I’m just going to get out of the way this morning and let guest writer Mary Raymond tell you about a book that sounds remarkable.
The Prince of Tides is one of my favorite movies. For years after I saw it, I imagined that therapy looked a lot like Barbra Streisand’s inscrutable Dr. Lowenstein chipping away at the charming armor of Nick Nolte’s damaged Tom Wingo. I understood later that perhaps the movie was not an ideal representation of a successful doctor/patient relationship, but at sixteen I rejoiced that Tom’s wrecked inner child found help in Dr. Lowenstein’s airy Manhattan office. And honestly, with all that natural light and the Streisand-approved soundtrack, who wouldn’t?
Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed, offers a less stylized depiction of the therapeutic process.
She weaves together the stories of four of her patients with her own experiences after a bad breakup drives her to seek counseling. Despite years of helping patients clear all the usual therapeutic hurdles, Gottlieb has a hard time getting out of her own way when faced with her own crisis. She spends most of her early sessions trying to get her therapist to agree that her ex-boyfriend is a real jerk; she brushes aside any suggestion that there might be something deeper plaguing her; and, at least initially, the only reason she sticks around is her desperate quest for an end to the pain. Gottlieb lifts the veil early: therapists, it turns out, are just like us!
Here’s another secret therapists know: we are all notoriously unreliable narrators of our own stories. Often there is no subterfuge at play in this false rendering of events. Heightened emotions and limited perspectives make it very difficult for any of us to navigate personal crises with mental clarity. Our natural instincts for self-preservation can blind us to the impact our coping mechanisms have on ourselves and the people around us. But, in a neat trick, we can easily identify these missteps when we become engaged in the stories of patients working through their own issues in therapy. Gottlieb underscores the point when she lets the reader see her falling into the same traps in her own sessions.
Among Gottlieb’s patients are a narcissistic Hollywood producer who needs help managing all the “idiots” around him; a newlywed with a terminal illness; a woman who resolves to take her own life on her upcoming 70th birthday; and a young woman whose painful childhood has her locked in an endless cycle of bad relationships. At first, I saw each of these patients as one-dimensional caricatures with whom I found little common ground. Even I could tell that they weren’t giving Gottlieb enough to work with as they suspiciously evaluated whether or not they could trust her. But as Gottlieb and her patients slowly revealed themselves, I began to root for each of them. I learned that the raging producer was barely surviving the pain of an unimaginable loss; the lonely senior citizen had sentenced herself to a life of solitary confinement as punishment for her failings as a young mother.
As Gottlieb works with her patients, she shows us the occupational hazards therapists face: the tricky dance of creating a connection with patients while maintaining professional distance; the loneliness that arises from protecting patient confidentiality; and the trap of identifying so closely with a patient that it becomes nearly impossible to treat her objectively. Gottlieb encounters many patients who want to know if she really likes them, and she finds herself wondering the same thing about her standing with her own therapist. Is she his favorite? Or does he just think she’s nuts?
Gottlieb’s training as a therapist informs her skill as a writer. There was not a dramatic climax when I started thinking that the previously unpleasant characters had turned into saints. Instead I began to see them in all their human complexity, complete with bad decisions and brave attempts at redemption. As they shared more of themselves, I was reminded of the truths we all bump up against eventually: life can be bitterly cruel, nothing is permanent, and the person we treasure most can be taken from us in an instant. How does anyone face these realities up close and not come undone?
It was a beautiful gift to see the often stumbling, sometimes sacred work of Gottlieb’s patients as they began to trust her with their heaviest burdens and invited her to join them as they wrestled with life’s most consequential questions. Gottlieb and her patients learn that “none of us can love and be loved without the possibility of loss, but there is a difference between knowledge and terror.” It is an act of courage to stare clear-eyed into this mystery and then reach out a hand.
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A few photos from my yard, where the tulip poplar looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland and the knockout roses look like something in a Hallmark movie (in the best possible way) and even the broken things bloom.