He looked dispirited--hanks of greasy blond hair plastered to his forehead, dark circles under his eyes--like he hadn't slept in about a hundred years. "Arthur (not his real name), you look sad," I said.
"I am, Priscilla. You'll never guess what happened. Victoria (not her real name) broke up with me. I haven't been able to sleep. I've been obsessing about how she could do this. I mean we were thinking about marriage." He stopped talking and looked down at his hands. He sighed. The ticking clock in my office seemed unusually loud as we sat together. I gave him time to say more.
"Priscilla, it was just so quick. We woke up one morning, and I went to the kitchen like I usually do and began making the coffee and toast. I even remember I was whistling. I felt happy, Priscilla, that I had a woman in my life that I loved." At that point, Arthur raised his head, made eye contact and swiped at the hair now covering one of his eyes. "She came right into the kitchen, Priscilla, and just said, 'I can't do this anymore, Arthur. We've moved too fast. I need to get out of the relationship.' And she's gone, Priscilla. Gone."
"It's almost like she coaxed you into the deep end of the pool and you were enjoying the swim," I said. "You didn't even notice that you couldn't touch bottom. Now you're clinging to the side, unsure if you can venture out into the deep end of loneliness."
"That's it, Priscilla. I do feel extremely lonely. In fact, it's a double whammy lonely, because Mom passed away only a few months ago. I knew Victoria and I were moving too fast. I knew it wouldn't work out." Arthur was now wringing his hands, his head down again, breaking eye contact, his legs nervously bobbing up and down.
"Arthur," I said, "What if it was different?"
"What do you mean?" He raised his head and looked at me.
"What if you were really at the shallow end of lonely? In reality you could touch bottom. You could let go of the side of the pool. You could relax your grip."
"Well, yes, that would help."
"Arthur, if you think of that feeling of loneliness as shallow water that you can walk in, that you can even dive in, then perhaps that could allow for better emotional pain management. As you're walking around and diving in that safe water where you can touch bottom any time you need to, you'll feel more confident, and you might even meet other swimmers. You've got lots of skills that help ward off loneliness that you use all the time: Asking for help, taking care of yourself, structuring your time, going to NA meetings."
Now I stopped talking. We again sat in the stillness of my office, the clock actually a kind of comforting third party as it ticked away. Arthur broke the silence. "You know, Priscilla," I've gotten through a lot of things. Remember when I was unemployed for so long?" Arthur placed those work-roughened hands on his knees and leaned forward. His legs were not bobbing up and and down anymore.
"Yes," I said. "You got through that period with a lot of success."
"I'll do this too. I'll do this too. I can dive into it. I remember when I was a little kid, I used to dive for pennies in the pool at the Y with my buddies. I'll just think about that when I feel bad, Priscilla. It'll be better to be swimming again. And like you said, I can touch bottom."
We all have those places at times where we grip the side of the pool, trembling, afraid to get wet, afraid of whatever feels too deep. Maybe if we transition in our minds to the shallow end, we'll cope more effectively. We can touch bottom. We can let go.