Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Five minutes into the first therapy session of my life, and I’m already agitated that I won’t have time to tell this therapist what he needs to know about me — or, worse, that I will have time to tell him, and he still won’t get it. I explain again that I’m not looking for someone who’ll give me pep talks to build my self-esteem or offer behavior-modification exercises.
Dr. Miller responds with a slight smile. “I didn’t ask what you’re not looking for in therapy; I asked what you are looking for.”
There is something off-putting about the exaggerated firmness and calmness of his voice. And so I tell him that my father is a psychoanalyst — an orthodox Freudian psychoanalyst — and that, even though I’ve never heard him say so directly, I think he believes all other therapies are somehow bogus or are for people who are too weak or too scared to face the hard truths about themselves.
Miller chuckles. At what? At the weaklings who go into bogus therapies? At my father for his rigid, old-fashioned ideas? At me?
“Is that what you think of other therapies?” he asks.
No, I tell him. I don’t think every therapy except for psychoanalysis is flawed. And even if psychoanalysis is the best method, I say, there is no way I’m going to spend ten years of my life going over every sad, pathetic thing that has ever happened to me.
Miller asks what brings me to therapy. I say I haven’t been feeling well lately and am unable to sleep. “It’s crazy; it’s not like my family and I are living in Ethiopia or El Salvador.” (It’s the late eighties, and I’m in my early thirties.)
“So you think that unless you’re starving or living in a war zone, you’ve got no right to be in pain?”
No, I tell him. I’m just saying that there is nothing happening to me that should make me feel this bad.
Miller points out that I still haven’t told him what I am looking for from a therapist.
I try to explain that, although I am definitely not looking for a psychoanalyst, I definitely am looking for someone who is “psychoanalytically oriented.” Even I know this sounds like hairsplitting, so I switch gears: “I told you, I’m looking for someone whose idea of therapy goes way beyond doping me up on drugs.” I say this last word in an accusatory way, as if he had his pen poised over a prescription pad.
It isn’t until I have said the word drugs that I become aware I’m looking at the blue lettering on Miller’s coffee mug.
Noticing my gaze, he laughs. “So you think it’s strange I’ve got a coffee mug from Pfizer?”
“Yeah, I do, actually. I mean, isn’t that a conflict of interest?”
“What exactly would the conflict be? Do you imagine I’d prescribe a course of antidepressants to a patient who doesn’t need them in exchange for a free mug?”
I smile and shrug — a provocative response, I’ll admit, given that he is clearly asking a rhetorical question.
Miller picks up the mug and takes a swig. “So I hear you saying that you don’t want to take any medication; you don’t want cognitive therapy or behavioral therapy; you don’t want psychoanalysis —”
“I’m just looking for someone who will stay quiet and listen while I try to figure out, finally, why I am so fucked up.”
Miller winces. “That’s a pretty harsh self-assessment.”
I thought that was the point of therapy, I explain: to cut through the lies we tell ourselves and be honest. When he asks whether I find it helpful to describe myself as “fucked up,” I sigh and shake my head and repeat that I only referred to myself that way because I know my issues are all connected to memories I’ve been repressing since childhood. That’s what I’m looking for: someone who can help me get to the deep, hidden issues.
“And what do you imagine will happen once you uncover these repressed memories?”
I shoot Miller a look to let him know that I don’t like being patronized. “You tell me. I’ve only been in therapy” — I look at my watch — “like, fifteen minutes.”
He just stares, making it clear he is going to wait for me to answer his question.
I don’t know exactly what will happen when I get to those repressed memories, I tell him, but I expect I’ll feel excruciating pain at first, followed by a huge sense of relief and lightness.
I figure Miller will now acknowledge that I have pretty much nailed the therapy process, but instead he says, “What you’re describing isn’t therapy; it’s opera.”
His reference to opera hits on several core truths: My parents always had season tickets to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. There was always a lot of sturm und drang in their marriage. And I do imagine therapy as theater. That Miller has hit all these targets in one shot only makes me madder. I insist that I’m not interested in a therapist who will offer glib interpretations of everything I say; I’m interested in finding someone who can help me arrive at my own interpretations.
“OK, so let me see if I have this right,” Miller says, smiling. “I’m supposed to act nothing like your father, but I’m also supposed to act exactly like your father?”
I have that sickening feeling you get when you realize you have just been checkmated. I respond, naturally, with adolescent sarcasm: “Wow. So you’ve already figured out that I’ve got some issues with my father? That’s really impressive.” And then, just to drive home the point that it has taken me only twenty minutes of therapy to regress more than twenty years, I add, “What do you want: a medal or a monument?”
There’s one minute left in the wrestling match. I’m down 4 to 1 and gasping for air as if I’ve just run a marathon. Based on the facts, this is a match I should lose: I’m a fourteen-year-old freshman, and the kid I’m wrestling is a seventeen-year-old senior who has apparently spent every minute of his three additional years on the planet lifting weights and chiseling his upper body. Though we’re in the same weight class, his arms and chest are so much bigger than mine that I feel like a kid wrestling his dad. But it’s not just his strength advantage and the uneven score that makes it seem he’s got victory locked up; he is also more motivated and less conflicted than I am about winning. As the only freshman on our varsity team, I’ve already exceeded almost everyone’s expectations. And, as a privileged kid with a psychoanalyst for a father, I don’t need this win to secure a college wrestling scholarship. In fact, as my chest heaves and I fight to catch my breath, I can’t think of a single reason why I need this.
What makes wrestling such an interesting sport, though, is that a match can turn in an instant on a subtle and surprising shift in momentum. Wrestlers score points every time they turn a position of neutrality into one of advantage. To an outside observer those moves appear to be achieved through brute force, but the truth is that most matches, especially ones between two good wrestlers, come down less to sheer strength than to leverage and agility. And that’s my advantage: I have a natural ability to feel where my weight is in relation to my opponent’s. It is this sense of where the momentum is — and where it could go — that allows me not only to block the efforts of stronger opponents but also to lull them into overconfidence, to seduce them into positions they don’t realize are dangerous until it’s too late.
Like a counterpuncher in boxing, a wrestler with my style needs to be able to absorb some punishment while preparing to spring a trap. And that’s my other advantage: though I’m less eager to win than my opponent is, I am more desperate not to lose. I know that winning is not going to make my angst and anger go away, but I also know that losing will make me furious and heartsick. The idea that someone, anyone, has got something over me — and, worse, the fear that the other person might gloat about it — makes me, for want of a more nuanced term, go nuts. This has been true my whole life, whether I’m playing a supposedly casual game of basketball or engaged in some friendly teasing: I’m happy to go with the flow for a while, but as soon as the image of me losing pops into my head, I snap into an intense focus that usually changes the outcome of the encounter.
As the clock runs down, I can hear Coach Wisnewski — a hulking man who, as the result of getting kicked in the throat during a college football game, talks in an improbably high-pitched voice — yelling at me through cupped hands, “Forty-five seconds, Tobin! Forty-five seconds! You gotta go right now! Take control right now! Show him you want it more than he does!” Wisnewski and I are stuck with each other. I’m sure he’d rather coach kids who came up hard, who are less conflicted and reflective, who are more like he was as a teenager. But I’m the best he’s got in this weight class. I have more moves in my repertoire than anyone else on the team except for my older brother, Joe, who started teaching me everything he knew while I was still in junior high.
Even before I learned how to wrestle, Joe, my younger brothers Jeff and Dan, and I spent most of our waking hours competing fiercely against each other. So I’d already faced more competition in my own house than I would encounter on any wrestling mat. It was not unusual for my brothers and me to spend an entire day playing a tense, aggressive game, followed by an entire evening of not speaking to one another. Though this Green Beret–level at-home training included all sports, wrestling eventually became our main focus. For one, it suited our smallish, agile builds and fierce temperaments. And two, it was the sport that our father took to with a passion that none of us had ever seen in him before.
When first Joe and then the rest of us joined wrestling teams, our father went out and bought a Super 8 movie camera so he could film every one of our matches. As soon as the film came back from the camera shop, he would gather us around to review and analyze our techniques. The camera was soon followed by the purchase of a regulation-size wrestling mat, which we rolled out next to the boiler in our basement. Late in the evening my brothers and I would head down there to practice the gut wrenches, arm bars, cradles, and guillotines we’d learned from our coaches but also to invent and perfect moves that would take our coaches — and our opponents — by surprise. Our father would come down to watch, and once, to my horror, he even decided to join in. Since he had never wrestled before, he should have been easy to beat, but he was a well-muscled, unusually fit man who had been a successful Golden Gloves boxer in his teens. He also didn’t like to lose, at anything, ever (he must have been my model on that score), and he’d picked up more than a few moves from studying all those films. When you add the fact that he was our father, it’s not hard to see why wrestling him felt like a life-and-death struggle. My memory is that both Joe and I did beat him — barely — but I remember feeling traumatized by the Oedipal nature of the experience. I mean, what does a teenage boy do after he’s just beaten his father in a heated physical struggle? Head upstairs to do his homework, stopping on the way to sleep with his mother and poke out his eyes?
With only forty-five seconds left in my match against the seventeen-year-old senior, I decide to go all out on a double-leg takedown, but as soon as I grab my opponent’s left thigh, he flattens out his body and arches his back so that his weight pushes my head down to the mat. I have to cling to his leg to keep him from spinning around me for a takedown. For just a second I am tempted to stay in this stalemated position and wait for the final buzzer, resigning myself to a respectable loss. But in those few seconds, while my nose is being pressed against the mat, something shifts: I stop feeling sorry for this kid because he doesn’t have a clear path to Oberlin or Amherst, and I start imagining that he thinks the match is already over, that I am already beaten. And just like that I go from not caring about him to hating him with a kind of rage that would feel bizarre if it weren’t so familiar.
What I need to win is a two-point takedown and a two-point near fall — not impossible, but not likely unless I can come up with something unexpected and risky. Fortunately this is exactly the kind of situation my brothers and I have prepared for in our basement. The last-second move we most fantasize about pulling off is one we call the “pancake,” because it involves flipping your opponent from his feet onto his back. The key is to use the other guy’s momentum against him. First you get in front of him and hook your arms under his; then you push as hard as you can, forcing him to back up until you feel him dig in and hold his ground. What you’re waiting for — feeling for — is the moment when he starts pushing back hard enough to force you to back up. At that split second you launch yourself backward, lifting him with your arms so that you pull him off his feet and onto your chest. If you get the timing and balance and grip exactly right, you can turn in midair so that your opponent lands on his back with you on top of him. Of course, if you get any part of the move wrong, you will end up in the worst, most vulnerable position a wrestler can be in: flat on your own back, in danger of being pinned.
In this instance, however, it works like a dream. Even before I launch my body — and his — into space, I can feel that he is caught completely off guard, and I know that the move will succeed, that the tide of the match has shifted, and I am about to win. What I don’t know — and, of course, can’t know yet — is that, decades later, as I trudge to a dreary department meeting or toss and turn on a sleepless night, the memory of this brief moment from a seemingly trivial high-school wrestling match, this moment in which I turn a certain defeat into a dramatic win, will bring me a surprising measure of comfort.
“Let me ask the question in a different way,” Miller says. “What do you imagine your therapist’s role will be in helping you get to those deep, hidden issues?”
I reply that I’d be totally comfortable being asked to analyze anything I’ve done. I’m used to it, since that’s how I was brought up. Whenever my brothers and I did something wrong, our parents would say, “Why don’t you go to your room and think about why you did that.” And my father always said that there was no such thing as an accident. And so I tell Miller that I imagine my therapist’s role will be to help me get to my own deeper issues through free association, but that I definitely do not want a therapist to be “directive” about what I should talk about.
“Do you think I am being too directive?”
“Yeah, sort of. When you were pushing me so hard about my father.”
Miller raises his eyebrows. “You felt I was pushing you about your father?”
Of everything I said, I point out, that’s the one thing he picked up on. I know, of course, that I’ve got issues with my father, but I’ll bet they’re not any bigger than most sons have with their fathers — in fact, they’re probably smaller, I tell Miller. Overall, my relationship with my father has been fine. He’s not the reason I’ve started feeling so miserable now.
“What is the reason?”
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be here. That’s what I thought a therapist would help me figure out.”
“And he’d help you figure this all out by not ever saying anything, without ever directing the conversation?” Miller’s smile is really getting on my nerves.
I sigh heavily, then tell him that I feel like he’s mocking me. He apologizes and assures me he’s not. He’s just trying to understand me.
“Well, you’re definitely judging me,” I say.
“When have you felt I was judging you?”
“This whole time. Isn’t that the point of this session?” I remind him that he said when I called that he’d be feeling me out to see if I’d be a good patient for him, to see if we are a good fit.
Miller says that he also told me he wasn’t sure he had space in his schedule for a new patient right now, and that he would give me a referral if he doesn’t, but I’m not really listening. “And what are you going to base your decision on?” I ask. “How will you know if I’m a good fit based on one hour — one fifty-minute hour?” I tell him that what he has seen of me so far is not who I usually am, that I don’t usually lose my temper — in fact, I wish I lost my temper more. I almost always hold too much in. I conclude by saying that the only reason I got “a little crazy” is because I felt judged.
Miller nods, but I can’t tell whether he’s agreeing that anyone would feel angry at being judged or that I am a little crazy.
“That’s why I made that stupid ‘medal or a monument’ remark,” I continue. “That’s totally not typical of me, to be so aggressive or confrontational like that.” I explain that it’s actually something my eight-year-old, Lucy, often says to my five-year-old, Emma, whenever she feels like Emma is bragging: “What do you want: a medal or a monument?”
“Why do you think our conversation reminded you of your daughters?” Miller asks.
“Why do you think it reminded me of my daughters? Are you asking because you think you know?”
“I thought you weren’t interested in my offering any interpretations,” Miller says. I glare. He smiles and suggests that maybe I brought it up because I was trying to act like his older sibling, to put him in his place.
I shake my head and point out that I’m the one who has no power in this situation, so I’m more like the younger sibling. Miller waits for me to go on. I describe how, when Lucy makes the “medal or a monument” remark, she intends to shut Emma up, but Emma is too little to understand that it’s a putdown. She’ll ask, “What’s a monument, again?” And of course that makes Lucy mad, and she’ll explain that it’s a big statue of you that they build in a park. And then Emma will put her chin in her hand, as if thinking really hard, and reply, “I think I’ll take the monument!”
Miller gives a real laugh this time, not that patronizing chuckle.
Feeling as if I’m finally on more solid ground, I wrap up my anecdote with an analytical flourish: “So maybe I brought it up now because subconsciously my daughters’ interaction reminded me of what was happening between us: I kept trying to get you to be quiet, to put you in your place, but you wouldn’t go along with it. You kept asking questions, like Emma asking Lucy, ‘What’s a monument, again?’ And that drove me crazy.”
I glance at Miller, hoping that he’ll give me a sign of approval, that he’ll finally acknowledge that I’d be a fascinating, charming, endearingly neurotic patient, and of course he’ll fit me into his schedule.
Instead I see him glance at his watch.
I ’m an angry, long-haired teenager, and I’m standing just inside the doorway of my parents’ bedroom. My mother is sitting up in bed, her legs under the covers. She wears a negligee, and her reading glasses are on top of her head. Books, magazines, and newspapers are strewn across her side. My father sits on the far side, on top of the covers. He has turned to face the window.
“You two haven’t spoken a word to each other in weeks,” my mother says. “This has to stop.”
I keep staring at the wall between where my parents sit. My father keeps staring at the window. Finally, unable to stand the tension, I say there’s no point. He hates me and thinks I am a loser because I quit the wrestling team.
My father doesn’t even acknowledge that I’ve spoken. My mother asks him, “You don’t think he’s a loser, do you, Arnie? Tell him you don’t think that.” But my dad is silent.
He thinks that wrestling was all I had, I say, and without it I’m nothing.
“Arnie, tell him you don’t think that,” my mother says.
My father slowly turns to me and instead asks, “What are you going to do now — now that you have more free time?”
Caught off guard, I blurt out something I have never even thought to myself: “I’m going to be an intellectual.”
My father scoffs. “An intellectual?”
Even as a self-absorbed teenager I must have known this would sound ridiculous. But what was the alternative? If I had said, I want to spend more time making out with my girlfriend and listening to my huge record collection, it would only have justified his contempt for me. And the fact is it would not have been the whole truth either. Though there’s no question I would rather have spent my afternoons with my girlfriend than with a demanding coach and a bunch of jocks, it’s also true that I was ready to try to reinvent myself as a thinker.
The previous summer I’d discovered not only marijuana and sex but reading: first Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, J.D. Salinger, and other alienated white men; then Eldridge Cleaver, Claude Brown, Malcolm X, and other angry black men. By the time wrestling season rolled around, I had found other ways to channel my own alienation and anger: I had joined a group that was staging rallies against the Vietnam War in town. I had organized a walkout at my high school over what I saw as unfair teaching methods. (“What gives you the right to give me a test?”) And I had protested at the courthouse where Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and the rest of the Chicago Seven were on trial.
But no matter what I might have said that night, the result probably would have been the same. There was too much at stake for either of us to back down.
“See?” I say to my mother. “He thinks I’m a total loser. He’s ashamed to have me as a son.”
“If you quit now,” my father says, “you’ll always be a quitter.”
I roll my eyes, and he shifts his body so that I can no longer see his face.
All these years later I think I can finally imagine how he felt. I was a sixteen-year-old who’d never held a job, who almost never did a chore around the house, and who felt entitled to express the anger and self-pity that consumed him much of the time. My father was a man who had grown up in a poor, dysfunctional immigrant family but who had somehow managed, through enormous effort and will, to turn himself into a top student, then a doctor, and now a highly respected training analyst at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. In fact, he had decided, in the midst of a difficult childhood, to become an intellectual. By the time he was twenty-one, he was not only a medical student but a husband and a father. (He had married his brilliant, charismatic, melodramatic, probably manic-depressive teenage girlfriend, my mother.) The scale of his accomplishments seems staggering to me, but so, too, does the cost: he had to spend most of his time, both at work and at home, holding people — most of all himself — together.
Maybe that’s why, when my brothers and I took up wrestling, something seemed to click for him. Here was an area in which he could connect with us in a new — or maybe, for him, an old — way. Wrestling provided a deep, unspoken connection, a way we all could act on or act out our emotions. I must have known, at least superficially, how important my wrestling was to him, but I didn’t understand, or didn’t care. All I knew was that wrestling and everything that went along with it — including my father’s attention — had become too much for me to bear. Unfortunately, having that connection snatched away was apparently too much for him to bear.
“You both need to apologize to each other right now,” my mother pleads again. With all the charged feelings in the room, this would be a good time for my father to assure me that he doesn’t think I am a loser or a terrible son, that he loves me and believes in me no matter what I choose to do. But he can’t do that. And it would also be a good time for me to tell him how much I’ve always looked up to him, how much I respect his ability to stay strong and calm when things are falling apart, but that right now what I want — what I need — is some sign of his love and approval. But of course I can’t do that either. What I say instead is “You may be a brilliant psychoanalyst, but you are a terrible father.”
And I turn and walk out.
“Well, our time is about up,” Miller says.
Our time is up? But he still hasn’t said anything about agreeing to see me after this session. I want to tell him that, even though we’ve spent only fifty minutes together, it’s been a worthwhile fifty minutes, and I don’t want to start all over with someone new. Most of all, I want to tell him that he’d like me if he’d only get to know me; that he shouldn’t worry about my being angry and confrontational; that I’ve expressed more anger toward him than I’ve expressed toward my father in the past twenty years. In fact, I am still so traumatized from a fight I had with my father over my quitting wrestling when I was sixteen that I have never argued with him again. But Miller is getting ready to stand up.
“Wait, can I have just one more minute?” I say. I know that time is running out, and I have to do something. “I haven’t told you anything about my mother yet.”
I see from his sad smile and the way he places his hands on the arms of his chair that he is still about to end the session.
I think this surprises both of us. Maybe I blurted it out because I’m scared that I’ve lost the chance to be his patient, and, as usual, I can’t stand the idea of losing at anything. Or maybe I just don’t want the conversation to end. But as soon as the words are out of my mouth, I feel the energy in the room has shifted. I’m about to start crying.
Miller puts his hands in his lap and leans toward me, waiting.
“I mean, not this second, but for the past ten years,” I say. I tell him about the heart failures and surgeries. The last time, the surgeon said there wasn’t much heart muscle left. She has diabetes, and she’s overweight, but she won’t change — she can’t change — the way she eats, the way she lives. Now I am crying hard. “Every time I walk into the house, the first thing I do is look over at the answering machine to see if it’s blinking, and, if it is, I think, OK, this is it. This is the call telling me that my mother is dead.”
I want to tell him I know that all this rehearsing for my mother’s death is not going to help me when it really happens. I want to tell him that I know how much I need help — his help. But Miller is standing again.
“Our time is up for today,” he says, “but we can take this up next time. Will this slot work for you?”
I nod as I stagger to my feet. I’m still choking back tears, but I feel a surge of relief. It’s all I can do to keep from embracing this man and wrestling him to the thick, Berber carpet.