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January 7, 2009

Analyze This

Your 401(k)'s gone, your ex is back, your boss owns you, and you don't even own your apartment. Oh, and your mother's calling. Think you can't spare the time — or the bank — for therapy? Think again. It may be the best investment you'll ever make.

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Photo Credit: Jeffrey Westbrook/Studio D

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THERAPY PRO: Therapy turned my life around
By Lorna Martin

It was the same day that my therapist, Dr. J., asked if I was feeling envious or resentful toward my sister and her seemingly perfect life — her handsome physician husband, the big house in the suburbs, and now their 18-month-old miracle baby — that I began to realize I may have been deluding myself just a smidge.

"Ab. So. Lute. Ly. Not!" I responded. The thought that I, a 35-year-old, successful, self-sufficient woman, could feel jealous and bitter toward my sister (to whom I'd always felt superior, if I'm being honest) over an infant I loved more than anything was unconscionable.

But later that evening I called my mother, who was at my sister's — again — for dinner. I asked if she'd read an article I'd written for the London Observer. She said she'd only skimmed it because she'd been so busy "looking after the beautiful big boy." I then spoke to my dad, a hitherto emotionally reticent man. "All well?" he asked me — but before I could reply, I heard applause and squeals of delight through the receiver. Apparently, little Lewis had just put his empty yogurt carton in the trash bin, all by himself. My dad sounded close to tears.

I poured myself an extra-large glass of sauvignon blanc and lay down on my living room floor. You are a strong, confident, independent woman, I told myself. You are not jealous of a small child. Or his goddamn mother.

Several months earlier I'd had a breakdown at Gatwick Airport. I'd missed my third flight in 10 days, and as the gate closed, I burst into tears. It was early morning and I had to wait three hours for the next flight, so I went to the bar, ordered a strong gin and tonic, and, still weeping, reflected. In addition to the missed flights and lateness at work, I was binge drinking, often downing a bottle of wine when I was home alone and twice as much when I was out with friends. And I cried all the time. Like an overtired toddler, I sobbed in my boss's office for no reason — likewise with HR, at the pub with my friends, in the gym locker room, in my bed at 2, 3, and 4 in the morning. But worst of all, I was behaving like a maniac toward a married man I'd been dating, declaring my undying love for him and begging him to leave the other other woman.

Now, I've always been skeptical about therapy. For one, I'm Scottish. My countrymen, unless intoxicated, would rather eat deep-fried kitten than talk about their emotions. In the past, to help me through troughs, I'd relied on fresh air, friends and family, swimming, pulling up my socks, the antidepressants I took briefly when I turned 30, counting my blessings, escaping into a good book, listening to ABBA. But that day at the airport, none of those things held any allure. I felt as if I had run out of energy, out of coping strategies, out of hope. I'd crashed. I called a friend and got the number of the best psychotherapist in town.

Read FINDING DR. RIGHT for tips on finding the perfect shrink.

To my surprise, at my first appointment, Dr. J. didn't welcome me with a warm embrace, a heartfelt smile, or a pledge to make everything better. Like the Hollywood caricature of a shrink, she sat in silence, looking at me inscrutably. It felt weird, uncomfortable, frustrating. I'd thought she'd be Mother Earth, but the initial impression was of Helen Mirren in The Queen.

I started nervously yammering about the events of my life. And yammering, and yammering. Three months later I began to actually talk about my feelings, exploring the recesses and discovering emotions that had been too uncomfortable for me to acknowledge: anger, envy, shame, fear, guilt, loneliness, disappointment. I began to understand how childhood experiences influenced me. I learned how a person can both long for and fear intimacy and why I'd always found unavailable men more desirable than those willing to commit. I also learned that even if I constructed the perfect life, with the stellar career, the genius guy, the shabby-chic apartment, and the fabulous friends, happiness wouldn't necessarily follow.

So am I cured? Of course not. There's no cure for being human. But I'm happier than I've ever been, because I'm equipped to handle the challenges that are a part of living. And when my sister inevitably reveals another miracle baby is coming, I don't have to feel bad about feeling a little bad. I can just have a sip of champagne and accept myself, neuroses and all.

THERAPY CON: I learned more in six months scooping horse dung than in 10 years of therapy
By Justine van der Leun

I began my adventures in therapy at 12, during my parents' divorce, and ended them at 25, in a barn.

I first visited a hefty Freudian who commanded the room from a leather armchair as I squirmed on a metal stool. Why the seating arrangement? "Because I'm the doctor," he boomed, "and you, the patient." By 13, I had moved on to the woman who avoided eye contact, instead staring at a point just above my head. After her, there was the professor who kept an empty cottage-cheese container by his seat and whose thin slacks revealed an outline of testicle.

"He comes highly recommended," my mother insisted.

Read SHRINK DEAL BREAKERS to find out if you need to dump yours.

Next up: The fellow who revealed nothing ("Do I have a cat? Well, how would that make you feel if I did?") and the woman who revealed too much ("Sometimes I dream of kissing my twin sister; does that mean I'm a lesbian narcissist?"). I liked the idea of therapy, with its promise of clarity, but with "help" like this, it wasn't helping.

Then I moved to a friend's farm for a year. In New York City, everyone's in treatment; on sheep farms, not so much. So I took a talk-therapy hiatus. I spent my days sweeping the barn and looking through a pile of potatoes for the good ones. The people I befriended did not discuss their mothers' flaws. They did not say things like, "My parents bought me this million-dollar loft to control me!" And yet, despite living relatively unexamined lives, they were not seething balls of rage. Many were ... content. More shocking, so was I. Sometime between scooping horse poop and painting the potato cellar, I noticed that after years of chatter, my internal radio had lost reception. Thoughts of the past and the future weren't tormenting me. Isn't that the kind of peace my insurers had been paying $125 an hour for?

I still like the idea of therapy. But I know that many people use self-examination to justify stagnation. Besides, shrinks are just human beings, and frankly, some of them are one Froot Loop shy of a full bowl. For me, the best palliative for life's stresses lies not in connecting my insecurities to how I feel about a doctor's hypothetical cat, but in moving around in the open air. Simply put, I needed the shutting-up cure.

TAKE OUR QUICK QUIZ: DO YOU NEED THERAPY?

NEXT PAGE >> How to Speak Psychobabble and The Shrink-O-Meter


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