When you’ve been waiting for an important text message all week, a text message that could decide the fate of your relationship, the best place you could possibly receive it is in the waiting room of your therapist’s office. So when T’s message appeared on the screen of my phone, a wave of relief washed over me. I knew no matter what he said, I’d devolve into a panicked mess, so it seemed like fate that he’d send it to me right as I was about to see my therapist, Bridgette, who’d been counseling me throughout this entire torrid affair.
Context: He was 40 years old and in a serious monogamous relationship, I was 21 and painfully single. Our attraction was electric, and even though we knew better, we’d been having an affair on and off for the past four months. We established a pattern: We’d passionately hook up, he’d tell me that he wanted to start seeing me on the regs, then text me saying “I can’t do this. Let’s meet up and talk though.” We’d meet up. Passionately hook up. Repeat.
I didn’t set out to be the other woman. I knew it wasn’t the most ethical position to find myself in, but I loved T; in fact, he was the only person I’d ever said “I love you” to in a romantic context. I knew better than to want a relationship with him; he was a cheater, and also way too old for me. Instead I set the bar depressingly low: How about a casual affair?
But the on-again-off-again nature of our relationship was driving me mad. I don’t know if I’ve ever spent as much concentrated time thinking about another human being as I did when I was seeing T. I reveled in the tiny and rare moments of relief when he wasn’t floating around somewhere in my mind. I lived my life like he was watching me; with every move I made I’d think, What would T do if he were here right now?
I read his text over and over again until Bridgette finally summoned me into her office. “T texted me,” I said as soon as I took my seat.
Bridgette sighed with compassion. “What did he say?”
“I went home this weekend and I had some time to think. I want us to keep it kosher and be platonic,” I read, my voice shaking. “It’s better in the long run and I have to learn to keep control of myself and I think I owe it to my partner to figure out my shit before acting out anymore. Let’s hang out next week and talk about it.”
It was the first time I had read a text message aloud to Bridgette. In the past, I had made a concerted effort to summarize my text message exchanges instead of reading them verbatim. I didn’t want to come across as a millennial completely immersed in her iPhone, cut off from the “real” world, more interested in the digital than the tangible.
I assumed she would tell me to get off my phone and have a “real” face-to-face interaction.
I thought my dependence on my phone was the problem. I’d read my fair share of thinkpieces by baby boomers and Gen-Xers railing on our addiction to screens, on the selfie and text messaging, arguing that my generation was the most narcissistic group yet, that we had lost our ability to communicate properly. I assumed Bridgette, who’s in her early fifties, felt the same way. She would always correct me:
“I talked to him.”
“No, you texted him.”
So I assiduously avoided mentioning to my therapist the medium through which I was communicating — poorly — with friends, men, and parents. I wouldn’t lie to her about my medium of communication, but I’d go out of my way not to mention it. But once I broke the seal on talking about texts, DMs, and passive-aggressive late-night Instagram likes, it was great. My therapist writes great texts.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I told Bridgette. “I can’t keep meeting up to talk. I don’t want to meet up to talk.”
“You want a real affair,” she replied. “He can’t give you that.”
“I have to break it off, right now. What do I say to him?”
So I crafted the perfect response with Bridgette’s help. We dissected how I felt, what was important for me to tell T, what was better kept to myself. Bridgette encouraged me to be direct and honest, emphasizing that it was imperative for us to have this conversation over text message because I was unable to say what I needed to say to him in person.
Until that moment, I never thought Bridgette would tell me that such an important conversation should happen over text message. I assumed she would tell me to get off my phone and have a “real” face-to-face interaction. And truth be told, I felt a little ashamed about having this conversation over text. Did it mean our relationship wasn’t important?
Bridgette helped me craft a message that conveyed to T how much I cared about him, while asserting that we can’t see each other as “friends.”
“Hey, thanks for letting me know,” I wrote to him. “I’m not surprised, this is the third time this has happened. There is a part of me that does want to keep hanging out with you, but it’s important for me to point out that our friendship is inherently romantic. You can exercise good judgment when we’re not together but that seems to disappear as soon as we see each other in person. I really like you and care for you, but I can’t keep participating in this cycle. In many ways, I do want to see you, so this is hard for me.”
After sending a couple more novel-length text messages back and forth with T, it was over. And I couldn’t have done it without Bridgette’s help.
“You were setting a boundary with that text,” Michele Kabas, a licensed clinical social worker, explained to me over the phone. (She actually declined to be interviewed over email, writing to me, “I prefer speaking, I’m a therapist.”) “It was a way for you to resist manipulation. It was a way for you to say, ‘No. I am not getting pulled into that again.’ That’s why people have written letters in the past when they feel they can’t speak up or would weaken in person. It’s not so dissimilar.”
Social media hasn’t changed the nature of our problems; it’s just given us more outlets to express ourselves.
Social media hasn’t changed the nature of our problems; it’s just given us more outlets to express ourselves, and faster ways to communicate.
“I do believe that people can be compulsive about many things, including social media,” psychologist Keely Kolmes wrote to me. “But I think the underlying issue always leads back to a diagnosable issue which must be addressed, whether it is anxiety, depression, or another disorder.”
I was reminded of these sentiments when I spoke with Bridgette about Twitter in our last session. Truth is, social media is deeply embedded into every aspect of my life: I’m regularly making friends, meeting lovers, and receiving work through my Twitter. I expressed concern about my inability to quell my impulse to tweet a hundred times a day. While Bridgette understands that Twitter is an important part of my life, I also use it as a way to dissociate and procrastinate. She’s given me strategies to combat falling into what I refer to as a “Twitter K-hole.”
What struck me was the timelessness of her advice: only allowing myself to use Twitter in 20-minute chunks, using Twitter as a reward for finishing an article, writing down my tweet ideas in a document on my computer instead of immediately posting them. Bridgette ultimately gave me advice in exercising self-control, advice that could be applied to non-digital problems as well.
However, not all therapists have the same take as Kolmes and Kabas. C, 21, suffers from OCD. When she was younger, it manifested in more typical ways: She’d wash her hands over and over again, adhere to a strict cleaning routine. Those behaviors slowly faded away as she grew older, and her OCD began presenting itself through social media.
Her ex-boyfriend had a large social media presence, and they broke up when she discovered, through Facebook, that he was cheating on her.
“I became like obsessed with the idea that I would eventually find something else,” C explained to me over Facebook chat. “I was obsessed with the idea that the information is there somewhere through various people, and my therapist couldn't understand that.”
Her therapist would advise her to unfollow certain people or deactivate her accounts. She didn’t understand why C was unable to do that. “For me it became such a rush every time I found something [of my ex’s], and the process became a routine,” C told me.
Eventually, C ditched her therapist and found someone who better understood social media, who understood she couldn’t simply disconnect.
“If a therapist said to any other client with OCD, ‘just stop washing your hands all the time,’ that would be absurd,” N, who is studying to be a social worker at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, explained to me over text message. “Washing hands is a daily activity, and in itself isn't problematic, just when taken to excess. The same can be said for social media.”
The medium both is and is not the message. In Marshall McLuhan’s famous 1964 essay he asserts, “The ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” Social media is merely a new vehicle through which we express old neuroses, through which we communicate with and interpret other people.
The many people who I interviewed for this story told me that while their therapists don’t necessarily understand the mechanisms of social media, they are still able to treat their issues because fundamentally it is not about social media. C’s issues are about her OCD; it’s up to her therapist to recognize that, and figure out how to treat her in the era of the social media.
When I asked Kolmes how she thinks social media has changed the nature of interpersonal communication, she told me her patients “forget that these are socially constructed media images of a person's life as they want others to see them.”
When I sent T that breakup text, the one I wrote with Bridgette, he saw a carefully curated version of my feelings. He might’ve seen my best and most rational self, the version of me who was able to stop seeing the first man I loved because it was ultimately toxic for the both of us.
The digital age has transformed the pace of communication and the face of self-presentation. But at the end of the day, we are operating our computers and smartphones, and the medium is what it has always been: ourselves.