Therapy in the Holy City: Sabra

It’s probably a natural tendency in the midst of any troubling relationship to look back to the beginning for warning signs.  In the case of Ronit and me, I sometimes remembered the slightly impatient tone I thought I heard in her voice the first time we spoke on the phone.  Another potential clue announced itself the day after that, as I was leaving the Meuhedet office after my insurance clearance and the intake worker said to me:  “If things don’t work out, come back and I’ll give you another referral.  Ronit is good . . .”

She left the sentence unfinished, but in its dangling unfinished-ness I thought I heard a “but,” and often, when Ronit and I clashed, I remembered it.  What had she been about to say?  Ronit is good but she’s tough?  Ronit is good but she’s difficult? Maybe she hadn’t been about to say anything.  Maybe I’d been primed by my initial sense of Ronit’s impatience to hear a “but” when there hadn’t been one.  And maybe if there had been one, it said more about the intake worker than about Ronit; for instance, professional jealousy may have come into play.  At the end of the interview she had said to me, “How did you get Ronit’s name anyway?” as if people were daily coming in there making requests for her, depriving all the other Meuhedet therapists of business.

The one thing I did know was that I seemed to be spending a lot of time suffering.  Was I supposed to?  Was therapy meant to be painful?  Had I suffered in previous therapeutic relationships?  I had, of course, to some degree – the process is meant to bring about change, and change is painful – but I didn’t remember going through anything like this.  It occurred to me, when later teasing out my motivations for going to the Self Psychology conference, that perhaps that’s what I’d been doing:  looking for a new therapist, or a new kind of therapist. The cornerstone of Self Psychology was empathy, and given the often confrontational nature of my relationship with Ronit, empathy was beginning to appeal.  Dr. Andrea Harms, the Director of the Vienna Circle of Psychoanalysis and Self Psychology, ended her talk at one of the plenary sessions with this benediction:  “I extend my wish to all of us:  May life offer each of us now and then, here and there a loving person, who will sit with us.”  A loving person.  Was Ronit a loving person? Though fundamentally I believed that she cared about me, she also gave me a hard time, in ways I couldn’t imagine doing to her or anyone else.  In general I chalked this up to the cultural differences between us.  While I was the prototypical conflict-avoidant Midwesterner, she was more like the famous sabra fruit I’d learned about as a child in Hebrew school: prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside.  Israelis might run you over, I’d been told, but you can be sure they’ll scrape you up off the ground and carry you to the hospital themselves. That sounded about right.  First Ronit ran me over; then she rushed me in for emergency treatment.

But maybe it wasn’t her Israeliness.  Maybe it was her technique. Maybe, in fact, there was a method to her madness.  At the conference (not a total wash, after all!), I became friendly with a Canadian therapist who later introduced me to the philosophy of a French philosopher named Paul Ricouer, who had coined the term “hermeneutic of suspicion.”  As Ricouer saw it, Freud put the emphasis on what the psychoanalytic patient was hiding or didn’t want to see, leading him or her to become even more resistant and more defensive and to go into even deeper hiding.  Yes!  This was exactly how it was!  I often found myself not wanting to reveal something to Ronit for fear that her response would make me feel blamed or accused: that it would make me feel worse than I already felt.

One time, I spent an entire weekend torturing myself for not having understood what she wanted from me when she ushered me out after the previous session.  What she had wanted – I later realized – was for me to step off to the side and allow a colleague’s patient to enter the suite of offices in a way that would insure both of our confidentiality.  But at the time I didn’t know this: I only knew that I wanted to hightail it out of there, as I always did at the end of a session.  Well, so much for confidentiality.  For an excruciating twenty seconds all four of us negotiated our way around each other in the entranceway, two therapists and two patients, one of us trying to get in the door and one of us trying to get out.  When I came in for my next hour I told Ronit she owed me an apology, for making me carry around feelings of foolishness all weekend, for making me feel I’d disappointed her.  The whole mix-up, I said, owed itself to her faulty office arrangement, to her lack of a waiting area, to the fact that there was no room for error if a patient arrived a little early or a little late.  But instead of apologizing or telling me I was right, she said, “You didn’t hear the bell ring?”

What????  What was she saying?  That I had known there was someone standing outside the door? That I had purposely collided with her?  But I didn’t!  I hadn’t!  I hadn’t paid any attention to the bell!  I hadn’t thought about what it meant!  It hadn’t been my job to think about it!

And there it was:  the defensiveness that rose up to meet the hermeneutic of suspicion.  I even began to think that the ferocity of my attachment to Ronit had something to do with my almost constant need to explain myself to her, to “set the record straight,” to vent my anger at having been misunderstood or falsely accused.  Ronit was good:  we had done good work together, and my life was fuller and more productive than it had been when we first started.  But . . .

Was I really going to change therapists, after all the time and money I’d invested in this one?  Did I even need to be in therapy anymore, given that my therapy seemed mostly to be about my therapy?  I took out the list of Self Psychologists I’d received at the conference and thumbed through it.  I jotted some Jerusalem names down.  And that was all I did, for the time being.

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.