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Dr. Paul helps me too

In Treatment offers validation for those of us already there.

Some of my friends find it too wrenching to watch. My therapist is overly conscious of Dr. P's mistakes, which she says feel like chalk on a board. But for me - who has seen my share of good, bad and in-between therapists over 30 years - the HBO dramatic series In Treatment gets it just right - or right enough. Okay, the sessions are only 25 minutes instead of the usual 50, and I can't figure out why Paul (Gabriel Byrne's Dr. Weston) doesn't consult a physician on some of his cases. A low dose of Zoloft or Prozac could go a long way during the weeks his patients are learning to trust him while shedding defenses.

But what happens psychodynamically in almost every session - the unraveling and the breakthroughs that might take months or years sped up for the sake of the medium - is the most realistic depiction of psychotherapy I've ever seen on screen. And I'm not the only one. Much the psychoanalytic community has embraced the series. (Check out the recent UCLA conference convened in celebration of the show's second season.) Some clinicians are even screening sessions to illustrate concepts like transference and resistance, and what does and doesn't work in therapy, to psychologists in training.

There are many reasons to love this show, adapted from the successful Israeli series Be' Tipul: the powerful dialogue, the masterly performances and Byrne's extraordinary portrayal of Paul Weston, the handsome, caring and well-trained psychoanalyst with troubles of his own for which he is in treatment. But that's all been said. What I don't think has been said is how gratifying the series is for a person who has struggled in therapy - talking, talking, talking - for many years.

I ventured into the world of psychotherapy during the 1970s with a visit to a mental health counselor on my college campus. When the counselor suggested a consultation with a psychiatrist, I freaked and flat out refused. With all my problems at the time (anorexia and depression among them), the stigma of seeing a shrink was just adding one more to the pile.

That changed, of course - living in New York City helped - but many of us
who entered into therapy to undo destructive patterns of behavior, find love, forgive ourselves, or to simply learn better ways of coping still feel that there is something wrong with us: that we see a therapist because we are at the core dysfunctional individuals. And, worse, self-indulgent ones.

The series shows how psychotherapy works and makes the case for its basic tenet: that insight into your past can help you move forward. Most important, it expands the picture of what a functional human being looks like, thereby, lessening the stigma of having emotional problems in the first place and seeking treatment for them in the second.

In Treatment patients are, for the most part, competent, highly functional individuals who wrestle with intrapsychic conflict: a tension between opposing (often unconscious) thoughts and feelings that can wreak personal havoc. Weston himself is as damaged as some of his patients, continuing to work out old, unresolved conflicts in sessions with his former supervisor Gina, the amazing actress Diane Wiest. But despite Paul's wounds and problems, he toils away in an authentic attempt to make his patients whole - through listening, through insight, through caring. As a therapist, Paul makes some mistakes. But what therapist doesn't? It's all part of being human.

When I watch the lives of the characters unfold on In Treatment there is a shock of recognition. How many women have I met like Mia, the successful attorney played by Hope Davis: women who are attracted to unavailable men, longing for intimacy and a baby, afraid they will end up alone? The character I most identified with is the first-season's Sophie, a 16-year-old anorexic gymnast so in denial that she isn't sure whether her collision with a car on her bicycle was a suicide attempt. Sophie, with whom Paul has his biggest success, brought me back to thoughts of an earlier time when I, too, was that out of touch - and the skilled psychoanalyst who I believe may have saved my life.

Thank you Hagai Levi, creator of Be'Tipul and an executive producer of In Treatment, for providing a telescopic view into a place that is seldom seen. Therapy, of course, is not always as exciting as In Treatment might suggest; anyone who has stuck with it knows that there is a lot of painful and painstaking drudgery involved. But a lot can happen in a room when you make yourself vulnerable to another human being. In Treatment helps to reveal the essence of the unique therapist-patient relationship, within which lies a second chance.

Post script: For a thoughtful analysis of the series, check out Alan Sepinwall's blog. Sepinwall is the film and TV critic for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey - and a huge fan.

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