The road is long and vanishes into a horizon without end. The land is covered with frozen snow as far as you can see. You don’t know how long you’ve been trudging along, just that it has been a long time, and you can’t imagine the end of the journey, because you don’t know where you’re going to and have only a vague idea of what you’re leaving behind. You carry a few things in a red backpack, the only note of color in the scene. Nothing is certain in this desert of snow. You feel cold, but not unbearably so.
First you’re there, and then you’re struggling with logical interpretation in the dry, heated room. You sit across from each other in identical pressed-wood Ikea chairs, except that he has an extra cushion behind his back for support – a hazard of the job, you think. He sits in an unaccommodating chair all day long.
“How did it feel being lost in the snow?” he asks.
You say you don’t think you’re lost. You just have to keep walking.
“What do you think was compelling you? What do you think you were running from?”
You say again you aren’t running. You’re walking.
“But it sounds like a compulsive trek.”
“Have you been obsessing about anything recently?”
You say that you just want to keep walking.
This is your second shrink in six months, and while he seems somewhat better than the last one, you still think he’s mostly clueless. He is caught in a world of professionally sanctioned words and codes of practice. His walls are erected to shield the play of transference and counter-transference from the streets.
You tell him the ice and snow is beautiful.
“I thought you said there was nothing there, that it was a desert.”
You tell him that it’s perfect.
“How do ice and snow make you feel?”
You say cold, but not freezing. You’re getting bored. You tell him you don’t know, and you stop listening to him.
A lion roars. You are again in a desert. But this time it’s a hot dry heat that toasts your skin. Your heart beats fast as you run from the hungry lion, which you know will outrun you. You’ll be eaten for sure.
“Tell me what you’re feeling,” he says.
You say you don’t know what you’re feeling, that your feelings don’t seem important when you’re running from a hungry lion in the desert.
This time you notice that his office is tastefully decorated and orderly, as if it were afraid of chaos. The coordinated chairs and table, the small couch under the window with its wood-slat blinds that are always closed, the framed black and white photographs of rocks and trees — not of people or animals — all seem precautions against extremes. Not for this shrink the falling-in-love-with-the-patient trap that is as old as psychoanalysis itself.
You say you hear a lion.
“You mean you heard a lion in your dream.”
You say no, you can hear it then. You say it isn’t a dream. It’s happening alongside what’s happening in the room where you sit facing each other. But you can see that this alarms him, so you decide to play along and use his words. It’s easier than resisting, and this way you don’t risk being prescribed some med, which your frightened, well-meaning parents might insist you take.
You say, OK, in my dream, yes. You act as if you are listening, even though his words trample through the pristine snow and sand you long to wander through, without judgment, out of reach of analysis and interpretation.
There is a kind of parallel room in the desert that is a void.
“Are there any people in this room?”
You say, not at the moment. That’s why it’s a void. But his system requires that all the voids be filled. There is no room for emptiness — the empty vase out of which voluptuous Van Gogh poppies emerge and grow on the canvas, on which those monstrous and hearty flowers depend.
“Do you often feel as if you’re in a lonely place?”
You tell him it isn’t lonely, though you know he won’t believe you.
“You said there are no people around.”
You say, no people, but there is a lion.
“But the lion’s chasing you. You said it wanted to devour you.”
Eat. You said, eat. Devour, lonely – those are his words. You feel the anger toward his interpretation and his complex of institutional training flare up again. You can barely contain all these explosions of feeling, and you fidget.
“What are you feeling?”
You say you’re really angry.
“At me? What do you want to tell me?”
You say you’d like to punch him.
He looks alarmed again.
You say you’re just kidding. You laugh. You slipped. He will note you down in his casebook as questionably violent, you can tell.
But then he laughs.
You ask if any of his clients have ever hit him.
“Would it change the way you feel about me if I said yes?”
You say it might.
You come into the next session with a poem. You are studying Emily Dickinson in your freshman lit class. You are a student at Barnard, even though you live at home, in the apartment where you were raised, with your mother and your stepfather and your young half-sister.
“Would you like to read it to me?”
You say you will if he wants you to. But he can also read it to himself.
“Which would you prefer?”
This again. You read aloud:
Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
You ask if he wants you to continue.
“Do you want to continue?”
You say the poem is called “Much Madness is Divinest Sense.”
You ask if he wants you to continue reading.
“Do you want to continue?”
Here is madness, surely, you think. You ask if that’s from Carl Rogers.
“Is what from Carl Rogers?”
You say, those maddening questions, is it Rogerian technique or what?
You have just turned 18. You are tricky to handle.
“It is a kind of Rogerian style.”
You say you want to finish reciting the poem. You’ve memorized the last stanza.
’Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail —
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – and you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain.
This was another technique, this maddening silence, as if it were a contest for who could hold out the longest. You know for sure you can win. You, after all, can go for days without eating more than a mouthful of yogurt before you throw out the container while no one is looking. Staying silent is nothing.
Except, you think, you are the one who always gives in, because, in the end, it is such a tiresome game. Do you even like Emily Dickinson, you ask.
“I like some of her poems. I’m not an expert, however.”
There it is — a crack in his inscrutability. He can’t speak because he isn’t an expert.
“Why do you like this particular poem, do you think?”
You say you haven’t got a clue why you like this particular poem, you just do. Those kinds of questions don’t interest you.
“But you brought in this poem, so something about it must interest you.”
You’ve already told him that you read it for class, but you tell him so again.
“Still, you decided to bring it here and read it to me.”
You know what he wants you to say, that you agree with Emily Dickinson and that it has been your experience that what gets labeled madness often makes more sense than so-called sanity, but this seems so obvious that you don’t want to say it.
Why can’t we just let the poem be what it is, you ask. Why do we have to always dissect everything?
“You think that what we do here is dissect everything?”
You tell him he’s doing that mirroring trick again. He just smiles and sits silent again, looks at the clock and says that he’s afraid that that’s the end of the session.
The next week, your clothes are baggier, and you tell him you’ve been refusing to finish eating what is on your plate, a prerequisite for privileges like your private gym membership, because you suspect that your mother has started sneaking fattening things like butter and sugar and cream into your food. This is a betrayal by your mother of the compact between you that you have to eat everything on your plate at dinner and breakfast, provided she accounts for every ingredient. You say it isn’t even that you don’t like the food; it’s just the principle of your mother trying to get one over on you and then not owning up to it. You say your mother’s such a hypocrite.
“Can you elaborate?” he asks.
You say, just because she can’t lose the weight she gained after she had your half-sister, she can’t stand it that you have self-control.
You think he’s thinking that anorexics are often impervious to conventional psychoanalytic treatment. It’s one thing most experts agree on.
“How are things going with your sister?”
You say you think she’s the devil’s child. Which you don’t really mean, but she’s four, and she’s always moving things around in your room. You like the things in your room to stay where they belong, but you don’t want to start him talking about this, so to distract him, you lie and say you dreamed about the Golden Gate Bridge.
You describe walking across the bridge in the fog from San Francisco to Marin County and back again. It’s not day, but it’s not night either. It’s an in-between time. You are walking alone in one direction and all the other people, who are strangers, are walking in the opposite direction.
“Have you ever visited San Francisco?” he asks.
You say you have visited San Francisco three times.
“And have you ever walked across the Golden Gate Bridge?”
You say, yes, on one of the trips, and you’d like to do it again.
“And how did you feel when you crossed the bridge? What was on your mind?”
You say you were cold and you wished you’d had a warmer jacket.
“Is that all? Try to think back to the bridge. What crossed your mind as you were walking it? What was going on that day?”
He is being more probing than usual, but you decide to work along with him, which for you is arduous. So when he calls the end of the session, which seems endless, you are relieved.
You decide to skip your next session.
And then the one after that.
Instead, you plug in your iPod and listen to “Radio Head” and you walk the city streets alone, until you’re too tired to walk any more, until you reach the bridge, and when your parents find out and ask you why, you say it just made sense.
What happens next is not his fault, not at all. And the bridge is not the Golden Gate, the city not San Francisco. You’d like him to know that, but you are hospitalized in New Haven for two weeks, and you are now seeing a hospital psychiatrist as an outpatient three times a week as a condition of your release, a younger, female doctor who wears a lab coat, stilettos and thick mascara. She has degrees from Stanford and Yale. She is a nationally renowned specialist in eating disorders, and she doesn’t believe much in talk-therapy, you can tell. She writes out several interdependent prescriptions for you.
This time, you take the meds — to your parents’ visible relief.
The meds make you numb and stupider, but you decide that it is probably, in the end, easier this way. Maybe, in the long run, it is even better.
At any rate, it makes the most sense, because, in your experience — here, now — there are too few who pause long enough in silence to hear the lion roaring in the desert.
In your experience, the powerful deny the unexplainable.
Which doesn’t mean the lion and the desert don’t exist.
And — you are sure — they can see that you have tried to stand your ground.