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The Onion and I…*

One day I was crying in my psychiatrist’s office. Not just weeping. I was sobbing. Blubbering. Boo-hoo-hooing.

I don’t remember why. It isn’t relevant.

On the rare occasions I’ve cried like that, a snapshot of my maternal grandmother flickers in a cranny of my mind. She died when I was nine. She treasured me. I wasn’t allowed to attend her funeral. Never able to grieve for her. I rarely cried after that.

I’ve learned that when I crumble into tears as I did that day, it’s a signal. Some ancient anguish is surfacing, but I can’t for the life of me piece together its meaning.

Snivelling and  littering Dr. Bob’s desk with my tear-soaked tissues, his tissues from the box he keeps there, I was apologizing profusely.

“What happens when you peel an onion?”

After several moments, he said. “You know, we’re all like onions, and you know what happens when you peel an onion.”

“You cry,” I answered. Obviously.

“Why do you think you cry?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, soaking up the downpour that was washing away my face. “Never really thought about it. It’s hard. Frustrating. Awkward. Sometimes it hurts. It’s painful. And you’re working from the outside in.”

“Yes,” he said. “Go on.”

“It’s kind of like the therapeutic process, isn’t it?” I said.

Dr. Bob smiled…

The first layer to breakthrough, the toughest, is on the outside…

I started thinking about the process of onion peeling.

“You have to begin on the outside, where onions are always so smooth. Too smooth. Slippery. Flakey. Especially the outer layer. That part’s the toughest layer to break through,” I said.

“And the smell hurts. It smarts. Peeling onions destroys your eyes. Stings like nothing else in the world. It’s blinding.”

Dr. Bob listened. Nothing about him moved. He is “calm” personified.

Do you know how much blood I’ve lost peeling onions?

“Do you have any idea how many times I’ve sliced into my fingers instead of an onion? How much blood I’ve lost peeling onions?”

He leaned back in his swivel chair, folding his arms comfortably in his lap.

“No one really knows how to prevent that uniquely pungent onion smell from blinding you with your tears, you know. No one. Every cook has a magic solution. None works for me. There must be something wrong with my eyes. You know? You know all those so-called remedies? They’re all old wives’ tales. Except every wife has one.”

I wasn’t a wife then, old or new.

“I just grin and bear it.”

“There’s nothing you can do. So, now, I just grin and bear it,” I said. ”That’s what really makes onion peeling so hard. Being blinded by the invisible smell of something you’re cutting into. It’s life-threatening.”

Dr. Bob nodded, idly playing with his pen.

“If you peel an onion by hand, one layer at a time, it takes longer,” I said.

“Yes, it takes time,” Dr. Bob said.

“The smell still smarts. You still cry. But it’s gentler. Safer.”

“Yes,” he said.

A new onion-peeling insight

Then something hit me. Something I’d never considered before, despite peeling bushels of onions.

“You can never get to your core,” I said. “That’s it.”

How stunning. Enticing. Deliciously hopeful.

I felt myself re-emerging.

Dr. Bob’s beautiful face was smiling.

Whatever had broken me into pieces that day seemed to be puzzling back together. For now.

My face was dry, clear, cloudless. He looked at his clock. We had gone over our hour. It was okay.

We made our next appointment. We said our good-byes. Mine mixed with a pinch of tenderness.

We would be continuing next week.

I ventured out into the day, refreshed, inspired and 25 lbs. lighter.

*The title of this reflection was inspired by the title of a book I loved as a child called The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald, a well-known American humorous author. (1908-1958). The reflection is mine. sln

The Onion and I…*

Sandy Naiman

Sandy Naiman is a Toronto freelance journalist.

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APA Reference
Naiman, S. (2010). The Onion and I…*. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 May 2010
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