I’m not sure what a therapist would call me projecting onto another therapist, who wrote a book about going to therapy, that she reminds me of my ex-girlfriend, but hey, that’s only the starting point of my internal ruminations manifest from Lori Gottlieb’s endlessly readable 2019 book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed.
Seriously, I didn’t want it to end and at 415 pages for a nonfiction book that’s part-memoir, part-self-help and part-psychology background, that’s one of the better compliments I can give it!
As someone in therapy (and you don’t have to be in therapy to enjoy this, too), I’ve suddenly become quite interested in reading books about therapy and about the human condition going on in our brains. And what a thought it is that therapists go to therapy like their patients do! Because of course they do! Just like a doctor has her own doctor or a dentist her own dentist. They can’t perform surgery or a cleaning on themselves (at least not yet, maybe robotic technology would change that at some point …).
Gottlieb decides, in the wise words of her friend (also a therapist), that “maybe she should talk to someone,” after a sudden break-up with her boyfriend. Or, as Gottlieb styles it throughout the book to protect his identity, The Boyfriend. Or The Kid Hater. Or The Asshole.
You see, after two years together with The Boyfriend, he sprung on her the fact that he doesn’t want to live in a house with a kid, Gottlieb’s eight-year-old son, Zach; ergo, it’s time to break-up because duh, she’s not going to break-up with her kid, that’s a package deal.
Gottlieb felt blindsided by this, though. Rightly, but also, as she comes to learn, she was doing her own form of avoidance when it came to the red flags throughout the relationship that the dynamic wasn’t actually copacetic.
How long was he living with this knowledge? Why did he wait so long? How can he say he loves me, but not want to work through this? What?!
Therein is where I relate to … The Boyfriend because I was The Boyfriend, The Kid Hater, The Asshole in my own situation with my ex-girlfriend. I thought very similarly to The Boyfriend: I was not a kid person, which I knew when I met her, but I thought maybe I could adjust over time and then over time becomes two years and then it’s like, well crap, how do I get out of this? But I also, I don’t want to get out of this because I love her. And because The Boyfriend (or me) think they are otherwise a Good Person™, they worry about bringing this up to the girlfriend, that there’s no good time to do it.
But as Gottlieb rightly points out, that’s just classic avoidance. (I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing until I read this book, but it’s 100 percent accurate.)
However, where I related more to Gottlieb is being on the receiving end of a break-up and asking the one question such people torture themselves with wanting answers and closure on: Did I matter? You know how many times I’ve asked myself some version of that question over the two and a half years since my girlfriend broke up with me? Too many.
As Gottlieb enters therapy, it’s an interesting dynamic because how can she possibly compartmentalize the fact that she, too, is a therapist and a relative “rookie” compared to her older therapist? That’s a lot to juggle. First, that she doesn’t think she has anything deeper to work on than just a few weeks of breakup crisis management (whoops, she’s actually worried about dying and leaving her son without a mother). Second, that she’s wondering if he thinks she’s a good person and/or therapist. Third, that she has to turn off her own therapist mind to try to control the therapy sessions, as all patients tend to try, but I would think particularly someone also trained in therapy. And fourth, the trippy nature of the self-awareness that she comes to react to her therapist just as her patients do to her!
We’re all human and plagued (uh, blessed?) by the human condition.
If this was a book just about Gottlieb going to therapy, I would still find it fascinating and illuminating, but that’s only part of the book.
It’s also part-memoir in the telling of how Gottlieb came to the career (her third career shift!) of being a therapist for couples and individuals in California. Her story is also riveting and compelling and inspiring how often she decided to strike out (and literally when it came to discarding a book contract because it wasn’t making her happy despite being about happiness, ha) on something new when she was already successful at something.
She first started out in Hollywood, working on films and television, including the hit show in the 1990s, ER. She liked telling stories, but fiction began to mirror her real-life drive to do something more meaningful and so, she went to medical school. You can’t script that!
But then, that wasn’t quite fulfilling, either. She also dabbled in journalism, writing hit pieces for The Atlantic, but that also wasn’t quite fulfilling because she wanted to have more of a tangible role in helping people, not merely being an outside observer or documenter like a journalist.
So, she decided to go back to school and become a therapist. Meanwhile, she’s also juggling the fact that she wants a baby! She’s working with a sperm bank and also thinking about adopting. Then, there’s the Mystery Tour Illness, as she calls it, trying to uncover what the heck is medically wrong with her. I thought this part was a bit of timing serendipity considering I’m currently binging House, a show about diagnosing mysterious illnesses. (As a small aside, the one bit of “closure” we don’t get in the book (and Gottlieb even has meditation on the folly with wanting “closure”) is what the illness ends up being, or if she’s okay now!)
Again, if the book was full-on memoir about Gottlieb’s road to becoming a therapist and getting into therapy, it would be a winner. But somehow, there’s more here and it’s what makes the book endlessly readable: She tells the story of a few of her patients (not their real names): John, Rita, Julie and Charlotte.
This cast of characters — and I think it’s appropriate to call them a cast of characters because Gottlieb, who loves telling stories, analogizes therapy and the human condition to figuring out what our plot in life is — I was riveted, folks. Every single one of them provided fascinating snapshots into that human condition in different ways, whether that’s dealing with grief, impending death, the past, addiction, parental relationships and so on.
I was rooting for all of them to simply … get better and for Gottlieb to help get them there, and she does!
- John is also in Hollywood and working on a hit TV show at the time (which, again, this could be my mind conflating the two because I’m consuming them at the same time, but I suspect it could be House!), which is having a deleterious effect upon his marriage and his familial life. His wife, Margo, is frustrated that he’s always bringing the job home. Later, we shockingly learn that one of John’s children, Gabe, the boy in a a set of twins, was killed when a drunk driver blindsided them on their way to Legoland. At the time, John while driving was about to answer his work phone. Margo blamed him. John blamed himself. Even after learning the other driver was drunk, there was still blame there. And John took the route of hardening up his exterior and playing asshole to push others away and to “be strong” for his family. But that only served to push Margo further away. She was carrying the grief for the both of them since John wasn’t expressing himself. Over time, Gottlieb breaks down his defenses, gets the Gabe story out of him and John’s family life improves. Therapy is marvelous.
- Rita is a 69-year-old thrice-divorced lonely woman, who tells Gottlieb that she’ll kill herself if she still feels this way on her 70th birthday. Her four children don’t talk to her anymore because they blame her, in part, for the abuse they suffered at the hands of her first husband (she, too, was abused). She’s basically become recluse and a zombie moving through life. Gottlieb is initially flummoxed by this case because senior citizens sort of fall through the gaps, as it were, when it comes to therapy. Meaning, many don’t seek it and even if they do, it can be harder to help them because they are at the end of their life rather than theoretically having plenty of time to right the ship. (Although, as Gottlieb rightly points out, the life expectancy in the United States is nearly 80-years-old! Why write people off that are in their 60s, 70s?) Over time, Gottlieb gets Rita to work through her issues and realize, she has a lot more to offer the world and more importantly, a lot more to offer herself rather than repeated self-flagellation and self-imposed imprisonment. By the end, Rita has her own website selling her art, is with another man, has quasi-grandchildren (a family across the hallway of her apartment complex) and has slowly started the reconciliation process with her children. It’s so beautiful!
- Julie is one of the more heart-breaking cases in the book because she’s dying of cancer; wait, no, miracle drugs! — never mind, she’s dying again. Reading through not only how Julie deals with her impending death as a recently married and successful in her career woman in her 30s, but how Gottlieb deals with how to approach and help Julie is a masterclass in a very human dance that we know (but don’t want to know) is a double partner dance with death. One of my favorite bits from the Julie passages is that she wants to work at Trader Joe’s on the weekends before she dies and she gets her wish! Because she wants to be around people. That’s lovely.
- Charlotte is a 25-year-old woman, who seemingly has it all going for her: She has no trouble finding romantic partners (theoretically), she’s successful in her career and she has a wide social network of friends. But behind the veneer, she’s an alcoholic chasing the ghost of companionship she never had with her father, which often ends up in a Freudian sense of her mating with men who are like her father: Emotionally unavailable. Despite DUIs and repeated failed courtships, particularly with The Dude, as Gottlieb calls him, who is another patient in the therapy building, Charlotte still has trouble getting on the right path. She also “quits” therapy with Gottlieb repeatedly, thinking her real addiction is to Gottlieb! Eventually, though, Charlotte kicks drinking, gets a social circle that doesn’t encourage her drinking and stops seeking men who are emotionally unavailable.
But wait, there’s more! Interspersed between Gottlieb’s therapy sessions with Wendell (not his real name of course), the aforementioned cast of characters, and learning how she came into having her own practice, Gottlieb also gives fascinating insights into psychology itself from noted psychologists that added even more to ruminate on than the tangible human cases throughout the book.
I jotted a few of those down (by jotted, I mean I typed into my Notes app):
- Loss, whether that manifest in a break-up, actual loss through death or some other kind of loss, is not only about the actual loss, but perhaps it’s even more about what the loss represents: A future with that person. In a way, we get sandwiched between losing both the past and the future. Like with a break-up, we begin re-thinking the past and our memories with the person we lost, but we also think about the future we won’t have with them. In that way, we stop being present. We stop living.
- One of my favorite takeaways from the book is the insight Gottlieb gives (in relation to her patients and if I remember correctly, most pointedly John): People are so worried about breaking down, and other people witnessing it, not realizing that they are breaking open. That is, so many of us navigate through life without showing and feeling our true emotions and so, when we come to a point of “breaking down,” we’re worried about it, but it’s actually a liberating process to finally break open and birth our real selves.
- Everyone has heard of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grieving: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But I love Gottlieb’s upending of this, primarily the “acceptance” piece of it. She’s so right about how our thinking we should be accepting of something (and therefore, able to “move on”) can be its own form of self-flagellation and self-imposed imprisonment: I should be past this by now. I know from my own experience, and which I recently wrote about on the blog regarding my dreams, I get frustrated that I’m still not able to “move on” from my ex more than two and a half years after the break-up. But as Gottlieb notes, how can there be an endpoint to love and loss? Loss is its own gift, even if it doesn’t feel like it at times, because it indicates how alive we are and how feeling we are. Gottlieb says, if we no longer feel, we should be grieving our own deaths. Rather than Kübler-Ross’s model, she leans on grief psychologist William Worden who replaced the idea of stages of grief with tasks of mourning, wherein it becomes a task to integrate loss into your life. I love that and it blew my mind to re-think it in that way. This is also where Gottlieb addresses the problem with closure: If you try to mute the pain, you inevitability mute the joy, too.
- So many of us are afraid of joy because we’re anxious about the karma boomerang, or as Gottlieb refers to it, for some of us, joy is merely anticipatory pain. Again, I can very much relate to that! I’m always expecting that if something is going well in my life, the other shoe is going to drop. Or, if something is going well in my life, I dwell on why something else in my life isn’t going well and gosh darnit, why can’t I achieve balance?!
If you can’t tell, I loved this book and there’s so much to take away from it. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, so if you haven’t read this book yet, I encourage you to because you’ll have different, interesting takeaways from me, depending on your psychological hangups! There’s so much to mine from Gottlieb’s wonderful book here.
And you know, if you’ve never done therapy, maybe you should talk to someone. I know therapy isn’t for everyone and some have had bad experiences that turned them off of trying again, but finding the right therapist for you can be game-changing to helping us to see and think and feel differently.
I started this book at the end of January and finished it on the first day of February and it’s already going to be a strong contender, I suspect, for my favorite book of the year.
Thank you, Gottlieb, for helping me to see and think and feel differently with your book. For now, as she says at the end, let’s pause our conversation.