I’m pretty sure yesterday’s session was the best session I have had in therapy, ever.
I went in super nervous, but I needed to talk about some scheduling issues and I could easily bring those up first as an icebreaker. So we took care of that and spent a short amount of time discussing my potential appointment with the shrink she recommended to me. I have an initial consultation scheduled for Tuesday evening, but I’m not sure if I want to go now or wait a little longer.
I told her my hesitancy was for two reasons: emotional and financial. We briefly discussed the financial component (which gave me an excellent opportunity to briefly get her reaction to the idea of trying out-of-network coverage for our sessions, too). Then there was a short pause.
“I definitely want to hear more about the emotional part of why you’re not sure you want to go to your consultation on Tuesday, but I also want to bring up last session. You said some very important things at the end and I’ve been thinking about it. I think you’re right – we have been creating a dynamic of ‘hiddenness’ that keeps some things boxed out of this space. That was so important for me to know and I definitely think we can figure out a way to help you feel more comfortable and safe to talk about whatever you need to.”
“Thank you. I actually wasn’t sure I would stay. At one point I just wanted to get up and leave. I felt so stupid and frustrated. But when I went to stand up, something in my body felt different. I knew I needed to just keep talking. I needed to try to finish my thoughts.”
“And that is so impressive! That you stayed with it despite how awful it must have felt. But I’m so glad you did. What was most difficult for you in that moment?”
“Honestly, it just didn’t seem important enough to keep talking about.”
She looked genuinely surprised. “How could it not be important?!”
Her question reminded me of the post I wrote prior to session about my Mother. I told her I’d written something and asked if I could read it to her. I prefaced sharing it by explaining that this piece of writing developed from feeling very anxious and worried about asking for an extra session. She asked me what caused those feelings and I told her I wasn’t sure.
She looked a little puzzled, but once I finished reading, she said, “And there’s the answer.”
I elaborated on why I chose to share that story. We talked about how frightening it is for me to even feel like I need someone’s attention at all. Then trying to get it is a frustrating experience. And actually having their attention? Forget it. That’s when I freeze up in terror.
“Well that makes perfect sense, though. Look at the story you just shared. Your mother gave you the floor to say what you needed to say, but she also made the experience completely terrifying for you. Of course you just froze up – you were too frightened and confused to speak!”
Talking about all of this reminded me of this story about my little sister that I then shared with the therapist:
My sister was at the playground across the street, making crafts with the playground monitors. She ran home to show my Mother this keychain she’d made out of boondoggle. My mother was on the phone, but my sister kept repeating her name over and over to get her attention. She was just so excited she couldn’t contain herself.
Then I explained that if I was in this situation (which I have been, with my nieces) I would have either asked the person on the phone to hold for a moment so I could tell the kid I would talk to them in just a minute once I was done on the phone. Or, since the person on the other line is most likely a grown adult, I would have told them to hang on and given my undivided attention to the child. Then I probably would have been like, ‘Whoa! You look so excited! What do you want to show me?!’ and spent a couple of minutes with them. Because, you know, little kids are impatient and selfish and impulsive at that age. They haven’t yet learned social niceties.
“True. Two good options. But what did your Mother do?”
“She shoved my little sister across the living room and sent her to her room for being so rude.”
“Oh wow. That is intense.”
“Yes. So then my brother, who caught this event from the next room, followed my sister upstairs to check on her. She had thrown herself onto her bed and was sobbing. She told him how she didn’t mean to be rude, she was just really excited about the boondoggle…At this point my Mother had ended her phone call and perched herself on the bottom stair, within earshot of my brother and sister’s conversation.”
“Why? Why would she do that?”
“She was listening. She wanted to make sure my brother wasn’t going to either defend my sister’s behavior or speak against her own.”
“My brother did what I had done a hundred times before him. He told my sister that he understood she was excited but that you shouldn’t interrupt adults when they’re one the phone. You should say, ‘Excuse me’ and wait for them to respond to you.”
“How is that similar to what you had done with your brother?”
“Because I learned…the hard way…that there is no justice. It doesn’t matter if you’re right and they’re wrong. It doesn’t matter if you know in your heart that everything is wrong about those people and that house. What mattered was surviving. And that meant doing whatever you had to do to keep our parents from flying into a rage. So I taught him how to do that by flowing as far under their radar as possible.”
“That is truly heartbreaking. And it paints a clearer picture of what it was like for you as a child. I can definitely see why you’re scared to draw attention to yourself.”
We still had some time left, so I wanted to bring back up the idea of having a “stabilizing session” after a time of crisis, which she’d mentioned on Monday. I told her that I completely understood what she was saying and that I also believe having a lighter session is good and “an act of self-care…for both of us, really.”
“Well, but…I want to be clear that is not an act of self-care for me. I don’t need you to be a certain way at any time.”
“I don’t believe you. Well, I believe that you believe that, but…”
“Are you wondering if I’m lacking in enough self-awareness to know if I am needing self-care?”
“No? Yes? You do seem very self-aware, but sometimes I perceive you as needing to be taken care of.”
“Hmm. Well that is not how I experience it. Can you talk more about your observations?”
“I mean, I can, but I really don’t want to. It’s super weird to reflect back to someone observations that you know are wrong or inaccurate, but that you’re being asked to share anyway just for the sake of processing how you’re experiencing them.”
“How do you know it’s wrong? It might not be. I’m not sure if I am doing something to signal that I need you to take care of me or act stable after a crisis. I’m going to think some more about that and how I interact with you.”
“Yes. You’ve brought up several things that you observed about me and our relationship in our time working together. You’re spot on most of the time, so I have no reason to believe you’re wrong now. But I want you to bring that in here, to me. You don’t have to just behave accordingly. If you think I’m overwhelmed or needing to be cared for in some way, please share that with me so we can talk about it.”
I was literally stunned. I just sat that for a second because I had no idea what to say. Then I laughed and said, “I’m sorry, I just…I have no idea how to respond to you right now. I am not used to therapists actually considering the potential truth in how I’m experiencing them in the therapeutic relationship. I need time to adjust to this.”
She laughed, too.
This was such an important moment for me. She was telling me that my perceptions, although different from hers, may still be accurate. Which further means that my reality may be true even when others cannot see what I see.
What that tells me (and what I will work on internalizing) is that my perceptions can be both healthy and pathological. My reality can be based on both historical experiences (a trigger or “trauma response“) and current events. It doesn’t have to be either/or, black and white. It can be any combination of things and she is willing to examine how she is participating in the dynamic we’re creating.
Which will be absolutely crucial for me going forward. No one in her position has offered me anything close to this before. It has always been about my symptoms, my pathologies, or my trauma. Clinicians have never allowed for the possibility that how I am perceiving and experiencing them during triggering moments might ALSO be because they are actually doing something triggering. Nor have they ever paused long enough to admit that perhaps they ARE doing precisely what I claim they are doing.
Huh. Imagine that.
Also, she just pushed me (in a good way) all session. I didn’t feel rushed or like the pace was too fast for me, but by offering encouragement and making it clear that she was interested and invested, we kept a solid conversation going for the full hour. I need that reassurance. I tend to dissociate and get stuck in these moments of “short circuiting” where I can’t figure out what to say next. By keeping me engaged, through assuring me that she wanted to hear what I had to say or asking prompting questions as I began to trail off, it kept the momentum flowing in a way that helped me to stay very present throughout the entire hour.
This was sort of the perfect session for me. I know it won’t always be like this. And I’m not sure that what worked for this session will always work. In fact, it probably won’t. But it still felt good anyway.
And I really, really needed that.