Therapist on the Floor
It’s December 2019, I’m sitting at a circular table inside the Farmers’ Market near the Grove. A few minutes before, I had stopped by one of the two stands selling alcohol and ordered a pint of Blue Moon. I rarely drink so the desire to buy a beer surprised me but it also felt appropriate. Seems that these days I’m doing a lot of things I don’t usually do.
I take a sip, set my glass down on the table and begin to settle in. Not too crowded, not too loud. I look at my phone and see it’s almost 5 o’clock. Out of my small grey backpack comes my computer, my green notebook, and the 15-page copy of my work-in-progress memoir draft, complete with my memoir professor’s edits. She used ‘track changes’ so her font sizes are large enough to be ominous, and small enough that I squint to focus on them. In general, when I have a call with someone, usually a therapy client, I like to call on the dot. Or within 30-seconds of the dot. My phone number is blocked for outgoing calls to my clients which usually means that I will need to leave a message before someone realizes it’s me and returns my call.
I am a bit cold now and wondering whether the spot I chose is the right one. Families and groups of teens shuffle through the stalls around me — each group containing at least one mouth-agape member, bewildered at the number of eateries in this small immediate area. I remember being impressed when I first moved here too. Now it just seems kitschy and built for tourists. I look at my phone. 5:30. I dial to call her.
“Hello may I speak with Professor Crane?” I shiver but I’m not cold anymore.
We exchange niceties. I’d missed last week’s class because of a family emergency that
turned non-emergency and I felt guilty for my absence as we spoke.
“What do you want to talk about?” A question I frequently use to start my sessions off
with my clients.
“My paper.. Um I..” Take a first sip of my now less than chilled and beading drink.
“I wrote a new entry and I wanted to read it to you to see if I am getting warmer in terms
of the feedback I received.” “Ok, got it. Go ahead.”
I jumble my pages about the table, creating a chaotic mass of paper. I wasn’t prepared to jump into it right then. As I do this I mutter a number of miscellaneous excuses for not already being organized while I catch a glimpse of a family with small children in the corner and make a mental note not to curse too loud.
I read my entry to her. It’s about my dad, my childhood hero. I rarely write about him because he’s pretty sick and to do so feels like solidifying that one day he’ll be confined to existing as a string of words on the page. When I finish reading, I wipe my eyes that had leaked a few tears. I felt as though I’d let it rip, laid myself bare and open.
“It feels clinical.” I hear from the receiver like a shot to my ear. I want to muster up every reaction I’ve ever had to any insult I’d ever received and talk back — how dare she have the audacity that I dig any deeper than I already had! What more did she want from me? She must be a voyeur. I had the impulse to speak.
“Oh yeah, I find that feedback helpful because I have been worried about that generic quality you’d mentioned before in workshop.” Damn it, foiled by my desperate want for her to know I am not totally incompetent and that I am, at the very least, aware of my shortcomings. My response is one typical of my people pleasing modus operandi, one that I believe is my life’s work to shed.
“What I meant by generic is that your writing feels impersonal.” I think she also mentioned it being uninteresting, that or I listened to her words and pulled them back up through the mud of my insecurities. She continues,
“Where do you write?”
A tension builds in me, a familiar feeling. The same feeling as being randomly called on in grade school and I tell her about my psychotherapy office. I imagined myself typing at my computer — odd imagining because I prefer long-hand in my notebook— on top of the walnut brown desk that I did not choose, sitting in a stiff chair that I blame my slouching on. I like my offices to be warm, welcoming, and preferably with touches of yellow. Most everything in this office is made of grey granite, tan leather, and wood. It’s character flexible so as to allow for multiple therapists to use the space unabashedly. The hotel version of therapy offices.
“That’s why! That’s why your writing feels so clinical.” I flushed red as if I’d been caught. “I want you to get on the floor.” Ok, she lost me.
“Ok?” I questioned. Good at least that had some vague semblance to how I was feeling.
“I want you to get on the floor and write.” She talked about Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, which was a series of advice letters she’d published on the Rumpus. Professor Crane explained how that shift in physicality would allow for me to be in more intimate contact with memories. That I could better access my sensory memory if it were quiet and I was in my pajamas. Maybe with a candle on.
I’m tapping my gold space pen, a gift from my husband a couple of years back that was coupled with a leather-bound journal I’ve since filled. I respond, stifling my petty comments about my distaste for woo-woo things.
“Interesting. I’m interested.” As the words leave my mouth, I feel the monotonous tone of my choice of words. I resent my clinical training at this moment. One of the benefits I’d previously experienced of that learned unbiasedness was that I could get along with most any one, a poor substitute for a true sense of belonging and connection. While on the call, I question my getting along with her.
With my confidence wavering unsteadily above zero, I speak into the phone and thanked her for her feedback. Not sure if it happened differently, but I swear that she seemed eager to get off the phone. I make up that it’s because she’d rather be doing anything else, anywhere else but talking with an awful new writer like myself.
I checked our call time after we’d hung up. 28 minutes and change. Just under the 30 minute time frame I spend on the phone with interested potential clients to sift me out, with the aim that they walk away with a sense of whether or not I’m a good fit.
Her feedback doesn’t sit so considerately or conveniently. There it was — pick it up or not. No more fluffy feel goods, just solid work and dealing with the difficult experiences and emotions that arise from such self-deep dives. At risk of sounding like a one-toot wonder, I liken this to being in therapy as clinician with a client. Any sense of bravado I had, and I did, coming into memoir writing had dissipated. Contrary to my previous belief: my abilities to help others dive into the depths self-exploration and identifying emotions, did not directly translate to helping myself dip my toe into those waters, let alone write coherently about the expanse of that ocean.
Four days later in class in Room 121, my heart is jumping out of my chest because it was our last class and we were all taking turns reading our final drafts of the semester. The class was smaller now, going from 7 to only 5 students and it was my turn to read the next draft of this piece about my dad in front of my professor and four remaining classmates. One had moved to New York and the other stopped coming after a tough workshop session on one
of her pieces. I sat across from Professor Crane in a staged talk-show-like arrangement. I can’t bring myself to make eye contact with anyone else because she’d read a copy and pasted bio about me before I stood up. The day before, I’d carelessly put a random factoid about my helping to start my high school women’s wrestling group and I didn’t know other people would hear it. I don’t know what I thought it was going to be for. My guess was that it was for her own record. I imagine she may keep short bios about her former students to reference at a later, unlikely date.
I began to read then immediately start to shake and uncontrollably frown. Then the tears follow and roll down my face. It is at this moment, Professor Crane stands up, pushes her seat back a foot or two and sits on the floor in front of it. A literal model for me of the act of getting on the floor.
I’m embarrassed and angered because of my embarrassment. Are you really making me do this right now? I ask her in my mind. I barely understood the suggestion over the phone. This is corny. Please don’t make me do this in front of the four other students in the room.
She continues to sit on the floor and I think I remember that she was looking up at me as I quivered and read, waiting for the imaginary cement between my ass and the seat to dry. Then I felt guilty. Here is this woman, earnestly trying to teach me something about writing, showing me the way and I’m just going to ignore it? Bless her and her patience. Plus, I paid too much money and drove across town from K-town to Westwood and back too many times to stop now.
I can barely see my classmates through the thick layer of tears in my eyes and it makes the awkward descending transition to the floor somehow less awkward. I was trying to convince myself that if I can’t see them, they aren’t looking at me. My voice quivers the words on the page and I cry some more. I wonder how I’m going to get through reading this. Professor Crane extends her arm and gently places her hand on my back. A comfort to me as I notice the visible tremor in my hands holding my paper up to read. A kindness — a gesture that I’m trying to remember as I tend to my terrified and subsequently whipped ego.
Mary Karr had written that most writers she knew found writing to be an unenjoyable, uncomfortable, and at times painful process. Having to adjust my approach to my writing, from being a person who either asks or provides answers to questions, to the person who is being asked is new for me. Not unwelcome but also unfamiliar.
My role as a therapist has allowed for a certain level of anonymity in my daily existence. Safety even. Remaining neutral won the day most days and was what I’d heard was the ideal clinical approach. I don’t think it’s an accident that I’d ended up in this profession either. I suspect that my privacy-prizing first-generation Filipino upbringing for which all emotions were labeled as “weird” combined with my lived sense of introversion and depression are all partially responsible for the fact that I came to adulthood desperately wanting and needing to understand the human condition. My condition. I feel in this moment as the embodiment of the adage, “Doctor heal thyself.”
My therapy clients have given me the honor of letting me join them in their look at their lives. The impossible. The mundane. And the supreme. They are heroes in my eyes. I think of them as the bold and brave people who have gone before me and walked alongside me in mental health recovery — whether they knew it or not. Many of the revelations I’d had in my own growth occurred out of their sharing so generously that I experienced that byproduct of building compassion for those mucky parts of myself that I’d strategically shelved away or stuffed into a ill-fitted container. I am thankful for them for trusting me with sitting with them as they live fully. To imagine myself in the client seat, as I feel I’ve been in what feels like a million times before, occurs like a game of Russian Roulette where the booby prizes are painful,
shameful, and, at times, downright embarrassing. I think perhaps this is the discomfort and unpleasantness that Mary Karr wrote about. It comes clear, that I’m not in therapy land any more and there is no yellow brick road. But I want one to be there.
So I believe that it is high time that I apply that level of attentive observation and compassionate listening I offer my clients, to myself as I explore my own life. This is what I feel I am being called to do. So let this first essay be my promise to you, reader. As I say to myself and to you, “Therapist HEAR thyself.” And I hope you’ll join me as I get on the floor to look at my life with a clinicians’ experience, and the human sense of a memoirist.