As a kid growing up in a Bronx housing project, I'd never met a therapist, and I didn't know anyone who'd admit to seeing one. I'd read a little Freud, though. I was particularly enthralled with his concept of the id, ego and superego. My dysfunctional family, I believed, was all id.
My left-wing parents taught me many wonderful things, most especially to value diversity. But they were deeply troubled. My father was often violent and my clinically depressed mother was unable to protect my brother, sister or me from his fists. My older sister Alice was also filled with rage that she sometimes took out on my parents but mostly on me—the littlest, weakest, and in her words, "the competition." Years later, my mother admitted she'd always known that Alice had "desperately needed professional help. But Daddy didn't believe in therapy."
In college, I saw my first therapist. I poured my heart out to her about my boyfriend, a high school dropout and heroin addict. "He treats me like dirt, but I'm obsessed with him," I admitted, shamefacedly.
"You're Jewish, right? Go to the youth dances at B'nai B'rith. You'll meet a nice boy there. That'll give you a kick in the pants to leave this loser."
My next therapist was "Miss Hazel," as she liked to be called. Sweet and soft-spoken, she never said anything that helped change my behavior or thinking. But I felt cared for. She left a year later to get married.
The next therapist bragged that he'd been "a C student, but smarter than all the creeps who got A's."
After him, was an elderly woman who wore trifocals and fell asleep during sessions.
The fact that I'd not yet found "the therapist of my dreams" didn't dissuade me from believing that person existed. That person would "get" me, curing me of the depression, anxiety and lack of self-esteem that led to one bad relationship after another.
I started to fantasize about marrying a therapist. That way, I'd have one for confiding sorrows and one for sharing my bed. They would accept me and help me heal.
When a friend set me up on a blind date with Benny, a successful psychiatrist, I felt excited. "His patients all love him," my friend said.
Benny and I met up at a cozy West Village restaurant. He was tall and gangly. I so wanted to want him.
Before the waiter even took our orders, Benny was regaling me with stories about his fabulous apartment, thriving practice, and piano playing. "I could have been a professional pianist, but I chose to help others." His voice struck me as faux humble.
Still, I trusted my friend's judgment. After all, he was "a great shrink."
I ordered paella.
So did Benny, who loudly added, "But no mushrooms! Not a single mushroom."
Benny leaned in and explained, "They're so phallic. I can't bear seeing penises on my plate."
Seeing my stunned expression, he continued: "Trust me, I don't have a problem with gay men. In fact, I have a special rapport with my gay male patients."
I felt worried for all his patients—male, female, gay, straight.
When, during dinner, he described his athletic prowess and keen intellect, I made a classic female mistake. I felt sorry for him. How sad that he hid his insecurities behind insufferable bravado. But maybe his problems helped him better understand his patients.
After the meal, I agreed to go to his apartment to hear him play the piano. Then I'd leave and keep searching for my two ideal shrinks: the one who'd help me and the one I'd marry.
His apartment was beautiful. I sat on his pristine white leather sofa while he sat tall at the piano. Despite many dramatic hand flourishes, his playing was eh.
"That was lovely." I picked up my purse, ready to go.
The next thing I knew, Benny was pushing me down on the sofa, slobbering all over me. While I managed to push him off, I made another classic female mistake: being polite.
"You must have misread my signals. I hadn't intended for you to kiss me." I couldn't imagine a therapist forcing himself on me.
"Is this enough of a signal for you?" He threw me down again and resumed slobbering.
This time, I pushed him off and stood up as I grabbed my purse. Frightened, I raced toward the door. He followed me, too closely. Now I was angry. "If you come near me again, I'll punch you in the face," I said coldly, enunciating each word.
When he lurched toward me, I shocked us both by hauling back and punching him, hard, in the face before flinging open the door and hurling myself through it.
My friend called the next day, furious. "You must have given him some signals."
I never spoke to either of them again.
Even though my life was fulfilling in many ways through my work and friends, I still clung to the idea that therapy would rescue me from the insomnia and nightmares that plagued me, and my unwise choices in love.
But that night with Benny forced me to become more realistic. I stopped looking for an "ideal" therapist who didn't exist. Shrinks were human in all the good, bad and ugly ways the rest of us were. Benny was just particularly ugly.
It wasn't much later that I did find the therapist I needed—a smart, kind middle-aged woman with a booming laugh who wore long, flowing skirts and lots of turquoise jewelry. She wasn't ideal—she sometimes forgot things I deemed important and occasionally she was snippy. She was human. But, during the 20 years I worked with her, she helped me sift through the pain of my past in a way that allowed me to let go of it.
Around the same time, I fell in love with a supportive, loving man whom I eventually married. It didn't matter that he wasn't a therapist.
I tried to Google Benny once but I'd forgotten his last name, and searching for "Benny, psychiatrist, New York" wouldn't work. I'd like to think that somewhere, somehow, he got his comeuppance, that his patients grew wise and left him. And that they all found love and the therapists of their dreams, just as I did.
This essay originally appeared in the new anthology, "How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions From Both Sides Of The Couch" (Seal Press, September 2016).