I’ve been in love -- earth-shaking, soul-burning, life-transforming love -- a couple of times so far, and once was with my shrink.
Well, but don’t get too excited. All we ever did was talk, twice a week for six months in a poorly appointed office at a community clinic. Ratty but comfortable couch, a bookshelf and a few books about psychology (we used the DSM-IV to prop the window open), walls bare except for a weird reproduction painting of a reclining Renaissance woman. She was scantily clad, I recall, but this was the only overt display of eroticism that attended my passion and distress.
The single time I actually touched my therapist was during an awkward hug at the conclusion of our last session. It was one of those “business-and-Boston” hugs, the kind that’s upper-body contact only, all shoulders and collar bones, hips kept carefully in abeyance.
During our 50-minute hours, I always sat on the couch, usually clutching a pillow covered in cat hairs of mysterious origin. My therapist sat in a swivel chair: bespectacled, straight-backed, an impressive personage flanked by a glowing computer monitor and an antiquated institutional phone-like device that would occasionally make sudden noises, as if in exclamatory response to something especially shocking I’d said to her.
Yes, her. Both of us were lesbians, but again, don’t get too excited. Real-life lesbians are not nearly so hot-blooded, so attractive, so prone to letting you watch them make out as the lesbians are on TV. In fact, if "The Real L Word" were really real, it would undoubtedly feature a lesbian who drones on in therapy about mother issues and power struggles with the captain of her fast-pitch softball team, while her therapist, also a lesbian, makes a few notes and remembers she needs to pick up some no-spray kale at the farmers’ market.
What I’m trying to say is this: As much as I wish I could tell you that something salacious happened, it didn’t. My therapist did not breach any boundaries. She didn’t fiddle with the dismayingly vast and comprehensive code of ethics to which members of the American Psychological Association are supposed to adhere (and they are dismaying: I’ve read them, every watertight clause and sub-clause).
Even on the inside, in the private bodily spaces of imagination, emotion and biochemistry, my therapist remained composed, of-a-piece, well bounded. She did not love me back. She did not desire to fling the cat-hair pillow aside and ravish me where I sat. She didn’t want to grab a cup of coffee.
Not that I asked.
What I did do, when the love got too much for me to bear on my own, was tell her about it. Or more precisely, I wrote her a little note. On my laptop, because my laptop is the closest thing I have to a diary, a confessor, a constant companion. And then I went to therapy, handed over my heart and soul, and waited for her review.
I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, only that I tried to be simple and direct, which is not how I usually communicate, and that I closed with a bizarre, “Yaaaay, therapy!” She stared at these words, crossed and uncrossed her legs, furrowed her eyebrows (o beloved eyebrows.) The little digital clock by the window marked a minute or two, and then she looked up at me.
“Thank you for sharing this,” she said.
And she meant it gently, kindly, genuinely. We talked about it some during that session, and then, as it turned out, we kept talking about it. For the remainder of our time together, the conversation about me being in love with her was never far from the conversations about my job, my unimpressive dating life, my crush on my too-pretty best friend, my mother issues, my power struggles with the captain of my -- well, I don’t play softball, but you get the picture.
Miraculously, it seemed to me, the “love” conversation and the “real life” conversation somehow collapsed onto one another, and revealed themselves to be identical. Whatever I was sorting through by loving her so colossally was the same unwieldy baggage heap I carted around with me all the time, in every relationship I had, in every experience of desire or loss or frustrated ambition.
The really hard work came after an ill-conceived bout of Google sleuthing one night, during which I unearthed -- ermahgerd, you guys -- my shrink’s wedding photos. Holy shit. There she was, kissing her hot wife, conversing with somebody’s toddler, laughing at somebody’s toast, kissing her hot wife. Needless to say, I was undone.
When I fessed up in our next session, she was shocked, and then she felt guilty, and then she was angry.
“But they were just there,” I pleaded. “I didn’t hack anything. Anyone could have found them.”
“Yes, but you could have stopped looking,” she said.
And she was right. I could have stopped once I realized what I was seeing. Weddings are funny; they’re about you and your partner, but they’re also about asking a larger community to cheer you on, approve of you, shower you with money and household appliances. They’re simultaneously very private and very public events, and I guess that's how I rationalized my snooping.
In any case, though, private or public or somewhere in between, I hadn’t been invited to this particular wedding. And my therapist felt invaded, over-exposed. Fucked-with, I suspect. There followed much talk of boundaries, and how the limits of the therapy relationship are what make it a safe space, an opportunity for transformation and growth.
These talks were terrifically embarrassing in their sincerity, but we managed. She was with me the whole time, empathizing with my struggle, guiding me patiently in the direction of wiser insight, sticking by me until the little digital clock by the window had run out of minutes and our therapy was over.
My therapist didn’t love-love me, but she cared very much that I loved her, and she was really good at talking about it. And somehow that was enough for me to walk away, at the end, feeling like I’d been blessed with the most emotionally intimate love relationship I’d ever had.
All right then. I had some good therapy. But what’s the point in discussing it publicly? Where’s the hook of a therapy love story with no sex it in it? Or, if not sex, maybe at least some street stalking, or lawyers, or somebody getting censured by the APA, or Bruce Willis getting capped in his own bedroom by a haywire ex-client, like in that movie.
This is the dilemma I struggle with, now that My Therapist (not her real name) is gone, shunted off by some vast licensing bureaucracy into a hospital job that doesn’t allow her to see outside clients. Self-exposure is really only permissible in our media-obsessed culture if it’s sensational, or sexy, or drastically ugly or violent. Because my hands are empty in these respects, I’m left holding the bag of a love that has nothing obviously remarkable to show for itself.
This sense of being thwarted, of desperately needing to tell my story when there’s nobody who needs to hear it, isn’t helped by the fact that I apparently live close enough to My Therapist that sometimes her wife walks their dog past my apartment building.
“Halt,” I want to cry out when this happens, like a tragic heroine. “Don’t come around here no more,” I want to croon, like Tom Petty. “Or if that’s not possible, bring My Therapist with you, not your dog. And if you can’t do that, stay a minute. Hear me out, let me unburden myself. Because if anybody knows what it’s like to be in love with My Therapist, it’s you.”
Of course, I don’t do it. The thing about true love is that sometimes you have to carry it all on your own. It’s a feeling too big, too multivalent, too profound to be relieved by an outburst. If I were younger, I might go for the drama. I can’t say I’m not tempted by the cathartic potential of a messy-as-hell, for-real invasion of My Therapist’s life, which would surely ensue if I spoke to her partner. But that kind of wild grasping for the love object is the kind that fundamentally devalues love itself.
Because the other thing about true love is that it’s sort of boring. It really doesn’t have anything remarkable to show for itself. True love isn’t flashy, demanding of attention, or ready for primetime. Its real function is internal: a slow and steady metamorphosis from the person you were into the person you wish to be.
“What brought you to therapy?” she asked me during our first session. “What do you want to work on in here?”
I was already smitten. The first 10 minutes, and I already knew. It was like the universe had smacked me on the ass and hollered, “Here’s your shrink!” The one I’d been looking for in all the therapies, all the wandering, all the seeking help from earnest professionals who’d been trained to understand my psyche, and my problems, better than I understood them myself. Here she was: My Therapist. What do you want to work on in here?
“I want to grow up,” I answered.
So I did.