I had my goodbye session with E, my long-term therapist, just over a year ago now, and I was thinking that this might be a good time to reflect on the first year without her. Of course, my feelings are mixed (as they are about so many things!). But they seem to cluster in five broad themes.
(#1) I miss her. In many ways, I feel like E knows (knew) me better than almost anyone. She knew my history, my traumas, my achievements. She heard about my children from the time they were in middle school almost up to their 30th birthdays. She heard my most shameful secrets and still looked at me with kindness. I only have a few people–my sisters, one or two friends–who have know me well for a very long time–and even they don’t know all the ickiest stories.
It’s incredibly sustaining, comforting, and reassuring to have someone know my story so intimately and yet hold me with compassion. I suppose that’s why we love our therapists, because sometimes they are the first ones who ever did that for us. So it makes sense that I have missed that closeness over the past year. I have missed being known in all my messiest humanity by someone who has my best interests at heart.
One experience I had, which eased the sense of loss, was the development of a close friendship with my next-door neighbor Alicia. We’d always got on well together, but over the course of the pandemic, we grew closer. We often dealt with our anxiety and especially the lockdown by taking long walks together in our neighborhood. It turns out Alicia has a background in social work, and she’s a very warm, non-judgmental listener. So even though she hasn’t known me for 17 or 18 years, the way E did, she has been someone who is able to see me in my various moods and always welcome me with kindness. And it felt lovely that I could do the same for her, in a way that was never possible within the therapeutic relationship.
But alas, Alicia and her husband needed to move this summer. I know I will still see her from time to time, but it will take a lot of effort. It won’t be the easy, informal relationship we developed while living next door to one another. We made a big flowerbed together that straddled both our front yards, and we placed stepping stones through it so that we didn’t even have to walk out to the sidewalk to go from my front yard to her front porch. Yesterday I took up those stepping stones before the new people move in. (Not that I won’t be friendly to them, but it felt strange to have that direct path to the front porch of people I have never even met.)
I’ve been very sad and lonely this week, with Alicia’s departure. We hosted a goodbye potluck for her and her family in our backyard a few days ago. There’s a tight group of neighbors who meet regularly, help each other out with repairs, lend each other tools and air mattresses, care for each other’s dogs and cats and chickens and ducks when someone goes out of town, drive each other to the airport and check in on one another. That group will persist even without Alicia and her family, but to be honest, it’s thanks to Alicia that we all came together. She is uncommonly warm and reaches out and pulls people together. She’s been fabulous for all of us, but to me, she has become a very important friend.
When life has been hard this past year, I knew I could talk frankly with Alicia. Now I won’t have that, not on a regular basis anyway, and I think that may increase the degree to which I miss talking to E in the coming months.
At the same time, (#2) I don’t think about her as much as I used to. When we first stopped therapy, I thought about her every day, every night. I imagined conversations in my head. When something important happened–my younger son got engaged, my older son moved home, his girlfriend Patty became pregnant–I immediately wanted to text E. And I longed to talk everything through with her. That’s not the case as much as it used to be. I know the relationship with Alicia has served as a substitute. But still, it’s helped me not think about E as much as I used to. She’s usually not the first person I think about telling when something interesting or difficult or wonderful happens. Sometimes if I’m triggered by something, I will imagine talking to her again. But other times, I can go a few days without thinking about her at all (or hardly at all).
(#3) I wasn’t able to stay fully away, which feels like a mistake. When I was struggling with the hell of Cymbalta withdrawal earlier this summer, I did break down and schedule one session with her. That sometimes seems to me like evidence of my weakness. I didn’t stick to my intentions. And to make it all worse, as I wrote earlier, it wasn’t even an especially helpful or satisfactory session. So this is something that kind of aggravates me.
To that, my wisest part says, “It’s okay. You don’t have to be fully independent all the time. In fact, it’s a sign of wisdom and strength to ask for assistance when something feels hard. Asking for the session was a way of trying to take care of yourself. The fact that it wasn’t very helpful doesn’t negate that. You were trying multiple strategies (acupuncture, meditation, and the session with E) to see what could help you feel better. Good for you for not being so strict or dogmatic that you wouldn’t even try to see if she could help you.”
(#4) I am still angry with her (sometimes). This surprises me the most, I think. I expected the residual anger to die down over time. I thought the good memories and gratitude would, over time, drown out the lingering resentment and frustration. But no. I’m not angry all the time, but sometimes I read or hear something about attachment work in therapy or some of the newer ways that therapists work on trauma, and I contrast that with E’s efforts, sometimes, to hold a distance from me, to tell me that she wanted me to be independent. And then I feel pissed off.
I still believe that there were times when I really, really needed to know that we were connected and she cared a lot–and she either missed it or intentionally held back from providing me with the warmth and active support I needed. That makes me angry. There were times when she was really there for me, but later on in our work together, I think she decided something like, “Q needs to be doing this for herself,” and she pulled back some. Or at least that is how it felt to me. And since I have a mother who has also been (sometimes) intentionally distant and withholding, E ended up replicating some of my core emotional trauma within the context of the therapy relationship.
I suppose the lasting anger suggests that she still matters quite a lot to me, right? Because when I remember a former colleague, for example, who treated me really badly, I can remember that and shrug it off. Of course, I haven’t seen that mean-spirited colleague for probably seven or eight years. Maybe after seven or eight years, my dissatisfaction with E will have cooled.
(#5) I remember and use so much of what I learned from her. I doubt I could ever list everything I learned from E over the years or all the ways in which she (re)shaped my thinking. But I am very aware of a few of the ideas, approaches or strategies I still draw from on a regular basis:
- I am not the worst person in the world. Like other human beings who have both strengths and weaknesses, I am worthy of love and care.
- I don’t need the approval of others to feel at ease with myself.
- All emotions are valid. I don’t have to chase away emotions that I fear are too childish or undesirable.
- Emotions change. I won’t feel the same way all the time.
- When I am very triggered or afraid or upset, I can recognize and validate the emotion, but I also know that it’s not helpful to me to make decisions when I’m in the middle of hot and painful emotion. I can soothe myself and wait until I am centered again so I can make decisions from the wisest part of myself.
- There are things I can do to help myself when I am struggling: I can meditate, journal, spend time in nature, be in or around water, play with my dogs, reach out to friends. It’s also okay if I don’t always have the energy to do these things.
- It’s crucial to have compassion for myself and my struggles.
There might be more–but probably most of what I think and feel falls into those five themes. I’m doing okay. Some days I’m doing quite well, some days less so, but that’s just life, right? It’s nice to imagine that you will one day “graduate” from therapy and never be trouble by old traumas, but that’s a fantasy. The truth is that our tender spots and old wounds never go away. They just don’t run our lives anymore, and when they do leap up and start yelling now and then, we know more ways to cope.
CREDIT: Image by Wout Vanacker on Unsplash.com