Going to Wonderland

I just didn’t want to be angry anymore.

Anger – true burning anger, not just momentary frustration at some thing or another – is not something I feel very often. I’m normally quite good at channelling the feelings that lead to anger into something else. Something positive, usually, like a project or some exercise or at least some constructive approach to the object of my anger as opposed to letting it consume me. As a result I’ve gone years at a time without feeling this emotion which never did me any good and with which I have never been comfortable. Yet here I was, two or three times a week feeling angry. It was in the first couple of months after my separation and then divorce, every time my ex-wife would come to pick up the kids for their nights at her apartment.

Anxiety would start to build a half hour before she’d arrive. When I saw her car making its way around the block the anxiety would change to dread. When she walked in the front door it was something akin to disgust. By the time she left with the kids I could hardly catch my breath I was so consumed with rage.

Nothing she did in those moments set me off. We never argued. We never even talked during the pickups unless it had something to do with parenting logistics. Indeed, from the day she moved out on to this very day, I’ve not exchanged a word with her about anything that hasn’t been about the kids. But her mere presence was enough to derail me. I’d become exhausted from suppressing my anger and forcing something close to cordiality. Or, more often, silence, even if it was for just the few short moments she was there.

In the first few months after we split up it wasn’t uncommon for me to have to sit in a chair, sip a strong drink and stare into nothingness for close to an hour before I calmed down and could continue with my evening. I’d never lost control of my emotions like this before but here I was losing it two or three times a week. I couldn’t carry on that way any longer so I decided to see a therapist about it.

This was no easy decision. I’ve always been skeptical of psychologists. My mother worked for a couple of them when I was a teenager and, while I liked them well enough, I always felt like they were selling snake oil.  I felt in control of my emotions so I assumed everyone else did too. I had decided that these psychologists found otherwise well-adjusted people in weak moments, spent time sowing doubts in their minds and then slowly built their confidence back up for a hundred bucks an hour. A good racket, I thought. No real metrics measured their success. Their failure could be attributed to the patients if things went poorly. It was all so touchy-feeley. There was no there there.

The only psychologist I’d ever been to myself was a family therapist my parents dragged me to when my brother was having trouble during his teenage years. He did nothing to change my opinion on the matter. My brother was just being a fuckup like a lot of teenagers are, my folks didn’t quite know how to deal with it and this guy was there to make them fear the worst and think that they were somehow being bad parents. With my life in peril too, they assumed, I needed to go with them. I sat there with my family for one session, saying nothing but glaring and sending telepathic communications to this weird, bearded man.

“Those three people on the couch next to me may be totally fucked up, but I’m just fine, thanks. I got your number pal. Back off or I’ll hip them to your game.”

After the session my parents spoke with him privately. I assume my message was heard loud and clear because I never had to go back.

Between then and now I’d had friends go to therapy. I read Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. I’d seen at least a dozen Woody Allen movies. But I had never once considered seeing a therapist and had absolutely no idea how to find a therapist of my own, so I decided to call my insurance company and see if they had any ideas.

They asked me if it was an emergency. “Well, no” I said, “I’m just feeling a bit off.”  They told me that that was unfortunate because if it was an emergency or at the very least something acute that they could transfer me to their mental health hotline which would hook me up with someone who will see me five times free of charge. I amended my answer to “well, now that you mention it, I do feel like I’m at a bit of a loss …” I had no idea what that meant but they transferred me to the hotline. Once the lady I spoke with determined that I was not suicidal, homicidal or delusional, she gave me a referral to a nearby therapist. I made an appointment.

Dr. Larson’s office was in a rather unfashionable looking office park in that phantom-zone part of town into which every business that could not be within a certain number of yards from a school, church, day care center, retirement home or polling place was exiled. You passed two strip clubs, three check cashing businesses and the last laundromat left outside of the actual ghetto and there you were. The setting aside, his office was nice enough. A lot of ferns. An iPod on a dock pumping in the sounds of the rain forest. A sign which read “the Hokey Pokey Clinic: a place to turn yourself around!” The most offensive thing about it all was that exclamation point.

Larson – I soon learned he wasn’t a doctor, as most therapists I’ve known aren’t and which, given my disdain for people who get hung up on credentials shouldn’t bother me but often does when it comes to therapists – sensed my unease with psychologists immediately. He let me vent about my discomfort with all of this for a while, sat back and said “but you’re still here.” He had a point, so I gave him my life story and then told him that I really needed to find a way to not be angry every time I was in my ex-wife’s presence.

“What’s so bad about being angry?” he asked.

“Anger is counterproductive,” I said.  “Anger can lead to hostility. When I see my ex our children are there and they really can’t see hostility between their parents. I hate how I feel when I’m angry. I worry that my anger is just masking other kinds of pain and that if I somehow let go of the anger haphazardly my ex may see what kind of pain I’m in and I don’t want to give her the satisfaction.”
I went on like that with him just nodding every time I added something else. Eventually I realized he wasn’t going to stop me so I just stopped myself.

“So what?” he said.

“So … a lot. I place a lot of value on being in control of myself. I’m looking for ways to regain control.” I told him.

He just looked at me. Then he said “you’re just in Wonderland for a while. Eventually you’ll get out of Wonderland. It’s OK to be in Wonderland as long as you eventually get out of it. Just go with it, right?” This guy was not doing much to improve my opinion of therapists. 

Eventually he got past Wonderland and we actually talked sensibly about what I was feeling. He had a few constructive things to say. He gave me some anger management techniques that sounded an awful lot like martial arts mixed with Jedi training but which, to no small extent, helped me cut that hour or so of calm-down time I needed after my ex left down to about ten minutes. It didn’t feel like I was actually dealing with the central problem, but it was not nothing so I went back to him four more times to see how it’d play out.

There were diminishing returns.

In the second session he explained his grand concept of “Wonderland,” and it didn’t exactly help matters. Wonderland, he said, was a place where people go when they are not themselves. When I was angry I was in Wonderland. When my ex-wife went crazy and decided to drive our marriage into the ditch she was in Wonderland. When people took Kalashnikov rifles into shopping malls they were in Wonderland. I asked him if he didn’t maybe see some differences between all of those behaviors. He waved his hand and said “it’s all a matter of degree.”

In the third session he went into a biblical allegory which was leading up to something about how to best fix my soul. I stopped him and told him I didn’t believe in God and didn’t believe that people had souls so his allegory wasn’t helpful. He apologized and went in another direction.

In the fourth session he really tried to dig down into my childhood and family life, seemingly convinced that there was some great pain I was repressing. I told him, nope, not a thing. Totally well-adjusted childhood. Never any problems. Get along great with my parents to this day. This bothered him quite a bit. Then he gave me a list of self-help books I should read. I told him that I wasn’t going to be doing that. He apologized and went back to his grand theory of Wonderland.

In the fifth session he was back on God and souls. This time I just let him go on, nodded and waited for my hour to be up.

Funny thing was, over the course of the month and change I saw Larson, I was becoming less angry whenever my ex showed up to get the kids. Maybe because I was more confused now thanks to him. Maybe because Larson’s real game was to create a diversion. Indeed, the larger problem in my life was starting to be the frustration I felt after leaving therapy. That wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was better than anger, so who was I to complain?

But I did know one thing: less anger or not, I couldn’t see this kook anymore.

I had set up a sixth session – this one was going to come out of my own pocket – but the evening before I went I fell off my bike while on a ride and hurt my ankle. I was fine. It hurt pretty badly when I walked but I knew from experience that nothing was really injured and I’d feel OK in a day or too. As I limped into the house I got an impulse to call Larson and tell him I wouldn’t be able to make it to my appointment because I had been in an accident and was confined to my couch. I hate lying more than I hate being angry but I felt like I had to do that for some reason.

Larson left me a message the next day telling me he understood and that I should call to reschedule some time. I never did. He probably assumed I was just content to stay in Wonderland.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.