Howie Returns: A Therapy Update

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    Therapy Session No. 1180 [The following is a transcription, lightly edited by the patient, of an actual therapy session of 1/19/2000. The scene opens with patient and doctor seated face-to-face. Dr. G practices on the west side of Manhattan. ]  

    HOWIE: I can't decide whether I should sit or lie down today. I think I'm going to lie down. Excuse me a moment. [In one motion, props pillow against armrest of couch and then leans back and stretches out, his hands on his chest, his feet crossed at the ankles. A minute goes by before the next line is spoken.] So here's what I've been thinking. Let me just get it out. I'd like to wind down the therapy at the end of this year. I thought of waiting a little longer before I mentioned this to you, but I've already talked to Jean about it, and Paul, too, for that matter. My hope is that I'll have your blessing when I walk away at the end of the year. That's why I'm telling you so far in advance.

    Dr. G: Am I hearing you say you wish to terminate therapy?

    HOWIE: At the end of the year. But I want to know you're with me on this. I want your support.

    Dr. G: What's it like to be telling me this?

    HOWIE: Well, now that I've said it, I feel there's no going back for me. A body in motion tends to stay in motion.

    Dr. G: When did this plan of yours start to take hold?

    HOWIE: [pausing] You've heard me mention the name David Applebaum before. A couple of months ago, David's wife threw him a surprise birthday party at a restaurant here in the city, on E. 18th St. David was probably doubly surprised to find Jean and me there; the last time he saw us was a good four or five years ago. We used to know just about everyone at David's parties, but this time half the people were people we'd never met before. At one point during the party, David calls a friend over and explains to this friend that I'm the Howie of "The Howie Chronicles." Apparently this friend had been a big fan of the column. "You're Howie?" he cries. "I don't believe it. This is great!" The friend and I were both sipping drinks from the bar. I don't know about you, but I feel like a phony when I'm drawn into a discussion about therapy, over cocktails. David wanders off and I'm left with this friend of his, who informs me that he was in analysis for several years. Those were his actual words, by the way. If there's one thing that makes me feel sorry for myself, it's hearing someone make reference to his "analyst" or "analysis." Both of those words are too rich for my blood. I would like to use them both myself, but I know it wouldn't be right. I'm in therapy, I say. That's the best I can do. Even back when I was coming here three times a week, I never thought of it as analysis?whatever it was, it wasn't that.

    Anyway, the point is, the whole topic bored me. I couldn't think of anything to say to this person. And ever since then, I've started to feel that I'm done in here. I keep waiting for things to pick up, but they don't. And so, with your help, I'd like to draw things to a close.

    Dr. G: You talk about quitting, Howard, and I believe it's quite genuine, but my own observation is that your actions belie your words.

    HOWIE: What do you mean?

    Dr. G: I notice that you made the decision not to sit up today. You tell me you want to quit, but before you make the declaration, you adopt the classic pose of the analysand?you lie down.

    HOWIE: Maybe I'm just a coward. I knew what I had to say but I didn't want to face you.

    Dr. G: You say you had a conversation with Paul about your quitting. What was that like? Did he offer any guidance?

    HOWIE: He told me that when he quit, his life took an upswing. I don't remember the details, but good things started to happen. He himself always called his therapy "treatment." His main reason for going into treatment, so he claims, was to learn how to dance?he had a hang-up about dancing. He still couldn't dance at the completion of his treatment, but things started to click for him romantically and professionally. The spell didn't last forever?it faded after a few months. But the point is, he did have this golden period after he quit. It was sort of like he was now reaping what he sowed.

    I don't expect any such miracles in my own case. My life will go on as normal, maybe a little worse. Really, I don't want to think about Paul's example. It'll only make me that much more depressed when nothing happens to me.

    Dr. G: I suspect you do hope for the same "golden period." Isn't this why you're willing to spend another year with me? That's what I'm not entirely clear about, Howard. If you're getting nothing out of this, why drag it on?

    HOWIE: I want to go out with a bang, not a whimper. It might take a year for me to work up to that. Anyway, I'm willing to give the process a chance.

    Dr. G: Is there some special significance in the timing of your announcement? Isn't this right around the date you first started here?

    HOWIE: Jan. 7 was my 12th anniversary. I've already surpassed Paul, you know; Paul did it for 10 years. As he was nearing the finish line, I was just starting out. Until I reached my 10th year, it didn't feel excessive to me. It only felt excessive after passing the marker Paul had set. On the other hand, I always have the example of David Applebaum. For years, you know, he saw his guy four to five times a week. It always gave me a boost to know that someone was doing it more than me. When I saw David at his party, I said, "I have two questions for you. Do you still belong to a men's group and are you still seeing L___?" David looked at me and said, "Is that all you want to know? Just those two things? Yes, I'm still in a men's group but not the same men's group. And yes, I'm still seeing L___"?he said it without apology. It occurs to me now that I was looking for that answer. If David had stopped seeing L___, I would have felt all alone.

    Dr. G: And now?

    HOWIE: I'm getting out before David beats me to it. See, the problem is, I always keep waiting for some sort of sign. Once I get the sign, I think, that's when I'll call it quits. But the sign never comes, and so I keep hanging on. I think at some point you just say, "I've had enough."

    Dr. G: So where does this leave you and I in the year ahead?

    HOWIE: [pausing] See, this is the kind of thing that makes me feel we're not compatible. It should be, "Where does this leave you and me." You always want to know what I'm thinking, so there it is. You still say "Between you and I," but that's wrong too. It should be "between you and me," not "I." One way to hear the error is to switch the two words around: "Between I and you." See, it doesn't sound right, does it? Trust your ear there. It has to be "me."

    I hope, by the way, you're not smiling right now. "There he goes again, fussing about 'between you and me.'" I've seen that small ironic smile on your face. But I'm serious about this. It's important to me. When I open up a book, I can tell in just a few lines if this is the kind of book I want to continue with or not. Does the writer know what he's doing? That's the most important question. And this is what the writer reveals?or doesn't?in those first lines. The story isn't important yet. That for me is the least of it. But show me that you know what you're doing, and I'm yours. By the end of the first page?if I've gotten that far?a kind of yielding takes place; it's like a sexual experience. It's like, Yes, I'm in good hands. I think I'll relax now. I guess what I'm saying is that I can't feel relaxed when I hear you say "Between you and I" all the time.

    When I first started seeing you, I told my friend Ross about it, and Ross said, "Tell me, is the guy a psychiatrist?" "No," I said, "he's a therapist," and Ross shook his head sadly. "A PhD?" he said. "The guy wrote a paper, Howie. that's all it takes. What you want is an MD, not a guy who wrote a paper."

    Dr. G: [pausing] I can tell you I'm not smiling. On the contrary, I take very seriously what you're telling me. If I don't speak your language, I'm not understanding you. It must be painful not to be understood. For my part, frankly, I feel very defeated.

    HOWIE: Because of my wanting to quit?

    Dr. G: Yes, I feel defeated by you.

    HOWIE: It's funny that you say that. I was actually thinking that I have made some strides in here. My going to David Applebaum's surprise party is one example. I told you that we hadn't seen David in about five years. Our friendship withered when we moved out to the suburbs. So how did we come to be invited to this party?

    A couple of years ago, we heard from Paul that David and Patty were expecting a baby, and later when they had this baby, again we got the word from Paul. Jean and I, even though we didn't get a birth announcement, decided to go ahead and send the baby a gift anyway. A month or two later, we get a warmly written note from Patty, thanking us for the gift but also inviting us to pay a call. Six months go by; silence on our end. Some of the goodwill we created with that baby gift?my feeling is that some of that goodwill was lost now. We should have made an effort to respond to Patty's note sooner.

    But then one night we stay over in the city. We left the kids with Susan and Pete?this was on a Saturday?and that night, after we make an early movie and eat dinner, it's not even 9 o'clock and we're not sure what to do. So I said to Jean, "Do you think David and Patty are home? Let's try calling them and see if we can stop by." As it turns out, they weren't home, or weren't picking up. They have a place in New Paltz. We figured they were probably there. But Jean left a message and, looking back, I think that was key. I think we managed to recover some of the goodwill we lost.

    A couple of months later, we get the invitation to David's party at Paul & Jimmy's restaurant on E. 18th St. The very next day I call Patty on her cellphone and tell her we'll be happy to come and I thank her for inviting us. Apparently I was catching her at an inconvenient moment. "David's here," she said in a whisper, "so I can't really talk now. But I'm glad you guys are coming. We'll see you at the party."

    So now it was official; we marked the date on our calendar.

    A few days later, I go to my filing cabinet to look for something and I come across a sheet of paper with directions to the picnic grounds where Jean threw my 40th birthday party. That, too, was a surprise party, just like David's. I'd forgotten about this souvenir but here it was in the filing cabinet, tucked away in the folder marked "Birthday Cards?Howard." I take out the sheet of paper and suddenly I remember my old grudge against David and Patty for not making the party. They were the only no-shows?the only two I cared about. The word was that they simply couldn't swing it, but I could guess the reason. The party was on my actual birthday, a Saturday, and as fate would have it, Patty and I share the same birthday. That's why they didn't show?I put the blame on Patty. She made David choose between us?her birthday or mine. But I was the one turning 40; I thought that should have counted for something. And what about all those past birthday parties of David's? Didn't I go to every single one of those parties? Out of decency, if nothing else, he should have returned the favor. I'll never go to another one of his parties, I told myself.

    The sheet of paper with the directions on it brought the old wound back. Not just the memory but the actual feeling. I started to wish I hadn't made that phone call to Patty. I considered calling her back and telling her not to expect us after all. I'd leave it to her to figure out the motive for my about-face. But then I saw I'd only be spiting myself and Jean. We both wanted to go to David's birthday party.

    So then I thought, boy, it's a good thing I made that call to Patty before I saw this old sheet of paper in the filing cabinet. And then I thought, you know, I've really come a long way. Six years ago, or whenever it was I had that surprise party, I never would have figured that I'd forget I had this grudge to settle. I'm not such a bad person after all, I thought.

    Dr. G: [pausing] I wonder what you think it is you're telling me, Howard. Why do you think this story is coming up now?

    HOWIE: Well, you know, I did leave out one important detail. The next time I saw David and Patty after I turned 40 was later that summer, at a pre-wedding party for Paul and Heidi. I'm afraid I cornered David and Patty and told them how hurt I was. But maybe this confrontation helped me get past my grudge. And maybe it was the therapy that allowed for this confrontation.

    Dr. G: [pausing] So let me ask you again. What do you think your reason is for telling this to me?

    HOWIE: I always like to give you good reports when I can. They don't come often, and so I like to make the most of them. And frankly, I figure you can use one right now. I drop it at your feet like a cat a dead mouse.