You know that episode of Sex and the City when Carrie’s friends can’t handle her whining anymore and suggest she go find a shrink? It’s the episode where she bangs Jon Bon Jovi. Well, that happened to me recently. Not the Bon Jovi part—the shrink part. My friend Michael, who is never not in therapy, got a little concerned with my abundance of the blues lately. After listening to me go on about the pandemic, quarantine, racism, deaths, loneliness, fear, how fat and ugly I feel and how deeply lonely, how I’d mostly rather stay in bed most days and binge-watch Law & Order reruns and eat more than my share of brownies and cake (and probably yours too) as a comfort, he suggested I find some professional support.
It’s been an unbelievable time since the pandemic hit last year, and I’m not alone in my struggles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that last year, 41% of Americans reported struggling with mental health or substance use as a consequence of the novel coronavirus. Additionally, people like me who are living with HIV have experienced additional triggers and stress because of COVID-19.
I’m no therapy newbie. I mean, I’m a New Yorker. It’s an unofficial city requirement that one develop neuroses and seek counseling. I’ve had three mental health therapists at various times in my life. My first therapist in my 20s was a down-to-earth lesbian who wore Doc Martens and shorts even in the winter. Jodie* encouraged me to be the star in the sitcom of my life—the Seinfeld, not the George. Well, it was the ’90s. Matt, who I saw from 2009-10ish, is Hollywood-star handsome with a Donny Osmond smile and gravity-defying hair. Despite his amazing looks, Matt was a compassionate and funny therapist, saved my life more than once, and helped me navigate my first year of sobriety. After he left the city, I transferred to Adam. Adam was a quiet, kind man who I really saw eye-to-eye with. Literally, we were the same height. He helped me get over a relationship with the dude who thought it was appropriate, after 11 months and a let’s-move-in-together proposal, to break up with me in an email (how Carrie Bradshaw is that?). Adam also lovingly helped me navigate through grief after the passing of my father. About five years ago, Adam and I mutually decided that I had developed enough skills to manage my feelings, and I transitioned away from therapy.
My first step into getting back into analysis was to check and see what my insurance covered. I checked with my carrier, and they sent me an exhaustive list of places in my network that I could go for therapy. I was overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start. After sitting on the list for more than a week, I finally just picked a neuropsychology clinic near me. I had an intake session via the internet where I was asked general questions about my feelings, condition, experiences, and needs.
A week later, I had my first virtual session. I could have gone into the office for an in-person visit, but it would have cost me a $40 copay. I understand the value of psychiatric assistance, but I’d rather not pay for it. The virtual session was totally covered, and I could stay in my elastic-waistband sweatpants. At the appointed time, I nervously logged on to the video portal for an initial session with my assigned therapist, Syman.
The first thing I noticed about Syman was his disheveled shock of spikey brown hair and his eyes that darted a lot. I got used to his hair and eyes because throughout the session, the top half of his face was mostly all I could see. I wasn’t sure if he didn’t know how to use a camera or if it was just a glitch of the platform or what, so I didn’t mention it. He seemed a little kooky, but every counselor is different, and I tried not to make snap judgments. After initial hellos, there was an uncomfortable pause. Syman didn’t ask me anything, so I jumped in and told him a little bit of why I was there, my ongoing depression, lack of motivation to work or create, uneven sleep patterns, overeating, and self-esteem issues. Another odd pause. Syman told me that he was a graduate student and that he was mostly interested in the theories of Freud and Carl Jung. He told me about books he liked that described various therapeutic methods.
Therapy is the one place where you can be completely selfish about the conversation. It’s the one occasion that’s literally all about you. I’m not really interested in the therapist’s philosophy. But he’s the professional, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. When Syman didn’t ask me about my history or family or anything, I offered up that I was gay, living with HIV, and have been sober and in a program of recovery from alcohol and drugs for almost 11 years. Another painful pause.
Eventually, Syman asked what I’ve been doing to help alleviate my depression. I said that I’ve been trying exercise, going to my recovery meetings, meditation.
Syman’s eyes lit up with an idea. “You should look into therapy with mushrooms to combat depression,” he said. “You know, magic mushrooms. Google it.” I smiled like a Stepford wife, but inside I was screaming, “Magic mushrooms? Like, ’60s-hippie-Magic-Carpet-Ride-psychedelic mushrooms? Dude! I just told you I’m sober!”
Now, I don’t expect every therapist to be an expert in addiction and recovery, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they have a working knowledge of what sobriety means, that folks in recovery stay away from any mood-altering substances. Proposing that I trip balls is not a great suggestion for a first therapy session.
Syman prattled on for a few minutes more, but I couldn’t hear him. I was having a heated conversation in my head trying to decide if Syman was an absolute idiot, if I was being a dick for thinking that, or if I should give him more of a chance because I can sometimes be too judgy-wudgy. With 20 minutes left of the session, I cut him off. “Well, you’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. Let’s stop for today,” I said, and clicked buh-bye. I then punched out an email to the clinic saying that Syman and I weren’t a good fit, and pondered if maybe I’d been a bit hasty to jump back into therapy after all.
Thankfully, a week later I was reassigned to Sarah, a kind young lady who knows how to use the camera on her computer, and who immediately put me at ease. She hasn’t told me anything about her therapy philosophy or suggested I mellow out and connect with my cosmic consciousness. She’s managed to create a safe space for me to talk through things that have been hiding in the dark corners of my mind. In recovery, there’s a saying that you’re only as sick as your secrets, and I’ve been able to begin to bring the things I’ve been scared of or ashamed to talk about out into the open where they’re easier to deal with. It’s a relief to be working with her.
Therapy is a process, and unlike a television show, problems can’t be solved in the span of an episode. I’m glad, though, that I took the nudge from my friend and sought help. To quote Carrie Bradshaw, “The most important relationship you can have is with yourself.”
*All therapists’ names have been changed to protect privacy. Except Matt: I’ve written about and interviewed him before, so there are no secrets there.