So I didn’t ask for what I needed. Well, not exactly anyway. I did talk about asking for what I needed. Turns out I still wasn’t entirely sure what that was. It also turns out that there was a lot more emotion behind all of this than I realized.
I was a few minutes late for session. On purpose. I spent the train ride to her office gently crying and I couldn’t figure out why. When I stepped onto the street, I sat down on a bench and pulled out a piece of paper. I just let myself write freely, in any handwriting or vernacular that came out. It was three different styles of handwriting that were expressing one very big emotion: fear.
Once I got those words out, I tucked the note into my “therapy folder” and walked as slowly as possible to her actual office. When I buzzed in and walked into the waiting room, her door was wide open. She was waiting for me. I sauntered in and sat down, immediately declaring that I was late on purpose: “I am passive-aggressively late today.”
She quietly laughed. “Okay. Well what is it that you’re protesting? Could it be related to my upcoming vacation?”
Of course she was right. She asked me what I was feeling about that and I said mostly fear. And helplessness. I felt incredibly resistant to sharing the honest truth with her – that I wanted to ask for something to help me hold onto the work, the space, and her. I talked about how therapy vacations are a bizzarre and necessary evil. I explained that I know she needs time off and that it’s good for the work to have some breathing room. But it’s still strange.
If, for example, I stopped taking medication for a week, I probably wouldn’t feel very good. The medication helps me to feel more stable and less anxious. If someone took that away, I would arguably become less stable and more anxious. Which is why I wouldn’t just stop taking my medication.
She both appreciated and agreed with my analogy. She recognized how difficult it might be for me to feel like this thing that supports me and that I rely on is being taken away, even if only temporarily, and asked what might help me feel supported during this time off from therapy. Her comment reminded me that “temporarily” might become “permanent” if she has a change of heart during this time away from me.
Which also reminded me that I’d brought some items to session with me: the letter and card from Zooey that I mentioned in my last post, as well as a list of direct quotes that Zooey had either said, emailed, or texted to me during my time in treatment with her.
In regards to the letter and card, I told the therapist that I hadn’t asked for any of this stuff. I never asked her to write anything, it’s something she just did on her own. And although I kept the card close by me once I had it, I resented that she gave it to me because it felt manipulative. How dare she offer support and comfort in this gift while sending me away? I remember feeling very confused when I opened it during that session. I was so angry with her, but here she was – giving me this lovely card. Ugh. So confusing!
I read the therapist a selection of highlighted Zooey quotes from the list. I didn’t have a blog back then, so I didn’t document therapy like I do now. But I did write letters to Zooey between sessions and I always kept a list of important things she said to me. I wanted to remember them in moments of darkness and despair. Here are a few samples:
- “I believe you and I can handle it.”
- “It’s okay for you to need me. You’re safe here.”
- “You don’t have to be a perfect patient.”
- “I think you’re worth fighting for. And I will fight for you.”
- “Nothing you say to me will change how I feel about you. You won’t scare me away and you do not make me uncomfortable.”
- “You are not alone. I am here.”
- “I am going to work hard to figure this out with you. We’re gonna figure this out. All of us, together.”
- “I want to do this work with you.”
- “Yes. I am absolutely committed to seeing this through.”
- “You are not losing me.”
As you can probably see, she made a lot of promises and did a lot of reassuring. But we all know how that ended. Which is likely why I was so hesitant to ask for something similar from this therapist.
Then I said, “She gave me all of this and I definitely appreciated it at the time. Obviously it meant something to me, which is why I haven’t thrown it out yet. But, to be honest, it’s not even what I needed…”
The therapist jumped in right away to say, “That! Stay with that. What is it that you needed from her?”
“I don’t know…”
“I think you might, though. Try to stay with this thought.”
“Okay. I guess I needed her to help me figure out how to be okay without her. She gave me these lovely things, but it made feeling better somehow always linked to her – seeing her, talking to her, texting her, emailing her, whatever. I needed her to teach me that I could be okay independent of what she was doing.”
She replied, “Yes. Exactly. And that is what I want for you. I think we have a very solid relationship. And I think that by being someone you can rely on, but also someone who teaches you to rely on yourself, we are forging an even stronger, longer-lasting relationship.”
“I know. I feel that, too. And I want to ask for the things I need from you, but I feel like something about what happened with Zooey prevents me from doing that.”
“What are the things you need from me?”
“Reassurance, I guess…”
“Reassurance that…what? That you will be okay? That I’ll still be here when vacation ends? That this is not last year and I am not Zooey?”
“Well I can’t see the future anymore than you can. But I do believe you will be okay. I will be here when my vacation ends. You and I are not you and Zooey. And this is absolutely not last year. You have grown so much since then. You are not in the same place.”
I mean, she had a point. But I still felt like something was missing. Yet I couldn’t ask for what I needed because I somehow still couldn’t figure it out. I told her how I kept Zooey’s card on the windowsill at the trauma program and I would re-read it several times a day. I didn’t understand why I did that despite the fact that she’d essentially bullied me into going there.
“Probably because you wanted to hold it. To hold onto her?”
I paused and then started crying again, “Yes. I did want to hold onto her! I was mad at her, but I was also terrified of going to this program. I knew I’d be out of state, away from anyone I loved or that loved me. I didn’t know what the program would be like, the house, the other patients, the staff. And I wouldn’t be able to just hop in a car or catch a train to come home, either. If something bad happened, I’d be stuck there. I was scared out of my mind and I wanted to hold onto Zooey and onto the attachment I felt for her because it still made me feel safe somehow.”
She had a hard time articulating her response to this, but eventually she said that she thinks the main problem is that Zooey fostered my dependence on her. She made it impossible for me to know how to self-soothe or problem-solve without reaching out and connecting to her. And although there’s nothing inherently wrong with reaching out and connecting with your therapist, it needs to be done in a way that promotes empowerment within the client, rather than dependency on the therapist.
I knew she was right, but something about this conversation made me feel very ashamed about my relationship with Zooey. And the juxtaposition between the two therapists suddenly felt heavy and uncomfortable. I realized that my attachment is dramatically different between the two and in some ways, I miss the attachment I had to Zooey.
I wasn’t sure how to explain this, but I mentioned not feeling particularly attached to her. I said I feel attached to “the work” (which she thought was a good thing), but not attached to her. She asked me to talk more about that.
I looked down and said, “I appreciate the way you do this work. I can see, I think, why you do things the way you do. I know that it’s probably good for me and keeps me safe. But I still really resent that you hold me at arm’s length.”
She looked visibly shocked. She asked if I genuinely feel that she holds me at arm’s length. I nodded yes.
She slowly said, “I really want to explore that and talk about that more when I get back because that is very important. And I can see how you’d feel that way, but I will say that I do not feel that I hold you at arm’s length. I actually feel extremely close to you.”
I snapped my head up, “You do?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Wow. That’s…bizarre to hear. And unexpected.”
Then she reminded me that she is available during her vacation. She waited until I made eye contact with her and said, “Really, though – I AM checking my voicemail next week. So please call if you need to touch base for any reason. Seriously.”
Before leaving I gave her the slip of paper I’d written on before session. The first sentence said “Please come back” and the last sentence was written in a child’s handwriting. It said “I hope you are still nice when you get back. I will be good and quiet.”
She looked very touched after reading the short note and she said, “I will come back. When I do, I hope you are neither good nor quiet.”
I honestly didn’t know what I needed going into this session and although I thought it would end up being some connecting link (such as a voicemail) or a tangible item I could physically hold onto (such as a letter), it wasn’t.
It was her honesty; her authentic, emotional admission that she feels close to me. Her ability to maintain safe boundaries while also making herself emotionally available to me. THAT is what I needed. And I will hold onto those words for the next nine days until our next session, where we will probably pick up this conversation and talk more about our attachment and why, exactly, I feel that she holds me at arm’s length.