I am fine with my therapist’s August vacation. I see him on a need-be basis.
Years ago, during weekly sessions, I told him his note-taking bothered me. He made a note of that.
“I feel like a case, not a person,” I said.
“You ARE a case.” He pointed to two piles of legal pads on the floor. “Those are my other cases.”
Among the therapists who have treated me, three had learned, at the very least, how to nod at shrink school, or from watching Bob Newhart nod as Dr. Hartley on “The Bob Newhart Show.”
One, who didn’t, nodded off. The other, a young woman at the counseling center where I teach, disappeared to the restroom once or twice a session after something I said. Only the ladies room was to the right. She’d turned left and return with a response. Upon seeing my book, “Writing from Personal Experience,” she asked to borrow it, and said the following week she lent it to her mother.
“Did you tell Mom I’m your patient?”
She excused herself. Upon returning she said, “Of course not.”
At 49, I left Younger-than-Springtime and her supervisor and resumed treatment with Mildred, my first therapist.
My father, admitted to a Florida hospital with pneumonia, did not resist my offer to fly down. A first.
“Pneumonia’s serious at his age. Make your travel plans, Nancy.” Mildred, still tender and tough and impeccably groomed, was shorter now and had a dowagers’ hump.
My mother, in a nursing home with a broken pelvis and longtime dementia, thought Dad had a cold. “You’ll deal with her after,” Mildred said.
Mildred saw me through my father’s funeral, grieving and moving my mother to her final nursing home where she died three years later.
At 29 and stuck on a magazine article, I consulted Mildred, whom I had known from a New School writing seminar. Her comments impressed me. About a psychiatrist in a classmate’s story, she said if he couldn’t handle psychotic patients in institutions, he should find another profession.
At our first session, I jumped into my mother’s mental illness during my childhood. When I later mentioned my discomfort as a hired wordsmith, Mildred said, “You can only be a Nancy kind of writer.” I resumed writing personal essays.
My desire for a child coupled with my fear of becoming my mother took more delving and time. When I gave birth, Mildred’s bouquet, arriving first, filled up my hospital room. “You’ll be a Nancy kind of mother,” she wrote on her card.
We worked on that and through my divorce. My first post-marital beau left when I rejected his proposal. “He’s getting the milk, Mildred.” She said, “He wants the cow.”
When she raised her fee, she recommended less-expensive Bernard, who insisted his patients partake in group therapy. In my individual sessions, I discussed hating group. And everything else. Bernard validated my rage, giving me tools for managing it, which I still use, but I hated paying a baby-sitter, so I could attend group, which I hated more.
I returned to Mildred until she retired. I then saw others who didn’t come close.
Katherine Sheppard Carrane recently published an essay about a memorable patient whose struggle illustrates the promise and limitations of therapy. (Chicago Tribune, John Keilman)
Three years ago, I consulted a therapist with a hyphenated last name and a hairstyle with pieces she twirled. I told her I only wanted a few sessions to discuss an issue around my mother’s death. She said she only saw patients once or twice a week on a long-term basis but agreed. Her 45-minute hours were wide open.
During session one, she seemed to listen. At the outset of session two, she shoved a two-page form at me, instructing me to write my contact information and that of two in-case-of-emergency folks.
She nodded. Of course, she nodded. “Is THAT a problem?”
After completing her “Do Not Stiff” form, I resumed discussing my mother’s funeral.
Moments later she asked, “Is your mother deceased?”
I wondered aloud if she was in another galaxy. The hyphenated therapist wondered louder what I meant.
Last year, I visited Mildred in the Alzheimer’s unit of the nursing home where she lived. I told her I remarried, had grandchildren and consider her among the most important people in my life. “You were so young, Nancy,” she said. “So were you,” I shot back. We hugged.
She died last month at 95.
The note-taker rarely takes notes nowadays. He says he knows me better. When he does write, I don’t care. He listens. He is good enough. Good, actually. Just not “a Mildred kind of therapist.”
Nancy Davidoff Kelton (www.nancykelton.com) is a writing instructor at The New School and the author of numerous essays and seven books, including the memoir "Finding Mr. Rightstein" (Passager Books, 2016), which she is adapting for the stage. Her email is email@example.com. She is offering a writing workshop at the Strand Bookstore in New York City Aug. 22.