I have a confession to make: I am deeply skeptical about the value of therapy. Over the course of my life, I have seen several therapists, especially during my tumultuous college years — and yet I find it very difficult to assess those treatments. 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 I am “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.
Many of my friends (some of whom are therapists themselves!) tell me how much therapy has changed their lives, and I have no doubt that this is the case. I do not think that therapy is worthless — I am sure it has improved and even saved many lives. But it has never really worked for me. And so 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.
About seven years ago, I began volunteering for an organization in New York that cares for elderly, homebound individuals. I was assigned to a blind woman named Anna who lived in a rent-controlled apartment just off of Central Park. I used to visit her at every Sunday morning. For about half of our visits I would read her poems she had written (Anna had hundreds of handwritten manuscript pages that she dreamed that I, the budding editorial assistant, would one day publish for her); 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 — 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 felt the way one feels, I suppose, 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, Sara, is perhaps the most beloved — though I may have said that each time. 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 mechitza. 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’s eager for someone to talk to; I’m 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.
The world is filled with elderly people who live by themselves and long for companionship. The world is also filled with callow young adults who could benefit from the guidance of someone sufficiently removed from their immediate social milieu. If only these two groups could find one another!