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The Sleeping Cure

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I went back to see them to try to find out.

Returning to an old therapist is like finding an old mirror in the attic. You dust it off, smile at the frame’s filigree, then recoil in horror to discover its reflection still retains your childhood face. My maiden therapist, dating back to the Hubie Brown years, refused to return my phone calls. As one of the first American analysts to plead guilty to insider trading (a patient of his was the wife of a noted financier), he was no doubt unnerved by the sound of a journalist on his answering machine. That his voice, meanwhile—the Eeyore-like cadence—could sit so unceremoniously on an outgoing message, and still be so provocative to the recesses of my memory, gave me an uncomfortable foretaste of the experience to come.

Therapist No. 2’s office is still tucked in the same small complex on the fringes of a college town, where suburbia melts into farm country. NPR murmured on a dual-cassette boom box, which sat on the floor next to an empty Poland Spring cooler, which was tucked beneath a framed Georgia O’Keeffe poster—everything just as I’d left it twenty years earlier. During my therapy, I used to play the manipulative child, confronting my therapist with the latest anti-Freud aperçu from one of my comp-lit professors, a veteran Freud-basher of some renown. She would sigh and say, “Your professor needs to update his ideas about therapy. We have.”

Obscurely compelled, I suppose, to repeat past behavior, I had stopped by my old professor’s office en route. “Freud happened to be a physician, the same way Schopenhauer happened to be an idealist philosopher,” he said, tilting back in his beat-up brown leather chair. “His work is a brilliant interpretation of the self and the world, but it fails as a therapy. But he was a physician—and so Freud believed he had to cure people.” Not Freud’s problem alone, I thought, driving at a homicidal speed, trying to make my appointment on time. Would I bother recounting my previous night’s dream to a stranger if I didn’t think it would make me better? Admittedly, “cured” is out of the question, I thought, seated in my old therapist’s waiting room. So if not cured, what? Go ahead, say it. Say the word “journey.” I hate the word “journey.”

“Hello, Stephen.” She stands in the doorway, a tiny woman in muted lamb’s wool, a look of friendly anticipation on her face. I cannot quite grasp how satisfying it is to see her. She is older, of course, but it comes back to me in an instant—her patience, her measured but palpable concern, her frequent if gentle skepticism, her wonder while staring at the towering ramparts of my neurosis. Seated, she asks me why I’ve come. “I’m on a kind of … journey,” I say, wishing at that moment a grand piano would, taking mercy on us both, fall through the ceiling. But soon enough our conversation becomes free-flowing and frank. As we talk—I tell her about my marriage, my children—I think, This is like therapy, and yet not like therapy. It’s like Moses Malone and Jabbar playing a charity pickup game. The moves are creaky, yet strangely familiar.

When I first met this therapist, I was a nihilist bristling with a hostility I mistook for confidence and a nervous laugh that sounded like a bagful of frenzied grackles. A tree with pasted-on leaves, as the poet Anne Sexton once wrote about a friend, though she added: “you’ll root / and the real green thing will come.” I feel like a different being now. And yet she still insists I suppress a deep and mostly unconscious rage against my mother. I disagree with this—resistance!—and we go back and forth, but without any of the old aggressive friction. Then I ask her: Do you remember falling asleep during our sessions? And the conversation goes dead. Her chin retracts; her eyes lose focus.

Nothing more, nothing less, therapy is the art of teaching someone to overhear himself. This woman taught me to overhear myself and begin to live beyond the service of my infantile needs. She dared me, by asking simple but, in retrospect, quite cunning questions, to think of my would-be existential jailers—my parents, my teachers, my friends, my enemies—as my fellow inmates. But now she answers the question of her sleep haltingly, to put it mildly. “You were so … heavily defended. When a patient is defending against me … my insights … can be anesthetizing … I’m being excluded … repelled … I can get sleepy.” The Dean defense! The sky-hook of snoozing analysts! I can’t help laughing, and I can’t help noticing, for the first time in years, how my laugh still sounds like a bagful of imprisoned birds.


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