I can't stop thinking about this guy

I met him seven years ago and he lives nearby and I think about him every single day

Published May 6, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have a strange problem, which I'm not sure qualifies as a problem, but here goes.

About seven years ago I met this guy. It was not the right time for me to meet someone like him, because I was not in the right frame of mind to be in a relationship. At the time, though, I knew that there was something different about him, in a good way. Anywho. Fast forward to now, where I am 40-something, have a child, and am in the process of separating from my current significant other in a relationship that has ranged from great (not so often) to downright abusive (mostly), since we met, but has been a significant growing experience for me -- one that I honestly believe I needed to have to become the person I am now.

You would think that seven years would make me forget, but, alas, I have not. I have not gone a day ... literally ... without thinking about this first guy, since I met him. I know that he lives near me and that he got married not too long after we met for the first time. But that's about it. Here's the other kicker, though ... our moms know each other through a certain social group. I have thought about asking my mom to ask his mom ... well, I just feel way too stupid to even suggest it. And I'm not sure my mom remembers that I ever went out with him to begin with (she doesn't know him, just his mother).

I am pretty sure that he is still married. And I am definitely at the end of my current relationship. Since the end has been coming slowly but surely, I've had plenty of time to think about this first guy and sometimes it borders on obsessive. When I'm thinking about him, though, it's not in this concrete, definable way, but rather in the abstract -- like I'll be doing something and all of sudden his (imagined) reaction will pop into my head. One of the things I remember liking about him was that he seemed very familiar somehow, a lot like one of my best friends -- but a guy version. Unfortunately, I ended up with the guy version of my other best friend, and that didn't work out at all.

So my basic question is, how do I stop thinking about this person? How do I begin to date again knowing that he might be out there and someday not married anymore? Most important, how do I stop obsessing about something that very well may never be?

Trying to Stay Sane

Dear Trying to Stay Sane,

It sounds like you're having intrusive thoughts. I've had those. Most people do. One book I did not read suggests that 80 to 90 percent of "nonclinical populations" report the occurrence of intrusive thoughts.

And trying to stop them directly doesn't seem to work.

So here's one thing you might try. Note the connections between you and this guy and consider how they might be giving rise to thoughts of him. For instance, he lives nearby. His mother is a friend of your mother. Those are connections and possible triggers. Maybe you could train yourself to associate those triggers with different thoughts -- like every time you think of your mother, which leads to thinking of his mother, which leads to thinking of him, instead, the minute you think of your mother, think of a happy time from childhood when you were with her. Do that every time. And every time you think of where he lives, visualize a positive aspect of that neighborhood that you like, that has nothing to do with him. If you do this every time, or as often as possible, eventually maybe you could rearrange your set of associations. In every known instance that triggers thoughts of him, you're sending your thoughts a different place. It's not that you won't have thoughts of him, but you won't linger on them, because you will have a habit of moving to the next thought, which is more positive and productive.

Wow. Maybe I just came up with something. Some psychologist should test this out!

I just tried it out, just now. I have occasional intrusive thoughts about an individual from my past, and I'm now following the train to something more productive, to see if it works. And it kind of did! I followed that association through a set of other associations and landed at the present moment, where I am now.

There's no time like the present.

I mean, when you think about it, maybe it's a truism, but all the things that have happened so far have led us to now. It's kind of shaky, the whole "Be here now" idea, but basically if we are aware of what we are doing and where we are right now, life seems a little richer and we are less likely to be fidgeting or distracted, breathing shallowly and reaching awkwardly for something on the shelf we know we shouldn't eat.

One problem is that when you're having the intrusive thought you're not likely to be aware of what you're doing at first. This is a sign to become aware of what you're doing. Since intrusive thoughts are associated with anxiety, which a therapist told me one time is a way of avoiding something, then maybe when we are having intrusive thoughts we are avoiding something.

You had an abusive relationship that is ending. That is probably painful. You may be coming up with ways of avoiding thinking about that. Maybe intrusive thoughts are one way of avoiding it.

You also have a mother. It doesn't matter what kind of a mother you have. Just having a mother is enough. You know what I mean. Maybe there is some anxiety associated with having a mother. Not to mention she's friends with this guy's mom.

So become conscious of what is going on now. Become conscious of what you are thinking. Are you thinking of your mother? Is it unpleasant? What else are you thinking of? Are you thinking of things that happened in your relationship, the one that is ending? Are you thinking of things ending? What are you feeling? Are you feeling regret? What other thoughts do you have? Do you have the thought that if you had only gotten together with this man at the time, things might be different now?

Well, I mean, I guess, in a way, if you could go back and change things ...

But still, there's no time like the present!

This whole business of repeated thoughts made me think of my friend Tom Fowler who died on May 7, 2005.

He used to do paintings with the same word repeated over and over.

One of my favorite paintings by Tom was "Stop Thinking About Her," in which he wrote that sentence over and over across a canvas.

Or if you scroll down to the very bottom of this link you will see a great example of what I'm talking about -- Tom's piece called "About the Artist." Ha ha.

Repeating one word over and over is a way of making us conscious of how absurd our obsession is. By giving in to it, we can render it powerless. We can start laughing about it, the way Tom would laugh about his obsessive drinking of coffee.

So this column is going to veer off a little now. I'm just telling you that. Stuff connects, but the connections seem a little weak at times. Still, just because stuff is all occurring in our heads, it's sort of connected.

For starters, if our consciousness contains so many apparently disconnected thoughts, why shouldn't writing be more like consciousness, filled with floating sensations and random thoughts?

Because good nonfiction writing, or writing that is well organized and conceived, is very rigid by some standards [dancing girl in Vegas] and does not include the fleeting [bee at a flower] images that [drum set] go in and out of our heads [the word "breeze" and "sunset"] quickly all day long [skateboarders on Market Street]. What I'm doing is trying to record the various [moth] things that flicker in and out of [dog] consciousness as I attempt [typewriter] to write [image of my dad].

Interesting. A kind of poem maybe. Isn't that a little bit what our thinking is like? Sure, we're concentrating [mom] on homework [childhood suburban bedroom in Hollywood Hills, Fla.] but at the same time a million kinds of other things [dog snoring] are going through our minds, and not only memories [Anna Maria Island] but things in the moment [bird chirping outside the window].

The Wikipedia entry on intrusive thoughts is kind of interesting too: "London psychologist Stanley Rachman presented a questionnaire to healthy college students and found that virtually all said they had these thoughts from time to time, including thoughts of sexual violence, sexual punishment, 'unnatural' sex acts, painful sexual practices, blasphemous or obscene images, thoughts of harming elderly people or someone close to them, violence against animals or towards children, and impulsive or abusive outbursts or utterances. Such bad thoughts are universal among humans, and have 'almost certainly always been a part of the human condition.'" 

Creative Getaway

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By Cary Tennis

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