I Had to Quit Therapy to Finally Be Ready for It

I came to therapy as most people do: in desperation. After a sexual assault triggered my latent depression, I dropped out of college a semester before graduating. Over the next year, I grappled my way to the diploma. I knew I wasn’t well, but I still wanted to exercise some agency in my choice of treatment: Psychoanalysis sounded smart, flattering my vanity, and the institutes had lower fees for patients willing to undergo what they called a “full analysis.” The phrase shares a certain boastful intensity with “full throttle” and “full frontal,” and the program — four sessions per week laid up on the couch — was indeed demanding. If I was going to admit I needed therapy, the most rigorous version was probably the best. So I signed up. Dr. S was beautiful, warm and almost confrontational in her candor. I felt an immediate attachment.

On the one hand, seeing a psychoanalyst was a good girl’s form of rebellion. For my whole life, both my parents have been involved in spiritual communities that emphasize collective devotion and mystical experience over and above self-examination. The ego was something to be transcended rather than indulged. In choosing analysis, I was doubling down on my atheistic position; I was asserting my own sensibility. I liked that Freud didn’t promise more than I believed any man or god could deliver; instead, we were in the territory of healing without cure, revolution without utopia. I liked the permission to play among dreams, wishes and accidents of language. But I also liked — and this has been harder to admit — feeling as if this particular kind of help revealed me to be a sophisticated, creative person; that it somehow dignified the mess I dragged from door to door.

I should have recognized this feeling as a telltale symptom. Even though I’d been careful to choose the medicine myself, I was still relating to my treatment as if it were a professional-development program. I wanted to prove that I could succeed at transformation; which, of course, implied that it was possible to fail. When Dr. S wanted to talk about why I was late, or why I’d skipped a session two weeks in a row, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being reprimanded by an authority figure, and that no track record of commitment could counterbalance my slips and gaps. Yes, I had other priorities, and they sometimes took precedence, but did we have to pathologize every wish that exceeded the analytic situation? Couldn’t she see that I was already giving so much?

I knew that the “transference” was working — that I was casting her in the role of my mother, teacher, supervisor — but, as Freud warned, “giving the resistance a name could not result in its immediate cessation.” I had promised myself that I would stay in analysis for two years; after that, I was free to leave if I felt like it. As the secret deadline approached, I chafed more and more against the frequent meetings, growing jealous of my time. Was I changing enough for the therapy to be “worth” the hours I “spent” in the room with Dr. S? Or was that logic a capitalist delusion I should deconstruct? If so, it seemed as if Dr. S were stuck there with me, urging maximum fidelity to the maximum number of sessions, as if the more hours I logged at the office, the “better” I’d become.

Dr. S and I tried to work through the conflict. For me, she knew, dependency implied obligation and control — so I wouldn’t let her, or let myself, be close. I didn’t disagree, but how was I supposed to rescue my desire to be held from my fear of being crushed, my desire for love from my desire to please? How was I supposed to find a way through that wasn’t out? I experienced my imminent departure like a fact in my body, and any effort to explain it further filled me with a saturating boredom. Dr. S was not a boring person, and I didn’t think I was, either, so the boredom provoked our mutual suspicion. Still, I felt loyal to my malaise, like the child who refuses every doll, game or excursion — stubborn in the unhappy dignity of her disinterest.

Dr. S knew better than to pressure me to stay, but she did not fulfill my fantasy of a reparative final session. I thought I wanted her to bless my departure. Instead, she spoke wistfully of all the work we might do if I kept coming back, as if the work we’d done already was not enough. When I left her office, tears blurred my vision, and the clouds above Central Park looked like faces pushing against fabric. I’d been afraid of disappointing Dr. S — and then I did. But the disappointment I perceived in her was different from the disappointment I so chronically endeavored to avoid with others. Together we had created a situation that I could abandon in favor of my own desire, however primitive, without recrimination.

It must be strange, for the analyst, to exercise so little control over her patients: After years of tenderness, we might walk out the door without looking back. And yet, it is precisely this conscious renunciation of control that makes the analyst different from the other people in our lives, potentially transformatively so. Once I left, life quickly flooded the space where our sessions had been. I fell in love, I became a writer. I was waiting for a punishment, meanwhile, that never came, and the quietude diffused the guilt and shame of failure. I could feel, finally, the stirrings of an independence I did not have to justify by winning. Leaving Dr. S made it possible to imagine going back — both humbled and emboldened by our mutual capacity to abide the separation. To let it breathe.

I was gone only for a little more than a year, and when I went back to Dr. S, we saw each other once a week. Six years have passed, and our relationship is now one of the most reliable — and mysterious — in my life. I told her recently that I’m not sure what analysis is for, or how and how much it’s made me better. “You’re still so ambivalent about it,” Dr. S observed. But I don’t think that’s quite true. I’m not ambivalent about my time with her: I know I want to be there, in the suspended circle of her attention. I’m just reluctant to articulate its purpose, especially in public, because analysis has become a refuge from the pervasive demand that I use my time productively, or render my life as a progress narrative for search committees, potential partners or the pages of a magazine. In analysis, I’m allowed to be uncertain and without the right words. This time, I haven’t decided how long it should last. I’m able to practice living without particular ends in mind — which is not the same, I’ve learned, as living without desire.

Lately I’ve been reading the Puerto Rican feminist Luisa Capetillo, especially her 1911 manifesto on free love, repeating one line like a mantra: “querer es poder.” The translation I have renders it as “wanting is doing.” But I keep lingering over other possibilities: “wanting is power,” or, more modestly, “to want is to be able to.” Desire is the minimum condition for any true transformation. But desire cannot be demanded from us by others, or by the voices of others we’ve internalized to discipline our own spirits. We all have to figure out how to want the help we need. The choices we make about how to get it matter less than how close we can feel to the force of our choosing.

Carina del Valle Schorske is a writer and a translator living in Brooklyn. Her first book, “The Other Island,” is forthcoming from Riverhead. Her essay for the magazine about New York’s plague-time dance floors won a National Magazine Award. Najeebah Al-Ghadban is a collage artist with a focus on how much we reveal or conceal about our internal worlds through the cutting away or transfiguration of an image.

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