December 7, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Sans le fear

By |2018-03-21T18:59:17+01:00February 20th, 2014|At Large & Sports|
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," published in 1892, examined 19th-century attitudes to women's physical and mental health.

walked up to the counter at the local bookshop and handed the clerk one book and three postcards. “I’m actually not getting the book,” I told him. “Codependent No More,” it was called. “My therapist says I might be codependent, but I don’t think I am, so I don’t think I need the book after all.”

“My therapist says…” is my preferred way of beginning a phrase, at least for now. It sounds so posh and romantically neurotic. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts and attend Harvard, so when I treat the subject of my therapist naturally in conversation, I imagine my interlocutor easily jumping to the conclusion that I was born in Newport, Rhode Island, and spent my youth between Swiss boarding schools and summers horseback riding, fencing, and sneaking out with my friends at night to party on our parents’ yachts.

There’s something intriguing to me, half attraction half abhorrence, in the neuroses of the rich New England WASPs that surround me in their twin-sets and pearls.

Part of me sees therapy as a product of our narcissistic society, an escape into me. But then I remember the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a depressed wife trapped in a room, discouraged from being herself, discouraged from leaving her room, discouraged from writing, discouraged from passion. Encouraged to remember that everything is okay and she is simply not well. A well person would recognize the ultimate okayness of being a rich wife with a family.

I’m not a rich New England WASP. I’m from Michigan. Though my parents believe deeply in the cosmos, they’ve never named their gods. They worked hard, started a business in their 20s, and I wore hand-me-downs until high school. I’d never visited a therapist until now, and after two sessions I still have my doubts. Each time I have to fill out a form.

“How do you feel today? Very well, well, fair, badly, very badly?” Very well.

“How do you feel about your future? Very optimistic.

“How are your relationships with you family and friends?” Very meaningful.

“How would you rate your sense of self-worth?” Great.

“Can you concentrate on your work?” Yes.

“Do drugs and alcohol interfere with your work or relationships?” No.

“Do you wake up with a pep in your step and a song on your lips?” Yes.

That last one was hyperbole.

So why go to a therapist at all? Maybe it’s that my friends don’t let me talk about myself enough and so I’ve found an outlet. But they do let me, and I talk incessantly. I even have a monthly column in which I can tell my stories. I supposed for a while that I’d simply fallen victim to the narcissism of the age.

But my therapist says I shouldn’t think like that. Just because I am generally happy and healthy doesn’t mean that I’m not troubled, even scared, at some level and about some things. My therapist and I compiled a “goals list,” and it was this: to overcome grieving, guilt, and interpersonal ambivalence.

Her inclusion of ambivalence shocked me.

Until, that is, I thought about my best friend and me, about our long conversations about boys and love. We laugh that we will grow old together, two old ladies without cats because she is allergic. We listen to “Old Friends,” by Simon & Garfunkel, about two men who sit on the park bench like bookends. That’s us, we say. We are simply so happy, so rapturously content with the world and all of its tiny gold joys, that we’re as fickle as toddlers in a candy shop. We dance around, happy to share in the glory of it all, but too fleet-footed, too light of spirit to allow ourselves to be entrenched in a romantic battle for “more.” We enter stage right, for the love scene, and exit stage left in a magician’s puff of smoke.

When I told her I’d been to my first therapy session, she responded dramatically, “And men all over the world breathed a sigh of relief.” And we laughed hysterically.

But sometimes when we talk about growing old together, ambivalence does set in, and we aren’t giggling. A pall of potential loneliness shrouds us.

There’s a song by Berkelee-trained musician St. Vincent, which I’ve always felt defines me. It’s my anthem, as it were:

What me worry? I never do

I’m always amused and amusing you

Sans le fear of impending doom

Life is like banquet food: pleasure to peruse

Do I amuse you, dear? Would you think me queer

if while standing beside you I opted instead to disappear? Disappear.

My therapist isn’t happy. She says I should choose a new anthem. That’s my homework for this week.

About the Author:

Julianne VanWagenen wrote the "Wonderland" column form 2008 through 2014.