He Showed Me His Tiles, So I Showed Him Mine

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Modern Love

“I bet you’re good at Scrabble,” I said to my therapist.

For almost a decade I had watched him synthesize our group’s emotional themes, quote ancient Hebrew law and do complex math in his head. He had undergraduate and medical degrees from Yale. This guy could definitely play Scrabble.

He smiled, but the group conversation moved on before he could address it.

I had started playing Scrabble with my new husband, and, to my surprise, he was trouncing me by dozens of points. As an English major, I was appalled that the business-minded nonreader I had married could beat me in a language game.

In our next group session, I floated the subject again: “I want you to teach me how to play Scrabble.”

After all, wasn’t therapy about asking for help? Nine years earlier, when I first found my way to this office, I wasn’t thinking about triple-letter scores. In our initial session, I told him that if I had one more failed relationship with an alcoholic or drug addict, I was going to kill myself.

He promised he could help on two conditions: First, I had to join one of his therapy groups (rather than seeing him individually). And second, I had to turn over every aspect of my romantic and sexual life to him and the group.

“No more going it alone,” he said.

I was desperate. If he had told me to follow him into the jungle and drink Kool-Aid, I would have packed my bags that afternoon.

“What would it look like for me to teach you Scrabble?” he asked.

The rest of the group groaned. We had been together for years, each playing a role. Our therapist was the father figure to whom we appealed for help, from whom we sought approval, or against whom some of us rebelled.

My fellow group members insisted that my role in this family was the favorite child, partly because I was the youngest by more than a decade, but also because I followed every one of our therapist’s suggestions. No rebellious streak here. Of the six of us “kids,” I had always been the most openly adoring, the most likely to side with our therapist on any issue.

For me, compliance made perfect sense. I had done exactly what my therapist had suggested — disclosed to him and the group when I flirted with cabdrivers, slept with co-workers and had erotic dreams about dead celebrities. And miraculously, after six years, I had learned to sidestep addicts and bad boys, those shiny pennies I had spent my life stooping to pick up.

Now I had a kind husband, a spirited 10-month-old daughter, and was pregnant with a son. Why wouldn’t I do what he told me?

“How about an individual session?” I said. From that first appointment my therapist had insisted that group was the only way to get me where I wanted to go, so I was surprised when he pulled out his datebook and offered me one-on-one time.

I was working then as the junior member of a small Chicago law firm. The afternoon of the appointment, I sneaked past my boss’s office with a Deluxe Scrabble set sticking out of my bag.

When my therapist greeted me, I held up the game and said, “You ready to go down?” My weak attempt at trash talk sounded so silly that we both laughed.

In his office, he had set up a card table and two chairs. My opening play was decent: “fever.”

He stared hard at the board and his letters. “Ah!” he said at last. Building off my second E he played “floozies,” using all seven tiles.

“I knew you were good at this,” I said, although I didn’t think he would be that good. Embarrassment warmed my cheeks. It was one thing to sit in the group room and imagine him beating me at Scrabble. It was another to watch it happen, turn by turn.

Despite the hundreds of ways I had been vulnerable with him over the years, this game was a new way to be exposed. I hardly felt like the favorite child as I stared at my letters, struggling to find a word that used the Z he had played.

After my wedding, my friends and family had expected me to graduate from therapy. I had gotten the healthy romantic relationship I came for, so by my own therapeutic standards I was cured.

“Why would you stay?” they would ask.

I usually joked that I couldn’t leave because I wouldn’t know what to do with all that extra money. But I saw their point.

In the early days, a lifetime of repressed feelings roiled, oozed and exploded during sessions. I bawled until blood vessels burst around my eyes and screamed until my throat was raw. I left profanity-laced messages on my therapist’s voice mail, wailing about how much I hated being alone, how afraid I was that I didn’t know how to love or be loved.

I had been trying to succeed at love the same way I’d found success as a student and a lawyer, through sheer effort and perfectionism. At work, vulnerability led to failure, but in love, vulnerability is the only way forward. I got that, but it’s one thing to understand and another to do. I kept going after one inappropriate man after another, never allowing myself to be truly known.

My coming to life was agonizing but vital, with my group involved at every step. They even came up with guidelines for my dating behavior, each designed to address a specific issue from my romantic past.

For example, during every date I would have to excuse myself and call a group member from the bathroom to talk about how it was going. In that way, I was never on my own, trying to figure things out by myself. Then, at our next session I would recount the evening in excruciating detail. My dates had no idea they were really out at dinner with seven of us analyzing my every move.

Now that work was done. Or was it? Was this, playing Scrabble for $200 a pop in the middle of a workday, all there was left to do?

The only word I could think of was “zoo,” which yielded a whopping 12 points. I plunked my two Os down in a huff, saying, “I stink at this.”

Just like that, I had reverted to my worst instincts: Try to accomplish something on my own, feel ashamed when it doesn’t work, and take hasty action to dissipate the agitation of failure. These were precisely the instincts that had led me here in the first place.

“Why don’t we play open?” he said, flipping his rack around to show me his tiles. “This way we can talk through different options together.”

I flipped mine around too.

His way of playing reflected his instincts: Ask for help; engage in the process as an agent, not a victim; and always remain open to possibilities.

From there, he coached me on saving my Ss for big-ticket, pluralizing plays and putting high-value letters on double-letter squares. The bulk of his tips were obvious strategies I should have already known, similar to how I should have known not to date men who drank whiskey by the liter.

“Your Scrabble tactics sound familiar,” I said after we talked through my next play: “lox” on a double-word score.

He gestured at the board and my pregnant belly. “It’s working, isn’t it?” he said.

Before I met my husband, I treated therapy like a consolation prize for not having a romantic partner. I was convinced that the only sources of love I would ever have were my therapist and group members. For years, my therapist assured me that the relationship I sought would materialize if I kept doing my emotional work in the group.

When my husband and I got engaged, I came to group showing off my ring, my elation and a fair amount of shock. My therapist said, “I told you so!”

I was no longer that aggrieved, desperate woman. The therapeutic process had transformed me. Everything in my life had changed — my love life, career and friendships. How could it be that I still belonged here?

Therapy was no longer a refuge for my unmet needs and long-buried rage. Now it was where I deepened my capacity to love and attach in all my relationships, especially with my therapist, the first person I let love me in all my messiness. My relationship with him set the stage for every healthy relationship I now had, especially the one with my husband. I had come for the humbling and the learning. I would stay for the love.

When we finished our game, I snapped a picture of the board with my phone.

“You crushed me,” I said.

He smiled. “I believe we crushed you together.”