A year ago today, I went back to therapy; the last time I’d been in therapy in a sustained way was 1996 to 1998.
Early in 2020, I heard about the upcoming publication of a book I thought might be up my alley. I generally slap anything that piques my curiosity right up on Goodreads, but not this time.
There were two reasons: 1. Given my history, I thought reading it might be either terrifically enjoyable or an abjectly terrible idea, and 2. A significant proportion of my Goodreads friends are those of such an era that they’re aware of that history, and while I didn’t expect anyone would be so bold as to archly comment “Joc, how utterly predictable of you,” I felt uncomfortable enough with the idea of privately arched eyebrows that I held off. I told myself I’d come back to the book when there were reviews and I could better assess the potential impact – whether it was fun but trashy and unrealistic or deadly serious and a possible personal millstone.
Then, around the book’s publication date, everyone’s collective attention got massively distracted – I know it’s hard to remember now what happened in early March of 2020, as it was handled so well and efficiently that it sank from view almost immediately – but I got distracted too, and forgot about the book for some months.
By the time it popped up on my radar again toward the end of the year, it had achieved a lot of positive notice, and I decided to go ahead.
Reader, this book fucked me up.
From the dedication forward, it was electric as a whispered confidence.
I got about 10% of the way in, realized how much it was Not Kidding, went back to the start and began highlighting and highlighting and highlighting. On my first read, I highlighted eighty passages. I have never in my life highlighted a book like this.
It was clear that it was written in dialogue with my favorite literary novel, by a writer who adores it and finds it frustrating for the same reasons I do. It was also impossible to imagine she could write this story so convincingly – not a foot wrong anywhere – if she hadn’t been inside what she was writing. There were passages nearly torn from my journals, episodes so like to experiences I’d had that they raised the hair on the back of my neck, one actual literal rationalization that someone had, horrifyingly, also made to me, but when I got to it I laughed my ass off because it was such a delight to know I had not been alone in that moment; the protagonist, even if fictional, had stood in it too.
And that was the thing: while my experiences are not precisely the same as the protagonist’s, not the same as those the author might have had (if you put two contiguous experiences in my life in a blender, one that didn’t go over the line, one that did, you get reasonably close) – the book makes very clear that it doesn’t have to have been that bad to be that bad.
It doesn’t have to have gone that far physically to affect you that much psychologically.
It fucked me up as it did because as I read, I realized the protagonist and I were carrying around the same habits of mind, the same maladaptations – and I had been doing so for a good decade-plus longer.
When I went to rate it on Goodreads, I found the reviews were saturated with disturbing, troubling, horrifying, chilling, twisted – all these words about a book that felt somehow more my own than my own journals. What did that say about my feeling of kinship? What should I feel about that kinship?
So I called Alan.
Alan was my therapist during those few years in the 1990s. We talked back then about a job that was mushrooming beyond my abilities and the transition from adolescence to independence, but we also spoke about those two experiences. It was my first time really addressing them, having not been entirely honest in therapy or in the hospital when they were going on, because like the protagonist, I knew if I had been honest it would have resulted in changes I didn’t want. I dealt with all of it at the time it was happening – I didn’t deal with it at the time it was happening – mostly by filling a prodigious number of journal pages and wearing out a couple friends who love me but I am sure would be perfectly fine with never hearing any of this discourse ever again.
When I’d gone looking for a therapist in 1995 and 1996, I’d thought I wanted a woman, but a few I tried weren’t a good fit, I got a recommendation for Alan, and he was one. He’s always worked primarily with adolescent girls and with women, is deeply feminist and consciously, thoroughly, and humbly a student of an experience he realizes he is necessarily on the outside of.
Plus, when we started working together he crystallized insights out of the air like magic (One favorite, paraphrased: “When kids enter puberty, we give them all this information about what is going to happen to them in the coming years, but the early 20s are just as significant a transition and we just leave people to figure it out alone”) and I hoped we could do that again. I knew it’d be easier to start again with him than to have to wade through my history with someone new.
There have been lots of times since we left Virginia that I’ve wished I could talk to him, but it had never been possible. Now, because of the pandemic telemedicine waiver, we could. He said technically he wasn’t taking new clients, but that he would consider me not a new client. He remembered me from twenty-five years before and said that the therapeutic relationship is most productive when the client likes the therapist and the therapist likes the client, and of course that was flattering to hear.
We set an appointment, I printed out my sheaf of highlights from the book and mailed them to him (he’s nearly completely analog), and we started meeting by videoconference.
We began, in light of the book, on re-processing this set of decided snarls from the 1990s, going at them in ways I hadn’t been ready to then, using frameworks that hadn’t emerged into psychological practice then. Picking apart what the book threw into relief – I have no eloquent word for this – has sucked, and I’ve felt a sense of profound loss, trying to give up some long-held habits of comfort.
I knew that those habits would look from the outside like a strange retreat – why continue to carry something that had wounded me? But Alan has been very clear about the constant trauma that being a badly chronically ill person forces me into, an experience that makes turning to a familiar hurt understandable.
Over the past year I’ve tried to build some new connections with my limited bandwidth, with some terrible missteps, some small successes. It all shows pale against this old, vivid background, and it’s a constant struggle not to allow my eyes to shift.
There isn’t a tidy end to this post; all of this is still in heaps around me. My hope is mostly, merely, that I slowly find a way to organize it better, that I set it in a more suitable place, that I recognize what I’m looking at when it’s in view and don’t stumble over it so much as I have.
So was the book a good idea?
It destroyed me? It’s saving me?