Of Therapists and Old Ladies

I have a confession to make: I do not believe in therapy. Over the course of my life, I have seen countless therapists, especially during my tumultuous college years – and yet I can’t point to a single successful experience. And so in recent years, I have developed my own “talking cure” — one that enables me to interact with the world in a way that seems more sensible and meaningful given my needs and values.I say that therapy has never really helped me. But I am not even sure what would constitute successful therapy. How do we trace the course
of our own development as human beings? How do we know when we have become better or more actualized (as the lingo would have it)
individuals? Rarely does therapy (at least as I’ve known it) involve the setting of clearly-defined goals, and thus it’s very hard to judge when the patient is “better.” A therapist is not like an eye doctor who gives you a vision test and a prescription for glasses; with therapy, the test questions are ongoing, the prescriptions are vague, and often the world looks even blurrier as time goes on.

I am also troubled by the power dynamic in the therapy situation. The therapist takes money (generally very high sums!) from the patient,
and it is therefore in the therapist’s interest for the therapy to continue a long time – a clear conflict of interest, given that presumably the patient who is “healed” would not need the therapist anymore. I once tried to leave a therapist and was told that that I was sabotaging my own recovery and preventing myself from getting the help I needed. What could I possibly say in response to these words, which undermined the very foundations of my capacity for agency? And so I felt I had no choice but to return again and again to expose myself even further – if I’d fail to disclose any information, the therapist would tell me, once again, that I was sabotaging my own recovery. The therapist, in contrast, would say little (how maddening!) and reveal nothing about him/herself. A friend once told me that he paid $100 for a therapy session, only to hear himself speak for 50 minutes – the doctor grunted, but did not say a single word. “You listen to me for free,” my friend said to me. “Why should I pay for it?”

My friend’s comment resonated for me because I am fortunate to be blessed with more dear friends than I have fingers on my hands. When
something is troubling me, I can log on to Gmail chat and catch my friends in NY before they leave for work, or pick up the phone and call a sister, or change around some of the details and relay the matter to my wise parents. I know that I am very lucky in this regard, and that my situation is by no means typical – but I have never felt at a loss for someone to turn to in times of distress. Some of my most special friendships were forged in furnaces of pain and grief, at a time when I was hurting too much to have anything to offer – in those darkest of moments, I met people who believed in me and nursed me back to normalcy, to a place where I could at least reach out and take their hands as I took my first tentative steps forward again. Now, when I am healthy and stable and glad to be alive, my best friend and I usually email at least once a day (I when I get to work, and she when she awakens five hours later in EST) – it is part of our routine, a way for each of us to hear and be heard. She is a professor of medieval history, but I trust her responses to my innermost fears and longings far more than those of any professional psychotherapist.

My friends who believe in psychoanalysis tell me that their weekly therapy visits offer a chance to reflect on their lives, and a break from the fast pace of the day to day. It is true that my life is extremely fast paced –whether I am bounding up the hill to get to a chevruta, chasing after buses, or racing against the clock to send one more email before I have to leave work– but I also have built-in meditation and reflection time. I swim for exactly 60 minutes every morning, time in which I have absolutely nothing on my mind (though I do count laps!). Swimming is a chance for any submerged fears and concerns to rise to the surface — while I swim, my mind is a blank slate free to turn to anything that is troubling me. Was I rude? Did I say the wrong thing? Should I have offered to be more helpful? The rhythmic back-and-forth motion in the water allows me take my doubts in stride, and to work out ways of dealing with sticky situations. Often I get into the pool thinking about an email I am not sure how to respond to; but the time I come out, I’ve drafted the appropriate response and am ready to move on. Mysteriously the pool works its strange magic, offering a watery catharsis that obviates any need for therapy – at least for me.

I should add, too, that I am painfully self-aware. I keep a journal and write in it regularly – addressing my entries sometimes to myself, sometimes to the man I am mooning over, sometimes to God, and sometimes to no one at all. Nobody will ever read my journals (I intend to burn them!), but anyone who did would immediately realize that I have a long history with myself – I am all too familiar with my tendencies to shoot myself in the foot (or at least put my worst foot forwards), to sabotage my own chances for happiness, to plead that others are more competent or more beautiful than I am, to fall for the same kinds of men again and again and again. This is old hat for me, and any therapist would have a lot of catching up to do before he or she could offer any fresh insights. And, quite frankly, I can’t be bothered to update a total stranger on all that has transpired in my mind and in my heart over the last three decades….

As I write these words, I can already hear the objections of the therapists and psychologically-minded folks out there, all shaking their heads vigorously: No one can see themselves objectively! You may know yourself well, but that very knowledge constrains you! And your friends and parents have vested interests – they can’t give you dispassionate advice! I hear these objections and, in response, I want to add that I have developed my own replacement for therapy, a way of sharing the depths of my interior world with someone who is wise and objective and relatively disinterested: my old lady.

About seven years ago, I began volunteering for an organization in New York that cares for elderly, homebound individuals. I was assigned to
Anna Kainen z”l, a blind woman who lived in a rent-controlled apartment just off of Central Park. I used to visit her at 10am every Sunday morning. For about half of our visits I would read the poems she had written (Anna had hundreds of handwritten manuscript pages which she dreamed that I, the budding editorial assistant, would one day publish for her under the Knopf imprint); for the other half of our time, we would talk about our lives. Anna, who had several unhappy marriages, would tell me about all the men she had gallivanted with; and I, in turn, would tell her about all the men I had not succeeded in doing any gallivanting with just yet. Anna became my confidante – I could tell her anything because she was homebound, and thus I could be sure that nothing I said would ever leave the confines of her apartment. When she died in February of 2004 on her 91st birthday, I suppose I felt the way one feels when a therapist moves away – a sense of loss combined with a sense of need, as if there were a hole in a ground that needed to be filled in before anyone got hurt.

Since Anna, I have had several old ladies in my life, on both sides of the Atlantic. The current one is perhaps the most beloved – though I may have said that each time. I call her Sara Ivreinu to distinguish her from the many Saras I know (this is not a name I say to her face, but as with many people in my life, she has a nickname in my head and in my pelephone!). Sara, as you might guess from her sobriquet, is also blind, though she maintains quite an active lifestyle in spite of her handicap: she volunteers as a receptionist in town and does all her shopping with a friend in the shuk.

Every Wednesday afternoon I meet Sara outside her apartment and we take a walk together through the streets of her neighborhood, ending
up at the same shady green bench (although she is blind, she insists that we sit only on green benches!) where we rest our legs before I take her back home again. Sara comes from a different world, or perhaps a different planet – she is deeply religious (there are days when I look at what I am not wearing and thank my lucky stars that she can’t see me!), and extremely superstitious (cries of “Lo Aleinu” and “Kappara!”), and very very poor (מי שאין לה אלא חלוק אחד), and utterly terrified of anyone who is not Jewish (when I told her last spring that I was going to London for a conference, she turned to me horrified and said, “Are you going to have to talk to any Goyim?”). I once brought her Victoria’s Secret scented body lotion as a present from America, and when I helped her rub it on her hands she looked at me as if she had died and gone to heaven. Another time I took her out for coffee at her local pizza parlor because it was too rainy to walk outside, and she played with the plastic spoon that came with her coffee and asked me if I thought anyone would mind if she kept it to give to her grandson. I, who have measured out my life in coffee spoons (not to mention scented hand cream!), was beside myself.

Sara is, for all intents and purposes, my therapist. For an hour each week she listens to my woes and advises me on how to deal with my
problems. She knows all about the politics of the small office where I work, the dynamics in my family, the papers I am writing for school, the men whom I am (unsuccessfully!) pursuing, and those who are (equally unsuccessfully!) pursuing me. There is nothing I cannot tell her – or almost nothing. I once tried to explain (proceeding cautiously so as to test the waters) that I had set foot in a shul without a mechitzah. Judging from her horrified reaction, it was clear that I could never tell her the truth, which is that I read Torah in a fully egalitarian minyan every Shabbat morning. By the same token, I sometimes have to take her advice with a grain of salt (“Wash his clothes, clean his floor, and cook him dinner every night – and don’t let him touch you until he marries you!”). But overall, I feel comfortable being honest with her, and I trust fully in the wisdom of her years.

My relationship with Sara is a symbiotic one – we both benefit. She is lonely and eager for someone to talk to; I am in need of the sage advice of an older person who is not part of my insular Anglo community. It means a lot to her that I remember to call her every Wednesday morning to check in about that day’s visit; and it means a lot to me that she always remembers what is going on in my life, as if she had just reviewed her notes from the previous week’s session.

I have no doubt that the world is filled with elderly, lonely people who live by themselves and long for companionship. As they are advanced in years, these people often have the deep wisdom that comes of having experienced most of life, not to mention fascinating stories about what is past and passing. Likewise, I have no doubt, too, that the world is also filled with callow young adults who could benefit from the wisdom and guidance of someone who is sufficiently removed from their immediate social milieu. If only these two groups could find one another! It might put the therapists out of business, but I tend to think that the world would be a happier and healthier place for young and old alike….

–Chavatzelet Herzliya

3 comments on “Of Therapists and Old Ladies

  1. Tovah batPnina on

    Thank you for reminding me that I have a call to make and a deep and sincere apology for having disappeared to craft. Beautiful story. Thanks again.

  2. Ruchel Bladerman on

    I agree with the conclusion – therapy is not a path to self-fulfillment, nor does it bring happiness. Life is complex and ultimately sad and we each have to find the strength within ourselves to find joy.

    For the children of survivors, as my husband and I are, it may be easier than for others. We learned early and often that our parents travails were so much greater than our own, that we could never compare them; that toughness was the key to survival and the weak were doomed physically and emotionally.

    We are the repositories of our parents’ pain and often the target of their disappointment. Our children, Americans with the self involved outlook of their generation, can never understand our need to anticipate and fulfill our parents’ needs before they are expressed. Self-examination is a luxury item. It was not available in Nazi Germany and it is not acceptable for us now.

    My husband’s favorite expression has been adopted by my children and me as well. “It’s not Auschwitz”, he says when they don’t get in or when I lose a case or even when he was diagnosed with cancer. “My parents couldn’t get treatment but I can” was his response to that news. And he did. And he is well. And we aggressively seek fun things to do every single day. And we do not look back. And so I hope to avoid the fate of Lot’s wife when she turned into a pillar of salt. Such is the fate of those who delve too deeply into the past.

  3. ambreen tariq on

    to find a therapist that can understand your feelings and not worry about his payment is not difficult in this global village era. all one need to do a good search. But yet i agree with you Chavatzelet, that friends can heal us better than a therapist because they know us from our childhood and know that things about us which we are unable to tell the therapist.

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