Shrinking from professional help


I RECEIVED a phone call the other day from a reader who suggested I was in urgent need of psychiatric counseling.

"Go on," I said.

"Go on with what?" she said.

"Tell me why I need psychiatric counseling."

She cited a recent column in which I'd expressed mixed feelings for people who film the birth of their children -- "mixed" in the sense that I think these people should be whacked over the head with a board and shaken violently by the lapels until they come to their senses.

"My husband and I filmed the birth of our daughter Jasmine, and it was beautiful!" this reader said.

Or maybe the kid's name was Jessica. Or Janice. I was too busy making faces at the phone to pay attention. Besides, you can't hear that well when you have both thumbs in your ears and you're wiggling your fingers and sticking out your tongue.

"You sound like a bitter, tormented man who needs professional help," the reader concluded.

Well, it all made sense to me. So as soon as I hung up, I started thumbing through the Yellow Pages for a shrink. There were certainly plenty of shrinks to choose from, almost as many shrinks as lawyers.

There were shrinks who specialized in phobias. There were shrinks who specialized in stress. There were shrinks who specialized in analysis, which basically involves tracing every problem back to when your mother left you alone in the car for a few minutes at the age of 2.

But there were no shrinks who specialized in counseling bitter, tormented writers -- especially those who stick their thumbs in their ears and wiggle their fingers at callers.

Finally I said to hell with it and went back to what I was doing, which was sticking pins in a tiny doll on which the words "Satan Lives!" were scrawled.

Actually, I have gone for professional counseling several times in life, the first time with a bartender named Ray some 20 years ago.

Ray was a wizened old fellow of around 65, an ex-Marine and a terrific listener. You could go to him with anything that was bothering you: money problems, women problems, job problems, etc.

He'd sit there puffing thoughtfully on a Winston and studying the Racing Form until you were through pouring out your troubles.

Then he'd say: "Aw, hell with it. Have another drink."

He was a great man, Ray was. And a very effective counselor. We had many sessions together, and after each one my problems didn't seem so large -- although my bar tab did.

True story: One of the locals came in the bar once and tearfully announced that he was going to hurl himself off a bridge. The guy was serious, too, serious enough to make Ray actually glance up from his Racing Form.

Apparently the guy's girlfriend had just dumped him for another guy, a rat-faced little punk called Jimmy J. who worked for a local bookie. (You can tell I hung out with a high class of people.)

"Aw, hell with it," Ray said to the rejected suitor. "Have a drink."

"Well, just one," the guy sobbed. "It'll steady my nerves for what I gotta do."

Anyway, each time the guy went to leave and air-mail himself off a bridge, Ray would say "Aw, hell with it" and pour him another drink.

About two hours later, the guy passed out cold. We took his car keys and let him sleep it off in a back room. When he awoke the next morning, he was quoted as saying his ex-girlfriend was a conniving little witch and a tramp to boot, and that he must have been crazy to think of killing himself over such a woman.

(As I recall, that incident prompted us to fire off a letter to the Vatican, recommending Ray for canonization -- or at least a letter of commendation from the Pope himself.)

In any event, that is a partial transcript of my history vis-a-vis counseling. And now the story comes full circle, for here is yet another reader suggesting (almost demanding, really) that I go for professional help.

Again, I see her point. But where to turn? Ray is gone; he put down his Racing Form for good about 10 years ago, stilling one of the great minds of modern-day psychotherapy. And these shrinks today cost too much money. A hundred and fifty bucks an hour? No, thanks.

I'll just go back to sticking pins in that doll.

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