Read an Excerpt
“Are you still in love with Lorenzo?” I ask.
Dina’s kohl-lined eyes are rimmed with tears as she con- templates her answer. With dozens of sessions under our belts over the past month, we’ve come so far. She’s finally let down her guard and lately her insights have been coming rapid-fire. I’m so proud of her progress and I’m confident Wendy Wins- berg will be thrilled with this episode. This is the exact kind of positive change we want I Need a Push to manifest.
And if highlighting positive change wins us a Daytime
All the better.
Dina unfastens the white plastic claw-clip holding back torrents of black hair and rakes inch-long French-manicured tips through her mane. Somewhere, underneath the spandex leggings, the bronzer, and all the bravado, lives a wounded little girl . . . with a serious penchant for leopard print.
But my job is not to judge.
Although as I’m an expert in human behavior, I’d be par- ticularly adept at doing so.
Take Dina, for example. Here she is, a bright, attractive— albeit somewhat flashy—girl with her entire future ahead of her. Maybe she won’t become secretary of state with her lib- eral arts degree from Rutgers, but still. Her life is rife with possibility. (Again, save for cabinet-level work.) But surely there are accounts she can manage, minor projects she can spearhead, cell phones she can market, or memos she can draft to other entry-level managers. I fail to understand why she’s willing to jeopardize her potential for some oily Pauly D wannabe club DJ/bouncer. Push intervened at the insistence of both her parents and the family court judge. If she can’t curb her behavior and ends up saddled with a restraining or- der, she may as well buy some clear heels and prepare for her debut on the main stage.
I take in her artfully shredded racer-back tank and visible bra and realize it’s possible she already owns stripper shoes.
“I am, but I’m trying so hard not to be. Oh, Dr. Reagan, it’s like, whenever I think about him I feel so frigging . . .” She scans the horizon, where a few brave boaters are navigating the sun-dappled water, taking their first sail of the season.
In therapy, deliberate silences are as important as actual conversation. I nod encouragingly as she chooses her words. Sometimes when they take too long to find the words, I use the opportunity to jot down my shopping list.
What? It’s called “time management” and that’s why I’m a pro.
Dina and I are discussing her abandonment issues while we stroll the path by Lake Michigan. With blue skies and balmy breezes, summer’s come particularly early to Chicago, so Craig, our nebbishy director, wanted to provide a more visually stimulating backdrop than the studio. Mind you, the presence of two cameramen, a couple of sound and lighting guys, Craig, a hair and makeup stylist, and one hapless pro- duction assistant who keeps spilling my tea isn’t exactly con- ducive to unfettered communication at first, but after a while, even the most self-conscious forget we’re rolling.
Earlier, I noticed a couple of college girls wearing bikini tops paired with their shorty-shorts as our broadcast team made our way past Oak Street Beach. Our secondary camera- man noticed the coeds, too. After enough time passed that his filming the nubile sorority girls morphed from “collecting B-roll” to “peeping Tom,” I had to remind him that I Need a Push is not about titillation, okay?
Again, unless titillation wins us an Emmy; I can’t stress that enough.
Although, technically, I imagine Wendy would be the one who kept the Emmy, but surely I’d have a chance to pose for photographs with it, as I would have done the lion’s share of earning it. Without me, and to a lesser extent Dr. Karen, there is no show. What separates us from makeover programs like What Not to Wear is the psychotherapeutic element. At least once an episode, I will bring viewers to tears with my innate understanding and ability to facilitate change. Bank on that.
Regardless, after filming for three hours today, we may end up with two minutes of usable footage, so I don’t come down too hard on the second cameraman for his lascivious- ness. Everything’s digital, so he’s not exactly wasting tape.
Currently, we’re heading down the path to where the vol- leyball nets have been set up on North Avenue Beach. I’ve spent a lot of time in this spot over the years, so I’m familiar with many of the league players here. The idea was mine to come this way; I figured if it’s imperative we have eye candy on-screen, we may as well include some cute guys in the shots as well. Worked in the movie Top Gun, yes?
(Related note: What exactly happened to Val Kilmer? He used to be Channing Tatum levels of attractive. From Batman to fat man he went. Mark my words: He’s an emotional eater.) Of course, my focus ought to be on Dina, so I circle around and stand in front of her. I maintain intense face-to-face con- tact so she understands that I’m really hearing her.
Also, my left side is more photogenic. Ask anyone.
“Dina, I understand you want to be strong, yet I’m hear- ing there’s more. What aren’t you telling me? When you say
‘I’m so frigging . . .’ and then trail off, I’m sensing something unsaid.”
Spill it, Jersey. I need my aha moment.
She bows her head in shame. “I . . . Dr. Reagan, I went to his frigging Facebook page.”
Damn it, I thought we were past this behavior. I can’t let her witness my aggravation, because this is not about me. In- stead I calmly ask, “Dina, what did I tell you about Facebook?”
(Seriously? Sometimes I’m overwhelmed at my level of competency.)
She sighs and bats her false eyelashes as she repeats my sage advice. “Facebook is the devil’s playground.”
“And what do I mean by that?”
“You mean that I’m never going to get over him if I keep spying on his activities.”
“Consider this: A scab can’t heal if one keeps picking at it and reinjuring the wound.” I place a hand on my hip and cheat my face toward the camera, as there’s nothing inherently unethical about capturing my best angle while doling out life-altering advice. “I have to be firm here, starting with the advice I’ve given you. Are those the exact words I chose? To ‘not spy on his activities’?”
She shrugs her delicate shoulders. “Basically.” “Dina, tell me what I say.”
Sotto voce she says, “Don’t stalk your ex.”
Boom. There we go. That’s the moment we’ll use in the show’s promo. The whole crew smiles and the secondary cam- eraman tries to hide his smirk, but I ignore them, this being a therapeutic milieu and all.
“Thank you. Sounds like a brief refresher course is in or- der, so let’s discuss Dr. Reagan’s Rules again.” At some point I’d like to write a book, possibly called Dr. Reagan’s Rules, so it doesn’t hurt to start branding early and often.
Dina stops walking and slouches onto one of the hard wooden benches across from the volleyball nets. Craig mo- tions for her to face me so she catches the light and then he films us from the back side in order to frame the players in the distance. She fiddles with a neon zebra-stripe bra strap (oh, honey) and stares down at her lap.
“Dr. Reagan’s Rules, please, Dina.”
With much hesitation, she finally begins to recount my rules. “Um . . . don’t check in on Lorenzo’s Facebook. Ignore his Twitter feed. Stop texting him at all hours. No more fol- lowing his Instagram account. Don’t drive by his house. Don’t drive by his brother’s house. Don’t drive by his mother’s house. Don’t steal the trash from the frigging cans outside his house. Don’t go to the club on the nights he works there. Stop asking his friends about him. Throw away stuff that reminds me of him.” She sighs wearily. “Did I name ’em all, Dr. Reagan? Or was there one more?”
I hold my hand to my ear, middle fingers cupped with my thumb and pinkie extended. Sometimes I use gestures to em- phasize my point, and also to remind the camera that I’m still here.
“Oh, yeah, don’t call his cell phone no more just to listen to his outgoing message. But I haven’t done that in a long time, I swear to God.”
We’re both aware that “a long time” means “a week” but it’s a far sight better than the thirty times a day she’d been doing it. Why Lorenzo didn’t just change his phone number after the first hundred hang-ups, I don’t know, but he’s not my patient/not my problem. I strongly suspect some narcissistic tendencies on his part, though. Who tattoos his own name on himself? Also, I had no idea Chevrolet was still making Ca- maros. I figured they disappeared around the time that Saved by the Bell’s Zack Morris finally had his testicles drop.
I smile encouragingly at Dina. “Excellent.”
She nods and attempts to put on a happy face, but it’s clear there’s more troubling her.
“It’s just on Facebook—,” she begins. I’m resolute here. “Devil’s playground.”
She exhales so hard that she appears completely deflated. “Believe me, I get it. I’ve seen frigging Lucifer on the jungle gym and I wish I hadn’t, you know? But I noticed he has a new girlfriend and she’s not even cute.”
I start to say, They never are, but I catch myself. I’m care- ful not to insert any personal commentary into our sessions because it’s not appropriate.
Besides, this is not my time to complain.
But believe me, I could complain about plenty. Plenty.
Just this morning I had a voice mail from my mother tell- ing me how Geri placed third in some White Sox bar’s karaoke contest. Which . . . whatever. Perhaps once she dusts all the stray hairs off herself at the end of the day, she needs an alternative creative outlet.
However, today’s about Dina, not me.
“. . . and the more I flipped through his photos . . .” Ultimately, though, I don’t care how Geri occupies her free time. Although I’m surprised she has any, what with her busy sponging-off-my-parents schedule.
And I need to be present here because Dina’s so close to another breakthrough.
“. . . like I’m standing all by myself on a desert island, without makeup or nothing and . . .”
Yet all I’m saying is maybe it would have been nice for my mother to express this kind of maternal pride when I was on Good Morning America last week. Of course, she didn’t even watch the episode—she said she’d forgotten to program her DVR. Way to demonstrate familial pride, Ma, especially since on this particular visit? George Stephanopoulos was flirting with me.
Well, I can’t say he was flirting for sure, but what hetero- sexual male wouldn’t with my co-commitments to diet, exer- cise, and clean living?
I heard from all the interns afterward about how fantastic I looked. “Oh, Dr. Reagan, you should always wear emerald green! What was that, a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress? Amazeballs!”
And yet when Geri does the most innocuous thing, like sing in a karaoke contest, my parents reach Amber-alert levels of word spreading. One time in fourth grade, Geri earned an A for some stupid poem she’d written about a bird who flew through the air like he just didn’t care. You’d have thought Ma and Dad were going to contact the Globe Theatre, as clearly she was Shakespeare reincarnate.
Do I even need to mention that I skipped the fourth grade entirely? Their response? “Nice job, but that doesn’t get you out of doing the dishes.”
“. . . the same thing happened with my dad . . .”
Focus, self. Focus. Dina needs you. The show needs you. Was the bar even crowded the night Geri won her Major
Award? Or were there only, say, three people performing? What, she came in third? What if third means last? The peo- ple who graduated last in my program at Pepperdine are still technically doctors of psychology. Terrible doctors, no doubt, but doctors nonetheless. And are any of them on television? I think not.
“. . . what if this is it for me? What if I never find happi- ness? How will I . . .”
Sure, sure, you’re a national hero, singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” like you meant it, Geri. You’re a champion. Someone should pin a damn medal on your chest. And then maybe our parents could put your medal on the mantel, right next to the photo of me with my Emmy. You know, the one that I actually will have earned someday very soon.
That’s when I notice that Dina and the entire crew are staring at me, waiting for me to comment. Crap, I must have really drifted off there. But let’s tell the truth here: Sometimes therapy can be boring. It’s all “me, me, me.” Well, what about my thoughts and dreams for once?
I have all kinds of issues and dilemmas right now, largely due to Sebastian. We’re technically on a break, but then he’ll still come over. Yet afterward, he’s hesitant to call me his girl- friend (not that I need labels) and he doesn’t invite me to his work gatherings. It’s confusing and distracting. My romantic life was decidedly easier when I was with Boyd back in Cali- fornia, but what was I going to do? Follow Geri’s advice to drop out of my doctoral program and marry an amateur surfer? Not in this lifetime.
So while everyone awaits my input, I pull out the ultimate old chestnut, the one that every mental health professional relies on when she’s grown bored/distracted or plain old fell asleep. (Listen, it happens.)
“How does that make you feel?”
Actually, this is a phrase that’s much more in line with Freudian psychoanalysis, where a patient’s drives are largely unconscious and rooted in childhood. Seriously, Sigmund? Give me a break. If my psyche were truly formed in my childhood, then I’d be a hypercontrolling, tightly wound, empathy-lacking basket case from everyone ganging up on me and being jealous all the time. I’d say I turned out pretty damn well, if for no reason other than I don’t have to shake strangers’ hair out of my underpants every night, Geri.
Anyway, I practice cognitive-behavior-based therapy, which is more about how patients’ actions influence the way they see themselves, rather than how they feel. Regardless, my red- herring question puts us back on track.
Dina surreptitiously adjusts her silicone parts while she ponders her reply. I’m on the fence in terms of surgical en- hancement. On the one hand, I’d look fantastic if I went up a cup size (especially according to Sebastian). On the other, gravity’s been kind and I can’t say I’m a fan of elective surgery and the resulting onslaught of pharmaceuticals.
I tune back in when Dina says, “I feel like . . . I need to understand what he sees in her. I wanna hear what he says to her. Like, how is it different with her than it was with me? So I didn’t only visit his page—I went to hers, too.”
I grimace. “Devil’s. Playground.”
I wonder if Geri actually received, what? A certificate of merit? Did the audience clap? Did she have all her south side cohorts there to lull her into a false sense of security? I’m sure Céline Dion need not watch her back.
Then I feel a flash of guilt for not giving Dina my undivided attention.
All right, I’m listening now.
“This is dumb, but I wish . . .” Dina tends to trail off a lot. When I’m quiet (and actually paying attention), I draw more out of her. People are generally far too reticent to allow pro- longed gaps of stillness, rushing to fill the awkward silences with nervous, self-revelatory chatter.
But if Geri did receive a tangible artifact of some sort, I guarantee my parents will put the damn thing on display with all her old soccer participation trophies on the shelves next to the fireplace.
This? Right here?
Is why Push needs to win that Emmy.
I slap my thighs a couple of times to refocus. I’m not let- ting the world’s lamest little sister throw me off my game. Dina interprets this gesture as a demand that she start getting real.
“. . . I wish that I could, like, insert myself into her body.” Suddenly, the whole crew snaps to attention, particularly the second cameraman. He’s fresh off a stint filming MTV’s The Real World: Logan Square and he’s desperately disappointed that no one’s having threesomes in hot tubs on this show. Of course, he won’t catch hepatitis C on this particular job, so I guess that’s the trade-off.
Whoa, I just had a brainstorm! Seven strangers and one shrink (read: PsyD) picked to live in a loft and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being po- lite . . . and start getting therapy! I make a mental note to run this idea past Wendy later.
I would kill it in my own spin-off. Kill. It.
I notice Dina blinking at me again and it’s on me to pick up the conversational thread. “So I understand what you’re communicating. Do you mean you want to insert yourself biblically?” I query. Funny, but on the spectrum between het- erosexuality and homosexuality, I’d have placed her firmly on the Team Nope, Not Once, Not Even at Camp That Summer end of the continuum.
Dina’s immediately flustered. “God, no, I’m not attracted to her, nothing like that. Alls I’m saying is I wish I could trade places with her for a day. You know, ride around in her head or something. Or swap bodies to see how Lorenzo reacts to me as her. Like in the movie Freaky Friday.”
Unfortunately—or not—I spent most of Lindsay Lohan’s career in Drescher Library and I’m largely unfamiliar with her oeuvre. Although, frankly, I’d welcome the opportunity to sit that child down with the DSM-IV. So troubled. Her neuro- ses are buying someone a beach house—I guarantee that. And if I could get my hands on Charlie Sheen? Hello, early retirement!
“Are you referring to astral projection?” I ask. Dina blinks three times in rapid succession and the entire crew seems con- fused, so I’m obligated to explain the concept. “Astral projec- tion is a kind of out-of-body experience. Your mind separates from your physical body and your consciousness is able to travel outside of your corporeal self.”
“Yes! Like, body swapping and stuff! That! I want to do that.”
I give Dina a wry smile. “I’m afraid that’s a little outside of my area of expertise.”
The concept of astral projection is utter and complete horseshit, but I dare not say this out loud at work. Wendy Winsberg has a huge mystical/spiritual bent, so much so that last season she hired a ridiculous new age healer named Deva for the show. I avoid her whenever possible. I guarantee what- ever ails my patients can’t be cured with some gewgaw or ar- tifact from Deva’s oddball little boutique, even if it is across the street from Prada.
But, if it were possible to astral project, particularly if I were to be able to swap bodies and not just rattle around a different dimension, I know exactly where I’d go. I’d head straight for Geri’s meatball-shaped vessel because I’m desper- ate to understand why everyone falls all over her. She’s not particularly smart or terribly driven or even that cute, yet you’d think she hung the moon. There’s a reason she has a Svengali-like hold on the rest of the world, and I’d make it my job to discover what it is.
I’d also prove she’s not allergic to nuts. (That was my ham sandwich, damn it!)
I stand and gesture toward the walking path, largely be- cause it’s the golden hour, which is the most flattering lighting of the day. I make sure I’m on the left side for maximum sun- set benefit.
“Dina, why don’t we address the issues within our locus of control before branching into metaphysics?” She quickly falls into step next to me, the crew clattering along in front of us. When we’re on the move, they have to walk backward in order to film our faces.
Here we go, money shot! Clear a space on the mantel, Ma! “Dina, take out your phone.”
She blanches beneath all her bronzer and blush. “No, Dr. R, please. Not that.”
“It’s time,” I say in my most authoritative voice. The pri- mary cameraman circles behind us and pans in over Dina’s shoulder. “Strong, Dina. You can do it.” With a hand trem- bling so profoundly that her bracelets clatter, Dina extends a shaky finger and pulls up her Facebook account. I instruct her, “On the count of five, Dina. This is what we’ve been working toward. Let’s go. Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one.”
Everyone gathers around to watch Dina finally, blessedly, delete her (frigging) Facebook account. The crew can’t help but let out a rousing cheer.
“You did it, Dina!”
I’m so overcome with pride that I hug her to me. Wow. Those are like a couple of kettlebells in there. So not a surgical selling point. Is that what happens when you cheap out on the augmentation? They get hard? Wouldn’t they hurt? Like, all the time? Would I even be able to sleep on my stomach? And how would I run any kind of distance with them? I’d need three bras! Plus, for all of Sebastian’s enthusiasm, I can’t imag- ine he’d appreciate a handful of concrete. Besides, what I have going on is far better than Geri and her ridiculous rack. She claims they’re homegrown, but she was flat when I left for my doctorate and stacked when I came home. And everyone else in the family is small to mid- busted, save for Great-Aunt Helen and her uniboob. I mean, Geri’s already proved herself a liar with the nut business and—ahem, Dina.
Focus, self, focus.
I ask, “Tell me what feeling you have now that you’re rid of that temptation.”
Dina lifts her head, and it’s almost like she’s taking in the scenery for the first time. The sun, the lake, the after-work crowd, released from long days in the office and confining business garb, filtering onto the walking path. Then she shows me the brightest smile in all of New Jersey.
“I feel . . . free. I feel like I can breathe again for the first time in a very long while.”
Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta.
A few more days like this and I’ll have the confidence to turn her over to the makeover team. I find once I figure out our pushee’s insides, working on the outside is pure gravy.
Before Dina can further express her joy, a Lycra-clad biker whizzes perilously close to us, causing the production assis- tant to drop my beverage, which splashes all over Dina’s leggings.
“Yo! Yo! Yeah, I’m talking to you, you frigging Lance Armstrong wannabe. This is the walking path.” She gestures with talon-tipped fingers. “That is the bike path. Follow me here—walkers go on walking path, bikers go on bike path. But maybe they need to post a big, frigging sign that says
‘Bikes and Douche Bags,’ so you understand that this means you ride there. Oh, you’re riding away from me? Really? Big man! Get your narrow ass back here, ya frigging pussy!”
Two points to make here:
This is likely not the episode to earn me a spot on my par- ents’ mantel.
Also, I may need to touch upon anger-management skills before sending Dina back to Perth Amboy.