My 72-Year-Old Patient Wanted To Have More Gay Sex. I Didn't Expect His Quest To Change My Own Love Life.

“'I just came out two years ago and I’m dating. But I’m 72,' he shrugged, smiling. 'Something needs to change. Before I die, I want to have more sex!'”
“What’s your goal with sex?” I asked Henry one day, realizing as I said it that I might have asked myself the same question.
“What’s your goal with sex?” I asked Henry one day, realizing as I said it that I might have asked myself the same question.
SDI Productions via Getty Images

In our first session, Henry spoke so softly that I had to lean forward to hear him.

I’d asked what had brought him to treatment. At 72, dressed in a neat suit and bow tie, he wasn’t my usual patient.

“I want to have more sex,” he repeated, louder this time, raising his eyes to meet mine.

“I just came out two years ago and I’m dating. But I’m 72,” he shrugged, smiling. “Something needs to change. Before I die, I want to have more sex!”

“Well OK then,” I said as I sat back in my chair, taking that moment to compose myself. “Let’s talk about what’s getting in the way of that.”

Abrupt life changes were nothing new to me, whether in the lives of my patients or in my own. In the past year, I had ended a significant relationship and started another under improbable circumstances.

I met Ben strolling around the Tate Modern in London while on a brief stopover. To my surprise, we had kept in touch — at first a little, then a lot. He lived in the British capital with one of his two grown daughters and ran a company there. I was a single mom in New York City with two daughters of my own, both still in school. I also had a full-time practice to manage. Neither Ben nor I was about to move anywhere, so a long-term future seemed out of the question.

I had always been a rule-follower: the dutiful daughter, the sensible single woman, the together mom. My life had followed a carefully planned course. But Ben was an exception. Even though ― or maybe because ― the relationship had no future, there was a freshness to it, a just-unwrapped excitement. But, like Henry, I didn’t quite know how to let go.

Over the next two years, Henry and I did a lot of work to crack open his story: why he never felt comfortable coming out, and how his childhood — filled with complex trauma — had resulted in crippling shame. He had never been in therapy before but was open, vulnerable and honest. As we worked together to expose Henry’s secrets, I was aware that I had begun keeping my own.

Though my closest friends and family had known about Ben early on, their skepticism — and my reluctance to expose my girls to someone who wasn’t going to stick around — convinced me to take our relationship underground. At first, it felt surprisingly easy. As the rest of my life marched predictably forward with parent-teacher conferences, hurriedly packed lunches and scheduled playdates, I met Ben for delicious hotel room trysts and stolen moments on his many work trips to New York, as well as on weekend vacations we took together, carving out time whenever we could.

“Though my closest friends and family had known about Ben early on, their skepticism ... convinced me to take our relationship underground. At first, it felt surprisingly easy.”

We giggled while walking around the Met, took long and furtive strolls exploring New York neighborhoods, and sat in the back of movie theaters making out. Because we existed outside the boundaries of a traditional relationship, I never worried whether he would get along with my kids or fly home with me to my high school reunion. Over time, I felt the reins loosening in my hands. Those old habits of control, the continuous self-monitoring to which I was accustomed, began to recede.

“What’s your goal with sex?” I asked Henry one day, realizing as I said it that I might have asked myself the same question.

“I want to get lost,” he answered. “I don’t have that much time left to try new things. I’ve spent my life giving others pleasure; now it’s my turn.”

Henry could not have known how much his words moved me as I absently fingered my turtleneck, underneath which I was hiding a hickey that Ben had left in the height of passion the day before. I let my patient’s words sink in: Could it be that I was having a sexual awakening at the same time that I was going through menopause?

You want to know what it feels like to not be the giver,” I ventured, “to let go.” He nodded.

When therapy works, the past and the present converse; so, too, do the lived experiences of the patient and therapist. Henry had learned at a very young age to track his mother’s moods closely. When she would fly into one of her rages, it was his job to soften the edges of her anger so that his younger siblings would avoid the brunt. Those habits of caretaking proved hard to break. The bumpiness inherent in personal growth and change was a reminder of the chaos of his childhood. So, he locked the door to whole parts of himself while he focused on being the responsible family man. Now, at last, he seemed to be picking those locks.

Like Henry, I felt the aftershocks of an inconsistent parent. For my father, nothing I did was ever good enough. My perpetual sense of inadequacy resulted in crippling shame and a lifelong habit of prioritizing others’ needs over my own. Wanting for myself became anathema.

“I think you went from being the dutiful son to being the dutiful father,” I said one day, omitting how familiar this felt. I could see the tears welling. I continued softly: “You were always in control. Now, well, maybe it’s time to try something else.”

He wiped his eyes. “Maybe it is.”

Was I ready for that, too?

Henry signed up for Grindr and had some short-lived affairs. He learned all about the differences between Cialis, Viagra and Levitra. I helped him decide whether meeting a man on a bus and asking him to coffee constituted a date. We discussed how to convey that just because he was masculine didn’t mean that he was a “top.”

“I’m definitely not a bear,” he told me once, as if he had just solved a difficult riddle.

“You’re not a bear, but are you a bear chaser?” I responded. He chortled with laughter.

In my patient, I could track closely what it was like to relinquish control from a clinical distance. But in my own life, the same thing felt dangerous and vertiginous. My relationship with Ben, doomed as it was, surfaced desire ― a want that I had always pushed away. Just as it had for Henry, sex promised a means of escaping my self-abnegation, a way around the shame of desire. Sex with Ben became more and more primal and adventurous, narrowing the distance between pain and pleasure. The feeling was like being dragged under by a strong ocean current, tossed and turned in the waves, until I finally resurfaced.

But as our relationship went past the year mark, I found the desire I felt for Ben could no longer stay confined to sex. I wanted to wake up beside him in the morning, to be my plus-one at weddings, my reluctant sidekick at professional functions. The secrecy around our relationship no longer felt exciting; it felt demeaning. Yet, schooled in ignoring my own needs, I went on pretending that the relationship wasn’t hurting me.

“What are we supposed to do, Sarah?” Ben asked in genuine bewilderment when I brought up my dissatisfaction. “This is what we have — can’t we just enjoy it? Is it better to lose everything?” Hungry for more time, I accepted his logic, even as I knew deep down that it meant once again surrendering what I realized I most wanted: to share a life. But like all rationalizations, this one lasted only so long. A year and a half into our relationship, I finally began to acknowledge that I wasn’t just lying to those close to me; I was lying to myself.

“I found the desire I felt for Ben could no longer stay confined to sex. ... The secrecy around our relationship no longer felt exciting; it felt demeaning. Yet, schooled in ignoring my own needs, I went on pretending that the relationship wasn’t hurting me.”

One day, Henry sat down on the edge of his chair for our session, a mischievous expression on his face. “I met someone, doc,” he told me, beaming. “He’s a librarian.” He paused, gauging my reaction. “A very, very sexy librarian.”

“That’s lovely,” I said. “I imagine you’re getting a lot of reading done?”

“I have a newfound respect for books,” he laughed. “Seriously, though, I feel like for the first time I’m really letting myself go, not just sexually but in life. Like, completely. Pretty sad it took me to my mid-70s, huh?” He frowned ruefully.

“Not sad.” I shot back. “Brave. You got there by letting yourself want. That was the first step and the most terrifying. That’s a strength, not a weakness. Many people never get there.”

I swallowed hard. I knew in that moment that what was true for Henry had to be true for me, too. My relationship with Ben had run its course. Like my patient, I had allowed myself to let go and was surprised at how much deeper I went emotionally as a result.

But unlike Henry, I was still choosing men who left me yearning. As hard as it would be to end things with a man I truly loved, an authentic nothing would be preferable to an inauthentic something. While I had let certain appetites surface with him, a basic denial of my own longings had remained stubbornly the same. It was time to fully own that I wanted to know the parts of him ― and of us ― that a long-distance relationship didn’t allow for.

“You’ve taught me to not be afraid of my own needs,” Henry said, his voice breaking.

As my eyes filled with tears, I knew that Henry’s fearlessness had done the same for me.

Names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned in this story.

Sarah Gundle is a psychologist living in Brooklyn with her two daughters. In addition to her private practice, she is a member of the faculty at Mount Sinai Hospital. She is currently working on a book about breakups.

Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here and send us a pitch.

Before You Go

Popular in the Community