As a 20-something, I measured life by the hour, waiting tables. It was fun, sneaking bottles of champagne to the line cooks in exchange for an end-of-shift steak. Fun, too, the nights on Brooklyn rooftops under the jagged constellation of city lights, chain-smoking and making clever talk. Love and purpose—those supposed joys—were for someone else, in some other kind of life. I'd had no luck with them. But then one day I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in a while. She paused, searching for what she knew of me.

"How's your cat?" she asked.

She was the fourth person in a row who couldn't think of anything else.

"Great," I said, and burst into tears.

I spent my initial sessions hiding in plain sight by making my psychotherapist, Janet, laugh and privately inspecting the knickknacks on her shelves and speculating as to why the one personal fact she'd shared with me was her love of string cheese.

But slowly, despite myself, the habit of self-reflection replaced the habit of avoidance. With Janet, I was rehearsing being vulnerable around, connected to, another human being. Her expressed mission was to help me, to be kind and to expect nothing in return. And so I learned to expect kindness.

Actively considering your past puts you in the habit of considering the present. I wanted to be a writer. Was I writing, Janet asked? Had I applied to the graduate program I'd mentioned? It's hard to forget your hopes when someone else is minding them. And so I became the person doing the minding.

I left therapy and New York City for a writing fellowship by the sea. The session before our last, Janet said: "You have a homework assignment."

Seven years, and she'd never made a request.

"What is it?" I asked.

"You'll figure it out."

During the fellowship, I would write a book. I would meet my future husband. I would find the work that gives my life meaning. And I would know that it was therapy that allowed all this, that let me believe such marvels could be waiting for me.

But before that, as my last hour with Janet was ending, I screwed up my courage. "Thank you for helping me," I said, my voice unsteady.

Gratitude. My homework had been to admit that I'd needed her and that no harm had come of that need. To admit, in even this limited way, love.


Next Story