THE METAPHORS WE PAY FOR

The other night my car broke down in front of a butcher shop. It was a Sunday night in a sleepy town. My phone was nearly dead, and AAA’s system had apparently malfunctioned. I also had a migraine. I couldn’t read to while away the time, so for three hours I lay back with my seat reclined, willing my body into perfect stillness as my review mirror lit up periodically, reflecting the headlights of a slow, unaffiliated parade of sedans, wagons, jeeps, motorbikes. No tow truck–not for three hours. I had plenty of time to notice that migraines can make my teeth chatter, a strange and overwhelming sensation. Also in a slow parade, dog-walkers. Several brisk women, one shlubby barefoot older guy, another guy more kempt and alert to my propped-open hood. He eyed my car walking up the opposite side of the street, then paused walking down the sidewalk past my window, which was lowered for the fresh air in an interlude between days of torrential rains. He asked the basic questions, made friendly conversation. We must have talked a good 10, 15 minutes. His dog, meanwhile, had settled expectantly in front of the door of the darkened butcher shop. His haunches seemed to twitch like the legs of tennis players waiting for a serve; I wondered if he could somehow smell the meat through the door? “No,” said the man–“the owners of the shop give him treats.” I was nonetheless mystified–the lights were out; there was no one there. Surely that was apparent…? But the dog was fixed on waiting. He didn’t respond to his name, he didn’t respond to tugs on his leash. It was Sunday night, and the store would be empty till mid-morning on Wednesday. Yet there he sat, oblivious to everything except his memory of lights and people with treats. So deep and alive was his expectation that I believe he might have waited sixty hours if not bodily removed at last. That’s what it looks like, I thought. But what was “it”–was it beautiful, amazing, miraculous faith, or was it something more like a foolish consistency? I can’t decide in part because I lived it, and I saw how it could be equally one or the other. Incidentally, it was my starter that needed replacing. It cost $235. Expensive, but well spent.

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HIE THEE HOMEWARD

Walking home just now, I overheard two couples talking. I’m a brisk walker and was overtaking them. One was saying to the others, “They were very tender tonight.” Par for the course with me, I assumed they were talking about people. Tender people–it was such a warming thought. It turns out they were talking about scallops.

The environmentalist in me would like to send you directly to The New Yorker, the March 8 issue, to read about the disaster that is the worldwide fishing industry, devastating ecosystems and traditional fishing communities both. That’s not to mention the state of the waters themselves, the plastic, the chemicals. However, this bit of writing is about therapy.

A client’s boyfriend was depressed and using substances. She was afraid he might be suicidal, and his reassurance wasn’t much comfort–only because of her, he wouldn’t hurt himself. She asked him to see a therapist, and his response was that he didn’t want to pay someone to listen to him.

I feel sympathy for that sentiment. To me it says less about my profession than it does about the widespread and entirely comprehensible hunger people have for real intimacy and support. I do think there are some misconceptions in that statement, though, as well. Good therapy is about much more than just being “listened to” in some timed and compensated way. Among other things, it’s an opportunity to know and speak our truths more clearly, to shape our preferred narratives.

Many people in our lives–good, bad, or indifferent–lack the skills or insight to meet our needs, or their own needs conflict with ours in ways that don’t result in satisfactory compromise. We can walk through the world in a state of confusion, our powers of reason working overtime to sort through the cognitive dissonance: If we really deserved consideration, we would get it, so working backwards, the fact that we don’t get it must mean we don’t deserve it.

Good therapy holds open a sacred space, yes, but the goal is for clients ultimately not to need it because they’ve reached a point of getting what they need within their personal spheres–with family, with partners, at work, among friends. It’s a transformation I’ve been privileged to witness many times. I don’t mean that last statement to ring of false humility or passive enabling of change; I take an active role in my work. But transformation is something greater, irreducible to input and output, “evidence-based practices” notwithstanding.

I’m not talking about “evidence-based practices,” however well-studied they may be, however nicely their results can be graphed. I’m talking about corrective experiences, the back-filling of holes, the healing of wounds. I’m talking about tenderness, joy, logic, laughter. Present-moment learning. To quote Ted Lasso–any excuse!–“I’m talking about practice.”

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Text and image copyrights held by me. In a world overabundant with content, you landed here and read this far. Thank you. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.