Confrontations with the Fantasy Shrink Who Resides in My Head
|The Author with Auntie, Summer 1968
Can you tell me how that word makes you feel?
Oh, Lord. Don’t tell me you’re a Gestalt...
No, Ms. Lee. Eclectic. Dabs of Freud, Jung, Horney, Skinner, Rogers, Ellis, and ‒ yes ‒ some Perls.
I’d hate to think I’ve traveled all the way into my inner depths just to find a Cuckoo in a hot tub....
I like to think that I take the best of what psychiatry has to offer and give to my clients what they need. Now, then, where were we?
Ah, yes. You were going to define that word for me.
Well, maybe to ordinary people, “diet” is just another word in the English language, having one or two meanings, the primary denotative being, “to cause to take food” as a verb, and “food or drink regularly provided or consumed” as a noun. Then there is that lesser denotative meaning, a dieter’s term, which has to do with eating by prescribed rules established by doctors, nutritionists, families, peers, friends, women’s magazines, weight loss programs, and self ‒
Then there’s my extended definition of “diet,” a connotative meaning: “death.” Does this surprise you?
Maybe a little.
Well, it shouldn’t. You see, every time I step on the scale or make a decision, conscious or unconscious, to deny myself food, a part of me dies, literally and figuratively. Then, as my body diminishes and becomes angular and taut, the sexual part of my will grows soft and yielding, and, and, and, uh ‒
You feel out of control.
Yes! And I cringe at the thought of what will happen when men start hitting on the thin me, as inevitably they will....
You’re afraid you’ll respond?
Tell me about it.
It’s so embarrassing. And I don’t know you well enough yet.
Okay. We’ll talk about that some other time. Tell me what happens when the fat lady sings.
I think you need to understand what will happen when the fat lady in you decides to sing.
I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying.
My point exactly.
You know, I think I’d feel more comfortable if you were a woman. How do I know you’re not one of those wacky shrinks who hit on helpless women?
You don’t. Let’s go back to the word “diet.”
You even look a little like a professor I once had for class ‒
“Even”? What do you mean by that?
He was a Gestalt shrink. Hey! That prof had blond hair just like yours ‒
I see. I think you’re playing games, Ms. Lee, and it’s time to get back on track, or I’m going to end this session right now.
Okay, Dr. Garrett. The truth is, I’m tired of it all. Yesterday, I seriously considered killing myself.
Is that all you have to say?
Obviously, you decided to get help instead of killing yourself.
Okay, then, let’s get to work. Tell me what happens when you go on a diet.
Hummm....Well, when I diet, it’s not just a simple matter of eating or not eating certain foods. It becomes complicated.
Sounds silly, but it seems the other part of my will becomes hard and cruel ‒ unyielding. Like a computer chip, I assume a “whore-Madonna” approach to eating: I’m either “off” or “on.” And when I’m “off,” the pressure from everyone to get “on the program” is almost too much to bear. And, so, it has been for most of my life.
You’ve become Jennifer, the professional dieter.
That’s it exactly. I’ve learned how to measure, weigh, cook “legal” dishes, create mock spaghetti from shirataki, squeeze out fat from my burgers, suck in my gut, thrust out my chin, stand a certain way on my bathroom scale, minimize a growing waistline by throwing on baggy clothes, and sneak and hide forbidden food into unlikely places ‒ shoe boxes, the trunk of the car (the car smells like a deli gone bad), under the bed, my purse, office drawers, in the shed, even in a douche bag I have never used ‒ except as a hiding place for Brach’s cinnamon disks.
So you know what you have to do to lose weight, but you simply don’t want to do it anymore.
It’s just not worth the effort any more. But I don’t like being fat, either.
Looks like you’ve got some decisions to make, but time’s up for today. Until next session, can you give yourself permission not to beat yourself up about your weight?
I don’t know.
Well, then. We’ll try for that later. For the time being, I want you to do the mirror exercise every day. My assistant will give you instructions.
I WAS A CHUBBY CHILD, and my family never let me forget it.
My male cousins were especially innovative in coming up with creative names for my condition: “Jeffer the Heifer,” “Heifer,” “fatty-fatty-two-by-four,” and “Piglet,” to name a few titles I bore throughout my childhood.
In other words, kid stuff.
Okay, so I’m being super sensitive. They were kids at the time, and…boys will be boys ‒
But it still cuts deeply.
Well, yeah. It still hurts. Maybe I can forgive them, maybe not. It’s a moot point, anyway, since I had decided long ago that I would have been perfectly happy to relegate those twits to relative obscurity ‒
You’re still angry?
That’s a bit strong, I think. Kids I can understand. Really, it was the adults who put me on my childhood diets, beginning when I was eight, and nagged me into sticking with them. I’ll never forget the day my Mo, my grandmother, took me to Dr. M and what she said to him: “We’ve got to do something about Jennifer’s weight. She’s getting so big I can’t find school clothes for her.”
It’s weird, but when I look back on those snapshots, I don’t see a fat child ‒ I see a growing child going through a phase where her height hadn’t quite caught up with her weight. The doctor, who must’ve weighed about 300 pounds himself, should’ve seen that. Still, like the good family doctor that he was, he prescribed a strict diet for me: unlimited lettuce, celery, and carrot sticks; one-half cup cottage cheese; three ounces of broiled meat or fish a day; one cup of cooked vegetables; one fruit or juice; no starch; no sugar; and no fats. He sent me home with a packet of pink pills, one to be taken in late afternoon, when I was most likely to be hungry.
Those pills made me higher than a kite, and I used to lay awake at night, my thoughts and fears racing like crazy, longing for sleep like no other eight-year-old kid, before or since. When I complained of not being able to sleep, the doctor prescribed a red pill to be taken before bed time. That pill would knock me out cold, and when my grandmother tried waking me up for school, I just lay in bed like a stone, unable to move or even open my eyes. This went on for three months.
And then what happened?
What do you think? The weight came off. It always came off easily in those days, and I was a thin child for a few days ‒ that is, until I started eating regular food again. I was so hungry that I attacked my food like a shark going after blood. I was a shark going after blood, the blood of rare steak, the elixir of chocolate, the slickness of butter melting down my throat. My hunger frightened my grandmother, but I couldn’t help it. Really.
I believe you, Jennifer. But I’m wondering: does Jennifer believe Jennifer?
What do you mean?
You protest too much.
Well, I was okay until Auntie jumped into the fray as her letters from California tried to embarrass me into losing weight.
My grandmother’s oldest sister. I admired her, but I was afraid, too ‒
Tell me about that fear.
I-I-I can’t explain it. She never threatened me, or anything, no more than anyone else.
Well, then, tell me something significant about Auntie.
That’s really hard. She was such a character; I could go on and on with Auntie stories ‒
Start at the beginning, maybe?
Hmmmm. Oh, yes, I know. She once tried to talk my mother into changing my first name to Candy ‒ I don’t remember that incident at all, but I’m glad my mother stood her ground. I know how hard it was saying “no” to Auntie.
She was strong-willed, and everyone thought she had money. Lots of it.
What about your relationship with her?
I wasn’t interested in her money, if that’s what you mean. Being independent was always more important to me. If the money came, fine, but if I had to jump through hoops to get it, I wasn’t interested. As it turned out, she wasn’t as rich as everyone had thought. When she died in 1980, I inherited about $10,000.
What’s your best memory of her?
Aren’t we getting off on a tangent? I mean, aren’t we supposed to be talking about dieting or body image?
If you’ll bear with me, there may be a tie-in.
I don’t see how, but you’re the shrink.
But not infallible.
Only the Pope, Dr. Garrett. And he’s suspect. Now let’s see...Ah, yes.
The year I turned 14, I spent my entire summer with Auntie. She lived in an 11th floor penthouse on Hollywood Boulevard, a very elegant place with white furniture and shag carpeting. Floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides that looked out on the Capitol Records Building, the only round building I’d ever seen for real. She had a shower gizmo that mixed soap and water together so that you wouldn’t have to bother rubbing bar soap all over your body. We didn’t even have a shower at home, only a bathtub, so I assumed just rich people could afford to build showers and then to have a gizmo on top of it...Wow. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I was always in the shower, it seemed. I must’ve been the cleanest 14-year-old kid around. Eventually, I would’ve gotten sick of all that elegance ‒ after all, after a few weeks of standing in the shower, getting all wrinkled, I might’ve become bored ‒ but Auntie had this nutty side that I loved: she ordered tacky stuff from the Spencer’s Gift Catalog, things like boy dolls ‒ genitalia and all ‒ that you filled with water. When you squeezed him, he peed. Auntie used it like a squirt gun, chasing me all over the apartment as I shrieked and screamed. And, then, when she wasn’t looking, I snatched the thing and chased her back. Sometimes, we’d laugh so hard that we’d fall on her bed, holding our sides and trying not to slide off the satin sheets.
She also ordered her toilet paper from Spencer’s: each square a $1,000 bill. She always made a big deal about being so rich that you could wipe your butt with money and not feel a thing.
Then she’d take me to Farmer’s Market where we’d pig out on enchiladas before they were popular in the east. After we stuffed ourselves so much that we could barely move, we’d go to the magic store and stock up on rubber spiders, snakes, vomit, and doggy-do ‒ the kind of stuff I loved taking to school, the same stuff that inevitably ended up in the nun’s confiscation drawer.
Auntie and her two gay boyfriends ‒ both bankers and both cute (I couldn’t decide which one I loved best) ‒ took me everywhere, sneaking me into places like the Playboy Club. Dining on lobster tails and sipping on Scotch and water. Auntie introduced me into an adult world and treated me like a cherished companion, instead of the unwanted kid I knew I was. For once in my life, I felt privileged, and, like Auntie, I stood haughty and proud. Sometimes, during the day, when we were logy and bored from all the running around, Auntie would toss two Swanson’s Turkey Dinners into the oven and teach me how to play poker. I mean real poker, the cut throat kind, the kind they play at Las Vegas. She would hand me a stake, a roll of shiny nickels, and dare me to beat her. Sometimes, she even let me win. She taught me how to have fun. But, more than anything, Auntie taught me how to keep a poker face in public, how not to let my real feelings show.
Hmmmm...mmm. How about that.
And what is that supposed to mean?
Just a verbal non-fluency, Ms. Lee. You seemed to expect a response, and I was drawing a blank. That’s all.
Well, it makes me nervous, like maybe the white coats are coming. Sounds like something a crooked lawyer would say before he scams you.
Now, now. What would you know about such things?
Oh, nothing. I was just spouting off.
Every utterance has meaning, Ms. Lee.
Excuse me, Dr. Garrett? But isn’t your Freudian slip showing?
That’s a “gotcha.” In any case, I’m afraid our time’s up for today.
Just when it starts gettin’ good.
We’ll explore that comment next time.
“JUST WHEN IT STARTS GETTIN’ GOOD.” What did you mean by that?
I said that?
Last time. You were talking about your Auntie.
You seem reluctant today.
It’s just that I was never sure about Auntie, always uncertain about her agenda. I mean, she was a lot of fun, and all, but...Well, I’m just not sure. The last time I saw her I was still so young, just 18. And when I was forced to leave California for Iowa, I never saw Auntie again. She died when I was 29. But, in retrospect, I’ve always wondered, you know, about her orientation ‒
Well, yeah. Oh, don’t get me wrong. She never did anything to me, or even really suggested anything untoward. But I still felt uncomfortable, especially at night. We slept in the same bed, and she’d squeeze me tight, as if she were hanging on to life itself.
Maybe she was just lonely.
What do you think?
I don’t know. Can we talk about something else?
Weight. Body image.
Auntie had this friend. A really big woman who enjoyed eating. Real sweet, too. But Auntie was always razzing me about her. Called her “Floating Butt.” Said I was going to look just like Floating Butt if I wasn’t careful. So, naturally, I decided I didn’t like her at all, like maybe she might be contagious or something.
It was pathetic. She loved Auntie unconditionally, even when Auntie was mean to her, which was a lot. She stuck with Auntie even when she was very ill and all her other friends had bailed. From what I hear, Auntie was a difficult dying person, raging at anyone who dared to visit.
Doesn’t surprise me, though.
Let’s explore that.
Nothing complicated. In life, Auntie always fought hard for the upper hand, and I’d think that she’d fight death as well. People don’t suddenly become nice just because they’re dying. Also, I don’t think she could stand the thought of leaving her money behind, to finally be exposed as a fraud. Everyone thought Auntie was very rich, and she used that assumption to keep the family in line.
All my life, I heard, “You’d better be good because you’re still in Auntie’s will.”
And everyone knew Mother had been cut, excised like a cancer, from the famous will.
You haven’t talked much about your mother.
As Bartleby says, “I’d prefer not to.”
Oh, I see. A sore spot.
She’s not important. I hardly knew her. How did we get off track, anyway?
You tell me.
You want to poke in areas that don’t concern you. You’re supposed to be helping me with my weight problem, not snooping into my past.
Well, then, let’s talk about your weight.
That’s more like it. Now, let’s see. Oh, yes. I went on and off Dr. M’s diet ‒ and variations thereof, including sugar-and-lettuce diets, grapefruit diets, the banana and ice cream diet, the water diet ‒ for years and years. I’m sure Mo’s concern was well-intentioned, but the thyroid pills?
Your family doctor prescribed thyroid medication?
Yeah. I was only 13, and I took them all through high school. Granted, my weight did stabilize, but no one knew that I was fasting off and on to keep myself around 130-140 pounds. Once, in my senior year, I was so weak from fasting three days in a row that I passed out in the Dean of Women’s office, and she called for Mo, my grandmother, to pick me up. I told everyone it was my period making me sick, but the truth was, I was out sick a lot. In fact, I spent so much time out of school that I kept all my friends up-to-date on what was going on in Days of Our Lives.
That was the year that skinny Susan Martin fatally shot her sexy husband David because she hated him for the death of their son and loving the voluptuous Julie ‒ well, let’s just say I got Mo hooked on Days as well, just like I was hooked on the pink pills prescribed by Dr. M and, later, when he dropped dead, Dr. G, a young handsome doctor.
And then when my periods really started getting bad ‒ I’ve always had bad periods ‒ Mo took me to Dr. C, a chiropractor ‒
Why a chiropractor?
Mo was mad at Dr. G ‒ Dr. M was dead ‒ and this Dr. C was a real svengali. She was ga-ga over him, but I hated him.
Tell me about this svengali.
He was slime. He told me my menstrual problems would go away if I lost weight. And he had some weird rituals having to do with old shoes...
Would you like to talk about it?
There’s nothing to talk about. The guy just had a fascination with shoes, the uglier, the better. That’s all.
Incredible. Oh. Time’s up for today.
You think I’ll ever lick my problem, Dr. Garrett?
What do you think?
I don’t know. That’s why I’m allowing you space in my head.
No guarantees, Jennifer. You know that.
I just wish I could take a magic pill and wipe all my fat away.
That’s what got you into trouble in the first place. Well. For next time, write down what you need to say to your grandmother about your dieting life.
I can’t tell her anything. She’s dead.
Of course she is. We’re going to do a little role-playing next time, and I’m going to be your grandmother.
That’s a laugh. She wasn’t as cute as you.
I’m serious. You’re going to tell me what you need to say to Grandma Mo but can’t.
I’ll think about it. Ciao, Doc.
(Question: should I evict my fantasy shrink before he digs too deep into my feelings about Mo?)