Saturday, February 2, 2008

"How Does That Make You Feel?"

I started watching In Treatment, HBO's latest exploration of psychotherapy after the brilliance of The Sopranos and the excruciating tedium of Tell Me You Love Me. In Treatment is slow and tough to watch, or more precisely tough to sit through, set entirely in a psychiatrist's office with only two characters' (three on the Thursday episodes) back and forth, and I oddly admire it for breaking television paradigms. It's like watching a stage play, maybe one of those Greek tragedies before the concept of "action" had been invented, and the character study is hidden in the way the patients exposit their stories. But the show is having this bizarre side effect on me; I'm beginning to feel inadequate about my own therapy sessions. Do I talk enough? Are my narratives interesting, meaningful, clear? Or am I just paying two-hundred dollars a fifty-minute hour for a live audience, for the kinds of incoherent ranting write so hastily in my blog?

This is typical for me: Thanks to many, many years in therapy, I now recognize my habit of ascribing the idea of "normal" to my external observations and then using that contrivance as a standard against which I judge my own experience. With that view, I find it interesting that I only read half the show ━ the patients' role, their physical, tangible behavior, their acting ━ in the context of my own psychotherapy. The doctor, Paul ━ as if I call my therapist by his first name ━ remains a cipher, the Greek chorus in the dialectic, frequently just pulling on the patient's issue even as it's flowing smoothly out. "Tell me more." Or, "Go on." Punctuated by one of those weird therapy revelations: what you just said is interesting, illuminates differently, contrasted to this other thing that slipped out of your mouth five sessions ago, like the whole thing's scripted. I mean, obviously In Treatment is, in fact, scripted but Rodrigo Garcia does a truly sublime of job of revealing these characters, where they're blabbing on and on and on, self-assured, and then Paul does his mental calculations and turns his patients transparent before they're even aware of it.

I wasn't seeing Paul as anything more than the sounding board until the Friday episode, when Paul has a weekly appointment with his own therapist. You'll recall that on The Sopranos, Dr. Melfi also had an analyst, distilling (and, by the end of the series, adulterating) her emotional reactions, and I'm now wondering if my therapist sees a therapist. I approve of, and appreciate, and value psychotherapy and the dynamic ━ to the non-initiate, it's like paying somebody to be your friend; but, in a healthy relationship, you're paying the therapist to not be your friend. He's someone who has no emotional stake in your well-being and his relationship with you, so he can be what your friends can't: objective and critical. And that's beneficial; obviously, psychiatrists realize that benefit, and that's why I'm now working on the assumption that my therapist has his own Ivy League-educated Psy. D., and he spends fifty minutes a week on that couch, and they call each other by their first names. The idea makes me jumpy, and not just because I've never cared to conjure anything about my therapist's life outside our sessions. I'm not happy with him having issues, or if he doesn't have issues, then he has issues in that sort of self-help way people go, "Everybody has issues."

Now I have to see him as a person, and not an Eliza with intelligence, textbook education and life experience. He's a person who could find my sheepish narratives tedious, or could be frustrated with my stubborn impenetrability, or could just plain resent me. He can judge me, in the same way I'm afraid everybody else does, and I'm sure that's compartmentalized somewhere off in my brain.

But on the other hand, I've been meeting with this particular therapist for seven years, and another one for three years before that, and another one for two years before that, all of whom, I now presume, can't fit into my reductive mold as emotional processing units, the role I secretly want to foist upon everybody else. That means that despite my best efforts, I actually am succeeding at normalizing my relationships with them, objectively and in reality, as human beings. Which is why I'm in therapy in the first place. Hmmm....