When the Therapist Lost Her Mind

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10/03/2012

Neighborhood: Featured, Gramercy Park, Stuyvesant Town

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My wife Sarah and I had been seeing our therapist, Brenda, for years - both separately and as a couple. When I met Sarah, she was already seeing Brenda, who was then in training to be a psychiatric social worker after a long career as a high school social worker and Spanish teacher.

After we started having some problems, my wife insisted that we go to see her for couples counseling. Brenda had never been trained in couples counseling, and what she did couldn’t be called by that term– for example, she didn’t give us assignments. But we both found the sessions helpful. Later, I began seeing her on my own, as well.

Brenda was in her sixties, tall and slightly overweight. Her office, part of a suite that she shared with several other health-related professionals, was full of reproductions of paintings on the wall, psychology books, photos from her many travels to Europe, and copies of magazines like the New Yorker and the Atlantic. It was obvious that she was a “high culture” fanatic.

Sarah loved talking to Brenda after and before sessions, but there was one sticking point – Sarah had a strong orientation toward spirituality and religion, and when Sarah brought up her belief in God during therapy sessions, Brenda tried to dismiss it as being immature. It just wasn’t part of her world – she couldn’t understand it.

Sarah aside, Brenda helped me quite a bit by making me see certain people whom I had obsessively thought about in a new light. For example, there was one guy I knew in my 20s whom, at the time, I had thought to be terribly exciting. He had been a chronic shoplifter, a constant adulterer, an enthusiastic drug user, and didn’t care who knew it. When I bumped into him again, he told me that he had become a born-again Christian and was studying to be an actuary. I lamented the fact to Brenda.

“Don’t you realize that you were so frustrated that you were living vicariously through him?” she answered. “You saw his life as more exciting than yours. But you don’t need him now.” Brenda also was supportive of me and Sarah as a couple, and always encouraged us to eat out after our joint sessions.

It was only after seeing Brenda for about five years that we discovered, quite by accident, that Brenda lived in Stuyvesant Town, just like we did. Indeed, when we joined a nearby community garden, we found out that Brenda was a member of the garden too. When I saw her there I merely said hello and that was that – Brenda insisted that socializing with clients would be unprofessional.

One day, she didn’t show up for a therapy session without any warning. She apologized and told me to come next week. During the next few months, she missed two or three more appointments. One day, when I showed up at the usual time, 6 p.m., Brenda, who had apparently been sleeping on the couch, awoke with a start.

"Oh, Rob. It’s you! I can’t believe you’re here at this time!"

"What?"

"Don’t you know it’s 6 in the morning? Look outside! It was still dark until a few minutes ago! I must have slept here all night!"

It took me about ten minutes of arguing to convince her that it wasn’t 6 in the morning, and then we had our session as usual. But the experience left me quite unnerved.

After one or two more missed appointments, my wife convinced Brenda that she should see us in her apartment, since she lived so close to us. This, Sarah reasoned, would cut down on the problem. But it just created new problems.

Once, after I entered Brenda’s apartment, which was dominated by a grand piano and piles of sheet music, she greeted me with, "Oh, Rob! So nice of you to have a visit! I didn’t expect you! I’ll get you some cheese, and some fruit—look, we can order some sushi from the store! Is Sarah coming, too?" I had to explain to her that this wasn’t a social visit, but a therapy session.»

When the Therapist Lost Her Mind
Photo by Terry Chay

Within a month or so, Brenda became so disorganized – or so we thought – that she canceled every appointment either of us tried to make. When Sarah confronted her, Brenda merely said, “Something’s going on here, but after it’s over, we can make more appointments.”

Both of us started looking for a new therapist. But just to make sure, Sarah called Brenda again. “Oh, I, I can’t talk now,” Brenda replied, her voice ascending higher than usual. “My relatives are coming! My relatives are coming! I’m so worried!” You could hear her breathing heavily.

We found a new therapist, but a few months later decided to call Brenda just to see what was going on. Her phone number was disconnected. I walked over to her building and found that her name had been removed from the lobby.

That summer, I was planting some tomatoes in the community garden when I saw Dominick, the overweight, good-natured accountant who had been head of the garden committee forever.

“Do you know Brenda Cantor?” I asked. He answered in the affirmative.

“What happened to her?”

“She lost her mind!” he exclaimed as he stooped over to pull out a weed.

“Did she have Alzheimer’s?” That’s what Sarah and I had suspected.

“Oh, she definitely had Alzheimer’s,” Dominick answered. “Her relatives came, took her away to somewhere near Philly, then closed out the apartment. It’s all gone!”

“Do you know anything else?” I added, picking one of the cherries from the cherry tree.

“Naah,” he said, waving his hand. “I just know that she lost her marbles. I realized something was wrong when she started to call me every other day , saying, `I lost my garden key!’ It’s sad—very sad.”

He probably didn’t even know Brenda was a therapist, I reflected. When I got home, I told Sarah what he’d said. She was sad and even cried a little, but at least now we knew what happened to her.

Still, once in awhile, when we find ourselves in the old neighborhood where Brenda used to have her office, we peep into the hallway.

There, you can still see the name over the bell:

“Brenda Cantor, CSW, therapist.”

Raanan Geberer is a community newspaper editor in Brooklyn, who also writes on a regular basis for a co-op/condo publication. He grew up in the Bronx and has lived in three of the city's five boroughs. He currently lives in Chelsea with his wife and their cat, Bonnie. His hobbies include exercising, gardening, traveling, reading about "heavy" subjects, and playing rock music with friends.

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