Opinion: When Therapy Goes Sideways

Remington Write

At what point do you cut and run?

The great man himself, Uncle SigmundPhoto byMax Halberstadt
Not that long ago - certainly in my lifetime - seeking help from psychologists, psychanalysts, psychiatrists, or anyone who uses a psy- in their professional descriptor was seen as a sign of weakness or at least exhibiting poor judgement. This stigma had largely faded by the time I got to where I could use the help of a good therapist.
I've been lucky in that most of the professionals I've seen over the years have been incredibly helpful.
Most of them.
I had arrived for my weekly therapy session with Jill - not her real name - just as my period cramps were coming on.

Because I’d left home without ibuprofen, I stopped at a corner bodega and bought one of those little two-pill packs of Advil. When I arrived, I asked if I could get a glass of water to take my Advil.

“If I let you have a glass of water, that would just be allowing you to continue to not practice self-care. Right?”

Wait. What?

Then she just sat there, all serene and waiting for me to start our session.

I floundered a bit and then suggested that I actually had been practicing self-care by buying my own Advil and not arriving without them to ask if she had any. I suggested that perhaps I should lie to her and ask to use the bathroom so I could cup water in my hands and take the damned medicine I needed to deal with period cramps that were going to have me doubled up and on the floor in about half an hour.

She got me a glass. That was my last session with Jill.

I actually first went into therapy with a school psychologist when I was eight. I’d just been told that Daddy wasn’t my "real Daddy" and one afternoon my name was called over the public address system.

I froze. What had I done wrong? Everyone was staring at me. Third grade and I really could have used a shot of bourbon. Make that a double.

It turned out that I wasn’t in trouble. Mr. Sullivan was wonderful. I’d never had a grown-up so ready to let me prattle on about anything and pay complete attention to everything I said. I’d draw pictures of my flower people and tell him the stories I made up to go with them. I only found out later why I’d been sent to see Mr. Sullivan. Right around the time we moved to Ohio. I was nine.

Schools in Ohio didn’t have school psychologists so I was on my own.

Fast forward many years and at the beginning of my second year sober I realized I needed “outside help”. I reached out to a local community organization and found myself committed to a 12-week group therapy session for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

It was hell.

I’d spent decades shoving everything down and now I found myself surrounded by the toxic sludge of a lifetime of denial. I don’t recommend that anyone begin therapy this way. I’d find myself curled up in the shower sobbing uncontrollably or rocking in a corner, hitting my head against the wall.

I made it through the first session and was signed up for the second when I found a therapist with whom I could work one on one. Her office was out at the very end of the line of one of the commuter bus lines at a suburban hospital.

The bus ride out to that hospital was just under an hour. I checked in with the receptionist and was shown to the room where Kate was waiting for me. She seemed kind if a little removed.

My experience with therapists at that point was pretty limited so I essentially opened my mouth and began convulsively vomiting out decades of toxic experience and abuse. In the middle of my spew, her phone rang. She apologized but said it was a call she had to take. Would I mind waiting out in the corridor?

I stood out there waiting, burning with humiliation, and saw that the bus was still sitting there for its layover.

Without another thought, I walked right out, got on the bus and rode back into town. The next day Kate called and left a message. I wasn’t ready to talk to her. I didn’t even know what I’d say. She called again the next day and then when she called again the following day I picked up the phone. Her apology felt genuine.

I worked with her for nearly four years. She explained that her job was to stand beside me and hold a light for me to see my path. Kate was always kind and attentive. She took copious notes but never seemed to be more interested in what was on the paper than what I was saying. At first, we met weekly. She determined that I wouldn’t require medication which was a relief to me although I would have taken whatever she prescribed at that point.

The hour on the bus out and back gave me the chance to kind of bracket the experience. I’d listen to my Walkman and watch the city thin out to suburbs and then farms and then reverse the process after each session. Once, sitting on the bus and waiting for the driver to come back from his layover break, I found myself watching a tiny red spider weaving an invisible web on my boot laces. I realized I had about as much of a clue about the universe as that spider had about the internal combustion engine in the bus we were sitting on.

That was comforting.

Over time, we began meeting bi-weekly and then once a month. The day came when I understood that I’d never been that wrecked, broken, hopeless mess I had always thought I was. I had always been whole and just needed someone standing next to me on the path with some light for me to discover that truth.

Therapy, counseling, psychoanalysis, even sessions with an astrologist are fraught with risk due to the vulnerability required for the process to work.

When I was in the most need of counseling I was not in the best position to determine if the therapist was “good” or not. I could have ditched Kate and never gone to another therapist but I’m glad I didn’t. Her persistence in making sure we spoke again let me know that she might be trustworthy.

By the time I wound up on Jill’s couch, I was much more able to determine when a therapist wasn’t going to work out.

Talk to friends, ask about their experiences, ask them if they can recommend a professional when you’re in need of that kind of help. Remember that no matter how damaged, inept, lost or confused you feel you are, you do have intuition that can be trusted. If the person you’re seeking help from seems off or unhelpful or distant or judgmental, you can take a break. You can find someone else.

You can do this.

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Covert dilettante with an omnivorous capacity for wonder. Writing because I can't not write. Always watching for the hidden patterns and connections. I don't know I cannot fly..........and so I do.

New York City, NY

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