Therapy in the Holy City: Semantics

I had just finished reading James Lasdun’s memoir, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, when I understood that the first address printed at the top of Ronit’s receipt was a home address. At first I couldn’t believe it; an American therapist would never release that kind of personal information, and with good reason!  Didn’t Ronit know that the people who availed themselves of her services weren’t necessarily the most stable people in the world?  It occurred to me that maybe because Israel was such a young and small country, even one’s patients were considered family:  eccentric perhaps, but harmless.  Israel hadn’t yet produced a Columbine, a Virginia Tech, a Sandy Hook, and so maybe therapists here felt they could afford a kind of informality.  Nevertheless, I knew where Ronit lived, and I wished I didn’t.  Now I had to avoid going anywhere near her apartment complex – a complex I realized I had been in before – because I didn’t want her to think I was like the woman in the Lasdun memoir.

One day in July I came in for my appointment and said, “My life is actually fine.  I’m so lucky in so many ways.”

Ronit nodded.  “Yes,” she said, “you are.”

“Frankly,” I said, “the only thing that isn’t fine is you!  And the insanity of it is, I created you.  I created my problem.”

“Okay,” Ronit said, undaunted.  “Why did you create it?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but now I’d like to destroy it,” and I chuckled softly, though Ronit didn’t.  My comment jibed well with previous comments she had made about my aggressive wishes towards her – wishes I swore I didn’t have.  For instance:  her apartment complex.  I happened to know from the times I’d been there, in my pre-Ronit era, that it was full of steps – inside the buildings, outside the buildings – and sometimes I worried she would fall down a flight of them.  Why? she wanted to know.  Why was I so preoccupied with the idea of her falling down a flight of steps?

“I just don’t want you to get hurt,” I said.

She looked skeptical.  She thought I wanted her to fall down those steps.  She thought I so hated being dependent on someone that I would prefer for that someone to just disappear.

It was true that I did not like being dependent, and that the time I’d called her to announce I was quitting therapy was not the only time I’d tried ending our relationship.  I couldn’t even keep track anymore of the number of letters I had written to her, explaining why I wasn’t coming back:  some of them remained in a draft file, others I had actually sent.  If I cut off the relationship, I reasoned, I’d cut off the need.  She obviously disagreed, and gracefully enabled my return each time in a way that did not require me to lose face. I had been half afraid that after what I did to her on that second Tuesday – when I didn’t show up, didn’t call, hoped my absence would speak louder than my presence – she would finally say, Okay, I’m done with you, I’ve had it, you’re fired.  But instead she called me the next day and said, “I guess it was too difficult for you to come in yesterday after what I did last week.  Let’s talk about it on Thursday.”

We were still recovering from what she now referred to as Terrible Tuesday.  Apparently it hadn’t only been terrible for me.  In fact, she spoke about it in a way that seemed to indicate she had never before forgotten an appointment, and I realized I now had the dubious honor of being the first patient in her long and illustrious career to put so much emotional pressure on her that she simply crumbled under the weight of it.

“In that book I read a few months ago,” I said to her, “you know the one I told you about, The Examined Life, he tells all these wonderful stories about patients he’s seen over the years.  They’re fascinating, but not a single one of them seems to have the same problem I do.  They haven’t turned their therapist into the center of their life.  They don’t go around thinking, And then she said and then I said and then she said and then I said and then she said and then I said.  It’s driving me crazy.  I’ve become this . . . this . . . this perseverator.”

Ronit thought about that.  “You know,” she said, “perseverating doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  It’s what a small child does when she’s first learning how to trust – how to trust that her mother will be there at the end of the day when she said she would be.”

“But do you understand how maddening it is?” I said.  “I feel as if instead of curing me, you’re making me sick!  I need some kind of OCD pill, just to stop this endless loop.  Our conversations play over and over again in my head, and when I wake up in the middle of the night, there they are, the tape still running. Being in psychotherapy is causing me to need psychotropics.  Does that sound right to you?”

Ronit didn’t immediately respond, which led me to believe that it didn’t ipso facto sound wrong to her.  Then she said, “So the conversations are conversations we’ve actually had?  You’re just repeating them?”

I thought about it; I realized that this wasn’t exactly the case, or at least not only.  “Sometimes I’m repeating them.  Other times I’m altering them, saying what I wish I had said to you but didn’t.  Other times I’m arguing with you.  Clarifying something that I think you’ve misunderstood.”

One such misunderstanding happened right then, and revolved around the word “few.”  On Terrible Tuesday, in early May, she had told me she’d be moving in a few months.  Therefore, now that it was July, I could no longer keep the question to myself; in fact I took a certain amount of pride in how long I’d managed to hold out until now.  I looked down at the floor in the middle of the session and said, “So?  Have you moved?”

Ronit seemed slightly annoyed, maybe even angry.  “I already told you,” she said.  “In a few months.”

“I know,” I said.  “But it’s been a few months.”

She wasn’t about to argue semantics with me. “I’ll be moving sometime in November,” she said, with an air of finality.

November?  That wasn’t “a few.”  From May to November was six months, and “few” was around two.  It was the English.  It was the English/Hebrew problem, which sometimes led us to have misunderstandings and occasionally made me feel I should have chosen a therapist with mother-tongue English.

She had no right to be angry with me for my question.  In fact, her anger made me angry.  It made me want to quit – for a change.

“But why?” she said.

“Because anger,” I said, “feels . . . like. . . the end of the world.”

Ronit smiled sympathetically.

“Your father’s anger felt like the end of the world to you when you were a child,” she said.  “But as you pointed out at the beginning of today’s hour, you’re lucky.  You’re not a child anymore.”

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.