The Stress Address In Washington, one building holds a city's secrets: 3000 Connecticut Ave., where more than 120 therapists try to heal the powerful and angst-ridden.

March 30, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- If the capital's angst had a headquarters, this building would be it.

More therapists have set up couches in the apartment house at 3000 Connecticut Ave. than in the city's mental hospital and in probably any other site in Washington -- more are here, even, than in some entire states combined. It's no wonder the place is dubbed the "Freud Hilton."

"There's certainly no shortage of us in a crisis," says clinical psychologist Matthew Weissman. "People feel a little awkward coming into the building, but then they see a friend or a colleague walking out about five minutes to the hour. And it starts to feel like a club."

The building, across the street from the National Zoo, is home to more than 120 psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. Some lease offices during the day; the rest sublease apartments at night and on weekends.

Washington knows the address well. A woman desperate for help once dropped by and banged on doors at random until she found an analyst who could take a walk-in. Other patients who first came as unhappy children have returned years later to manage their midlife crises. Washingtonians who meet at cocktail parties sometimes end up here soon after, trying not to recognize each other in the elevators.

It is, quite simply, the place in Washington to have your nervous breakdown.

In a city scorned by much of America as a repository of workaholics, obsessive-compulsive overachievers and social-climbing megalomaniacs, there are as many psychiatrists as ever. At 3000 Connecticut alone, there are four times as many therapists as in all of Wyoming -- and twice as many as in all of Alaska.

Despite the constraints of managed care, which discourage coverage for long-term psychotherapy, thousands arrive each week, tissues at the ready, for 55 minutes with a sympathetic ear. In these offices, overwrought patients wonder if they actually hate the high-powered lifestyle they have worked so hard to achieve.

Since World War II, Washingtonians have been sorting out such issues at 3000 Connecticut. Analysts found the homey atmosphere in the upscale Washington neighborhood convenient. They began to share rooms, with five or more trading off time in a single office. Later, the management company encouraged therapist tenants by advertising any openings in psychology magazines. The strategy worked: A handful of therapists are now sitting on a waiting list.

For some, the building holds a lifetime of history. Weissman, whose mother was a clinical psychologist, first came to 3000 Connecticut for play therapy as a 7-year-old. Now, he practices in the same office in which he was a patient, treating mostly gay men.

Of course, plenty of other buildings in the city are crammed with professionals seeking therapy.

"If I'm at a party and I mention what I do, seven of eight people at the table will tell me about who they're seeing or who they saw," Weissman says. "It must be the fast pace here."

The Washington area boasts about 1,100 licensed psychiatrists (compared with roughly 600 around Baltimore), a figure that has stayed relatively steady since the 1980s. Hundreds more psychologists and social workers practice here.

Why so many choose 3000 Connecticut is a bit of a mystery. It is not even a medical building. Primarily a rental apartment complex, it is home to more than 120 residents.

Although there are no Nurse Ratcheds wandering around, the place has an eerie feel. Inside, the hallways are reminiscent of the film "The Shining" -- long, dank corridors that threaten to send any visitor spiraling into dark self-examination. A common joke among therapists: The building is so depressing, even the well patients come back.

But even therapists who deride the place do so lovingly. After all, this building conceals mysteries of the city -- tales that cannot be divulged anywhere beyond its concrete walls.

"There are so many secrets," says Elliot Blum, a clinical psychologist here since 1965. "There are names and intrigues that people are privy to. Talking to people here as a therapist, a whole nether world of Washington life emerges."

With each round on the couch, patients unleash a distinctly Washington style of stress.

Spouses of diplomats stop by, weary of all the fake smiling demanded of them and complaining that their too-significant others hog all the attention. Occasionally, military workers reveal homosexual feelings they know could get them fired. Political refugees arrive, troubled by nightmares of abuses suffered in their past. Assorted government workers show up, anxious that their secrets not be revealed or their security clearances denied.

Power and pain

It can be frustrating work. In a city built on image and power, some Washingtonians in therapy never get beyond prepared sound bites and spin to the truth of their feelings.

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