I'm a teacher. I'm a musician. I'm bulimic

Stuck in a sexless marriage, in love with another man, depressed, I'm hitting myself and thinking of cutting

Published March 22, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

A quick public-service announcement: If you're in the Bay Area, please note that a new session of my writing workshops starts this weekend. It's been really great lately, and I'd be pleased if you can join us.--ct

Dear Cary,

Please, please help me. I have read (and like and respect) a number of advice columnists, but I think you dig deepest and your perspective is most likely to understand my own. I am so desperate for insight to break the cycle I am in, which is so negative and hurtful and just plain awful, for me and, less directly, for others around me.

Brief background on me: academic in the arts, advanced degrees, professor at a great school, musician and writer.

Married to a wonderful man, kids who are blessings. Husband is someone I truly like and whom I respect enormously. He has been unequivocally good to me. The one problem, and it has Always been there: the sex life. For me, it is bad, almost nonexistent. I have no desire for him, and at times it is a kind of revulsion. I do have desire, but not for him.

This is heartbreaking, and I have fought it for decades. It has wreaked all sorts of problems for me, from eating disorders to over-exercise injuries, to medications for depression, etc.

Complicating the issue is that I developed feelings for a work colleague/friend.

I have, of course, done the unthinkable. I fell in love with a work colleague, a married man (albeit one who had shared the unhappiness of his marriage with me), and someone who was probably my closest friend and confidant. It is necessary for me to keep this all a secret (though I have been seeing a therapist for over a year, to whom I can talk, but it has only been moderately helpful, as she is quite nice and supportive but not overly insightful; and also an acupuncturist who has been very helpful more broadly as well).

I cannot avoid this friend/colleague. I think I'm doing better, and then we have contact, and my feelings are all reopened, whether of love and desire or of absolute anger at how he has treated me. He has truly been a wonderful friend in all areas but this. I cannot begin to tell you how many hours this has sucked out of my life, and how much energy.

Last week I punched both of my forearms furiously, leaving horrible bruises, because I had nowhere to direct the pain (and I am working desperately to avoid bulimia, which was one of my main coping techniques in the past). If I were brave enough, I would have cut myself. It is horrible enough that I damaged my arms -- me, as a musician. I must wear long sleeves this week to conceal the horrendous bruises from my children and my students -- this, in a week in which summer has sprung on us prematurely.

I have reduced my calorie intake as much as I can while still managing life, and have no doubt mucked seriously with my metabolism.

It's as if when I'm not eating, I feel the pain less, but I know I cannot sustain this indefinitely, and I'm terrified of having to rejoin life. I think if I started eating more, and feeling the pain, I could not go on, yet I know I must, for my kids.

I don't know what to do. My background and life story suggest a kind of intelligence and hard work ethic, but it has not been helping me here. I think the analogy of an addiction is not a bad one, but it is like a food addiction in that I cannot leave this job, and cannot avoid him at it. And I hate negativity; it eats at me like an acid. I do not want to avoid him through anger and pain; I want, and need, to move on, but I keep being heartbroken -- longing for him, enjoying our friendship so much, and then being consumed with anger, frustration and grief -- all in no particular order. It does sometimes seem to be getting better, and then it will be worse again, like a virus that never quite goes away.

Meanwhile, my husband is still around -- this wonderful man -- for whom I have zero feelings physically or even negative ones. Indeed, perhaps I should not have married him, but I was so terribly inexperienced, and he was so good in other ways, that I thought -- well, maybe I'll get over it, or I'll learn, or the feelings will develop, or it won't really matter -- life's not a fairy tale, and you're lucky to have found him. And indeed, I was, and have been, and yet… I have not learned, the feelings have not developed, and now -- it does matter.

Please help me. I seek your insights, strategies, anything. I have been struggling for decades with the marital issue, and probably more than six years (I almost don't want to count) with these other feelings of longing, which have consumed much more energy than even the marital stuff. I must find a way to break free -- for my own sanity and even to offer the hope for myself of moving on -- whether to find someone else, to make peace with what I have, or to make peace with myself on my own.


Dear Desperate,

Yes, I agree, you need to break free.

But how?

Right now, you are trapped in a punishing cycle that you cannot reason your way out of or adjust your way out of.

I think you need to physically remove yourself. The best practical hope is to get into a residential treatment center. Residential treatment would give you an opportunity to step back for a few weeks. I really think that could help.

Insurance may very well pay for it.

It won't be as hard as it sounds. While you are in pain, and enmeshed in these unsatisfying relationships, you continue to function at a high level. You continue to have a strong will. You can put that strong will to good use now. Your psyche needs that strength.

To find and arrange to enter a treatment center, you can marshal your practical skills to come to the aid of your wounded psyche. What is beautiful about human beings in crisis, beset with the worst of troubles, is that when we seek solutions, we discover our complementary skills; it's as though in being forced to come to our own aid, we are forced to become whole.

I know what it is like to try to solve such wrenching problems on your own, in secret. It can hardly be done. But imagine finding hope in a community of people to whom your predicament is a known illness with known cures. What you are going through is no mystery. It has a cause and it has a cure.

Imagine the relief of having a real program of change. Imagine feeling it work. Imagine getting better!

Suggestion: Read this article from PsychCentral. It is an excellent overview: thorough but not technical. It says that cognitive behavioral therapy is considered the treatment of choice for people with bulimia. Using CBT, you can learn to recognize and combat the harmful thoughts that are causing your upset.

Here is a list of residential centers you might contact or visit.

And here is a list of online support for people with eating disorders.

What else do you need? You need deep compassion for your wounded self. To find compassion for your wounded self you need to tell someone all of this: the starving yourself, the eating, the hitting yourself, the thoughts of cutting. In order to tell all of this, you need to find somebody you can trust.

You can find that person. You can do this. You are going to get better. Just start taking the steps, one at a time.

By Cary Tennis

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