Admitting out loud that I was obsessed with my girlfriend cheating on me wasn’t the hard part. It was the other words that were much harder to say – the ones that stuck on my tongue, like they were frantically trying to glue my mouth shut. This was going to be the obsessive, paranoid admission that would make it impossible to just pawn myself as another pathetic guy resorting to therapy as a last resort.
“I have this, like, uncontrollable need to check on her things. You know, like her phone and stuff. I don’t know why. I guess it’s because then…then somehow I can know if she’s cheating on me. Before it goes too far.”
Dr. Johnson (or Therapist B, as I later came to call her) cleared her throat ever so slightly. I fixated on a piece of her Southwestern rug that had been pulled up by something sharp – perhaps one of her pointy heels. The unraveling fibers looked like the hair of some native princess: frizzy, untamed and black as coal. Looking down, I couldn’t see her eyes, but I imagined them being sort of glassy. Without conviction. The outward expression of the non-judgmental neutrality that a good shrink was supposed to embody.
As she shifted her position by just an inch, she made her oversized chair squeak. I could have sworn it was mocking me. But then again, attributing the capacity for causing shame to an inanimate object was just the kind of ridiculous thinking that got me here in the first place. I tried to focus on the sober, predictable rhythm of a watch hand clearly designed solely to keep us on schedule.
Jesus Christ, man. Pull yourself together. Don’t forget that this could be your chance to come fully clean. To offload the bullshit and find a way to feel good again. You’re not a criminal. You didn’t kill anyone. You weren’t unfaithful. Hell, you have been loyal to a fault.
“I’m sure you already know this, or you wouldn’t be here, but that behavior is not healthy. In fact, I think it is as potentially harmful as the thing you are trying to prevent.”
I thought she was done, but Therapist B pressed forward.
“You have no real evidence that anything is even happening, so in a lot of ways, you are the one in the relationship on shaky ground. After all, your girlfriend is presumably neither unfaithful nor untrusting.”
Her directness was palpable, and it made me squirm. My former therapist, Diedre Connor, LPC, who I had also seen for my obsessive tendencies, was never as straightforward as in her responses. A devotee of historical biographies, she had liked to pepper our sessions with relevant quotes from the greats. Eventually, though, I realized she would never be able to help me. So when I broke things off with her, I didn’t get into details. A text seemed sufficient.
I don’t think I can afford to continue therapy at this time. Thank you so much for all of your help. Best of luck.
And with that, she became Therapist A, one of two female therapists I saw during this time in my life.
But it didn’t start off the way it ended. In fact, when I initially told Therapist A about the first of many fights my girlfriend and I had experienced in the first months of our relationship, she seemed like someone who could get through to me. So I persisted in my storytelling. Including each and every detail. I wanted to be specific about exactly what happened. The more drawn out the narrative, the more she would know, and the more she knew, the easier it could be for her to identify a solution.
So I admitted that before Sarah left for the day, I watched her get dressed. Watched her put on that black lacy bra. The one with the matching panties, which were also carefully selected for the unknown occasion. I told Therapist A how, as I brushed my teeth, I held back the burning desire to know why she was wearing lingerie on a Tuesday. I didn’t see a reason. After all, she had said she was going to 5:30 Pilates. Those outfits were reserved for a day we’d have the whole night together. A day when I’d be waiting at the door for her. Ready to take her. Pull up her tight little work skirt. Show her how much I wanted her. Give her exactly what she needed.
As she began applying the finishing touches of makeup, I brought her a cup of coffee and a piece of toast. She looked beautiful, and I told her so. My mind was racing with unsavory possibilities, but I’ve always been good at picking my battles.
That night, when she got home 42 minutes after she said she would – wearing her gym clothes – I accosted her. As I told Therapist A about the incident, I remembered exactly which words I had chosen: “Why the hell are you so late? Dinner’s been ready for almost half an hour.”
I admitted to Therapist A that I had issues with people meeting their commitments. Seemed to me, I said, that I was still suffering from my father not being there when I was in the throes of adolescence. Well, he was there – he wasn’t one of those dads who never came to my games or refused to host my friends for pizza night – but he was perpetually distracted by some sort of all-consuming personal quest for admiration and affirmation.
It was hard to get the attention I needed when every family dinner, every morning at the breakfast table, every car ride to church, became the Dad show. When my high school girlfriend broke up with me after I helped her through a struggle with anorexia, he told me that I needed to stop caring about what other people thought. Not so useful advice, coming from him, I said. Especially now.
“I can see that,” Therapist A said, nodding. “You know, Albert Einstein once said, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’”
There were many moments like that with Therapist A, and they explain why I eventually stopped seeing her. She was like the Toyota of therapists. Reliable. Safe. Not provocative. Something you invest money in hoping that investment will last you a while, only to realize that you don’t like dependable. That you need some fuck-me-cayenne-red speed demon to shock you out of normalcy and give you something to look forward to.
So, when she quoted the famous genius, my first thought was what the hell? What do I pay you for? But I stopped myself from saying that. I understand that $140/hour doesn’t get you a mind reader. Just a pair of ears and eyes that offer no judgment. I guess that’s a pretty good deal.
So I gave it up.
“Well, I am still feeling very jealous and insecure in my relationship. I find myself constantly thinking about what Sarah might be doing or thinking, and I am driving myself crazy.”
Therapist A started taking furiously taking notes. Her glasses were partway down her nose, eyes avoiding my nervous gaze.
“For example, the other day I looked through the texts on her phone. I don’t know what I was looking for exactly. I mean, she has a lot of male friends but there was nothing there that was, like, suspicious or anything. But I kept looking. And I found it. Way back—from before we started dating. A synaptic conversation with ‘Jason’—I guess one of the ones who came before me. It seemed like they had met online.
You’re so hot. I saved your profile picture to my phone.
Oh, really? =)
Yeah…haha. Hope you don’t think I’m a creeper LOL
Ha. You’re not a creeper. Don’t worry, I think you’re hot too =)
Therapist A stopped scrawling on her notepad, looked up and removed her reading glasses. Her eyes seemed so small without them.
“I’m telling you, reading all this I felt, like, sick to my stomach. Like my entire gut had turned inside out or something. I know I can’t blame her for the shit that came before me, but I don’t know. I felt so goddamn betrayed.”
I could have kept talking, but it felt proper to give Therapist A her turn. I paused. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand.
I wondered what nugget of recycled wisdom she would pull out this time. Edgar Allen Poe? The always-wise Confucious? Bill Clinton, the people’s man with surprisingly quotable moments?
She eyed me quizzically, as if she could sense my internalized trivia game.
“Well,” she said, “I understand your desire to control the past—maybe to feel safer or more settled now. It’s perfectly natural and normal to want to change things that make us feel uncomfortable, even if it’s just thoughts. But remember, as Shakespeare once eloquently stated, ‘Things without all remedy should be without regard: what’s done is done.’”
I glanced at her. There was a trace of something on her face. Could have been empathy—could have also been disgust. Surprisingly I didn’t care which; in fact, I was somehow grateful that she was responsive at all. My dad’s face, in contrast, was a blank canvas. Plenty of white space for people to project their own understanding of who he was.
“Yes,” I agreed. “I guess I just have to figure out how to stop focusing on the shit I can’t fix. Maybe we can talk more about that next time.”
A year gone, and I was no longer seeing Therapist A, but I was still waiting for “next time” to materialize. This appointment and every one before, 50 minutes with Therapist B routinely started and concluded without something concrete to carry me forward. Was the name on my weekly checks the only thing that had changed?
One hundred and forty dollars and 00/100 cents. Note: Therapy session, Dr. Johnson, March 14. Mental note: I’m so fucked up I can’t even tell if this is working or not.
That night, I was really down. Although, who was I kidding in thinking that was unusual. Melancholy is my default state. But there are different shades of melancholy for a guy like me. The kind that only festers far below the surface, allowing me to still genuinely laugh or smile around others. There’s also the kind that makes me feel worried. Like if I don’t stay alert, I might encounter disaster. You know, something tragic. Like every other pedestrian running from a bus that’s crossed a red light. And me—looking up just in time to realize that it’s all going to end here, with a goddamn commuter vehicle plowing me down.
And then there’s the kind that turns other people into hooded angels. They seem serene and sure of themselves, floating across points in the sky with purpose. But they’re elusive. I can’t see their faces, so I can’t know what they’re thinking or where they’ll fly next. I end up feeling like I’m standing on the ground, looking up, wondering how tiny I look to them all the way down here. Pretty damn small.
That night, Sarah was the most perfect hooded angel I’d ever seen. While we settled on our porch drinking what must have been the third bottle of Merlot, I was touched by how vibrant she seemed. It was almost too much to take. She had had a great day at the office and thanked me for helping her figure out what to say to her new boss. As she leaned across to grasp my palm, I noticed just how dark her irises were. How the hell are you supposed to read someone if you can’t even see the lights reflecting in their eyes?
“You are the best, baby. I am so lucky.”
When she undressed and went into the master bathroom to take her usual pre-bedtime shower, I made my move. Her phone on the bed buried underneath her panties, a hard form under the crumpled fabric. They were satiny, nude—not a thong but the kind that only covered part of her ass. I remembered that morning, when I had tried to send her off thinking of me. She was running late. I didn’t press it. I didn’t want to force her if it wasn’t something she really, truly wanted.
I entered her passcode and scrolled through her texts as fast as I could while still comprehending their content. I wondered if this was how alcoholics felt after they took their first sip of the day.
The next day was lifeless. I was emotionally hungover, my heart pounding and hands shaking from the potent knowledge that I had crossed a line. I also felt my groin ache, and I had no clue if it was fear, arousal or both. How would Sarah react if she knew?
That night in bed, when I draped my arm around her—already dreaming—I promised myself I’d never do this foul thing again.
I drove to my next session with Therapist B with the simultaneous intent of coming clean and a profound uncertainty that things would feel different. I played out the conversation we might have: Yes, I have a problem. Yes, my obsessions have taken on a life of their own. Yes, Sarah will eventually find out and when she does, she will leave me. Yes, I have a fucked up relationship with reality. And, no—no, I don’t want to stop.
As I parked my car outside of the medical plaza, I checked my phone. Without thinking about each tap, I had opened the Track Your Lover app and refreshed the results. No texts to Sarah from anyone. I felt relief, swiftly followed by anxiety.
A few weeks after I ended things with Therapist B, I checked my mail for the first time in months. Buried in the chaotic pile of papers was a simple white envelope with no return address. It had been returned once before it found its way to me. Inside, in simple cursive:
I heard about your dad’s passing in the newspaper, and I am so sorry. In this time of grieving, stay close to the other people in your life that love you. The Dalai Lama once said, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity can’t survive.”
Take good care of yourself, and, of course, feel free to call at anytime. If money is an issue, we can always discuss options.
Diedre Connor, Psy.D.
I placed the card back in the envelope and tucked it into my jacket pocket. It was thoughtful for her to reach out to me, but these impulses of gratitude were quickly replaced by a familiar restlessness. I needed to go home. Sarah had already been there for 10 minutes.