In 23 years in New York City, I’ve had exactly as many shrinks as I’ve had boyfriends: six. The boyfriend breakups are the obvious narrative of my New York history — the big ruptures I remember. The termination of my longest relationship, of 6.5 years, was a months-long protracted agony that found me drinking alone at a gay bar near my miserable new studio on bitterly cold nights that first winter of the recession, desperate for someone to play pool with. Six years later, that ex and I have been to each other’s weddings. He’s one of my closest friends.
The shrink breakups have been the sub-narrative, the half-forgotten tale of having various breakdowns and crises and reaching out to strangers and paying them for various stints to help me through — and then parting ways with them for reasons either logistical (changed insurance plans) or interpersonal (they started to bug me, or didn’t bug me enough). Occasionally, I’ve wondered: Should I see a shrink about why I’ve seen so many shrinks?
The first shrink I ever saw in the city was Charles Silverstein, who co-wrote The Joy of Gay Sex in the 1970s with the novelist Edmund White. My psychopharmacologist sent me to him when I was having a severe depression in my late 20s. On my first visit, Dr. Silverstein sat barefoot in the lotus position, saying nothing, while I babbled on, trying to explain how I felt. Finally, I asked him if he were ever going to say anything. He told me he came from the old psychoanalytic school of just letting the patient babble on. I knew that wasn’t going to work — I needed a chatty shrink. Breakup No.1.
Right after that, I went to a woman not much older than me whom I’ll call Paula. Paula had a beautiful office in a beautiful old Upper West Side building. Paula and I hit it off. We were both from the same region and went to the same college, so we had that in common. Paula was Jewish and from a bougie-progressive town; I was Catholic and from a townie middle-class town. Paula stayed my shrink for another four years, as my depression rolled into a drug addiction. Paula didn’t know a lot about gay men, gay sex, and gay drug use, but she made every effort to learn, with a mixture of concern and fascination. Many sessions she’d begin by telling me about research she’d dug up on those topics, in an effort to better understand me. It touched me that Paula did that for me, but it sometimes made me feel like I was a case study to her. If I’d seen a gay shrink, we would’ve talked in shorthand about a lot of stuff and perhaps been able to go deeper.
Still, Paula and I laughed and joked a lot. We talked about books and movies. I remember commiserating with her over Ruth Messinger’s loss in the 1997 mayoral election to Rudy Giuliani, whom we both disliked.
Once, on a hot summer day, I was sitting across the street from Paula’s office because I was early and I saw her leave the office briefly, looking tired and lonely and sad. I told her this a while later and she nodded thoughtfully. She probably thought it was classic projection, though I wasn’t yet familiar with that concept.
Paula wouldn’t tell me about her personal life, though God knows I asked. The thing I most vividly remember her saying to me, when I couldn’t stop using drugs, was “I’m really afraid you’re going to die.” I pooh-poohed that, but, looking back, she was the only person in my life who put the situation quite that bluntly. Finally, I went to rehab and left the city for awhile, bidding adieu to Paula. Breakup No. 2.
More than a year later, when I’d cleaned up and was back in the city working at a magazine, Paula tracked down my number somehow, and called. She’d been thinking of me, she said, and did I want to come back to therapy? Turns out, I did. So Paula and I were back on again.
But what I noticed this time was that Paula was different with me. Suddenly she was talking freely about her husband and other aspects of her personal life. “Why the change?” I asked her. I remembered always prying and getting nowhere.
“I realized that the blank-slate shrink doesn’t work with you, so I decided to loosen up and be more like a friend.”
On one hand, this was fun. I admired her trying new techniques. I was having a lot of challenges adjusting to sober, responsible (and newly coupled) life. She made me think about things I could and couldn’t try to make life more sanely interesting after the bonkers crash-and-burn rush of being a druggie. “If drugs and not alcohol were your problem,” she once asked me, “why can’t you drink?” I don’t know if she meant it literally rather than persuasively, but I did indeed start drinking again a year later and found that I could do it socially — at least for a while.
But there were also aspects of the new, best friend Paula I wasn’t so keen on. She nearly gagged when I told her what hotel my parents were staying at during an upcoming visit and insisted I change their reservation to a better hotel. She referred to satisfyingly wild sex as “hot monkey love,” which still icks me out to this day. And, most annoyingly, she told me that she was starting a therapy group and did I want to join? (For an added fee.)
“Because you want a gay guy in the group?” I asked cynically.
“Because ” — she paused — “I want all sorts of types.” But I couldn’t help feeling that she wanted me to be the token downtown gay in her hetero-bougie Upper West Side therapy group. Maybe I’d be better off with a gay male shrink after all, I thought.
At one session, I told her I was thinking of winding down sessions because I couldn’t afford them anymore — this was at least half the truth — and at the following session, I told her it would be our last.
I had no idea how upset she’d get. “This feels aggressive,” she said. “This feels like a slam.”
I remember leaving feeling absolutely awful, like I was dumping a bestie. “I really appreciate all your help” was the last thing I said to her. I left her there looking like she was going to cry. Breakup No. 2, part b.
I decided that my next shrink would be a gay man. I found an extremely mild-mannered Latino guy in the West Village. I don’t know if I was particularly shut down in this period, but I saw this shrink for probably six months and can’t remember one specific thing I said to him, or vice versa. He certainly never amused or irked me like Paula did. I remember a lot of blather about work and my boyfriend, but I can’t even remember why I stopped going. (An insurance change, perhaps?) Breakup No. 3.
My life had become stable at that point but I still had a nagging feeling that I was not fully working through issues, so I found another gay shrink. He had an office in 1133 Broadway, the hub of gay male shrinks. He was an eccentric fellow who served water in real glasses from a glass pitcher, and when patients left, he’d hide their water glasses under a console until the end of the day, when he’d wash them all. He was nice enough, but again, I can’t remember a thing he said until the day when he suggested that we call it quits. I’d heard about this unique New York humiliation — getting dumped by your shrink. And now it was happening to me! “Why?” I asked him.
“Because all you do is come in here and whine like Eeyore every week!” he exclaimed. He obviously seemed to know what he was doing, because he got me to start crying and ask how he could say such a thing to me when he knew how broken and battered I felt.
“Let’s do some real work then,” he said.
And we did — I think. Truth is, I don’t really remember any conversations after that point, and again, I don’t even know why, or on what terms, we stopped seeing each other. I think we failed to click, for the most part, because, with the exception of the Eeyore incident, it felt like most of the time he was going, “Okay, yes, okay,” and disinterestedly letting me narrate my life but never really challenging me on anything. Breakup No. 4.
Then I had a real breakup — with that boyfriend of 6.5 years. I was a mess. I got my own place and started sliding back into heavy drinking and drugs. I called up a shrink this boyfriend and I had seen together briefly, a few years back. He was young and really cute and European and my boyfriend hadn’t clicked with him much, but I had found him amazing — the first shrink I felt really helped me envision the kind of person I wanted to be as I approached my 40s (in a word, a happy one). I’d leave weekly feeling like I’d made huge breakthroughs and defined clear goals.
After the breakup, I called him up and went back to him, solo. He helped me through a miserable time. But I had a messy, hung-over tendency to arrive 20 minutes late and then sit there kicking myself for it. Among his many good suggestions were his gentle, repeated entreaties that I get sober again. I have to give him credit for that — I’ve always had a personal beef against shrinks who don’t explicitly urge their patients with substance problems to go to rehab or get sober.
I finally took his advice and went back to rehab and got sober. Breakup No. 5, a circumstantial one. Later on, when I wanted to go back to him, I could no longer afford him. But we’re still in touch and I’ve since thanked him for his help.
A year ago, I was having some fresh angst and felt like I should find a shrink in my health plan and talk it out. A friend recommended another gay guy in the Village. This was the most leaden therapy experience of my life. I was really not sure if he saw me as a person or a cactus, judging by his low affect and reactivity. One look at his impassive face was enough to plunge me into depression the moment I entered his office. I had one cathartic, good cry with him, but I think that’s because I’d had minor surgery the day before and was still zonked out from the anesthesia. I told him flatly that I was not feeling a connection, then said I’d not be coming back, just two sessions later. Breakup No. 6. By now, I felt like an old pro roué, and when he called back suggesting we meet once more to talk through my discontent, I didn’t even call back.
After those six breakups, the ex-shrink I still have the fondest feelings for is Paula. I think that if I could have found a kind, mature way of articulating my issues with her, I wouldn’t have had to end things with her. (Not that I could’ve continued to afford her.) One thing she taught me: Don’t try to make a friend out of a shrink. It was hard for me to feel like I deserved to have someone help me without entertaining them, interviewing them, or wondering how they were doing. Let’s face it, it’s a slightly unnatural relationship. It can feel very transactional, very Manhattan, very one-sided. But the good part is that it helps us know ourselves better, so that our real relationships don’t end up that way, too. And in my case, at least, it’s taught me the importance of just learning to move on.