George and Hilly
Halfway through our seventh session of couples therapy, we’d already stumbled onto the topic of marriage …. But then we got back to talking about daily stuff.
GEORGE: May I ask you something? This is going to make me sound like a dick. Remember how I said I don’t want e-mails in the morning? It’s gotten much better, but for the first three years going out with Hilly, I felt like five hours wouldn’t go by during the day when she wouldn’t check in on me—hold on, don’t get upset—and it made me feel like I was responsible for her emotions. It also made me feel guilty at times. Sometimes I felt like I had the power to determine her mood. At the same time, it was totally unfair—because anytime that I wanted her to help me out or listen to me, she would always be there.
HILLY: One time—do you remember when you were on the train to Los Angeles? And he called me and started freaking out and yelling, “I can’t talk to you like this! I can’t call you! We can’t talk, I need to think about this story I’m writing, it’s all about the work!” And I said, “O.K., George, I understand.” And we hung up. And about 45 minutes later, you called back and said [little whiny child’s voice], “Hilly, why didn’t you call me?”
GEORGE: O.K., yeah, that happens. Sometimes I need to be able to focus on one thing, be single-minded, think about nothing else but the story I’m working on. Sometimes, that’s what I need to do—but I know what she means, though.
DR. SELMAN: What does she mean? I’m not clear on what she’s saying.
GEORGE: She’s saying that I’ll complain that I can’t talk about us right then, or for a certain number of hours. I want to block everything out.
HILLY: That’s O.K. I mean, I get like that when I’m at work sometimes.
DR. SELMAN: So then you’re selfish and insensitive?
GEORGE: No, I just can’t—
DR. SELMAN: She’s nice to you, she’s concerned, she calls you up—and you tell her to go F-off?
GEORGE: No, no! Not quite. Well, yesterday I think we talked at 4 p.m., and I had some stuff to do, and then I didn’t call you until 10 p.m. And you were sort of upset I hadn’t checked in with you earlier. I guess this is what you do in a relationship, but it’s hard for me to come to grips with having to check in with someone every four or five hours.
DR. SELMAN: Is it true you check up on him frequently, as he says?
HILLY: I don’t always consider it checking up. Last night, yeah, but that’s because for the past week or so, we’ve had a lot of heated moments and discussions, and when I spoke to him at 4, he sounded rather upset—and I think it was just because he was preoccupied with work. And so I didn’t really understand that, and so I started …. I guess I freaked myself out a little. I got a little paranoid.
DR. SELMAN: Paranoid about what?
HILLY: That …. I don’t know. That he was upset about something—
GEORGE: When I’m at work, I don’t have the same voice I would have at home, which is usually silly and childlike.
HILLY: I’ve never considered myself that much of a checker-upper. I mean, if you’re out, I’ll call maybe and leave a message. But if you tell me and say you’re out with your friends, I don’t usually call and check up on you. But usually, if I get a response, I figure that it’s …. I don’t stalk you or anything.
GEORGE: No. No. No. No.
DR. SELMAN: Well, if in fact it’s true that Hilly checks up on you, do you have any idea why that might be?
GEORGE: Oh, because I think that she …. It depends. Most of the time it’s great. We need to talk and e-mail, but sometimes—one out of 30 times—I feel like she’s invested too much of her emotions into me.
HILLY: Actually, that hasn’t happened in a long time. For a while, I would show up to work in the morning, and I’d have an e-mail waiting for me from George that he’d written at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, while I was sleeping. And it would be this long almost-dissertation, about how he just needed to take time for himself and how “I’m really sorry, Hilly, but I really need to concentrate on work now, and I can’t call or talk to you or e-mail you … blah, blah, blah.” But I haven’t received one of those for a long time.
GEORGE: Right, it hasn’t happened. I know that we’re talking about journalism here. It’s not like I’m Flaubert—he used to have to deal with this kind of thing with a girlfriend. I realize I’m just writing articles. But I’m kind of a workhorse, and I need to get obsessed with the story for it to work.
DR. SELMAN: So are you going to get her a ring or not?
GEORGE: I need to be reprogrammed.
DR. SELMAN: So the answer is no.
GEORGE: I can’t even imagine. I mean—can we go back to the anti-depressants or something?
DR. SELMAN: This is like a hummana-hummana-hummana moment.
GEORGE: Come on, one step at a time.
DR. SELMAN: O.K., let me ask you something. At the end of the last session I said, “Can you bring your lab work in?” Did you?
GEORGE: I called, but the doctor wasn’t in the office today.
DR. SELMAN: But they could have faxed it over? Right, the secretary wasn’t there? You had two weeks.
GEORGE: Still debating it. It’s been a couple years. Do I need a new blood test?
DR. SELMAN: I don’t think you’re ready for that kind of thing, or ready for anything.
GEORGE: I’m planning on getting on Effexor, but I was reading about this book about Lincoln, about how his depression fueled his greatness.
DR. SELMAN: Well, maybe that’s fueling your greatness.
HILLY: If he goes on anti-depressants, is it going to stop it?
DR. SELMAN: It could be that if George takes anti-depressants, and George becomes a more pleasant guy, maybe you won’t like him so much.
HILLY: I think instead of an anti-depressant, you need an ankle bracelet or a drill sergeant.
DR. SELMAN: But then you’re his jailer.
HILLY: Not me!
DR. SELMAN: Let me ask you something. This is our seventh session. In all this time, have there been any changes that have occurred?
HILLY: Yes. I think we’ve been communicating a lot better with each other. And I think the fact that we can even remotely discuss the idea … or the concept of … that I’m able to sit and tell him that I want a ring—that’s pretty big.
DR. SELMAN: I can see that. I can see where your communication has opened up. Other than that, have there been any other significant changes?
GEORGE: Hilly took me out to dinner, at Isabella’s. That was a big deal.
DR. SELMAN: Maybe she knew she wasn’t getting to go to Isabella’s when it came to you paying.
HILLY: I don’t know … changes.
DR. SELMAN: I think we’re in the middle of a process, in that there probably are some things that need to occur. And we’re not there yet.
GEORGE: Can I ask you something? Why shouldn’t I feel guilty and ashamed talking about all these little petty things in my life when I should be feeling so fortunate—and you know, the hurricane victims ….
DR. SELMAN: Well, we’re not talking about the hurricane victims. We’re talking about you.
GEORGE: Well, people in Third World countries don’t have the luxury of doing this.
DR. SELMAN: As a matter of fact, that’s not entirely true. Argentina happens to be a country where there’s more therapy going on than anywhere else.
GEORGE: So this is good because it can help change your life, make you a better person, and you can do more good.
DR. SELMAN: George, that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about your relationship; we’re not talking about good in the world or any of these other things. You’ve got to stay focused here. Let’s not take our eye off the ball.
GEORGE: I haven’t exercised in about 10 days. Smoked a pack of cigarettes last night.
DR. SELMAN: So you want me to get you exercising and off cigarettes?
GEORGE: No, but what about cigarettes? Wellbutrin’s good for that, right? What about Effexor?
DR. SELMAN: How about getting rid of your ashtrays.
GEORGE: I always enjoy this—I never thought I would. For years I never wanted to go to therapy, and it’s really quite nice.
DR. SELMAN: George, if maintenance of the status quo is your goal—which was your stated goal—then you’re achieving it.
GEORGE: Right. Do you think people get attached to their depression?
GEORGE [to HILLY]: What about living in the Ozarks?
GEORGE: I know you said geographic cures don’t work, but New York’s tough, right?
HILLY: Yeah, New York’s tough.
DR. SELMAN: Yes, New York’s too tough, George.
GEORGE: Can’t it exacerbate all these things?
DR. SELMAN: It’s all New York’s fault.
HILLY: No, it’s true, though. Sometimes when I’m in a little bit of a bad mood and I get on the subway and some great big fat stinky hairy man bumps up against me, it just makes me angrier. And you can’t avoid that kind of stuff here.
DR. SELMAN: Take a taxi.
GEORGE: I can’t believe how much they cost now. They didn’t just go up, the fares are double now.
HILLY: What should we think about for next time?
DR. SELMAN: O.K., are you really going to do it? I want you both to go Barnes & Noble, in the self-help section, and I want you to look up a book on co-dependency. There’s one I recall, Codependent No More.
[to be continued]
Are Scientologists Making You Nervous?
The Knicks have gotten off to a rotten start, the weather has gone wild, and the survival of the human race is suddenly contingent on the coughing and sneezing of chickens. Yes, there’s a lot to stress a guy out these days.
But luckily, there is also Aaron John, a blond 18-year-old with a matte-black machine that he and his fellow Scientologists swear accurately measures—and eliminates!—stress. At rush hour on a recent Friday night, Mr. John sat in the Times Square subway station, the city’s center for shot nerves, reading the stress levels of passers-by who agreed to undergo a “Free Stress Test.”
“They’re all stressed,” said Mr. John, staring out at the crush of commuters racing to and from the shuttle train, their shoulders sagging with a week’s worth of anxiety. “The bankers are really stressed,” he specified.
New York is “one of the most stressed-out places,” according to Mr. John, whose group has been conducting “emotional tone” tests here for about a year. But no place on earth competes with … Buffalo. “They have a lot of psychiatric facilities there. Their lives are more ruined,” explained Mr. John.
Mr. John is a chipper fellow with earnest blue eyes; he was wearing a canary yellow fleece pullover bearing the logo “Scientology Volunteer.” He was staffing one of two desks buried under scores of L. Ron Hubbard Dianetics paperbacks and a couple of the stress-test machines—officially known as the Hubbard Mark Super VII Quantum Electropsychometer.
“When the meter goes to the right, it means stress,” said Mr. John as he tested New Yorkers hungry for a little confirmation—even from the people who brought you Battlefield Earth and the couch-leaping lunacy of Tom Cruise—that they were indeed stressed out.
So in front of a tiled wall, wedged between a Rasta man singing “No Woman No Cry” and an M.T.A. man screaming about changes to uptown service, a reporter who was facing the looming Mayoral election, a recent breakup, three different and substantial Verizon bills for one single, largely unused phone, and a message from a video store about a long-overdue DVD (see recent breakup), decided that it was time to stop and take the stress test.
“Hi, there,” said Mr. John. He handed the reporter two aluminous canisters, each connected to red wires. The setup looked similar to a child’s cups-and-string telephone. Mr. John said to hold the tubes naturally: “Don’t squeeze them,” he cautioned. The red wires were connected to the Hubbard Mark Super VII Quantum Electropsychometer—which meant that the reporter was connected to the Hubbard Mark Super VII Quantum Electropsychometer. And that really stressed the reporter out.
“It reads thought,” said Mr. John, answering a suspicious glance down at the machine. “More specifically, it reads negative thought. It can’t read positive thought. It’s made to read negative thought. And then it gets rid of it.”
Fair enough, but the words “rise and fall” above the numbers on the meter?
“Doesn’t have anything to do with the stress. It has to do with your spiritual meter, for spiritual counseling inside the church.”
And those awfully cold aluminum cylinders?
“I don’t know what they are made of,” said Mr. John. “Some sort of metal, I guess. So let’s get started. Let’s try and figure out what’s stressing you out. So, what’s stressing you out?”
Mr. John misinterpreted the awkward silence as personal reflection. He pointed to the meter, which was shaking wildly past level four.
“You’re off the charts!” he said in a loud, excited voice. “Who were you thinking about?”
When told that it was the question itself that made the reporter nervous, Mr. John expressed some confusion and started whispering some common possibilities to help the reporter identify the true source of his stress.
“Your mother? Your girlfriend? Your boss? Is there a friend who stresses you out? Sometimes even your friends can stress you out. Is there something ruining your life? I mean really destroying it? You’re off the charts! Have you ever heard of Dianetics?”
The books were available for a “donation” of $8, and Mr. John and his colleagues carry white envelopes bursting with singles in their back pockets. That makes the whole “free” part of the pitch somewhat dubious; indeed, the cops have been known to show up and roust the Scientologists for selling their wares inside the subway.
Mr. John didn’t want to hear about that, and the mention of it seemed to cause him some stress.
“Dude, I got to get back to work,” he said.
The only person who seemed stress-free (if not smoke-free) was Stix, the 26-year-old Rasta who was playing Bob Marley songs.
“The people are stressed, the stress-test people are stressed, the whole subway system is stressed, man,” he said. Was he stressed? “Not really. I got my music.”