This is how my therapy ended: My therapist sent a letter without my knowing or my permission or written consent to a third party. That third party read the first paragraph, felt uncomfortable, and so gave it to me. I read it and was shocked. (There was no threat whatsoever, to myself or others, motivating the letter, nor did she note anything of this sort).
Until that moment, I believed that my therapist liked me. She told me she did. She told me how easy it was to care about me. We would sometimes even say I love you to each other. She told me my internal timing in telling my story was important. And she told me I was a great communicator. These were the building blocks of our work, I thought.
In the letter, though, she maligned me. She wrote how slow I was to share and how this frustrated her. She wrote about how difficult the work was for her. She wrote that I was uncommunicative. She even wrote that my physical illness (I have a chronic health condition, more below) slowed down her plan for my progress.
I shook for several hours after reading the letter. My trust had been betrayed. My self had been disparaged and humiliated. And all this by a person who was a professional, paid to keep my confidence and hold unconditional positive regard for me. And who I thought, until reading that letter, was my trusted mentor and guide.
When she sent it, I hadn’t been to a session in a week because I was having a flare on my health condition and was in and out of the hospital with internal bleeding. After reading the letter and still ill, I sent her an email. I was always very careful when noting negative feelings to offer them in a fuller context. Even here, and even bed ridden and losing lots of blood while on massive doses of steroids, I expressed my hurt while also saying I was trying to see a context of caring. She wrote back that I had a choice: I could see people as caring and wanting to help, or not caring and wanting to hurt. I responded that this wasn’t black or white, nor was it about people in general, but was a very gray situation about her. She didn’t respond. She said she noted my email. A few days later, I asked for my writing back (I’d shared some deep personal essays with her). And a few days after that, she sent me a very formal email saying she was terminating. She asserted she was certain that I was in a better place than when we started work. She said I could not have my writing back. She told me I could not respond to the email. And then she signed it Full Name, Ph.D., even though we’d been on a first name basis for nearly four years, even though she told me she loved me often, and even though I, too, have a Ph.D. (She had also promised me she would never quit. Her quitting crumbled the last building block of our work, the others having been destroyed by the letter).
When I first sought out a therapist, I wanted to work on self-esteem issues in general and, ifI felt comfortable / compelled, some trauma from my past. I tried a handful of people in my town with no luck. I was about to take a break for a while, when I decided to give it one last search. I noticed someone on my insurance list who, on her website, professed a commitment to “ahimsa,” or nonviolene. Ahimsa is a guiding principle for me, so I thought I’d give it one last try.
When I met her, I noticed she seemed nervous. Her face seemed to redden easily in our first few appointments. But I liked her well enough. As we continued, something struck me: she didn’t give compliments. Ever. This stood out to me as very different from people I’d worked with before, whose praise ranged from occasional to too much. But with this therapist, never. It wasn’t until eight months in that she gave me my first stroke: she told me I had a lot of wonderful parts, but I didn’t seem able to get them all to work together. I remember feeling elated and crest-fallen at the same time. And I wanted to earn more praise. I wanted to get her to like me.
I am effusive by nature in giving compliments: I really like showing my appreciation for people. And this seemed to please this therapist. So while she rarely offered positive comments about me, I would often talk about how lucky I was to work with her, etc. One time, early on, I said I wasn’t sure how I could ever thank her enough. She told me, there was no way, just like kids can never repay their parents. I remember being struck by this: while I don’t have my own kids yet, I already feel how much of a gift they will be and would never see them as somehow indebted to me. But this just stoked my desire to please her. Later in the therapy, I said thank you one day and she told me I should thank god instead.
She began sitting next to me during the sessions, holding me while I cried on her shoulder. She would pretend to play caregiver to my inner child, telling me she was rocking or feeding or holding her. I loved this on some level. On another, it felt like a violation of my space. It was in this space, too, that she would tell me I was good, which I also ached to hear, especially from she who withheld accepting words otherwise.
Over this time, she encouraged me to become dependent on her. She would tell me to email her. When I would, she would express approval that I had and say she was happy to help. She told me she wanted to heal me out of my reluctance to ask for help. At one point, she had me calling her twice a day to check in. When she would travel, she told me specific days to email. If I only emailed once, she would ask why. She also encouraged me to email on holidays. When I wouldn’t, she would ask why I didn’t and say I could have.
As the therapy became more intense, I began to unravel. At the same time, I picked up a powerful bacteria while traveling. It took my doctors several months to figure out this either caused or happened to correspond to the onset of debilitating disease I mentioned above. During these months, I was losing massive quantities of blood and terrified that I may be dying (I have a history of melanoma (in the letter, she called this mere “cancer scares” instead of actual history of cancer) so, for a while, a concern was that it was cancer). This therapist didn’t seem able to understand how debilitating this illness was for me. I literally had a few hours each day I could be up and about. On therapy days, I went there and that was it. And I often left her office feeling way worse than when I went in. I found a psychiatrist during this time to see if I should supplement with meds. He gave me something for acute times but did not think I needed anything long-term (over the course of my time with this therapist, I saw four psychiatrists, all of whom said I didn’t need daily meds. Yet in the letter to the third party, she also complained that I refused medication). I was feeling hopeless and exhausted. I was also feeling frustrated that this therapist had me calling her on a twice daily basis (though part of me liked the concern). Then, without my knowing, she called the psychiatrist and told him my history. He then called me and said it all back to me. I was stunned and called her, upset. She pushed me to return to work and, after a week off, I did. It took several months to rebuild but she eventually apologized.
Over the next year and a half, I was determined to be a “good client” again. Part of this meant not letting her know that sometimes the way sessions went made me feel awful. At first, I tried saying that when she didn’t answer my questions or changed the subject or responded with indifference when I bring in a new idea or seemed neutral when I felt excited, I felt deflated. Broaching this would lead to more upset, so I decided to not say anything. I was still extremely ill with a still undiagnosed illness. I tried seeing a second therapist at this point, a name given to me by the psychiatrist, but the original therapist said this would be confusing and told me I didn’t need to learn skills just so I could be better with her so I stopped (in the letter, she frustratingly described me as giving up on this other approach). A few times, between this and having a bad session that I then felt I had no way to process, I engaged in some suicidal behavior. But I never told anyone, least of all her, for fear she would label me or that she would see me as difficult.
After a year and a half or being a model client and rebuilding trust, I decided I needed some help around the suicidal feelings. So I decided to break my silence. While feeling acutely suicidal, I called her for help – encouraged by all the times she told me to reach out and did help with minor issues. She refused to help. I was angry but went in and apologized, saying I would do better. A few weeks later, I was in deeper throes of this suicidal ideation. At the end of a session, she told me she had more time. I was about to pour open the past source of all the feelings when her next client arrived. She flung open the door while I was sitting on the couch crying. She told me to call and email her that weekend. I did and it went horribly. She told me she didn’t have time. When I went in, she told me she would no longer speak to me between sessions. She said I had to handle whatever came up in between. This completely missed that it was seeing her that threw me into this place. It also missed that I was acutely in crisis and she was completely changing her position. After three years of pushing me to contact her, just when I was trusting it, just when I was reaching out for help with my hardest feelings, she changed her mind. I asked if she could explain the change. She would only repeat, “That was then and this is now.” She would also ask, “Do you feel cut off?” which felt like she was reveling in my pain. I asked if she could help me find extra help and she said no. I also asked if we could talk about all the feelings I was having and she said that wasn’t a good idea. When I said I felt hurt and confused, she told me my feelings were wrong. She also told me I just needed to see her as caring.
I took a few weeks off. I found another therapist with expertise in suicidal ideation. In a month, he taught me how to work with these feelings. And, a year and a half out, I haven’t felt suicidal since (and during this time, the worst blow of the letter I opened with started). I returned to working with the original therapist, too. But I felt like a caged animal: I became the problematic client she was treating me like. I kept testing her new boundaries, trying to find ways to work around them. In addition to pushing me to be in contact all these years and then taking it away just when I needed and trusted it, she also pushed me to express my anger. She continued to do this. But now, when I she would tell me to show my anger and I would, she would then tell me I was attacking her and splitting (even though before and definitely after expressing anger, I would contextualize and nuance it). I felt so down on myself and so confused. I still really wanted to please her. After being pushed to be in contact and show my anger, she forbade the former and condemned the latter. I felt terrible about myself. I never wanted to be a burden to anyone. And I never, ever wanted to be an aggressor.
These also left me scratching my head: this boundary pushing and expressions of anger had never come out in any area of my life. If they had, I would have known I needed to work on them. I have NEVER been a boundary pusher nor someone not in control of her emotions. Across life contexts, people describe me as low key and calm. One day, I worried to her that these parts of me scared me because I’d never known them before and I wondered if they were the real me or would come out with an intimate partner. I tried to end therapy many times over those months, but she would push me to continue, one time even saying if I didn’t work on these issues with her, they would come back up with a boyfriend. After an especially terrible session in which she again did a 180 on her approach, I resolved to quit. She agreed but pushed me to come in for one last session. Feeling rejected, I found myself groveling with her when I did come in: begging her to continue, saying I’d follow all rules without question.
So I became the model client again. I stopped all between session contact and I refrained from showing any hint of negative feeling toward her. I kept up with the other therapy as a place to process all the hurt from her and to build up my strength to ultimately leave working with her. Our work over these months became focused on her telling me she cares and me seeing her as caring. I realize now, this constant assertion by her gave her license to really abuse her position: any way she treated me became okay, because to question her was wrong. A few times, I tried to broach how hurtful the way she handled the suicidal crisis was, that I felt misled and dumped. She told me she wanted to use her expertise and help me understand. She said, “I’m more than just a person in this room.”
When the holidays came around, usually she would push me to be in touch on Christmas. This year, she told me without provocation I absolutely could not contact her because, “I need a break from you and everyone here.” I remember feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach when she said that. I hadn’t ever contacted her on Christmas, I hadn’t broken her rules in months, and yet such hostility. I gave her a Christmas present and again expressed gratitude for her. Her father died in early 2014, causing her to miss several sessions. I sent a condolence card. And just as she came back, I fell into another flare of my physical illness and ended up in the hospital. It was at this point that she sent that letter to the third party that broke my confidentiality and contradicted much of what she told me in person. There was no threat whatsoever to myself or others motivating it, nor did she note any such concern. But she sent in anyway, breaking my trust, then dismissing my deep hurt in response to it, and then abandoning the whole situation, all while I was bleeding internally (this pattern was the one of my traumas, the one we working on).
And I have to say: this was the best thing to happen in our work. It set me free. It was excruciatingly painful but I was free. And I still am free.
It has been six months since this happened. I reached out to the new therapist, a few friendswho happen to be therapists, and a few folks I found online (including this site). All expressed shock and disgust at her actions. Hearing from others that I was not over-reacting, that what myoriginal therapist did was abhorrent was helpful. This gave me the strength to return to trusting myself, something I really lost in working with her. She chipped away at my perceptions of reality, telling me I was constantly mis-seeing her. Her constant assertion that I have to see her as caring gave her license to mistreat me. I think these things together, plus my physical health and believing a therapist would never harm, led me to stay with her much longer than I should have. Now, I see her for what she was. And while I still appreciate her essence, I know the way she treated me was wrong.
I sent a letter to her a few months after she sent the Full Name, Ph.D. termination email. In it, I expressed my hurt. I also expressed my realization that she was leaving me holding not only my re-opened wounds but her unacknowledged ones. I told her I was giving hers back. It was a letter of the big picture, a letter of forgiveness and moving on. When I sent it, I knew she could (a) not respond, (b) respond with more of the same, or (c) she could respond in a heartfelt,human way. I got (b). She wrote back a few handwritten lines, saying she’d received the letter and that she wanted me to know her feelings about me haven’t changed (I’m not sure what that means since the letter contradicted everything she told me in person) and that she wanted me to know she still cared. And I know now, yes, she does care – about herself.
In a lot of ways, what happened with her showed me what some people are capable of. I was naïve before this and truly believed that when people mess up and/or cause hurt, they will fix it. She did not. This has been eye opening and an important loss of innocence. I have thought deeply about filing a complaint with the licensing board. Mostly, I want to prevent this from happening to someone else. But I have decided not to for now for two main reasons: 1- I don’t want my confidential information shared with even more people and 2- I just want to move on.
And I am moving on. I have also been able to work a lot in my new therapy on the patterns that I replayed with her. We’ve worked to figure out why I let this happen (that’s not to take on all responsibility. As the professional, I believe this rests mostly with her).I showed the original therapist my deepest wounds and she reinjured them. This was excruciatingly painful. But it made me acutely aware of them, so I could see them and fix them elsewhere.