I keep having dreams about my therapist. I terminated our work in December, seven months ago, and yet, I think of her constantly. It’s painful to long for someone that is paid to talk to you. Even more son, it’s painful to be a therapist and know all this and yet still hold out hope that she is out there caring for me, wondering about me, thinking about me. It makes me feel pathetic. It really does. And I hate feeling pathetic.
I don’t nearly think about my own clients as much as I used to think about my therapist. Why would I think she’s even batting an eye thinking about me? Even more, why do I care so much?
My boyfriend, who is an incredibly gifted therapist, researcher, and theorist summed it up really well this morning after telling him about another strange dream I had. He conceptualizes clients and human behavior from an attachment-based viewpoint (how we feel with our primary caregivers), so some of this may sound like neurological jargon, but it was really mind blowing for me.
“She became your idealized mother as you have told me many times. She became a place you can feel safe, someone that on a very primal level felt loved you and saw you for you. She validated every part of your existence as a mother should. she allowed you to also feel safe on a subconscious level. She was changing your attachment patterns but allowing you to feel safe enough to talk about feelings and explore the things your right brain deactivates when stressed. however, she started doing things that made you question her love. She made choices that took her off the pedestal and because she never realized that what she did was wrong she never said anything and that part of your brain that activates danger was activated. When you can no longer trust that she has your best intentions in mind, you no longer have a secure base. Without the base, you go back to your usual response which was to suppress and distance and that’s what you did. you felt threatened on a primal level, you wouldn’t tell her your real reason for leaving (suppression) and you left (distance). Now, she, as a professional, never should have placed you in that position in the first place, but I still think you would greatly benefit by going against your attachment strategy of deactivation (distance and suppression) and let her know how she hurt you (corrective emotional experience). It’s a risk though, and I believe she really hurt you on a level.
I love my mother. I love my father. But I never learned empathy from either of them. I never learned that it was okay to cry and okay to be angry. The actions they perceived as negative were punished and reprimanded. As a mental health professional, I have now learned that this okay…but the parents NEED to validate if they are going to punish (i can see your angry, and that’s okay. I’m so sorry that you’re angry right now because that must be so hard …but we can’t hit other people). I don’t remember receiving that.
I don’t blame my parents. Few of us know how to validate. It’s not a skill taught in school, and it’s certainly not a skill emphasized in greater society. My first real experience with genuine validation was with this therapist. Me, stepping out of a comfort zone, with fear and hesitance and feelings of utter chaos and failure. Her, metaphorically hugging me, letting me know it was okay to feel, encouraging my worth. Me, trying to suppress my feelings, minimize my pain, laugh instead of cry. Her, drawing out my feelings, maximizing the sensations, noting my incongruity.
I latched onto that so quickly. She became a lifeboat. Every session, I longed for her. I held onto compliments like they were tangible presents. I will never forget the time she called me special or the time she told me she would always be there for me or the time she said she had my back. I will never forget when I began complaining that I was afraid I was letting her down, and she stared at me and said that was impossible. Once, in a very dark eating disorder time, she said, “You are so smart and such a go-getter; I have full faith in you,” and I still cling onto that very basic message when recovery becomes hard.
The fifty minutes were not enough. I could have sat on that couch for weeks. Whether we talked or not, the content rarely mattered. Being in her presence mattered. Feeling that kind of love and safety mattered. Like a small child, I just needed that comfortable, secure base. I needed to know someone loved me and could care about the dark and painful sides of me.
She wasn’t the most ethical therapist. She asked me for referrals; she once said she would be willing to supervise me when I start interning as a therapist; she talked about her own life far too much; she probably allowed me to call and text her way too often during the week when I just needed to talk. She asked for a letter of recommendation, and that was the final straw. I’m not her employer; I was her client. That stung. But I never told her. I just told her treatment was over, the goals had been met, and have a good life.
There were so many cracks in this idealized mother, but I wanted to look past them, because underneath her unconventional ways,I knew she cared. She told me she cared, and she showed it. An eating disorder survivor herself, she had the resilience and the willingness to help someone who was struggling the invisible fight so many of us suffer. She knew my pain; in fact, she had already lived much of my story.
I wanted to be her. She was a therapist in private practice living in a relatively upscale part of Southern California with two children and a husband. She was recovered. And that’s all I wanted then. Recovery, and I mean full-circle recovery, seemed like a distant life from my own. Everyday had been a battle in my mind, a battle of eating and exercising and the scale and how much willpower I thought I had or didn’t have.
She had the life I was waiting for; the life that seemed impossible when I first started this graduate school journey and was “required” to attend my own mandatory psychotherapy. I hadn’t even started seeing clients. I was in an emotionally toxic relationship. My parents and I were fighting regularly. I felt fat and ugly and insecure and lonely and anxious constantly. I was working two jobs, averaging nearly fifty hours a week. Everything was on a routine; I thrived on spontaneity, but I was living a life of rigidity and compulsion. I wore a smile, concealed the pain, and convinced the world my life was perfect. And nobody could call me out on that facade until I met her.
She challenged. That’s the best kind of therapist. One who can challenge you with love. One who can call you out on your bullshit, while also telling you that your bullshit doesn’t make you broken. One who can defy your eating disorder, while understanding its complexity, ferocity, and incongruity. One who understands ups and downs and will stand by your side throughout all of it, with no expectations and no disappointments.
I am the therapist I am today because of the therapist she was for me. Again, much of what she said didn’t matter; only a few interpretations and interventions really stand out. It was the safety, the presence, and the feeling of being understood. I cannot emphasize that enough. I grew through the relationship. Yes, she hurt me. I can own that now. But the process, the messy and complicated and joyful process of psychotherapy, was exactly what I needed. She was what I needed.
Maybe one day I will get to the place where I can call or write to her and tell her exactly how I feel and assert myself. I can get the closure we both know that we never really had. Termination was too abrupt, and my boyfriend was right. When the going got tough, I escaped. This is my pattern in relationships. This is how I’ve learned to protect myself. Cut people off–then I feel guilty–then I want to reach out, but it seems too late.
I know she would accept it lovingly. i know she would be proud of me for standing on my own feet, as this is something she knew I struggled with. Right now, that seems way too scary. But one day, I’ll get there.