Notes From an Unlicensed Therapist
It’s no accident that I’m writing to you poolside from a rehab on the west coast of Phuket rather than from the library at Sing Sing. People can say what they want about me, and they have. They can write about what harm I’ve supposedly exacted on the vulnerable, the sick, the suffering. I believe in Karma though. This beautiful place where I am now, it’s nothing if not proof I’ve touched people. I’ve helped them in this lifetime, in a way no one else was able to.
The Indian Ocean is just steps away from my front door. These days, I wake up to the morning song of the Siamese firebacks who flock outside my window. I’ll ride my motorbike through town and listen to the chattering hum of Thai as people begin their days. It’s as if my Higher Power has lifted the burden of comprehension from my shoulders. Finally, I can think. It’s the gift of hearing without understanding. No longer do I get caught on any one sentence, any one word, as I speed down crowded streets. One person might be bearing their soul to another, and for all I know, they’re haggling over fish prices. Here, I hear everything and recognize nothing. Strangers’ words are simply music. Lyrics I couldn’t even begin to discern.
My practice is still in English, of course. It’s no longer the confessionals of New Yorkers though, wound so tight they might snap, that fill my days. Now it’s Aussies and Kiwis, mainly, who wash up on my office couch, straight off the plane from Sydney or Auckland. Many of them are still drunk or high by the time they see me, having taken their last dose in line for security before boarding their flight. Otherwise, I tend to see them in the early stages of withdrawal. Their hands shake as they fill out their intake papers, if they can even get so far.
It’s not so different from my practice in New York though, really. In fact, it’s hardly different at all. Americans, Australians, it doesn’t matter much. People, I’ve learned, are essentially all the same. Same fears, same egos, same perversions, fantasies, and traumas. If you’d heard as many as I have, you’d agree with me – no story is singular. You might think I’d seen the worst of it in New York, but you’d be wrong. Those Kiwis have a death drive, believe me. Dark forces are at work in that other land down under.
They could look me up easily, if they wanted to, these new patients of mine. I’ve changed the name I practice under, of course. I’ve changed the name I do everything under, for that matter. Beyond that though, I’ve done very little to cover my tracks. My patients here in Phuket could spend ten minutes on Google and figure out all of it. The arrest record, those splashy clickbait articles they ran for weeks afterward. It’s quite amazing, how many separate headlines a story like mine will generate, so long as they can run a picture of my face alongside it on the homepage. Pretty sure I was a New York Post cover story for all of September. As each new detail emerged and each former patient of mine came forward, they ran another article on me. Another old picture dragged out from the archives. Me in Carolina Herrera at Save the Children, in Tory Burch at the US Open, at Fashion Week in Tom Ford. Any press is good press, as they say.
Even with my little DIY witness protection program – my name and location change – it certainly wouldn’t be difficult to figure out that it was me. I was the psycho therapist, as the press so generously dubbed me. A quack, a scammer, a narcissist, a sexy con artist shrink. If it were me – if I were my patient – I would’ve looked me up. It would’ve been the first thing I did, as soon as the cab dropped my bags at the office. So far as I can tell though, nobody here has ever bothered. Nobody here seems to care. My patients in Thailand are busy clawing their way out from the grips of their own personal hells – existential depression, anxiety, addiction, mania. They are quite literally at death’s door. No one cares about my higher degree. No one cares what I’m running from, eight thousand miles from home. They care that I’m here and that I’m going to help them. Coax them out of the depths and into the light.
Not even the people running this place seem to care, for that matter. It’s an older couple. Ex-pats from Vancouver who’d gotten sober here back in the seventies. Maybe it was my face again, that saved me from scrutiny. Oh sure, forget my gifts of intuition. Of healing. The way I can make people feel. The way I understand my patients so profoundly, in ways no one ever had before. It was my face that got me where I was, they said. It was more than that, I knew. But perhaps it did help me in Thailand, to land this new gig out here, without so much as a second glance at my resume or criminal record. In the articles, the think pieces, the new miniseries that’s coming out next fall, they all claim that it was my looks that let me practice unlicensed for so long. My physical charms alone that made me successful, made my extensive roster of clientele look the other way when it came to who I really was and who I claimed to be. Whatever higher degree I did or didn’t earn to get there. Deep, studied attention from a beautiful woman, the press theorized, felt too good to be true. Why question it, if the therapy was working. To speak and have someone truly listen was therapy enough.
I have plenty of regrets in life, but my practice in New York isn’t one of them. Not even the bits where I skimped on truth, because the only truths I obscured were superficial. Flimsy pieces of paper framed on office walls, a string of letters behind my name. I can’t look back at that with remorse because I know, and always knew, I was sacrificing small principles in pursuit of the big ones. Human connection. Deep listening. Sacred, eternal, chasmic listening. HBO and Netflix can do what they want with my story. They can have it. The lives I touched, the spirits I healed – that’s between me and my Higher Power.
It all started because it couldn’t not start. Even when I was a little girl, it bothered me that there were billions of distinct consciousnesses in the world, and I could only ever access one of them, truly. Eternal gratitude to the poets and singers and writers who let me glimpse theirs briefly on paper and in song – small offerings of ego that I had to assume were honest, although I knew they were ironed out and polished, even if unconsciously, in the name of vanity and art. Beyond those narrow views into another’s psyche though, it frustrated me to no end to think I would only ever really experience my own mind.
At least I believed in multiple lives. One day, when I’ve left this mortal coil and discarded this particular corporeal form, then I’d be able to experience another consciousness. Speaking probabilistically though, it wasn’t likely I’d come back as a person, or even a sentient being for that matter. In all likelihood, it would be centuries before I’d ever access another human consciousness, if ever at all. Still, I took some comfort in knowing it was a possibility, however remote. Most people I encountered didn’t even believe they’d had past lives and would go on to have future ones. And yet, they seemed resigned to that tragic fate. Never truly knowing what the world might be like behind another person’s eyes. They seemed satisfied, even, with the conclusion that what they experienced every day of their lives was some version of objective reality. That the masses of people milling around them in anonymity must experience the same material conditions they do. That they must be governed by the same set of foundational universal laws. That there was one true version of reality. That, excuse the cliche, the red that they see is the same red I do.
My practice was born organically out of my lifelong frustration that the innermost thoughts, the deepest secrets and desires, of all these people around me couldn’t ever be known. That dissatisfaction only grew to a fever pitch once I moved to New York City. Surrounded, for the first time in my life, by millions of unfamiliar faces, each corresponding to an unknowable soul. It was overwhelming. The city streets buzzed with an unmediated, frenzied energy. In that first week in New York, I must’ve seen more unique faces than I’d seen in my entire lifetime up to that point. It felt like a deluge of information, an unyielding level of stimulation. People whose inner lives I would never know. The place was a psychoanalytic goldmine.
Maybe those journos were right, now that I really think about it. Maybe it was my face that opened the door. Or maybe it was the way I saw people. People who so desperately wanted to be seen. Who’d moved thousands of miles to be there, in that city, for the sole purpose of being witnessed. The success they claimed to want so bad was less about money and more about having a platform from which to be perceived. For the world to look on at this person and note their existence, to prove they’d walked this earthly plane. To love them, even, if that wasn’t asking too much. Everybody, it seemed, wanted that same thing. And yet, who was there to bear witness? They clamored over each other, claws bared, forever climbing onto the stage. Once there though, they looked out at an empty theater. Out of my own insatiable curiosity, I took my seat and watched.
People began to open up to me, in ways both small and profound. In coffee shops and bars, subway cars and city parks. Maybe it was because I moved slow and studied people, inviting them in with a compassionate glance. There was something about the way I carried myself through those crowded streets that must’ve signaled my availability. It was amazing what strangers would reveal under the unspoken assumption of confidentiality. They told me their miscarriage and abortion stories. Their first loves, their unrequited loves. Their divorces and obsessions and overdoses and suicide attempts. It was amazing. Either everyone walked around that city a raw nerve, totally exposed to everyone, all the time, or I had a gift. They could sniff it out in a crowded room, those sick and suffering the most. They sensed it. That I might alleviate their earthly burden, if just for a moment.
The first person I invited in was a woman, Jacqueline, who brought her three-month-old boy with her. She hadn’t left his side since he was born. I met Jacqueline in the diaper section at Key Food. She was crying. It was the first time she’d left her house in over a month, she’d confessed. I was the first person she’d spoken to in that same time. I touched her shoulder and she pulled me in closer so I felt her gravity. “I live right upstairs,” I offered. “Do you want to come up for a minute?” She surprised me and herself, and nodded. “Please.”
Upstairs, I offered her milky chai tea and some mint Milano cookies. We sat on pillows on my living room floor, her baby on his belly on my shag carpet. I offered her a blanket and she nursed him. She told me she couldn’t stop thinking of all the ways she might kill him, this precious child, born just weeks earlier. She didn’t want to hurt him. In fact, there was no one on the face of this earth she wanted to hurt less, she said. And yet, it was all she’d thought about since she first brought him home from the hospital. She’d gotten rid of all her knives. She’d kicked her husband out and changed the locks. She’d drawn the blinds and stopped seeing anyone at all.
I never asked why she’d trusted me enough that first time I met her to come up to my apartment. It only made sense in the context of my gift. She needed me. She sensed it. It was a sign. A mother always knows. Whatever it was I was offering, it seemed to work. She came back, and told me more. She’d emerge each week from her paranoid hovel to come see me. Over the years, I lost track of Jacqueline. She was done needing me and I never heard from her again. That baby who used to play on the floor of my first New York apartment must be in college now. I wonder whether our paths have ever crossed – mine and that baby boy’s. I wouldn’t recognize him if they had.
If I’d never met Jacqueline, none of this would’ve ever happened. My life would be on a different course entirely. She showed me who to look for, out in the world. Who might need my light the most. How to invite them in so they’d say yes. So they’d sit on the floor and open the floodgates to their soul, sharing things with me they’d never shared with anyone before. I did this with some success several more times with several more women in my neighborhood. They’d never felt so heard, so known, so held, they told me. We’d continue our work together, week after week, from the carpet in my living room. It was unintentional at first, but it felt good to sit on the floor. As if by staying closer to the earth we could summon the divine feminine wisdom of the ages together. That became my method.
Slowly, my practice started to grow through word of mouth. I started charging for my sessions. Real money. The funny thing was, the more I charged, the better my therapy seemed to work. People wanted to pay me. My patients wanted to make sense of it – this implacable way I was helping them. We were in communion, me and them and the universe. It was perplexing for their old psychic wounds, to which they’d clung so tight their entire lives, to heal. They felt they owed me something material. A debt for spiritual services rendered. The profound nature of our relationship scared them, and so it was imperative to transactionalize it. I started making real money. I rented an office space. I bought chairs. I photoshopped a diploma to hang behind my desk. Hung a nameplate outside my door with letters after my name: PhD. Could someone have discerned the fake, had they cared to look? Sure. But why question what had worked so well for them, when nothing else had.
People complained when this all came out that I didn’t show sufficient remorse. They didn’t want me to change my name and run off to Thailand. They wanted me to grovel and beg for their forgiveness. But why should I? I was sorry enough, for the superficial lies I’d told in service of my project. I was willing to pay penance insofar as photoshop was involved. But I wasn’t sorry for my patients. I’d done right by them. I’d helped shoulder their pain, and alleviated it entirely in some rare cases. I’d done for them what no one else could. And believe me, not one patient gave a shit where I’d gone or not gone to school. In the end, what had happened was between me and my patients and my Higher Power. Only God can judge me.
Emma Burger is a writer and healthcare professional working in oncology research. She splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. Her debut novel, Spaghetti for Starving Girls, was released in September 2021. You can find her work in Schuylkill Valley Journal, Across the Margin, Idle Ink, Memoirist, The Whisky Blot, Potato Soup Journal, Bewildering Stories, The Chamber Magazine, or on her website, emmaburgerwrites.com.