I Went To Therapy After A Breakup And It Helped Me Move On
Charlotte, my therapist, had an inventory of gestures she applied to different circumstances, and after six months of making our regular weekly appointments, I had memorized every one of them.
This, of course, was because I loved her.
I didn't love her in the creepy sense — the one that makes people want to have sex with their therapists. No, I loved her with the neediness of an infant. Charlotte was the mother to my emotions.
I loved how, whenever I had a dream to share, she poised her pen above her spiral notebook expectantly, tilting forward in anticipation.
This dream I was about to share was about my ex-boyfriend -- my recent ex-boyfriend, for the second time around.
I had started seeing Charlotte the first time my ex and I broke up, back in the spring. We had gotten back together in early August and ended it for good three months after that.
He had immediately taken up with one of his friends, someone I had suspected he wanted to be with and whom he had hooked up with during our break.
My dream had been about them, and I didn't feel devastated the way I had over the summer, when I first found out they had been together. I just felt dull.
"What was the dream?" Charlotte asked me eagerly.
I told her that I had dreamed about the three of us, sleeping in a set of bunk beds. I had been in the bottom bunk, and my ex and his new partner had been on the top.
When we woke up in the morning, he came down from the bed and kissed me goodbye.
"What does that say to you about your relationship?" she prompted. "That he slept with them but kissed you goodbye?"
"That it's over," I answered. "But that doesn't mean he didn't love me at the time."
She jotted this in her notebook. "Good," she murmured. "That's a change."
I started going to therapy because I was certain that I was unlovable. This wasn't the clearest reason in my head at the time, and it wouldn't ultimately be my diagnosis, but it was the belief that my conditions had induced.
My depression told me that I was unlovable because I was sad, and my anxiety told me that I was unlovable and that's why people would leave me. It was this internal narrative that the accumulation of a history of erasures and traumas had confirmed through qualitative evidence.
When my ex had broke up with me for the first time -- we had been together a year, and it had come out of the blue, just as we were planning to take our first trip -- it was a final blow to what I perceived to be a life of lovelessness.
I had entered therapy because I was so miserable to an extent that seemed excessive, even considering the breakup and all.
My heartbreak manifested in all the usual behaviors. I continued to text him and took lunch breaks in the bathroom to sob. Back at my desk, I would stare rigidly at my computer screen, blinking furiously to bat away the tears still lingering from my big noon cry.
I also tried out some new habits, like standing in the kitchen at 4 in the morning, smearing butter and marmalade on dinner rolls and shoving them into my face with a greedy desperation born from loss.
The first time we broke up, getting him back seemed like the only way to prove to myself that I was lovable. Or at least, that was what my subconscious was insisting.
By the second time, therapy had helped me change.
My therapist was not a fan of my ex. I knew this not because of anything she flat-out told me, but by the way she insisted on how it hadn't been working in the first place.
She would quote back my own annoyances with the relationship to me, seeming to amplify their severity. The first time around, I wasn't so much annoyed at him as I was at her for reminding me.
When she told me how I had felt bored and excluded when he just wanted to hang around his house with his loud friends and get drunk, I had insisted that his friends had been my friends, too.
When she made it apparent that our habit of excessively drinking together wasn't exactly healthy -- in fact it had harmed me, like that time I got drunk, fell down in the graveyard, and bloodied the entire length of my leg -- I made excuses. We were just having fun, I said.
As the summer went on, though, these reminders stuck with me. And when we got back together in August, they were behaviors I realized we had to fix. The thing was that in order to fix them, we both had to want to change.
By that time, I had already been changing without him in ways that were hardly perceptible at the time.
While I was in therapy, I learned that love worked like a mirror. Mirrors don't always show you what you want to see, but that's a good thing. A mirror that won't show you the egg on your face doesn't serve as any use.
Love shows you the things that you want to change about yourself, and often, you approach that by trying to change things in the person you are dating.
There are three possibilities with this mirror. It can grow with you, and love stays. The other options are for the mirror to break or for it to not be able to keep pace with you. If this happens, someone else's mirror rises up in its place.
This wasn't anything that my therapist had told me, at least not specifically to my relationship. It was a metaphor somebody else -- a psychic, actually -- gave me. I adapted it to my own experience.
See, my therapist didn't actually heal my own relationship to love. She just gave me the tools, strategies, and freedom to clear away the cobwebs I had around love.
From our conversations, I began to develop this understanding that there was a reason for lost love, and it honestly, really, didn't have much to do with me at all.
I mean it did in a sense — of course it did. It was my breakup, changing my life. But the reasons for it working out didn't have anything to do with my lovability, nor should something lasting be perceived as the only measure of its success.
When my ex and I got back together, we tried to make our mirrors grow together. We made lists of what we each were looking for and read them aloud to one another. There were so many places where they didn't align.
Sex was one example. He wanted more quickies standing up in the woods, for one thing. I wanted to spend a whole Sunday in bed.
And it soon became apparent from both of our behavior, that only one of us was actually ready for a relationship. To my surprise, it actually wasn't me.
I could tell you the exact conditions under which it ended, if that would make it count. I could tell you that I had slept with somebody else, or that I had retreated from the relationship. I could tell you that we had tried until we were tired of trying, or that the mirror had actually shattered when it had fallen away sometime over the summer.
I could tell you that we stopped having sex, and I could tell you that, one night, he went to the movies with them instead of me, and boy, did it hurt.
But what matters the most, I think, was after it ended for good, and when I was alone in a calmer place somewhere between pain and relief. Therapy had managed to heal a lot of the wounds and self-loathing that had made me blind in the first breakup to anything but me.
And that is what allowed me to remember, quite clearly, the first time my ex-boyfriend and I had kissed. It had been the equinox of 2014, when we were lying on a cabin floor somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. He had worn glasses, and his eyes crinkled at the corners, tender and true.
That had been real, I understood now. Even though it was over, that didn't mean it hadn't happened and that it wouldn't happen again.
I continued to see Charlotte for a year after I recounted that dream -- that dream that had told me that I had been loved.
We went through a lot more together, but in the end, the coping skills I had begun to cultivate around that first shared loss developed so thoroughly that I didn't need my emotional mother anymore.
After we stopped our sessions, it was a skill I also applied to losing her.
I still think of her all the time. In fact, I think about her a lot more than I think about my ex. I picture her office, her crossed ankles, her couch. I wonder what she's doing, who she's talking to, and how she's wearing her hair now.
It's funny, because I really didn't know her at all -- not a single personal detail of her life. I was in the kind of therapy where that information isn't shared with patients, and that was a good thing. It allowed me to speak freely in a space that she held open for me.
But still, there was that curiosity, and I have to admit that it lingers. I tell myself that one day, I'll see Charlotte again, on the street or maybe in a cafe. And then, we'll get to really know one another.
It will happen like this: I'll sit down across from her, and I'll lean forward with crossed ankles, the way she used to lean toward me. Then, I'll ask her, with all the sincerity of an old friend, to tell me, please, what's new with her these days.