I wanted to, because I knew I was in bad shape and feared that, if I didn’t agree to take some positive action, my marriage might unravel.
Being something of a cynic, however, I approached the idea of psychotherapy as I would a real estate scam—like underwater property in Florida. En route to my first session, I remember saying to myself that this man—despite the high recommendation—would surely stub his toe when tackling my case. My certainty was unshaken when he greeted me at the door to his office.
Standing there was a man of medium height with sloping shoulders and a slightly thickened waist. His eyes were soapy blue and, it seemed to me, a little droopy. His receding gray hair was clipped short; so was his beard, which seemed to actually creep around his face.
Grayness. Blandness. Softness. There was no implicit strength in this man, nothing to fire my confidence. As he stared impassively at me, I felt undone. How could I hope to relate on an intimate level to someone I was absolutely certain I could never like, respect—hate, even—or admire?
I seated myself on a firm leather sofa in the center of the room and stared at the man. He took a chair opposite me and began asking random questions. I answered but volunteered little. Then the questions became focused—about my parents, my wife, the people I worked with, my daughter. I took a deep breath…but why continue?
The approach was all wrong. I was too old for this, too much in despair: a middle-aged man whose emotional life was in shreds. Unless I could pull myself together, I faced losing everything I’d worked so many years to build.
Now, instead of answering his queries, I began to talk at length, lulled by the sound of my own shaky voice. I glanced at the clock on his desk, feeling a tremor of triumph that the session might pass with me in full oration, having reduced my colorless adversary to silent listener. But he interceded. Speaking matter-of-factly, he said he felt I had experienced a role reversal in my life and that instead of resisting I had plumbed a streak of martyrdom that lay atop many layers of rage.
Flabbergasted, I lashed back, denouncing him for reducing me to a figure of even lesser stature than when I had walked through the door. Why was I being defensive? he asked. Didn’t I understand that psychotherapy involved give and take? I backed down a bit but continued to seethe. This, truly, was not going to work.
Obviously I was too much for him: too complex, too demanding, too special. But I knew that if I quit right then I would know failure. So I wanted him to quit. Actually, I was banking on the fact that he would.
The session ended. He asked what I was feeling. I said I felt more depressed than ever. He said it was anger layered over with guilt for feeling angry. I wanted to punch him out but just couldn’t bring myself to say so. All I could state was that I wasn’t a quitter, defying him to suggest there was no point in my coming back. He said the choice was mine…so, obviously, I had to return.
The next two sessions were grueling, each like a boxing match I was trying to win without full use of my limbs. The man barely let me speak, jumping in and cutting to the inflated heart of everything I said.
Every utterance provoked a response that was, in effect, his own restatement of what he believed I really felt and meant. Soon I was sweating. When the third session ended, he touched my arm as I moved toward the door. What was I feeling? he asked. I didn’t respond.
Outside, I stood alone in the hall before buzzing the elevator. What did I feel? Tortured? Discomfited? Yes—and more than ever torn between a desire to quit and an unsparing need to continue.
I left the building and hailed a cab, too tired to wait for a city bus. My head ached, my throat was tight, my chest hurt when I took big breaths. My whole body was wracked with a kind of tension I had never experienced.
At times in the days ahead, my thoughts drifted and I found myself recalling events from my childhood, moments of anguish and pain that I’d thought long forgotten. What was happening? I had committed to therapy hoping to feel better, not to be tormented.
The tension and torment persisted—so much so that I returned for my fourth visit absolutely desperate for relief. This man had to unravel what lay at the root of my despair. But in my heart I knew he would only challenge my words without telling me whatever it was I needed to know.
I was hostile from the moment we took our places and he presented his normally reflective expression. I faulted everything he said—in my head if not in actual speech. He was so quiet, I wondered if he was hearing me.
At one point I saw him suppress a yawn and wondered how my pain could be other than riveting. Why was he petting his cat? Why didn’t he take notes? Weren’t my problems important enough to merit pondering?
“What are you feeling?” he asked, as our frustrating forty-five minutes began to wind down. “Futility,” I said. I had nothing more detailed to offer. “What is it that seems so futile?” I thought for a moment, then said I felt as though my mind and heart were at war and my body was the battlefield.
“What’s the battle about?” he asked. I spoke in a burst, for the first time without instantaneous editing, spewing forth the revelation that unresolved feelings—mostly about my parents—seemed to have clouded and shaped every experience, every relationship, in my life. I gasped as I said this, and he shook his head slightly.
“Is that it?” I asked, but didn’t really have to, for suddenly I felt light-headed, and the impact of my own words created a giant thud that passed through me like the jolt of a slammed door.
“I think you’re afraid of those feelings,” he said, leaning toward me to make his point. “That’s why you’ve locked them away.” I nodded. There was silence.
“We have to stop now,” he said finally. I looked over and saw furrows of concern on his face. “I’m all right,” I insisted but suddenly felt so weak I had difficulty standing. It was clear now that my therapist was no adversary. My enemy, if it could be called that, was in me—and a fierce opponent at that. In the weeks that followed, the battle raged. I felt no sense of winning it or losing, only of engaging it doggedly.
There was never a real turning point, no blinding moment when my will cracked and I opened up like an unprotected flower. There was just a gradual melting of my defenses and, finally, a consuming realization that this man was absolutely bent on helping me, no matter how my reflexes held him off.
“What are you feeling?” he asked again and again, hopeful that something spontaneous would flow out of me. But usually what I felt was general and external: turmoil, confusion, exhaustion. In all my life I had never known how I truly felt, only how I thought I was supposed to feel in the context of others’ lives.
“What are you feeling?” The question was unfailing, as was my nebulous response. Then at the close of one particularly trying session, tears sprang to my eyes, and I heard myself say, “I feel I want to hug you.” And I did, as earnestly as I’ve ever hugged anyone. I felt the roughness of beard and the warmth of reassuring arms. It was an unthreatening embrace; I experienced no qualms, no reservations. I was so filled with love and gratitude that I shook.
Walking home, I experienced the usual weariness, but now it was coupled with exhilaration and an extraordinary sense of relief. Oddly, I thought of Portnoy’s Complaint, which once had affected me so deeply. And at last I understood what Roth had intended when he gave the novel’s tag line to the psychoanalyst to whom, presumably, the entire narrative was spoken.
I could relate that line directly to my own therapy and to what lay ahead between me and the man with the short, gray beard. For now, finally, we could begin…
photo: Larry1732 / flickr