In an interview with a biographer, Donald Trump was asked to reflect on the meaning of life. He said, "No, I don't want to think about it. I don't like to analyse myself because I might not like what I see." Therapists should buy billboards, they should print T-shirts, they should hire planes to scrawl his words in the sky, because no one has ever given a more convincing argument in favour of therapy than Donald Trump avoiding himself. If you’re a person who isn’t strong enough to look in a mirror, you’re probably the one who needs to the most. What if you’re like Donald Trump?
I never thought about therapy. I don’t like to talk about feelings, so if there’s an episode of Seinfeld that sums up my thoughts on a situation I will tell you it’s like that episode of Seinfeld as a shorthand; that show has most things covered. But the thing about not talking about emotions is that stuff goes unsaid, whether it’s how you feel about a person, a place, a situation, or what you want to be. You become a pliable thing controlled by the rips and tides of other people’s feelings because you never say what yours are, so no one thinks they’re hurting you. You end up treading water because it’s fine as long as it’s fine, and then one day it’s not. And then what.
There are people with bigger problems than mine. There are chemical imbalances, there are hospitalisations, there are deep and huge things that people have to live with that I know nothing about and cannot pretend to. But if your problem can be diagnosed by how meaningfully you karaoke the Bruce Springsteen line "Man, I'm just tired and bored with myself", I know all about you. You’re me, and I’ve spent a year looking in the fucking mirror at me.
This is how a therapy sceptic ends up in therapy: Someone who is tired of listening to your shit will suggest it in a caring way, but a way that makes you think that as soon as you leave they’re going to stare at the ceiling and do one of those long exhales where they hope that their lungs will collapse and they’ll die, just so they’ll never have to listen to you again. So maybe you’ll go out of spite, or maybe you’ll go because it’s different to going home and having another sad wank. But you go. Your friends are tired of your old material – you’ll try it out on a new crowd.
Then you spend 50 minutes in a windowless room, next to a box of tissues you think you’ll never use and an indoor plant that never grows, searching the blank magnolia walls for anything to look at that isn’t the face of your therapist. This person you have never met before who you are supposed to tell everything. And you’ll think, This is not like the movies. It’s not a Jewish man with professorial hair, or Dr Melfi off the The Sopranos. Mine was a blonde lady, not much older than myself. For all the kinds of people who go to therapy, there is a corresponding number of different kinds of therapists. Whoever you’ll get, you’ll probably fight the thought that they’re not a real therapist because they don’t look like the one in your head.
She’ll look at you and ask you why you’re there. None of the reasons that actually got you there will seem good enough to vocalise. None of your bullshit seems big enough for therapy. This wasn’t even your idea. You walked in there and now you’re embarrassed.
If you’re me, you’re there after months of grief and stress and heartbreak, but you feel like therapy is essentially pointless because you don’t have any feelings to talk about anyway. You blew the fuse. You feel like you’re a robot powered by pizza and Netflix, with a heart so dead it would flatline if they attached it to the ECG. Everything is flat and probably fine and you’re not going to kill yourself, but how are you supposed to talk about feelings when what you’re feeling is nothing at all? It’s like someone uninstalled the program; you’re missing something fundamental that everyone else seems to have.
No one teaches you how to do therapy. For the first few weeks you'll fill her in on the backstories of your life and it’s sort of cheating because you can say how you felt, because back then you did. After a couple of months you will try to quit because you still don’t get it. She’ll say it’s only been months; in the scheme of therapy, months is like seconds. You’ll shrug because what do you know, and the next week you’re back in the chair.
What you’re doing is paying to sit in that chair. If you pay more, you get to lie on a couch. And as you’re paying, you wonder what you’re getting from a blank face in a room that you can’t get from a blank wall in your own room for free. Is talking to yourself only insanity when no one’s listening?
I once spent an hour in an isolation tank, which sounded like a nice relaxing thing that rich people on Instagram do but quickly became pure existential horror. One full hour floating starfished in a pitch-black pod filled with saltwater heated to body temperature, alone with nothing but my thoughts. When they have nowhere to go, thoughts just bounce around the tank getting louder and louder and echoing and reverberating before they go back in your head with sharper corners. While you leave the place some version of shellshocked, you pass other people so relaxed they’re falling asleep in the lobby. I did not understand isolation tanks, and I did not ever envision myself talking to a stranger I had paid to listen.
Therapy is a less traumatic isolation tank. It’s 50 minutes where the internet can’t get you, where text messages can’t reach, where you can’t numb yourself at the cinema or drown yourself in beer. It’s a weekly stocktake of where you’re at. After a few months, you start to agree that maybe there is a stage of contemplation more in-depth and enlightening than standing in front of an open fridge at 5am eating cold pizza. You get used to monologuing and you can’t stop monologuing. You start categorising your life and the pieces of yourself. If something happens you think, My therapist is going to love this. If nothing happens that week you feel like you’re letting her down. She’ll tell you she’s not there to be entertained, but you don’t want her to be bored. Therapy gives you a silver lining to terrible things: At least you have something to talk about.
By hearing yourself say things out loud you get to hear how ridiculous they sound and the smaller problems diminish and become nothing. All the blame you’re throwing around the room makes you sound like a victim, and it’s jarring because it’s exactly the opposite of what you want to sound like. Is it really anyone else’s fault, anyway? Is life really a collaborative failure, or is that just another thing you tell yourself? What if someone played this tape back to you? Could you stand it?
You quickly learn to be honest with yourself because that’s the only thing you have control over. Drinking and fucking are your coping mechanisms; when you leave, these are still your coping mechanisms but at least you’re aware of it. It makes you a better listener to your friends because you’ve tired yourself out and can’t be bothered talking about yourself. You ask more questions just because you want to hear someone else talk for a while. You’ll wonder if therapy is helping you be a better person, or just helping you appear to be.
But while you start understanding what it’s for, therapy will never stop being weird. It will never stop feeling weird that you see this person every week and can’t ask them how they are, or what their life is like, and you will never stop wondering if they think you’re an arsehole or if they’ve googled you. It’s possible you only keep coming here because you’re not sure what the protocol is if you quit and leave. Do you hug her on the last day? All you know about her is that in winter she wears a leather jacket, and in summer she has, like, a neck-scarf thing, and that both of them hang on a hook on the back of the magnolia door. Months will go by and you will never work up the courage to ask if the bicycle chained out the front is their bicycle, because you hate it, the bike, and don’t want to hate your therapist. You hate that the basket is covered in plastic flowers and know that whoever owns this bike cannot possibly understand whatever it is you are feeling, even if what you’re feeling is nothing. One day the bike isn’t there, but she is, so it can’t possibly be hers, and you devote the entire 50 minutes to your feelings on this bike and how you hate everything it stands for. Her eyes go huge but you don’t know what that means. Maybe it was her bike, maybe she caught the bus. It’s back the next week and you never mention the bike again. You think about it when you can’t sleep.
Eventually you quit not because you think you’ve solved it but because none of this material is new. You realise you’re only this angry because the things that piss you off the most are the ones you can change yourself. That’s why they’re at the top of the list of things that infuriate you: You’re the idiot in the way. So, in an effort to not be the pussy you’ve been sounding like for 12 months, you become some version of calm and decide that this is good, because if they’re your fault you can change them. It will always annoy you that the fridge magnet your aunt had in the '90s had it right: The power is yours. But that’s what it’s all about: It’s all about you. Like with a twist at the end of a horror film, you are the monster. And you are the one who paid this much to read more deeply into a fridge magnet. But you had to get yourself here, or it would still be nothing but a fridge magnet and you’d still be where you were a year ago: less aware, blaming some guy, turning yourself inside out trying to find a thing that isn’t there.
Therapy. As Woody Allen’s friend in Manhattan said to Woody Allen, "The worst thing that can happen is you can learn something about yourself."