The worst thing that could possibly have happened was that I fell in love with my therapist, a man whose hand I’d held briefly and anonymously in the spring, not knowing that by August I’d be in therapy with him. Life is like this: one minute you’re lying by your air conditioner in the heat, reading haiku and wishing you didn’t have to go to see your new therapist, and the next minute you’re in his office blinking at him in surprise and thinking that he looks familiar, that you’ve seen him someplace before.
I’d gone to see him because I was depressed after being dumped by my boyfriend, a Buddhist who was on a path to enlightenment. He was also a recovering alcoholic who wrote stimulating e-mails that I liked more than anything else. When we weren’t e-mailing each other, we spent most of our time in bed, making love and laughing uproariously at things that the other would say. Then one afternoon, right after we’d made love, he’d sat bolt upright in bed and announced, “I can’t do this anymore.”
The least my boyfriend could have done before dumping me was provide me with a few days of distant behavior. Instead, he left me sitting in stunned, aggrieved silence, wondering, Was I too much for him, or too little?
He wanted us to remain friends. Forget it, I told him. I already had a motley assortment of ex-boyfriends that I kept in touch with on an infrequent, platonic basis, and I didn’t need one more. Especially not one who had dumped me.
Very well, I thought grimly. Very well. Then I went on a two-week eating binge, which is what led me to the office of the therapist, who specialized in addictions.
I cried all the way through the first session.
“Talk to me,” he said kindly. “Tell me what’s happening to make you so sad.”
At first, I cried because I’d been dumped by the Buddhist. Then I cried because my therapist was nice to me. Eventually, I cried because he was living proof that there were still some decent men out there — although they all seemed destined to elude me.
“I’m sorry I’m such a mess,” I said. Usually I was a master at hiding the dark thoughts and emotions that roiled inside me.
“Don’t be sorry,” he said. “Let it go.” His eyes had such sincerity that if he’d been selling anything, new or used, I’d have bought ten. His gaze held me up, lent me the strength to cross the narrow bridge over the deep abyss. Don’t look down, his eyes seemed to be saying. Keep looking at me. Walk here to me.
He might have been thirty-two; it was hard to say. I doubt he was much older, since he often sat with one leg bent, his knee near his chin and his foot resting on the seat of his chair. He was tall and thin, with long blond hair that he wore in a braid down his back. Perched on his nose were a pair of small, rimless eyeglasses. On his desk he always seemed to have a bag of tamari-roasted almonds and a couple of clementines in various stages of decay. Also a small lamp with a burlap shade that was touchingly drab, like something he’d dragged around with him since childhood.
He mentioned fleeting details about his own life: a dismal blind date; how he dealt with the alcoholism in his family. These brief confidences startled me and made me feel special, as though he trusted me and wanted me to understand him.
He was more than a therapist; he was a priest of the psyche. He lived, ate, and breathed his devotion to his patients, who were destroying themselves in an effort to sink into oblivion or locate their bliss.
He was also a little arrogant, being young and green and working under one of the leading addictions doctors in the country. He kept me cooling my heels in the waiting room while he cracked jokes with his receptionist. But it didn’t matter. I went ahead and fell in love with him anyway.
On my second visit, I said suddenly, “I remember you.” He’d been at a conference I’d attended in the spring, where the audience members were asked to join hands in silent meditation or prayer.
My future therapist’s palm had been padded, springy, and strong, like an acrobat’s or an athlete’s. This surprised me, because he was tall and slender and looked as though he’d have the fine, delicate hands of an artist. Our hands are a good fit, I thought. I stood with my head bowed and assessed him in my peripheral vision. I could see that, rather than meditating or praying, he was watching me.
When the hand-holding was over, there was nothing left to do but walk out. My friend Clara — who’s had many, many lovers — once told me that the secret to opening the door to a man is to show him “the wellspring of joy inside you.” But I didn’t turn to my future therapist that day and let the wellspring of joy bubble up into my eyes. I couldn’t. I wasn’t prepared. None of the self-help books I’d read had changed me into a woman who knew how to flirt, how to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger while showing him my wellspring of joy. I wanted nothing more than to hold his strong, capable hand again, but I couldn’t do what it took to make that happen. In such situations, because I can never do things quickly or easily, I don’t do anything at all.
If only I could go back to the day I held his hand, turn to him, and say something immediate and startling to make his heart quicken. If only I believed in myself. But even if I did, it would have made no difference to say such things now, because he was no longer available: he was my therapist.
“Love addiction, or codependency,” my therapist recited, “is characterized by one person becoming enmeshed in another until they don’t know where they end and the other person begins. It’s a state of emotional fusion, a time when ego boundaries are blurred. Such oneness occurs naturally when two people make love. Outside of that, it can be a problem. Relying on anyone else for your sense of emotional direction leaves you open to being manipulated by them.”
“Yes,” I said. It was not a new concept to me.
“Based on what you’ve told me so far about your past romantic involvements, I’d say that love addiction — not food addiction — is your primary struggle.”
“Yes,” I said again, laughing inwardly. It was nice to hear him speak, to look at him and feel the charge in the air between us. I thought: I’m addicted to two-for-one chocolate bars and Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey, and I’m addicted to you, baby. I suspected he was aware of how I looked at him, and that it was a drug for him, too. One good thing about being addicted to him was that it helped rein in my food cravings. Even though he couldn’t love me back, for professional reasons, I didn’t want him to sit across from me once a week and watch me gain a thousand pounds.
My addiction to my therapist interested me. Most of the time I rather liked my various neuroses; I felt friendly toward them. I hugged them to me and smiled. Then my infatuation grew until my mind was on fire with knowing him. He was everything I’d always wanted in a man: kind, insightful, and aware, with a deadpan sense of humor. I was often in an elevated, transcendent state, as though I’d been fasting. It was like being strapped to the roof of a runaway train: exhilarating, achingly lonely, and desperate — until the train runs off the track and you die.
I dreamed about waking up with my therapist in bed, feeling his warmth, burrowing against him and caressing him. I lay awake at night, caught in the grip of my romantic obsession. Exhausted by euphoria and adrenaline, a part of me wanted to call the whole thing to a halt. Maybe I should quit seeing him, I told myself. But we moved in similar circles, and I ran into him, or some evidence of him, at least once a day. Even catching sight of his motorcycle parked downtown did strange things to my nervous system. I’ll have to change cities, I thought. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I also couldn’t surrender my secret addiction — couldn’t stop watering and feeding it in its hidden cage. It was personal. It was mine. Maybe, my addict’s brain reasoned, this crush will dissipate on its own. There is some precedent for this. All I have to do is remember that no man is ever as good as he seems.
The first couple of times I’d come to see my therapist, his attire had been haphazard, pale, and muted. At our third appointment, though, he was dressed in a long-sleeved black shirt and pleated pants. The shirt looked brand-new; there were still creases where it had been folded around cardboard. His smile was an intermittent lightning flash. When I began to cry again, he remembered himself and listened soberly and responded with sincerity and stillness. As our session drew to a close, however, he resumed smiling and even jumped up and held the door for me with a flourish worthy of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
All of it — the clothes, his excitement, his attraction — felt like a balm to my wounds. My God, I thought, love is intoxicating. No wonder there’s hardly a song on the radio that doesn’t bow and scrape in obeisance to it.
But by my sixth visit, something had shifted. He was back in his regular attire. “How was your week?” he asked perfunctorily, politely, as though he were the driver of a bus that I just happened to be riding. I crossed my hands and knees and acted like a passenger who might disembark at any moment to purchase an entire cheesecake, whether her therapist liked it or not.
“My week was fine,” I said coolly. “And yours?”
I ’m an artist and spend my days alone, spreading paint on canvas. It is satisfying, tedious, lonely work. When I’m done, I think, I should phone someone. I should go out somewhere. But I don’t phone anyone. I don’t go out. The thought of being with people is tiring. People require complex and fragile negotiations in order to sustain their love and friendship. I have never gotten these negotiations right, and it makes me tired — and overly dependent on my television set for company.
My Buddhist boyfriend wasn’t the first man to dump me. The boyfriend before him did, too. His teenage sons instructed him to dump me because I’d declined their invitation to a game of Monopoly. I’d just eaten dinner at their house, and they asked me to play, and I said no. (I had my reasons.) Then, after I’d gone home, the sons held a family conference and told their father that he could do better than a woman who wouldn’t play Monopoly. And so my boyfriend told me, in a gentle voice, “I have to let you go. Let me know if there’s ever anything I can do for you.”
“Actually,” I said, “there are three things you can do for me.” But I will repeat only the first thing here, which was never to call me again.
In the weeks and months that followed, I sat alone in my apartment and didn’t phone anyone. I worked, ate ice cream, and perused the Internet personals, which is how I eventually found the Buddhist, who later dumped me, which led me to the therapist.
“My dog is really getting on my nerves,” I told my therapist at our next session, blinking to stay awake. I’d been up until four in the morning, fantasizing about him. “Every day I feed him expensive, preservative-free dog food, and instead he eats the foam earplugs that I wear when I sleep. Last week he ate a pair of underwear that my sister sent me for Christmas. I wouldn’t have left them lying around if I’d known he would make a meal out of them. . . . I’m sorry, am I boring you?”
“No. Go on.”
I paused. I needed to win back his attention. “Something has come up with my love addiction,” I said. “I’ve been overwhelmed by feelings in that area recently. Just general feelings — not anyone specific.”
He gazed meditatively at me.
“I think that clementine has had it,” I said, pointing to one of the oranges on his desk. “The other one is probably good for one more day.”
We listened to the clock ticking on the wall.
“Did you know there’s a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise opening downtown?” I asked.
“The rate of your recovery is up to you,” he said, rolling the clementine into the wastebasket. “There’s no shame in being honest about your pain. That’s the starting point of healing.”
“I totally agree,” I said, “which is why I’m happy to be able to come here and tell you everything that’s going on with me. And now I notice that our time is up. I hope you have an excellent week, and I’ll see you at our next appointment.” As I sprinted for the door, I saw him look down quickly and smile into his notebook.
I had to tell somebody how I felt about my therapist, so I told Sheila from my Overeaters Anonymous group.
“Let me guess,” she said. “You’ve checked him out on the Internet and driven by his house.”
I gazed mutely at her, horrified.
“Transference is such a drag,” she said.
“What should I do?”
“You have to tell him. I told my therapist I had feelings for him, and afterward the crush evaporated and I was more open with him. Before that, every session was like going to a bar and getting plastered. Call me if you need to talk. I understand what you’re going through.”
I didn’t call Sheila. I wasn’t ready to take her advice and tell my therapist the truth. Don’t be my therapist, I wanted to say to him. Be my friend and lover and rely on me and tell me your problems and secrets and roll around with me on the floor right now. But I couldn’t, because life wasn’t a short story in which the characters could say or do anything. In reality, I was an addict (sugar and love), and he was my doctor, who had taken certain oaths of propriety, and who wanted to help me and not to sabotage his lucrative career.
It was tiring and a little dispiriting to know that he wasn’t prepared to love me back. I wished he would forget about our professional relationship and recognize me as the right woman for him. It would be a little scary and awkward at first, but if we stuck it out, I just knew we’d settle into a passionate, creative, dynamic relationship. “We will have a September wedding,” I wrote in my journal. “On the moors of Scotland — or Barbados. Everyone who ever thought I’d die alone will be invited, but they’ll have to pay their own airfare. He’ll wear a French silk suit with a gardenia, and I’ll wear something gossamer and wispy, like that actress in that movie about the undead. And I will never eat sugar again.”
I paused, looked out the window and thought dimly: I need to get a real job.
My addiction abated, briefly, when I came down with a head cold and there was no one to look after me. In the grocery store, I stood for thirteen minutes in front of the ice-cream cooler, debating. I hadn’t eaten any ice cream for quite a while: not since I’d fallen in love with my therapist. The ice cream would be sweet and cold and would help bring down the fever of my attraction to him. I brought it home and ate it, not caring what the future held. There was a movie on TV that contained not one iota of romance, for which I was infinitely grateful. That night I slept deeply and dreamlessly, and when I awoke the only thing on my mind — my only desire — was a plate of pancakes with maple syrup. It was liberating. I didn’t think about him all day, or the day after that. There was no need to. I was back in love with sugar.
“In case you’re worried about my becoming overly attached to you,” I said casually at our next session, “I just want to make it clear that I’m comfortable with the boundaries of our therapist-client relationship. And besides, I’m not currently looking for a boyfriend.”
“Well,” he said speculatively, leaning back and looking up at the ceiling, “a romantic relationship between a therapist and client could happen. But it would be damaging.”
Why would he say that? I asked myself later, while jogging off the four pounds of ice cream I’d eaten. WHY WOULD HE SAY THAT?
“I think you need to have a little talk with your Higher Power,” my Overeaters Anonymous sponsor said to me. “Use the Twelve Steps to address the problem of your infatuation. Admit that you are powerless over your love for your therapist and that your life has become unmanageable. Then write down what your life would look like if you were finally free of this addiction.”
So I sat down and wrote:
If I were no longer addicted to my addictions therapist, I could walk down the street without the vague hope (or dread) of running into him. I could sleep eight hours a night. I’d have more time to train my dog not to eat my underwear. I could recover my dignity and honesty and take my power back, instead of living in a make-believe world populated only by myself and my therapist. I could become a truly spiritual person — a nun, maybe — and write a best-selling self-help book about overcoming love addiction.
Those sounded like good scenarios — except the part about becoming a nun, although I was becoming resigned to it.
Six months had passed since I’d started therapy. Now it was winter, and my mother called to tell me she was scheduled for surgery the following week and that she was going to need my help when it was over. For as long as I can remember, my mother and I have not been able to exist under the same roof for more than two days without wanting to drive steel spikes through each other’s foreheads.
“It’s going to kill me to do it,” I told my therapist, “but she’s my mother, and she needs me.”
“If you had a broken leg, could you go and help her?” he asked.
“Well, right now you have the emotional equivalent of a broken leg. My advice is: Don’t go. You’re asking for a relapse.”
I ignored his advice and went to help my mother. It all ended in disaster, of course. I came home seething at her for being childish and overbearing and never admitting when she’s wrong — and angry at myself for being deluded about my therapist. The whole weekend that I’d been visiting my mother, though he was three hundred miles away, I’d imagined that I saw him everywhere: on buses and streetcars and in the window of a whole-foods restaurant. I thought I saw him begging for change outside the supermarket and rolled up in a sleeping bag in the doorway of a church. I was even more mired in fantasy than I was back home. I couldn’t sleep, and I felt rage growing in me. It was all his fault for heating up my brain in a way that used to feel like a tropical paradise, but now was more like a desert wasteland.
It was in this state that I rolled into my next appointment, coming straight from my mother’s house.
“I take it your trip home didn’t go so well,” he said. “I think this is the angriest I’ve ever seen you. When’s the last time you had a good night’s sleep?”
“My trip was fine. Just terrific. I have something else on my mind, though, which I’m uncomfortable discussing with you.”
“Is it some problem you’re having with me?”
I examined my fingernails.
“Does it have to do with what we were talking about before, about a client developing feelings for a therapist?”
All the blood rushed to my head, and I thought my eardrums were about to burst. I felt as if I were crossing a rope bridge over a canyon, and the trees below looked to be the size of flyspecks. I did not want to tell my therapist what was really happening, because he didn’t deserve to know. This was a game that I could only lose. I was the one who’d end up naked and exposed. He, on the other hand, would get to hide behind the mask of professionalism and keep his private thoughts and feelings to himself.
“As you know,” he said, “the boundaries between therapist and client are very clear.”
Clear, yes. Clearly, if I answer your question truthfully, I will be stroking your ego; I will enable you to put another notch in your belt. I cannot begin to say how “disempowered” that makes me feel.
“There’s nothing to fear,” he said, the corners of his mouth lifting like clouds exposing a terrible sun.
Nothing to fear. I reached for a clementine from his desk and started to peel it. It was easier to play your cards close to your chest, to live alone and sleep diagonally in your bed if you felt like it and never shave your legs in the winter because no one was going to see them anyway. This was how you reinvented yourself and saved your soul and wreaked vengeance on the indignities suffered in childhood and all the years since then. I would lose the game to my therapist, because in the end I would be the one to say it out loud, even though he’d betrayed himself in small ways. I’d watched him pick up his attraction to me and put it down again. He was the proud, secretive kind of person who lived on the edge of sexual intrigue without falling headlong into it, without risking being smothered by someone else’s love.
He waited, clicking the point of his pen in and out, in and out. “There are only ten minutes left in our session.”
This is how things have always come to pass with me: I awaken to my most vivid moments of awareness on the edge of the abyss. Someone else is there, on the other side, looking for all the world as though he will help me across. Only it doesn’t take me long to discover that he will not. He will not catch me if I fall.
The juice of the clementine was nourishing, restoring. I leaned forward and looked directly at my therapist. “I’ll tell you,” I said. And as I did, I watched his face, committing it to memory. The orange peelings fluttered down, down, marking the long, unalterable distance between us.