High Anxiety


I saw a “counselor” for a couple of months when I was 15. I’d been sent to her after being designated a “troubled” teenager—I’d missed some “important” appointments with adults, came from a “broken home,” and had no friends. I was troubled, and the news that I would be talking intimately with this attractive and friendly woman once a week was very welcome to me. It was, in fact, a monumental relief. The 50-minute hours I spent with her flew by, and I was always eager to see her again. Naturally, I fell madly in love with her. And just as naturally, it seemed at the time, she was impelled eight weeks after my first session to move to a town some four hours away, where, she told me, they needed her. I never saw her again. So much for counseling, I said to myself, quietly denouncing (for a while, and without quite knowing it) psychotherapy, transference love, and the hope of ever being anything other than “troubled.”

Fifteen years later, I was a bona fide drug addict, hustler, and compulsive gambler. Finally, in late 1997, to avoid suicide I checked myself into an outpatient rehab center, and they sent me to a psychiatrist and to group therapy. The psychiatrist was extremely helpful—for $150 an hour, she listened to me with a concerned expression and then prescribed Prozac.

Between her fee and the cost of the medication (and the fact that I’d stopped hustling, and was a long way from having health insurance), I could afford to see her barely often enough to keep the pills coming. The group therapy was interesting and often amusing—we were a lively collection of urban gay drug addicts. But I lasted only a couple of months there: I seduced a member of the group, and in our next meeting, he announced our indiscretion and we were both immediately and permanently booted out. I argued that we hadn’t been told that we weren’t allowed to have sex with each other (we hadn’t), but the leader of the group insisted that we should have known better. Oh well, I told myself—therapy is just not for me, and I took my Prozac and moved to the country.

Where I gradually grew healthy, calm, and bored. But I’d kept the lease on my apartment in Manhattan, and after a year and a half I moved back to the city. Six months later, I ran into a beautiful young man I’d known for a decade who’d been dating an ex-boyfriend of mine for much of the time I knew him. They had finally split up, and the winds of fortune, for once, were blowing my way. I fell in love with him, for real this time, and he returned my love. We agreed after a while, for various reasons, that some therapy would be a good idea for both of us, and we separately went about finding the right person to see once or twice a week.

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. When I began to see my psychotherapist a year ago, I was far from miserable. I had some “issues”—I needed to make more money, I wanted to feel more committed to the bizarre concept of monogamy, I sometimes felt anxious, and I wanted to resolve some questions about my parents and my childhood. I wanted, in short, to be happier than I already was, and I wanted to be a good, long-term boyfriend.

Now I see my psychotherapist three times a week—his monthly fee (greatly reduced from the norm according to a sliding scale that takes my income into account) is almost exactly the same as my rent. The weekday hours I spend with him (and traveling to and from his apartment) are hours away from my office, the one place where I make any money. I’m a far worse boyfriend now than I was six months ago—distracted, distant, often cold. I’m much more anxious than I’ve ever been before, and happiness is far more elusive for me now than it was in the past. The other night I woke up with my first migraine and spent several hours vomiting and trying not to think of my parents; thinking of them lately, in the daydreamy, gloomy way in which they come into my mind, makes me feel even worse than I’m already feeling. A few days ago, I fainted after dinner. I’d been talking about therapy, and my mind had wandered for a few seconds to the vague, dark specters of my mother and the man I thought was my father. As it turns out, and to complicate things further, we’ve probably got the wrong guy in the paternity department after all these years.

I asked my mother a year ago why she supposed my father had refused to speak to me for more than 15 years. Is it just because I’m gay? I asked her. No, she said, I don’t think that’s it. He doesn’t think you’re his child. Well, am I? I’m not sure, Mom said.

I spoke to the man I grew up believing to be my father last week for the first time since I was 17. Mom was right—he doesn’t believe he’s my father. He admitted that it might have been better to tell me this a long time ago, but he didn’t want to say anything against my mother. If it turns out that he is my father, then, he said, he owes me a big apology. He agreed to a blood test if I opt to arrange one. I don’t know why my mother didn’t mention any of this before I brought it up to her at the age of 34. I asked her two weeks ago for a brief biography of my first year of life, and haven’t heard from her since.

Such are the gifts, for me, so far, of psychotherapy.

Toward the end of her 1981 book Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm reports on the last of her many intimate conversations with “Aaron Green,” a disguised New York psychoanalyst. He had compared analysis several times to surgery, and Malcolm asks him why he is so attached to that analogy. “Because it’s so radical,” he says. “Because it indicates how impersonal and intimate analysis is. Because it tells you that it is not a casual procedure, that it is serious and dangerous, that it is dire.” I know there’s a difference between five-times-a-week classical psychoanalysis and the mere three-times-a-week psychotherapy that I’m putting myself through, but his radical analogy, and his use of that awful word “dire,” have me, for now, in their grip. One of my many strange fantasies while in therapy has been to be hospitalized for an extended period. For what? I’m a healthy, reasonably socialized, reasonably happy person—or at least I was before I went into psychotherapy.

I keep going back for more psychotherapy—and recently asked for that third weekly session, rather than just two—because I have a minimal but persistent faith that I will eventually get better, and will finally be better off than I was pre-therapy. I want some insight. Malcolm’s “Aaron Green” again: “Insight isn’t superficial—it isn’t simply learning something mildly interesting about yourself. It is becoming yourself.” So I guess I’m trying, with the help of psychotherapy, to become myself. I didn’t expect it to be easy or entertaining or cheap. But I wish I had been better prepared for the degree to which psychotherapy has been wreaking havoc on my brain and my body. I’m eager to learn how to feel feelings; I’m just alarmed at the price I’m being asked to pay to do so. I thought psychotherapy would be, above all else, interesting. Instead it is, more than anything, dire.

Rick Whitaker is the author of Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling and The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara: Reading Gay American Writers.