“We’re all crazy and the only difference between patients and their therapists is the therapists haven’t been caught yet.” – Max Walker
The therapeutic relationship is an unusual one. You go once a week and spend fifty minutes pouring out many of the most intimate details of your life — tragedies, triumphs, infinitesimal slights that are still eating away at you for reasons you cannot understand. Then you pay and leave. You think about the session afterwards, anxiously anticipate the next meeting. But who is this person, really, with whom you share all your heartfelt thoughts and emotions? While they may offer tidbits of their own lives, the skilled therapists keep the sessions focused on their clients and remain, by and large, a mystery. Yet, as patients, we often perseverate over even these kernels of information about their lives. I had one therapist who liked chickens, another with two children, a third who enjoyed traveling abroad (much to my chagrin — how dare you leave me to go to some far flung, potentially dangerous part of the globe?). In her new book, How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch, Sherry Amatenstein brings together essays from both therapists and clients as each shares their experiences in therapy and in life.
Amanstein, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and therapist based in NYC, has written a number of other books, including The Q&A Dating Book, Love Lessons from Bad Breakups, and The Complete Marriage Counselor: Relationship-saving Advice from America’s Top 50+ Couples Therapists. Now, rather than offer advice, she provides a look inside the relationship between client and therapist with a collection of revealing essays.
In “Shrinking Around,” Susan Shapiro tells us about trying to move on from her long-term therapist, Dr. Winters, when he relocates. Anyone who has felt abandoned by their therapist on some level (even when you are the one who moves — what do you mean you can’t come to New York with me?!?!) will relate to her mixed emotions. “I’d realized,” Shapiro writes, “he charged me $200 a session while possible replacements on my medical network cost only $25 co-pay. Screw him for deserting, I thought. For one overpriced Winters tete-a-tete, I saw eight shrinks in eight days, looking for his clone.” But she takes it a step further than most of us ever have, writing a graphic novel based on the experience and then setting up “speed shrinking” sessions at book signings, all the while on some level still searching for Dr. Winters. The ending has a slight twist as the two reconnect, this time on a literary level.
Some of the essays share harsh truth from the vantage of the therapist. In her essay, “I Really, Really Hate You,” Beth Sloan reveals that those of us who offer therapy do not always have the unconditional positive regard for our clients that Carl Rogers intended. Sometimes, we must work with really, really difficult people, like Sloan’s client, Marcelle, who complains about her $2,500 weekly allowance from her husband and does an amazing job of pushing all her therapist’s buttons. What Sloan shares with us, though, is not simply that this patient is difficult, but why. Because the truth is, we all have difficult clients, but only a select few truly get under our skin (otherwise we couldn’t do this job), often those who most remind us of other people in our lives. In this case, Marcelle reminds Sloan of her own mother, another demanding narcissist. When Marcelle leaves therapy, feeling as though she has been cured, Sloan reflects on her own needs, recognizing that “the best thing I can do for myself is avoid narcissists and bullies.” She offers, “…one of my brilliant therapists told me many years ago, ‘Sometimes understanding is the Booby prize!’….My journey continues.”
There are also stories that make me cringe. Laura Bogart writes with brave honesty in “My Shrink’s Ultimatum” about her experience when she is referred for therapy as a college student for PTSD and generalized anxiety. While initially therapy focuses on love and acceptance, the therapist develops her own agenda — to get Laura to lose weight. Attention suddenly shifts to calorie logs and time on the treadmill. “She explained that only fetishists (i.e. creeps) were into ‘obese women.’” I seethed reading that essay. How dare she?!?! But, in a true show of her own resilience, Bogart is able to leave her therapist and notes, “These days, I joke that despite her best intentions, Roberta [the therapist] has turned me into a self-actualized fat woman.” You go, girl.
How Does That Make You Feel? is an engaging, moving book that will be enjoyed by many, regardless of what side of the couch you happen to be sitting on.
How Does That Make You Feel?: True Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch
Seal Press, September 2016
Paperback, 320 pages