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I Tried to Break Up With My Therapist. It Didn’t Go Well.

(Image: Isabella Giancarlo)

People say it’s hard to date in New York. (I once went out with a guy who looked like Gargamel from the Smurfs, so I know how tough it is.) But I think it’s much harder to find a good therapist.

It’s early 2001. I’ve been living in New York City for a few months to do a seven-month comedy intensive program after moving from San Francisco. In addition to working full-time for my west coast office, I’m going to school every night during the week and doing homework, shows and other catch-ups on the weekend.

The pace of Manhattan and my jam-packed schedule begin to take a toll on me, and in no time, I start to have panic attacks. So I do what any other overwhelmed person does: I tackle one more thing. I look for a therapist.

On paper, Linda is great. She’s five minutes from work, she’s in my plan and she’s only $5 a visit. Score!

In person, it’s another story. When I first enter her windowless office, I notice the humming of a white noise machine, which I assume is there to drown out the outpouring of emotion that Linda masterfully elicits from her patients because she’s kind and empathetic. This apparatus’ mere existence is impressive, considering her space is about the size of a Gap dressing room with even less personality.

Linda (mid-50s) greets me at the door with a limp handshake, which I absolutely hate. She has a mop of golden brown hair and very droopy eyes. She’s a dead ringer for Droopy from Deputy Dawg, and the whole time we talk, she looks really sad, which I guess is good for her line of work.

I tell her what’s going on in my life. I’m trying to work East Coast hours for a West Coast company while getting acclimated to new co-workers, new classmates, a new roommate and a new city that I’ve never been a fan of. And on top of it all, a guy I met at a Halloween party when I was dressed up as, of all things, The Ladies Man from SNL, is now stalking me. So yeah, I’m a little stressed out.

She doesn’t say much and barely nods her head, but I figure she needs to take all of this in. She’s like a detective collecting clues in an investigation. After 50 minutes, I don’t feel a strong connection to Madam P.I., but I decide to go back the next week to see if it’s any better. It’s not, but I figure I should still give her a chance.

After about a month of sharing details from my life in dribs and drabs, I realize Linda doesn’t say much ever, and when she does, she’s condescending and she sounds like Barbara Walters.

“Well, what would your faaaaather say about that?” she asks.

[pullquote]I don’t want to face her, but I feel guilty. My family is Jewish and Catholic, so we’ve completely cornered the market on guilt.[/pullquote]

Half the time, I don’t know what to say, so I either make something up or I don’t say anything. And then the awkward silences return, which, for someone like me who has the gift of gab, is the worst. I feel compelled to fill the space. This only adds to my aggravation because I realize I’m going to therapy to cure my anxiety, and therapy is making me more anxious.

And yet, I stick it out. I need to talk to someone, but I don’t have time to find another therapist. I figure some therapy is better than no therapy.

A few months later, 9/11 rocks New York City and, like many New Yorkers, I take stock of my life and decide I’ve had enough. I leave Linda a voicemail that says in so many words: “I’ve decided to take a break from therapy.”

Her response?

A voicemail saying I should come in so we can discuss it. It’s the most she has ever said to me, and I’m shocked. I don’t want to face her, but I feel guilty. I can’t help it. It’s my birthright. My family is Jewish and Catholic, so we’ve completely cornered the market on guilt.

A few days later, I go in, and she asks, “So, Robin, why do you want to leave?”

I say, “I’m busy, and I can’t make time any more.”

However, I don’t tell her that, besides the fact that I think she’s terrible at her job, I don’t appreciate the fact that she’s incredibly inflexible with my schedule. I don’t mention how much I hate her policy about missed sessions. No matter how much notice you give her, you either have to make them up or pay for them. I leave out the fact that I think it’s highly unprofessional that she keeps asking me how much I make despite the countless times I’ve told her I’m not comfortable sharing that information.

She presses me on my schedule, saying, “Robin, I think you’re using that as an excuse. You know, many patients want to leave when they’re on the brink of a breakthrough because they’re scared. Plus, with what just happened at the World Trade Center, it’s a good time to process things.”

I think, “Yeah, I’m trying to process how to get the f*#k out of this situation.”

And somehow I wind up feeling even guiltier, and she ropes me back in.

I start jotting down my dreams to give her something to analyze and us something to talk about. A week or so later, I tell her about a terrifying dream I had where someone put a gun in my mouth, and I couldn’t scream for help. She nods and doesn’t say anything. I figure she’d have some Freudian ‘d#*k in your mouth’ theory, but no. No Elektra Complex. Nothing.

After a few of these dream sessions, my insurance runs out, and I leave her a voicemail thanking her for her “help” and saying I won’t be coming back.

She volleys one back: “Robin, I need you come back into the office to talk it over with me. I have an idea for something new that I think you’ll really like.”

So I oblige because I’m an idiot.

At our session, she tells me that she’s starting group therapy for some of her patients. She thinks I’ll really like the people in it and that I’ll get a lot out of it. I think, “That’s actually not a bad idea. I’m gregarious, and I feed off of other people’s energy.”

But I say, “It sounds great, but my insurance is up, and I don’t want to pay full price for individual and group.”

To which she replies, “Well, Robin, how much do you make?” I remind her that I don’t think it’s any of her business, but she persists, and I wind up giving her a rough idea of my salary. I’m instantly pissed at myself for doing this — now I feel like she’s got some kind of upper hand.

She tells me that I can afford it and that it’s worth it.

I’m a bit insulted, but I really do want help, so I decide to try group for a month to see how I like it.

At my first group therapy session, six of us (half guys, half girls, all in our late 20s/early 30s) squeeze into her closet of an office. I actually like the people and can relate to them. Plus, bonus – these people actually talk.

After a few sessions, I really like the group, but I still hate my individual sessions. I want to ask these people so many questions about Linda:

“Do you ever think about leaving her?”

“Have you tried?”

“Has she roped you back in?”

“Don’t you think she looks a lot like Droopy from Deputy Dawg?”

But I don’t say anything because I’m afraid I’m going to break some unwritten group therapy code.

A few months later, I decide to get out of dodge and take a trip back out west to be with my people. (Naturally, I book a makeup session with Linda for when I get back ‘cause I’ll be damned if I’m just going to hand over my money for missing one without getting something out of it.)

When I arrive at Esalen, a retreat center in Big Sur, for a week-long workshop, I’m instantly transported. (Side note: It’s the place where Don Draper goes at the end of Mad Men) It’s the definition of pure bliss right on the coast, and as soon as I arrive, my stress melts away.

Over the course of four days, I eat well, cry uncontrollably in front of a room full of strangers and soak naked repeatedly in a coed sulfur hot tub overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I’ve never felt so free and relaxed in my whole life. I sleep so soundly in the small room that I share with two women twice my age.

One of them, Grace, (ah, of course, that’s her name), is a 60-something therapist in the Bay Area. Perfect! I tell her about Linda, and she promptly tells me that this situation is not normal, very unhealthy and that I need to get out of it as soon as I get home.

I take her words to heart. When I get back to New York City, I leave Linda a voicemail telling her I’m not returning to group or individual.

Her return voicemail, right on cue, drips with condescension, “Robin, you and I need to discuss this, and I fully expect to see you Wednesday morning for individual. Plus, you owe it to the group to explain your sudden departure, so I fully expect to see you Tuesday night.”

I think to myself, “Oh, yeah? Well, I fully expect you to go f*#k yourself.”

Instead, I agree because I would want to know if someone left, too, and because I’m an idiot.

I lob back a message shortly after that that says, “I will not be going in on Wednesday morning. I feel very strongly about this and whatever you have to tell me, you can tell me Tuesday night.”

I was downright bitchy, and it felt good. I don’t bother checking my voicemail to see what she says. I want to go in fresh, ready and pumped, and after getting a pep talk from a friend, I do. I enter her two-by-four of an office and sit down on the couch directly across from Linda, who’s looking at me with her Eeyore eyes. I sit up straight, feeling very confident, staring right back at her. It’s like therapy high noon, and I’m ready to throw down. “Bring it on, bitch.”

Linda opens the floor to me, and I share my spiel.

“Hey, guys, so this isn’t easy to say, but while I was away in California, I had some time to do some thinking, and I’ve decided to leave group and individual therapy. It has nothing to do with you guys, but I’ve decided to move on.”

The group nods and reacts with words of support and encouragement. They respond so well, in fact, that they practically give me high fives. One woman, Anne, even tells me I’m her Joan of Arc. Wow. I did not expect this kind of reaction, but it feels really good and totally validating until Linda says to the group, “You’re just going to accept that? You’re not going to ask Robin anything more?”

We’re all taken aback.

Anne says, “I think you’re being a little manipulative.”

I think, “Damn straight!”

Then, the group starts peppering me with questions and acting suspiciously. And before I know it, I go from the Joan of Arc in the room to the Joan Collins.

I feel like a punching bag, and by the time the session ends, I’m practically horizontal on the couch. I feel horrible and dejected. On my way out, Linda says, “I’ll see you in the morning.” I nod my head and leave with my tail between my legs.

The truth is, I was so furious for not standing my ground. I felt so trapped. Like there was no way out. But when I woke up the next morning, I realized there was a way out.

All this time, I had been paying Linda to listen to me when I should have listened to myself. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized she is manipulating me. Because I’m letting her.

So I pick up the phone. I leave her a very stern voicemail saying, “You know what, Linda? I was wrong. It’s not me. It’s you. I’m not coming back.” And I never did.

Filed under: Self

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Robin Gelfenbien

Robin Gelfenbien is the Creator and Host of the storytelling series and podcast, Yum’s the Word, that features her homemade ice cream cakes. The show has been named one of the “5 Best Storytelling Series in NYC” by CBS, and a New York Times and Time Out New York Critic’s Pick. Guests have included Jason Biggs, Aasif Mandvi, Joy Behar, and Tim Gunn. New York Magazine called her solo show, My Salvation Has a First Name: A Wienermobile Journey “the highlight of the Fringe,” and TimeOut gave it four stars. You can find her on the internet at @robingelfenbien www.robingelfenbien.com , and @yumsthewordshow.

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