I recently discovered that my shrink was more than just a regular shrink—he’s an LA Shrink, one of the stars of that new Bravo reality show. It’s caused a completely unexpected, and I imagine unprecedented, paradigm shift in my talk therapy. I’m learning more about my shrink with each new episode that airs, and it’s really frigging weird. But I’m all about good mental hygiene. I’m not in denial, pretending the show doesn’t exist. Nope, I’m all over this mess.
I work in television, a business that both induces and enables mental illness. Some deal with the uncertainty and constant ego checking by self-medicating with booze and drugs (weed is very popular); some by taking prescription meds (weed is in this category now, too); some by succumbing to addictions to food or sex. All of these are very sensible options that make me feel almost puritan with my rigorous devotion to cognitive behavioral therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is not about digging into the morass of deep dark secrets of the soul. Rather, it is a pragmatic, evidence-based approach to talk therapy that’s about identifying negative, counterproductive thoughts and training yourself to frame them differently. The theory is once you manage your thoughts better, you find that the attendant emotions can be managed as well. Sometimes even without meds, drugs, overeating, or sex addiction.
In February I went to my therapist smarting from the demise of my most recent network pilot. He listened empathetically, then asked if I was certain that the next pilot I wrote also would die a premature death. I admitted there was an outside chance it could get made and even get on the air, though the odds are daunting. The doctor suggested that I allow myself to grieve my stillborn pilot. I scoffed at the use of such a weighty verb for the demise of a television pilot, but he said perhaps it was appropriate, as it was a loss, and that I didn’t need to minimize my feelings. (I am all about minimizing feelings.) I said that sounded very sensible and I’d allow myself to wallow for a bit.
Then my therapist proceeded to tell me that he too had a pilot. A pilot for a reality show that he had shot last year. This pilot had been picked up to series, and this series was going to start airing in a few weeks. On Bravo. A show called LA Shrinks.
I was flabbergasted. Really? I can’t get a pilot made and on the air— but my shrink can? Do things like this happen outside of L.A.?
I managed to put this information in a box for the rest of the session and focus on my wallowing. But once I got home, I did some Googling and found a preview of LA Shrinks online. It was alarming, to say the least. And certainly not something I expected from my shrink … although in retrospect, were there signs that I might have missed?
I had been going to Dr. Greg since 2007. I was looking for a gay man who specialized in CBT and whose office was geographically desirable. Dr. Greg was on the money: his specialty was CBT, his credentials were impressive, and I immediately cottoned to his approach, which was analytical and quantitative but also empathetic and intuitive.
So it was a little shocking seeing him in a promo for a Bravo reality show called LA Shrinks. Coincidentally—or perhaps not, given my profession and demographic—I know a number of people who have ended up on Bravo reality shows. But they are in fashion and design and food. They are not Ph.D.s. Not my therapist. Especially disconcerting was the sound bite in the promo in which Dr. Greg described his relationship with his partner as “monogam-ish.” I don’t have a problem with that label or relationship definition—but I do with the choice to share it on a reality show on Bravo, home of The Real Housewives, Rachel Zoe, and the oddly plastic-looking home-flipper whom my friends pointed out to me at lunch the other day.
In our initial conversation about the show, Dr. Greg had explained his decision in a way that made it seem like a worthy project. He told me he thought it would illustrate that therapists are doing the same work as their clients, and that it is hard work for all. He thought the critically acclaimed HBO drama In Treatment trod that turf in a fictional way very effectively, and Dr. Greg’s hope was that this show would do something similar in a reality format.
If only. So far, five episodes of LA Shrinks have aired, and I find them disconcertingly awful. When I’ve told friends about this scenario, they want to know if I was asked to be on the show. Of course not! When I asked where these “patients” came from, Dr. Greg told me they were cast in some sort of open call. He didn’t know where the ad was placed, but these “patients” all share two things in common: they present like failed actors who are so unskilled they can’t even play themselves convincingly, and they have a personality type that I would diagnose (admittedly I’m an amateur; I’m not sure this is even in the DSM) as hysterical exhibitionists.
But that’s not the worst of it. The worst part of the show is when the cameras follow the therapists into their own personal lives. This is the part I find really cringe-worthy. But I can’t stop watching. Well, I can’t stop watching Dr. Greg’s segments.
A word about the other two “therapists” on the show, who are both bottle blondes: the pouty one wears an ashy shade, the brassy one, of course, a brassy shade. From what I can glean, they both have some kind of schooling and certification, although Brassy’s only license on record with the California boards was for “psychological assistant” and it lapsed in 2009. This stuff is very easy to check online. Did the people who make and air this TV show check? Is there any ethical or moral obligation for a reality-TV show about therapists to feature real therapists? Not on Bravo, clearly.
I am not sure either has a real psychotherapy practice with clients who come to an office and pay for 50 minutes of talk therapy. Which may be a small mercy. I don’t want to judge either too harshly—especially since I fast-forward through most of their segments on the show—but while they might have entertainment value for some, they certainly don’t seem like the sort of responsible, results-oriented therapists our insurance companies want us to go to if they are going to be required by law to reimburse mental-health-care claims. I wonder if the APA would sanction some of their methods, like when Brassy tries to teach a homophobic black man empathy by calling him the N-word over and over and over (bleeped, of course).
This is when I reach for my remote.
I wish I could report that I thought Dr. Greg’s stated intention of “showing the work” of therapy was realized. But instead I see the reality of “reality” television. In the “candid” scenes of him with his partner, I see straining to “act” natural and be witty and interesting. Dr. Greg’s personal story is that he and his partner are planning a “wedding” and are struggling with inviting Dr. Greg’s father, from whom he is semi-estranged. OK, this is a pretty fascinating window into my shrink’s psyche, but all these emotional scenes are seen through the prism of being played in front of a camera. I am never unaware of the awareness. (I put “wedding” in quotes, because the show somehow manages to entirely ignore the current legal limbo of gay marriage in California.)
Because the idea of opening up to a complete stranger is alien and uncomfortable for me (it’s actually uncomfortable for me to do even with my intimates), the paradigm of the mysterious shrink, the silent, nodding, all-knowing sage who is privy to my innermost neurosis, never really worked for me. I was more interested in a Hannibal Lecter–ian quid pro quo exchange of biographical detail. I don’t think I have painful childhood memories that could compete with Clarice Starling’s, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let my shrink get them out of me. If crying is the holy grail of therapeutic catharsis, I am clearly failing. Not that one’s therapy should be graded, but it occurred to me that I might be underperforming when I watched Dr. Greg shed tears during his very first session with his own new therapist in episode five. (Not that I’m competitive or anything. I might have a touch of oppositional defiant disorder, but only around people I love.)
I had discussed my issues about the artifice of the psychotherapeutic dynamic with Dr. Greg early on, and he said he was willing to answer questions about himself inasmuch as it would be helpful to my own therapy. So I did know a little about Dr. Greg’s personal life, but in a fairly vague way. Well, be careful what you wish for, because I find watching this show like a TMI speedball.
I decided LA Shrinks could provide me with a uniquely bizarre opportunity to practice CBT tenets. Could I divorce my judgments about Dr. Greg’s decision to do the show from my opinion about his skill and efficacy as a CBT practitioner? This is how it goes, using the CBT practice of deploying the REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy) rubric:
“I believe Dr. Greg did himself and his profession a huge disservice by participating in this trashy reality show—a show that would be a very effective weapon in Scientology’s war on psychotherapy. (I wonder if it’s already playing in a loop at all those walk-in recruitment centers on Hollywood Boulevard.) But does making one bad decision make Dr. Greg a bad therapist? I need to modulate—no person is all good or all bad. Doing this reality show doesn’t mean Dr. Greg still isn’t the skilled therapist I’ve been seeing for years. I can be disappointed in him for doing this show, but that doesn’t mean I need to devalue all the work I’ve done with Dr. Greg over the years.”
See how well that works? I would like to think that I am mentally rigorous enough to put all I’ve seen and heard on the show in a mental file and forget about it. Although, as Dr. Greg has pointed out when I discuss my inability to let go of some grievance, you cannot force yourself to forget something.
I expect my personal trainer to be in better physical condition than I am, but should I also expect my shrink to be more mentally healthy than me? I don’t think the bar is that high in either case, by the way. “Radical acceptance” is one of the core concepts I have been working on imbuing in my therapy. It’s hard for me, because I believe a moderate amount of self-hatred is a healthy motivator. But I am working my way toward radical acceptance of Dr. Greg’s participation in this show. In fact, I am planning on going back to him after the show concludes its run. I need to wait because I found myself unable to discuss anything other than the show in the one session I had after it began airing. Dr. Greg has said he would welcome me back—even after reading an early draft of this piece.
We live in a “meta” age where everything seems to exist in a hall of mirrors anyway, so why shouldn’t my therapy be the same? It has been a challenge because I find myself psychoanalyzing my shrink, and it’s distracting. But I like challenges! My diagnosis, by the way: I think Dr. Greg’s decision to do the show was probably the result of a bit of a midlife crisis leavened with a little willful naiveté. But again, I’m just an amateur.