My First Visit to a Therapist
By Debbie Russell

Below is an excerpt from Debbie Russell's family memoir, Crossing Fifty-One: Not Quite a Memoir.


Now: Christmas 2016

CLINIC NOTE: Client stated that three weeks ago she started crying daily, has trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, and experiences feelings of guilt. She reports overwhelming sadness and stress over the anticipated loss of her father from Parkinson’s Disease. Client would also like to create stronger boundaries with her mother due to their tumultuous relationship.


I’m going to be late. Of course I am. Even though I put the clinic’s address into my phone’s GPS, I manage to take the wrong exit and set myself up to arrive late for my first therapy appointment.

Let the self-loathing commence.

I am not the type who arrives late or who gets lost.

Or, at least, I didn’t used to be. The irony is not lost on me that, today, I am the very stereotype of the tardy, unglued person who needs therapy.

I turned fifty-one a couple of months ago. The exact same age as Papa when he walked away from his medical practice and requested admission into a locked federal facility, seeking treatment for a Demerol addiction.

This must be what a midlife crisis looks like in my family. What is it with us type A overachievers?

Rather than dabble in drugs or take up more drinking, I decide to give therapy a try. Except that finding a therapist is a bit more complicated than picking out a nice bottle of chardonnay or deciding which Netflix series to binge. It’s not like I can just ask someone for a recommendation, like I would for a landscaper or car mechanic. Besides, nobody I know is in therapy. Everyone seems to have their lives well in order, with lots of Facebook posts to prove it.

To be fair, I post my share of happy events or thoughts of gratitude or whatever I think might generate enough likes to make me feel better about myself. I also had myself convinced that I could land the plane for Dad in a way that would be supportive and helpful.

Until the day when, much like Humpty Dumpty, I fell off the wall and couldn’t seem to put myself back together again.

Or find my way to a therapy appointment.

Deep breath.

When I finally arrive, I stride purposefully into the newish building and am momentarily distracted by the view of a wooded area with a trail behind the building, courtesy of floor-to-ceiling windows. A sense of peace washes over me.

The building seems empty, save for the clinic. I open the door into the lobby and am welcomed by scents of freshness and coffee. A small water feature burbles, accompanying soft, smooth jazz. The tightness in my chest eases.

After completing the insurance paperwork, I am escorted to a room straight out of a Pottery Barn catalog: muted earth tones; soft, comfy furniture; and a long-piled area rug.

Jennifer is a lovely creature, petite, impeccably dressed and coiffed. I imagine she’s in her thirties. What does she even know about life? I wonder. She is warm, engaging, and just a bit more animated and intense than I was expecting.

Researching therapists online was a total crapshoot. I picked Jennifer off the website primarily because she seems to know a thing or two about borderline personality disorder. I’ve declared myself a newly minted expert on mothers with BPD, having recently consumed a book on the subject. I have come to realize that maybe, just maybe, I’m not the crazy one in my family. Although today, I certainly feel like I’ve got at least one or two screws loose.

Why am I here? I need a therapist to help me deal with my volatile, gaslighting mother.

Oh, and to help me navigate the other, not-insignificant fact that my father—my hero, my advisor, my biggest fan, and my very favorite person in the entire world—is slowly but surely exiting stage left.

Shouldn’t be too much for a trained professional, right?

“I’m so sorry to be late.” I sink onto Jennifer’s plush loveseat. With that introduction, I promptly burst into tears. Mortifying.

Jennifer’s eyes widen. She seems kind.

I try to muster a smile, hoping my tears don’t render me a doppelganger for Alice Cooper.

“I sure can’t seem to keep it together anymore.” I may as well start things off by demonstrating that I have a good mastery of the obvious.

“Tears represent an excess of grief that has nowhere to go.” Jennifer nods empathetically.

Wow. Did she go to school for that?

I don’t know that I can take her seriously. For a moment, I consider how quickly I can gather my things, slip out the door, hop back into my car, and return home. I know that route, so it should be a lot easier than getting here was in the first place. There’s wine in my fridge and dogs who will listen. I can manage, really, I can.

Except I’m already here. I made it this far, so I should probably stick around to see how it plays out.

“I’m not really sure what’s happening to me. I’ve spent the last twenty years as a trial lawyer prosecuting violent crimes. I’ve seen the worst of the worst. You may have even read about me in the paper.”

“I only moved here a couple years ago. Was it a recent case that made the news?”

She’s trying to be nice, but now I don’t even want to talk about the one thing I’m really good at—trial litigation. Somehow, none of it seems to matter at the moment. Right now, I’m reduced to little more than an emotional mess. My thoughts and words tumble out disjointedly. I’m so disconnected from my real self, the self that is always organized, efficient, helpful, and courageous.

Or is this blubbering fool my real self?



Debbie Russell is a lawyer turned writer. She spent 25 years as a County Prosecutor in Minneapolis, litigating numerous high-profile cases and specializing in those involving domestic and child abuse. She took early retirement, giving up a full pension for the freedom and time to pursue writing, restoring her property to native prairie and wetland, and training her two rambunctious retrievers.

For more information and to read her storytelling blog, visit


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