Therapy in the Holy City: Marshmallows

“The issues are different in Tel Aviv,” Ronit said.

We had been talking about confidentiality, about the care that she and the other therapists in her Jerusalem clinic took to protect their patients’ privacy: timing arrivals and departures in such a way as to minimize the chances of anyone running into anyone else. On the rare occasions when there was an overlap, I kept my eyes averted. Religious people showed up sometimes, men in long black coats who kissed the mezuzah on the clinic’s front door and whose communities likely frowned upon psychotherapy.

“In Tel Aviv,” Ronit said, “it’s all about the parking.” The guard in a nearby lot had told her he wouldn’t charge her patients a parking fee if they explained they were there to see their therapist.

We laughed. In Tel Aviv, free parking trumped confidentiality.

It was my second foray into Tel Aviv to see Ronit, and I liked it. That is, I liked the feeling of being there, in a city where there were lots of things you didn’t need to be secretive about, therapy being only one of them. I had the sense, walking down Arlozorov, and then down Bloch, which took me to Ibn Gavirol, and Kikar Rabin, that around here you could be anything you wanted to be — even religious if that was your thing! Not that I saw many black coats; mostly I saw spaghetti-strapped sundresses.

Ronit and I had both been on vacation and were reuniting after our break. I had been eager to see her but then, upon arriving, had felt my hopes dashed. What had I been hoping for? Mutuality, I suppose, and was disappointed by what felt to me like her neutrality, professionalism, distance.

“You seem bothered by something,” I said, midway into the session, after having decided that my opening gambit shouldn’t be a complaint about her distance. I was tired of myself; bored of being who I was. But inevitably my usual self came out; it couldn’t help it. “I was excited to see you but I had the feeling, as always, that the feeling wasn’t mutual.”

“You’re telling me I seem bothered,” she said, “but you are the one who is bothered.”

“So you’re saying that it’s not you, it’s me?” I said.

She shrugged. “What did I do to make you feel that the eagerness wasn’t mutual?”

I didn’t want to say. I didn’t want to criticize her for not smiling at me, for not seeming warmer in her facial expression or body language. Maybe that was just her manner. Not long ago she had said I was trying to “throw her out of her chair” — turn her into a literary critic when I asked her opinion of something I had written — rather than allowing her to stay in her professional role as a psychologist. I did not want to throw her out of her chair. I valued her chair.

Most of the session up until that point had been about my vacation, about the difficulty I’d sometimes had in expressing what I wanted: dinner at six when I was hungry, for instance, rather than at eight when I felt on the verge of fainting.

“Did you tell anyone you wanted to eat at six?”

I shrugged. I couldn’t remember. Hadn’t it been obvious? Was this just me expecting people to know what I wanted without telling them?

“Anyway,” I said, “we were six people. I was only one of six. Why should the majority go with the minority?”

“There are lots of options between six o’clock and eight o’clock,” Ronit said. “There’s six-thirty. There’s seven.”

“People like to eat late,” I said. “And also there’s always this feeling — maybe because of the religious thing — that it’s worthier to eat late. That a person should be able to wait.”

Ronit’s eyes widened. “The friends you were vacationing with were religious?” She seemed surprised. Then again, native-born secular Israelis had their own ideas about what it meant to be religious. They pictured long black coats.

“Not religious religious,” I said. “Just regular religious, like my husband. People who grew up saying blessings over their food before they ate it. People who fasted on fast days.”

I thought about the Stanford marshmallow experiment, the studies from the 1960s and 70s showing that children who were able to delay gratification and wait for their rewards tended to have better life outcomes. The Stanford marshmallow experiment had nothing on Orthodox Judaism.

Ronit looked lost in thought. “You started today’s session by asking me to confirm the time we would be finishing,” she said. “How did you feel about my offering you the option of a longer session today?”

Funny she should ask; I had about a billion feelings. I chose one.

“My initial reaction,” I said, “was to text you back and say, Oh no, that’s okay, I don’t need a longer session. But I waited a bit, and then I thought, Why deprive myself? Why not take you up on your offer? Given the commute, a longer session made sense.”

“So you delayed your response, and decided in favor of gratification,” Ronit said.

“I guess I’d already decided in favor of gratification,” I said. “You know, by texting you in the first place to see if I could come today instead of waiting for our usual Jerusalem appointment next week.”

Something occurred to me then. Guilt. Oedipal victor guilt. The friend of mine who had discontinued therapy with a note and a check to her therapist had written to me a few days earlier to let me know that, just as predicted, she had never heard back from him; she knew he’d received the check because it had been cashed. She said she was happy with the way things turned out and wasn’t complaining, but she wanted me to see how different her experience was from mine. And now I felt guilty, like the favored child, because instead of letting me terminate on the countless occasions I had tried to, or threatened to, Ronit had not just let me go like that, and today had even offered me a longer session. Maybe it was my guilt over some sort of perceived favored status that was making me accuse her of being distant.

Or maybe it was something else.

“You know,” Ronit said, “you’re very sensitive to nuance.”

And then she went on to explain to me that, in retrospect, perhaps she had been bothered when I walked in that morning — not by me but by something that had happened a few minutes before my arrival. A colleague of hers had called to say that she wouldn’t be in today and that if Ronit wanted to, she could use her office. It was an office that Ronit preferred, and one she used often: it was farther away from all the construction work going on in the building, and had more of Ronit’s belongings in it. But at that moment she found herself struggling with the question of whether it was okay to suggest yet another change to me: first the move from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, then the announcement that even this address would not be permanent, and now a within-office switch. I flashed back to my entrance that morning, how I had remembered from our previous meeting that I was to walk to the end of the hall and turn left. Perhaps at that moment Ronit had realized that the choice was no longer hers to make — perhaps she had considered taking her colleague up on her offer, but my swift and confident trek over to the original room had made that moot.

“Well, our time is up for today,” Ronit said.

The 75-minute meeting had flown by, hadn’t felt a minute over 50.

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.