I love my therapist; she’s smart, skilled, caring, insightful, grounded, and just a good, decent person. And maybe after all these years, I’m done working with her.
I know this is driven by hurt, so I want to slow down, take a breath, and think it through. It’s not only about wanting to put up an emotional wall, however. I wonder if she may have given me all she can or is willing to.
To explain how I got to this point, I need to back up a couple of months, to the time I told her that I comfort myself imagining resting my head on her knee while she touches my hair. I felt very exposed when I told her that, and she backed away immediately. “I don’t even have to take that to my ethics board,” I remember her saying. “It’s obviously not okay.”
Soon after that we had the therapy retreat, which was intensive and helpful, and since then we’ve gone back and forth between working with the shame connected to having connected arousal and abuse in my head, and just propping me up on the days (weeks) when my medication issues are especially bad. We have never revisited that conversation, but it’s been in my head almost every time I’ve seen her.
Last week I was working in California for four intensive days, and I’ve had week upon week of insomnia, so I’m pretty tired out these days. And sad, somehow. I just want comfort.
I say that to E yesterday, in our therapy session. I am not very talkative, and I can see I am making her work hard. She tries to draw me out, but I’m not very responsive (not on purpose, I am just stuck for a while). As the session progresses, I fee I am a small child, a baby even, holding out my arms, waiting to be picked up and held close.
“I feel so alone with it all,” I tell her. “There’s a great big hole in my heart…”
She asks me what I needed to fill it. How can I answer this? I need my mother. I need to be tiny and know I am cherished, that my presence in this world matters deeply. I need something that doesn’t even have words.
I get up from the floor, where we are coloring our mandalas, and climb up on the couch. I curl up and hold a pillow close to me, which also gives me a barrier to hide behind.
We talk a little about touch. I find massage gives me a little bit of what I need. We talk about what I can ask for from my husband. But gradually, words become harder and harder to find.
Finally, she says, in a soft voice, “I bet it would feel good for me to come over there and stroke your hair and tell you that you are wonderful, wouldn’t it?”
I can only nod.
She says, “I see that, and I wish I could give you that. You are wonderful, I can tell you that. You are courageous and so committed to doing this hard work. But I can’t give you that. That’s where we hit my professional boundaries; it wouldn’t be right.”
I close my eyes and wonder why I even nodded when she said that. I should have just said NO, I don’t even want that, why would I?!?
She says, “It’s one of those times when what I want to offer as a human being collides with what I do as a professional… I can’t risk my license and my practice… not appropriate… [etc., I’m forgetting portions of this]… This probably doesn’t feel very good to you, to be told I can’t give you that. But you probably feel good to know you have an ethical therapist.”
What?!? No, I don’t feel good I have an “ethical therapist.” Why would it be unethical to sit next to me, to touch me? Why not come hold my hand? It’s not sexual, there’s never been anything sexual about it. It’s not something I want all the time. It’s just right now. Right now as we have been talking about the most intimate things. Right now as I have been struggling for months and months with my withdrawal from Effexor, wondering sometimes if I will ever feel stable. Why is it unethical to provide some physical comfort?
I consider leaving early. I have never left a session early; the minutes I spend there are too important to me to throw them away. But there is absolutely nothing to say. She is certain that by denying me some comfort for that hole in my heart, she is doing what is best for me. I know she’s not trying to be mean. But there is no way to reconcile what I want and what she wants. It seems so pointless.
But I don’t leave. I don’t want to do anything I’ll regret later. We are near the end of the session anyway. I’m polite and don’t say much. I start to clean up the pens and the coloring books a bit early. Finally it’s time to go. She stands by the door to say goodbye and touches me lightly on the arm as I pass by.
Sorry, that doesn’t help.
Later, at home, I try to understand. What exactly is unethical here? It’s okay for C to provide touch in her mind/body practice. Am I overlooking something? I poke around a bit online and read a variety of perspectives. I read a long piece that covers some of the reasons therapists stay away from touch, along with the many ways in which clients benefit from touch. It definitely comes down in favor of touch in therapy, but with some clear boundaries and a lot of intentionality and self-reflection.
One of the reasons, according to the article, that therapists steer clear of touch is the advice they get from risk management. I remember E talking about her license and her practice. And I wonder, as much as I have trusted her, how much does she trust me? Touching my hair or holding my hand isn’t safe for her? I might lose it and sue her? After more than ten years, how much does she even know me, if that is her fear?
Thinking about this consumes me through the evening. I compose emails to her in my head. I think of sending her the article, asking her to tell me what her thinking is, what is the reason that touch is unethical? Then I think, no, that is like chasing someone you’re enamored with but who isn’t interested in you. It’s like calling them up, asking, why you don’t love me?!? And when you hear the reasons, you argue that those aren’t good reasons. Clearly her reasons are good enough for her. It’s not for me to change her mind.
That’s when I start to think: maybe I have the right to be comforted and touched, in a non-sexual way, by someone who knows me and does not judge me and does not need anything back. Maybe E has given me enough. She’s taught me skills and guided me to many practices that are helpful. She’s been generous and encouraging. And this is her limit. She can’t give what I need. Maybe someone else can.
(Never mind that the mere idea of starting over with someone else is exhausting.)
Later I think, no she is right, what I want is unreasonable. It’s just because I am too needy, too flawed, too unable to meet my emotional needs within the context of the life I create for myself. It’s another example of my failure. I consider burning myself to squash the yearning. But I don’t do it. Maybe that’s a good sign. Or maybe I’m just too tired.
Later I am sad. And hurt. And kind of mad.
I think, this is just a re-enactment of my relationship with my mother, who always knows better than I do what I need, what’s good for me. I asked her to lend me money when I was leaving my abusive ex-husband, who had emptied out our joint checking account and left me with nothing. She said no, because she and my step-father thought it was my husband’s role to support me, and they didn’t want to get in the middle of things. I asked her to come out when I was due to have my first child, but no, she made her plane reservations for a month after my due date, because she thought my husband, baby, and I needed to bond as a family before anyone else was there. I wanted help applying to college but no, that was part of me learning to be independent. I wanted to go to the movies with friends, but they couldn’t be trusted (ironic given that it was her friends who molested me). I wanted a ride… the long walk was good for me… I wanted some defense from my step-father’s verbal abuse… a wife sticks by her husband… I wanted comfort… but I was a big girl…
It goes back earlier than I can even remember. She has told me she was one of those Dr. Spock-informed mothers, who fed me when the clock said it was time, not when I cried.
So here I am, all these years later, crying out for an embrace, like a lonely child who needs to be held and rocked.
E says I can get this need met within my relationship with my husband, my second husband, my dear, understanding husband. She’s partially right. He will hold me and touch me, and I find some soothing there. But for reasons I may write about in a separate blog later, that’s not the same thing.
I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t want a rupture with E, on the contrary. But does that mean I have to bury this need? How can I do that, without harming myself (my most effective strategy for getting rid of difficult emotions).
On my walk this morning, I think again about what I’ve learned about mindfulness. Maybe my task is just to sit with the unresolved longing, as well as the grief and rage that accompany it. That sounds like a wise approach. Yet, grief and rage don’t seek wisdom. Grief and rage want to stamp their feet and rip up the mandalas we have colored in therapy and tell E that she’s needlessly withholding. And it isn’t fair! It isn’t right!
So here I am, with all my contradictory impulses battling for my attention and the future of my therapeutic relationship in question. Breathe, Q, I tell myself. Just breathe.
CREDIT: Image edited from a photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash