On Client-Therapist Relations

Paying $$$ to feel like an awkward, incompetent child

In a therapist-client relationship, the client sits in a glass box, which can be large and spacious, but large and spacious ultimately don’t really matter in a box, which is confined and limited, it’s like saying the tiger at the zoo has a lot of space to roam around, even nice waterfalls to drink from and automated mist to luxuriate in, the space doesn’t matter, the boundaries do. A therapist sits with a stoic countenance outside of the glass box, in a worn, velvet armchair, looking in, poking and prodding as she sees fit, through a food-feeding hole perhaps, reaching but not touching, in contact but not really, hovering above a life or beside it, but not in it.

The first session always begins with a homily on client-therapist confidentiality and the circumstances that demand an exception. “I am, um, a mandated, um, reporter, um, you know,” she tells me.” She lists the exceptional circumstances, “suicidality” being one of them, which is apparently not merely an act but a mode of being. “Self-harm,” she continues, “or harm of a minor.” I space out while she is talking, which I find out later is called “disassociating.”

“There is um, of course, um, one thing I haven’t written down in the um, contract,” she adds, “which is what um happens when um we um run into each other outside um of our sessions, um you know, like at um, Bar Tartine or um, Tartine Bakery.” I nod, focusing more on her stutters than on her words. “I wouldn’t acknowledge you but um if you said hi I would acknowledge you of course, and um we’d say hi, but um we wouldn’t sit down and um share a pastry you know,” she says all this tentatively, and I feel slighted by her governance over our relationship, which can only play out according these rules, which she is trying to explain to me right now. I do not like relationships governed by rules or conditions, I do not like relationships governed by propriety, but then, maybe that’s what I signed up for when I called the therapist.

I’m not going to pretend that therapy isn’t a transaction, which is unlike the best of friendships and often like the worst ones. I am paying to talk to this woman, I am paying her to listen, I am paying for her questions. Every transaction must be judged by its fairness: is my expenditure worth the cost? Are her questions worth my money? Is the attempt at understanding myself (improving myself?) worth my discomfort?

Someone recently called me a vulnerability junkie, which I think means that I feel most connected to someone when we are vulnerable to each other under mutually beneficial and agreeable terms, which is like therapy, I guess, my benefit being vulnerability and her benefit being money.

Within the scope of fairness, I judge her expertise as a therapist, which at the moment is at risk of failure because of a certain guttural utterance which is innocuous in small measure but becomes repulsive in hordes, like ants. Ten minutes into the session, her repeated use of “um” begins to sound like the popping of a broken record as the needle digs into the same groove over and over again. If I am paying for her words, the dilution of her language by “um” is a ripoff.

Nevertheless, she has a lovely countenance, an unblemished face and clear, glowing skin, large brown eyes with well-formed creases in her eyelids, a very distinctively sculpted and well-proportioned nose. Her clothes are plain but her trim and well-kept figure demand little adornment. She carries herself like a dancer, with her shoulders pushed back and an erect carriage, a posture I note for my helpless lack of it. Her left eyebrow is thinner with a sharper arc than her right, which—women who dote on their eyebrows know—is the result of over-attention.

The therapist says we are going to try an exercise that will help her understand my story better. She is an actress, I google her later when I get home and discover that she played a factory security guard in a play last spring, and also a maid in an S&M-inspired piece about class and subjugation. She says her approach to therapy is “eclectic,” which I suppose means unconventional, or non-dogmatic, a combination of many things, but I supposed it’s also a way of implying that therapy will involve silly little exercises like role-play and dramatizations and the use of plastic figurines.

When I first walk into her office, which looks like every other therapist’s room—bland, dimly lit, awkwardly spacious, there’s always some permutation of sofa+armchair+beanbag and a bookshelf with self-proclamatory reading material about relationships and eating disorders and loving people consciously—I instinctively walk towards the big plush armchair. Before I sit down, she catches me and says, “You sit on that couch,” motioning to the large empty sofa along the far wall, which is her version of “separation and independence,” a psychological term applied to infants when they realize their personhood, detached from their mothers. Like babies and their mothers we have compartments to retreat into and boundary lines we need to draw. I am beginning to understand this relationship.

“We’re going to use this,” she says, pointing to a small sandbox which sits atop a plain table next to her armchair. The sandbox is out of place, but I suppose it fits into her “eclectic” paradigm. She opens three different cabinets, which are located in three different corners of the room, each cabinet contains an assortment of figurines: one is exclusively human figurines; another, animal figurines; and the last, a hodgepodge of random trinkets that looks like a little boy’s collection of McDonald’s happy meal prizes: a cracked plastic hand, flowers, glass pebbles, dismembered toys.

“You’ll use these to create the different worlds you inhabit, or your relationship to different parts of your life, like your family, or your job, or your body,” she says. Later I tell her that this exercise makes me uncomfortable because I feel like the molested child in that Law & Order S.V.U episode whose drawings and sand castle configurations are scrutinized by the state psychologist. Therapy has the effect of making you feel like a child, I suppose.

I stand up from the sofa, unsure where to start. I hate role-play, I hate toys, I hate cartoons. My Barbie phase lasted a few months, my Beanie Baby phase a little longer. I got bored easily, did not have the capacity for dream worlds, preferred to be smart and serious and living in reality, though perhaps it is much more dangerous—and subversive—to live in the blurred reality of false hopes, blown-up expectations, hypothetical worlds drawn out from what-ifs and maybes, than to create a dream world that is clearly set apart and removed from your daily existence.

I putter around the room, from cabinet to cabinet, staring but not touching, observing this menagerie of plastic, the strange lives of factory-made toys. The therapist sees that I am having a difficult time. “I don’t know where to start,” I tell her. “Can you repeat the prompt again?” I want structure, I want to be able to regurgitate the answers I’ve already formulated in my head, the backstory and history that I’ve told so many times already, but this exercise throws me into a void, and I do not know how to proceed.

“Let’s begin with you,” she says. “Pick something that represents you.” So I pick up a plastic girl-doll with blonde hair and a pink dress, a far cry from my physical appearance, but she is human and a female, which is probably closer to me in resemblance than most of the other figurines.

I put her into the sandbox. She is at a 45 degree angle and looks like she is going to topple over. “Ok,” I say. “Now what?” “How about telling me about what your life is like in San Francisco,” she says, and I say okay, and I think about the neighborhood I live in, everything is so literal to me, and I go over to the miscellaneous cabinet and take a handful of plastic houses and place them one by one in the sandbox. “This is my house,” I say. “And this is the house of my best friends who live around the corner,” I say. “How about your work?” she says. I always forget about work, which my brain disassociates from when I’m not doing it. I put another house down. “This is my office,” I say, it is between my house and my parents’ house, and I put another house down.

This goes on for a while. She leads me through some questions that prompt me to put down a skull, a sword, and half a set of handcuffs. I think these are my vices, the things I feel shackled to, I tell her. This is the point of therapy, this is supposed to be the climax of the session, this is supposed to be a big epiphany, but it is not any of those things.

There’s a pot of flowers too, and I make up something about how that symbolizes growth and change. I know what things should symbolize, I have the answers of a schooled-girl. But I have no imagination. “Tell me more,” she says. “That’s it,” I say. I walk around the room examining all the figurines in the cabinets. “Nothing fits,” I say. “I have nothing else to add.”

The room is musty and the air is somber. “You look sad,” the therapist say. “Do I?” I ask. “Maybe,” I say. “Just tired,” I say. When I leave her office she shuts the door quickly. It slams, and I do not look back.

Natalie So is a storyteller for brands, a writer, and a photographer. Read her personal writing here, or follow her here and here.

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