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When she begins therapy for depression after breast cancer treatment, the author brings with her an extraordinarily open and critical mind, but also shyness about revealing herself. Resisting easy responses to issues of dependence, desire, and mortality, she warily commits to a male therapist who shares little of her cultural and intellectual world.
Although not without pain, their improvised relationship is as unexpectedly pleasurable as her writing is unconventional: Sedgwick combines dialogue, verse, and even her therapist's notes to explore her interior life—and delivers and delicate and tender account of how we arrive at love.
Apparently it's as a patient that I want to emerge. "Oh, I guess I'm supposed to call you my client, not my patient," Shannon said once, "but that's the way they taught us, back in graduate school—seems like too much trouble to Change."
Besides, I like "patient." It is true I can be very patient. And Shannon is like this too, so the word doesn't feel like placing me at a distance. Then, it seems a modest
word that makes no claim
to anything but—wanting
to be happier
and wanting, it's true, someone else to shoulder a lot of agency in the matter of my happiness.
* * *
The day after I left my message, the phone offered a friendly, masculine voice with some
hard midwestern sounds.
Eve Sedgwick? Shannon Van Wey.
Oh! Maybe I'm found?
* * *
And then in the waiting room, do I have a mental image of him at all? The handsome, lean, well-dressed therapists female and male in this large practice filter through the sunny room, greeting their patients, ushering them up or across ...
I look expectantly at each of the men.
And I'm trying now to remember it, the grotesque, reassuring shock of Shannon hovering down a few stairs into this view, mild and bristling with his soft gray nap,
barrel chest, long arms, short legs,
and wearing, I've no doubt, a beautifully ironed
short-sleeved cotton shirt
the color of an after-dinner
mint, tucked in
at his rotund waist. If it was as hot as Durham usually is in early September, he had a handkerchief too for mopping his forehead.
There would have been a substantial rumble of genial introduction. My tentative greeting maybe not quite audible in the middle of it. Was this ordinary for him—the first encounter in this familiar room with big, female, middle-aged bodies deprecated by the softness of our voices? Maybe in some manual it's the secret definition of "depression."
And yet (I told him, settled in his office upstairs), it's not so clear to me that "depressed" is the right word for what I am. Depressed is
what everyone says—
I'm weeping in a lot of
offices these days
(and I'm sure the tears slipped over my lids as I said it). But I think I know depression, I have my own history of it; and it felt, twenty years ago when I really was subject to it, so much less bearable than this does. So much.
"And yet, you're crying now."
* * *
In an expensively renovated old building, a space. A large, rugless square made almost cubic by its lofty ceiling. The low bookcases hold not overly many books; the low desk shows a modest, tractable paper mess; framed prints, in a few neat sheaves on the floor, look as if they could wait years more for hanging.
Under the tall windows there's a scattering of the meaningful chotchkas that I suppose people give their shrinks—many are made of glass. Big chairs flank a sofa bland with patches of pastel.
Space not only light with sun and canister lighting but, if there's an appreciative way to use the word, "lite," metaphysically lite. I'm wondering
whether it reflects
no personality, or
already is one.
* * *
On record, the triggering event was a breast cancer diagnosis eighteen months ago.
Shannon doesn't produce an empathetic face at this, or say "That must have been hard for you." He makes an economical nod.
"I kind of did beautifully with it. I bounced back from the mastectomy, and when it turned out that there was some lymph node involvement too, I tolerated six months of chemotherapy without too many side effects. You know, I hated it, and it completely wore me down, but ...
"The saving thing was that for me it wasn't all about dread. I know there are people whose deepest dread is to have cancer, to undergo surgery, to deal with the likelihood of dying." I shake my head many times.
Those are not my deepest dread. I dread
every bad thing
that threatens people I love;
for me, dread only
I may stop knowing
how to like and desire
the world around me.
"That's it, what you mean by real depression?"
In some ways the cancer diagnosis came at the best possible time. --The best time if feeling ready to die is a criterion. It was about two months after a book of mine had come out.
"What kind of books do you write?"
I tell Shannon I'm a literary critic; I work in gay and lesbian studies.
The book was Epistemology of the Closet, and the writing, the organization of it had came very hard to me for some reason. "So I was amazed at how satisfying its publication was. As an object, the book itself looked lovely—everyone said so. And for an academic book it got a lot of attention, a lot of praise.
"It was one of those happy times when you say to yourself, Okay, this is good, this is enough; I'm ready to go now. When the diagnosis came I was feeling—as an intellectual—loved, used, appreciated. I would have been very, very content to quit while I was ahead."
"Did it surprise you to be feeling that?"
To feel loved and appreciated—I've slowly grown used to that. And to feel the wish of not living! It's one of the oldest sensations I can remember.
* * *
"But you didn't get your wish."
"Oh, no, breast cancer doesn't usually work like that. I felt sick, but that was from the treatment, not the illness—if the cancer ever does get me, it probably won't be for years. And the chances of that are something like fifty-fifty."
Probably there's a smile on Shannon's face after I produce this. Certainly not because he wants me sick, and not either because he's glad I could be well. It's because, momentarily, he identifies with the mechanical elegance of the trap this disease has constructed for an anxious and ambivalent psyche. Fifty-fifty, I think he's thinking: perfect for turning this particular person inside out.
Sometime in these early sessions, Shannon says about why he became a therapist: "I've always been fascinated by machines. When I was a kid, I'd take them apart and put them back together just to make sure I knew how they worked. It's still a lot of the reason I like my job."
First encounter: my
therapist's gift for guyish
* * *
I'm forty-two, and what is it I bring to this meeting in the way of expectations? My history as a patient is like my history as a smoker: I tried it a lot of times years ago, but never learned to inhale. All that depression in my teens and twenties means that over the years I've started a lot of therapy. Especially in the hardest years, in graduate school, there were several attempts to get shrunk, one lasting an entire six months. They all ran aground in the same way. I'd go to these women (women, of course: I was a woman, and who else could understand
if not another
woman?) bursting out of my
eyesockets with pain
and within three or four sessions at most, a particular impasse would have gotten wedged so firmly between us we could neither of us move.
Shannon is interrogative.
"I can't remember well," I say, "and in fact I don't want to, but it always involved the charge of `intellectualizing.' A typical thing would be for me to say something like, `I'm not angry, I'm just confused about this-or-that theoretical aspect of the situation,' and for her to respond, `Then why are both of your hands balled up in fists?' And of course they would be. Can I remember how that makes an impasse? ..."
... Well, I'm sure it's true that I'm not what anyone would call in touch with my feelings. "And in these hideously stylized scenes the woman would demand that I stop thinking and start telling her my feelings instead. Now as far as I can tell, I don't even have what are normally called feelings! I was being as honest as I could. There was no way to respond to the demand—I hated it—I just felt battered. After a lot of that, it would be only a matter of time till the depression let up ever so little, and I'd realize the therapy hour felt even more punishing than the rest of the week.
"So I'd finally get decisive and quit therapy. And it would always end with the same scene: a woman, suddenly riveted by my severity, wondering to me, `Why couldn't you have been this way all along?'"
"And do you think you were intellectualizing?"
"Oh, I don't know! It was a long time ago, I was in very brittle shape, and I really might have been. But will you think I'm crazy if I say, I don't think I do it very much now?"
"No. It's funny, I don't think so either. I've been listening for it too, and—well, intellectualizing is a real specific kind of defense, it has its own sound to it. Not this sound, so far."
I may even know a little about where it's gone.
I'm thinking, there were some things that happened in the past few years that I had no defenses at all to deal with. It was like the Maginot Line: I marshaled the formidable, practiced resources of the decades-long war of attrition I'd fought with my depressiveness—and they were completely irrelevant. Instantly shattered to bits.
So I think I may have made a near-conscious decision a year ago, after the chemo was over, when my hair was growing back. If I can fit the pieces of this self back together at all, I don't want them to be the way they were. Not because I thought I could be better defended, either: what I wanted was to be realer. What I fear now is
to have long to thirst
anymore in the stony
desert of that self
threatening to recompose itself in the same way in the same dazed and laborious place.
Shannon's interested in this. "You're not telling me to just make the pain go away, are you?" he mildly notes. "And I don't think you're telling me a story about cancer and the trauma of mortality, either."
He's heard that correctly; I'm smiling when I shake my head.
* * *
I've brought my list of demands. No echoing and mirroring please. If I announce,
I find no peace, and all my war is done,
I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like ice,
I don't want him to respond as all my grad school shrinks used to, I think I'm hearing some ambivalence in what you say.
He nods. But, "Did I just do that to you?"
"Hm, I thought you were asking something substantive, not just paraphrasing me for my own benefit. Asking is great, I like it—but when someone paraphrases in that routine way, I feel as though my own words are being set aside, disrespected."
"It's true, I was asking. Okay. I'll have to think a little more about it, but I expect I can probably agree to that one."
"Then, there's something about pleasure that might be important. I don't know how to say it properly: I've gotten hold of an intuition that if things can change for me, it won't be through a very grim process. It won't happen as I always used to imagine in the old days, by delivering myself up for good at the door of the Law. I used to take one deep masochistic breath, and determine I was ready to surrender to the disciplinary machine—in enough pain to have to do it—but then of course I didn't know how to, and couldn't sustain my resolve anyway; and nothing about the therapy would work. Now it seems that if anything can bring me through to real change, it may be only some kind of pleasure. Does this make any sense to you?"
"Oh, yeah, it makes plenty of sense. Let me think about how it feels to me to be doing this ... No, grim truly isn't the feeling. At least it's never very grim for very long. I have to tell you it's often painful—"
My slightly secret smile. "I tolerate pain OK."
"But pleasure, yes, a fair amount of pleasure is what keeps me at it, too. Different kinds of. The people I take on as patients are people I anticipate liking and having some fun with. I could with you, I'm pretty sure. We'd invent our ways."
"Good. Then—well, I need you to be my age or older."
"Where does that come from?"
"I don't know, but something tells me I can't face learning after months of therapy that you're, like, thirty-two."
"No. I'm forty-eight. I think I can promise always to remain older than you."
"Also—these next ones are far more important—I've been a feminist for as long as I've known what the word means, and I need for my therapist to be one. I don't have a laundry list or a litmus test to define it, but I'm assuming you probably know if you are."
This gets two, near-expressionless nods.
"And—I guess I'm not asking you about your sexual orientation, but queer stuff is so central in my life. Even aside from my own sexuality, it's at the heart of just about everything I do and love as an adult. Also if the world is divided—and it seems to be, doesn't it?—between people who are inside the experience of the AIDS epidemic and people who are outside it, then I seem to be way inside.
"So probably if I'm going to relax with you at all, I need to start out knowing—as much as it's possible to know—that you aren't phobic about all that. Actually, that you feel very fine and at home about it."
* * *
"I guess I'm not asking you about your sexual orientation," I said— and he nodded soberly. I don't know what I'm supposed to assume about this. The very emphatic recommendation of Shannon came from another shrink, one who knew me pretty well. And experience shows that I'm one of those people who when others say to me,
"I'm just sure you'd get
along marvelously with
X"—then X is gay.
But Shannon isn't immediately legible in this way. It's true, gratefully his hand is un-wedding-ringed, his desk undecked with any wife and kids. But couldn't that be from reticence or delicacy?
Still, if delicacy, that would itself please and suit me.
He doesn't look delicate. Or gay.
He looks more like a guy. Someone who's never viewed his body, or had or wanted it viewed, much as an object of desire. Someone also for whom, maybe—unlike me or most anyone I love—his entitlement to exist, the OK-ness of being who and as he is, has never seemed very seriously questionable.
It worries me: how could someone like that have learned to think or feel? Seemingly he's not even Jewish. I already know the demographics of people in the mental health field are even more mixed than their assumptions and training; I can't encounter only Viennese refugees, don't even want to. Still,
this nasal-voiced, corn-fed
Dutchman from the heartlands:
has he any soul?
And he's saying, "I don't want to say, `Some of my best friends are ..."
Then an ungirdled, self-satisfied laugh. Says he works a lot with lesbian and gay clients; also gives time to the Lesbian and Gay Health Project over on Ninth Street.
He adds, "But there's honestly no one template I want to get people to fit into. I'm certainly not in this profession because I want to turn out insurance salesmen." He produces the formulation confidently, as though he's said it with great success to a thousand previous patients. And there's an additional, habituated-sounding laugh that goes with its articulation.
"Or at least," he amends, "that's what I always used to say to people. Then one day I found myself saying it to a perfectly nice man who sold insurance. Maybe, really, that's fine too?" A chuckle.
* * *
It's a good thing Shannon is not trying to recruit me for Aetna or Allstate, because he'd have his work cut out for him.
At least, it's news to me if they're keen on hiring trousered, crewcut, 250-pound, shy middle-aged women writers, whether depressed or not, to promote financial instruments to American homeowners.
Moving toward the door of his office, we make a tentative appointment for the next week and agree that I'll call him if I decide I want to keep it. I say I expect I will—but of the four therapists I've arranged to "interview," there's one more I haven't seen, and it wouldn't do to prejudge. The fourth one's a psychiatrist; a possible advantage is that she could prescribe the antidepressants I'm also thinking of starting. All this makes sense to Shannon, and in mutual friendliness and uncertainty we part.
But oh my. Even stepping down to the waiting room, I think I feel it already, the uneven double pressure that will whirlpool around this decision.
From one direction come words, my scornful private words, the ones I never say, among the worst I know. Fatuous is one. Complacent another. Stupid is the overarching theme. "How dumb would someone have to be ..." thrusts suddenly into my head— how dumb, specifically, to see me as someone likely to be charmed or reassured in this way?
Is Shannon stupid? In the abstract, I've wrapped my mind around the unlikeliness of connecting with a shrink who's brilliant or even an intellectual. I can even doubt that I'd choose to deal with one. But that's in the abstract; in the real world, stupidity isn't a lack but an aggressively positive, entitled presence, and to chafe my own mind and psyche raw against it would be cruel medicine.
These fiercely devaluing phrases:
a storm driving hailseeds
and mica flakes of snow
against the deep hill.
* * *
For from the other side there come no words.
Does the defense rest?
Yes, there could have been words in thoughtful Shannon's favor: the quiet elegance of some of his answers, kindness of them all, attractive queer avoirdupois, the very evident readiness not only to respect but enjoy an idiom not his own. But what I find instead is only, wordlessly, this: a fact of life in its staggering specific gravity
present to me, like
earth, less as a new need than
a new element.
If my heart held an image then, perhaps it came from the Scientific American of my early teens. Do I remember or imagine it? An article about Harry Harlow's baby monkey studies, we'll say. Painfully flashbulbed black-and-white photos, plus drawings in the gently stippled, tactile style of the magazine, show hairy infants cowering in avoidance of their wire experimental "mother," rigged though she is to yield milk if only they'd give her spiky frame a nuzzle. They won't. Where they cling instead is to the milkless, white puffy breast of her sister, also wire, but padded with cathectible terrycloth that dimples with their embrace ...
Who would dare try to break back from the terrycloth bosom, one by one, those scrawny, holding, ravenous, loving toes?
Then let the same fearless person try to come between me and my appointment next week with the peony sunlight of this office, airy rondure into whose
yielding lap I seem
already to have leapt for
good. The oddest thing!
* * *
When I called to say yes
... can I even swear
he didn't say, "Oh goody"?
Hold the date—I'm there.