2 min

All I had was a shrug

'Your needs. What are your needs?' she asked.

When I decided to go back to school, I was determined not to feel like a student again.

In my 20s, it was okay to eat cereal for every meal, to live with roommates and to salvage all my clothes from bins around town. In my 30s, I thought I’d aim for decorum.

Even the institution thinks of me as a mature student. I could at least try to live up to the expectation.

Within weeks, I had a shared apartment and a cupboard full of cereal. I found a great pair of boots beside the dumpster in the alley behind Little Sister’s. Just sitting there. What luck.

Reluctant to admit that I’d chosen the broke lifestyle yet again, I was thrilled to find my student fees included all kinds of fringe benefits. Free athletic training? Why not? Free legal advice? Don’t mind if I do. But it was free counselling that really turned my crank. I booked 10 sessions.

“Are you sure?” the woman at the front desk asked.

“Of course I’m sure.” I have waited my whole life for free therapy.

This was a no-brainer. It was going to be great, like getting a summer pass to Playland. No need to savour each moment, I could bask in the abundance.

After identifying goals (that was easy: happiness), my counsellor took a more serious tone.

“What are your needs?” she asked.


“Your needs. What are your needs?” she asked again as if repetition would make it easier.

My eyes scanned the cat figurines of her dim office. I didn’t have an answer. I’ve been in many relationships —long-term, live-in, open, shallow, confusing, straight, queer, you name it. And in all of that time, in all of my dealings with other people, it had never occurred to me to ask this question.

“If you don’t know what your needs are, how can you even begin to communicate them to others?” she asked.

Good point.

“And if you can’t communicate them, how can you expect to have them met?”

Right again.

She wasn’t my mother but her words had a similar impact, like sitting down to a delightful piece of homemade pie and instead finding yourself sucker-punched, lying on the floor with a nosebleed.

I wanted to have an answer for her but all I had was a shrug.

There was something tragic about this, something stingingly common to my community.

A lot of us chase love in its many varieties and feel grateful to anyone willing to give it. It seems we should want more for ourselves. Yet finding answers to the difficult questions is so not like finding cotton candy at Playland.