“I’m so happy to be here. This has been a terrible week. My roommate Jessica has been driving me absolutely crazy! She’s having all these troubles with her boyfriend and she just keeps talking about him and talking about him. When she’s not crying hysterically. I hardly got any sleep. And I have midterms coming up. I can’t afford to be taking all this time talking to her. I mean she’s my friend and I care about her, but I have to get back to my own life.”
Once again, I find Cathy’s exuberance off-putting and immediately adopt a quiet, containing stance. I’ve often questioned my response to her. I usually encourage patients’ spontaneity and their ability to embrace life’s joys. Is it that I experience Cathy’s brio as lacking in genuineness? Yes. Do I wonder what hides underneath? Yes. She initially came into treatment saying she wanted to deal with her relationship with her “witch step-mother,” but that relationship rarely makes its way into the treatment, either directly or through her transference relationship with me.
“Have you been able to do that, Cathy?” I ask, speaking slowly. “Have you been able to get back to your own life?”
“Well as I said I’ve lost lots of sleep. And Paul isn’t too happy with me. He knew I’d be studying, but spending nights talking to Jessica rather than being with him isn’t what he had in mind,” she says, running her fingers through her long hair. A smile spreads across her face. “Of course,” she says coyly, “He’s not going anywhere.”
I find myself wondering how Jessica feels about Cathy having such a confident relationship with her boyfriend when Jessica’s own relationship is so rocky. I say nothing.
“But I solved the problem. I gave her your phone number and told her to call you. You’d be way better dealing with her problems than me.”
I sit up straighter in my chair. “I appreciate your vote of confidence, Cathy, but I can’t see your roommate.”
She looks at me, startled. “Why not?”
Memories – fortunately distant memories - flash through my mind: the time two patients met in my waiting room, became sexually involved in a tumultuous relationship while I continued to see them both; or, similarly, when two of my patients became roommates; or when I ended up seeing three friends who were always talking about each other; or, from the other side of the couch, a friend and I in treatment with the same analyst. In each case, the complications were enormous. I wasn’t going to repeat those mistakes.
“The two of you live together, you have issues that come up between you, I’m sure you have feelings about each other. It wouldn’t be helpful for me to try to be both your therapists. You each need your own therapist, the person who can listen to you and be in your corner and not be influenced by a third person.”
“But she’s my friend!”
“Yes, she’s your friend and it seems like you’d want to be most helpful to both yourself and your friend. I’m confused, Cathy, I’m not sure why it’s so important to you for Jessica to see me. I’d be happy to give you some excellent referrals.”
Cathy is silent for the first time I can remember. Her pale skin turns scarlet.
“What’s going on Cathy? You’re obviously having lots of feelings about this, but I’m just not sure why. Why do you want me to see Jessica?”
“It’s so embarrassing. I’m not sure I can tell you.”
I wait, feeling more engaged by Cathy than I can remember.
She blushes again, drops her eyes and picks at her fingernails. Barely audible she says, “I thought you’d like me better since you knew me first.” She looks up at me with beseeching eyes, “I know that’s terrible of me, terrible of me to want to be liked better than a friend.”
The pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place. Beautiful, sexy Cathy replaced by a “witch step-mother” in continual competition to win first place. Anyone in Cathy’s life can become either the competitor or the person to be won over, most definitely including me.
“No, Cathy,” I say, “It’s not at all terrible to want to be number one: most loved, most liked, most cherished. The problem becomes when every relationship involves a competition and that the only way you can feel good about yourself is when you win. We’ll work on it.”