A Little Housekeeping For The Head

By Gina Barreca
The Hartford Courant.

Two things I do for maintenance: I get a manicure once a month and I see my therapist about every six weeks. I am happy to report that, at this point, my nails crack more often than I do.

Almost 30 years ago, I started seeking help from a counselor with a master’s of social work in New York City, but we were never a good match. It was like being in a bad relationship, except that the guy could actually bill my health insurance company for lousy dates. It was a fraught time: I was ending a mistake of a first marriage and learning how to accept the demands of being an untenured, full-time faculty member.

I remember thinking right from the beginning that this counselor wasn’t my ideal. But despite the ineffective nature of our interactions, there was one moment, which reminds me why those early sessions were significant.

He was the first person who I ever spoke to about how much it bothered me that my face had been pockmarked by acne as a teenager. We would sit in two chairs facing each other about four feet apart. I told him, even though it was very hard for me to say it, that one of the hardest things for me was to look into the mirror and see my scars.

He was nodding and taking notes but after a few minutes looked up and said, “What kind of scars are you talking about?” My face got hot with shame. I said, “The scars on my face, of course” and I kept going.

He interrupted and asked, “Are they hidden by your hair?”

I said, “I’m talking about my skin.” He said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Whatever scars you’re talking about are not ones on the outside. They’re not something anybody else can see.”

And I believed him.

I believed him, but I stopped seeing him about six months later. I found a new doctor closer to where I worked.

Every patient tends to bury the most important story inside some other story, just the way new writers often “bury the lede.” “Burying the lede” is an old journalism term for when you only find out the real point about halfway into the article, but it also applies to therapy.

You address your real issue when your hand is on the door and you’re about to leave the office.

In an early visit with the new therapist, this one a psychiatrist, at the very end of the session, I blurted out the central question of my entire life: “Doctor,” I asked, “am I crazy?”

He looked up from his notepad so fast that his glasses fell down his nose. He laughed and replied, “I know crazy. You’re not crazy.”

His answer was both so abrupt and so wildly unprofessional, that, once again, I believed him.

I saw him only briefly, but I remain grateful.

It wasn’t until I was in my early 40s that I decided that I once again needed to get refitted for my destiny, the way you might get refitted for a bra or a new pair of shoes.

The therapist I’m seeing now did much more than that. For more than 15 years, she has helped me navigate the unmapped territories of my inner life.

With her I’ve learned to confront my fear, my sadness and my anger, learned some of the reasons behind them and manage my reactions to them.

I see taking care of my emotional and mental health in the same way that I see taking care of a garment: After it’s been through wear and tear, it needs attention.

You can take to banging it repeatedly against a stone, as your ancestors did, hanging it up on a rope and whacking it with a stick.

Sure, that’ll remove some of the debris and shake things up. But it isn’t thorough, it won’t last long, and it’s tough on the fibers holding everything together.

Or you can put it through the gentle cycle. The gentle cycle, you’ll notice, is a cycle. It takes longer, it’s got to be repeated, and you have to have patience.

My experience tells me patience is worth it.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant

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