I’d made a list of things I wanted to cover in during session yesterday morning. It wasn’t a long list, but each item on it was very important to get through before I left the city. I barely slept on Thursday night, so I opened the session by saying, “I am so exhausted right now. I only slept about four hours last night because I am so anxious about this trip and dealing with everyone’s specific worries and fears over traveling home.” She asked what people were worried abut and I realized she thought I meant outside people, so I quickly said, “Oh…I meant internally.”
She asked what the various parts were anxious about and I started to answer, but then she suddenly changed topics and said, “Well, speaking of – we said last time that we’d talk about you being away from here for a week, so we should do that.” Which is true, so I was prepared to discuss it. But then she started talking about how continuity is really important in therapy. She reminded me of her policy that clients can take four weeks off, which I knew because she mentioned it when I had to reschedule a session last month. Then she said she has a 24-hour cancellation policy and if clients don’t give notice, or if they miss sessions beyond the allotted four weeks, she charges them for it. Um, okay, good to know?
So then she finally made her way back around to me taking this trip by saying that my options are to either take this week as one of my four “off” weeks OR we can schedule phone sessions during our regular office session times. Wait, what? Phone sessions?! Whoa. Hold on a second.
I was totally confused. I didn’t understand why she was telling me all of this. I’ve never missed a session and she has no reason to believe I would start doing so anytime soon. I didn’t really know how to respond, so I asked why she was suddenly telling me her policies. She said that she’d told me this before, but she wanted to remind me because of my impending break. I told her that she had not told me all of this before so it was really weird and jarring that she was bringing it up now. Her response was that she had, but perhaps I’d forgotten.
I felt Julia fly up to front and angrily say, “Oh! Isn’t that convenient?” The therapist looked surprised by the sudden hostility and (luckily) took a second to collect herself before saying, “I just mean that, generally, because first sessions are usually difficult for people, they don’t always remember everything that is said in them.” Julia was NOT having this. She told her that we would definitely have remembered something like that (and she’s right, we would).
I thought this was going to turn into some strange power struggle, but the therapist conceded and said, “Okay. Well perhaps I didn’t tell you.” Which caused Julia to drop her defenses enough for me to regain control and reply, “No, I don’t believe you did. When I first saw you, things were very tentative – you said we could meet a few sessions to see if we would be a fit – so we never had a formal conversation about policies.” She said I was right and that, yes, we probably never got to have that conversation because of the nature of how the therapeutic relationship started.
But it was too late. The system was on edge and I was frozen. Julia was not about to leave my side, either. She was pissed and not having any of this. I was too tired to fight her, so I just let her do her thing. I pulled my knees right to my nose and buried my face in my legs. I felt all of this rage – Julia’s rage – flowing right beneath the surface. Too close for comfort. The therapist seemed pretty confused as to what was going on. She asked me to talk about how I felt or what was going on, but I couldn’t. I don’t do anger. I can’t.
So we spent the next third of the session mostly in silence. Then I started to cry. The therapist was still confused, but I think she could tell we were in distress so she said, “I definitely want to know what’s going on right now, but I don’t want to be intrusive. I also think you might be feeling something really difficult right now, but you haven’t historically been given a space to feel difficult things. So I want to allow you that space right now.” I really appreciated that. I took a minute or so to gather my thoughts and then in one long breath I said,
“It’s just that I came into this session with so much to say and I was going to be brave and strong and talk about all of these really difficult things because I’m so scared about going on this trip since last time we went, everything got crazy and there were all of these crises and cutting and “emergency” contact with Zooey and then right after we got back was the three-day hospitalization and after that, Zooey said we had to go to an intensive program or else she would leave us and we stood our ground at first and said NO, but then we were too scared to lose her so we decided to go to the program in Massachusetts for two weeks, but when we got back things were super weird until Zooey’s Thanksgiving break and then she came back and we had a difficult session where we were mad at her and she was mad at us and then…it was over. She left us.”
At this point I was nearly sobbing. The therapist jumped in and said, “Oh wow. Okay. So there’s this whole other layer to you taking this trip beyond being in your hometown and near your family.” To which I was like, “YES!”
She acknowledged that she hadn’t realized there was this other layer and in her efforts to figure out how best to support me during my week away, she was too focused on the “practical” stuff and missed what I really needed from her and from the session. She apologized for that and for presenting her attendance policies in such a “clunky” manner and admitted that she brought it up because she wanted to make sure we had a conversation to figure out how she could be the best resource for me while away. She essentially wanted to make herself available to me, but she also wanted to maintain a boundary that is very crucial for our relationship due to what happened with Zooey.
That all made sense to me, but I still couldn’t shake off the feelings that were preventing me from settling back down. Julia popped back out to say, “I’m so mad at you! And you seem different – like you’re mad – and I don’t like it when people are mad!”
The therapist said that she was most definitely not mad at anyone, but that it was okay to be mad at her. Then she said she was certainly going to be disappointing and upset us from time to time throughout treatment.
This agitated Julia even further. She said, “I know! I don’t expect you to be perfect! But that doesn’t make it better. Listen…it’s like when someone steps on your toe and says ‘I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it!’ and you’re like ‘Okay, fine, but it still hurts!'” To which the therapist agreed. Then she said that sometimes having moments like this where we don’t agree and things get difficult, but we push through them anyway and figure it out together can be what strengthens the relationship (that whole idea of therapeutic rupture and repair). I felt Julia roll her eyes and just say, “Pssh. Whatever.” The therapist said, “Why ‘whatever’?” and Julia said, “I mean, sure, that’s how it’s supposed to be, but it never is.” The therapist kinda just nodded. I’m not sure she knew what to say.
We just sat quietly for a while. I was having such a hard time finding a separation from the internal chaos or identifying any emotions. But then I remembered the list I’d made and said, “I’m just really frustrated right now because I really, really needed to connect with you during this session. It was important to me and I needed that before I left. I don’t want to go away with things like this.”
She said, “I really want that, too. Is there anything I can do to help us connect right now?”
I wish I’d had an answer, but I didn’t. My head was spinning and I felt so out of control and frightened. But I worked hard to not just emotionally vacate the session. I could feel her fighting to stay with me and I noticed that she’d shifted her body language. She normally sits relaxed in her chair with her legs crossed. But once I began opening up, she leaned forward and moved as close to me as she could without leaving her chair. It didn’t feel unsafe. It felt like she was trying to find a way to connect with me, despite the fact that I was scared and curled into my own body and refusing to make eye contact.
She apologized again for how awkwardly the session started. I shared that I seem to inspire a sense of confusion and helplessness and clumsiness in people when they speak to me. She said that even if that is true, it’s not something I’m doing on purpose and it’s not my fault.
I replied, “It doesn’t matter whether or not I do it on purpose or whether or not it’s my fault…” She picked up my sentence and said, “Because the end result is the same?” to which I tearfully nodded yes.
Then session time was nearly over, so she asked me what I thought would be the best for me during the next week. I was terrified to commit to phone sessions. She asked where that was coming from, so I said, “Well…last Easter I took the same trip. It was my first time away from Zooey. I sent her an email the morning I left and told her that I was terrified to be away from her and that I was scared of how much I needed her. We’d scheduled a phone session, so when she called me, the first thing she said was, ‘Andi, I got your e-mail. I want you to know that it’s okay if you need me and it’s okay if you’re afraid to be away from me.’ But…it was decidedly not okay.”
So then the therapist suggested we just let this week be a “free pass” of sorts and we could figure it all out when I got back. But that scared me, too, so I said, “But I might need you while I’m away…” She finally just said, “Okay. Let’s schedule phone sessions for the times we normally meet. We can play it by ear. If you only need a short check-in, we’ll do that. But if you want to do a full session, we can do that, too.” I tentatively agreed.
Then she asked if there was anything else that I wanted or needed to say before I left. There was:
“I just wanted to say…when you leave, can you please do it better than Zooey? Please just give me a few weeks to figure something else out. Please let me find someone new first. Please don’t just abandon me.”
She paused for a moment and then said, “If I leave…yes, I will do right by you.”
I thanked her and then I left.
It was not a good session. It was messy and emotional. We spent most of the hour disconnected and desperately trying to make our way back to each other. But we did. Somehow. And I am so grateful.