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    « BACK to Matthew Fishbane's portfolio

    Posted 03.06.07
    Shrinking New York

    The term "shrink" is disrespectful to the tribes that engaged in ritual drying of the heads of their slain enemies. I know this, like I also know that some therapists take offense at the idea that they, too, well, to put it bluntly, mess with heads. But it's the term I was raised on and the one that applies to this particular adventure: finding a shrink of my own as a newcomer in New York City.

    But how to negotiate this in the city with a reputation for more shrinks per capita than anywhere? The US Bureau of Labor projects an 18 to 26 percent increase in psychology and counseling service jobs before 2014, which doesn't bode well for the nation's mental health. Somewhere in the roiling miasma called New York there had to be a shrink to call my own, to yap at for 50 minutes a week, see where it all leads me. But which one? The courtship I was to engage in takes place here every day.

    Start on the net. The site provides a convenient drop-down menu at the top of the therapist locator page: Choose a Condition or Concern. Pick the first option on the menu, "Suicidal Feelings," plug in your zip code, and you'll be told to call 911. But any other condition, from "UNKNOWN," to addiction, bulimia, torture, trauma, workplace issues, or a host of others, returns a list of licensed therapists within walking distance from your local post office. Browse, read their blurbs, give them a call, feel each other out as you might a prospective partner you had replied to on J-Date, the internet dating service for Jews. The therapists post their pictures, describe their therapeutic interests and experience to match your self-determined psychological profile.

    And then, of course, get advice. I ask my sister, a therapy veteran. She asks our aunt, a therapy addict. She, in turn, asks her Harvard shrink friend. Result: a $300 an hour therapist on the Upper West Side whose schedule is booked through 2008. I ask the counselor at my university's drop-in "Wellness Center." She offers to keep seeing me for "up to six sessions," but also recommends, in soothing tones while sipping from a steaming bowl of herbal tea, that perhaps I might consider a more long-term approach. "The kinds of things you are talking about are not going to get solved here," she says and writes out a list of contacts on the uppermost of a thick block of square note cards with a Snoopy design.

    The names she suggests aren't therapists, but therapist dens, shrink lodges, tucked into the corners of city universities. You call the Grand Poobah there, you describe your condition and your budget, he gives you another list of names to call. These are from his rolodex of working therapists who are getting re-certified, participating in training programs, doing research. They charge less; it's a bit like getting your hair cut at the Fashion Institute: in both, someone practices on your head.

    So I begin to arrange meetings with each, one by one, all over Manhattan. I troll the net in the mean time, and find "Depressed About Feeling Depressed," by John Fishbein, Ph.D. "Depression is like emotional quicksand," he writes. "The more you struggle and fight to get out of it, the deeper you sink."

    So, a series of blind dates. Dr. Elizabeth Kandall, on the Upper East Side, has flowery patterns on her couches, but sits in a mesh-backed Aeron chair. I tell her my story, one I would come to repeat over the next few weeks in an exercise of theme-and-variations. A photograph above my head shows an empty summer bedroom and hallway in warm light. I ask if it's a family property. "What do you think it is?" she answers.

    "I think it's your family property," I say.

    "Why do you think that?"

    As our session ends, she asks what I think of her.

    "I like you," I say, stumped. "I'm going to keep looking."

    Dr. Rhonda Sternberg has a spotless office up several flights in a Midtown box. "I like to keep orderly," she says. A creeper plant's leaves hang just so over a bookcase of self-help titles. There are African masks and a view to water-towers. Dr. Sternberg takes notes in a black and white composition book and explains that her specialty is career counseling. As our session ends, I ask her what she thinks of me.

    "I like you," she says.

    "I'm going to keep looking," I say.

    I go back to the Grand Poobah for more names, and repeat the scenario four more times throughout Manhattan. Sit in a patterned chair, talk about my mother's suicide, describe my father as "authoritarian," say I've been overseas for 12 years, judge the therapist by the cabinet decor, ask if we like each other and say good-bye. A slow form of speed dating.

    So when I first encounter Dr. Isaacson, I am a bit put-off by the holes in the bottom of his shoes when he props his feet onto the ottoman of a blue vinyl recliner, in a ground-floor Village office with almost total disregard for decoration. Or vacuum cleaning.

    "It's kind of dirty," I tell my sister.

    "Do you like him?" she asks.

    I tell Dr. Isaacson about my trouble finding a shrink in New York, and he laughs. I like him already. "Does it bother you if I say 'shrink'?" I ask.

    "You might as well come," he says, adjusting a striped tie that was probably once new in the early 70s, but also possibly used even back then. "It's only a few blocks away and it takes less than an hour." I tell him what my insurance will pay. He says that's what he'll charge.

    And after several weeks, I get used to the worn underside of his black-soled sneakers, and start to feel like a New Yorker.