At 35, I felt stuck: I was dating a guy I didn’t love and mired in a job I was starting to hate. I couldn’t quite believe how my life was turning out – I was neither the successful career woman I aspired to be, nor the young, fecund housewife my former New York Orthodox Jewish community had wanted me to become. But I felt powerless to change.
I needed help.
I was living in Los Angeles and found a psychiatrist who was warm, laid-back, and open. He didn’t ascribe to one particular psychological discipline, or think there was any magical solution to problems. He was just a person to talk to and help me figure things out. Dr. X and I spent the better part of a year questioning my life choices:
Why did I keep getting back together with my boyfriend Brian if I didn’t love him? Why did I feel so guilty wanting to leave my workplace – after all, I’d been a manager at the company for four years! My therapist showed me I had options – to start dating others, to look for a different job – options a “stuck” person doesn’t realize she has.
One typically sunny Thursday (so not conducive to therapy!), I had a breakthrough. “I feel like I’d be abandoning my boss,” I said, the guilt of potentially leaving weighing on me like a wet awning. A brilliant man who’d brought me from New York, my supervisor had counted on me to remake the company. I was his wing woman. So how could I leave him?
“Is this the guy that you’re sleeping with?” the doctor said.
“Wait, what?” I shot straight up in my chair. “My boss?”
“Yeah, the one with whom you had an affair.”
I looked at my therapist in horror. I had no feelings for my boss – he was married. Growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community, I hadn’t slept with many men, period. (I’d been waiting for my wedding night, but when that failed to materialize, I took matters into my own hands, literally. I started breaking a few other Jewish laws to boot.)
Besides, as a feminist, I’d never steal another woman’s husband. So, no, I wasn’t having an affair with my boss…or with anyone, for that matter. Perhaps my doctor was confusing me with another patient? “Do you even know who I’m talking about?” I demanded.
Dr. X shifted out of his nonchalant stance in the comfy leather chair across from me and leaned forward. “The one you admired so much, the one who moved you here from New York?”
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Okay, he wasn’t mixing me up with someone else. He knew exactly who I meant. Apparently he believed I felt bad about leaving my job not because I was letting someone down, but because all my feelings for my boss were romantic – or worse, tawdry.
Over the past year, I’d often wondered what my shrink thought of me – if I was entertaining, if he liked me. Now I knew: he thought my real stories were so boring that he’d embellished my life, made me over in his mind into someone else, someone more enticing. But no matter how secular I might ultimately become, an adulterer is not the kind of woman I wanted to be.
“I never had any sexual connection to my boss,” I insisted, mortified. My therapist and I rarely talked about sex. I was still trying to figure out casual encounters – in my off periods with Brian – how you didn’t have to be in love to be in lust. (Which is probably all I really felt for Brian.) That didn’t mean I’d sleep with my superior.
“I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I don’t know why I thought that.”
I said okay and shuffled out. “See you next week.”
I wasn’t really a lifer patient: I saw therapy as something you did to get help with a specific problem, like hiring an SAT tutor before the exam or a physical trainer before your wedding.
I’d only seen a shrink once before – a decade earlier. I’d recently left home, which I’d assumed would bring elation. Independence, finally! No one controlling my every move, monitoring my religiosity. Instead I’d felt depressed, unable to eat, sleep or laugh. In twice-weekly sessions with a psychotherapist, I learned the suppressed sadness was my past catching up to me, and the sooner I let the emotion out, the better I would feel. After a year of talk treatment, I’d come to terms (somewhat) with my childhood – my inattentive, silently sparring parents who had just gotten divorced – and was ready to focus on my future. So I left therapy, I thought, for good.
Ten years later, when I got deadlocked at work and with the boyfriend, I again sought help. I’d chosen Dr. X because he seemed my opposite: a secular atheist who, I learned over the past year, was a staunch individualist, unable to understand why anyone would do anything based on what other people thought. He certainly knew nothing about my Modern Orthodox Jewish community or its continuing stranglehold on me, even as I became less observant, eating non-kosher, sleeping around, but still thinking along the path on which I’d been raised.
“But where would we send our kids to school?” I asked in an early session, trying to show how it would never work with Brian, a blue-collar guy, traditional but not well-versed in Judaism; nothing like the intellectual doctors, lawyers, and businessmen my religious friends had married. I loved how into me he was. But was that enough?
“But you don’t even have kids,” Dr. X pointed out.
“No, but you have to figure these things out now.” I tried to explain to him how my community worked: “Before you start dating someone, you have to know exactly what type of lifestyle you want, where you want to live, what type of synagogue you plan to attend, and how many kids you want, not to mention how to raise and support them.”
“Can’t you just figure it out as you go along?” he’d asked. “See how you feel?”
For once I was silent. Did people really live like that? Without planning everything every step of the way?
Tucking myself in the doctor’s dark office each week away from the relentless California cheer, I caught a glimpse of a world different than any I had ever known: people lived according to their hearts, not their obligations. So what if Brian was a good provider who loved me, or my job paid a good salary and my boss counted on me? True, they anchored me from the abyss. Just as religion once protected me from the nebulous secular world. But they were imprisoning me, too.
Witnessing my therapist’s bewilderment, his reaction to such a constrained lifestyle, I learned I didn’t have to be stuck in any of it – even my religion – if it didn’t feel right. I was running away from a life but had no clue where to run to, until I’d restarted therapy.
I was so grateful to him for that.
But over the week, I kept thinking about his preposterous mistake. And I became more and more upset. I’d heard of therapists falling asleep on their patients, or not recognizing them in public, or forgetting a crucial detail in their lives, but never fabricating an event as wild as this one.
In therapy, the relationship between the patient and doctor often mirrors what transpires in the patient’s other relationships: that’s why many people spend time scrutinizing what goes on in the therapeutic relationship. But I usually didn’t tend to overanalyze “us.” After all, I was paying him to help me with others. But this time, I needed to explore what happened and call Dr. X on his error.
So, at our next session I admitted, “I’m really upset you thought I slept with my boss.” I thought if we discussed how betrayed I felt, and why, I could forgive him, or at least move past it.
He looked uncomfortable. “Well, the way that you talk about your boss…”
“You talk about him as such an intimate; you’re so invested in his opinion – I thought you’d been sleeping with him.”
“So it’s my fault you leapt to that ridiculous conclusion?” I said, hackles rising.
“No, of course not, I’m just saying you could get why I would think that,” he said.
I did not get it. And how did he not see that his ignorance about my essence saddened me, and that I felt doubly let down at his inability to acknowledge the harm he’d done?
I thought I’d found a safe place, a man who was different from me, yes, but who knew me. He’d helped me come to terms with the fact that I’d grown up in a society that held different values and beliefs than those I held deep inside, that had made me feel so alienated from my family and community. I thought that by knowing me, Dr. X could help me become me. But he was just like all the rest of them. He didn’t know me at all.
I continued therapy for a few more weeks. But it wasn’t the same. I couldn’t count on him.
Maybe I couldn’t count on anyone that way: completely, irrevocably, infallibly. That’s what I’d been doing with my boyfriend, my boss, my therapist. I had wanted from them what I’d once gotten from the God and religion I’d left: Security. Certainty. Comfort. But it wasn’t enough to stay in relationships that weren’t working anymore – even if I was afraid of leaving, afraid of what was on the other side.
So I did it. I left therapy, I left my job, I left my boyfriend.
All I had was me, now. Maybe my therapist’s mistake was the best lesson I could ever learn.
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