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. She 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 be a million and one reasons not to. You really just never know how things are going to turn out.