Two books that explore life in psychotherapy
I picked up Lori Gottlieb's Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019) while trying to find a good therapist in this dreary land. There was the senior celebrity therapist who advised me to "console" myself; and then moved on to spend the rest of the session speaking of her travails as a senior citizen. Then there was the young lady therapist who failed to communicate with me because she didn't understand my social media anxiety or fears. And how can I forget the therapist who believed in the power of astrological signs?
All of this and more were reason enough for me to pick up Gottlieb's book. Lori is a young mother based in Los Angeles, a psychotherapist, and someone who has just had her heart broken. So it begins, Gottlieb's candid reflections on her own search for a therapist, their breakthroughs, their conversations, and her triumphs over her own anxiety. Reading about her helped, because it gave character to the person sitting in the opposite couch. Lori felt human and it made me understand that my therapists were human too, not the superheroes I expected them to be.
It's an easy read—not a literary masterpiece, but a memoir of Lori's stories, her patients, and what one can expect during therapy. She writes of her achievements and exasperation with her own therapist, whom she calls "Wendell", and how this khaki and cardigan-donning eccentric revealed that she could actually use more help than she had anticipated when starting out. It is a realisation that makes her a better therapist in her own right. The struggles of her patients, the connections between the past and the present, and her clients' problematic behaviour all start to make better sense to Lori as she navigates her sessions with "Wendell".
While the stories of her clients were also intriguing, it was watching Lori grow through the book while attending her therapy sessions that kept me moving along. She candidly wrote of loss at a time when I was counting my own, and this made all the difference. "We can't have change without loss, which is why so often people say they want change but nonetheless stay exactly the same," she writes. Lori's internal monologues clarify that your therapist is not there to give you a to-do list. To even read this in print was a wake-up call for yours truly; it showed just how hard it can be to recognise the flaws and unflattering angles in one's own personality while receiving therapy.
The charm in reading all this, even though they are based on the experiences of the west, was to find that not all therapists and clients kick off, and also that the process of talk therapy has an end goal—that it should involve a strict sense of anonymity and it isn't just an endless stream of meaningless visits, as I was beginning to think thanks to my experiences in Bangladesh.
While Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is filtered through a white lens and its associated experiences, Mumbai-based clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta's Anxiety: Overcome It and Live without Fear (HarperCollins India, 2020) is another book on mental health that feels culturally closer to home. The book is at times anecdotal—covering experiences of Gupta's anonymous clients, and at times self-help—dotted with advice on managing anxiety in our day to day lives in the Indian subcontinent. The interactive chapters have column spaces for adding notes and following little exercises. And the sections exploring the pertinent shaming in India's corporate culture felt particularly relevant for readers also working in Bangladesh.
I have a pathological need for "relatable" content. Gupta writes of how many clients complain to her of waking up to a barrage of emails and pending or added workload just because they are single or divorced, and so seemingly have no "need" for free time. This certainly felt relatable. For the longest time, as a young employee, I was expected to stay back and put in longer hours because my married colleagues "needed" to get back home. As though marriage is a license for access to free time and bearing responsibilities. This is just how things roll in our subcontinent--marriage is what propels you into adulthood. While Gupta's lament on corporate culture and shaming of millennials felt both endearing and empowering, her acknowledgement of how our seniors' behaviour may often cause anxiety attacks for younger co-workers felt especially relevant. In exploring such situations, Dr Gupta helpfully lays out the difference between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder. Her parting lesson is that, "…we can only learn to manage anxiety. It's not going to go away completely."
Gupta also writes of dating, marriage, and relationships in middle-class households. Being an older millennial herself, she thankfully addresses burnout culture, and the pressure South Asian parents and society put on their children to become doctors, engineers, or lawyers, all of which can impact one's mental health.
While she has worked on this for a long time, the latest edition of the book also touches upon post-coronavirus anxiety. These parts unfortunately felt a little forced to me—almost like an afterthought. Yet there is merit in these discussions, because the world of anxiety as we knew it and the world impacted by the pandemic will be vastly different. So, maybe some of the half-formed thoughts towards the end of this book can be extended upon in a future edition?
Abida Rahman Chowdhury is a journalist at the digital media team, The Daily Star.