Made To Be a Therapist
The French philosopher and psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, spoke to the power of a name. He claimed that in the granting of our names, we are given a psychological birthplace. We then locate ourselves, psychically, within this spot. As a Jew, I was given the first initial of each of mother’s parents. For David, her father, I got Danna. For Rose, her mother, I got Rebecca. And, for good measure, I was delivered into this world with a purpose. I was born to be my mother’s therapist.
My mother was orphaned by her parents’ twin cancers by the time she was twelve. She lost her father at 15 months to Hodgkin’s Disease. She lost her mother when she three days after her twelfth birthday, to a long fought battle with breast cancer. With no legitimate support system, she ricocheted between reluctant family members until she moved out on her own at 16. From the tiny kitchen of her own apartment, she spent dinners talking to a huge poster of Jim Morrison.
In high school, a history teacher of hers suggested therapy. She saw two men who she disdained before ending up on the couch of Emmanuel Hammer. A psychiatrist and analyst on Manhattan’s West End Avenue, he started with projective testing (mostly Rorschach) and moved into deeper work. He, in fact, became a father to her. When she considered having sex for the first time, he sent her to Planned Parenthood. When he realized her boyfriend was an idiot, he suggested she hold out for someone better. They talked openly about Oedipus. Together they faced the limitations of working through the complex without her actual father. And as they neared the end of their work, hitting the repeated and impenetrable walls that many analytic pairs do, he referred her to his wife, Lila.
My mom then moved to Lila’s couch. Emmanuel had years 16–23, Lila got 23–27. But it wasn’t Lila’s couch, it was the Hammers’ couch, in their living room. My mom was adopted by therapists, or at least her psyche was. Her body rested alone in her studio apartment on 82nd street.
At some point in her treatment one of them told her the only way she would get over her the grief of losing her parents was to have a child of her own. Following the blessing of Lila and Emmanuel, she married my father, a long time friend, and set off to have me, her daughter, her parent, her therapist, her promised cure.
I think that I was somewhat good at my job. As a pupil of my mother, I studied her closely and learned her likes, dislikes, quirks and fears. She kept me close as a yard sale companion, as I could spot a treasure (by her idiosyncratic standards) almost immediately. This was a huge asset in the cut-throat, rarefied world of Hamptons yard sales because dealers didn’t see me as a threat.
I learned all the music she liked, memorizing Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel alongside her, solemnly experiencing nostalgia for the sixties, despite having been born in 1976. I was grateful for Carter and hated Reagan. When I was in 1st grade, I helped her grade papers for the second grade class that she taught.
I started to get kind of bad at my job when I began obsessively worrying about her. It wasn’t the careful and tender worry of her previous analysts. Instead, I became awash in constant panic and terror. I listened to the traffic reports as she travelled home every afternoon to be sure there were no reports of accidents. Counting her breathes at night, dreading each mammogram, studying the radiology reports myself, I began to see myself as some sort of a ventilator for her ego. The ventilator plugged directly into my stomach, the location of most of my anxious symptoms. Sometimes I couldn’t breath myself, I was so scared. As I became totally undone, my treatment of her stopped working.
So she put me in therapy, obviously. Or maybe she put me in supervision. I saw someone in the office our closest family friends, further smudging the therapist/family blur. I knew the furniture, having been there many times. My therapist, Ruth Resch, was lovely. She had a fascinating incongruent 80s haircut and a lilting, soft voice. Starting in 5thgrade, she sat with me every Wednesday for my “special appointment”.
During my therapy we played Scrabble. Every week, for two years. She let me cheat quite a bit with made up words. She would let look up words in the dictionary before I put my letters down. She let me lie about the score as she slyly watched me add some extra points to mine. She let me win.
At first, I would be listening frantically for my mom’s entrances and exits from the waiting room, in a constant state of alarm, but Ruth just sat across from me like the quintessential, predictable, containing and never overwhelming, good enough mother. Over time I started to listen less for my mom and could focus on the formation of miraculous seven letter words.
She moved to Seattle and I assumed my responsibilities. While I was still worried, the somatic intensity diminished and I was able to resume my work as an engaged and receptive clinician. My job got a bit better too. Maybe my own therapy improved my skill. Or maybe my mom grew a bit when I retreated into my desperate fear and terror. Maybe she finally experienced how it feels to be worried about by a mom. My worry mimicked, precisely, how fiercely a mother can fear for the life of her own child. Was this what the Emmanuel and Lila Hammer meant? I doubt it. But it worked some magic.
She was even able to push me to go to sleep away camp. She wrote me letters every day on the stationery she got at yard sales that she was now going to with the therapist/friend who shared Ruth’s office. I would dash for the mailbox every afternoon, to track the continuance of her pulse. Even with this vigilance, I still made some friends. I still have one now, a psychologist of course.
When I was 26, I went to the 70th birthday party of one the therapist/family/friends, Yehuda Nir. Dr. Nir was an Upper East Side psychiatrist who embodied Freud, yet differed from him greatly. Having actually survived the Holocaust, he deeply knew life with trauma and practiced with this visceral knowing. The party was cheerful and grand. At the apartment of one of Yehuda’s sons, right off of East End Avenue, the view was expansive. The windows revealed the whole East River, bridge after bridge, the Queensboro and Triboro to the left, the Manhattan, Brooklyn and Williamsburg to the right. Amidst the festivities someone walked into the party dressed as a Torah. Yes, a literal Torah costume. Post Holocaust, Yehuda never let a moment pass without honoring Judaism.
I turned to the woman next to me and said, “who’s in the Torah”? She said, nonchalantly (because what did she know?), oh “that’s his old friend from Seattle, Ruth Resch. She is here to surprise him”. Well over a decade later, here was one of my mothers, costumed as the sacred, the religious, the ultimate instructive text. This felt unsurprising. Because of course, this was what therapy had always been. A sacred religion, capable of guiding life, making meaning of life, building family and culture. Religion was family, family was therapy, therapists were family and therapy was religion.
Needless to say, I became a therapist. Like, a real one with a license and an office and a waiting room. As I said, I was made to be therapist. But I am not a therapist/mother/rabbi/priest. I have no belief in myself as a deity. It turns out that my true work as a therapist, and now a mother myself, has been to understand the crucial difference between therapist and mother and god. My kids need a mom. My patients need a therapist. They actually need access to their grief and sadness. I can bear witness to that. But, I will not provide the fantasy that I can be what they have lost in their lives.
I will not deprive them of their internal experiences that way.
My mother is alive. Despite all my worry, years of studying breast cancer genes and traffic patterns, she is alive.
Now that I am a mother to my kids and a therapist to my patients, what does that now make me to her? Perhaps, at nearly 40, finally a daughter? I cried to her the other day about not knowing what to do for my 40th birthday party. Maybe I missed crying over birthday parties during all the years that I had been employed as her analyst. In the irrevocability of those years, it took me a minute before I realized that it was not her job to fix my party dilemma. Role clarity is big work for me.
I think that I will make my birthday plans with my family, with kids that have their own untethered names. This is the family that I created, through hard fought individuation, provided, of course, by my own therapy.