The idea that all therapists are content is stubborn—but wrong

Crucially, that doesn't stop them being able to do their jobs well
June 21, 2017

My psychoanalyst’s hallway is full of puffy jackets, the kind of outdoorsy coats he and his family must need for their bracing but life-affirming hikes. Off they stride chatting and laughing, on the long journey that will eventually lead them back to their idyllic cottage where they’ll make a fire, get a roast in the oven and pour the wine.

I think we all assume that our therapist is happy. They’ve gone through the training, they’ve had masses of therapy themselves, they are stable and serene. Aren’t they?

“How can you give people advice when you can’t even sort your own life out?” a Russian friend of mine sweetly asked me one morning over her breakfast cognac. The quick answer to this is that (half decent) therapists don’t give anyone advice, they simply try to understand the patient, and it should, theoretically, be easier to understand a troubled patient if your own life hasn’t been a bed of roses/bowl of cherries. But the stubborn idea behind my friend’s aggressive question is that therapists are content.

Well, it’s true that someone seriously disturbed wouldn’t make it through training, and the lengthy therapy involved should have sorted out any chaos before qualification. You don’t get properly trained therapists who are addicts (I’ve never seen one who’s massively over or underweight, for example) or who are still acting out unresolved stuff from their early life (getting into the same old conflicts at work, being serially unfaithful to their partner and that kind of stuff). Calm, yes. Happy? Not necessarily.

I was talking to this cognac-swilling friend about the end of fertility. Single, achingly lonely, and waiting for a hysterectomy, I’m taking a massive dose of progesterone that, in a hideous irony, makes me feel kind of pregnant—a sickly parody of pregnancy as I prepare for the symbolic slide into old age. It feels like 10 minutes ago (and it was only four years ago) that I wondered about having a last-chance baby before the curtain comes down. “Well, you’re the therapist. You know how not to be sad about it,” my friend said. In fact, the exact opposite is true. What I know is how to be sad about it.

I’m not going to buy a motorbike or dye my hair pink, have a tattoo and date a 30-year-old. The thing about having had a lot of analysis and having done the reading is that you know what it is you’re sad about and that you’re allowed to be sad about it. This can be fantastically irritating. “I want you to tell me it’s not true, that I’m actually young and can have another bash,” I said to my analyst. “And all you’re going to offer is the opportunity to mourn. I don’t want to mourn more stuff!” But there is no choice, of course. Avoid reality or face it.

I met a woman on a train once whose 21-year-old son had committed suicide. She was in analysis. I wondered why bother when the worst has happened—that (unlike ageing) is something that can’t be processed by any amount of mourning. “I never want to be sad about anything except that,” she explained. She wanted to make sure that nothing got mixed up in her grief for her son. She knew she was not going to be happy, but she wanted to be clear. Clarity, I think, is what therapy offers, and the truth (loss, ageing, solitude) is often so sad that we’ll do almost anything to avoid it. Come to think of it, I’ve always wanted a Harley Davidson…