Private Practice: 30 Years Later
Nick had presence. He was a tall, solid bodybuilder. Sharp, chiseled angles defined his jaw and shoulders. He wore a worn green T-shirt and jeans to his first therapy session. The muscles in his chest and arms were more defined than on anyone I’d ever seen. When he shook my hand, it felt like he wore a catcher’s mitt. I could barely get my hand around his.
I don’t intimidate easily, but I felt humbled by his size. He seemed a yin-yang blend of power and stillness.
“Hey,” he said as his catcher’s mitt swallowed my hand. “Hey.”
“Cool.” Nick pointed to a large leather recliner. “It’s all yours.” I gestured toward it.
If he had asked for my chair I wouldn’t have batted an eye in finding somewhere else to sit. “Can I take notes?” I asked.
“Knock yourself out, man.”
“So what brings you here?” I clicked my pen.
“Took a course at NYU and it was cool. Like I opened up. Group therapy course, and the dude teaching it was cool. I didn’t open the throttle on what was percolating, but I asked him, like who knows about this kind of thing, and he said you’re the dude, so, like boom.” He flicked his fingertips for emphasis. “Here I am.”
“I’m the dude for . . .”
“Psychodrama, man. Like, I checked you out, you know, Googled you and like that.” He made typing gestures with his fingers on an imaginary keyboard.
“Oh, right.” I nodded.
“So, bingo.” He turned his palms faceup. “So, what was percolating?”
He looked at me. Then everything about him changed. This intense, strong, intimidating, powerful man folded into himself. His large frame had been squarely positioned in the chair, fingertips resting gently on his kneecaps. Now his hands retracted. He looked down and away. His straight back and magnified chest seemed to have withered. Like a life-sized balloon, his air had been let out.
“Yeah,” he muttered into his hand.
“It’s okay. We don’t have to do this all today.” “Right.”
“But it seems powerful.”
“Yeah, right,” he continued, looking away. “It’s like, everything.” “Everything?”
He shook his head slightly. “Wow, man. Wow, this is more fucked up than I thought. Can you handle this?”
How was I supposed to answer that type of question? I didn’t even know what we were talking about.“Like I said, we don’t have to do this all in one day. Don’t push yourself.”
“Yeah, well, that’s the whole fucking problem, isn’t it?” His intensity surprised me. “That’s all I fucking do is push my fucking self so I don’t have to deal with this shit, right?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ve got to deal with this or I’m just going to stay fucked. I’m just going to be living the life I think I should, instead of the life I was meant to live.”
“You’re dealing with it now in the most direct way possible. You
brought yourself in here to do the work. Right now, you’re in this moment and you’re doing it. There’s no more direct way to deal.”
It appeared as if he was slowly being filled with helium. His body unfolded and he inflated back to his original stance and presence. The transformation was palpable. Wherever he had gone, he had returned. The conversion took a full minute. A slight smile crossed his face as his fingertips returned to his kneecaps. “Cool.”
“Very cool.” What else could I say?
As if the helium had reached the liftoff point, he rose out of his chair and stuck out his catcher’s mitt. It felt like an unspoken game of Simon Says. I stood up and shook his hand.
“Same time next week?” he asked. “There’s still a lot more time, you know.” “Nah, I’m cool.”
“Yeah, I got it. I’ll leave a check with your secretary.”
I was stunned, and a bit intimidated. Was I going to try to stop this guy from leaving? Not a chance. “She’ll set you up for next week,” I said as he let go of my hand.
Nick turned to the door, then stopped and turned toward me.“Read your book, man.”
“And you decided to come anyway?”
“This chick I know, Suzanne, I think she knows you, gave it to me to read. Just wanted to see if you could handle it.”
“How’d I do?”
“I think we both passed the audition.” He smiled. I laughed.
“Later.” Nick walked through the door. Nick had been in my office four minutes.
* * *
His hand swallowed mine again as he shook it and sat down in the same chair.
“So last week was a blast, eh? What do you do, pump special gas in here so people can feel shit they don’t want to feel so they can heal up?”
“My secret is out.”
“So what made you want to write a memoir?”
“It was just in me,” I offered. “It felt like something I had to do.” “That’s cool. I get that. That part about your cousin with his chicken-
shit habit and your channel-swimmer patient with the White China overdose blew me away, man. Blew. Me. Away.”
“Thanks. Sounds like you know the language of heroin addiction.
Do you write?”
“Me? Nah. Well, like lyrics and shit, but not like write-write.” “Lyrics? You write songs?”
“Yeah, you know, it just felt like something I had to do.” “I’ve heard that before.”
“What kind of music?”
“Whatever.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Sid, Kurt, Neil, Bruce, Bowie, Amadeus, whatever.”
“That sounds like a range.”
“Yeah, actually taught a class a while back on variations and similarities in composer styles.”
“Where did you teach it?” “Harvard.”
I smiled at what I thought was a joke.
“They have their heads pretty fucking far up their asses there, but it was cool. The students dug it.”
“Yeah, it’s a college up in Boston.”
“Oh, that Harvard.” Was he auditioning me again? “Any other places?”
“Juilliard, but only strings. Stanford, percussion. That was a sweet gig.” He rapped off a series of drum riffs on the edge of the chair.“Back then down and around to NYU, Tisch, doubled back there to do the PhD thing . . .”
“Yeah, but the dissertation stalled me, and I couldn’t figure out a reason to finish. So, wham-bam back to England and in love,” he paused to hold his right hand to his heart with his eyes closed and his left hand up in the air, “and then did the lighting for the Globe Theater. Then the young lady said she couldn’t live with a fucking addict, so I shot up, OD’d, and awoke ten years later as a tenzo in a Zen monastery in Massachusetts.”
“You’ve taught at Harvard, Juilliard, Stanford, and NYU. And you were the cook in a Zen monastery?”
“So you know about the tenzo, cool. Learned the ultimate mantra there too, Om Mani Padme Hum,” he chanted with his eyes closed. “Praise to the jewel in the lotus, man. Also, did a summer gig at Princeton one year and two semesters at Cornell. You know what I like about Cornell?”
“Is there an Ivy League school you haven’t been to?” “U Penn.”
“How’d you miss them?”
“You’ve got to drive through the war zone, man, to get there. Fuck them. They probably wouldn’t dig my groove anyway. But I do love Ben Franklin.”
“What instruments do you play?”
“Trick question, man, we’ll be here all day. Shorter answer is what don’t I play.”
“The hung, man. I can play it, but it’s too intense for me. I trip out.” “I don’t even know what that is.”
“It’s a drum, man, looks like a spaceship and sounds like one. Forget it. If I play that, it’s like I’m on acid.”
“Wait until you see this segue; you’re gonna love it.” “Go, man, go.” He box-punched the air.
“What kind of drugs did you, or do you, use?”
“Smooth, man. Picked right up on the acid thing. Well, you’re gonna get the same answer as the instruments, man. The shorter list is what I didn’t take.”
“And that would be . . .”
“Belladonna, man. Once I heard Manson did that, I just freaked for some reason and kept it off the list.” He looked at me intensely. “But let me anticipate your next question. My drug of choice? Heroin, man, the occasional speedball, but man, for a little rush-o-mundo and to keep from crashing, but there is nothing like the poppy, man. That was it. Hence why I liked that bit about you, and your cousin, and your patient.”
“Right,” I said. “How bad?”
“How bad?” he said, letting himself laugh. “How bad is there? I mean I’d do anything, give anything to get it. Anything.”
“Okay, how about the flip side: Why’d you stop?” “’Cause I lied.”
“There was one thing I would give to get it.” “And that would be?”
“My life, man. I realized it was taking it a dime at a time and that just woke me the fuck up.”
“How’d you quit?”
“Planned an OD, wrote down the dosage, history, got all my medical information together, blood type, admission forms, signatures. Everything. I even made a recommendation about what drug they should use to revive me. Shot up, walked into Columbia Presbyterian and passed out with the information stapled to my shirt. They saved me and then got me clean.”
“I had no money. I knew it would work.” “Then what?”
“Then I stayed sober—still clean, mind you. Eleven years.” “How long were you in the hospital?”
“A month or so. Never looked back. It took me ten years to pay them back for saving my dumbass life.”
“48,611 dollars and twelve cents.” Nick launched into a perfect a cappella version of the song by the Who: “I call that a bargain, the best I’ve ever had.”
“You can sing.”
“Thank you very much,” came the Elvis imitation. Then he turned serious again. “Hey, you know what that song ‘Bargain’ is about?”
“Most people think it’s about a drug or a person, but it ain’t.” “Then what?”
“God,” he said. “Pete was talking about God.”
“That actually makes sense. You know, most people wouldn’t have even thought to pay that back.”
“Right intention, right action,” he said matter-of-factly. “The eight-fold path?”
“Buddhism is where it’s at, but I’m just chipping away at the mountain.” “How so?”
“I still got a long fucking way to go with right speech.”
* * *
“So?” Nick sat down.
“So,” I echoed, “bring me up to speed.”
“Actually, man, I think I’m ready. I am definitely tired, but I’m ready.” “Do I know what for?”
“What is this, like the sixth session?” “Eighth, actually.”
“Then I’m definitely ready.”
I had learned to let Nick find his way. I answered him by opening my palms slightly toward him.
“My fucking mother, as opposed to just some mother-fucker, came to see me last night.”
“I was wondering when we would get around to your mother.” “Yeah, if it’s not one thing it’s your mother, right?”
“So my fucking mother comes last night and I tell her I’m in therapy, and she laughs.”
“She isn’t very empathic, is she?”
“You don’t need therapy, Nick,” he said in a mock woman’s voice. “How did you respond?”
“Stared at her for like two minutes, and she stared back. Then I simply said: I will need therapy for the rest of my life. Then I burned a hole in her eyes with mine.”
“What did she do?”
“She had a fucking shit-fit, and started going off on me,” he said, making gestures with his fingers poking into the air in front of him.
“When are you going to grow up?” he said, poking to emphasize each word with an air jab.
“What did you do?”
“She poked me in the chest and I really had the image of just grabbing and breaking her finger,” he said, biting his lower lip.
“What stopped you?”
“I knew I wouldn’t stop until I broke every bone in her fucking body.”
“Good choice, then.”
“She said some other shit about me not needing it. Then she asked the six-million-fucking-dollar question.”
“‘Why do you need therapy? You had a good childhood.’ I lost it, man,” he said, raising his voice. “I wanted to slap her silly, but as I was thinking how I would do that, she dropped a bomb.”
“What’d she do?”
“She got all quiet. In a rage, she started screaming at me what a piece of shit I am, what a loser fucking drug addict I am, then she started poking me and trying to kick me.”
“Nick, I’m sorry that happened to you. What did you do?”
“I had a split second where I envisioned breaking her fucking neck with one fucking snap, but decided I would kill her with my words.”
“I said, ‘I’m in therapy because of what you fucking did to me.’” I kept nodding.
“She sank into a ball on the floor and started rocking, scream-crying, and I didn’t do a fucking thing but watch her crinkle on my kitchen floor. I hoped she would die from the awareness. I watched her like you watch road kill flop around after it’s been hit by a car.”
“Then what happened?”
Nick was now burning that hole into my eyes. He deflated again. Right in front of me he folded up, just as he had done in our first session. He wasn’t sucking his thumb, but he could have been.
“This is that spot, huh?”
“Not today, man. I can’t do this today,” he mumbled into his fist. Nick almost seemed to liquefy and leaked off the chair and toward my office door.
“Don’t push yourself, Nick.” “I gotta go.”
“Next time, man.” He slunk toward the door, head down. “Next time,” was all I said.
* * *
“When I was six, something happened,” Nick said the moment he sat down.
“Do you want to tell me about it?” “I guess we’ll see, man.”
“You probably can’t tell me everything; it’s almost certainly too much for one session. But what would you be willing to share with me?”
“I was running around, just being a kid. Making noise, freaking out, whatever. I was six, man. So, I was doing whatever the fuck six-year-olds do. I had no idea my mother was a borderline with bipolar disorder. She was intense; I knew that, but I didn’t realize how fucking crazy.
“She ran at me with scissors in her hand, grunting, being a wild woman. Crazy shit. Most of the time she didn’t even pay that much attention to me, so I thought she was playing. When I saw her coming at me I thought it was a game.”
“But it wasn’t no fucking game, man.”
DAN TOMASULO is the author of two previous titles, most recently Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir(Graywolf Press, 2008), winner of the 2009 Rebecca’s Reads Written Arts Award in Creative Nonfiction. He co-authored Healing Trauma: The Power of Group Treatment for People with Intellectual Disabilities (2005), the American Psychological Association’s first book on psychotherapy for people with intellectual disabilities, and is also the author of Action Methods In Group Psychotherapy: Practical Aspects (Taylor & Francis, 1998). His second memoir, American Snake Pit, was selected as a finalist for The Southampton Review’s 2016 Frank McCourt Memoir Prize and the screenplay has received over 20 awards at international film festivals since June 2017.