When I was 16 years old, not long after my brother left for college, my mother took me to see a psychologist who specialized in kids and teens.
Presumably, this is something every parent of a teenager considers at least occasionally. And I had given my parents some good reasons.
First, I had quit all of my extra-curricular activities. Once a three-season high school athlete, I suddenly showed little interest in sports. Plus, the guys in my band (including my brother) had all graduated, leaving me with a drum kit in the corner of a suddenly empty basement where I spent my suddenly empty afternoons. Then the girl I was dating—on whom I had one of those deep, disillusioned, 16-year-old crushes—dumped me. Turned out she wanted to be with a guy who was, in fairness, both a better drummer and less disillusioned.
I don’t know for sure, but it’s also possible that one or both of my parents (likely Mom) was sneaking into my room to read the stories and poems and song lyrics I was writing, many of which had become … well, disillusioned. In any event, an appointment was made for me to talk to Dr. Matt Dorfman (not his real name, but a fitting fictionalization).
“It’s not that I think anything is wrong with you,” my mother insisted on the way to the appointment. “It’s just that I think you might benefit from, you know, talking to someone.”
“Uh-huh,” I replied.
Truth be told, Mom seemed more anxious about the whole thing than I was. I had told her from the start that I didn’t think I needed to talk to anyone, but I hadn’t really resisted the idea.
For some time, I had felt like I was slightly off—like my path through the world twisted differently from the paths of other people—and I think I was more curious about whether the good doctor would confirm this feeling than fearful that he might. I was only 16. I didn’t yet realize that every intelligent non-narcissist sometimes feels a little twisted by life.
When we arrived, Mom stayed in the waiting room while Dr. Dorfman escorted me to a large office with sand-colored walls. The office included a small desk, a Cargo-style sofa, and a large green beanbag chair. He closed the door behind us and invited me to “take a seat anywhere.”
I wondered if this was some sort of initial test. What would choosing beanbag over sofa suggest? And what if I sat on the floor—or, rebelliously, behind the desk?
I pondered these questions while I walked to the Cargo sofa and sat. (I tend to think more radically than I act.)
Dr. Dorfman surprised me by kicking off his loafers and settling into the big green beanbag chair.
“I love this thing,” he said, as he sank into its embrace.
He was a portly man with a thick black mustache and pork-chop sideburns, which had probably been fashionable during his college days, circa 1974. As he started to speak, I noticed a faint smell of pipe tobacco, which began to mix disconcertingly with the vague-but-growing sock odor.
“To start with,” he said, “let me tell you a little bit about myself. My name is Matt Dorfman, I have a PhD in Psychology from the University of Iowa, and I specialize in counseling young people—much like yourself. On the personal side, I’m 36 years old, married to an amazing woman, and proud papa to a four-year-old daughter and another baby, due any day now.”
“Congratulations,” I said. My manners at 16 weren’t great, but I knew enough to congratulate a guy for getting his wife pregnant.
“Thanks,” he replied. “But we aren’t here to talk about me, are we? Tell me about yourself, Steven. What brings you here today?”
“Honestly?” I said. “I think my mom might be afraid that I’m going to kill myself.”
I said it in my best half-sarcastic tone—the one my 16-year-old self used to ridicule ideas—but Dr. Dorfman didn’t take it lightly.
“And why do you think that is?” he asked.
I explained as best I could, walking him through the reasons laid out above. He asked mostly open-ended questions, probed gently at the edges of my answers, and kept me talking for half an hour. Eventually, he wound his way back to the big question.
“So,” he said, “given all of that, do you think your mom really needs to be worried about you?”
I thought about the question for a moment. “Last year,” I said, “three different kids in my school committed suicide.”
Dr. Dorfman nodded. “I heard about that,” he said.
“And three summers ago, my swim coach killed himself, too,” I said.
Dr. Dorfman just kept on nodding, allowing a somber silence to envelop the beanbag and the sofa and the smell of pipes and socks.
“But I don’t think any of those people got what they really wanted,” I continued. “I think they really wanted things to be better. Not just … over.”
Dr. Dorfman stayed on track. “I think you’re right about that,” he said. “But it’s not really an answer to the question I asked you.”
“To me it is,” I said.
“Because whatever else is going on with me,” I said, “I know I’m not looking to end something. I’m looking to find something. I want to make things better, not … over.”
Dr. Dorfman nodded again. “You said, ‘Whatever else is going on with me’,” he noted. “What do you mean by that?”
“Well, I’m sitting here talking to you, aren’t I?” I said. “So I must be at least a little messed up. At any rate, my mother seems to think so.”
A half-smile slipped passed Dr. Dorfman’s professional persona. “I don’t think anyone thinks you’re ‘messed up’, Steven,” he said. “And it’s at least possible that your mother worries too much.”
“I tell her that all the time!” I said. “Maybe you should tell her.”
He shook his head. “Not my job to tell her that,” he said. “But I’ll tell you something else. There are lots of worse things than having a mother who worries too much about you.”
Now it was my turn to nod.
We talked for the rest of the hour, but I couldn’t tell you what we said after that. The only other thing I remember is that, just before I left, I straight up asked Dr. Dorfman if he thought I needed more help.
He shrugged. “I think you have some issues we could work on if you want to,” he said. “But, honestly, I think that about everyone.”
“Okay,” I said.
I’m not sure if I looked relieved or what, but he put his hand on my shoulder and looked me squarely in the eyes. “We’re all looking to find something, Steven,” he said. “We all want to make things better.”
I nodded. “It’s just ‘Steve,’” I️ said.
He gave me a questioning look.
“Only my mom calls me ‘Steven,’” I explained. “My friends just call me ‘Steve.’”
“Steve,” he repeated.
That was the only time I ever spoke with Dr. Dorfman, but that was okay. In just one hour with him, I made my way toward three important insights:
- In this world, it’s normal to feel a little twisted sometimes.
- Sometimes we all need to talk to someone—and sometimes he’s a pork-chop wearing, pipe-smoking, shoeless psychologist.
- Even a respected professional could see that my mom should chill out.
I arrived at the third insight first, of course: I believe I shared it with her on our way home. The others took a little longer to fully form. But they’re likely the truer for that.