I was looking on Pinterest for the 100th time the other day browsing tattoo ideas when I found one that hit me, HARD. It was a pulse made of flowers that read recovery is not linear. I was diagnosed…
My therapist had said he would drive. In shock at the unexpectedness of the offer, I had accepted in shock, but once I had a chance to think it through, I was now wondering about the prudence of the decision.
“Is this really OK?” I asked. “Isn’t there supposed to be a kind of patient-doctor barrier for things like this?”
My therapist waved me off. “Outings like this are fine. And besides, I find getting to know my patients in a non-clinical setting always helps my treatment of them in a clinical one.” His explanation sounded recited, as if he had practiced it before.
Keeping his hands on the wheel, he turned to me. “But don’t think of this as treatment. We’re just getting a drink. It’s nothing else.”
He pulled us out of the city and into the suburbs. I was sure there were countless bars in the city that we were leaving behind, of much better interest and quality than could be found in the ‘burbs; but I held my mouth.
We wheeled into a strip mall and into the parking lot of a chain restaurant, one of the ones that advertised its dinner specials on TV. Wordlessly, my therapist stopped the car, exited, and opened my door for me. “Well? Shall we?”
We went inside and sat at the bar without waiting for a host to seat us. It was late enough that the dinner rush had passed, but still early enough that the bar also wasn’t quite too busy with night owls yet. Light, inoffensive pop music played over the speakers.
My therapist focused on the menu mechanically. I drummed my fingers, and continued to wonder what we were doing here.
“Are you hungry? Do you want any food, too?” He pushed the menu in front of my face.
“No…I’m alright,” I said.
“Very well.” He motioned the bartended over. “A lager, please” — (he pointed to the tap) — “and then a gin-and-tonic beside that. And some fries, too.” Then he pointed at me, expectantly.
“A dark-and-stormy,” I muttered.
My therapist looked at me, as if he were considering this choice and noting it down. I continued to feel uneasy about what we were doing.
When the bartender had finished preparing our drinks and left, I swiveled to meet my therapist. “Is this all you were thinking of? To drink and eat fries?” I prodded.
“Yes,” he replied, “Isn’t that all people ever do when they go out drinking? And catch up on each other’s lives. Is there something more you were thinking of?”
I paused. Of course, now I felt guilty for having my guard up so high. “You’re right…” And I felt compelled to follow-up. “I guess, I don’t know much about you except what my wife told me when she referred you.”
He seemed wholly uninterested in walking down his life, and yet he did for me. “My story is simple. I spent three-and-a-half years of college wanting to become a surgeon; and then in the last semester I decided I wanted to be a therapist instead. I had no special skill for people, but I worked hard, did my time at med school, and was a licensed therapist within the next decade. I was engaged once, but I’m not married now, and I have no family I’m effectively close with. I’ve lived in the city for twelve years.”
He breathed this summary out efficiently, nursing his gin-and-tonic all the while. “And you?” he asked. “How’s the family? How are the children?”
I, on the other hand, had to think. “They’re fine, I suppose. The older child started middle school last month. The wife says she doesn’t like her current project at work much.”
I struggled to tell anything else about my life, and an awkward silence ensued.
My therapist, however, seemed not to mind, and after a moment he continued. “How did you end up in the city?”
I relaxed at the straightforward question, but realized I couldn’t answer it. “Honestly? I don’t remember. It was a blur of lots of different things around that time of life…I met my wife then, too. Or, no, I knew her in college? But we didn’t start dating until we were both in the city…It’s been so many years, and I just feel like I’ve always been in the city.” I eyed my dark-and-stormy nervously, and took a sip.
My therapist didn’t press me. Instead, something I said seemed to have set him off, and he began to speak.
“It’s a matter of fact that life in the city sucks you in. Is any other city in the world like that? I’m sure all of them are, and yet for you, and for me, only this one can possibly feel like that, just as I’m sure only that person who lives in another city can feel about their city. And even knowing that, that cities are in the general similarly absorptive, I don’t think there’s another city I could choose to survive in. I’ve adapted to this one like how one of Darwin’s finches adapted to the very particular island climate they lived in.”
(He finished his gin-and-tonic in a gulp between words, and seamlessly switched to the lager while still talking.)
“Like I said, I’ve lived here twelve years. And possibly my only real record of my time here is my patient files. Or the patients themselves. My patients are out there walking and talking as living records of my sole direct effect on this city.”
I took it all in. “How many patients have you had?”
“Would you believe five hundred?” he said.
“I don’t know what an average amount is…should I?”
“It doesn’t matter. My point is, they’re out there. Little robots with their own neuroses, trying not to malfunction too regularly. For example, there’s one over there now.”
I thought he was being metaphorical, until I realized he was looking squarely over my shoulder at a balding, heavyset man sitting a few seats down from us at the bar.
“You mean, he’s one of your patients?” I asked confusedly.
It seemed too coincidental to be real. I wasn’t sure if he was pranking me, which I thought was possible given his apparently very stoic practicality. I didn’t remember if the man my therapist was observing had walked in after us, or had already been sitting there when he arrived. I stammered, and was about to ask again if he was serious, when a plate of fries appeared before us.
“Oh, finally,” my therapist exclaimed, and squirted a drizzle of ketchup over them. Before the bartender could get away, my therapist asked for another lager. “And another dark-and-stormy,” he added, before I could object.
I watched for a few moments as my therapist ate. He did so delicately, putting in one fry at a time and chewing it fully and swallowing before taking another, which was a comic contrast to the fact he was still eating fries smothered in ketchup.
As he continued to eat, my therapist asked if I wanted one.
“No, I’m fine,” I replied.
“And your sessions? What do you want to get out of them? What’s your end goal here?”
I was startled by the sudden change in topic. “What do you mean?”
“You sought me out. You’re paying me, I’m not paying you. Why are you paying me?” He ate his last fry, and wiped the ketchup off his face with a cocktail napkin.
“I…to understand,” I said, as if protesting.
“To understand what?”
Very suddenly, I felt like my therapist’s eyes were intense beams of light. He was holding his drink and staring at me directly. I clutched my glass.
“If I knew the answer to that, then I wouldn’t need you.”
“But even then, you want to understand the kind of answer you’re looking for. You can understand the act of understanding.”
“You’re just going in circles!” I snapped. My face was hot.
My therapist was unperturbed. “Let me try a different tack. And I’m just curious, here, there’s no right answer. Why do you think people dream? In general?”
“Sure, if that’s the way you want to answer.”
“Well, I don’t want to answer like that, because even scientists don’t know. Memory encoding, or something like that.”
“How do you want to answer then?”
“I don’t know. Maybe people dream for different reasons.”
“Surely. Except, there are plenty of common dream tropes that everyone seems to have experienced before. For example, I still wake up occasionally worried about taking an exam I haven’t studied for.”
“That’s just mechanical, though. Dreams can have the same content, and work differently at a motivational level.”
“And is that what you believe? That dreams originate from unique sources, but all flow into a similar collective pool?”
“I don’t know…I’ve never had anyone else’s dream before. I just know what my dreams, these dreams, are like.”
I looked down at my glass. It was empty.
My therapist drank some more of his lager, and wiped the foam from his mouth.
“Interesting,” he commented. “I think, if I were to only ever focus on my patient’s dreams, and never talk about anything else, there would still be more than enough topic for conversation.” And that was that.
My mouth was dry, and I mentioned so to my therapist, so we both ordered another glass. He glanced up at the TV, and noted that the football team was playing as mediocrely as ever. By now, every seat at the bar was occupied, and it no longer felt as if we were in a conversation with just ourselves. I remarked that the defensive coordinator was in love with his own schemes, which prompted my therapist to argue it was the offensive coordinate who really ought to be concerning, and we discussed that for an easy fifteen minutes.
I don’t remember the rest of what we talked about. At some points, I felt that I wanted to ask my therapist again about some of what he had meant about dreams, but the topic seemed totally distant by then.
Later in the night, when we both decided that enough was enough, my therapist called the bartender over a final time and settled the bill. I tried to put my card in as well, but he handed it back to me.
“I can cover tonight. Your insurance will pay me back soon enough.” I smiled, even though my therapist showed no physical indication he was joking.
Unexpectedly, my therapist hugged me. I hugged him back. The man sitting next to me was on his phone asking for an explanation about some kind of shipment issue.
“We’ve both had enough,” my therapist declared, and ordered us both cabs. “I can pick up my car the next day. I’ll see you next week.”
It was only once I was in my cab, with my jacket on and looking at the suburban homes in the reverse direction we had come in, that I could start to think about what the purpose of this whole adventure had been.
My therapist had said that it was very simply just a time to hang out and get to know each other; and yet, there was a swallowing feeling in my gut, as if I’d missed something during the evening. Despite what he’d said, I wondered if there had been something that had provoked my therapist into suggesting this outing. Or if there were something he thought I needed, but which he couldn’t tell me about. My therapist had asked me what I wanted: what was it that he wanted?
I spent the rest of the ride back into the city trying to answer my own question.
On Saturday I needed to get out of the house and get out of my head. I decided to head to Joshua Tree. I have lived an hour from the national park for 20 years and have never actually been to it. It…
I downloaded Tinder during my freshman year of college, back in 2013. I attended a pretty small Catholic university, and after only a few swipes I recognized someone from my Macroeconomics class. I…
Many people have a hard time networking. They think of it as the act of meeting new people and trying to get them to do something for you, even if they don’t want to do it at all. This kind of…