Many mental-health professionals take up to a month-long vacation in late summer. Which fills clients—like this grief-stricken writer—with existential dread.
The only thing worse than being in psychotherapy is not being in it—as I am not, every August, during my therapist’s annual break. I’ve always found this hard to take, but never more so than the year the break coincided with what appeared to be my mother’s final illness.
My mother was once a painter with a flair for writing fiction, but her dementia had progressed to the point that she was struggling to eat. Her doctors were tight-lipped about her prognosis but by father was sure she’d be dead within the year.
She still smiled when I visited, though. She remembered my name. She pointed to her wheelchair, I caught her under the armpits, and she straightened to her full height.
“Son of a gun!” she exulted. “I’m still taller than you.”
“Mom,” I blurted, holding everything back as usual, “it’s good to see you again.”
In session, my therapist interpreted: If she can still push you around, how can she be dying?
Like many families, mine operated with all the petty ruckus of a community theater in which my mother, the resident diva, won the best roles in addition to writing the script and designing the set. What could be more theatrically appealing than a leggy blonde projecting sex and need with a soupçon of real madness—paranoid schizophrenia was her official diagnosis—thrown in? The rest of us were supporting cast: My sister was mom’s tireless promoter, my father the impresario who covered expenses. As for me—well, my mother took my chunky, awkward measure and found me fit for only one thing: backstage.
This out-of-sight, out-of-mind policy might have resulted in an ordinarily miserable childhood. But when delusional hatreds grip the mind in question, what might have only bruised instead cut deep.
“Your sister and I are blonde and blue-eyed,” my mother observed one night as she tucked me into bed. I had just started kindergarten. “But you and your father are dark. When they come, they’ll take you both. But don’t worry, your sister and I will be fine.”
She kissed me goodnight, wished me a good rest. Who were they? Many nights ended like this, with the suggestion that I would come to some vague bad end. I suppose I got used to it, for I slept well enough, sheltered by school and friends, until my twenties when I developed the anxiety disorder that brought me to psychotherapy. Separation was obviously the issue. The attacks worsened with every milestone—oral exams, a wedding engagement, a research trip. To stay the panic, I ran, hiked, roller-skated—anything that would render me too exhausted to muster excitement of any sort, let alone a full-blown panic. It would be years before I understood that, like any young adult with a yen for home, I was nesting—but in a macabre fashion, seeking my own “dent in the Earth,” to abuse a phrase from Thoreau. When I found it, I would tuck myself in. I would let the snow cover me up. On some level, that’s what I considered homecoming.
Of course I was having panic attacks.
I left academe for jobs in publishing and writing instruction, positions that involved midwifery of others’ work rather than birthing my own. Writing became difficult just as it was time to seek publication. That’s when the anxiety returned with a vengeance. The sky, when it fell, turned out to be something like a heavy mixing bowl—and I was trapped underneath. I did finish a novel. But instead of finding a publisher, I found myself in therapy.
We talked about my new therapist, my mother and I. In these conversations she became her old, bantering self. “You’d better not be telling him about me,” she would quip, knowing how unwillingly I departed from her, even as topic of conversation.
She’d ask, “But does he write?”
He did, in fact—nonfiction, self-help, even a novel. That was one reason I chose him. In my myopia, I believed that only another writer could help.
“Yes,” I mooned, in the throes of a galloping transference. “He writes.”
“Inky shrink,” she mused, testing possibilities. “Shrinky dink! But unlike you, he makes money. Shrinky, Inc.”
“He’s a nice man!” And he was: tall, literary, sexy, smart.
“Who is?” She asked, as if the conversation had never begun.
“Shrinky,” I repeated—and so he was named.
“You’re in love!”
I said, “We have to stop.”
During Shrinky’s first August vacation, my skin erupted in boils that wept almost as much as I did, huddled on the sofa, waiting to cross another day off the calendar. At dusk I’d grow agitated and head out for a walk, preferably a long one. Once, when a blonde motorcyclist roared past me, I followed her for several blocks in slow traffic before she disappeared around a corner. After that, I looked for her every night. The search seemed necessary, urgent. In September I returned to therapy, scabbed and exhausted but unable to take the one step—terminating—that made any rational sense. Instead, my therapist and I have continued to spend every summer fighting about his break.
The argument would begin after Memorial Day, when Shrinky confirmed his vacation dates. How does that make me feel?
“Like I am going to attach myself to your leg! You can’t squeeze me in at mid-month?”
“In that case,” I’d say, sounding like an immensely mature 3-year-old, “I am prepared to negotiate.”
From our earliest sessions, Shrinky sometimes treated me like one of those fragrant lady novelists who only exist in the Mikado. To correct this impression, I once made him a present of some short stories. He waffled over whether to keep them. When he finally gave them back, it was with a neutrality so ostentatious it suggested something decidedly non-neutral, a secret love masquerading as a not-so-secret hate.
I’ve mentioned my galloping transference. Occasionally I got the impression that the feeling might not be entirely one-sided. He could be flirtatious, in his midcentury-modern way. When I reported that my mother had a madcap fictional alter-ego named Dizzy, he’d quipped: “If I buy you a drink, will that make you Dizzy?”
But this hint of romance didn’t salve the wound to my pride. Had I not been published, won prizes? I laid out my terms: If he would tell me why he returned my work, I’d give him a pass for August.
“I’m not a literary critic. Nor am I,” his voice oozed contempt, “a writing coach.”
He was not buying me a drink, he was not making me Dizzy. What he was doing was leaving—for four possibly unbearable weeks. Meanwhile, my family’s community theater was in full dress rehearsal; someone had already announced the new show, MY MOTHER IS DYING, in all-caps on the marquee; and there was no time to tweak the script so that I’d be the one who wisped away, like smoke from a spent wick, the one who died in my mother’s place, the one who went on a long vacation.
I heaved myself up, said something unprintable, and left, slamming the door.
By the time I reached the foyer, I was in hysterics—the good kind. Across town, my mother was dying. Yet somehow the diva had just come alive in me.
At our next session, Shrinky suggested a fresh tack.
“Tell me about your mother’s stories.”
“They were wonderful,” I gushed. “Funny. Sexy. Literary. Smart.”
“Tall?” He raised his pen, pretending my answer might be clinically relevant.
“Towering.” I grinned. He knew who I was talking about.
I filled in backstory: My father had owned a costume jewelry factory where gallons of paint in different colors, whose identification numbers my father knew by heart, were spray-painted onto plastic beads ordered by the gross. Mom often joined him for lunch. Looking out the window during one of these lunches, she saw, or thought she saw, a hot-pink pigeon.
“It became the basis for a story. Next thing you know, Dizzy was having lunch with her husband when she, too, saw a pink pigeon. Dizzy said, ‘One of its parents must have been a flamingo!’ And her husband disagreed just the way my father would have: ‘Don’t be ridiculous. That’s Pink #432!’”
“What a portrait of the marriage,” Shrinky murmured. “It had that charm, that vitality.”
His reverence galled: How could he praise my mother’s work while refusing to address my own?
On the other hand, I was the one telling this story. If the essentials weren’t mine, the narration yet might be.
It’s August, again, and my therapist is gone. Strangely the blonde biker has returned. Perhaps she’s a vacationing psychotherapist. Which has given me an idea. I’m thinking it’s time to stage my own diva moment. I’m saving the money from the August break in order to buy myself a motorcycle. One of these days, when our time is well and truly up, I’ll zoom out of town, racing an angel.
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