ghosts of therapy past

part I

For those who are just joining… welcome! For the next three posts, we will be time traveling together to the past, making a pit stop in the present and then off to the future. If you’re confused, you’re in good company! But take a look at last week’s post for reference.

Following? That’s right. This is A Therapy Carol - a three-part substack series, based very, very, very loosely on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Now before we begin, might I suggest making a cup of hot cocoa or sparking a j? Whatever your heart desires. It’s what Dickens would never want, after all.

Just a few ground rules to start:

Over the next few posts, we’ll be discussing many mental health challenges that one might face throughout life’s transitions. This is an account of my personal experience, but the feelings I’ll be sharing are universal. So I ask that you please proceed with care while reading, and afterwards. If you become overwhelmed (heartbeat begins increasing rapidly, feeling weird, clammy, confused… pause and take a few deep breaths.) By engaging in feelings work, we all sign a metaphoric collective contract that we will look out for ourselves and others. I share these stories with you in the service of care. If you are feeling particularly activated, you can stop reading at any time. These stories are going nowhere, and will be here waiting for you when/if ever you feel like returning. I’m not calling this a trigger warning, but rather, a reminder to use your coping strategies.

And now….

A Therapy Carol opens on a bleak, cold Christmas Eve, Eve, in Washington, D.C., seven months after the death of Jesse Walkers ego, Jacob Marley, after a particularly challenging mushroom trip. Jesse, who has recently stopped taking the popular anti-depressant Zoloft and is most definitely in the midst of a never-ending-any-time-soon identity crisis, starting to recognize some of the many ways she has benefited from a racist, patriarchal, capitalist system, is not so much in the Christmas spirit. Just that morning, outside of the Container Store in Arlington, Virginia, she pretended to pick up an important call on her cell phone while a Salvation Army Santa pleaded with her for a moment of her time.

That night, Jesse is visited at home by the ghost of Marley, her ego, who for the past seven months has been doomed to wander the Earth, entwined by heavy chains and money boxes forged during a lifetime of greed, passing and selfishness. She now regrets ignoring the needs of her ego, but it is too late to make amends for her actions. Marley tells Jesse that she has a single chance to avoid the same fate: she will be visited by three spirits and must take heed or else be cursed to carry much heavier chains of her own.

The first spirit, the Ghost of Therapy Past, emerges in the doorway, looking exactly like Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother in the 1997 version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella starring Brandy, Jason Alexander, Whoopi Goldberg AND Bernadette Peters. If you haven’t seen this film yet, please pause here, go watch, and then return.

RIP Whitney

The spirit of Whitney Houston whisks Jesse away to a scene of her freshman year of college at New York University. She is in her bedroom in Hayden, the rat infested Soho House of NYU dorms.

She spent the night sadly gulping down sake bomb after sake bomb at the nearby sushi restaurant, and now she’s texting her aloof ex boyfriend something esoteric and dumb that she will most certainly spend the next week regretting when he writes back: “haha cool.”

You see, Jesse is drinking copious amounts of alcohol in a desperate attempt to mask her feelings of intense isolation. On the day Jesse moved into NYU, she had a gut feeling she had made a horrible mistake. This was not the right environment for her. Upon entering her four person suite, after enthusiastically introducing herself to the first of the four roommates she encountered, she ran to the bathroom to release a gallon of nervous pee. After flushing and dabbing her hands with a little water, no soap (c’mon it was 2008) she could hear her roommate, through the tissue paper walls, begging her mom to find her a single room:

Mom I just met my roommate. She’s way too happy to be here. She’s freaking me out. I can’t stay here.

Jesse was in a perpetual state of loneliness at NYU. Sure, she made some friends. Her classes were engaging. It was fun, a few times a week, to walk out her door and immediately get a jolt of dopamine snorting the coked out energy infused in the city air. But she was sad… all the time.

Jesse once tried to explain this sadness to her Mom as feeling as though I’m constantly fighting against my personality. She craved being a part of a tightknit community. A sense of deep belonging. Of being home. Instead she was bombarded with frenetic, fragmentations of herself. A quick coffee with a classmate here. A random afternoon sitting on a friend’s bed there. Way too many drunken nights at clubs with men twice her age. She was around many people, but she was never with them. It was a loneliness she had never experienced before. And without people to anchor her, the voices in her head became her closest confidantes, and they welcomed her anxiety with open arms.

And then one day… Jesse began to think about dying.

Not wanting to end her life, per se. But rather… welcoming the idea of dying as a distraction from the hard work of living. She would be sitting in a cubicle in Bobst Library, with nothing but silence, stress and glass. And all of a sudden a thought would float into her head. What if I wasn’t here anymore?

She never had a plan to end her life. She had heard of several NYU students years prior jumping from the open-air crosswalks inside the library and falling to the stereogram-patterned marble floor below. The thought made her feel queasy. She was not wanting to actually die — in the permanent, absolute sense. But rather, the feeling she had, was like, she was already dead. Jesse felt like she had been buried, deep deep down, below the city’s cacophony of chaos, with just silence, rubble and rusted gold.

Jesse wondered who would care, really, if she were gone. Her parents immediately popped into her mind. Their faces, bloated with sorrow. Her sisters, innocent in their confusion, were there too. Her grandmother, her aunts, her uncles. She thought of her best friends from home finding out about her death, calling each other one by one to break “the news.” This thought, of people missing her, brought Jesse some much needed solace. But it was fleeting. In a way, she believed, she had morphed into a disposable material. The anonymity the city demanded of it’s inhabitants frightened her to the core, turning her translucent and flimsy. Like a balloon that has gotten loose from its brigade. A light ribbon just barely escaping the grasp of someone’s hand.

This was a feeling of disconnect and depression. And while Jesse had had little bursts of this sensation before, nothing as constant and static as this.

While crying on the phone to her Dad one particularly bleak day, he calmly yet firmly informed her that it was entirely possible some of these sensations were genetic. His father, her paternal grandfather, had a deeply entangled affair with sadness that ended in the ultimate heartbreak. Jesse took this as a warning … to be careful when flirting with sadness.

Jesse felt scared of herself. Of the sandbags filled to the brim with feelings she dragged with her everywhere she went.

Visiting this version of herself, with the spirit of Whitney Houston, on Christmas Eve’s Eve, makes Jesse feel a familiar heaviness. Like she is stuck in place, while the world is is in 2x fast-forward mode. No time to pause … breathe … acclimate. She gets this feeling when she is visiting a foreign place that others call home. She felt it just this past weekend visiting close friends, back in New York. It was fleeting, but it returned. Like she is watching life happen to others, but her pulse is ten seconds behind everyone else’s. Its a feeling of being introduced to friends of friends, knowing that you are a guest, and as such, your time here is temporary. It’s hugging goodbye with no clear sense of when you’ll see a person again. _Changes _ Loss _ New York City_ … three Pac-man characters that could eat Jesse alive, if she let them.

And just like that, Whitney snaps her fingers once and Jesse is in the office of Dr. K, her first therapist, sophomore year at NYU.

After a back and forth debacle with herself about what to do with all of her baggage, Jesse landed in Dr. Ks office. Jesse was hoping to receive counseling through NYU’s free (included in tuition) services, but she was told there was a two month waitlist. Two months, Jesse was scared, was a death sentence. She needed help a.s.a.p.

After crying for forty-five of the fifty minutes of her intake with a doctoral intern at NYU, Jesse was: handed one box of tissues; apologized to three times; and given four names of local therapist referrals. All of these therapists were Out of Network, meaning none of them took her parents’ insurance, meaning she (they) would be paying out of pocket for any of them. But none of this meant anything of substance to Jesse at the time. She was desperate for some forward moving motivation.

The first two people on the list were no longer accepting new clients. The third one sounded curt on the phone. The fourth one, Dr. K, a soft spoken voice that reminded Jesse of many of her friends’ moms, would have to do.

Dr. K’s office was on the third floor of a small commercial building, catty corner to The Strand. The tiny waiting room was sparse, just a few old Good Housekeeping magazines and a lingering smell of mothballs mixed with martini.

In this dream therapy sequence, we see Dr. K, a bird-boned white woman with brittle black hair, sitting on a leather chair, blowing gently on some earl grey steam. Across from her is a grey IKEA Kivik sofa, with 19 year old Jesse hunched over, crying into a carpet floor.

Jesse: I just… I just… I hate it here. I hate it here so much.

Dr. K: Mmmhmmm.

Jesse: I’m so mad at myself for coming here.

Dr. K: Mmhmmm?

Jesse: I want to disappear.

Dr. K: Mm! Hmmm!

Jesse: Oh wait there’s one thing I really wanted to —

Dr. K: We’ll have to pause here for today. I’ll see you next week.

Dr. K was not the ideal therapist for Jesse. She was too timid and never cracked a single joke. But she created a space that was warm and non-threatening. And for fifty minutes each week, Jesse could escape the flurries of city life and come here to weep in warmth. They met for six months, before Jesse came to the conclusion that she wanted to transfer out of NYU. Dr. K had never suggested transferring in their sessions. But she had also never imposed her personal ideas of what was right for Jesse. As a result, Jesse was forced to figure out how to make adjustments, her own way. And this was empowering for Jesse. To feel like she had some agency, like if something was not working, she had the wherewithal to change course. For Jesse, therapy was an opportunity to share incomplete ideas out loud. To release stagnant energy that had overstayed its welcome in her body. To start dreaming of the future, instead of dreading it.

Jesse looked longingly at this younger, bolder version of herself. She felt so proud of herself, in this moment, for trusting in others and the idea of infinite possibilities.

Well my dear, Whitney whispered in Jesse’s ear, as she began to feel a slight sense of actualization. It’s about time we get home. But this story is far from over. We’re just getting started.


If you know a young adult struggling with their mental health, please let them know they are not alone. And please pass these resources along to them:

Free Mental Health Smart Phone Apps:

●       Virtual Hope Box - consists of tools to help with coping, relaxation, distraction and positive thinking

●       Smiling Mind - designed to help people manage daily stress and challenges through mindfulness meditation

●       Whats Up? A Mental Health App - uses methods from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to help people with anxiety, stress, depression, and anger.

●       Stop, Breathe & Think - a way to check in with your emotions and engage in guided relaxation exercises.

Crisis Resources:

●      Crisis Text Line: Text "START" to 741-741

●      IMAlive Crisis Chat

●      DC Department of Mental Health Crisis Helpline: 1-888-793-4357

●      National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-274-TALK (8255)

Specialty Groups Support Numbers:

●      Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860

●      The Trevor Project "Saving Young LGBTQ Lives": 1-866-488-7386

●      Are you a young person of Color? Text "STEVE" to 741-741

●      Grief Recovery Helpline: 1-800-445-4808

●      Alcohol and Drug Helpline: 1-800-622-HELP (4357)