I guess the Washington Square Institute thought they were making up for my previous therapist when they assigned me a new one who looked like Jay Leno. I wasn’t a fan of the TV show but found it encouraging that my new shrink seemed more amused than concerned by my problems.
Things went well enough the first few months. Sure, he had a few annoying quirks, such as only taking notes when I happened to mention a dream, or always pointing out with a titter the double meaning of the expression “it’s hard.” (To this day I still say “it’s difficult” because of him.) But such are the hazards of psychotherapy.
Then suddenly Dr. Leno announced he was leaving the Institute to pursue a degree in Psychoanalysis. I was confused – what the hell kind of degree did he have, then? But I didn’t prod because he made me a great offer. If I’d agree to see him in his private practice three times a week until he earned his degree he would charge me the same as I was paying for one visit a week.
I’d have to be crazy to pass up a bargain like that.
Aside from the new location and the frequency of the sessions, things didn’t seem much different. I would still show up and talk about what was going on in my life, and he would chuckle and respond with a few pointed questions.
My focus at the time remained on how to make my relationship with the poet work, since she refused to stop dating the DJ. Every time I would get upset she would explain the soundness of our arrangement. Swayed by her arguments, I was convinced that what really needed to change were my feelings.
Dr. Leno would just roll his eyes and suggest that maybe we found intellectualization erotic. Well, maybe. But I was in deep distress.
Then things got more complicated. After a raucous party at my house, an Icelandic classmate invited herself to spend the night. It seemed like a good opportunity to test whether the concept of my open relationship with the poet applied to both sides. True to her word, the poet just shrugged it off. Meanwhile, my jealousy continued unabated. But hey, now I was sleeping with two women!
Dr. Leno seemed to think he was getting a peek at the life of an artist, but of course it was really just art school bullshit. It was a sweet deal, for sure. I was living off the largesse of my parents, and I didn’t worry about the future because I was going to be famous. I spent my days bullying my fellow students with French theory (which, appropriately enough, I was mostly getting second-hand from American writers and from the poet) and my nights kicking it up with my new Icelandic posse. I was acting like a typical NYU student, except I wasn’t going to NYU.
My entitled behavior included showing up late or even forgetting to keep my therapy appointments. Oddly, Dr. Leno didn’t mind. He occasionally missed appointments as well. We never discussed it. It might seem strange now, but I was so busy living the high life that it didn’t register as a problem.
I was more worried about other things. Like the time Dr. Leno recommended I watch Il Postino. “It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen,” he gushed. I was horrified. I asked him what were some other favorites, hoping that he would redeem himself. “I’ve watched Funny Lady more than 100 times,” he said. My heart stopped. On the other hand, he once got offended when I tried to explain who the Velvet Underground were. “Of course I know who they are,” he snapped.
Despite our laissez-faire attitude towards the schedule, I put real work into analysis, and it felt fruitful. I had come up with a surefire method for progress: I would figure out what I did not want to talk about and then force myself to do it. It paid off! With Dr. Leno’s amused guidance I was discovering my many blind spots and slowly started becoming more comfortable with my feelings and myself.
Sometimes the sessions were funny. One time, too much so. I told Dr. Leno a story from Houston. A group of us were drinking with a young British exchange student at our house when my friend drained his beer bottle and handed it to the kid. “Put it on your head,” he said as he picked up a baseball bat. The student looked terrified until we all started laughing.
Dr. Leno and I both laughed. But when I tried to continue talking he burst out in laughter again. And again. This went on for half of the session. By the time he was able to get himself somewhat under control I had lost the thread of what I had been trying to say.
Then things began to get weirder. One day Dr. Leno showed up with a black eye and scratches on his face. “It’s hard for me to focus on therapy with your black eye,” I told him. “Yeah, me too,” he replied.
A couple of weeks later he missed three sessions in a row. Even I had never missed more than one session a week. I left him voicemails but got no response.
That Saturday the phone woke me up. “Shovanni, it’s me. Are shu alrigh’?” “Hi, Dr. Leno, yes, I am. Are you alright?” “Yeh, I was shust sheckin’ on shu.” “Thanks, I’ll talk to you later.” I hung up, troubled. He sounded totally wasted. The phone rang again as I was heading back to bed. “Shovanni, it’s me. Are shu alrigh’?” Uh-oh.
I got a terse call on Monday confirming our appointment. When I saw him that evening Dr. Leno looked like hell, much worse than the time with the black eye. He was clearly in pain, and his voice sounded like scraping metal.
“I’m going to be taking some time off,” he rasped. “I want you to know that I have a drinking problem and I’m going into a program. It’ll be at least six weeks before I return. I’ll get in touch then and you can tell me if you want to continue seeing me.” We hobbled through the rest of the session.
Dr. Leno came back ahead of schedule a few weeks later. I worried that it meant that he’d skipped out on rehab, but he never missed another session.
Whenever I tell people this story, they ask why I would continue to see a therapist with a drinking problem. It’s hard, er, difficult to explain, but at the time his erratic behavior had been a good fit with mine. And his rehabilitation came at a time when I was also changing. For one thing, I had finally broken up with the poet. I had an epiphany: just because she won our arguments didn’t mean she was right, it simply meant that she was better at arguing. So I ended the relationship and refused to discuss it with her. I was finally choosing my feelings over intellectualization.
At nearly the same time, my parents ran into serious money difficulties, so I had to get a job. A new stage in my life had begun. No longer a student, I somehow found myself a professional writer. Well, really a hack, but still, I was writing for a living.
For the next couple of years I went through a long chain of short relationships, most of them lasting only from three weeks to three months. After taking so long to break up with the poet, now I ran at the first hint of trouble. At any rate, I still had plenty of material to keep up Dr. Leno’s idea of the artist’s life – until the dotcom bubble burst.
When the website I was writing for started laying off dozens of employees at a time, I quit and started working at a scrappy art gallery that didn’t provide medical insurance. I left Williamsburg for Astoria with a new girlfriend—another Icelander—who couldn’t work because she didn’t have a green card, so I had to provide for both of us. And my parents’ situation had gotten so bad that my brother and I had to send them money regularly. It was time to quit Dr. Leno.
Saying goodbye was awkward. I had spent six or seven years confiding my secrets to this man, but I knew next to nothing about him. Yet he wasn’t a stranger, either – I do believe he cared about me and wanted me to be happy. Not knowing what to say, I ended the session before the 45 minutes were up.
I tried seeing him again several years later, once I had insurance again, but it wasn’t the same. I suspect that Dr. Leno was a little disappointed with my new life. I was married, so I no longer had exciting bohemian predicaments to discuss. I had also lost a lot of the urgency that drove our old sessions. He scheduled our appointments every two weeks instead of the usual once a week. I soon quit for good. One day I saw that he looked up my profile on LinkedIn. I didn’t see the point in looking at his.