Alone Together, when a married patient talks about her feelings of aloneness during the stay-at-home orders, her therapist helps her to see how these feelings are related to her long-standing fear of both knowing and expressing her own needs.
“I’m feeling so horribly sad,” Marion says, her sadness apparent from her voice which I hear remotely on my cell phone. “I feel sad for the country, sad for the world, sad for all the people who are losing their lives every day.”
Pause. “But mostly, I must admit, I feel sad for me. I mean, I’m grateful that everyone I know personally is well, that I haven’t had to deal with a loved one dying without being able to say good-bye… But I feel so alone, which is ridiculous. I know I’m not alone. Arnie is here with me as always. I get to FaceTime with my daughter and grandchildren almost every day – although how they’re all surviving in that apartment I have no idea. And with my son and his husband at least once a week. They’re actually doing very well, working from home and enjoying what they call a second honeymoon.”
If I were I in my office with Marion I know I would wait for her to continue before I speak. But remotely I’m concerned that the silence will increase her feeling of aloneness. “And you feel sad because…?” I ask.
She sighs. “Arnie and I have no relationship. None. I mean I know we’ve been together for 30 years. I don’t expect us to be falling over each other like my son and his husband. But something, something…” Pause. “We sleep in the same bed. We get up in the morning, have breakfast, each of us focused on our iPads, barely speaking. Then he goes into the living room to watch endless news shows about the virus. I sometimes take a walk, then head for the bedroom to watch old movies or read or sometimes talk on the phone. I wish we at least had a dog, but of course they don’t allow them in our condo.”
“Before at least I got to get out, had a change of scenery. I played cards, had lunch with my girlfriends, went to a movie. When I worked that was entirely different. You know, it’s sometimes hard to believe that Arnie and I were both teachers, that we had interesting lives, interesting things to say to each other. Now there’s nothing. Nothing. Emptiness.”
“And feeling alone with someone feels worse than being alone by yourself.”
“That’s definitely true.”
“You said that you and Arnie sleep in the same bed. Do you ever have sex?”
“I’d be hard pressed to remember the last time we had sex.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Sex has been so perfunctory for so many years it’s hard to say I miss it. I do miss cuddling. I miss the occasional kiss, holding hands, caring about each other. Now there’s literally nothing. The absence feels so bleak. And it’s mirrored in all those pictures of cities without people. Or even here – shuttered tennis courts, golf courses, emptiness.”
“Have you talked with Arnie about your feelings?”
“I’ve tried, maybe not enough, but I’ve tried. I tried sitting next to him on the couch, putting my hand on his knee, asking him something about what’s on the TV. Nothing.”
“But have you told him about your feeling of emptiness, of aloneness?”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why?” I ask.
Pause. “You know what I thought of? I thought of being a child, maybe 10, 11 I’m not sure. It was a rainy, dreary day. Must have been a weekend since I wasn’t in school. I was bored. I went to my mother to see if she wanted to play a game, but she was on the phone and put her finger on her lips and motioned me away. So I went to my father just to be with him. I knew he wouldn’t want to play a game. But he was reading the paper, looked at me annoyed and shooed me away. I learned never to ask, just to wait and see if someone will be there for me.”
“We’ve talked previously, Marion, about your unconsciously choosing a man like your father, but today I’m wondering about something else. What is it that you feel, you, the adult Marion, if you think about telling Arnie what you’re feeling?”
“But what is it that you feel?”
“Uncomfortable. Vulnerable. Maybe embarrassed. Like I’m not supposed to have feelings. Maybe like I shouldn’t need anything from anyone.”
“Like you shouldn’t need anything from anyone. I think that’s a very important statement, Marion. I think you’re saying that a long time ago you withdrew from your own needs, that you walled off those needs and locked them in a room somewhere deep inside you. And what you’re left with is a feeling of profound aloneness.”
“That feels right. But what do I do about it?”
“I think we have to start looking for the keys that will help us unlock that door, so we can find the sad, vulnerable child who reached out to her parents that dreary day.”