I am happy to report, as has Glen Gabbard in Slate, that In Treatment does a good job of portraying psychotherapy reasonably accurately. The session, condensed as it is into 30 minutes, manages convey something close to what actual therapy is like, as close, probably, as television can come without turning to a reality show format, and that would be dreadful.
Our Monday night patient is Laura. Last night and on succeeding Mondays we will see her at her sessions. From the HBO website, we learn that Laura is an anesthesiologist and we learn in the session that she has been seeing Paul Weston, the therapist for about a year. Laura comes to this session in a bit of a crisis and reveals she has been outside waiting for her appointment time(9 am) for several hours. The crisis stems, she tells Paul, from an ultimatum her boyfriend, Andrew, issued that they should get married or break up, an ultimatum that caused a fight and her flight from their apartment to a friend, then a club and sexual acting out with a stranger. A stranger she also characterizes as giving her an ultimatum. In the telling of the events, she reveals that at the crucial moment with the stranger, she thought of Paul, the therapist, and attempted to extricate herself from the situation. After the revelation of what happened, she runs to the bathroom and we hear her apparently throwing up and then we see her looking at the items on the shelf over the sink. When she picks up what seems to be Paul’s hairbrush and brushes her hair with it, I got a pretty good idea that we would be hearing about an erotic transference. Laura reveals to Paul that she has loved him from their first meeting and that she has felt she has in fact been unfaithful to Andrew all along because Paul is the center of her life. Paul is clearly a bit uncomfortable with Laura’s declaration of love and moves quickly to enforce the boundaries.
Paul does a good job of opening up what had actually happened between Laura and Andrew, that the ultimatum actually came from her. He is quite believable in the process. Of course he does not know, as we, the audience do, about the hairbrush, which might have been a tipoff for him about her feelings. In a purely clinical sense, I wish he had responded to her declaration of love and desire less defensively, for his need to assert the boundaries at that moment does seem defensive, arising as it likely does from his countertransference. ** Optimally he would have allowed her feelings without reacting in that way and waited to assert the boundaries, because his reaction could lead her to simply refuse to talk about it further and her feelings to fall back into the secrecy in which she had held them for the year she has been seeing him. Confessing to these feelings is already difficult. Her response to his boundary statement, that she will not boil his kid’s rabbit (referring to Fatal Attraction) hints at the complexity of her feelings and a possible anger at his firm, even if appropriate, rejection.
On the other hand, the portrayal of his discomfort lets us see that therapists are most assuredly human, struggle with feelings and thoughts of their own and sometimes hit the mark while at others missing it, even if only slightly.
The folks who endorse a really tight therapeutic frame would have a field day here. There is plenty to think about for those of us who practice at home and whose offices do not have a separate dedicated bathroom. A home office always means that aspects of the therapist’s private life are visible, though rarely so readily available as that hairbrush. Like Gabbard, I have seldom had patients use the bathroom during a session, but I will be more attentive to what is and isn’t openly viewable just in case.
Tonight we meet Alex.
**For the non-therapists reading, I mean here that her declaration arouses feelings in him, making him uncomfortable, which he acts out by asserting control via stating the boundaries of a therapeutic relationship.