Therapizing the Therapist

So, over the past 8ish months, I have been working as a therapist intern at an inner-city substance abuse treatment facility. It’s been incredibly eye-opening, both from a professional standpoint, and a personal one.

During supervision sessions, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about why clients do the things they do. Why do they resist? Why do they push us away? Why do some love my therapeutic style, while others hate it? Why do they leave unexpectedly, or relapse, or suddenly think they’re 100% ready to take on the world only 90 days after getting sober?

And inevitably, the conversation always finds its way back to us, the students. It begs the question: what about you? You’re human, right? Have you ever had a situation where you’ve pushed someone in your life away, or slapped away the helping hand, or shot down advice when provided? Are there certain people you really jive with, and others whose presence makes you want to crawl out of your skin?

Some of the biggest questions therapists grapple with are:

  • Why did they leave and never come back?
  • Did I do something wrong?
  • Did I help them at all?

As tough as it is to handle without personalizing every aspect of it, the client who disappears suddenly (or “ghosts” the therapist, so to speak) can offer the therapist A LOT of important data. Specifically, it’s highly likely something occurred in the therapy room that stirred the client’s instinct to run and not look back. Yes, it might be something the therapist said or did that caused them to flee, but more often than not, the leaving is an emotional reaction with a lot of rich, complex information wrapped around it.

Maybe the client over-shared and is left feeling an “emotional hangover”. Maybe they’ve started to feel too close to their therapist, and that freaks them out. Maybe they’ve reached a wall in their treatment, and instead of addressing it in-session, they’ve decided that therapy isn’t working for them anymore. Or maybe they’ve hit a bright spot in their life and decide they simply don’t need therapy–everything is fine.

So, they walk away without so much as a thank you or goodbye, and the therapist is left frustrated and confused.

I should know. I am one of those clients.

Of all the therapists I’ve had, I don’t think I’ve ever formally closed the relationship or told them I wished to stop seeing them. My therapeutic relationships have typically ended with me telling the therapist that I would call them to schedule my next appointment, and then never calling them again.

The last therapist I saw–Brant–is a quiet, contemplative man who sometimes uses therapy animals in-session. During one session, his newest rescue, an African Grey parrot, joined us; she sat in her cage making quiet chirping noises as I talked. Brant noted that typically, she can be nervous around new people, but that she quieted down significantly as I talked and that she was almost mimicking my voice.

I stopped seeing Brant shortly after I broke up with my last boyfriend, right around the time I started seeing my current partner. I remember that in that session, I told him I was seeing someone new, and he tilted his head slightly, as if to say, “already?” This was after months of agonizing over my last relationship and the direction it was headed. I remember telling Brant that I wanted to focus on myself following the breakup, and then a month later I showed up for a session and told him that I was interested in someone new.

So when he gave me that head tilt, I felt it. I knew whatever it was he was saying was true. But I brushed it off and started talking about my internship. At the end of the session, I told Brant I would call him later to schedule my next appointment.

I never did. At least, not for four months.

As I began experiencing more and more stress as a result of school, my job, my new relationship, and my volunteer work piling up, I noticed a breakdown in my emotional well-being, my libido, my physical health, and my energy. The little threads of my past traumas began unraveling again. I started to feel anxious about my partner’s loving overtures, wondering if I was ever going to be capable of feeling loved or loving fully again.

So I decided it was time to get myself back into therapy again. Convinced that Brant was no longer an option because of how I disappeared on him, I began yet another search for a new therapist who could help me.

And then I realized, holy shit, I’ve done it again. If I were to go with someone new, this would be therapist #5 in less than 5 years. Problems with intimacy were not only showing up in my romantic relationships but in my therapeutic relationships as well. 5 therapists in less than 5 years, 3 of whom were male. 5 committed boyfriends in less than 5 years (with relationships lasting anywhere from ~2 months to 2 years), with some less-than-serious flings sprinkled in there, too.

Shit. Oh, goddamnit.

So, sitting with this realization, I decided to put away the digital therapist address book muster the courage to send Brant an email to ask if he has any availability.

Turns out, he does. And he’s in-network for my health insurance. And has open spots that fit my crazybusy schedule.

Without hesitation, he said he’d find the time to work with me. He asked how internships were going. Said we could start meeting the week of April 9, once he’s back in town from the Northeast.

Now the prospect of continuing a therapy relationship I thought was 100% looms. I’m not totally sure, but I think I’ve made a major step toward addressing a huge character flaw of mine: leaving abruptly when things start getting too serious, or when intimacy seems unsafe.

After my divorce, I broke up my first relationship shortly after my boyfriend said he loved me.

I broke up my second relationship after I briefly moved into my boyfriend’s apartment, after having dated for only 5 months.

I broke up my third relationship because the man I was seeing had placed me on an unattainable pedestal (and ended up stalking me for over a year after that).

I broke up my fourth relationship because my boyfriend wasn’t emotionally invested enough. I wanted to be more connected yet felt anxious and overwhelmed when I tried sharing myself with him.

And now, I’m on relationship number 5, with a man who is sober, significantly older than me, an open and honest communicator, and driven by physical intimacy.

I guess I’m afraid I’ll mess this up too. I’m afraid of making a misstep. I’m afraid of what might happen if I make myself vulnerable to him, and I’m afraid of what might happen if I start to subconsciously close myself off. I’m worried that my blunted libido is going to permanently change the connection we had at the beginning.

I’m afraid, I guess. And that’s not even all of it. So if I’m going to start anywhere, I figure re-establishing my therapy with Brant is a good first step. Maybe this time it’ll last.

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