I’m Afraid Our Time is Up

I used to joke about the fact that I didn’t want to know anything about my beloved psychiatrist, Dr. Jaeger. I didn’t even want to call her by her first name, Roberta. That would have been way too intimate. Years earlier, I had turned another therapist I was seeing into a mother substitute. But at age 48, I’d decided that I was all grown up. This new therapist, I told friends, was more of a colleague, or a contemporary.

I had no idea how old Dr. Jaeger she was. In her sixties? Pretty and chic, she wore her dark brown hair in a sleek bob, cut just below her chiseled chin, setting off her high cheekbones and bright brown eyes. Dr. Jaeger was thin and wore her beautiful clothes beautifully. She dressed up for me! In tailored skirts and tops, stylish pumps, perfectly appropriate scarves and jewelry.

The first time I ever went to see her, I was so nervous that I had to take a Valium. Although I didn’t confess that for years, I was otherwise honest, explaining that I’d suffered from panic attacks and anxiety for decades.

Dr. Jaeger’s office was on Park Avenue, but I managed to overlook the fanciness of her doormen and lobby, even though I considered myself an Upper West Side or Greenwich Village sort of girl.

Of course I was hardly a girl. I was a long-married suburbanite, the mother of two sons, who were 15 and 11.

I had three goals in mind for our therapy, I told Dr. Jaeger at that first session. “My boys are going to grow up and leave home,” I explained. “And raising them with my husband has been the best experience of my life. I know I’ll need help going through the empty nest years.”

I wanted to finally accomplish something personal and creatively expressive. I’d been an advertising art director for many years, but thought I had a novel or memoir inside me. “Not art,” I warned Dr. Jaeger. My mother was an artist whose intense imagery haunted me.

My third goal was to age gracefully, and to weather the roller coaster of menopause with fortitude. I knew that shifting hormones were setting off more panic attacks. “My fifties are going to be a rocky time,” I predicted, accurately.

For years, I’d been adept at minimizing my troubled background with clever conversational shtick. At our very first session, however, Dr. Jaeger saw right through my colorful banter, while I recalled my manic depressive father’s struggles, his twin brother’s nervous breakdowns, and the fact that my namesake was my father’s favorite cousin, who became a homeless schizophrenic. Infidelity and bankruptcy were the least of the problems in my household when I was growing up.

“What was you safety net?” Dr. Jaeger asked. “It sounds like you didn’t have a lot of adults you could rely on as a child.”

“I cobbled together my own safety net,” I realized, recalling the roles that friends and their parents had played in my life.

And Dr. Jaeger became part of my safety net as well.

Whenever people would ask if I could recommend a good therapist, I’d tell them to call Dr. Jaeger for a referral, secretly delighted to know that she’d give them a name of a colleague; she’d never see any of my friends as patients. That was Dr. Jaeger’s policy, and I loved it. She was all mine. I could pretend that I wasn’t paying for the love and wisdom she dispensed.

And she dispensed both. “You had a mother,” Dr. Jaeger once told me. “She just wasn’t very maternal.” Or “Your parents didn’t raise you, but they did let you grow up.”

When our sessions were coming to an end, Dr. Jaeger would glance at the clock on her desk and smile. “I’m afraid our time is up,” she’d say. Then she’d stand, walk me to the door of her office, and blow me a kiss goodbye as she opened the door.

I took regular breaks from seeing Dr. Jaeger in the decade that I was her patient. We made wonderful progress reaching the goals I’d set for myself, but I often sought her help and kindness when I stumbled, or when life threw me a curveball. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and as she faded, Dr. Jaeger helped me realize that I was experiencing a double loss – of my actual mother and the fantasy I’d constructed of a perfect loving mom.

My children grew up and thrived, thanks in large part to the support and guidance Dr. Jaeger gave me. She took delight in my sons’ accomplishments, knew all about their endearing quirks, and admired their handsome faces in the photos that I shared with her.

My confidence increased, and my career as a writer took off. I co-authored a best-selling book with two other women, and toured the country speaking publicly. My panic attacks were contained with the help of Klonopin, an anti-anxiety drug which Dr. Jaeger had prescribed.

Still, I longed to become a mellow mystic. Inspired by Tibetan monks who meditated so effectively that neuroscientists were studying their brains, I vowed to meditate my way from panic to peace. I wrote a book about my spiritual adventure, detailing the lessons I learned from Buddhist teachers, mystical rabbis, therapists and healers.

Dr. Jaeger approved of my quest for calm, after doing a bit of research on the therapies I ended up loving – Somatic Experiencing and EMDR. She was delighted with the progress I made. “I’m a serene Madonna,” I joked with her.

Dr. Jaeger read and loved the first draft of my memoir. As I was making final edits, my friend Barbara invited me to attend a graduate school class she was taking at Columbia Teacher’s College, called The Psychology of Loss and Trauma. In a classroom on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I listened to stories of students who’d endured horrific life experiences – rape, childhood cancer and incest. I thought about how lucky I was, despite the hundreds of panic attacks I’d experienced.

When the lecture was over, I stepped out into the hallway to check my voicemail. Then I placed a call to Dr. Jaeger.

I’d emailed her earlier in the week to set up an appointment, and received a terse response, saying that Dr. Jaeger had suffered an accident and would not be available to see patients for a few weeks.

That was odd, I thought.

But a lot of odd things had happened in the decade that I’d known and loved Jaeger. (That’s how she referred to herself when she’d pick up the phone to begin one of our pre-arranged telephone sessions – “Jaeger here!”)

It’s just that those odd things had always happened to me.

Dr. Jaeger was not odd. Nothing about her was eccentric or crazy, like the people in my family of origin. Jaeger was steady and reliable, professional and available. Constantly wise. Hilarious at times. Tender when I needed her to be.

When I dialed her number, standing in the hallway of Columbia Teacher’s College, waiting for my friend Barbara to finish up a conversation with her professor, a man’s voice had replaced Jaeger’s usual message.

“This is for the patients of Dr. Jaeger,” the stranger told me. “We are sorry to say that she passed away…”

My heart stopped, and then started to flop around in my chest. I burst into tears. A woman from an adjacent classroom flew out into the hallway, saw my face and ran back to her desk, returning with a box of tissues.

I cried like a baby as young men and women swarmed past me, scurrying to classes. Barbara came out of her meeting and put her arm around me, stunned. She had to return to a conversation with her professor, so we arranged to meet back at my car.

As I walked shakily out of the building, my lungs began to convulse. I felt a panic attack coming.

But then I summoned every ounce of strength I’d discovered in my shaky years in Dr. Jaeger’s office. I channeled every morsel of wisdom and kindness she’d ever bestowed upon me as I practiced the grounding exercises I’d learned in the last year, through meditation and alternative therapies.

Then I got into my car, sat in the driver’s seat and wept.

When I returned home a couple of hours later, I sat down in my favorite chair, lit a candle and meditated. I tried to summon Dr. Jaeger. I tried to remember what we’d talked about the last time I saw her.

But I couldn’t.

Dr. Jaeger’s memorial service took place a few days later at a packed funeral home in Manhattan. I brought my husband and we sat in the last row so that I could cry without feeling self-conscious. I was grateful to learn about the woman I’d loved so much.

Hundreds of colleagues, friends and patients showed up to mourn her and celebrated her life. I learned that she’d been married more than once, which I hadn’t known. Her close friends called her Ronnie, which delighted me. Her companion, son, daughter and granddaughters loved her deeply, which moved me.

And I was not the only patient who adored her.

The family graciously invited her patients to come up at the end of the service and say a few words. One man recalled how Dr. Jaeger had escorted him out of her office when he ended therapy and ceremoniously handed him an arrangement of slightly wilted silk flowers he’d always admired in her waiting room, as a sort of graduation present. I’d always loved a funny poster that hung on the wall of her bathroom. When she redecorated, I told Dr. Jaeger how much I missed it, but she hadn’t offered it to me.

I’d always hoped I was her favorite patient, but clearly I had a lot of competition.

A woman about my age talked about how she’d drive in from the suburbs for years in her schlumpy clothes, delighted to see what her chic shrink was wearing. She’d worn a pretty outfit to the funeral, paying tribute.

I walked up to that patient after the service and told her how much I enjoyed her comments. We exchanged email addresses, and then I went off to tape a long-scheduled television interview with the co-authors of my last book. First I ducked into a fancy pharmacy where a woman spackled my blotchy face with makeup. When the interview aired, my eyes looked tired and sad.

Grieving for Dr. Jaeger was confusing and lonely. A week after her funeral, I emailed the woman who’d spoken at the service and we met at a diner halfway between our two suburban towns. We sat in a booth, eating eggs, crying and talking. We were both from Rhode Island, we discovered, both creative women with difficult mothers. We both adored Jaeger, and now we were both facing life without her. Once breakfast was over, we parted ways sadly. We emailed a few times after that, but it seemed too painful to get together again.

At Dr. Jaeger’s memorial service, her daughter had spoken about a relationship that I could only have dreamed about. She and her mother were extremely close. Every Friday, to celebrate the end of their work week, they would meet for drinks at The Carlyle Hotel, around the corner from Jaeger’s office. Afterwards they’d hold hands and walk home together.

Dr. Jaeger had a life that was bursting with love.

But I couldn’t call any of the other people who loved her. I felt alone in my grief. Perhaps patients were crying in apartments all over New York, but I didn’t know how to find them. I didn’t know how to mourn her.

“The wrong woman died,” I told friends.

There had been a terrible mistake.

I’d been prepared for my frail mother to die, but not my vibrant therapist.

I remembered the name of a psychiatrist that Dr. Jaeger had once given me for a friend, and I made an appointment to see her. Late afternoon light filtered through the blinds of her modern office. I missed Jaeger’s cozy, intimate study. I missed the glass paperweight on her desk, her plump, blue enamel pen. And I began to cry. “I don’t know how to mourn Dr. Jaeger,” I told this stranger.

“Talk to people who knew her,” she suggested.

“That’s just the point,” I said. “I don’t know anyone who knew her.”

“What was your relationship with her?” I asked this therapist. Dr. Jaeger had been this woman’s mentor. Apparently she’d mentored many other psychiatrists as well. Once again I learned about a community of people who adored Jaeger. People I didn’t know.

At the end of our session, this woman rose and walked me to the door. “I could never be half the therapist that Dr. Jaeger was,” she told me, her eyes overflowing with tears. “Dr. Jaeger was irreplaceable.”

“Great,” I thought, as I pushed the elevator button outside her office.

I had lost an irreplaceable therapist.

Fortunately, I’d met a wonderful woman in the course of writing my last book, who practiced EMDR therapy. We reconnected, and I began processing Dr. Jaeger’s death with her.

I developed heart palpitations and my internist prescribed a beta-blocker. My heart was broken. And Jaeger wasn’t around to fix it.

I began channeling Dr. Jaeger, chatting to myself the way she’d chatted with me.

She had a fabulous sense of humor. She knew just how to tease me, so that I could laugh at my self-indulgence and fears.

But it wasn’t as much fun laughing about myself without her.

I was a poor substitute for the real thing.

One night I remembered a tape recording I’d made of a therapy session, so that I could quote my psychiatrist verbatim in my book. Now I searched my messy nightstand drawer and found the cassette of our conversation. I popped it into my tape player and there was Jaeger’s voice, with its slight Brooklyn twang, filling my dark bedroom.

Instantly I was back in her office. I remembered the way Jaeger would open the door and usher me in to my appointment. She’d tilt her head slightly, taking my emotional temperature. One look and she’d know just how to proceed. She could see instantly if I was tired and weak, happy and confident, elated or sad. She’d lead me to a chair by her desk, sit down across from me, and straighten one of her chic skirts. Then we’d begin.

But we will never begin again.

I miss Dr. Jaeger whenever I think about her.

Throughout our relationship, I’d tried to pretend my smart, savvy therapist wasn’t someone I loved deeply.

And then she died.

“Dr. Jaeger isn’t a mother substitute,” I’d always told friends, “Or a friend or family member.”

But now I realize – to my delight – that she was all of the above.


just what i wanted