I feel like you’re masturbating all over me," David said, while in the middle of group therapy. The rest of us, a motley crew of six people of varying ages and ethnicities, including me—a twentysomething, white, middle-class, wannabe writer—sat in stunned silence.
I had fallen for David, the group’s resident asshole. He was the latest in a series of surrogate dreamboats—guys who were absolutely inappropriate and/or unavailable for one reason or another. In David’s case, there were several. He was married, older, from a fucked-up family and, as stated already, an asshole.
I liked him because he didn’t care to be liked. He was attractive, dynamic and aggressively intelligent. He didn’t couch his words to spare feelings. The rest of us were a bunch of pathetic codependents, overshadowed by his relentless honesty. He reveled in confrontation.
There I was, 24, alternately meek and daring, too tall, long brown hair forming a curtain in front of my face and looking for Prince Charming—but mortified to admit to it. Instead I was settling for distant relationships with nice guys who didn’t challenge me, along with a mediocre publishing job that was a poor imitation of what I really wanted.
The therapy group did psychodrama, which was a lot like acting. I should note that I’m being careful, by the way, only to reveal and embarrass myself, to protect the identities of the other people in the group. As a good group therapy member should.
My therapist, Frank, was bumbling and self-deprecating—a real Columbo type. But, like Columbo, he was not to be underestimated, and neither were my cohorts. At times it felt like there were five therapists in the room. It was good for me: I had nowhere to look away, nowhere to run. We reenacted scenes from our lives, a recent fight with a loved one, a strange dynamic with a boss or, sometimes, a pivotal childhood memory. It was strangely addictive, and I warmed to the process.
In the rundown of my week at the beginning of sessions, I talked dully about my actual boyfriend. But in psychodrama, I cast David in the role, though he was nothing like him. He played it in a straightforward manner that I liked. He responded to me, and I was sensitive to the slightest change in mood.
I sometimes lost track of what was happening as I spun a fantasy of what might happen if I seduced him. But every week I got a good dose of reality when we met again as indifferent people, barely acquaintances, even though we knew each other better than most. I thought maybe I’d see him somewhere at some point, and we’d have coffee, and start to develop a real relationship.
But David always cast me as his daughter.
Gradually, I began to notice how much I acted for others’ benefit. I was never satisfied with relationships I had, and I substituted the fantasies of fictional love for the real thing. David made me laugh, but sometimes I laughed to amuse him. I noticed it pathetically. I wanted to stop thinking about how to achieve a particular effect on my audience. I wanted guts.
Maybe I didn’t want David, maybe I wanted to be David.
We were all there to deal with our "real lives," but after a while, relationships develop and inevitably there are things going on within the group, internal dynamics, that need airing out. So, every few months, Frank initiated a meta-session so we could talk directly to each other. I loved this: It felt more vital to me, like a test where we were asked to put our hardbought insights into practice. In my life, this place had become where I was most real, most myself. I could face awkward moments. The moments in life from which I badly wanted to escape, gazes I couldn’t hold—became signposts of "deep" territory. Avoidance made me feel I was just skating on the surface of life, never involved, never getting hurt. So I decided I was going to be frank and not ignore the issue with David. I waited as it got going, typically, with some small complaints: "Cathy, I felt you were really dismissive of me last week…" Then: "Frank, when you don’t start on time, I get angry…" I sat there braced to hear my own name. Someone told me I was doing a good job by continuing to come to sessions—I was always one foot out the door—and I waved it off while feeling quietly pleased.
There was a pause—I always waited for a pause—and I began by forcing out his name, following the injunction to address the other directly: "David, last week I noticed I was trying to be charming or cute for you…" I trailed off.
"Emily," he said after a long pause, "I’m not sure what you want from me…" and then he followed by saying something about having respect for my viewpoint and that I was making good progress.
I had stopped listening. My face was hot. I stared at something on the carpet in front of my feet, a water stain, with slight discoloration at the edges.
And then I felt better. I finally saw that he was resolute in taking a big brother role in my life, and not a romantic one. I began to appreciate playing his daughter in some small domestic scene from his life. And I realized he was useful in playing demanding and intimidating people in mine, and for me to begin to work out what I really liked in a guy and what I needed. I didn’t back down as much—I could look in his eyes when we talked, and not look away or feel embarrassed. I let go of the outsized fantasy I had built in my mind. It would always disappoint. In releasing him from my expectations, I actually opened up opportunity for intimacy with the real person sitting in front of me.
I was making progress.