The Shrink Files

The Swimsuit Issue

It was January, 1990. In other words, it was pre-Prozac. My patient was becoming frantic. She was convinced that her husband was scoping out other women. He was a letter carrier and he had plenty of opportunity to observe women in various states of deshabille as they collected their mail. But the first week in February posed a particular threat, a threat exceeding that of any other week of any month…..the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. Her husband would be delivering the magazine to many homes. Surely he would look at it. The thought of this was unbearable to her.

Reading between the lines, as therapists are wont to do, I realized that my patient’s husband’s “looking” behavior was probably no different than any other straight man’s “looking” behavior. It was her problem, not his. Because of her worry, she held held her husband on a short leash and restricted his travel. He was not even permitted to go fishing lest he observe women in bathing suits on the shore. Interestingly, he did not seriously object to these limitations. Eventually she recognized the absurdity of her rules for him, and she came to see me.

Deconstructing her  fear of her husband’s wandering eye, my patient recollected that as an adolescent she noticed that her father spied on her when she showered. She tried to lock the bathroom door, but, somehow, the lock would never stay fixed. Her father disgusted her. He smelled of cigarettes, and when he died in his sixties of emphysema, she felt relieved. His legacy to her:  an aversion to tobacco and a fixed belief that all men relentlessly engage in  lascivious looking.

My patient was able to use this insight about her past to undo her needless anxiety about her husband. She endured the the first week in February issue of S.I. without incident. She released her husband from geographic confinement. She stopped monitoring his “looking” behavior. She wanted to to party, to go into the city to the theater and restaurants, to have fun.

That’s when the real trouble in their marriage started. The more she wished to expand their horizons, the more he resisted. He was happy to stay within the boundary of his neighborhood and mail route and became anxious when he strayed. It turned out that he was suffering from agoraphobia, but had never noticed because he had never tested himself.  He simply never left town. Their neuroses perfectly balanced each other….but now that she was better, the marriage came apart. Eventually they divorced.

I wonder, in retrospect, if I did anyone any favors.

 

Secrets

My new twenty-something patient, told me that she had a shocking secret, but she couldn’t talk about it. Even after I assured her of confidentiality she remained tongue-tied. I asked her how the secret made her feel. “Ashamed,” she said. “I feel like an imposter” We talked around it, about her life. I tried to make her feel safe.

On her second visit, she seemed even more hesitant, but was resolved, she said,  to spill the beans. She took a deep breath, stared past me and began to talk. As she spoke I observed that she began to glance at me. I recall that I didn’t react. I recall, moreover, that I didn’t feel the need to react. I had heard this kind of thing a million times. I remember looking at her pink dangling earrings. Afterwards, she was visibly relieved. She thanked me profusely. She felt so much better.

I never saw her again.

I’ve forgotten her secret.

(Note that the patient’s identity is disguised)