During my earliest days as a psychotherapist, I worked in a group practice in an outer borough of New York, making $19 a session. It was a terrific way to get experience.
Most of my clients were Medicaid patients. If we could get them to come in, they’d get a few dollars for transportation. Even with that incentive, Jessie had a hard time making her sessions. She was very anxious. She lived with her mom, as she always had. This wasn’t so unusual in this Italian and Irish neighborhood, where the greatest distance most children moved was up or downstairs in the four-family house. But Jesse had never even gotten that far.
Jessie and her mom had nothing to live on but their Social Security and disability checks, and would resort to eating cat food when the money got low at the end of the month.
Jess was terrified of everything. She sat in my office, holding her chest, fearing a heart attack. Her stringy blondish hair fell aimlessly over her collapsed shoulders, a wan look on her face. I kept lowering the bar as I made suggestions for things that she could do. “How about if you and I take a walk to the corner and go to the library?” I suggested, hoping that if she could go that far and read a book, her impoverished life would be somewhat brightened. But she would rebuff the suggestion, holding up her hand and shaking her head slowly, signaling she couldn’t.
With my limited experience, I was at a loss for what to do. Finally, I broke the silence by saying, “How about if you look out the window?” Outside was a typical Queens commercial street, with nail salons, dry cleaners, and pizza places.
She turned her head and looked out. A therapeutic victory! She paused, and then said, “This reminds me of when I used to go to The Fountainebleau.”
I wasn’t sure I heard her right. “The where?” I asked.
“Oh, you know, you know The Fountainebleau, don’t you?”
As a Jew from Brooklyn, of course I did. It was the fanciest hotel in Miami Beach. If you stayed there you had reached the pinnacle. I’d never been. Jessie had been to The Fountainebleau? Huh?
Sensing my skepticism, Jess went on. “Oh, yes,” she said. “I’ve been there many times.” She leaned forward and her eyes grew large. She looked brighter than I’d ever seen her. Her thin voice grew in depth. “No. Really, he loved me.”
“In my early twenties I worked as a receptionist for Doctor Berger.” Her voice became a conspiratorial whisper. “He was very, very rich. He owned many companies.” Then her voice grew definitive. “He was a good man. He was married, but, you see, he had this problem. He had diabetes, and you know, he had a hard time . . .” Jess squinched up her face and shrugged her shoulders. “And I knew how to take care of him. I mean, that wasn’t the whole thing. We really had a wonderful time together.” Then she paused, and leaned in again. “I mean, he really loved me.”
“He would take me to Florida and we would stay in the best suites. One time he drove me to Central Park West, and he showed me this big building and said he would buy me an apartment there and I would be taken care of forever.” She sighed and seemed to deflate again to her original size. “I couldn’t do it. I was young. Stupid. I didn’t want to be a kept woman. I said no.”
I was skeptical. Jess was a little crazy, and Doctor Berger? That was my last name. There was this thing in my business called transference where the client can get some strong feelings about their therapist. Still, I wondered. Could it be true? Then I got the obvious idea.
“Jessie,” I implored, “where is this Doctor Berger now?”
“I should reach out. I should call him. I mean, just to say hello. He was so good to me. He was such a wonderful man. Good to everyone.”
In the slight chance that Jessie wasn’t psychotic, I jumped all over this. “Yes! You should!” I said. “Jess, if he loved you, and he found out how you and your mother were struggling, I’m sure he would help. You should call him! You should do it now!”
Jessie said, “I really should, just to say hello.” but her facial expression told me it was unlikely to happen.
Each week, when she would come in, I would ask if she had called, and she would shake her head, saying, “Not yet.”
Knowing that she probably wouldn’t do it on her own, I picked up the phone in my office with enthusiasm and said, “Let’s do it right now! I’ll dial the phone. I’m sure he’d be thrilled to hear from you! Just say hello!”
Jesse grabbed her chest. “I’m having a twinge.” She wagged her finger and shook her head.
This went on for who knows how long. Of course, she never called.
One morning, I sat at my breakfast table with my cappuccino, croissant, and New York Times. I always began with my favorite section, the obituaries. There, in a huge half page, was an obit for Doctor Berger, wealthy industrialist and beloved philanthropist! I dropped my cup.
The good news was that everything Jessie told me had been true! Doctor Berger’s obit spoke of his tremendous generosity. The right side of the page was filled with testimonials from the organizations and people he had supported. The bad news was, he was dead.
I went to my supervisor for advice. She told me that I had to tell her. When we had our session, I brought in the obit from the Times. Jessie barely reacted. It confirmed the story of her life, both the past, and the present.
I could almost see another layer of pain, regret, and futility descending over Jessie, freezing her into even greater immobility. She and her mom could have spent the rest of their days sunning at the Fountainebleau, if she could have only made that one call . . .
Seeing Jessie’s reaction made me feel like a failure. This missed opportunity spoke to the larger ways that I couldn’t help Jessie. In frustration, I wondered, what bad could possibly come from taking a risk as compared to the tragedy of losing the once-in-an-eternity chance to live her life?
I asked Jessie, “Do you have a sense of what you were afraid of?
Jessie looked down at the ground. “I didn’t want him to see how I was living. I didn’t want to let him know that I needed help. I didn’t want him to think of me, you know, like that.”
Jessie projected her own feelings of shame into him, and was unable to reach out because she believed, wrongly, that he would judge her. All this was so unnecessarily sad, because she forgot – that he really loved her.