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It was the day of my big Psych 101 midterm, and though I could have identified the symptoms of anxiety and depression all too well, I was curled in a ball on the floor of my college dorm room instead of sitting in class. It was 2004, fall of my sophomore year at Yale, and I was depressed.
In high school, I'd been a straight-A overachiever, but in college, I'd skip class to get high, wear the same clothes for days, and stay up until 6 am crying or staring blankly at the wall. I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, connect with anyone I met at school, and my loneliness felt physical, like a vibrating sheen coating my skin. That night, I told my parents about the bad grades, because it was easier to explain than the cloudy mental anguish. Intuiting that my academic trouble was a sign of something deeper, they found me Carol, a therapist in New Haven.
Though I’d known plenty of kids who’d been in therapy since they could talk, I’d never thought it would work for me. I’d pictured someone barraging me with questions I couldn’t answer, only to diagnose me with some terrible disease. Or worse, I’d get diagnosed with nothing but a bad attitude; stop complaining, they’d say, your life’s fine.
But Carol was a pretty, blond, kind woman in her 50s who’d lean forward with a concerned look when I spoke. She had curly hair like me, and wore clothes that were simple and attractive, often with something that shook things up a little, like earrings in the shape of seahorses. The first time I met her, she told me that she wouldn’t go back to college for anything. I immediately liked her.
As I started to talk to her about my family, my inability to form intimate relationships, and my fear I’d be alone forever, I felt something within me unwinding. I told her how awful I felt, and she didn’t get frightened or uncomfortable, as my parents always had. No matter what I confessed -- jealousy, hatred, self-loathing -- she asked me questions to find out more, and responded to my answers with compassion.
But she also pushed me to stop blaming school, my childhood, and my appearance for my unhappiness, and to probe more deeply at my own role. After a draining session, Carol even hugged me. Sometimes I’d show up late, because I felt too tired, or scared, to face the intimacy of our meetings. But once I was there, I had no problem filling the session ruminating about my lack of a love life.
I’d come to college inexperienced, a virgin. I’d kissed a handful of boys, but nothing more. Though I wanted to have sexual and emotional relationships, something held me back. My roommates had what I imagined were typical freshmen year adventures, but I couldn’t manage threesomes or even heartbreak. I didn’t feel comfortable with my few friends and was confused by the guys who clumsily pawed at me in crowded dark rooms.
At a party, a boy I promisingly knew from a class called “Love and War” sat down next to me on a couch. He kissed me, and I kissed him back, trying to get into it. When I opened my eyes I saw he had his hand up the skirt of a girl sitting on the other side of him. I was devastated. One night, fraternity pledges from Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, of which George W. Bush was once president, marched through the campus chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal.” I retreated into my talks with Carol.
One day, my friend Natalie told me that Chris, a boy she’d met on a summer program, was taking time off from his college and coming home, to New Haven, for a break. She said she had a feeling we might hit it off, and invited us both to a party that night.
When Chris walked into the party in a gross dorm room, I knew Natalie had been right. He was tall, had dirty blond hair, a scruffy beard, and looked serious. I felt attracted to him right away. He teased me gently about the fact that I was wearing a scarf on the warm fall night. I smiled for what felt like the first time in years.
When I calmly downed a shot of straight whiskey, I closed my eyes to let his deep, impressed laugh hold me like a warm, happy breeze. His arm brushed against mine and I felt a tingling sensation that made me feel healthy and good.
Later in the night, drinking wine, I started telling him about an art class I was taking. We’d just gone on a field trip to the Guggenheim to see a James Rosenquist retrospective. The huge canvasses, which provocatively warped and combined familiar objects, had left me breathless.
“Do you want to go sit outside?” he asked. “I can barely hear you in here.” I felt glowing pride that he wanted to hear my opinions.
We went outside to the courtyard to keep talking. We began to trade stories, the way people getting to know each other do. I told him about the time I’d gotten really high and accidentally eaten a roll of Bubble Tape gum, convinced it was Fruit-by-the-Foot. He confided, half-boasting, that he’d been kicked out of his school for drugs.
As we sat close, Chris took out a small bag of coke. He spilled some out onto a small mirror, and began to crush it up with a credit card. He pulled out a small straw and blew a line. He turned to me, and asked if I wanted some. Our fingers lingered, nearly intertwined, as I took the straw from him. I snorted a line of coke, my eyes watering slightly.
I asked him if he’d ever been in therapy, and told him that I loved it. He told me that his mom was a psychologist.
“Oh, your mom's a shrink in New Haven,” I joked, slurring my words slightly. “Is her name Carol?”
His face went pale. “Wait, yes, why?”
All of a sudden, I realized he looked exactly like her. The same blond hair, same narrow face, same caring smile. He didn't seem cute anymore.
“Oh, my god!” I yelled, “Your mom is my therapist!”
“No! Wait, Carol Hannigan?”
I didn’t answer. By the time he’d finished saying the last syllable in her name I’d already stopped listening. My mind was spinning.
“Carol Hannigan?” he repeated incredulously.
“Um, yeah.” I said.
“Well,” he said after a long pause. “Now you know your therapist can't even solve her own son's problems.”
He got a wild look in his eye.
“I know, let’s call her!”
“Uh, okay” I said, still trying to wrap my drunken head around this strange coincidence.
He called his mom, and left a message saying that he was hanging out with one of her patients, and he was going to tell me what a horrible mother she was. He laughed maniacally into the phone as he called her a fraud, a hypocrite. He continued to ramble on, and I felt sure he had exceeded the length of the voicemail message. Oh god, I thought, this guy’s crazy. I felt queasy and eventually threw up.
When I woke up the next day, I went to my appointment with Carol.
“So, I hear you met my son,” she said.
“Yup,” I answered. I was furious. Here she had been posing as someone stable and competent, but she couldn’t even solve her own child’s problems --- I imagined that he was some kind of psychopath, addicted to doing drugs and gently teasing innocent young girls. I felt frantic, betrayed. How could I have thought Carol could ever help me? She couldn’t help her own son.
Carol tried to ask me how meeting her son made me feel, but I couldn’t talk about it. I felt like my safe space had been irreparably marred. I stopped seeing her a few weeks after that.
Right around the time I met Chris, the movie "Prime" came out. In it, Uma Thurman plays a woman who starts dating a younger man, who turns out to be the son of her therapist (Meryl Streep). I had lived my very own version of it, but without the sultry sex scenes. I pictured what it would have been like had I kept seeing both Chris and Carol. I imagined telling my therapist intimate details about her son’s sexual prowess, like in the movie. At the end of the film, Uma and the son break up relatively amicably. More harrowing is the patient’s break up with her therapist. Streep’s character tries to comfort her distraught patient. She says: “Sometimes you love, and you learn, and you... move on.”
The intimate connection I’d been searching for in college hadn’t looked like what I had imagined, but I’d had one nonetheless. Letting Carol get to know me was the first step out of the dark place I was in. I’d been so naïve to assume that my therapist, that anyone, would have her life perfectly together.
Carol hadn’t posed as someone who had everything figured out; she’d been empathetic, human and vulnerable. I wish that rather than betrayed, I’d felt grateful to glimpse a piece of what made Carol the person she was. I wish I’d kept seeing her, and not been so frightened of real closeness. At the very least, I kind of wish I’d slept with her son.
I saw Carol one more time. My senior year, walking to the grocery store with a friend, we passed her on the street. Carol and I smiled at each other, and there was so much I wanted to say. I wanted her to know that I had made friends, had sex, begun to find my voice. I was no longer sure I’d be alone forever. But she just nodded and walked by, as two kids on bicycles did tricks in the supermarket parking lot, trying to avoid the cars.