And Now, For Someone Completely Different

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I love “characters” – always have. I think that’s one of the reasons I love movies so much, because you get to see people who stand out from the crowd, people who surprise you.

I remember years ago, when I used to work at an alcohol rehab facility, there was this guy, Augie, in the program, from “back East,” who could have been straight out of the cast of Guys and Dolls. He used to talk about “hangin’ out on the stoop,” being a numbers runner out of a candy store, and collectin’ for loan sharks. Well, as he got older, all his children moved out West to a ‘better life,’ and they finally convinced him to make the move, too, because his health was failing. The ‘kids’ found a “wonderful, clean, safe” place for him –  a small trailer park in Rohnert Park, outside of the Bay Area.

It seemed ideal.

On paper.

Well, Augie was lonely, out of his element, and bored stiff. When he tried to talk to the ‘squares’ in the trailer park, they didn’t get him at all, nor he them. Finally, to obliterate the endless days, he started drinking, and didn’t stop until he was picked up one Sunday at two A.M. by the cops, comatose, in the middle of a busy street.

One day, and I’ll never forget it, in the group I ran at the rehab facility, Augie, who hadn’t said a word until then, suddenly broke down in tears and said, “Back East, I was a character. Here, I’m just a freak.”

I’m glad to say that, with help, Augie did stop drinking, and eventually moved to North Beach, where he could put his ‘character’ to better (and more appreciated) use among a slightly more bohemian crowd than the Rohnert Park trailer set. He became a bartender – and a sort of unofficial greeter and drawing card – at a local old-time watering hole, and stayed sober for the rest of his life.

The thing is, you meet characters when you do therapy too; like with movies, it’s one of the reasons I love this work – and once in a great while, you meet someone who’s a character and a therapist all at the same time. Someone like Nelly.

But first let me give you a little background. When you’re a therapist, you see a lot of therapists as clients. For one thing, they’re interested in therapy, for another, most of them need it (sorry, my esteemed but problematic colleagues!), and for yet another, they can sometimes come at the times you have available, the times other people cannot. And since patients talk about their work lives, and therapists’ work lives are about doing therapy, well . . . you hear a lot of funny, crazy, heartwarming, odd and puzzling stories – well, no, not all of those qualities in one story, of course.

But then, on second thought . . .

I had been seeing Nelly, a psychologist beginning a private practice in Oakland, for about a year. Sometime in the late Eighties, she had come to me to help her get through her last year at a local psychology doctoral program. Therapy supervision is a required part of becoming a therapist, and doing therapy and being supervised both tend to bring up ‘issues’ for candidates. In the case of Nelly, her supervisor, an older woman whom I knew of from my years in the therapy community, had “strongly recommended” that Nelly get some therapy herself, to help her iron out a few psychological wrinkles that had come up in her supervision.

Ah, Nelly, Nelly, Nelly –  I could go on and on with psychological jargon, to explain her ins and outs, but I’ll spare you all that and just speak in good old American:

Nelly was a real trip.

And I mean that in the fondest way. She was South American, and anything you can imagine about American stereotypes of South American women, well, Nelly was it. She was flashy, extroverted, ‘out there,’ funny, charming and at times overwhelming.

Think Evita Peron.

You’re getting warm.

Now think Charo.

You’re getting warmer.

Now think Carmen Miranda.

You’re hot!

Nope, Nelly was certainly not the traditional ‘therapist type,’ but she had some wonderful things going for her, too: a warm heart, a high, lively intelligence, and most delightfully, a great sense of humor, including about herself. Sometimes, during her therapy sessions, when she was proclaiming things, throwing herself around and ‘on a roll,’ I’d give her a certain look, and she’d throw up her hands dramatically and laugh, in her thick accent,

Jes, jes, I know dees: I am in Diva Mode, no? Bueno!

Well, jes, jes, she was in Diva Mode much of the time, but no one else could make Diva Mode as charming, or as fun, as Nelly; it wasn’t posturing, it wasn’t a put-on, or a pose, it was her. Most women therapists dress modestly, neutrally, even – well let’s face it, dowdily, only pepping things up with the occasional hoop earring, paisley scarf or long, flowing skirt – a friend of mine once called it, “the half-Gypsy look.” But Nelly – to her, skimpy was the norm, tight the standard, and short the rule. She wore high heels, low-cut tops, and things that dangled and clacked all over the place. Not to allure, or provoke – it was just Nelly being Nelly.

Well, you can imagine how her ‘personal style’ went over at the Elite Institute For Impressive Studies, as I’ll call the training program she was in. The Elite was “juuuuust a bit self-important,” to paraphrase Bob Uecker in Major League. They fancied themselves direct descendants of Sigmund Freud, even though the only thing they really had in common with Freud was a smelly couch.

The accepted ‘mode’ around EIFIS was low-key, inhibited, and intellectual, what some (not I, of course) might call “having a stick up your butt.” At EIFIS, it was always important to use jargon instead of plain English: you didn’t say, “The patient made me feel nervous,” you said, “There was a great deal of attributive projective identification going on in the transaction.” And as for expressing your own, measly feelings? Why do that when you could dress them up in fancy words and ten-dollar concepts, and put them in the mouths of Bion, Melanie Klein or Winnicott?

But, that wasn’t Nelly’s way – not by a long shot. She once scandalized her supervisor by reporting that, in the presence of a very virile young male client, she fanned herself and said, “Whew – you are one hot potato!” (Actually, Nelly thought the supervisor would be impressed by her knowledge of American slang!) Another time, she was working with a very repressed young woman, and when the woman asked Nelly, “What’s wrong with me anyway?” Nelly stood up, did a bump-and-grind on the office rug, and said, “Nothing – you just need a leetle more of theese!

Every practitioner needs to find his or her own way of doing psychotherapy – because at its best, psychotherapy is the most personal of art forms. But most people struggle to find their voice, that perfect amalgam of what everybody else is doing, and what they and they alone can do, the ‘way’ that they can claim as their own, signature style. And it’s best when they can use all the theory, tradition and lore – the stuff you learn in grad school – as a sort of armature on which to hang their own personal strengths, quirks and novel approaches.

However, in the case of Nelly, I’d say her only ‘struggle’ was in even allowing psychological tradition to find a seat at the party. She came to the profession with her own fully-formed ‘approach,’ which I always called psychoaNellysis – a mixture of Catholic philosophy taught her by the nuns, folk wisdom from her mother and aunts, reading (she claimed that if you just paid close enough attention, Jane Eyre would teach you everything you needed to know about life – oh, and that it was a much better book in Spanish), and life experience she had picked up along the way.

And by life experience, I do mean Life Experience: she had been married twice, once to a deadbeat sometime drug dealer, and once to a professor. When she was with the drug dealer, she had worked as a, how-you-say, call girl/masseuse/sex worker in Buenos Aires for a number of years, where she learned, and I quote, “many, many especial things about the mens,” and also an awful lot about what men think about women, from her customers talking about their wives and girlfriends.

Actually, there is a rather long tradition of women sex workers becoming therapists – I’ve worked with a number of them (as patients, that is) – although that fact might come as a surprise to their colleagues and patients. The truth is, many of the same skills are required in both professions: in fact, a young woman patient of mine recently laughed, “You listen, you understand, you make me feel more powerful, and I pay you – in some ways, you’re nothing more than a prostitute.”

To which I replied, “Then I’m going to be a damn good one.”

I’m quite sure Nelly was a ‘damn good one,’ in her day, and in fact it was one of her customers, a university professor, who told her that she was too smart to be making a living in bed, that she should, and could, return to school and finish her education, which she did, taking top honors in her university before coming to America for graduate school in the Bay Area.

I loved to tease her, saying, “You mean they have higher education in Argentina?” upon which she would launch on a rant about how superior Latin culture is to ours, saying about America, “Jew don’t even talk to each other! Jew don’t even look at each other! Jew don’t even touch each other!”

To which I would say, much to her consternation, “Yeah – and the Gentiles are even worse!”

Well, Nelly barely squeaked through her supervision at EIFIS, and once I even had to talk to the supervisor I mentioned before (at her request), to explain that when she was lively, extroverted and sassy with her clients, she wasn’t “acting out,” but just being herself, and that it wasn’t for lack of self-control that she did so, but rather that it was an integrated, grounded way of being that worked for her – and for her clients. And I might add that, somehow, clients almost always managed to get better under her care. The supervisor said, “But we wouldn’t let anyone else get away with this – it’s not consistent policy,” to which I replied, “Well, if anyone else did it, it would mean they were out of control, provocative and lacked boundaries, but with Nelly, it’s just her way. She’s coming from the right place, and her clients know it, so it works.”

To her credit, the supervisor, a diametrically opposite personality (someone who some, not I, might say had a stick up her posterior, too), did eventually agree that Nelly’s ‘way’ worked for her, even though if therapy students were to see one of Nelly’s sessions, it would have to be accompanied by a banner saying, “Kids, don’t try this at home!”

Nelly did graduate, and started a thriving and effective private practice – specializing in Latin women – and eventually even became a supervisor at the EIFIS, and I think everyone who met Nelly or worked with her was the better for having been exposed to her own special brand of flightiness, charm, warmth and wisdom.

We talk a lot about “diversity” nowadays – and by this we mean the inclusion of differing races, nationalities, creeds and genders. But we also need to treasure and protect the ‘characters’ in our society – people like Augie and Nelly – for they are a national resource that has much to teach us, especially in this homogenizing age of ours.

So, to all the characters out there, I say, on behalf of Nelly, “Jew can do it!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.