For a while – about a quarter century – I had a hard time being a writer. I was riven by the state of the world and I wanted to do something more “useful” than sit around and write cute little poems. “Poetry is not penicillin,” I chastised myself in one of my journals from my early 20s. “Get your act together.” “Get a real job.” Etc. The name for this is internalized stigma. It was easier for me to read books about therapy in public than books about writing.
One such book was Molly Peacock’s poetry collection, The Analyst. It’s 100 pages of permission: she writes about the 38-year relationship she has with a therapist who she loves unreservedly. Along the way, Peacock reveals what our emotionally abusive culture might label her “profound” neediness and brokenness. It took me fifteen years to find a therapist, whom I’ll call T, I could believe could help me but I didn’t know it was okay to feel such strong, platonic affection (which our culture has trained us to believe is impossible or inappropriate) for T. We’re a little more okay as a culture freely talking about our therapists, though not so much about why we may need them. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the encounter The Analyst would provoke on my way to work one recent morning.
I was on the Rapid Ride E line into downtown Seattle with a physical copy of The Analyst in front of my face when a woman with the mien of Sarah Huckabee Sanders who also turned out to be a high schooler evidently saw this as a threat to an otherwise peaceful bus-riding experience. She poked my shoulder.
“Therapy is ruining the world.”
For some reason, I doubted she was referring to James Hillman and Michael Ventura’s 1992 We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse but I asked her anyway.
She gave me a blank look.
“How does navel gazing feed starving kids in Africa or stop the government from spying on citizens who are trying to actually make things better?”
When I was in high school, I was worrying about who I’d go to prom with – oh, and whether I should stay locked in a classroom if a gunman came to our school or run like hell so I wouldn’t be an easy target (I’m from Littleton, Colorado, and was in lockdown in a nearby middle school during the Columbine shootings in 1999). Plus, replace “navel gazing” with “writing – especially poetry” in the sentence this high schooler said above and you have my thoughts from age five to sometimes current. So I guess I could relate.
“It sounds like you’re angry,” I said before I really thought about it.
“Good one.” She flicked The Analyst’s spine. “You get that from here?”
“Well, this is poetry about a therapist who has a stroke and the author goes from care receiver to caregiver in a way the world doesn’t let you believe is possible,” I said, leaving off “but that I don’t allow myself to admit very often that I would jump at the chance to do for T.”
My conversation partner lets out the breath she’d sucked in to prepare for her retort. “So the therapy worked?” she finally said.
“I hadn’t thought about it that way.”
She takes the book and opens to the poem called Paid Love.
“I used to have an issue with having to pay someone to listen to you moan about your problems for an hour a week,” I said. “Like, what are friends for, right?”
She nods, slowly at first, faster as she talks. “I’m so sick of being foisted off on ‘experts.’”
“Yeah.” I’ve said precisely that to my husband. “You can have all the credentials in the world,” I said, quoting a former friend who is probably about to finish her PhD in psychology at this point. “And you should get as much training as you can. But if you don’t believe your therapist likes you, they won’t be able to help you.”
“You shouldn’t have to pay someone to care about you.” She starts reading Paid Love under her breath.
“I don’t pay my therapist to care about me – that’s free.” I didn’t realize I thought this. “I pay my therapist to help me.”
She whispers the line in Paid Love, “Where else in life is the necessity for payment so clear?” There’s three more lines but she looks up like she’s at the end.
I want to pause, give her more space, but my stop is coming up. “I’ve met Molly Peacock” – this is my first autographed copy of a poetry book – “and it was worth it. I got to thank her for that exact poem.”
My conversation partner points to the page and raises her eyebrows.
I nod. “Had she not written it, I wouldn’t have continued in therapy.” Her nose crinkles at the corners. “And,” I say before she can respond, “if I hadn’t stayed with it, I wouldn’t have given myself permission not to have to save the world all by myself.” The bus lurches to a stop. She stretches my book out to me when I stand and, as I take it, I see her writing The Analyst – Molly Peacock on the back of her hand.
Poetry, in turns out, can be penicillin.