Comic Misadventures In Psychotherapy
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Excuse me. Could you please repeat that?”
“I didn’t understand you. What was the second part of what you asked?”
Prior to marrying my wife, every friendship of significance in my life had been with a woman — but platonically. These relationships consisted of girls I worked with, friends of friends, or women I dated briefly before discovering that we just didn’t work as a couple. I was “the hang out guy,” “the buddy,” “the wing man,” before that last term became ubiquitous and annoying.
I also had girlfriends. But, those were mostly knotty unions where I fumbled around, clueless about what to do and how to be. For me, it was just more fun and less complicated to have a girl who was a friend, rather than a girlfriend.
As I barreled towards 30, my inability to navigate my way around a romantic relationship urgently needed to be addressed. So, I went on the hunt for an educated professional with an acronym after their name who would, in exchange for money, hopefully on a sliding scale, help fix me. It just made perfect sense that I would seek out a female psychotherapist.
Carol was the shrink of a friend. We had to ask to make sure there were no ethical issues with taking me on as a patient. Since my name had made only a cameo in their sessions, I scheduled an appointment. Carol was quiet, subdued, and never, ever, laughed — never — never, ever — a real blow to the ego of a comedy writer. I certainly wasn’t there for the audience. But who am I fooling, I was totally there for the audience. We tried for a few months, but I just never got completely comfortable with her. She was, I later learned, a sufficient “starter shrink.” Ultimately realizing that I could be miserably unhappy anywhere, I decamped Los Angeles and moved back to New York.
Next up was Julie (or Julia) she answered to either. A brand new shrink, moments out of NYU, Julie (or Julia) was ready, willing, and eager — to find permanent office space. She was a mess. We moved three times in one year — the last one back to the original. Once or twice we were interrupted mid-session by another shrink and their patient. She even once asked if I’d be willing to have a session in a Starbucks. The constant fits and starts made it impossible for us to get any traction. Needing a GPS to find my shrink’s office was a real therapy killer. Then Julie (or Julia) announced she had lupus and canceled the next 58% of our sessions. Someone I no longer speak to now told me at the time: “better with the wrong shrink than no shrink at all.” So I stayed for another year. After a two week vacation in Spain one summer, I called Julie (or Julia) twice. I never heard back. She did me a favor.
Suddenly, a flurry of my friends were getting married and making babies — some not even in that order.
Hey! Why not me?
I had spent more than half of my life dating and I knew no more about women than I did when I started. A little lost, but unwilling to dive back into psychotherapy, I went shrinkless for a while. Until —
One afternoon, a friend told me about an institute of psychology on 57th Street. It was a rigorous retraining center for shrinks changing specialties — the equivalent of getting your haircut at the Aveda School. I filled out the online form. The way this worked was that a potential shrink would call and we’d have a chat. If I felt comfortable, an appointment would be made— an arranged marriage so to speak.
A couple of days later my phone rang. It was a woman. English was clearly not her first language. I’m fairly sure I answered her questions accurately, but I struggled mightily to understand her. She offered to meet to see if we were a match, I think. Or she asked me what the internal temperature of a medium rare steak should be. It could’ve been either. I made the appointment anyway but not before asking myself —
My exact words on the written intake were, “suffering from ‘debilitating neurotic comedy writer-of-very-middling-success syndrome.’” I just expected the institute would set me up with a strong-willed, opinionated, older Jewish woman who would, without hesitation, say what was wrong with me — you know, like I was accustomed to.
Her name was Hea-Kyung. But, I kept mispronouncing it.
“Hi Kwon.” “Ho Kyung.”
I butchered it all the way to January the 8th, so she suggested I call her “HK.”
HK was Korean.
“North or South?” I asked.
“South,” she replied flatly, missing the joke.
HK was poised, with a warm demeanor, and a commanding air of confidence which made me feel like she knew what she was doing. But that language barrier; I needed closed captioning. I understood about 60% of what she said. There really was no good reason to return the following week — yet, I did anyway.
After the opening session pleasantries, HK took a hard left turn from what we were talking about and asked an odd, unexpected question.
What kind of business was your mother’s family in?
ME: My mother’s family owned a pawn shop in Poughkeepsie.
HK: (scrambling to take notes) Tell me more.
ME: Not much to say. My mother would drop me off there on Saturdays to play.
HK: (leaning in) They let you in?
ME: Yeah. There were lots of interesting people. And musical instruments. I’d play the drums until somebody’d yell at me.
HK: (getting excited) There was music? What else?
ME: Everyone was nice to me. I got to see how business was conducted. People came in, did their thing, then left with big smiles on their faces.
HK: You didn’t think it was inappropriate to see this?
ME: No. I loved it. Sometimes my uncle would let me hang out in the back.
HK: (almost jumping out of her chair) This is very important!
ME: (her excitement infectious) It is?!
HK: Yes! Many of your problems with women begin here, at this crucial time in your adolescence, being exposed to this lifestyle.
ME: A pawn shop?
HK: Yes, porn shop.
ME: (misunderstanding her) I don’t understand.
HK: Because they sold sex there.
ME: No, they sold junk there.
HK: For the porn?
ME: Who said anything about porn?
HK: You said porn.
ME: What? (finally realizing) Not a porn shop. A ‘pawn’ shop.
HK: Porn. With sex.
ME: No sex!
KH: How could there be no sex in the porn shop?
ME Not porn! No sex! Pawn! P-A-W-N.
HK: P-A-W-N? What is that?
I explained to her what a pawn shop was, something that didn’t exist in South Korea.
We laughed for the last 7 minutes of the session.
I made another appointment, and another, and saw HK for two years. Over time, I came to see the initial language barrier between us as a metaphor for the language barriers I faced with the women in my life. With HK, I learned how to listen carefully and thoughtfully — rather than just hear what they were saying. I also learned how to communicate honestly and openly, to express myself in ways I had not been taught. In short, we worked — like a good, healthy relationship should.
I never expected to have three shrinks. I certainly never expected to have one born in Korea with a tricky relationship with English. But, it worked — kind of like accidentally walking into the wrong movie, and loving it. Or stepping off a train in a city you didn’t intend to visit, only to have the time of your life. I guess if I’m the kind of guy who needs to find life lessons in my experiences it’s this; do the weird, the uncertain, the unexpected thing. Stick around and see what can happen when there might a million and one reasons not to. You really just never know how things are going to turn out.