By the time I knocked on the door of the narrow rowhouse with slightly cockeyed shutters, I’d been shopping for a therapist for a month. The first one I’d met with, a psychologist in a smartly tailored suit, had shaken my hand briskly, pulled out a clipboard, and begun firing intake questions at me, dozens and dozens of them, as I sat trying not to cry. The second woman gave me an unabashed sales pitch: I would see her in individual therapy plus join one of her “transformative” groups, yes, I would definitely need that, and when I ventured that the fee seemed steep, she looked at me brightly and said: “I’d love to help you deal with your money issues in therapy!”
As I waited for this latest prospect to answer my knock–her doorbell appeared to be out of order–I steeled myself for another disappointment. It was likely: I’d run out of referrals from friends and had copied down her name from a resource list at the local women’s center. I knew better, but I was desperate. Since moving to Washington, D.C., the year before for a new job, I’d fought off depression until I could fight no more. I was only 27, but already I felt old: eight years earlier, I’d been in an accident that had caused me severe back pain, and though I’d mostly recovered, I was still treating my body like a piece of antique china that might, at any moment, crumble into dust. I felt disembodied, hollowed out, in some horrible way unreal to myself.
I looked fine from the outside, a young woman coming into her life. I headed up a new women’s program at a government agency, was part of a budding feminist video collective, had friends in my new town and a boyfriend back “home” in Philadelphia. But the life I really lived took place inside my head: it buzzed and hissed with ceaseless, vicious criticism. Why did you say that? I’d berate myself after a party. Why were you so boring? Obsequious? Awkward? Predictable? Why would anyone want to spend five minutes with you?
I tried to quiet this roar by stacking up achievements–if I get this next article published, this new job title, maybe people will get that I’m really okay–and with fervent self-affirmations that I wrote down in my journal. This would work for a few hours, until something small–a slightly self-conscious exchange with a colleague, a memory of some imperfection–would undo it all, the self-hate roaring back into my brain and body. I felt hounded, overpowered, nearly unhinged by it.
I was about to knock on the door again when it opened wide, and a woman stood in the entranceway. My first thought was: This is a therapist? She looked way too young–early thirties at most–and was dressed in worn jeans and a man’s flannel shirt, her wavy chestnut hair floating unevenly about her shoulders. I took all of this in and at the same time, standing there in her presence, I felt suddenly safe. She welcomed me in–“I’m Anne,” she said simply–but it was more than that. There was a quality of aliveness in her smile and eyes that made me feel she was actually happy to see me on her doorstep–me, not just some new client filling her 7 p.m. slot. It was as though we’d already met and she was truly glad I’d returned.
But as I followed her up one flight of steps and then a second, passing rooms with doors flung open, my relief turned to amazement. Each room in this woman’s house was painted a different, brilliant color–one tangerine, another ruby, still another cerulean blue. Caribbean, joyful colors. The rooms were messy, clothes tossed about, beds unmade. Couldn’t she have thought to close the doors? From somewhere, I heard the high-pitched hum of children’s voices.
As we mounted a third flight of stairs, Anne called over her shoulder: “Almost there!” A few steps later we entered a long, deeply-eaved attic, a narrow cave of a room lined with pillows of every size and pattern–exuberant batiks, swirls of paisley, bright kilims. I saw no chairs. I thought of the only other therapy experience I’d had, with a psychiatrist on Philadelphia’s Main Line named Dr. Temeles, who’d dressed in silk and tweeds and had seen me in her parlor crammed with antiques and a bonafide analyst’s couch, the headrest of which always bore a fresh paper napkin. I’d grown to love Dr. Temeles, and this was all I’d known of therapy. What the hell was this?
Anne sat down on the floor, smiled up at me, and gestured toward the pillows. “Take your pick,” she invited, and I chose a fat turquoise bolster to lean against, copied Anne’s cross-legged pose, and arranged myself across from her. For the first time, I really looked at her, took in her broad, intelligent face and softly rounded body, but especially I took in her eyes, which were at once sympathetic and acutely curious. You have my full attention , those eyes said. There is nowhere else I’d rather be . I had trouble looking at her, trouble feeling I deserved this.
“Well,” I said softly to the rug. “It’s pretty bad.”
I don’t recall much about that first session, but I do remember that afterward, when we’d walked back down those three flights of stairs to the front door, Anne stood looking at me, hesitating for a moment as though trying to decide something. Then she hugged me: a quick, light embrace. I stiffened at her touch, humiliated. I don’t need your charity! How stupid do you think I am?
But I came back. Something made me keep climbing with Anne into her attic, where we’d drop to the floor together, take off our shoes (and sometimes our socks), and sit facing each other, waiting for what would come. Sometimes, I talked a blue streak about the virulent self-loathing that wouldn’t leave me alone, not for a day, rarely even for an hour, and my futile efforts to stave it off with harder work and endless instructions to be nicer to myself. Nothing gave me pleasure anymore; worse, I’d begun to monitor myself to the point of feeling scarily unreal. I’d be in the midst of an ordinary conversation, when my internal guard dogs would begin to howl and yap so frantically that I’d lose all sense of what to say next. A beat too late, I’d make some faltering response, hoping it was in the general realm of the appropriate. Give me a plan, I begged Anne, some map, program, straw to clutch at, anything that might help me learn to like myself.
She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Okay,” she finally said. “For the next week, I want you to give up all goals.” I rolled my eyes. “I mean it,” she said, her voice at once playful and challenging. “For the next week, there are no ‘shoulds’ in your life. You don’t have to be any special way at all–not clever, not productive, not charming. Not particularly self-accepting, either. Nothing.”
I felt an almost physical resistance to her words. I thought of the unkempt rooms in Anne’s house, her ad hoc wardrobe and peeling rowhouse, and the thought came unbidden: So I should let everything go, like you? I thought of her three kids draped on the stairs as we emerged from our sessions, clamoring for her attention, and how one time she’d followed them back down the stairs making ghoulish faces, sticking out her tongue at their unknowing backs. There was something slightly out of bounds about Anne, something that laughed in the face of life’s unstated rules, that at once enticed and unnerved me.
I tried her homework: what did I have to lose? By the end of the first day, I felt an unfamiliar sense of ease begin to spread through me. By midweek, I was going out to dinner with friends I’d been avoiding, chatting amiably with colleagues at work. Whenever my hectoring demons would visit, I would just shrug and say, “Nope,” and they’d slink away. It was astonishing. I felt strangely close to happy.
When the week ended, so did my brief encounter with peace. Vacation’s up! I told myself briskly. Back in the saddle! Anne urged me to continue being kind to myself, but she didn’t understand: I might be allowed time off, but I couldn’t quit my job, which was to whip myself into shape mercilessly, unceasingly, forever, the cost be damned. I didn’t know why I was doing this; I just knew I had to keep on. My tormenters returned with a vengeance. I felt more demoralized than ever.
But Anne wasn’t. She began to cut short my litany of failings and encourage me to experience my feelings through my body, with bioenergetics exercises, breathing, Gestalt work. At times, I’d follow Anne into the attic, sit down across from her, and just cry. She would touch my hand to let me know she was there. Once in a while, she held me in her arms.
One evening, as I recounted my latest difficulty–trying hard to become friends with someone at work who was persistently cool and elusive–Anne looked intently at me. “Why,” she asked, “do you keep knocking at a door that doesn’t answer?”
I couldn’t look at her. I just stared into my lap, my breath coming faster and faster. “Because,” I finally said in a wobbly whisper, “it’s what I’ve always done.”
And the whole, shameful story tumbled out. How, when I was 9 years old, I became enamored of the “popular group” in my fourth-grade class, a quintet of pretty, laughing girls who traveled as a pack and always seemed to be having a better time than anyone else. I was a shy, self-doubting kid and longed to be one of them, so desperately that I began to follow them around, doing everything I could think of to win a place in their circle–bringing them treats, wearing clothes like theirs, trying out clever conversational gambits that I’d practiced in my bedroom beforehand.
But they sensed my neediness, seized on it. Sometimes, when I’d approach them on the playground, they’d pretend to welcome me, then give some signal I could never quite follow and suddenly scatter in all directions, giggling merrily as I stood alone. In class, they’d turn back to look at me, cackle, whisper, pass notes, laugh some more. During recess one day, they grabbed my lunch bag from my hand, tore open my packet of chocolate-chip cookies, and ate them in front of me. Most afternoons, I’d go home from school and fling myself on my bed, weeping. Sometimes, my mother would come into my room and sit with me as I cried. “Why don’t you just walk away, find some other friends?” she would ask.
But the horrible, damning thing was that I couldn’t. I wanted these girls: it was as though their validation would fill up some hole in me, deliver some vital gift that I couldn’t give myself. For the next four years–four years!–I dogged their steps, trying out fresh strategies, hoping that now, finally, this time, they’d find me worthy. Then, unaccountably, in the eighth grade, they decided that I was. But their blessing came too late.
Anne listened, her hand on my shoulder as I wept my way through these memories. “How terrible,” she said softly. “You were just a little girl. You only wanted to belong.” She reflected a moment, then added: “No wonder you berate and monitor yourself all the time. You’ve got to stay on guard. Make sure this won’t ever happen to you again.”
I nodded. “I can’t mess up,” I said grimly. “I can’t.”
But, of course, the very way I was handling things–upbraiding myself for every interaction, doubting every overture, withdrawing from the friends I did have–only ensured that I would keep feeling like an outcast. Except when I was with Anne. During our weekly hour together in her attic–its pillowed, eaved spaces now a haven–I felt safe, even loved.
Eight months into therapy, I was still depressed though. One evening, I plunked myself down on the rug and looked across at her stonily. “I’m not any better,” I said bitterly. “I come here week after week and I still feel like crap. It’s not working.” I looked at her accusingly. What I really meant by “it’s not working” was you’ve failed me . I was despairing, and furious.
For a long moment, Anne looked back at me. She was 34 years old and couldn’t have been doing therapy very long. That my words might stun or hurt her occurred to me, but I was hurting worse, and I wanted her to know just how desperate, how totally betrayed, I felt. I stared down at the rug, awaiting her apology, fearing her anger.
“I think I’m doing a good job with you.” I looked up, startled by the quiet, almost steely confidence in Anne’s voice. She was looking at me levelly. “I know how wretched you feel,” she went on, her eyes softening as she covered my hand with hers. “But we’re doing good work together. It’s going to make a difference. It will.”
That was it. Anne didn’t explain to me what her plan was for helping me, why it hadn’t seemed to be working so far, or how it was going to ever work. But she let me know that she believed in herself and in me–so simply and absolutely that I, in turn, breathed in her belief and surrendered to it. Looking back, I think my outburst was partly born of despair, but also aimed at alienating her so thoroughly that she would pronounce therapy over and done with, bye-bye Marian, take your endless, boring, gloom-and-doom show and stuff it. Then I’d be right: she didn’t like me, after all. Why should she? See?
A few weeks later, I proposed a new plan: to speed up my progress by seeing her twice a week. She thought it over. “I don’t think you need more one-on-one with me,” she said. But she had a counter-proposal: she was starting a women’s group in a few weeks. “I’d like you to be part of it,” she said. I looked away, panicked. A group? A group of women? In some faraway recess of my rational brain, I understood that this might be a good thing for me. But not now. It was too soon. I wanted safety. I wanted Anne.
But she was adamant. “I’m kicking off the group with a weekend workshop,” she said. “I’d like you to just try it out.” So, three weeks later, I showed up at the appointed site, a down-at-the-heels farmhouse perched on a green hillside two hours outside Washington. When I met the six other women, I chatted brightly with them as we tramped around the meadow together, admiring the apple orchards and neighboring farms. But my entire consciousness was wrapped around the question: will they like me?
I had little time for rumination: all day Saturday, Anne plunged us into one experience after another. We jumped around and yelled “get off my back” to our inner tormenters; we explored our sexuality with exercises out of Total Orgasm. We danced on the hillside; we sat in a circle and shared our stories. When it was my turn, I made up something believable but bland–work stress, boyfriend troubles. I saw no reason to trust these women.
But on Sunday afternoon, as we sat in our circle, I heard myself say out loud, “I feel either like a pathetic little girl or a competent sham,” and I began to tell them how horribly unreal I felt to myself, how panicky and lost in my venomous self-judgments. The women leaned forward, listening closely, nodding as though this was nothing especially weird. Then Marti, whom I’d danced with the day before, spoke up. “As soon as I met you,” she said, “I thought you were somebody I’d like to get to know better.” I felt something begin to unclench inside me.
A couple of weeks later, back up in the attic with Anne, I was recounting some story of woe when I said something with a touch of irony that must have struck her funny because she began laughing, laughing loudly and with real delight, and soon I began giggling, too; even I could see the humor in my sorry tale. But what amazed me about this moment was not simply that I was laughing, but that Anne and I were sharing the laugh.
For as long as I could remember, whenever I’d been with someone and we’d found something funny, I’d laugh and the other person would laugh, but not together. I’d always duck my head, look away, unable to believe that anyone would want to share that intimate, helpless zing of pleasure with me. But this time, I looked straight into Anne’s eyes–merry, mischievous, loving–and held her gaze, chortled right along with her. And something burst open inside of me, something light and shimmery. It lasted only a moment. But there it was.
One evening in group, as we went around the circle checking in, I was recounting my week of self-laceration and fatigue, when Anne suddenly cut me off. “I know you’ve had a tough week,” she said gently. “But I want to ask you something. Can you remember a time when you felt absolutely wonderful?” I flashed on the sloping backyard of my childhood home in northern New Jersey, where my next-door neighbor, Heidi, and I were spinning around the lawn doing cartwheels, practically flying through the air for the sheer fun of it, for the delicious feel of our bodies shuttling through space. I was 10 or 11 at the time; it was during the period that the girls at school were shunning me. But when I was wheeling crazily across the lawn, circling through air, there was only my own muscle and blood, grass and sky. I was free.
“Well, I used to do cartwheels,” I said, not sure where this was going. “I loved doing cartwheels.”
“How about doing one now?” Anne was smiling at me. The other women turned toward me, expectant. I felt frightened, exposed. “Come on,” I protested irritably. “I was a kid. I haven’t done a cartwheel in, like, 15 years.” Mentally, I dug my heels in; nobody was going to make a fool of me.
But Anne was undeterred. “Try it,” she prodded. I looked around the circle; everyone was positively beaming at me. “Go, Marian!” they yelled. I demurred again, but they all kept smiling delightedly at me, chanting my name. They wanted to see this. The energy in the room was humming. Suddenly, improbably, I was on my feet.
“Look out, everybody!” I called over my shoulder as I strode toward the far end of the long attic. Taking a deep breath, I turned around and charged full speed into the middle of the room and dove for the floor with my outstretched hands, my body somehow remembering how to fling itself high into the air while hurtling sideways at the same time, opening like a fan, and suddenly I was standing upright again, flushed and astonished.
My group ran over to me, hooting and clapping, encircling me in a hug. As I returned their embrace, laughing, I looked over the tops of their heads at Anne, who was standing a little apart from our huddle. She was nodding, grinning, and as our eyes met, she raised her fist in a silent, triumphant yes !
“Can I do another one?” I asked.
I don’t know how often it happens like this, when a single, unforeseen moment delivers a sizable chunk of what you’ve ever really needed in your life, but that’s what happened that evening in Anne’s attic, when I felt a jolt of bodily aliveness and the warmth of belonging in the same instant, each experience wrapped up inside the other, no separation at all. And somewhere deep in my bones, I got that this is what it was all about, this is why we’re alive. Cartwheels and people. Play and love. I was starving for both, and I understood, in that instant, that it might be possible to bring both of them into my life.
I’m not entirely sure why, but beyond that evening, I remember nothing more about my therapy with Anne. At some point, several months later, I decided I’d had enough, that I was ready, finally, to set out on my life without training wheels. I last saw Anne more than 20 years ago. How strange that is! That this woman could appear in a doorway one spring evening, and for the next year and a half listen to my most shuddering secrets, hold me as I wept, shelter me, prod me, help me catch hold of my life. Then disappear from it altogether.
What remains is the imprint of her dauntless, steadfast caring; the way, each Thursday evening, her eyes lit up when she opened the door to greet me. And something more. Wordlessly, and long before I ever turned that cartwheel, Anne had been showing me how to live. Paint your rooms tangerine! Make faces at your kids! Strip off your socks, dance on hillsides! Wear whatever clothes you damn please! Leave the house a holy mess; that’s not where it’s happening. Find out for yourself where it’s happening, plunge in, get all muddy, splash around for all you’re worth.
Anne, I want to tell her, remember when we laughed that time? I do it all the time now; I laugh at the least silly thing. And if someone else happens to be around, a friend, say, or my daughter, I look into her face, watching it crinkle up with pleasure. I’m waiting to meet her eyes.
Marian Sandmaier is the author of two nonfiction books, Original Kin: The Search for Connection Among Adult Sisters and Brothers (Dutton-Penguin) and The Invisible Alcoholics: Women and Alcohol Abuse in America (McGraw-Hill). She is Features Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and other publications. Sandmaier has discussed her work on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Today Show, and NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air.” On several occasions, she has received recognition from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for magazine articles on psychology and behavior. Most recently, she won the 2021 ASJA first-person essay award for her article “Hanging Out with Dick Van Dyke” on her inconvenient attack of shyness while interviewing. You can learn more about her work at www.mariansandmaier.net.