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Therapist turned patient turned author

Therapist turned patient turned author

April 13th, 2019 by Chicago Tribune in Features

Lori Gottlieb, a therapist, found herself in need of a therapist.

Is that so odd? A cardiologist doesn't perform her own angioplasty. A dentist doesn't do his own root canal. Healers need healing.

It's complicated though. Ethical considerations prevented Gottlieb from seeing anyone already in her orbit—one of the many therapists she knows, a fellow school parent who happens to be a therapist, a friend's sister with a private practice.

"My predicament conjures that (poet Samuel Taylor) Coleridge line, 'Water, water everywhere/Not any drop to drink,' " Gottlieb writes in her new book, "Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

The book, which actress Eva Longoria is adapting into a TV series for ABC, is a window into the private life of a person who makes her living counseling couples and individuals whose lives are often messy and hard and dotted with sorrow, but also love and joy and all the rest.

"The book is centered around my patients and my own therapy, and how one informs the other, and how I learned from my therapist about how to be better with my patients and how my patients teach me to live my life better," Gottlieb told me recently. "But I think it's also not just about therapy."

More about that in a moment.

First, how she found a therapist.

Gottlieb relied on the tried-and-true "asking for a friend" method. She explained to a colleague that she needed a referral for a friend who was looking specifically for a male therapist (to throw her colleague off the scent). After a few go-rounds, they settled on a gentleman named Wendell (all names have been changed for the book), whom Gottlieb looked to for help making sense of and recovering from a sudden, unexpected breakup.

(Her friends' reactions were well-intentioned but weren't helping. "You should go sleep with somebody!" "He's trash.")

What plays out in the ensuing chapters is a delightful, fascinating dive into human behavior and idiosyncrasies, habits and defenses, fears and blind spots: hers, her patients', yours and mine, probably.

"I think there are people who aren't interested in therapy who might get a lot out of the book," Gottlieb said. "It's about looking at the ways we can be more aware of what we're doing in our lives and how we want to go through our days.

"At our core," she said, "we're all asking the same questions about love and desire and regret and vulnerability and 'Is it ever too late to change?' And 'Why is it so hard to change?' Questions about how I can love and be loved and why that's sometimes a struggle."

Gottlieb reveals quite a bit about her patients' lives and her own reactions to them (again, names changed), which is a decision that's not without risk. I asked her if she worried that her book might make therapy-seekers feel turned off or nervous about feeling judged.

"There's a difference between having a reaction to a patient and being condescending and judgmental," she said. "Of course therapists have feelings, and we use those feelings."

John, for example, is a patient who is abrasive and belittling to Gottlieb and to most of the people he talks about in therapy. (The word "idiot" comes up a lot.)

"I'm going to have a reaction to that, and that reaction is important," she told me. "Whatever people do in the room with a therapist, you can bet they're doing out in the world. We're not judging them. We love to see that because then we can say, 'Hey, here's what I'm noticing.' We want people to see the ways they're maybe shooting themselves in the foot without realizing it. Because out in the world, no one's going to tell them that. People might leave them. People might avoid them. People might get into arguments with them. But they're not going to say, 'Hey,' in a way that the person can hear and take it in, 'here's something I notice.' People get very defensive around their patterns. In the therapy room, we say, 'No, it's OK. You can look at those patterns.' And it won't feel horrible."

Or it will. But not forever. (Speaking as a loyal, longtime therapy recipient.)

"I think what I'm trying to do with the book is make things less mysterious for people," she said. "Therapy can be like the Wizard of Oz—'What's really going on back there?' And I think when people see it's just these two people making this human connection and using these tools of the trade I reveal, I think it will demystify it for them."

The book opens with a quote from James Baldwin, which couldn't be more perfect—for the stories inside, for our lives outside. "Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch."

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