Artists and Mental Illness Interview Series: Ilana Simons

Ilana Simons; courtesy of the artist

Ilana Simons; courtesy of the artist

Ilana Simons is an artist and clinical psychologist currently based in New York. She has produced many short animations, featured in Hyperallergic, Electric Literature, and the Sundance Film Festival, and is the writer of A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. In August 2016, Simons performed her play, All Together Now, a multimedia solo show that premiered as part of the FringeNYC festival. The play involves an intimate, immersive experience, in which a small audience of twenty lies in a handmade tent while Simons projects videos onto the ceiling and narrates. She explores her memories, the house she grew up in, her love, her divorceand, ultimately, how she came to make things, and see things, as she does today.

Simons sat down to speak with me shortly before a three-month trip to work with refugees in Greece. In this variation on the Artists and Mental Illness Interview Series, she offers her perspectives as a woman both psychologist and artist, whose story is a unique mix of cerebral, vulnerable, eclectic, and raw.

Psychological Space

I think people are interested in different movies. Extroverts get their feeding from social interactions, like we tend to say, and introverts get more energy from recharging alone. What I feed on, my focus, is psychological space.

I think people are interested in different movies. Extroverts get their feeding from social interactions, like we tend to say, and introverts get more energy from recharging alone. What I feed on, my focus, is psychological space.

The movie of my life is psychology. By that I mean I’m attracted to human tension, human drama, which gives me a big appetite for listening to patients, but might also lead me to push and nudge my interpersonal relationships. I would always bring the conversation to an uncomfortable spot at dinner. I think part of the reason I’m going to Greece to work in the refugee camps is because I have an appetite for being where the drama is, where the tension is.

Part of what you saw in the play was my growing up in a family where I don’t feel that was everybody’s chosen area of focus. I tried to go to med school; I’ve tried to shift my gravitational center towards other things at other times in my life, but the language that feels most native to me, the way that my brain works, is to look at interpersonal tension and be hungry to hear about it. I don’t know if I can pinpoint exactly when that happened, but I do think it has to do with the way a brain processes information.

I don’t think I could choose to make art that wasn’t psychologically centered. I remember trying to write fiction, being in those fiction classes where they say, “You need your plot points. You need action.” That was always so hard for me. Really just didn’t have an ear for plot. The action, for me, is shifts in emotional tone, or even philosophical tone. I was a horrible fiction writer.

Little Sister

That ‘little girl’ mentality has been a big part of how I’ve thought about the rest of my life. Every time I’ve gotten slightly toward mastery in something, I changed to something new, so I’m again in the learning position. I’m much more comfortable with the learning position than I am with the authority position.

When I was really young, my fantasy games were all around, for some reason, the military. I had these imaginary friends. I would play Reveille for myself to get out of bed. I would march. I would put myself through push-ups. I had some sense that, through disciplining myself to be with the team, I would be part of the team. You’re a cadet. You have to follow all the rules. But if you follow all the instructions of the group that are passed down, to the T— you will, one day, become a general.

I was a very dutiful, diligent little sister to my brother. When he had a game, I would try to get good at it. I would follow. He would set up all these clubs with all these tasks, and I would do all the tasks. Some might secede from the game and invent something of their own, but I tended to work really hard to get in with whoever had power.

That “little girl” mentality has been a big part of how I’ve thought about the rest of my life. Every time I’ve gotten slightly toward mastery in something, I changed to something new, so I’m again in the learning position. I’m much more comfortable with the learning position than I am with the authority position. It’s meant, for my life, a trail of really interesting learning-curve work—never a position where I’m the authority in any field. I guess the emotional piece is that I’ve been much more comfortable with the feeling of some lack, some need to improve, some need to indoctrinate myself—the little sister mentality.

I’m a hard worker who’s found comfort in that. My story is I got a PhD in English, and then a PhD in Psychology. I wrote a book, but then I started visual art, and then I did this play. After the student phase, I’m gone. I think that’s been in my imprinting: that I’m a very good student. It’s a little weird being a psychologist because, as a psychologist, I guess the aura is you’re no longer a student.

My dad, when he saw my piece, said, “But you know, you’re so good at what you do. I just wish you would feel like you have authority in it.” That’s a recapitulating of the whole dynamic. I’m pretty good at what I do; I’m not good at sitting in that zone of comfort or satisfaction. I tend to like to be a little hungry.

A Ceremony of Getting to Know Yourself

I remember feeling, ‘I’m going to speak as honestly as possible.’

I was about 12. My grandmother had a Camcorder, and I borrowed it for a week. I put it in front of me and just spoke into it. I remember getting naked and walking naked in front of it—just having this thing look at me, and me look back at it. It felt almost like a ceremony—a ceremony of getting to know yourself.

I remember feeling, “I’m going to speak as honestly as possible.” That you could somehow have a very important meeting of the minds with yourself by being as naked as you could in front of the recording device. It almost felt like a religious ceremony. I remember that feeling, and I remember losing those tapes and being very upset.

I kept notebooks through high school and college. I would write for an hour a day in these notebooks. So many times in my life, sitting down for my writing hour. It was church. I do suppose it’s like meditation for a lot of people: that slice of time in which you can see your own mind in action, see your own voice in action.

Notebooks; courtesy of Ilana Simons

Notebooks; courtesy of Ilana Simons

I guess what we’re saying is, cultural space. Who has space for what? I have my church hour. ... It can create a really magical space and an intensity to yourself, to have that. It’s like the space under the covers, the space where the kid plays, where Mommy doesn’t see.

I’m having this really weird experience of us, of me just now saying, “Try to get as truthful with my voice as possible.” Then you adjusted the microphone and were going to play some back—and I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to hear my voice.” Even now as we’re doing this interview, I’m like, “God, this is indulgent. Am I really going to get to talk about myself without turning the conversation to you for an hour?” Normally I’m like, “So tell me about your life.” I almost do that to a fault, deflect away from me.

It could come from a starvation diet of self-attention: “You couldn’t possibly want to hear about me that much. Let me ask about you.” It could also be in relationship with the fact that, when I do allot the time to art, I take my own voice very seriously.

We talk about the women’s history of memoir. It could be that we’re so used to paying attention to other people’s lives in day-to-day practice. To give ourselves a very concentrated slice of time to get back in touch with, “Who am I, really? And where do I come from?” is almost like a counterbalance to all the attention to others we do hour to hour. The memoir, for me at least, can become a very sacred and private relationship to yourself.

I guess what we’re saying is, cultural space. Who has space for what? I have my church hour. I think there are a lot of women writers who wrote about this, like Dickinson, Austen. I think Jane Austen would have this hidden time where she could really work it out on the page, and then had to put it away and be someone else for all the people in her life. It can create a really magical space and an intensity to yourself, to have that. It’s like the space under the covers, the space where the kid plays, where Mommy doesn’t see.

Aboveground, Underground

I have been uncomfortably straddling the language of my father and the language of this other realm of expression. I can sometimes feel myself stretched uncomfortably between those two worlds. I’ve sometimes been disappointed with myself for not being able to more fully trust in my artistic language.

I do think I’ve always had an earnestness and a desire to join. An overdeveloped sense that discipline was the right way to go. I think I’ve run into a lot of problems in my artistic life by overworking things just because I had this idea that to work hard is a good thing. It’s taken me a very long time to get back in touch with some things people might call intuition, or unconscious life. At least in my relationship to my father, I think he had a sense that willpower, public accomplishment, those things—which I consider a more public or conscious level—were the things to look at and nurture. I think I’ve, in some way, always been at battle with that.

When I first got into college, one I got into was Stanford. They said, “Oh, that’s great. Go to Stanford.” And I said, “I can’t do that. I would be way too happy there.” Sun and smiles and happiness, and all these things that, on the surface, show success, I almost rejected in pushing against his idea that “a successful life is one that visibly looks successful.”

My book was basically a self-help guide based on the life of Virginia Woolf. It was like, “How could you do a guide to better living through a woman who killed herself?” But I think I’ve almost set up some polar opposition in defense of unconscious life.

Of course, lots of artists are able to live in, explore, indulge in, and rejoice in unconscious life much more than I have. But I grew up in an interesting family where, I think for some members, that was not valued. I have been uncomfortably straddling the language of my father and the language of this other realm of expression. I can sometimes feel myself stretched uncomfortably between those two worlds. I’ve sometimes been disappointed with myself for not being able to more fully trust in my artistic language. I had a neurotic relationship to writing that was all about that. I had some sense that there is a beautiful way to express myself, but I kept rubbing it out in the interest of being popular in a public way.

I think my life has been a very slow digging, a very slow effort to uncover my—I want better words than “freer” and “unconscious.” I need a better word to convey this self that I feel is buried.

"Seven Types of Ambiguity: A film on William Empson" by Ilana Simons

Neurosis vs. Play

When anyone says to me, “I’m not an artist”—well, I think we all have creative minds. When I was young and having angsty teen years, I remember a lot of afternoons putting my music way up and painting on paper on the wall. That would often be an outlet for me. I wasn’t formally taught to paint, but it became a go-to hobby early on. Nothing like writing. Writing was my lover, but painting was always a less stressful form of self-expression.
 
I tried until age 34 to be a fiction writer. Something changed for me. I used to play so much as a child with words, and then I published a book on Virginia Woolf, and I was trying to publish another book. Really a neurotic relationship. The most neurotic relationship I’ve ever had. I wanted it so bad. It’s just not where my talent is. I spent so many years writing this bad novel.
 
As an outlet, I was painting. I painted 100 paper plates of artist faces on them. Whoever I was reading, I would paint a paper plate of them. It was a throwaway form. I would do them quickly, in an hour or two. When you don’t have so much pressure on yourself, it becomes a place of play.

Paper plate portrait of Noam Chomsky; courtesy of the artist

Paper plate portrait of Noam Chomsky; courtesy of the artist

I lost every piece of my soul trying to write a publishable book, in that very public space that wasn’t daring, wasn’t true to my own self.

Writing increasingly lost its sense of play. I was trying to get friends to read my novel, and friends never want to read long things and give accurate feedback and all of this—so I was feeling increasingly alone. I’d quit teaching. I was just doing psychology and trying to write this thing. No one was reading this thing. I tried to pay an editor to read this thing, but it was just going really badly.

I lost every piece of my soul trying to write a publishable book in that very public space that wasn’t daring, wasn’t true to my own self. It makes me ill to think about what I became with writing.

Flow

In the crux of one of these neurotic, “I want to finish my novel” moments, I started posting on Facebook. It started out of my own loneliness and lack of stage for performance. Reading little excerpts from what I’d read that day, recording on my iPhone, and then putting a drawing up on Facebook. And then—I was getting amazing response. I think my talent is not with words but with finding a conjunction between pictures and words. That was working.

The shift for me literally happened instantaneously. It was moving from the most neurotic relationship I’d ever had, to—flow. For me, putting videos onto words is my flow. I was released from prison.

I started to extend them a bit. I made these little animated videos out of whatever I wrote from the novel that day with pictures. People really were responding to that. And boom—within a day, I said, “I’m giving up the novel. I’m going to make animated videos.”

The shift for me literally happened instantaneously. It was moving from the most neurotic relationship I’d ever had, to—flow. For me, putting videos onto words is my flow. I was released from prison.

I was forcing myself to have that relationship. When I say “neurotic,” I mean clinging hard to something that is not serving you. I had a million reasons in the world why I was clinging to it. The only thing that allowed me to stop clinging was, I think, positive feedback. It’s almost like falling in love with a new lover to get you off the old one. I started getting positive feedback for the videos and said, “Oh, I can express myself here, and I can get love here.” I couldn’t see giving up writing and not getting self-esteem from another activity. It really is like changing lovers. I’ve been much more fluid in my art life since then.

I might try again. Sometimes I do try again, even just in writing an e-mail. I’ll allow myself to follow the subtler or weirder or windier thought in a sentence, like, “Oh, that was some fun writing right there.” When I was trying to publish, I would edit every sentence a thousand times. It was all just dull stones. It has been fun to let that limb regrow a little bit, but I don’t want to force it because it was really a horrible feeling—to lose yourself, just stiff all over.

I am who I am in my art because I do not have to make a penny from it. I have a job, and when I make these videos now, I feel almost zero pressure to make anything for anyone. With writing, it’s not that I ever thought I would really make much money from it, but I had sold a book and I wanted to sell a second book. I lost that sense of my intuition. It was too public.

"Female Competition" by Ilana Simons

Intuition

Intuition—almost as shorthand or tongue-in-cheek. Around the time I was getting divorced, I felt so out of touch with parts of myself. For example, I was shocked at how out of touch I was with my sexual self.

I am more and more open. I am more and more willing to see—not necessarily because I believe the universe is in play with me, but willing to entertain it. Like doing calisthenics before a run, keeping myself loose, not keeping myself so rigid.

The whole thing with my husband is this dynamic, where half of me is an unconscious life and half of me is an aboveground, conscious life of what I grew up with. My marriage was that. He was one of them. I feel I worked so hard to live in that group of men that I had really lost touch with some parts of myself.

I came into contact with this woman. We did a series of games where she was trying to get me back in touch with what she was calling “intuition.” A lot of the things we did haven’t stuck, but some of the words have. Even though I know the word “intuition” can come with some vague woo-woo connotations, I hold onto the word because I would rather err on being accepting of the woo-woo than letting it go again.

She definitely believes there is no coincidence, that the universe is always sending us signs and numbers and forces. I don’t go that far. I do believe in coincidence. But when certain moments—she calls them synchronicities—happen, I will take them as a sign, only in the sense of a gift, in the sense of letting myself take a gift. Letting myself have that soft moment where you think the universe is playing with you, not resisting you all the time, not cold. You can think of the universe as a non-responsive blank slate against which we’re struggling to make our willful way, or you can think of it as some force that’s slightly more in play with you, not just resisting you, and is responsive to you in some way.

I love reminding myself of that. I love reminding myself that I don’t know everything. That I don’t know everything is a hugely graceful thing to think.

I am more and more open. I am more and more willing to see—not necessarily because I believe the universe is in play with me, but willing to entertain it. Like doing calisthenics before a run, keeping myself loose, not keeping myself so rigid. There are certainly energies that exist that we have lost our touch with. Smell is a perfect one. Our sex drives are so much more reliant on smell than we give ourselves conscious credit for. Fearyou can smell fear. Smell is just a very obvious example of a sense that is hugely important to our sexual, social selves that we don’t credit. I’m convinced that there are other ways of sensing energy.

I love reminding myself of that. I love reminding myself that I don’t know everything. That I don’t know everything is a hugely graceful thing to think.

The Slime Trail

When I’m in an artistically productive time, my dreams get better. I do believe you can have more or less flow in that side of my brain, which connects emotionally laden imagery. I’m hugely into dreams. Dreams are my favorite part of the brain—because we’re all artists. I love being surprised by mine. I guess it’s wisdom, right? You dream you are holding your ex’s hot dog onto a flame, and watching it burn. There are so many ironies and desires—and humor—in that image. It’s like, “I came up with that.”

You try to shoot the target when you create something, but so many reverberations are through association with that target. You can’t help but give a dream each time you make something artistic. Expression is not just what you plan to do and achieve. It’s more like a puking. There’s splatter.

And when you read an artist that you love, and you’re like, “Oh, that was a part of my brain that I didn’t name, but that feels right.”

When I’m creating something, I do have a willed intention for what I want it to be, but the stuff it becomes, even against what you can and can’t control: “Oh, that expressed me.” That’s the feeling of a dream. That came from me, and it expressed me. It’s not what I planned. Good for me. For me, that’s unconscious life.

Many times, I look back at an old video I made. I can remember what I planned. I wanted to do a video about X, but in the process of making a video about X, I couldn’t help myself from also giving it certain associational power. Even the experience it brings to my own mind—“I picked that music because in 4th grade, I was in love with someone. That’s why I picked that music.” Or, “I didn’t know it at the time, but there’s a certain rhythm there that bounces between two emotions I was feeling."

You try to shoot the target when you create something, but so many reverberations are through association with that target. You can’t help but give a dream each time you make something artistic. Expression is not just what you plan to do and achieve. It’s more like a puking. There’s splatter.

I can look back at the self who worked for 30 years on a novel that never got finished.  If you’d asked me about it at the time, I would’ve called it my therapy because every time I wrote, I would love to see how my brain would come onto the page. And it was definitely a therapy. It was about this child who was taken into the underworld and who needed to create a good art project before returning to the above world. It’s really interesting now. I was never able to finish it, never able to bring the child above world. The child just got stuck down there.

I like looking back at those old selves, who were richer than they thought they were, or different than they thought they were, who were shooting the shotgun in a larger ring than just the target.

I did not know at the time how much I was battling, that battle which is central to myself: losing intuition, losing touch with this fertile underground, in an effort to be aboveground. That was a huge battle. I didn’t know it at the time, but I can look back now and say, “Oh. That’s what that was.”

It’s like a snail that leaves a trail. He’s looking forward and thinks, “I’m going to the tree.” But he’s left this slime trail behind him that he doesn’t see. It’s his body in motion. That’s how I think of all those old notebooks or old videos. “I had an intention, and I made it to that tree”—but you didn’t see the slime you left behind you. I like looking back at those old selves who were richer than they thought they were, or different than they thought they were, who were shooting the shotgun in a larger ring than just the target.

It’s a really scary fact—and this happens with falling in love, too—that we think we know where we’re at, but it’s only in retrospect that we can see it better. You ask me questions about myself today. I’m going to think I’m on a journey, and I’ve justified the journey, and I have the idea of the journey. With love, too. Each time you fall in love or make someone your partner, you don’t know what your blind spots are going to be. You don’t know what is going to be the thing that crumbles.

Love

Two years married. Five years together. But after we got divorced, we tried to get back together three times, so it was a very long breakup. It was in January a number of years ago that I was in Key West at an art residency and decided, “I’m not going to move back in.” That was one big breakup. I moved here and started the play the week I got here.
 
I moved to this apartment and decided, “I’m done,” and decided to make a play about it to get through it. For one full year, the first full year, I worked nonstop and made a zillion small movies. Not one of them was kept. I just tried so much shit to get it right.
 
Then I ran into him in January. This was after a year of making shit and throwing it out, making shit and throwing it out. I ran into him at a bar, and we spent the next two weeks with each other, trying to work through our demons. It included hallucinogenic drugs and concentrated time of working through shit. The purpose of it was not to make the relationship work, but for me to understand. And then, boom—when we were done, the whole play came in two months.
 
We were trying to be in each other’s lives for a bit then, but—impossible. And now I feel liberated to throw my heart in a new direction. In order to do this, I need to physically leave the city for a while. I wanted to carry the momentum of having worked on this narrative and I sold myself a new narrative by actually leaving.

"Trailer for All Together Now," by Ilana Simons

All Together Now

This is probably too soon to say and probably a knock-on-wood moment, but for the first time, perhaps in my life, after finishing this play, I had a new feeling in me. There’s a therapeutic value in doing interviews. I was forced to say, “What have I done? Let’s write it down.” It’s like writing a C.V.: “How did I get to this point?” I was able to actually love myself in that way.

The play was a self-analysis of how I came to make things. Why did I become obsessed with making things? It was a real look at, “What is this drive I have to make art? What is this need to be heard in a certain way?” My brother said, “I don’t really look into your process so much, but I’ll look into the product.” And to be like, “Oh, wow. I really have been producing product, in order to be looked at, for a very long time.” Maybe it was just that realization. Maybe it was the fact that it was a performance, and performing is a certain purging, a beautiful cleansing thing.

When you do a play and go home, in your new silence at night—there’s just this deafening silence. I had to feel proud on my own, if I was going to feel proud.

During the play, I wasn’t feeling cleansed. But after I finished it, I had absolutely nothing to work on. I’d worked on that thing for two years, very diligently. I had nothing to do afterward. My patient load was clearing out because I was about to go on that trip. And I really felt free. I felt, “Oh—I don’t have to make my next project.” I had made something and I was proud of it.

It might’ve helped that I didn’t get that much feedback. When you do a play and go home in your new silence at night—there’s just this deafening silence. I had to feel proud on my own, if I was going to feel proud. Every night I checked in, I was like, “You know what? I didn’t get much feedback, but I am proud.” Owning that. “I have expressed something. It was what I wanted to express. It’s my story, and I’m proud”—that was a huge release.

So I’ve been feeling really different. I’ve been feeling much less pressure to make something to prove myself, more appreciative of what I’ve made to express myself. It’s true that in these next three months, I’ve stacked on some major projects, but they feel less necessary and more exploratory to me. I still see the ways in which I make myself somebody’s inferior in order to have a good relationship, but there is a slight shift. I really do have a new sense of—I don’t know if authority is the right word. Maybe self-respect.

Tent

Right after it finished I went to Burning Man, and I had never really camped before. It was a gift to myself right when the play ended, like, “Oh my God, I feel free. I feel powerful. And I’m going to spend a ridiculous amount of money on a weekend and go to Burning Man.” Got a tent, had never really camped, and went out there.

For me, there’s pressure to be bigger than yourself, to be on stage, or vocal at the dinner table. All this open space. The winds are damaging. These open spaces without any protection from the wind.

I’ve had a six-year addiction to sleeping pills. I didn’t take a pill that weekend, and I haven’t taken one since. This is two or three weeks after yearlong addiction. I just feel—a little more relaxed. What else is there to say? There was something about sleeping in that small, that snug-to-my-body, one-person tent, alone, out there, and not having done that before.

The tent the play is in—I didn’t realize until Burning Man how significant that is to me. The privacy of women’s writing space that we discussed before, under the covers when you’re a kid with your flashlight—to build a space which properly fits your own space. For me, there’s pressure to be bigger than yourself, to be on stage, or vocal at the dinner table. All this open space. The winds are damaging. These open spaces without any protection from the wind.

I’ve always liked to sleep close to the floor. To put the play on, I had to have some limit to where the sounds went, some smaller “just fit you” scope of performance. So the audience would lie down on a tent, and I would sink into the floor with them. With larger stages—with politics at a podium, or large dinner tables—there seems to be some exposure that I can’t own. For some reason, being in that tent at Burning Man felt like the right proportions for my personal space. I didn’t have to be bigger than I was or smaller than I was.

That I had an addiction, and it actually had an effect on me—is huge information. People say with addiction that you’re not supposed to be able to solve it by just changing where you are. But I think it can help a lot.

"Leave town if you want to change your head," by Ilana Simons

The Way I Talk

A lot of people who came to my show said, “Oh, this was so brave.” For me, it just felt like the way I talk. It didn’t feel brave to me.

When left to my own resources, I might keep spinning my wheels the same way, but it is remarkable to me that each time I grow, I bring along the old furniture—and the room, somehow, looks like a room I would be in.

Sometimes it can be annoying because everything I do has the same tone. It’s not that I don’t vary my challenges. I’ll do a movie, I’ll do a play, I’ll do a book. I’m about to do a documentary. I’ve done animated documentaries. I’ve done literary criticism. Every project I do is radically different, but every time I’m done, I’m like, “Oh, there’s my Ilana Simons voice.”

It’s a blessing and a curse. I think people who have a home in being an artist do end up with a thumbprint. Pass any Swoon, you’re going to know it’s a Swoon. She’s great, but everything she does, you can see her thumbprint. I tend to think that’s a way with artists. You have a certain vocabulary, and you can try to throw it West or throw it North, but it’s your vocabulary. Mine, when I don’t like it, almost sounds over-earnest. I like it and don’t like it. That’s my style. Some days I’m proud of it, and some days I’m embarrassed that it’s always of the same earnestness.

It’s part of the reason I throw myself new projects that might throw me off balance: so I can somehow be different to myself. You can do things to make yourself grow. When left to my own resources, I might keep spinning my wheels the same way, but it is remarkable to me that each time I grow, I bring along the old furniture—and the room, somehow, looks like a room I would be in.

Where the Tension Is

I wanted to be a writer. I went into the doctorate program in English literature at NYU. I was pretty sure from the get-go that I didn’t want to be an academic, in terms of publishing things that are very insular to the field. But I loved teaching, and then the first year out I published the book on Woolf that was popular, but I had the most impossible time selling another one. And working on Woolf clarified so much of my interest in psychology, so the day I graduated with the Ph.D. in English, I went right into one in Psychology. It just took me a really long time to figure out where to go career-wise. It just took me so long.

Then, people have problems at home, or with concentration, or with confidence. You’re always trying to hear what’s blocking them as a writing teacher, and try to speak a language that feels safe inside that block. ... You want to go to where the tension is, and speak in a way that lets you both feel comfortable.

I remember early on, the cousin you saw in the film said, “Oh, you’d be a good psychologist.” I remember that from my childhood, that he had given me that little piece of wisdom, and I just couldn’t hear it. Right now it feels like the right fit for me, but it just took a long time to get there.

It was mostly teaching writing, first-year essay writing. It felt like a psychological discussion, in that I was trying to get somebody to hear their voice, know when their voice was working, that third eye where you say, “Here’s what I’m trying to express. Let’s see what I’m actually expressing.”

Or even just the process of, “Hey, have some fun with your brain. I know this book is boring, but you can go hunting for something interesting here. You can look for all the times the color blue is used and make a thesis about that. You could go looking at all the gestures women do. You could get into this book in any way you want to go, and you can make any little sandcastle of a thesis.” Just trying to enter that chaos that is this book and find some way to enter into conversation by having a thesis. Trying to encourage people to, like, think. Just think, right? That’s psychology.

Then, people have problems at home, or with concentration, or with confidence. You’re always trying to hear what’s blocking them as a writing teacher, and you try to speak a language that feels safe inside that block. You don’t want to ask them to be doing too much advanced cognitive stuff if they’re just on the level of being nervous to write. You want to go to where the tension is and speak in a way that lets you both feel comfortable.

Luck of a Match

Sometimes it’s the luck of a match. I do have a client now for whom somebody else would be a great therapist. But my own tendencies, what I value in life, tend to rub up against what they value in life, in a way that makes it so we’re always one step off the dance when we’re in the room together.

There’s one student from one of my first years teaching who most people found highly annoying. He liked to speak in sentences that were overly ornate and philosophical. He clearly wanted to be thought of as intelligent, but he went over the top in these sentences and it would turn everyone off. But I was into Derrida at the time and into these really convoluted sentences. I just happened to be in the right space with the right amount of patience, and the right taste, to love to sit for an hour and decode the sentences he was writing.

If you’re lucky enough to be in relationship with somebody who can see the beauty in you, largely because it comes from some beauty of their own—I mean, I guess that’s not the only way to be a therapist, but it’s the easiest way.

And they were pretentious, and no one could read them, and they were not “good writing”—but they were up my alley. I loved to sit and unpack them and figure out that he was actually following all the grammatical rules. You couldn’t read the sentence, but they were right. They were accurate. I would bring them into class and tell everyone, “Can you guys see that this sentence works?” I would put it on the board, and we would go over it.

What I was into at the time happened to align with the way his neurotic tic was working. I think it was really great for him to happen to be in my room at that time because I got off on his sentences, and another teacher might not. And I didn’t get off on other people’s sentences.

Sometimes it’s just fit, where somebody can see the beauty in you and somebody else can’t. If you’re lucky enough to be in relationship with somebody who can see the beauty in you, largely because it comes from some beauty of their own—I mean, I guess that’s not the only way to be a therapist, but it’s the easiest way.

Listening

I was not a very good student, as a psychology student. I was in my own pretentious phase. I had just published this book on Woolf. “Oh, I’m an author.” I went into my Ph.D. program with a huge chip on my shoulder. I had half my body there, but perhaps more of my body into being a writer. I think I was a little bit arrogant in my classes, didn’t study much. That’s what I see when I look back on that old self.

It is, for me, an appetite for listening. There just aren’t that many people who really want to listen to you, and I do. I think that’s why I’m a psychologist. There’s something curative in just listening.

But, to not be so harsh on that old self, I still believe the schooling you go through to be a psychologist is largely irrelevant to the work you do as a psychologist. That would be a project I’d love to be involved in: rewriting the curriculum for what psychologists study. I could go on and on about that.

In any case, I came out into the practice of psychology very much like I’m just going to feel out what I want to do. I’m going to feel out what works. I’ve been relating to people my whole life; I’m going to continue relating to people. I’ve been a good listener my whole life; I’m going to continue listening. It didn’t feel like I came out with any fear or adherence to a modality.

 “Are you witch doctors? Are you tarot-card readers? What do psychologists do?” It is, for me, an appetite for listening. There just aren’t that many people who really want to listen to you, and I do. I think that’s why I’m a psychologist. There’s something curative in just listening.

It sounds too simple. People don’t want to hear that. People want to hear that there’s a program and homework, and test results that prove that if you do this, and this, and this, followed by that, and that, you’re going to get better. People want something more technical-sounding than listening—but I think it’s listening.

Respect and Mystery

If I find myself feeling the instinct to correct, or even feeling myself above a patient, I know it’s not going right. That’ll come up a lot, because there’s this imagined relationship where I’m supposed to know—supposed to guide—and when I feel that coming on too strongly, I know the therapy’s not going well.

My desire to go somewhere authentic (that word is suspect), where the sparks might happen, being able to have a conversation that feels alive in the sense that it was never written before, and hopefully we both get to some little pocket of your brain we haven’t gotten to before, and you feel like I get where you just went—that’s a good session.

When I feel respect and mystery, and “Let’s go together on this journey,” then I know it’s going well. That’s not so easy because you can’t always find the people whose journeys you enjoy to ride along with, that you respect. It’s just a fact. Like I was saying earlier, I respected this one student’s adventure with his long, highly-wrought sentences, but other teachers might not have had that taste. Luckily, a lot of people who come into therapy do have the particular spirit—an adventurous “I want to look at myself” spirit—that I tend to enjoy in others.

If I feel we’re going on a journey together, and I’m occasionally learning, then I feel like it’s going well. If I feel myself getting preachy, something’s going wrong.

People have different styles, and that’s important in finding a therapist. Somebody coming to therapy might be wired—in her cognitive style—toward concrete thinking or literalness. In some cases, then she might be better matched with a therapist in CBT—with a partner in her cognitive style. I can try as hard as I want to mute or open up my own tendencies in my thinking style—my tendency is toward the abstract, the slow, pathetic and poetic—but if we’re talking about a style of brainwave that’s central enough to worldview, she really might be better suited to someone else.

Therapeutic relationships that aren’t working unfortunately go on too long. They do end. It becomes obvious to both parties. It’s so hard to tell somebody—to have somebody not take that defensively. It’s a journey, and, believe it or not, it’s not something to take defensively. Can you believe that?

My desire to go somewhere authentic (that word is suspect), where the sparks might happen, being able to have a conversation that feels alive in the sense that it was never written before, and hopefully we both get to some little pocket of your brain we haven’t gotten to before, and you feel like I get where you just went—that’s a good session. We can make meaning together, feel our minds make something together. I think that’s how people find their life partners—can we make something together here? Can we work together? You and me, we’re going to make a meaning?

"Metaphors in Therapy," by Ilana Simons

Theatrical Therapy

I don’t talk about my work to many other psychologists. I don’t go to conferences. I haven’t developed my network. I have grown my own way into the world of therapy. I do my art, too. I don’t have an overly technical or precious idea about psychology as a thing unto itself.

If we’re doing these broad comparisons, I’m more psychoanalytic than I am CBT. I tend toward looser boundaries than some, but I see the value in boundaries, and it always depends on who you’re working with. I would like to break into more experiential forms. I have one patient with whom I make videos and one with whom I make collage.

I just had a meeting yesterday with somebody from Odyssey Works. They set up theatrical experiences for a single person that they construct over six months. They’ll go to people in that person’s life, find details about that person, get any information they can. Then over some hours or a day, that one person (audience member) is submerged into a theatrical trip; scenes and objects are planted. He’ll walk by a conversation that happened in his childhood. He’ll see crowds of people wearing the shoes he’s bought for twenty years. He’ll be taken through a dreamscape of self-recognition. He’ll walk down Brooklyn to his favorite coffee shop, and a book he loved as a kid will be on the table.

When I performed my own play, that had deeply therapeutic value for me. There’s something about building and being inside a performance that shifted my feeling about myself. I don’t yet know what to make of that, but there’s something to be made.

When I performed my own play, that had deeply therapeutic value for me. There’s something about building and being inside a performance that shifted my feeling about myself. I don’t yet know what to make of that, but there’s something to be made.

There is no doubt that my therapeutic thinking informs my art. I wish my artistic thinking informed my therapy more, in a practical way. That’s what I want to work on. And if that means introducing more performance, or walking together, or filming something together—some way of amplifying experience? I’d like to think a lot more about that.

I tend to not do so well with recipes. I started ordering Blue Apron once every blue moon, and that’s really fun—but I’ll cook one of the meals through the recipe and make it up for the other two. I feel alive when I’m figuring something out. So with psychology, I tend to want to figure it out as I go.

People say therapy works because you have the experience of an interpersonal bond you’re not getting somewhere else, whether it’s, “That person was alarmingly kind to me,” or “Oh my God, that person remembered something about me,” or “I just got angry at that person, and that person didn’t get angry back.” It’s not just the content of what’s said, but feeling and experience.

Medication

I’m going to repeat what a lot of people probably say: undeniable that in certain cases, I’ve seen it work so well. People get their lives back in a variety of ways. Help with addiction. Methadone. Suboxone, Wellbutrin to help quit smoking and alcoholism. So many ways I’ve seen medication be a clear help. With addiction, with major depression, bipolar without a doubt—that all feels to me like I can unabashedly say, “Yea.”
 
I do think the overmedication of our world speaks to a lot of what we came in saying: that we want to appreciate the subtleties, the nuances. Overmedication comes from a lack of patience we all have in living with our differences, and living with our moods, and living with our disappointments, alienation, pissed off at our jobs. So many people need to calm down their nerves, and that’s a cultural problem causing a rise in medication.
 
I also want to throw in an adventurous, spirited side of me: I think it’s really interesting—I have friends who are behind the research to get psilocybin an accepted drug for treatment of trauma and anxiety. I do get very behind experiments. I don’t know how I want to say that, other than there’s no doubt that medication can help free up space for thinking creatively. In the case with some hallucinogens, getting us in touch with sides of our creativity and the layers of ourselves, and our defensiveness. I think it’s great for uncovering your defenses, for letting you see what your defenses are.
 
So I have a slightly adventurous spirit about it, though I do understand the fact that we’re all medicating ourselves does speak something about our dissatisfaction with community and culture and human relations.

Curative, Exploratory

It might be frustrating for some—I never think of psychology as a curative model but an exploratory model.

One of my friends would say, ‘Look at all that pain you’re in. You’re really doing it. You’re really going there. You’re really working it. When you’re done, you’ll be done.’

Take my interest in Virginia Woolf, for example. When I say I wrote a self-help book based on Virginia Woolf, people are like, “She killed herself. That doesn’t make any sense.” But the interesting space before death? I actually believe that’s interesting space. I don’t have much of an impulse to cure, which can be a little bit odd but can also be a little bit refreshing.

When I was in a lot of pain going through this divorce—I’m a little embarrassed about how much pain I had—people took different approaches to it. One of my girlfriends said, “Never talk to him again. You’re going to get over this.” One of my friends would say, “Look at all that pain you’re in. You’re really doing it. You’re really going there. You’re really working it. When you’re done, you’ll be done.” She had an absolutely un-alarmist, “I trust you will be done when you’re done. You go, girl.”

Paper plate portrait of Virginia Woolf; courtesy of the artist

Paper plate portrait of Virginia Woolf; courtesy of the artist

There was something about her not feeling like anything quickly needed to be cured toward the normal, but that we all have our journeys—and there’s not only no shame in it but great interest in it.

There was something about her not feeling like anything quickly needed to be cured toward the normal, but that we all have our journeys—and there’s not only no shame in it, but great interest in it.

We know this well: people are much more willing to go with a plan they’ve come up with themselves than a plan they’re given, especially if the plan they’re given is critical of them. “You are wrong. You should be this.” If it starts from a corrective place, it’s much less likely to work.

And if you feel someone has faith in you? I’m so lucky because I came from a mother who really trusts me. I think I’ve been able to become more and more adventurous because I feel someone I respect trusts me.

I was listening to a podcast today and somebody was talking about that reactive, curative reaction to depression: “You better get better for the people in your life.”

But there’s also, “You’re depressed. You are going through what might be one of the most important experiences of your life. It’s a crucible. You could come out to create great art. Or developing an ear for social activism. Go, girl. You’re in it.” I do believe that feeling alienated from the norm, from normal human experience, from happy human experiences, gives you a drive and content to critique the norm or be outside the norm, or express outside the norm—which I think is what art is, what social activism is. We were talking about underground and aboveground. It’s expressing the underground to the outside. For the most part, I think it’s the voice of the periphery.

To Be With

I guess what I’m telling you is I don’t have a very robust alarm bell reaction. First of all, there are a limited number of things we can put on that to put the fire out. We have some meds, and then we have listening. ... I can offer a referral for a great psychiatrist who will give a great med. My medicine is curiosity. That’s what I can offer.

It’s interesting to weave back in some of these things we’ve talked about. My own family history where I felt there was this underground world of thinking ostracized from the dinner table, perhaps by nature of habit, not malicious intent on anyone’s part. One reason my dad didn’t like that language to make it to the dinner table was because he believes in a sort of cheerfulness.

Though I’ve never actually had major depression, bipolar, a panic attack—I’ve been pretty free of the strongest feelings of mental illness—I have always felt myself to be a champion of the language that gets left out because people want to see cheerfulness. Perhaps also because I’ve been free of those very distinct symptoms of mental illness, I’ve tended to say, “Let’s blur the lines.” Even when you use the phrase “mental illness”—and this could be my big blind spot, granted, this could really be a blind spot I have as a therapist—but I say, “Why don’t we call it life of the interior?” We all need to see each other, appreciate each other as more nuanced.

I feel what we’re talking about is inner life, and God knows, to have an inner life is a sign of health. Perhaps that’s optimistic blurring on my end, but I’m always surprised when somebody insists on calling it illness.

I do think medication is important in lots of cases. I guess what I’m telling you is I don’t have a very robust alarm-bell reaction. First of all, there are a limited number of things we can put on that to put the fire out. We have some meds, and then we have listening. So as much as the alarm bell wants to go off, I’m not that interested in it going off. I can offer a referral for a great psychiatrist who will give a great med. My medicine is curiosity. That’s what I can offer.

I’m deeply interested in going there and hearing about it, and I’m not going to lose that appetite any time soon, which is what my role is. That’s my job. My job is not to cure. My job is to be with.

I’m working with such different people and such different experiences, and I'm so new at it that I’m not drawing on my personal experience to answer this. I get off a little scot-free because I haven’t suffered major depression. I’ve had some pretty horrible times, and once I emerge from them we can forget them. We can be like, “Oh, yeah, life’s OK.” You forget how much pain is in that moment. You forget how horrible that moment is.

So for me to say, “Why do we need alarm bells?” is pretty lacking empathy. But that is also the benefit I bring to the table. I’m deeply interested in going there and hearing about it, and I’m not going to lose that appetite any time soon, which is what my role is. That’s my job. My job is not to cure. My job is to be with.

I remember my best friend, when I was going through my real pain. She dignified my journey by not setting off alarm bells and telling me to get out of my journey—and God knows a shit-ton of good stuff came out of my journey. There was a whole bunch of good stuff that came out of my pain.

Virus of Discontent

I think mental illness is playing a major role in our culture right now in utterly dangerous ways. I think Donald Trump is an example of somebody who has mental illness, who has power. So much of the alienation and fear and rejection that has been felt by different cultures has given rise to violence. And that’s related to mental illness.

Lock ‘em up, or put ‘em on drugs—but the problem is so much deeper. This virus of discontent and lost respect, even between the races in the U.S. and the classes in the U.S., such loss of respect and trust—to me, it feels like an un-healable situation.

Lock ‘em up, or put ‘em on drugs—but the problem is so much deeper. This virus of discontent and lost respect, even between the races in the U.S. and the classes in the U.S., such loss of respect and trust—to me, it feels like an un-healable situation.

I’m going on this trip to Greece to work with the refugees. This is, again, the way I do my cynical talk to allow myself to keep going. “Oh, I’m only going because I love drama. I’m going for me. It’s selfish. I love drama. I’m going to go where the drama is.” I’m a psychologist. I go where the human drama is, but the flip side is that my desire to listen has the beneficial effect of compassion. I find myself still acting, and still wanting, and still creating art, and still hoping and trying—but I don’t believe the human race will be around in however many years, and I don’t think that’s a horrible thing.

This Grand, Huge Water

It just seems that there is so much. It’s probably through intense feelings of alienation and low self-esteem that this psychosis is happening. It’s funny, the amount of exhaustion I feel even as we start to talk about it. It will take so much time. I know there is interesting work being done on this, bringing Palestinian and Israeli kids to work on projects together, gain respect for each other’s viewpoints. How do you get groups that are at odds to come together and recognize each other? It’s so not anything I have expertise in. It’s this grand, huge water.

It’s an entire breeding ground of alienation, a whole history of wounds. At a certain point, the solution feels impossible. At a certain point, you can’t just sit down and tell a person you care about him, and he should chill out because he’s loved—the wound is just too deep.

I remember learning about Hitler in school and how politics are taught. There’s a level of talking about politics where psychology doesn’t enter in nearly enough. “What’s the political solution to all this”—when it so clearly needs a psychological solution? The way those two things get separated.

We watch all of this Trump mania going on. “How could he say that again? How could he do that? How could these people believe him?” There is a psychological explanation, which has a lot less to do with this sensational reaction.

That could be the reason we have historically had what we’ve been calling the aboveground culture, which is political and largely male. It’s almost impossible to find the psychological solution. It’s so messy. So I can understand why we have this penchant for leaning toward strategic political solutions.

How do you stop a man from putting a bomb off at work? Well, damn, it’s going to take more than a couple conversations. It’s an entire breeding ground of alienation, a whole history of wounds. At a certain point, the solution feels impossible. At a certain point, you can’t just sit down and tell a person you care about him and that he should chill out because he’s loved—the wound is just too deep.

I’m riding your optimism here, but there could be a chance that if a guy who’s having a breakdown in the workplace gets three compassionate responses, rather than one brutal one, it will make a big difference. There’s that chance.

Safe Enough to be Generous

God, I don’t know yet. I’ve been wanting this for a long time: to be more generous. I think that has to do with money, and I think that has to do with time. It has to do with fear. ... I want my future self to be someone who, somehow, feels safe enough to be generous.

I’m so blown away by the amount I don’t know in felt experience. That’s also why I’m going to Greece: all the ways an organized reality, sitting here in New York in a condo in Boerum Hill, is further, and further, and further adrift from the chaos of realities out there right now. I think I’m going because I feel myself further and further from so many other truths. I don’t have an answer other than, “Hell, right. That’s why I want to go see some other truths.” The way people are organizing reality is so different in so many different cases right now with the threat of war and genocide.

There are certain defenses I want to lose: what I was describing before, an itch in my life, the little-sister mentality of indoctrinating myself into task after task after task to prove to myself I could accomplish the task, get some credit—but then I’d have to move on to the next task because I knew myself through being a student. The tension in that striving my whole life has been probably why I was on sleeping pills.

Since the play—and again, it could be temporary, I don’t know—I’m feeling a lightening of the tension of task-doing. If I can exist in that space where I don’t feel I need to prove myself so much, then the tasks could become more playful and joyful, less pressure to be one thing or the other. That’s what I would like to hold on to right now.

I’m going to go do this documentary in Tennessee, and I don’t quite know what my content is, but I’m just going to bring my video camera and hunt around. I’m sure that whatever content I end up capturing on my camera, I can form into a story. I’m not that nervous. I want to sit and love the material and let it form a story. I feel myself less forcing it.

God, I don’t know yet. I’ve been wanting this for a long time: to be more generous. I think that has to do with money, and I think that has to do with time. It has to do with fear. Fear has kept me from being generous a lot of times—that I’ll run out of money, that I’ll run out of time to create what I want to create. There’s some sort of self-preservation that keeps me from being generous. I want my future self to be someone who, somehow, feels safe enough to be generous.

"About Haruki Murakami" by Ilana Simons

Interview by Caitlin Shih
Nomadic Press
Caitlin Shih is just another millennial with a B.A. in English and a deep-seated interest in the human experience. She lives on Long Island, New York, and currently struggles with spending too much time out of her home and not enough time with her cat.