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My Therapist Mothers Me Like No One Else Can

I adore my children, my husband, my family of origin, my friends. But this work, and the woman who does it with me, is in many ways my life’s great love.

Mother Figures

All of my life, I have been knee deep in therapists. My mother is a therapist. My father is a therapist. My stepfather, a therapist. My stepmother, who lived and worked for 30 years at an institute for “personal and social transformation,” technically never finished her licensing hours but, when she gestures to her couch and asks you to tell her everything, she literally means everything.

Growing up, my siblings and I were adept at scattering to the corners of our house as soon as we heard my dad's office door open and a mysterious client emerge. When I was home sick from school, I would lie on an empty therapist’s couch in my mother's office building, listening to the muffled sounds of sobbing and the incessant whirring of that ubiquitous therapist accessory: the beige white noise machine. If a friend crashed at my house after a high school rager, they might encounter a “family constellations” group recreating someone’s childhood traumas in the living room when they came downstairs in the morning. I didn’t bat an eye.

I saw my first therapist when I was 15. She was nice. Over the years, as a teenager and then an adult who struggled with anxiety and depression, I worked through a slew of student counselors, psychologists, social workers, some of them very helpful and supportive, some of them pretty out to lunch. In many ways, I was an ideal client. I knew how to be vulnerable, how to fall apart and put myself back together again, how to talk through something difficult and arrive at something seemingly less so. But that was the problem. I knew how to play the field; I needed the real thing.

When I walked into Toni’s office at the student health center, I was a 29-year-old graduate student. Toni was a nutritionist, and I’d come to her with a plan. By then, I was decades in to an entrenched pattern of deprivation and over-indulgence with my eating, I was getting married soon and worried about my weight, and I wanted her to put me on a “meal plan” that would validate my disordered eating and repackage it as some sort of healthy diet. Toni didn't fall for it. She explained, firmly but not without warmth, that a salad with vinegar (no oil) was not a nourishing lunch, that full-fat dairy would be better for my body and not leave me starving. She tried to convince me that it was perfectly OK, wonderful even, to eat a slice of chocolate cake, in broad daylight, just for the joy of it.

I needed someone to truly see the mess I was in and help me dig my way out of it. I needed a truth teller.

I walked out skeptical. I located a more welcoming home in the Paleo diet, starved myself for another year or so, and then at the same time as I went off of birth control to try to get pregnant but was not getting a period, found myself gaining weight and feeling out of control. I spent the vast majority of each day berating myself for what had become of my body. I was hungry and sad and not in any way fertile. I needed someone to truly see the mess I was in and help me dig my way out of it. I needed a truth teller. Toni had since left Berkeley, but I tracked her down. It was all I could think to do.

In Toni’s little home, covered in pillows and feminist art and solicitous, furry pets, we got right to work. She was, she reminded me, technically, not a therapist, but a counselor of sorts, which I found weirdly reassuring. She didn't bullsh*t me, and in turn, she didn't accept my bullsh*t. I finally admitted how bad my eating and body-shaming had gotten. Recovery seemed impossible to me, but Toni promised that if I really showed up, I’d get through it. One day, she asked me to recite all of my arbitrary food rules to her 10-year-old daughter, who often hid in her room with her headphones on during sessions, just like I had at the age. I couldn't bring myself to tell a 10-year-old girl that she couldn’t eat dessert unless someone else ordered it, but Toni’s point was made. A few weeks later, it was Valentine's Day. I got an ovarian ultrasound that confirmed I had polycystic ovarian syndrome, which was keeping me from ovulating, and then I found my way to a San Francisco patisserie, ordered a chocolate kouign-amann, and experienced, maybe for the first time since my childhood, truly joyful eating.

Over the years, I have abandoned and returned to Toni again and again. I am her Rachel McAdams, running toward her in the rain, or perhaps I’m more the Ryan Gosling, dragging my shaggy blanket out of my creepy old house, and she always receives me, no matter how long it's been. She might ask me why I left, why I got scared. She might not. Then, she invites me to lie down in the middle of the metaphorical street with her, danger be damned. We are not here to play it safe. We have work to do.

When my marriage was feeling stuck, and I fantasized nonstop about leaving everything behind, buying a farm in Vermont, raising chickens, and making preserves, Toni asked me to cross to the other side of the room and imagine myself in my fantastical Vermont. Then, she made my imaginary vintage Vermont landline ring, and when I picked up, asked me how things were going. I told her all about the day I’d had, how life here was simple and easy and the change had really done me good. “Can I ask you a question?” she replied. “Are you happy?” I burst into tears and made my way back to the couch. I couldn't avoid my problems by canning blueberries. Just like with my disordered eating, I had to get real to get well. As Gosling says, it wasn’t over.

And it still isn’t over. About six years ago, after another long absence, I called Toni up, now a new mother, and begged her to see me again. Those old feelings — of self-loathing and doubt, denial and outward blame — were still going strong. I hadn’t eradicated them, I’d merely cleaved them from certain aspects of my life that they found most rich. But motherhood, as I’m sure came as no surprise to anyone but myself, was fertile ground.

I adore my children, my husband, my family of origin, my friends. But this work, and the woman who does it with me, is in many ways my life’s great love.

These days, Toni and I talk about the fear and rage that parenting can bring, about how the things that happened in my own childhood reach out from the past and hold me in place with my own children. As they say, the body keeps the score. I don’t necessarily want to talk about these things. And Toni won’t make me. But one look from her reminds me what’s at risk if I choose to skim the surface, and what there is to gain if I’m willing to sit with the discomfort.

This fall, Toni’s only daughter will leave home for college. Her own journey of motherhood, which I've gotten to peek at from time to time — because Toni is not, as you can tell by now, the kind of practitioner who is allergic to revealing anything about their personal life and because, I suspect, she wants me to feel less alone — is about to take another turn. I often speak with other mothers about how one of the gifts of motherhood, despite its many trials, is the realization that, in order to not be consumed by the act of caring so deeply for someone else, you have to figure out how to truly care for yourself. In fits and starts, I am doing that. Often it hurts. Sometimes it is unbearable. Being a mother has brought out the darkest parts of me. But most of the time, at this point, I would describe myself as grounded, even content. I’m glad I can face the darkness. And I’m grateful not to do it alone. I adore my children, my husband, my family of origin, my friends. But this work, and the woman who does it with me, is in many ways my life’s great love.