When I was 14, I asked my father if I could talk to someone. I don’t remember if I used the word therapist, though I might have. My father wasn’t a therapist himself – his field was Jewish communal service – but during graduate school he had done course work in psychology and the bookshelves in our Cleveland home were lined with books such as Sigmund Freud’s The Question of Lay Analysis, Calvin S. Hall’s A Primer of Freudian Psychology, and Selma Fraiberg’s The Magic Years.
I told my father that I was troubled by the recent deaths of two of my grandparents, but the more pressing problem for me was that my eighth grade class was scheduled to go on a four-day trip to Washington D.C. and I did not want to go. I think I hoped that the therapist would get me out of it: that she would provide the metaphorical equivalent of a sick note. She didn’t. Instead, a long relationship between me and psychotherapy began.
I saw Miss Fiedler throughout high school; the occasional on-campus mental-health practitioner at Brandeis, then at Barnard, during my college years; a psychotherapist in midtown Manhattan in my early 20’s; and a psychoanalyst on Central Park West from ages 30 to 32, the two years leading up to my move to Israel in 1995. And then, for 17 years, I did without.
I never imagined I would be writing about my experiences in psychotherapy. As a 14-year-old I already knew there was something shameful about “talking to someone.” My appointments with Miss Fiedler were a secret; if a friend asked me why I couldn’t come over on a Monday or Thursday after school, I would make something up. An orthodontist appointment would do, but not twice a week every week. I was on occasion forced to lie. Even the diagnostic tests that I underwent to rule out an ulcer – a barium enema and upper G.I. series – would have been less embarrassing to admit to.
But why? I am not being entirely disingenuous when I say that now, as a 51-year-old adult, I don’t understand the stigma. A year and a half ago, as I was leaving the office of the intake person at Meuhedet, she asked me how I had gotten the name of the psychologist I had been referred to. After I told her she said, “But are you sure she said she could conduct therapy in English? Ronit is a native Israeli, you know. Her mother tongue is Hebrew. You’ve been in therapy before. You know how dependent it is on words.” Words. Exactly. Why should there be a stigma on a therapy that involves words? Why is talk therapy more shameful than yoga, meditation, tai chi, Pilates, reflexology, even jogging? All are therapies. All are designed to make us feel better, function better, look better: essentially, to bring about change. Do they?
I can recall my father’s skepticism even as he picked me up twice a week from Miss Fiedler’s office on his way home from work and paid her monthly bills. Either then or later he wondered aloud whether people, left to their own devices, might very well grow out of their difficulties naturally, on their own. If a person got better, was such progress attributable to therapy or to the simple passage of time?
Much time had passed between 1995 and 2012, but I had made little progress. Physically I inhabited the streets of Jerusalem, but in my mind I was still back in the States. I existed here, but I didn’t do much more than that. I lived for my annual trips to New York, to Cleveland. I didn’t feel attached to my adopted country or to the people who peopled it. I wasn’t working very hard to learn the language or the culture. I was here simply because I was married to someone who wanted to be here.
And then I met Ronit.