We go to see a counselor. Karim will not accept that he should see someone for his anger, but he agrees to couple’s therapy. I’ll take what I can get. Based on the bio on the office’s website, it appears that the primary focus of this therapist’s career has been on issues of gender identity and homosexuality. But she is available on the day we need, and I don’t want Karim’s compliance to dissipate. Lainey has short hair, thick wire-rimmed glasses, black socks, and orthopedic shoes.
Karim tells the story of spanking Sam with a shoe in our hotel room on our vacation. Of telling me, when I stood between them, I have another shoe for you. In his retelling, Sam pushed his brother and sent him flying headfirst into the wall. He could have seriously hurt him. It was unacceptable.
I see, Lainey says. So you wanted to make a strong statement.
Yes. And then Seema challenged my authority in front of the kids. I got mad. I shouldn’t have said that to her.
It seems so simple, so reasonable explained this way. I wonder if I’ve been overreacting all along. Maybe we’re not so badly off. Maybe we just have a few little issues.
She asks Karim, Why do you want to stay married?
Because of the kids. And she can’t afford to be on her own.
She turns to me. Seema, what do you think about that?
My teeth are white, my hair is thick. I know this man, know that he loves me. I laugh. That’s bullshit. I’m an excellent cook and the sex is fantastic.
For the rest of the summer and into the fall, we see Lainey nearly every Monday evening. Lainey prods us to say kind things about one another and encourages us to implement date nights.
In October, after the push that changed my perspective, that shook me from my slumbering pretense, we go back to see Lainey. I’ve decided that I’ve outgrown the fight. Now, he begs me to visit the therapist one last time. I agree, taking along a ball of wool and knitting needles. We sit in the now familiar office, meeting at our regular time, but days are shorter and the room is darker than usual. He begins to talk, and I begin to knit. He catalogues my crimes: making him jealous at seventeen, rekindling a friendship with an old boyfriend at twenty, disliking his mother from the start, dancing with another man at a nightclub one night. He tells it chronologically, has clearly been rehearsing this narrative—collecting the evidence.
Several times anger rises up from my core, forces my mouth to fall open, but I knit more furiously, shut my mouth. I am determined to give him this opportunity. After thirty minutes, Lainey interrupts him. The clock is ticking; he needs to wrap up. He moves to my most recent crimes: not believing him when he said he didn’t make romantic advances toward my friend, forcing him to have to push her because he felt backed into a corner, because he thought we were ganging up against him. Forty of our fifty minutes are up.
Lainey looks at me. Seema?
I look up from my knitting. I let it fall to my lap, push my glasses up. I take a deep breath. I’m done. For a moment, I consider responding to the accusations he has made, defending myself, reminding him that he has left out his responsibility in all of it. But the feeling evaporates with my exhale. I don’t want to do this anymore.
Okay, she says. Let’s talk about divorce counseling.
Afterward, Karim is livid. How could she have given up on us like that? What kind of counselor is she? It’s your fault. Why were we seeing a social worker anyway? He goes to see a therapist on his own, and he tells me that therapist said we shouldn’t get divorced. That therapist thinks that Lainey was wrong to have told us what to do.
She didn’t tell us what to do. I told her I was done.
You told her you were done after she told us to get divorce counseling.
The order of things is always uncertain with us. He remembers it one way; I remember it another.
SEEMA REZA is a poet and essayist based outside of Washington, D.C., where she coordinates and facilitates a unique hospital arts program that encourages the use of the arts as a tool for narration, self-care, and socialization among a military population struggling with emotional and physical injuries. Her work has appeared The Beltway Quarterly, HerKind, Duende, Pithead Chapel, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. When the World Breaks Open, her first collection of essays, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press.
It was my first inheritance from my parents. On my father’s side, everyone’s a bipolar; they approached their insanity with buckets of alcohol. My mother’s family, though, settled into a nice, major depression, self-medicating through anxious and determined hard work.
I shook out in the middle—a mental illness called “Soft Bipolarity.” I’m too miserable to be a classic bipolar, but too irritable to be simply depressed. Doggedly atavistic, I’ve tried both the family home remedies. Neither worked.
Fortunately (?), I was born in the seventies; I could turn to counseling. In counseling, though, the dreadful reality of transference loomed inescapable: a miserable fact. Transference—like the wily Pan—always led me, unwitting, into inappropriate attachments to my counselors. I felt helpless against the inevitability that I would always pour unintended meaning into the interactions within the confines of four beige walls.
I recall my first experience with this, which was innocuous enough. I wasn’t sure how much older the counselor was than me—probably double my seventeen years. At the time, he seemed ancient. But his gentle and reproachless listening was a gift so deep and wide that none could compare. I came to conceptualize his small, windowless office as a down-coated nest, and I began to regard him as my BFF.
The next one was closer to my age. His office was furnished, audaciously, in black leather. The conflict that knotted inside me entering felt palpable and real. Only moments earlier, I had fumbled out my father’s car—a jalopy that held together through the creative application of wire coat hangers and duct tape.
Without insurance of any kind, how much did my father spend for my hour in air-conditioned luxury, face to face with this man whose chocolate curls and mahogany bookshelves dizzied up my mind? Whether my father expressed resentment at the cost, or whether I imposed it on myself without outside provocation, the money to buy those cool hours left me sick with guilt. Back at my house, there was no leather; the broken down, stained couch hid beneath a garish, threadbare sheet. How could I possibly justify treating my mental malady when, for the price of a few sessions, my parents could have replaced their couch with something clean and sturdy, if not new?
I recall nothing of what he might have said, that second counselor. What remains in my consciousness is yearning. I willed him to pull me close, so I could free his silken hair for my fingers to curl in as he pressed his lips to my throat, collarbone.
He never did.
There were others along the way. Although the impressions that they left don’t stand out in sharp relief, I know that I wanted them all. Because they, alone, understood. They—each of them—cared for me as no others had.
Free, with purchase.
The last in my list of head trippers was a cognitive-behavioral therapist. Over the course of our time together, I went from calling him Dr. Mendenhall to Captain and finally to his first name, Jack.
We knew each other for a long time, if sporadically. The misfortune I faced with him lay in the reality that we had the twin brothers of sarcasm and irony lodged in our brains. Our conversations played out in wit and hilarity.
That was my problem. I wished it were his problem, too.
He warned me of it. I went to see him again after an eighteen-month tour through the depths of hell when my in-laws moved into my house and a dear friend died at the age of thirty-four. “This is dangerous,” Jack said. “When you try to work through emotions this intense, transference happens.”
“What does that mean?” I asked him, unwilling to settle for euphemisms and jargon.
“Well, we have to keep it real. I’m telling you up front so you know. Instead of being unwilling to discuss the giant elephant in the room, we talk about it. Acknowledging your feelings for me will be half the battle.”
When he said that, I both loved and hated him for it.
Loved, because he understood; he knew what would happen to me.
Hated, because I felt shorn of my defenses. He may as well have cut me to my nerves, and then blown cold air over them. The desperate, clutching nature of the lunatic embarrassed me. How I wished that I could pretend that I was not that being, not that irrational woman who would inevitably pine for her mental health care giver! I hadn’t expected to be called out on my junk. If we both recognized it at the outset, how could I pretend it wasn’t happening?
As predicted, the ever-mounting disappointment I felt at the end of our therapy hours seeped through me like a slow leak. And the eagerness that flitted in the space where I once had a heart and lungs annoyed me when I realized I’d traded in vital body parts for time in his presence.
One day, I wept in rage and shame for hating my mother-in-law. Rage, because I had newly stumbled upon an old journal entry made on a Christmas morning after she told me my husband and children were happier in my absence. Shame, because I did not believe that hatred was the right choice.
I importuned him, “Jack, fix me.”
But there was no simple solution for a situation in which one has been truly, deeply, and repeatedly wronged. So he set the problem back in my lap, leaving me with prayer as my ongoing, if ineffective, recourse.
Before he did, though, we laughed, exchanging sarcasms. I told him I didn’t want to kill her; I simply wanted to make her suffer.
“To the pain!” he said, borrowing a line from The Princess Bride. That he should know the movie well enough to quote it made my skin shiver in delight—was this not proof that we were kindred spirits?
“Let’s take away her Xanax,” I said, filled with glee.
“No; let’s not take it away, but replace half of it with sugar pills so she never knows when she’s going to get one that works.”
“No,” I said. “Not sugar pills. Poison.”
“Hmm.” He smiled. “I’m thinking something dark and sexy … what about hemlock?”
“Nightshade,” I said.
How, pray tell, could a girl hope to keep her wits about her in the presence of a man who knew to suggest dark, sexy hemlock? As I laughed, a tear slid over my top lip, salting the tip of my tongue. Shields up, I warned myself. You’re looking into his blue eyes far too long.
I don’t see Jack anymore. We worked through so much that he became my biggest problem. I dreamt of him at night and woke to a sodden pillowcase, my eyelashes wet with tears. Catching myself, I choked back sobs, hoping my husband wouldn’t wake.
“Is this hurting your marriage?” Jack asked me. “Coming here?”
“Don’t speak,” I answered.
That night was Halloween. I stood outside in the cold for five hours, miserable at the spectre of the one right choice that faced me. Because, ultimately, my husband didn’t deserve my divided allegiance. Yes, he had failings, but so did I. My husband’s Asperger’s Syndrome was woefully ill-paired with my Soft Bipolar Disorder. Our cosmic mismatch spanned the emotional spectrum—where my husband felt almost nothing, I felt everything to the utmost degree.
The last time I saw Jack, my stupid voice betrayed me with its tremble, and I stared at the crumpled tissue in my hand. “Teach me how to be as unmoved by you as you are by me.”
“Am I unmoved by you?” he asked.
The moment held. I wanted to kiss his eyelids.
Siphoning off the intensity, his voice took on a theatrical tone. “Oh yes. I’m just a cold and unfeeling counselor.”
I cut him off. “I’m not coming back. I can’t do this anymore.”
“You don’t have to make that decision today,” he said. “I know you want everything wrapped up in a neat package, but this is something you have to think about.”
I steeled my resolve. “Do you imagine that I have thought of anything else this week?”
If he felt the same way, his feelings for me would have been called “counter-transference.” Something for which he was trained, instructed on how to remain professionally detached. But though he may have come to our encounters prepared, I owned no such clinical armor.
Last summer, the gamble of life dealt me a heart problem. As I sat pondering my thirty-six years, I marveled that I had it all—a husband, two beautiful children, a house, and a dog. I owned the veritable American Dream. Crowning that, I’d even been published a couple of times. There was nothing of any import that I’d left undone.
So my heart problem brought with it an endowment of gratitude and contentment.
And yet, once in a while a certain slant of light or scent on the breeze conjures Jack, unbidden, from my memory. I marvel at how freshly lanced I feel. A part of me wonders if my flight left Jack equally wrecked, if I had somehow slipped under his training and gotten to him, as he did me.
Turns out you can tell this to your husband. All of it. Turns out, he will try to commiserate by telling you about a girl in college that he studied with all the time. And it turns out that all you will hear is, “I fell in love with someone and kept it a secret all these years.” That’s how bipolarity works. That’s the bad news.
The good news is you finally have decent medication. And with the help of decent medication, you move forward. You don’t have to carry it around for decades, mourning from the depths of your mood-disordered soul. After a few days, you can see what your husband’s intent was; in place of subterfuge and infidelity, he was really offering understanding and empathy.
You get to go back to being crazy—incognito. You get to tuck those unwelcome memories of Jack back in the mental box where they belong.
When you wake up and swallow your pretty pills, your handful of Skittles, you can, at long last, live life in the middle. And the middle rocks when compared to the bi-poles.
D. BAKER is a writer living in the Intermountain West.