It’s nothing like I imagined, this pale yellow house across the street from my bank, but Google Maps and the sign hanging from the porch tell me I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, 13 minutes to spare. I adjust my skirt and reapply Chapstick, stalling and acting like it’s my first time meeting up with a cute guy instead of my first time seeing a shrink. Nine minutes early, four steps up, two deep breaths in and I stop compulsively primping to open the door.
The man behind the counter isn’t like I pictured, either—rounder and gray in a Hawaiian shirt—but from his voice I recognize him as Paul, the one who waited on the line while I sniffled through setting up the appointment. He calls me Kate instead of Katie, offers me Candy? No, thanks, Water? Maybe, and hands me a clipboard of empty forms to fill in with bits and pieces of myself. I’m trying not to eavesdrop on his story about Ivan, the 74 year old man with Alzheimer’s and depression and actual, serious issues; trying not to stare at the mother and her teenage son as they leave the lobby looking like they’re about to enjoy a dead silent car ride; not to worry about the sweat between my thighs and the nervousness in my chest and to just concentrate on filling in lines and checking boxes as truthfully as possible. My pen hovers over the “Bisexual” box, not in a I like to make out with girls to get free drinks at bars kind of way but in a I could maybe have feelings for one of my best friends and it’s confusing as hell kind of way, but I inch to the left and mark what won’t horrify my brother. I don’t know my insurance policy. I drink pretty heavily Thursday-Saturday. I’m here because I’d like to work on self esteem, anxiety, thinking rationally, and creating a mental checklist for how to calm the fuck down in every day situations. I pass these personal details onto Paul, and he passes me onto a woman I immediately forget the name of for my “intake interview.”
She walks me passed a hall of closed doors into a back room and asks how I’m doing. I assume she means it in the polite, rhetorical way rather than as an invitation to dive right in, so I say, “I’m OK, how are you?” She’s good, of course, and we sit down five feet apart, notepad in her lap, tightly clasped hands in mine. I forget what she asks or how I answer but I’m crying within the first few minutes. I’m apologizing repeatedly, sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry, even though I’m not sure what I’m sorry for. She assures me it’s fine, I’m “OK” just like I said. There aren’t any visible tissues—aren’t therapists supposed to be lousy with Kleenex?—and I don’t want to ask so I wipe under my eyes with my index fingers and try to stay composed despite being hot and uncomfortable.
She’s asking more questions but I can’t find the words to describe how I’m feeling. Which is why I’m sitting in a counseling office in the first place. But explaining you can’t explain something is incredibly difficult, and there’s only so much head nodding a listener can do before you both exhaust yourselves. I’m telling her about my family, how my parents are separated but still legally married and lovely; how my brother and I are finally getting along even though we’re both brats 70% of the time. I tell her about going to school in sunny Santa Barbara, about my roommates and friends and how they’re hilarious and supportive and beautiful people. No, I’ve never been abused. No, I’ve never had suicidal thoughts. I’m hearing the words coming out of my mouth and realizing I’ve lived a sweet, tame life. And yet I’m still crying. Crying because I don’t like crying so often. Because I know everyone has their own problems and their own bullshit and their own happiness to worry about, and what’s wrong with me, why don’t I find that comforting? Crying because somehow falling somewhere in the realm of average or normal rather than clinically diagnosable leaves me feeling helpless instead of relieved.
I want to be honest with this woman. I want to tell her all the thoughts that go through my head and see if she can help sort them out. But I feel stupid, like saying anything out loud might make it any more or less valid, and I can’t bring myself to do it. I can’t bear to tell her that some days I’m convinced my upper arms are so fat there’s no possible way he could love me. That even if I had the perfect ass or bigger breasts it wouldn’t even matter because I still wouldn’t be enough. I can’t tell her I sit at work praying no one calls or walks in the door because I don’t want to field questions or concerns I don’t have the solution to. That I refuse to challenge myself with a position that could actually mean something because I’m too terrified to try, too weak to face rejection and bounce back. I can’t get past all the things I say I can’t do, and she’s writing it all down and giving the appropriate interjections, and all I can think is, “I wonder if I read that yellow notepad if I’d relate to the girl I found in this stranger’s handwriting.”
When I told my mom I wanted to try therapy she told me, “Why, are you broken? Choose happiness, angel.” If only it were that simple. If only being slightly cracked and bruised but not quite broken—OK, fine, good instead of truly happy—was something I could choose to get over. Think how well adjusted I’d be if the comfort of deep breaths, long runs, warm embraces were everlasting instead of small highs in need of constant repeating. Imagine how wonderful it’d feel to hear “I love you,” “You’re beautiful,” “You’re amazing,” and know it’s true because you already believe all those things about yourself. What a novel idea.
At the end of the interview the woman asks if there’s anything else I’d like to tell her. Defeated I shake my head and say, “No, I think that’s it,” with a small smile, hopeful one of the next ten sessions will be better. I watch as my yellow life summary is filed into a cabinet with all the others, hopeful the next person to thumb through won’t discount my feelings the way I seem to. Lips dry, skirt stuck to my legs, I step outside knowing I haven’t “chosen happiness.” But at least it feels like I might be taking a step in the right direction.