The following is an excerpt from “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed,” written by psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb. The memoir, released last month, explores the unique struggles Gottlieb’s clients face, the crisis that lands Gottlieb herself on a therapist’s couch and universal questions about human behavior.
In the below excerpt, we watch Gottlieb meet her new therapist, Wendell, for the first time.
I’m standing in the doorway of Wendell’s office, trying to figure out where to sit. I see a lot of therapy offices in my profession — my supervisors’ offices during training, my colleagues’ offices that I visit — but I’ve never seen one like Wendell’s.
Yes, there are the usual diplomas on the walls and therapy-related books on the shelves, along with the conspicuous absence of anything that might give away his personal life (no family photos on the desk, for instance; just a lone laptop). But instead of the standard setup of the therapist’s chair in the middle of the room with seating against the walls (during internship, we learned to sit close to the door in case “things escalated” and we needed an escape route), Wendell’s office has two long sofas on the far walls arranged in an L-shape with a side table between them — and no therapist chair at all.
Here’s a diagram of my office:
And here’s a diagram of Wendell’s office.
Wendell, who is very tall and very thin with a balding head and the stooped posture of our profession, stands there waiting for me to take a seat. I consider the possibilities. I assume we won’t sit side by side on the same sofa, but which sofa does he typically take? The one by the window (so he can escape through that if things escalate)? Or the one by the wall? I decide to take a seat by the window, position A, before he closes the door, walks across the room, and relaxes into position C.
Generally when I see a new patient, I’ll open the conversation with an icebreaker like “So, tell me what brings you here today.”
Wendell, however, says nothing. He just looks at me, his green eyes questioning. He’s wearing a cardigan, khakis, and loafers, like he came straight from Therapist Central Casting.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hi,” he replies. And he waits.
About a minute passes, which is longer than it sounds, and I try to gather my wits so that I can clearly lay out the Boyfriend situation. The truth is, every day since the breakup has been worse than the night of the breakup itself because now a glaring void has opened up in my life. For the past couple of years, Boyfriend and I had been in constant contact throughout our days, had said good night every bedtime. Now what was he doing? How had his day gone? Did his presentation at work go well? Was he thinking about me? Or was he glad to have gotten the truth off his chest so he could go search for somebody who was kid-free? I’ve felt his absence in every cell of my body, so by the time I get to Wendell’s office this morning, I’m a wreck — but I don’t want that to be his first impression of me.
An interesting paradox of the therapy process: In order to do their job, therapists try to see patients as they really are, which means noticing their vulnerabilities and entrenched patterns and struggles. Patients, of course, want to be helped, but they also want to be liked and admired. In other words, they want to hide their vulnerabilities and entrenched patterns and struggles. That’s not to say that therapists don’t look for a patient’s strengths and try to build on those. We do. But while we aim to discover what’s not working, patients try to keep the illusion going to avoid shame — to seem more together than they really are. Both parties have the wellbeing of the patient in mind but often work at cross-purposes in the service of a mutual goal.
As calmly as possible, I begin to tell Wendell the Boyfriend story, but almost immediately, my dignity’s gone and I’m sobbing. Boyfriend and I were planning to get married when suddenly he told me he decided he doesn’t want to live with a kid under his roof for the next ten years — that kid being my 8-year-old. It’s not as if I’d been hiding my child in the closet the entire time were dating. Who says he wants to marry you but fails to mention that he’s on the fence about the kid part of the equation until right before you’re about to move in together? I go through the entire story play-by-play and by the time I’m done, my hands are covering my face, my body is shaking, and I think about what Jen, my best friend who also happens to be a therapist, said on the phone when she called to check on me yesterday: “You need to find a place where you’re not being a therapist.”
I’m definitely not being a therapist right now. I’m making the case for why Boyfriend must be blamed for all of this: If he hadn’t been so avoidant (Jen’s diagnosis), I wouldn’t have been so blindsided. And, I add, he must be a sociopath (again quoting Jen; this is exactly the reason therapists can’t see their friends for therapy), because I had no idea that he felt this way — he was such a good actor! And even if he’s not a certifiable sociopath, he’s clearly missing a few marbles, because who keeps something this big to himself for God knows how long? After all, I know what normal communication looks like, especially because I see so many couples in my practice, and besides ...
I look up and I think I see Wendell suppress a smile (I imagine his thought bubble: This wacko’s a therapist ... who treats couples?) but it’s hard to tell because I can’t see very well. It’s like looking through the windshield of a car without its wipers on during a rainstorm. In a strange way, I’m relieved to be able to cry this hard in front of another person, even if that person is a stranger who doesn’t say much.
After a bunch of empathetic Mmms, Wendell asks a question: “Is this a typical breakup reaction for you?” His tone is kind, but I know what he’s getting at. He’s trying to determine what’s known as my attachment style. Attachment styles are formed early in childhood based on our interactions with our caregivers. Attachment styles are significant because they play out in people’s adult relationships too, influencing the kinds of partners they pick (stable or less stable), how they behave during the course of a relationship (needy, distant, or volatile), and how their relationships tend to end (wistfully, amiably, or with a huge explosion). The good news is that maladaptive attachment styles can be modified in adulthood — this, in fact, is a lot of the work of therapy.
“No, this isn’t typical,” I insist, using my sleeve to dry my tears. I let him know that I’ve had long-term relationships and I’ve gone through breakups but not like this. And, I reiterate, the only reason I’m having this reaction is that this particular breakup was such a shock, so out of left field, and isn’t what Boyfriend did the most confusing and bizarre and ... UNETHICAL thing to do to someone?
I’m sure that this married professional with kids is going to say something supportive right now about how painful it is to be blindsided but that in the long run, thank goodness this happened, because I dodged a bullet — not just for me, but for my son. I sit back, take a breath, and wait for the validation to pour in.
But Wendell doesn’t offer any. Of course, I didn’t expect him to call Boyfriend trash, as Allison had; a therapist would use more neutral language, such as “It sounds like he had a lot of feelings that he didn’t communicate directly to you.” Still, Wendell says nothing.
My tears are starting to spill onto my pants again when out of the corner of my eye, I see an object flying through the air toward me. At first it looks like a football, and I wonder if I’m hallucinating (from the zero hours of restful sleep I’ve gotten since the breakup), but then I realize that it’s a brown box of tissues — the one that was on the end table between the sofas, next to the seat I didn’t take. Instinctively, my hands fly up to catch it, but I miss. It lands with a thud on the cushion next to me, and I grab a bunch of tissues and blow my nose. Having the box there seems to narrow the space between Wendell and me, as if he just threw me a lifeline. Over the years, I’ve handed tissue boxes to patients countless times, but I’d forgotten how cared for that simple gesture can make someone feel.
A phrase I first heard in graduate school pops into my head: “the therapeutic act, not the therapeutic word.”
I take more tissues and wipe my eyes. Wendell is watching me, waiting.
I continue talking about Boyfriend and his avoidance issues, building a case using details from his past, including the way his marriage ended, which wasn’t dissimilar to how our relationship ended in terms of shock value for his wife and kids. I’m telling Wendell everything I knew about Boyfriend’s history of avoidance without realizing that what I’m unintentionally illustrating is my avoidance of his avoidance — about which apparently I knew quite a bit.
Wendell tilts his head slightly, a questioning smile on his face. “It’s curious, isn’t it, given what you knew about his history, that this is such a shock to you?”
“But it is a shock,” I say. “He’d never said anything about not wanting a kid in the house! In fact, he’d just talked to HR at his firm to make sure that he could put my son on his benefits policy once we were married!” I go over the entire chronology again, adding more evidence to support my story, then notice that Wendell’s face is starting to cloud over.
“I know I’m being repetitive,” I say. “But you have to understand, I was expecting that we would spend the rest of our lives together. This was how things were supposed to go, and now it’s all up in the air. Half my life is over, and I have no idea what’s going to happen. What if Boyfriend was the last person I fall in love with? What if he was the end of the line?”
He waits for me to continue, but instead my tears return. Not the wild sobs of the past week, but something both calmer and deeper.
“I know that you feel caught by surprise,” Wendell says. “But I’m also interested in something else you said. Half your life is over. Maybe what you’re grieving isn’t just the breakup, though I know this experience feels devastating.” He pauses, and when he speaks again, his voice is softer. “I wonder if you’re grieving something bigger than the loss of your boyfriend.”
He looks at me meaningfully, like he just said something incredibly important and profound, but I kind of want to punch him.
What a load of garbage, I think. I mean, really? I was fine — more than fine; I was fine-plus — before this turn of events. I have a child I adore beyond measure. I have a career I enjoy immensely. I have a supportive family and amazing friends whom I care about and who care about me. I’m grateful for this life ... okay, sometimes I’m grateful. I certainly try to be grateful. And now I’m frustrated. I’m paying this therapist to help me with a painful breakup and this is what he has to offer?
Grieving something bigger, my ass.
Before I can say this, I notice that Wendell is looking at me in a way I’m not used to being looked at. His eyes are like magnets, and every time I glance away, they seem to find me. His expression is intense but gentle, a combination of a wise elder and a stuffed animal, and it comes with a message: In this room, I’m going to see you, and you’ll try to hide, but I’ll still see you, and it’s going to be okay when I do.
But I’m not here for that. As I told Wendell when I called to schedule the appointment, I just need some crisis management.
“I’m really just here to get through the breakup,” I say. “I feel like I’ve been tossed in a blender and can’t get out, and that’s all I’m here for — to find a way out.”
“Okay,” Wendell says, graciously backing off. “Help me understand more about the relationship.” He’s trying to establish what’s known as a therapeutic alliance, a trust that has to develop before any work can get done. In the early sessions, it’s always more important for patients to feel heard and understood than it is for them to gain any insight or make any changes.
Relieved, I go back to talking about Boyfriend, rehashing the whole thing.
But he knows.
He knows what all therapists know: That the presenting problem, the issue somebody comes in with, is often just one aspect of a larger problem, if not a red herring entirely. He knows that most people are brilliant at finding ways to filter out the things they don’t want to look at, at using distractions or defenses to keep threatening feelings at bay. He knows that pushing aside emotions only makes them stronger, but that before he goes in and destroys somebody’s defense — whether that defense is obsessing about another person or pretending not to see what’s in plain sight — he needs to help the patient replace the defense with something else so that he doesn’t leave the person raw and exposed with no protection whatsoever. As the term implies, defenses serve a useful purpose. They shield people from injury ... until they no longer need them.
It’s in this ellipsis that therapists work.
Meanwhile, back on my couch, clutching the tissue box, a small part of me knows something too. As much as I want validation, somewhere inside, I know that Wendell’s load of garbage is precisely what I’m paying him for, because if I just want to complain about Boyfriend, I can do that for free, with my family and friends (at least until their patience runs out). I know that often people create faulty narratives to make themselves feel better in the moment even though it makes them feel worse over time — and that sometimes, they need somebody else to read between the lines.
But I also know this: Boyfriend is a goddamn motherf-----g selfish sociopath.
“That’s all we can do with this today,” Wendell says, and following his gaze, I notice for the first time that his clock has been resting on the windowsill over my shoulder. He lifts his arms and gives his legs two loud pats as if to punctuate the session’s end, a gesture that I’ll soon come to recognize as his signature sign-off. Then he rises and escorts me to the door.
He says to let him know if I’d like to come back next Wednesday. I think about the week ahead, the void where Boyfriend used to be, and the comfort of, as Jen said, having a place to completely fall apart.
“Sign me up,” I say.
I walk across the street to the lot where I used to park for my bikini waxes, and I feel both lighter and like I might vomit. A supervisor once likened doing psychotherapy to undergoing physical therapy. It can be difficult and cause pain, and your condition can worsen before it improves, but if you go consistently and work hard when you’re there, you’ll get the kinks out and function so much better.
I check my phone. A text from Allison:
An email from a patient needing to move her session. A voicemail from my mom wondering if I’m okay.
No message from Boyfriend. I’m still hoping he’ll call. I can’t understand how he could be fine while I’m suffering so much. At least, he seemed fine when we coordinated my returning his belongings this morning. Had he gotten through his sadness months ago, knowing that eventually he was going to end things? If so, how could he have kept talking about our future together? How could he send I love you emails just hours before what was to become our last conversation, at the start of which we made movie plans for the weekend? (Did he go see the movie? I wonder.)
I start to stew again on the drive to the office. By the time I pull into my building’s parking garage, I’m thinking about the fact that not only has Boyfriend wasted two years of my life, but now I’m going to have to deal with the fallout by going to therapy, and I don’t have time for any of this because I’m in my forties now and half my life is over and ... oh my God, there it is again! Half my life is over. I’ve never said that to myself or anyone else before. Why does it keep popping up?
You’re grieving something bigger, Wendell had said.
But I forget all about this as soon as I step into the elevator at work.
A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed
By Lori Gottlieb
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 432 pp. $28