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Life

My Therapist Was The Closest Thing I Had To A Real Relationship In NYC

It’s a temporary portal to emotional intimacy

For the last five years I lived in New York, I was single. Micro-relationships cropped up here and there, but none became long-term or consistent, and so they lacked the emotional intimacy that would have made them real, as far as I was concerned.

This was true across the board with one exception: my therapist, Catherine.

I first met Catherine when I was 29, and deciding whether or not to end my engagement with my long-term boyfriend. He was an excellent partner, but I had a nagging feeling that I needed to figure out the next stage of my life alone. The only voice telling me this, however, was my own, and given how good the relationship was, it was hard for me to understand or trust it. In a moment of crisis, I texted my friend, who had previously recommended I see a therapist, and this one specifically, to get Catherine’s number. I imagined Catherine would just pick up and say: come right in. Catherine, however, is a therapist in New York City, so people use her services. She suggested three days later, which I think was swift, in retrospect.   

Catherine: tight curls, dangly earrings, knees that poked out between her pleated skirts and mid-calf boots. Her listening face was straightforward and focused, and her sense of humor caught details that made me feel understood and not insane. After one of our sessions in which Catherine, calm and focused, listened to me debate again about whether I needed to be on my own, and helped me say out loud what I felt was true, I wrote a final email that ended my engagement. Surrounded by strangers on a Midtown sidewalk, I became single in New York—except not fully, I’d come to figure out, because I had Catherine

Here’s something good relationships do for you that I didn’t know about until I’d been in one: They make daily existence more fun. They do that by adding another dimension to normal experiences, wherein consciousness feels more viscous. 

For me, there was more to dig into, more to discover, and more to explore in the presence of this other person. Also, entirely new parts of my personality surfaced that I didn’t even know existed: very easily delighted parts, or extra caring and thoughtful parts, or a part wherein I devolved into a ham. Maybe another way of saying this is that I was the most evolved version of myself in the space I occupied with this other person. It happened because I was loved and loved him and had the confidence that derived from that. It felt like a secret power. But I was not just open to my partner, and more than normally open to myself, I was also more open to life in general.

Once I experienced this state, I assumed it would stick around, even if the relationship that had created it was over. My relationship had felt so easy that I believed it would be equally easy to bump into another great partner in New York City, when I was ready for one, and then we’d hold hands and skip down the street and simply recreate that great quality again. I now understand this was a gross miscalculation made in 2012 that present-day me laughs at (and scorns) heartily.  

Because after a stretch of years of some good—but mostly truly bad—first dates, the majority of which originated on OKCupid, false starts, and repeated mistakes, that is not what happened. And over time, in my singleness, the openness I’d once had started to recede. Then, quietly, it disappeared. I was alone.

But rather than feel a glaring lack of another person, my singleness became a comfort. Our brains do impressive things to make it seem as though everything is okay, even when things are not okay, in order to lead tolerable lives. That is what my particular brain did, anyway, as the months and years slid by, and I remained without a partner. Life was pretty even-keeled; being single requires a lot less work and produces far less stress, regardless of the fun you’re missing out on. There’s no one to disappoint! And no one to disappoint you. So my days became neither dramatic theater nor high comedy, but more like daytime TV. Mildly entertaining, with occasional highlights, but I simultaneously felt a strong urge to nap.  

Furthermore, it wasn’t just that I was single, I was single in New York City, a place so stuffed with life of every variety and scent that a relentless stream of it hurtles itself directly at you the moment you step out of your front door. This experience is thrilling at first. But eventually—for me, around year five—it felt different. Rather than heighten all of my senses, it made the valves that control feelings turn off in me. People can only handle so much! It wasn’t that I lost the ability to feel, but, as a single person, and in New York City specifically, I had trained my receptors not to react to stimuli and, most notably, to people. I felt like I was sleepwalking through my own life, even as that life was filled with constant distractions, and sounds, and people, and motion.

There was one person, however, who was able to shake me out of this waking sleep: Catherine. Because, although I had wonderful friends, they also lived in New York, where living a normal life requires excessive energy reserves and anything beyond basic maintenance, including socializing, can feel like a burden. So while I would see friends often, I wouldn’t see any one of them consistently enough to get a focused and dependable flow of emotional engagement. And in this state, my visits to Catherine became increasingly important. Her presence—regular, fully tuned-in, thoughtful, and with a memory sharp as a tack—was the catalyst that could resuscitate little pockets of “relationship me,” and nudge me out of power-saving mode. 

Biweekly, I took the subway to Catherine’s office. If you’d examined me in transit, you’d think I lacked the facial muscles that form expressions. You might see this as a standard New Yorker’s face—and that’s not not true. Many New Yorkers wear it like a badge, and it says, “Very little affects me; I’ve seen it all.” This feeling is convenient when you must operate as a machine in order to complete dozens of daily tasks while deflecting the life stream blasted in your direction. But the problem, in my case, was that I wanted to be affected by things; I wanted to be my best self, with someone else.

Sitting on the N train’s powder blue benches, I would sometimes try to make a list in my head of topics I should discuss with Catherine. But mostly I would fail. Too much mental energy was required to do this, given my brain in power-save mode. Instead, I’d stay shut off until the last possible moment, until I’d step off the elevator at the sixth floor and walk into the office lobby, which offered a silence that was shocking compared to the normal din outside. The carpet was plush. A magazine rack secured to the wall was filled with the canon of New York publications. A small water cooler held conical paper cups. I’d pluck one from the bottom, fill it with cool water, pick up The Times, and wait for Catherine, an honest to goodness breath of fresh air, to step out of her office and retrieve me.

Before I sat down, she’d ask how I was. I’d stall, trying to figure out how to answer, as I put my phone away, tossed my bag aside, and slumped into the brown leather couch at a level so low it would normally signal very bad manners. But I was with Catherine. The only person with whom I could drop my guard so completely outside of my home, so I took advantage of this and really sunk in.  

Usually, I’d jump into the first topic that came to mind, without much focus—a date, work stress, a feeling of being too tired to do stuff, heartbreak, my first terrible boss in New York City, my late dad—and just let it flow. I would course adjust or not, as needed, but in the end, I think it almost didn’t matter what we covered. What mattered, I came to realize, was that I was talking about any of it with Catherine. Which meant that, for 60 minutes, I was fully back on, digging in, and investigating daily minutiae, and, more often than not, laughing from my gut with Catherine. For one solid hour, I was the most-filled-out version of myself with someone who I trusted totally and someone… I loved? Something like that.

One day I noticed Catherine placed a little clock on the coffee table facing my direction, which reminded me that this was a timed exercise. Every 10 or 15 minutes, I’d take a subtle glance at its round face, careful not to let her see me do this because that would interrupt our magic flow. I’d wince as the minute hand inched closer to the top of the hour, which meant an impending return to normalcy. Still, when it was over, I’d have just enough of a reminder of that Better Place, and a renewed feeling that I could get there again, outside of her office, with someone else.  

Because, despite the fact that Catherine was the closest thing I had to a real relationship, I was, of course, not in a relationship with Catherine—not an equitable one anyway. Ours was by design a one-sided affair. 

And, as a result, it was a strange experience to learn details about her personal life the scant times this would happen. I’d be blabbing on about this or that, and then I’d get to a point where I’d want to ask a question of her, feeling like knowing the answer could serve as a model for myself because Catherine seemed like the most well-adjusted person I knew. 

At first I was too shy to ask these questions, but eventually, I risked it. Are you married? How old were you when you got married? Do you have kids? How old are they? One day, it occurred to me to ask, Where do you live? Because I was going to be really impressed if I learned she lived anywhere in the city and still managed to have a life that looked like hers: very put-together. So when she told me New Jersey, I couldn’t believe it. What a relief! Maybe her measured life was possible because she went home somewhere else each night—even if that were not fully or exactly true. It made me feel less bad about the way the city had started to make me feel. 

Details like this offered just enough information to turn her into more of a real person, a person with whom I had a real relationship, even if it was fundamentally limited. Because ultimately, I realized, it was those limitations that made us work as well as we did, and what made our occasional run-ins outside of the office—waiting for an elevator, running into each other on the street, with her husband—feel like I was doing something wrong. On one hand, I was a little sad to know we would never know each other in the same way, but on the other, accepting our limitations, helped me embrace exactly what we were, and did have. And come to think of it, this seems like a good standard to apply to any relationship: To embrace exactly what it is, instead of what you cannot be, no matter the reason. Whatever it is you’re getting from whoever that person is, you can’t get it anywhere else. 

Eventually, Catherine helped me come to terms with the fact that I needed to leave New York. It was not an easy thing to confront, and I knew no small part of that was due to the fact that I’d be leaving Catherine, too. The night before our last scheduled meeting, I was on a date with a person I think I was able to see so easily because we’d met after I’d already decided to leave. I was a rogue free person, operating outside the standard constraints of New York. Out late at a bar in Brooklyn, holding a Guinness and doing shots of whiskey, I lamented having to get up early the next morning. When he asked what for, I hesitated. But then I remembered I was free and had nothing to lose. I was going to see my therapist, and actually, I said, she was the closest thing I had to a real relationship since I’d left my last one. The nearest thing I’d had to emotional intimacy since my engagement, which is not something I had ever said out loud before. He surprised me and said he understood. 

When I walked into the office lobby the next morning, five hours later, clutching an enormous life-giving iced coffee, I was startled by the person who walked in behind me: Catherine. “I know,” she joked right away, “real professional.” Her guard dropped already. She was signaling that today, our usual rules did not apply, that there was a future wherein nothing looked the same between us as it did in the past. It was that feeling of the last day of high school. A mutual respect for what we had shared together, and an excitement for the growth that would come next, apart from each other. Upstairs, casual Catherine (the real Catherine?) continued. It was a little unnerving, and irresistible. Could we just talk now like friends? I mentioned to Catherine how I had just gotten through telling my date that ours was the closest thing to a relationship I’d had for the last five years. I wasn’t sure if this would land, or if it was inappropriate. But rather than laugh, or deflect, she agreed with me. She knew what my life had looked like better than anyone in that time. Our intimacy, unique and particular though it was, was real, she confirmed. 

In our last moments, I got up the nerve to ask Catherine something I’d always wondered about. It was something that had happened just once, early in our time together. There were a few weeks when I had stopped seeing her, and it was because I knew I needed to end my relationship, but it scared me, and so I hid from the truth, which means I also hid from her, because she was the only person outside of myself who knew everything, and how it  was leading to just one conclusion. In the midst of my hiding, I was en route to California for a wedding. When I landed, I was surprised to see a text from Catherine. “Just thinking of you,” it said. “Hoping you are well.” 

It was nothing, but also, it was a singular occurrence. Professional as she was, Catherine never invaded my privacy, never prodded too deeply, or reached out in unbidden, overly personal ways. She let me come to her, whenever I wanted. But in that instance, it was as if she knew I was in trouble, and needed some help.

“Do you remember that?” I wondered. “Is that something you usually do?” “Almost never,” she responded.

Whatever had made her do it, I told her, it was exactly what I needed. “Huh,” she said, as if curious about her own decision to do it. “It’s like”—she searched a second for a word—“we were connected.” 

And really, I thought, that seemed like the right way to put it.