Mervyn Kaufman gives voice and color to the full range of emotions he experienced while seeking help to treat his depression.
Who knew that this wimpy guy with a wispy beard was actually tough enough to help me turn my life around?
He was of medium height with sloping shoulders and a slightly thick gut. His eyes were soapy blue and, it seemed to me, a little droopy. His receding gray hair was clipped short; so was his beard, which seemed to creep around his face.
Grayness. Blandness. Softness. There was no implicit strength in this man, nothing to fire my confidence. I felt undone. How could I hope to relate on an intimate basis to someone I was sure I could never like—or even hate—respect, or admire?
He asked random questions. I answered brusquely, volunteering little. Then the questions became focused—on my parents, my wife, the people I worked with, my young daughter. I took a deep breath…but why continue?
The approach was all wrong. I was too old for this, too much in despair; a middle-aged man whose emotional life was in shreds. Unless I could pull myself together, I faced losing everything I had worked so many years to build.
Now, instead of answering his queries, I began to talk at length, lulled by the sound of my own voice. I glanced at the clock on the desk, feeling a tremor of triumph that the session might pass with me in full oration, having reduced my colorless adversary to a passive listener…but not for long.
He let me talk, then, speaking matter-of-factly, said he felt I had experienced a role reversal in my life and that, instead of resisting, I had responded to a streak of martyrdom that lay within me, atop many layers of rage.
Flabbergasted, I lashed back, denouncing him for reducing me to a figure of even lesser stature than when I had walked through his door. Why was I being defensive? he asked. Didn’t I understand that psychotherapy involved give and take? I backed down but seethed.
This, truly, was not going to work. Obviously, I was too much for this man: too complex, too demanding, too special. But I knew that if I quit right then I would know failure. So I wanted him to quit, to suggest I see another practitioner. In fact, I was banking on it.
The session ended. He asked what I was feeling. I said I felt more depressed than ever. He said it was anger layered over with guilt for feeling angry.
I wanted to punch him out but couldn’t bring myself to say so. All I could say was that I wasn’t a quitter, defying him to suggest there was no point in my coming back. He said, simply, that the choice was mine. So, obviously, I had to return.
The next two sessions were grueling, each like a boxing match I was striving to win without the full use of my limbs. The man barely let me speak, jumping in and cutting to the inflated heart of everything I said.
My every utterance provoked a response that was, in effect, his own restatement of what he believed I really felt and meant. Soon I was literally sweating. When the third session ended, he touched my arm as I moved toward the door. What was I feeling? he asked. I didn’t respond.
Outside, I stood alone in the hall before buzzing the elevator. What did I feel? Tortured? Discomfited? Yes—and more than ever, torn between a growing desire to end this torture and my desperate need to continue.
I left the building and hailed a cab, too weary to wait for a bus. My head ached, my throat was tight, my chest hurt when I took a big breath. My whole body was wracked with a kind of tension I had never experienced.
At times, in the days ahead, my thoughts drifted and I would recall events from my childhood, moments of anguish and pain that I’d thought long forgotten. What was happening? I had turned to psychotherapy hoping to feel better, not to suffer such torment.
And the tension and torment persisted, so much so that I returned for my fourth visit absolutely desperate for relief. This man had to unravel what lay at the root of my despair! But in my heart, I knew he would only continue challenging my words without telling me whatever it was I needed to know.
I was hostile from the moment we took our places and he presented his normally reflective expression. I faulted everything he said, in my head if not in actual response. He was so quiet, I wondered if he was hearing me. At one point I saw him suppress a yawn and wondered how my wracking pain could be other than riveting?
Why was he petting his cat? Why didn’t he take notes? Weren’t my problems important enough to merit serious pondering?
“What are you feeling?” he asked, as our frustrating 45 minutes wound down.
“Futility,” I said. I had nothing further to offer, but he pressed me. “What is it that seems futile?” I said it seemed to me that my mind and heart were at war and my body was the battlefield.
“What’s the battle about?” he asked. I spoke in a burst, for the first time without instantaneous editing, spewing forth the revelation that unresolved feelings—mostly about my parents—seemed to have clouded and shaped every experience, every relationship in every phase of my life. And then I sat back and took a deep breath.
“Is that it?” I asked, but didn’t really have to. For suddenly I felt light headed, and the impact of my own words created a giant thud that passed through me like the jolt of a slammed door.
“I think you’re afraid of these feelings,” the man said, leaning toward me to underscore his point. “That’s why you’ve locked them away.” I shook my head, yes. There was silence.
“We have to stop now,” he said, finally. I looked over and saw furrows of concern on his face.
“I’m all right,” I insisted but felt so weak I found it difficult to stand.
It was clear, now, that my therapist was no adversary. My enemy, if it could be called that, was inside me—and a fierce opponent at that. In the weeks that followed, the battle raged. I felt no sense of winning or losing it, only of engaging it doggedly.
There was never a real turning point, no blinding moment when my will cracked and I opened up like an unprotected flower. There was just a gradual melting of my defenses and, finally, a consuming realization that this man was absolutely hell-bent on helping me, no matter how my reflexes tried to fend him off.
“What are you feeling?” he asked, again and again, hopeful that something spontaneous would flow out of me. But usually what I felt was general and external: turmoil, confusion, exhaustion. In all my life I had never known how I truly felt, only how I thought I was supposed to feel in the context of others’ lives.
“What are you feeling?” The question was unfailing, as was my nebulous response. Then, at the close of one particularly trying session, tears sprang to my eyes as I rose from the couch, and I heard myself say, “I feel I want to hug you.” And I did, as earnestly as I’ve ever hugged anyone. I felt the roughness of beard and the warmth of reassuring arms. He did not hold back.
It was an unthreatening embrace; I felt no qualms, no reservations. I was so filled with love and gratitude that I trembled.
Walking home, I experienced the usual weariness, but now it was coupled with exhilaration and an extraordinary sense of relief.
Oddly, I thought of Portnoy’s Complaint, the book that had once affected me deeply. And at last, I understood what its author had intended when he gave the novel’s last line to the psychoanalyst to whom, presumably, the entire narrative was spoken.
I could relate that line directly to my own therapy and to what lay ahead between me and the man with the short, gray beard.
For now, finally, we could begin.
Mervyn Kaufman became an essayist and short-story writer after a long career as a writer and editor in the field of consumer magazine publishing. Merv is the author most recently of The Shamrock Way, the history of Arizona’s biggest and most enduring food-service company, and coauthor of the Gary Stevens memoir, The Perfect Ride.
This post is part of a joint series by The Good Men Project and Stigma Fighters in sharing stories of real men living with mental illness. To submit your story, see below.
Stigma Fighters is an organization that is dedicated to raising awareness for the millions of people who are seemingly “regular” or “normal” but who are actually hiding the big secret: that they are living with mental illness and fighting hard to survive.
The more people who share their stories, the more light is shone on these invisible illnesses, and the more the stigma of living with mental illness is reduced.
For Stigma Fighters’ Founder Sarah Fader’s recent profile in The Washington Postthat discusses how more and more people are “coming out” with their mental illness, see here.
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