“I told myself I’d give it a year and I did. We got together last New Year’s Eve and I broke up with him this January 1. He was a nice enough man. But I can’t do it. I can’t be in a relationship. It’s like torture to me.”
Torture, I think to myself. What a strong word.
“I know it’s not normal,” Brittany continues. “That’s why I promised myself I’d go into therapy if I couldn’t handle this relationship. I’ve been in therapy several times, but maybe I’m more ready now. I certainly know this is my problem. Way too many relationships to think it’s the men’s fault. I don’t usually last a year, but that’s what I said I’d do, so I did.”
Questions swirl through my mind: What makes a relationship feel like torture? Do you feel smothered? Are you so terrified of loss that you can’t allow yourself to connect? Did your relationship with your previous therapists feel like torture also? Will you need to escape our relationship as well? I decide on a far more innocuous statement.
“Sounds like when you make up your mind to do something you certainly follow through.”
Brittany’s mouth forms an almost-smile, while her eyes brighten slightly eyes as well. “That’s definitely not my problem. If I decide to do something, I do it. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for my determination. I own a chain of yogurt stores and am about to start franchising nationwide. Not bad for an abandoned orphan left by the side of the road.”
“Literally?” I ask, surprised.
“I’m exaggerating about that side of the road bit, but my parents were a piece of work. They were both drug addicts and definitely didn’t know what to do with a baby. At some point they just left me. Social services got involved and I went from one foster home to another until I was 10 when one family finally kept me until I was 16. Then I got myself declared an emancipated minor and went off on my own. And the rest is history.”
“That’s an amazing story, Brittany. A really sad story, but you tell it with no feeling at all.”
“I’ve repeated it a million times.”
“But you still must have feelings about it. About your parents abandoning you, about your going from one home to another, about the family you lived with for six years.”
“They were good-enough people. The family I lived with for six years. But it was the same problem. They wanted something from me I couldn’t give them. They wanted me to love them, to be a part of their family, to remember birthdays and care about Christmas. I don’t have it in me.”
The room feels heavy, steeped in despair, although I suspect I am the only one who feels it. Brittany is removed, protected by a suit of armor she constructed early on to shield her from repeated abandonment and neglect. How could she ever allow herself to care for another person who would likely, yet again, toss her aside? “Left on the side of the road.” That is her metaphor for her life. Brittany cannot allow herself to get any inkling of the scared, vulnerable, needy child who exists inside her. Instead, she prides herself on her truly amazing success, unaware of her underlying hunger for human connection.
“How do you feel about not having it in you?” I ask.
She shrugs. “I know there’s something missing in me. And when I look around and see people, I can tell that relationships add something to their lives. So I guess I’d like to find out what’s missing.”
“I suspect, Brittany, that it’s not so much that something is missing, but that you’ve buried your hurt, neglected childhood feelings deep inside you and that when a potentially close relationship threatens to expose those feelings, you feel you’re being emotionally tortured. Then you bury the feelings even deeper and run away. It’s as though you’re saying, ‘I don’t need anyone and no one can hurt me ever again.’”
“I get the wanting no one to hurt me again, but I don’t know about my being afraid of needing anyone. I don’t think I do need anyone. That’s the problem.”
“Well, I guess that’s something we’ll find out as we go forward,” I say optimistically. In my mind I add, assuming I’m able to keep you in therapy.