Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell

Lay Therapists

 [p.47]Not long ago I wrote about the fact that women have always diagnosed and prescribed for each other’s physical ailments. More and more these days we fill yet another role in each other’s lives—lay therapist. It’s probably a good thing psychiatrists aren’t unionized, or many of us would find ourselves at the bottom of the Great Salt Lake wearing cement pantyhose for being non-union scabs.

You may not think of yourself as a therapist; perhaps the most you have ever said is, “I’m a good listener.” So? The difference between an amateur listener and a professional one is that the therapist, at the end of fifty minutes, can say, “Your time is up, “but the good listener-friend cannot. Actually from the point of view of the patient, or the client, as she is called these days, a friend has several advantages over a professional shrink:

1. She’s cheaper. Even if you carry on your consultations via long distance, it’s still cheaper—and the shrink’s rates are definitely not lower after 11:00 p.m., in case you’ve wondered!

2. A friend’s terminology is usually much more useful. Jane Howard, in her book, explains the simple [p.48]code she and her sister have for diagnosing the mental states of their friends. Here’s the breakdown: “Better,” “Worse,” “The Same.” As in:

“How’s Marie?”

“Oh, about the same, What about Lynn?”

“Better, definitely better. And Sandy?”

“Worse, I’m afraid.”

Now a shrink would take thirty minutes to convey the same information, using phrases like “mood swings,” “diminished affect,” and “depressive corollary reaction. “Who needs it? If You’re in the middle of an emotional crisis, you’re hardly interested in playing “Thirty Days to a More Impressive Vocabulary.”

In addition to speaking straight from the shoulder, friends who double as emergency therapists come to know your verbal shorthand. When my friend Anne calls and asks how things are, if I say, “I’m getting on the bus,” I have given her a full report which she can interpret without any hesitation. She will know that I am restless, over-burdened, bored, near the end of my rope, and replaying once again my fantasy of boarding a Greyhound bus and disembarking 500 miles down the road at some greasy spoon cafe with a “Dishwasher Wanted” sign in the fly-specked window. I have never gotten on the bus, of course, and in fact, as long as Anne is around to be my amateur analyst, I probably won’t need to.

Before leaving the matter of shorthand between friends, let’s take note of the fact that sometimes the shorthand isn’t even verbal. Body language conveys a lot, and most close friends can speed-read each other’s messages. After my last “getting-on-the-bus” session with Anne, she walked me to my car and bade me good-bye with a gesture peculiar to us and perfectly precise.

With an upward-spiraling motion of both hands and a nod of the head with the chin leading, she communicated the following: “All right now; get on with it. Pick yourself up after letting off all of this steam and don’t waste any more time kvetching. I’m pulling for you.”

3. A final advantage of the lay therapist: she doesn’t automatically drop off the face of the earth in August. In case you haven’t had to find out the hard way, every paid shrink in the U.S.A. goes A.W.O.L. in August. If your bio-rhythms sink to the cellar before Labor Day, tough luck.

Now since we’re trying to be honest here and give informa-[p.49]tion grounded in reality, I must admit that friends do have one or two tiny little drawbacks as therapists.

1. First of all, your Good Samaritan shrink hasn’t taken the Freudian oath or whatever it is the pros take, so you have to negotiate confidentiality. Otherwise the details of your pending bankruptcy or your manuscript refuting The Joy of Sex may end up being tattled all over town. Please don’t think I’m perpetuating a female stereotype here; my experience is that the human species per se, male and female, has a strong compulsion to talk about its members. So you must ask yourself, “Can I afford to have this particular bit of information known abroad?” If you absolutely cannot, then don’t lay it on your lay therapist.

2. A second problem with the friend cum counselor is that she may lack the objectivity of a professional. Now on the one hand, that’s a big plus in her favor: she really cares that your mother-in-law’s weekend visit has stretched into three months and it may take a backhoe to get her out of the guest room. But on the other hand, without the grounding of an academic discipline behind her, her prescriptions may suffer their own mood swings. Watch out if she’s a dabbler in self-help fads: into subliminal tapes one month, nude aura cleansing the next, and from there into Outward Bound Schools for Mid-Crisis sufferers. Depending on when you consult her and how easily led you are, you could end up on a three-day survival solo with two hundred dried apricots, a space blanket, and your same old neuroses plus a whole set of new phobias you never contemplated until you came on survival.

But the simple truth is that none of us would survive very long as a solo act without friends in whom to confide. Much of the pain we suffer in our professional and our personal lives is made bearable because we have one or more Someones who will listen, hold our hands, give a little common-sense advice, and send us back into the battle fortified by strokes, or feedback, or whatever euphemism you want to use. It ultimately translates as Love, and it works. It worked for centuries before Freud; it continues to work in the midst of the present crisis in the profession of psychoanalysis; and it will work in the decades ahead when we will be wearing our telephones on our wrists like watches and plugging into each other’s home computers by long distance.