Two weeks ago I received an email from a reader. It was an upsetting email, partly because I couldn’t figure it out: Was she suggesting that I stop being who I am, or that I stop revealing who I am? Was she suggesting that I stop feeling the way I do, or that I stop writing about feeling the way I do? Was she suggesting that I was too hard on people – too unforgiving? I felt ashamed, and then defensive. I wanted to respond with something highfalutin, like: Listen, Lady, if you don’t want to join me in my search for the truth, then don’t. I wanted to quote philosophy: tell her that knowing thyself had been promoted by none other than Plato and Socrates. I shared her email with a few people. I gathered their responses in my head and then, in an enterprise that seemed unrelated, I started writing my next blog. It began like this:
It took the filling out of a survey for me to realize just how good Ronit was at her job. It was a funny way to arrive at this realization and to see how far I’d come since the bad old days when I was often furious with her, disappointed in her, and looking for any pretext under which to terminate. What happened was that an editing client of mine forwarded an email from a colleague of hers, directing people to the website: www.attachmentandhealth.com. There I found a survey entitled “What Is Your Experience Interacting with Health Care Providers?” The authors of the survey, Canadian psychiatrists Robert Maunder and Jonathan Hunter, are also the authors of a book entitled Love, Fear & Health: How Our Attachments to Others Shape Health and Health Care.
Then I went on to talk about the stance I generally took towards this kind of thing.
I logged onto the survey with my usual trepidation, and pretty quickly experienced that slightly uneasy – or misunderstood – sensation that I get whenever I’m asked to answer a question but given no forum to fully explain myself. Or, in this case, when the multiple choice responses on offer do not precisely match what I most wish to say. For instance, one question was, “In general, how often do you visit a dentist?” The chatter in my mind started its engines. By dentist do they mean only dentist? Or would dental hygienist also qualify? This distinction mattered a lot. In the first case, the answer would have been the unimpressive: “less than once a year.” In the second: the admirable “more than twice a year.” I ended up going with dental hygienist – not that anyone asked.
From there I proceeded to talk about what a stroke of luck it was that the survey included psychologist in its list of options for the health care provider “who matters to you more than others.” If not Ronit, who would I have chosen?
Some of the other options were: doctors, chiropractors, midwives, occupational therapists, pharmacists, opticians. Aside from my pharmacist – a cheerful and friendly American who always greets me by name and whose pharmacy I go out of my way to patronize – I don’t have relationships with my health care providers. My gynecologist might not even know she is my gynecologist – that’s how infrequently I see her – and a few months ago when I went for an appointment, she wasn’t there. It was a misunderstanding, but I didn’t bother rescheduling. Then there’s my family doctor who smiles at me when we pass each other on the street but probably doesn’t remember my name. In other words, the difference in quality and depth between my relationship with Ronit and my relationships with my other health care providers is almost laughable. I was not cheating, however, since the survey specifically requested that I focus on the one health care provider who mattered most to me. Could there be any doubt as to who that was?
Then I speculated on the correlation between my relationship with Ronit and my generally good physical health.
I understood the thesis of the survey, and of the survey’s authors, to be the connection between human relationships and health, and I wondered whether the strength of my relationship with Ronit was intimately connected with the fact that I was physically pretty healthy. I thought of the number of times my husband had told me about people who came to his cardiology clinic complaining of ailments for which no evidence could be found. These patients wanted tests, but even when they received them, and passed with flying colors, they still thought that what they most needed was more tests. In the first posting of this blog, I wrote about the stigma attached to psychotherapy, and it seems it is as much with us as it ever was. Apparently, it is more shameful to talk about what is in your heart than it is to think you’re having a heart attack.
Finally, I talked about how I had given Ronit top scores in all of the survey categories, and how I suddenly realized I had been too hard on her.
Who would have guessed I thought so highly of Ronit? Of course I had known for a long time that I was attached to her, but stepping out of my subjective self for a moment and seeing the facts there in black and white impressed me. I had not previously thought of her as a health care provider, to be judged by the same criteria as other health care providers. I had downplayed, or simply not thought of, the importance of her dependability, reliability, punctuality, professionalism. And, for whatever subjective/neurotic reason, I had at times convinced myself she didn’t care about me. Only when the stakes were higher – when it seemed important that I be as truthful as possible, when lying to myself or others served no purpose – could I come out and say she cared about me a lot.
It’s not that what I wrote in the original version of the blog was a lie. It’s just that my motives weren’t pure. I wrote it to prove that I wasn’t so hard on others – that I wasn’t as unforgiving as I appeared. But then, when I went back to reread the upsetting email, I saw that the writer of it had never said that I was. It was me I was too hard on: too self-hating, too self-sabotaging, too ready to share secrets and unflattering aspects of my personality that would have been better left unshared. For my own sake.
Speaking of secrets, would it be un-self-respecting of me to admit that my favorite part of completing the survey was that I got to spend more time with Ronit?