“Before we can get properly started, there’s something I really need to disclose.” This was my new therapist’s opening gambit in 1999. I leaned back, enjoying the role reversal: the shrink unloading a bombshell on his patient.
“Sure, doctor. What’s up?”
Dr. Tony (not his real name) breathed in dramatically and rolled his leather chair closer.“I’m extremely attracted to your wife,” he confessed, the words tumbling out in one fevered exhalation. “She’s the classiest, most charismatic woman I’ve come across in all my years as a therapist.”
At 53, Dr. Tony was seven years my senior, and appeared vaguely athletic, not unlike an ex-NHLer who’d downed a few too many beers. Exuding a jousting alpha-male presence that verged on self-parody, he was hardly a threat to my marriage. Still, the doctor’s confession left me discombobulated.
So I counterpunched: “Well, one of my best friends recently lost his wife to her freakin’ gynecologist. Are you suggesting you and Bev are about to go down a similar path?”
My attempt at deflective humour failed. Agitated, Dr. Tony removed his glasses, squinted disapprovingly, and asked in a condescending tone, “Do you usually dramatize everything?”
Whoa! I’m paying this guy $300 an hour to hear about his sexual cravings for my wife, and now I’m being dramatic?
Realizing there was little upside in getting into a verbal shootout at five bucks a minute, I murmured, “Just don’t take my wife on as a client, got it?” So far, my teenage son, David, was his main Hill client—that’s how Dr. Tony knew Bev in the first place.
“Very healthy response, Dan.” Slipping into “shrink speak” again, he leaned back in his mini-throne and rolled out of striking distance. Then he threw out another zinger.“One more thing you should know. Your father was one of my professors at university. He was the most inspiring teacher I ever had.”
Oh brother! Would the next hour consist of Tony waxing rhapsodic about my relatives? I thought the point of seeing a shrink was to suck him into my perspective, so he’d agree that everyone in my immediate and distant family was unreasonable, insane, and unfair, with me being the only sane one.
The first half of the session consisted of Tony prattling on about his “high-powered” patients (the usual array of screwed-up corporate presidents, TV producers, and professional athletes). Clearly, he regarded his own status as being inextricably linked to his clients’ career success. It brought to mind an old music biz friend who was Michael Jackson’s personal secretary during his Thriller period. Every Friday after work, five secretaries-to-the-stars met for dinner, their seating arrangement dictated by status: Michael Jackson’s secretary at the head of the table, Liz Taylor’s next, while at the far end was Tom Selleck’s assistant.
As Dr. Tony yammered endlessly, his overweening narcissism left me feeling, by comparison, stable and calm. Was this some kind of newfangled, ﬂip-the-script therapy?
I tuned out for a bit, taking in the expanse of his home office. Tucked into the back wing of his mansion, the room was crammed full of African artifacts, athletic gear, and the usual shelves of psychology textbooks. The drone of Tony’s voice sounded like Muzak—annoying if you listened too closely but insipid enough to turn into white noise. But just as I was tumbling deep into daydream land, he trumpeted, “I prefer the term ‘coach’ to therapist, Dan. Tell me, how does ‘coach’ resonate with you?”
That being the first time in half an hour that Tony had asked a question, I was caught off-guard. “Come again?”
“For your tax records, refer to me as your corporate coach. You’ll get a better writeoff. And let’s face it, that’s what I’m here to do: coach you through life challenges.”
A 10-year-old needs a coach, not a man pushing 50. So why didn’t I just get up and march out? Because there was something transfixing about Dr. Tony’s kookiness. Like witnessing a person acting crazy at an otherwise civilized dinner party, I was waiting for the next “incident.”
“So, what’s going on in your life that you’d like to talk about, Dan?” We were now 34 minutes into the session.
“Well, I have to go to Saskatoon, for the Prairie Music Awards. I’m leading a songwriting seminar, and I’m anxious about—”
“Saskatoon!” Dr. Tony just about leapt out of his chair with enthusiasm. “I have a lover in Saskatoon!”
“Wow, that’s, um, really something,” I mumbled, glancing through the glass doors that separated his office from his living room, where his girlfriend, whom I’d originally mistaken for his daughter, was working on his financial books. (“She’s wild about me,” Tony had confided. “She’ll do anything I ask.”)
I tentatively resumed my confessions: that my father was slowly dying and I’d been drinking myself silly, late at night, locked in my basement recording studio. That I was hooked on sleeping pills and lorazepam, which left me viciously hungover and snapping at people, particularly the more challenging superstars I was writing songs for. That I was running for two hours every morning, to detoxify my body and inflate my crashing spirits, only to spend the rest of the day staggering as though my hamstrings were being prodded by a white-hot knife. And the worst part of all: I was withdrawing from everyone, even my wife and son found me unreachable, as though lost in some swirling, creative, haunted trance.
“You’re in serious trouble,” Dr. Tony concluded when I finished my rambling narrative. His voice gaining volume with each pronouncement, he continued, “Your emotional development stopped once you hit puberty. You’re selfish, spoiled, and entitled. You think the world revolves around you.”
Sheesh, maybe he had been seeing my wife on the side; his words had a nasty ring of familiarity. Whatever happened to the shrink rubbing his chin furtively and musing, “How does that make you feel?”
Shrugging like a surly adolescent, I handed Tony his payment for “enlightening” me, and he confided, “Dan, I have to tell you, I find your life journey absolutely fascinating.”
Not for the last time, I wondered: what’s the line that separates therapists from overpaid voyeurs?