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Commentary: In Exile

One of my therapist’s favorite solutions to my perennial problem of feeling stressed out is to find ways for me to do more work. ”You’d be surprised how many hours there are in a day,” she often says. ”What about setting aside some time to work in the evening? You know, when you get home from your job.”

Naturally, she’s a New Yorker. Her solution to stress is to add more activity, the theory being that if you just keep busy enough you’ll never have time to think about how unhappy you are. I actually quite like this about her. One of the reasons I stayed out of therapy for so long was because I assumed we’d be doing all sorts of stretching and childhood trauma-mining. Visualizing ourselves in rising bubbles and such nonsense.

I’ve been going to therapy for about a year. In a general sense, I don’t feel that I crucially need it, but it’s covered by medical insurance and I like being able to talk uninterrupted for 50 minutes. I also go, I suppose, because everyone I know goes. It’s not really a conscious choice, like going to a Pilates class. It’s more like getting a haircut — you wouldn’t consider not doing it on a regular basis.

It’s this sort of thing that I would guess is the reason why our healthcare system is so unaffordable. People like me go to therapy just to chat for an hour and Blue Cross gets billed a thousand dollars. Fortunately, I don’t feel guilt about duping a billion dollar healthcare conglomerate. My therapist tells me that when I start to feel guilty, I should just take that guilty feeling, put it in a basket, and put the basket on a shelf.

Besides, there are times when I really need the therapy, when it genuinely helps and I leave feeling a whole lot better. I’m not sure anything she’s doing is having any long-term affect in my life, but it is an effective way of clearing up the past week’s bruises.

For instance, I went through a period of extreme jealousy and resentment directed toward my boyfriend. My job sucked and his didn’t. He had more friends and more money. He got invited to better parties. Classic New York psychological torture that my therapist whisked me right through.

”How about just being happy for him?” she suggested at one point. I told her no chance in hell, and we moved on to other strategies.

One thing she often reminds me to steer clear of is the Shoulds. As in, ”I should have a better body,” or ”I should be working for a foreign bureau of the Times.” Instead of the Shoulds, I’m to focus on the Wants. I want to be more successful. I want a better body. New York is all about wanting — wanting better, wanting more. She helps me come to terms with the fact that I’m living in a city that will always provoke irrational desire. She knows not to fight it.

My therapist does her therapy sessions out of the apartment she lives in. It’s a soothing little one-bedroom in Greenwich Village with one of those little electric Japanese rock-garden fountains and a big, poofy couch. When you arrive, usually the person who was there before you is leaving, and you pass them on the way in. This has always seemed sort of thrilling and illicit. It’s like hearing someone’s disgustingly loud bowel movement in the stall of the men’s room, and then seeing the face attached to that repulsiveness once they emerge. Both of you are a little embarrassed.

I see middle-aged men in three-piece suits come out of her apartment before I go in, and then, as I’m leaving, there’s a 17-year-old goth with purple hair waiting to go in after me. What could we possibly all have in common? How can our therapist know how to help us all? Is that old Wall Street guy and that goth girl also placing their guilt in baskets and putting those baskets on shelves?

Perhaps if we could listen in on each other’s sessions (and I’ve tried, but it’s a remarkably solid door), we’d find that we’re all discussing basically the same things: I feel dumb. I feel bored. I feel scared. I feel broke. My mother keeps nagging me to find a serious relationship. I’m in a serious relationship and it’s not working out. I’ve ended my serious relationship and now I’m lonely. I’m so over serious relationships.

Such banal little dilemmas. And do I feel like an overprivileged snot wanting a therapist to solve them? No. That sort of negative feeling goes right into the basket. Being reminded that your dilemmas are banal is a good thing.

Thinking of it this way makes me realize my life is fairly dilemma-free, peppered only with relatively simple problems that are troubleshot with a bit of basic psychology and a little perspective. There are weeks when I go in and actually have trouble coming up with the quantity of neurotic anxiety required to fill the session. On those days, we talk about easy stuff — what I did with my week, and whether I felt it was fulfilling. More and more often, the answer is yes.

Will Doig writes from his exile in New York. He can be reached at

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