Barbie girls do not visit my therapy room that often.

This one was from a Fashionista kind – perfectly blond and dressed up for a lunch in town with her equally well-groomed girlfriends on stilettos.

This is the unkind thought that crossed my mind as I opened the door and greeted her. I felt bad; a spark of shame made me smile a bit more broadly to her than I would usually do. How could I reduce this person to a soulless doll? Nadia (no, she was not called Barbie) was probably suffering – otherwise why would she be here?

She was a Russian-American living in Paris. Her parents had immigrated to Texas when she was eleven; and this is where she had grown up – she stressed at the very beginning of our session. She felt American and preferred to speak English with me, if I did not mind. I did not.
Her English was perfect indeed, with a subtle Southern twist.

Ignorant of my inner thoughts about her, she sat down, crossed her long legs and kicked off:

- I hate everything here.

This was a rather unusual beginning. My American clients are typically fascinated about Paris, though, sometimes, this initial idealization turns into disillusionment or frustration about the French administration or widespread snobbiness.

- Everything?
- Yes, I hate French people, I hate French food…
- Is there anything you might like about Paris?
- Nope.

She sounded certain; the frozen frown on her perfect face confirmed this commitment to disgust. I believed her feeling. She looked fed up with trying to fit into a place she did not belong to.

The only reason Nadia was still living in France was her French boyfriend.

At first she had found the idea of following this Frenchman to Paris rather appealing. Her Texan girlfriends were finding it exciting, they could not hide their envy. This sat well with her – she was into fashion, and Paris was the place. She could picture herself working for one of the luxury brands, wearing a Chanel jacket and some fine jewelry…

Who was this man? How did he connect with her? What did he appreciate in her apart from her looks?
I did not get much out of her: he was rational, well-organized and made good money.

Is it ever possible to love someone and completely dislike the culture this person belongs to? Having loved France and a French man for twenty years, I naturally doubted that, but Nadia’s story was different: they had met in her step-motherland, the US, and her knowledge about France was limited to Hollywood movies and her mother’s dream to visit Paris, an impossible fantasy during Soviet times.

But Nadia was not interested in philosophical questions. She made it clear – she just wanted me to tell her that “her feeling was normal” and would pass with time: should she stay and give France another chance, or return home? She was desperately homesick.

Was this place rejecting her? Probably. This had been my first reaction after all – Paris is not to welcoming Barbie girls – its well-known lights can be disappointing and lack the promised glamour. My own Frenchness, acquired through hard work, had rejected the way she was exhibiting herself.

She stubbornly rebuked my attempts to enquire into her relationship with her original home, Russia. She did not have much recollection from her first years of life there, and had never given it much thought. She insisted on being happily American. Could it be that her current exposure to another strong culture was threatening her American identity?

Working on this is possible in long-term therapy and can be painful at times. I suggested that, as long as she was ready to commit.
Nadia was resisting taking any responsibility for the flaws in her relationship with France, she just could not do anything else than hating the country, the people, or the food here.

After going in circles for an hour, we did not manage to move an inch beyond this initial point. I sat there in front of her, moving closer to the realization that I could not help her without her cooperation.

When I finally closed the door behind her, I felt exhausted and relieved. My guess was that she would not be coming back. I felt used by her, and as result mildly ashamed.

Shame is a tricky but always informative feeling.
What was it about? Maybe this shame was something Nadia was experiencing deep down under her tight red top, under her perfectly tanned skin?

Reflecting on our session, based on the very little she had shared with me about her past, I could imagine the young Russian girl brought by her parents to a new and probably alienating place. She had mentioned that the first year had been hard – children at school mocking her for her wrong clothes and wobbly English. But she was a tough kid, and soon enough she had joined the group of the ‘popular girls’. This had come with a cost – losing weight and learning how to play totally new and strange sports among other things …

Thinking about this teenager dealing with her new immigrant condition that she had not chosen, I could finally feel some compassion.
Here in Paris, the adult Nadia was certainly feeling as inadequate as the younger Nadia during her first years in America. The fact that this time she was the one making the choice to move did not make it any easier.

My intuition was proven right – Nadia never came back, neither did she follow up on our unique encounter. This happens rarely, and every time it does I am left with more uneasy questions than answers. Did I fail her somehow? Should I have done something differently or was I simply not the right therapist for her?
Even now as I am writing about Nadia, I feel an uneasy feeling, a mild embarrassment about failing to connect with her, to feel for her more in the moment. Had I been able to connect with the young Russian girl, ridden by the feeling of being too different from other truly American kids, would it have gone any differently? Perhaps her Barbie-like façade was the only way she had found at the time to fit in, to belong. How desperate she would have been to fit in to adapt her own personality to this caricature of a perfectly American girl. Had she played with foreign-looking Barbie dolls as a little girl back in her native Russia?

Most probably I will never find answers to these questions, and as any other therapist, I had to learn how to deal with such frustrations and uncertainties – they are part of my job.

I hope that one day Nadia is safe enough to get in touch with her shame about her imperfect origins. After all, she chose to contact me – a Russian become French, rather than one of the many American psychotherapists in Paris. Maybe a well-hidden part of her wanted to connect with her ‘shameful’ roots; but for now this part was too small and too insecure. I had to accept that and hope that in the future she will give therapy another chance…

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections