Contemporary Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of substance abuse.

“No, I mean it! No sex for a month,” I announce to my therapist. She is the fifth one I have cycled through in just as many months.. My work benefits entitled me to 25 free sessions a year and maybe just as many therapists. I had always been meaning to give therapy a try, but it either felt too expensive or too indulgent, which I guess is the same thing. But when I read about my new company’s benefits, I ran out of excuses.

Each of these women schedule a Zoom call through an app, spend thirty minutes of the time reading out questions from a survey on their screen, and the rest of the thirty listening to me tell them why I was in therapy.

“Because I need help.” Duh.

“Could you be more specific?”

I’ve stared at these women on my laptop screen wondering what they would do if they didn’t have to do this and said something to the effect of:

“I’m not sure I can, because I need to change everything about my life. I am fifteen pounds too heavy, which might change if I didn’t party almost every single night. And I am just recovering from an STD because I was dumb enough to have unprotected sex. This wasn’t even stranger danger. This was a friend’s friend, so well yea, now I’m avoiding hanging out with that friend. And I mean, I have a degree and a job, but what am I even supposed to do with it? I feel like I am meant to do something, but it can’t possibly be in a traditional “9 to 5”. Seriously, look at all these TikTok millionaires. Meanwhile, I am working for the one percent. And I haven’t spoken to my mother in like a month, because as always she disapproves of everything I do. And I am pretty sure I am still in love with my ex, who has very much moved on with someone else.”

I’ve never struggled to vomit this information to these absolute strangers because they’ve made sure to tell me all our conversations are confidential. It’s not like I have rehearsed the speech in advance; I hear some flavor of it for the first time when it gushes out of my mouth.

tell these therapists , all coming out as if rehearsed, but really I hear some flavor of it for the first time when I say it.

“So what is it that you want to work on in our time together?” they’d ask.

What the fuck do I know? I thought I was sharing my life story with these Zoom bobbing heads so I could have an outsider perspective on the Rorschach in my head. But they won’t give it to me. I need to want the change I want to create, they say. So lately, I’ve just been picking one thing and trying an elimination diet for a few days. There was the week without sugar and the one without alcohol. It turned out that during the week without alcohol, I inadvertently ate more desserts to compensate. Then there was the week without mindless social media scrolling, where I did more mindless Netflix binging. Today it’s sex because I am fresh off my STD mortification.

I stuck these diets out for a few days and then resumed regular business, but it felt good to tell these women I was determined to make a change. Even if it didn’t happen, we could end the call with them telling me they were proud of me for working on myself. I’d change the therapist so they would never find out.

“Why are you giving up sex for a month?” this one is asking. She has on oversized glasses with blue and gold frames that made her eyes look mopey. I imagine her living with a cat and a boyfriend who owns a small town organic grocery store. Or a cannabis startup.

“Why did you decide to become a therapist?” I always want to ask them. Maybe it’s as simple as: those who can’t, teach. But therapists don’t even really teach; at least not the ones working through a laptop screen writing up their notes so that their company who claims to have disrupted access to mental health can have at it with the transcripts. Rummage through it for data and insights. Monetize generalized anxiety and depression.

“Because I know that I use sex as a way to feed my hunger for validation, because I never got any from my mother. I engage in risky behavior because I don’t like myself very much and don’t respect myself and my body enough to make better choices. I mean I know that Freud would say my behavior with men has to do with my father, but I think it’s more to go with my mother. My insecure attachment style is because of her, and so I attach insecurely to men, sleeping with them to feel wanted and then running before they can tell me they don’t actually give a shit.”

Her hazel eyes somehow enlarge on my screen. I look down at my face on the screen and see my eyes staring back, puffy from last night’s binge.

“It sounds like you have a tough relationship with our mother; that must be difficult.”

“Well, who doesn’t right?” I give her a knowing smirk.

I imagine her having a mother who taught her about safe sex at ten, supplying her with her first condoms soon after. I bet she thought of her mother as her best friend.

“I am glad you are thinking about making some shifts in how you honor yourself; your true self lies in the choices you make every day, and the more you honor yourself in those decisions, the more you will find validation within yourself versus outside yourself.”

I haven’t yet figured out why she is a therapist. Maybe a father who abandoned her, or a chronic illness she’s had to deal with all her life. It was always something, that’s for sure. People who grew up in loving families were art history majors who could then parlay that into a career in finance or law. Sometimes they became dentists so they could have the work life balance they needed to raise their three kids and give them the loving home they grew up in. You had to be a pretty secure person to look at rotting teeth all day with no irony. But only someone who spent too much time in their convoluted head growing up became a therapist.

“I am on antibiotics for my STD right now so I can’t do anything anyway and then I should be getting my period soon after, so that only gives me like ten real days of abstinence, so we will see how all that goes. I was reading on a blog that claiming your sexual energy as a woman allows you to channel it into other things that offer a sense of purpose. So, who knows, maybe this is the month I’ll figure out what the heck I am doing with my life.”

I had learned seven therapists ago that they aren’t happy with the choices they’ve made themselves. How can they be? They became therapists because they wanted to find themselves in the DSM-V. They hoped that learning how the mind works would give them the sanctuary they needed for always feeling unhinged. But in the process, they made the mistake of assuming doing it for a living would give them meaning. Instead, it gives them a world full of pop-psychology-bred, existential-crisis-wielding assholes to deal with. 

Free therapy is a privilege. I’ll bet someone in Brooklyn would be outraged at how I was misusing my workplace perk. What is it that perks like these are intended to help me with? Is it supposed to make me feel better that I hate my boss, or that I despise what I do? Tell me why it’s only fat-wallet tech companies that offer these benefits for free when their employees got to spend the pandemic watching Netflix while swirling their mouse every few minutes to show they were online. The new ethos since the pandemic is that we should all “bring our whole selves to work”. Everyone already saw everyone’s annoying kids they clearly don’t like having around them, and obese dogs that were fed on their owners; loneliness. So I guess after the pandemic we all had to be comfortable with knowing too much about our coworkers. Or too little; I am yet to know which of my coworkers is shorter than I expect or stores all their weight in their hips. If my coworkers saw me in real-life, they’d say I was exactly as expected. Because I don’t think I evoke any particular opinions; my voice matches my average height; my body equally retains water in my face and my stomach.

I once had to go to court-mandated alcohol counseling for a DUI. This was in-person, long before some fake do-gooder decided to democratize access to mental health and every tech company jumped on the bandwagon. Twice a week I had to join a group therapy session where they would talk to us about recovery versus abstinence lifestyles. Abstinence was about internalized shame, self-centeredness, and victimhood. A recovery lifestyle was about working through guilt and shame, and realizing I own my situation. I sat through these sessions bored, thinking about what I could be doing with my time instead. There were people in my group who were much worse off than me - a recovering heroin addict, an ex-con, a mousy boy who was abused by his piano teacher. Now these are real problems I’d think to myself, why am I here? I had already learned my lesson twelve grand ago, that getting caught drinking and driving was stupid. I was no victim.

“So, if you were to abstain from sex for a month, how would that make you feel?”

The light is dimming in my room as my east-facing windows evade the sun. In the dulling of the day, I can no longer see my face as clearly in the Zoom screen.

“I would feel like I have taken control of my life, that I wasn’t just being driven by shame, or a victim.”

“Good good, these are all really good things to feel. OK this has been a great session. Now, there will be a follow-up survey that will ask you to fill out your mood after this session so we can track the progress you are making.”

January 19, 2024 14:17

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