Therapy in the Holy City: flextime

“Whenever my husband switches call with a colleague at the hospital, something goes wrong. Some disaster, some patient crashing, an overflowing ER. Something that makes him swear he’ll never do it again.”

I wasn’t actually talking about my husband or about the bad luck he had when he agreed to change his on-call schedule to accommodate another doctor. I was talking about me, and the scheduling changes I had agreed to make at Ronit’s request. Let’s see: there was the later time slot on the day we resumed meeting after the long Passover break (to enable her return from an overseas trip) and the earlier time slot on Yom Hazikaron (to enable her attendance at a memorial service). Then there was the last-minute phone call to say she’d be late on a morning when WAZE gave her inaccurate traffic information.

Now, sitting there at a time that was not my regularly appointed hour, I registered all the things I didn’t like about it: arriving at the door at the same time another therapist’s patient was arriving, hearing the sound of that person’s voice from the adjacent room, having to adjust my watch-monitoring-self to the difference in our hour’s end (we usually started at X:45 and ended at Y:35, but today we had started at X:30, which meant ending at Y:20).  It was unnerving, confusing; all of it.

“It’s sort of like people switching flights,” I said. “It’s always best to stick with the original plan. I wonder if there were people on that Germanwings flight who were supposed to have flown the day before and then made a change at the last minute.  They paid with their lives.”

Ronit shrugged.  “There are all sorts of superstitions people can build up for themselves to explain why things happen,” she said.

“I’m just saying I like it better when we meet at the usual time.  I feel distracted by those voices coming from the other office.  And by the construction going on in the apartment next door.”

It wasn’t Ronit’s fault that in the unit next to hers they were doing renovations.  It also hadn’t been her fault when, many months before, another patient of hers had rung the doorbell in the middle of our session.  But when it happened again the following week, I asked her if she thought this was going to become a permanent feature of our hour and if so, could she give me a different one.

“I don’t like it either,” she said to me, “and I’m working on it. But, you know, there are always going to be outside disturbances.  That’s just life.”

Ultimately, reflecting back on this exchange, I laughed at myself.  I thought of Alvy in Annie Hall, telling his wife that he was really sorry but he couldn’t bring the entire borough of Manhattan to a halt just so that she could have an orgasm.  “Jesus, last night it was some guy honking his car horn.  I mean, the city can’t close down. You know, whatta yuh gonna do, have ’em shut down the airport, too? No more flights so we can have sex?”

I was definitely becoming more flexible, but incrementally.  On the day Ronit called from her car to say she might be late, I didn’t flip out; on the other hand, could I help noticing at the end of the session that she hadn’t compensated me?  It was sometimes hard to know when to be flexible and when to demand the three or four minutes you were owed, even if you didn’t particularly want or need them.

I wondered how flexible Ronit was.   For a boundary-observant therapist, she had already exhibited some ability to go with the flow, including by allowing me to know why she had requested the recent scheduling changes.  But what would she be like with the getting-ever-closer move of her Jerusalem practice to Tel Aviv?

“I wonder if you’re going to be the way my analyst in New York was,” I said to her.  Then I told her about an incident from twenty years ago in which I had given Dr. R an insurance form to fill out.  Along with it, I had given her a fully-addressed stamped envelope so that she could slip the completed form into a nearby mailbox.  But at the next session, she handed it all back to me.  “Oh, I would never send it to your insurance company,” she had explained to my stunned self.  “That relationship is between you and them, not between me and them.”

Along those lines, would Ronit refuse to tell me how to get to her Tel Aviv office?  Which buses to hop on?  How long the commute generally took?  Would she on principle withhold this information in order to convey to me that I was an adult, and that the way in which I arrived at her Tel Aviv office was my business, my responsibility, and not hers?

At first Ronit didn’t understand my question; she thought I was asking her about insurance forms.  Then, when I explained that I was merely thinking metaphorically, and that what I really wanted to know was whether she was going to help me swim or let me sink, she said, “Of course I’ll tell you how to get there.  I tell everyone.”

I was glad to hear it.  But of course glad wasn’t the only thing I felt.  There was something else, and it had to do with the word “everyone.”  It was the same something else that discomfited me about the sound, however muted, of the intimate conversation taking place between the other therapist and patient in the adjacent room.  Everyone.  Everyone was doing it.  There was nothing particularly special or unique about my relationship with Ronit; many people had the same relationship, if not with her, then with another therapist.

Free-associating, I brought up another conversation I’d once had with Dr. R.  The years I had been in analysis with her, in the early 1990s, were the years I’d been mothering two very young children, and at times I’d felt overwhelmed and defeated.  One day I came in and said, “Everyone has children.  So what’s so special about it?  What’s so special about mine?”  I suppose I’d been detailing the kind of 24/7 caretaking that enveloped the life of a mother of a one- and three-year old, the tediousness of it, and contrasting it with what I fantasized would be the life of a career woman, or of a full-time artist or writer.  Or even of an employee who had the luxury of punching a time card – signifying an official start and end to the work day – or of all those collegial office workers who got to avail themselves of dress-down Friday or flextime.  But after a beat, Dr. R had responded, “They’re yours.”

Oh.  Hmm.  Really?  They’re yours?  That was it?  That was what was supposed to make the whole enterprise feel special? Two such tiny words that on the face of them didn’t seem like much.  But after I gave them enough time to sink in, they began to make the difference.  They gave me permission to be a cliché: to take pleasure in my children, to see them as special, simply by virtue of the fact that they were mine.

“So maybe it’s the same here?” I said tentatively to Ronit.  “There are lots of patient/therapist couples out there, but this is the only one with you and me.  Maybe I’m special to you simply because I’m yours.  Maybe this is special simply because it’s ours.”

Ronit nodded.  The little girl in me beamed.

About the Author
Eve Horowitz is a freelance editor and writer living in Jerusalem. Her novel Plain Jane was published by Random House, New York, in 1992.