The Art of Saying No

A few weeks ago, the woman I call “Mom” called me and left a voicemail. She wanted to ask me a favor and requested that I call her back. I returned her call as soon as I got home.

She repeated that she wanted a favor and asked me what I was doing that Thursday and Friday (as in two days from this call). I told her nothing (since I was out of school and work by that time, which she knew), so she explained how her good friend was in town for a job interview. She was scheduled to fly home on Thursday, but had an overnight layover in my city. Her connecting flight wouldn’t leave until Friday afternoon, so she asked if this friend could stay with Wife and I on Thursday night.

Then she referenced how her son had stayed with us for a month last summer while he looked for work. He slept on our couch through all of August and it was (mostly) fine, so she suggested her friend could also sleep on our couch.

My knee-jerk reaction was to say yes, so I did. But I only said yes because I felt very put on the spot. I’d just told her that I was free, and she knew that my schedule was open. Plus we did in fact let her son crash on our couch for an entire month, so what excuse could I come up with at that point?

As soon as I agreed to the favor, I heard her tell her friend, “She said yes! Just like I said she would! She’s the best!” and I realized (with a bit of horror) that her friend had been sitting next to her as she asked me for this favor.

I suppose this seemed like a no-brainer to her, but it’s not so simple for me.

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One More Day

So I’ve basically made it. In less than 24 hours I have therapy again. Pretty sure I can make it to 4pm tomorrow without any major event. Phew.

I feel good about how this break has gone. It’s been surprising, actually. I didn’t predict that I would fall apart, but I didn’t predict that I would spend this time feeling mostly stable and okay about being separated from the therapist, either. This is new. I’ve never experienced anything like this before in any relationship, let alone with a clinician.

But I do miss her now. The therapist, that is. I am reaching a point where I find myself thinking about her more often. I have so much I want to tell her. And we left off on a very important note that deserves a lot of attention. I’ll probably re-read the posts I wrote that week just to jog my memory and bring all of that stuff back to the forefront.

I know it will be tricky to dive back into the material. It probably won’t be easy and we likely won’t just jump back in where we left off. But I think we’re in a very good place right now and the time away will hopefully only make our relationship stronger.

I didn’t want this time off from treatment, but I think I needed it. This week has been a true week off for me. No work, no school, no therapy. I was able to just be with myself – read, write, watch tv, exercise, meditate, etc. I could simply flow with whatever made sense and felt good in the moment. It was relaxing and I desperately needed to relax.

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Apathy and the Lack of Object Constancy

It’s now more than halfway through this therapy vacation and I’m not sure what I feel. I know I don’t feel the level of intense emotions I normally feel around this. And I’m not completely numb about it (although I sorta feel like I’m moving in that direction).

I’m mostly apathetic, I think, which is one step above numb and somewhat unsettling to feel.

It’s a difficult state to explain, really. I don’t miss the therapist. And now that it has been nearly a week without any contact at all, I realize I don’t miss therapy. I definitely thought I would feel differently about this and it bothers me to feel indifferent to a process I have been so invested in.

I’m still invested in it. I just feel completely pulled out of it, which was initially rather jarring and is now making it hard to remember what it felt like to be in it at all. The more days pass without it, the more I begin to wonder how much I really need this therapy stuff after all. And the further I get from the therapist, the harder it becomes to remember what I found useful about that relationship. It’s hard to remember her at all.

I suppose this is fairly common for me. When I look back at my relationships, I have a habit of feeling this way. When people are part of my routine life, they are front and center – so important, so involved, so relevant. But the further apart we get or the more time passes between connecting, that harder is becomes to reach out to them. It feels increasingly difficult to remember why I enjoyed their company and it becomes increasingly more attractive to just, you know, NOT reach out to them.

When I do see or talk to them again, I suddenly remember exactly what I love about them and I laugh at myself for being so silly and not reaching out sooner. Until a few days pass and then a few weeks and then a few months and I’m right back at that same point where they are now irrelevant.

I obviously have no object constancy.

Hopefully this is just a side-effect of having a therapy break and once I’m back in session again, I will pick up (mostly) where I left off and all will be back to normal.

If not, well, we’ll probably have a couple of rough sessions that won’t feel good for either of us. I’ll need to rebel a bit against the process and she’ll need to be patient with me and let me work through the emotions of feeling abandoned and thus emotionally fleeing the relationship for the sake of self-preservation.

Which, in case anyone has forgotten, is where Zooey failed spectacularly.

Four days left.

Arm’s Length

I’ve been thinking a lot about the therapeutic relationship ever since my last session. Particularly the end of it, where I told the therapist I resent her for holding me at arm’s length and she responded with genuine shock and then shared that she actually feels very close to me. Which caused me to respond with my own genuine shock.

Because what does that mean?

How can she, a therapist, feel close to me, her client? Isn’t that not allowed? Not officially, but in that unspoken way we interpret the strange and nuanced dance between therapist and client? I am supposed to feel close to her, right? There should be loads of transference and attachment and I should be pining after her – longing for connection, pushing every boundary to get it? Right?

Maybe not.

There is certainly transference in our work. Attachment is somewhere in there as well, but it’s very different. I feel safe with her, but not drawn to her. I feel (emotionally) held, but not dependent on her. I feel cared about and seen, but not pathologized. I feel protected, but not infantilized. I look forward to our sessions, and sometimes the time between them is agonizing, but I don’t feel a persistent desire to make contact with her. Even when I do reach out to her, I use that time wisely and I usually end the phone call myself, unprompted. I get what I need and I hang up. I don’t draw out the interaction as long as possible, hoping to get every second of her time I can draw out.

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Finding What I Needed

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.

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I just finished reading Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. It’s an absolutely brilliant book, but since I don’t have a tremendous amount of free time to leisure read with all of my classwork, it’s taken me months to get through it. Still, I tried to open the e-book on my iPad during longer train rides to sneak a quick read and give my brain a break from school-related reading. I came across this passage recently, which seems incredibly relevant to the current struggles I’m having in therapy:

While human contact and attunement are the wellspring of physiological self-regulation, the promise of closeness often evokes fear of getting hurt, betrayed, and abandoned. Shame plays an important role in this: “You will find out how rotten and disgusting I am and dump me as soon as you really get to know me.” Unresolved trauma can take a terrible toll on relationships. If your heart is still broken because you were assaulted by someone you loved, you are likely to be preoccupied with not getting hurt again and fear opening up to someone new. In fact, you may unwittingly try to hurt them before they have a chance to hurt you.

This poses a real challenge for recovery. Once you recognize that posttraumatic reactions started off as efforts to save your life, you may gather the courage to face your inner music (or cacophony), but you will need help to do so. You have to find someone you can trust enough to accompany you, someone who can safely hold your feelings and help you listen to the painful messages from your emotional brain. You need a guide who is not afraid of your terror and who can contain your darkest rage, someone who can safeguard the wholeness of you while you explore the fragmented experiences that you had to keep a secret from yourself for so long. Most traumatized individuals need an anchor and a great deal of coaching to do this work.

I sort of just want to bring this excerpt into session with me and say,
“THIS! Can you do THIS?!”

She Is Not Zooey

When the therapist called to check in on Friday night, I was a total mess. Not only because of all the internal chaos, switching, and overwhelming emotions that had brought me into (mild) crisis, but also due to the triggering nature of being in such a situation, needing a therapist to call me. Again.

I felt this so intensely that it was hard to even talk to her. She kept asking me what I was feeling, what I was thinking, what was going on with me? I gave these deliberately vague answers. Eventually, she said “I really want you to be honest with me.”

“I want that, too. I want to be really authentic and open about what is going on. But I also want to say what you want me to say. So I’m trying to figure out how to share honestly, but at the same time – I also want to answer you in the way I think you want me to answer. But, also, it feels really important that I tell you the truth…”

“Yes, I want you to feel like you can tell me what’s really going on with you. I think we’ll be able to figure this out together if I have a better sense of what is going on right now.”

After that I was able to talk a little more openly, but that same feeling kept creeping back in. Especially when she would say something particularly validating or to indicate that she was committed to working with me. You’d think that’s exactly what I would want to hear (and I do) but it is SO TRIGGERING because I immediately snap back to similar moments of being on the phone with Zooey. She said almost identical things to me in moments of distress.

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Sharing The Letter

After I showed the therapist the bathing suit photo during session yesterday, we spent a minute or so talking about it. She noted that I had a lot of “something” (spunk? energy? sass?) and also that she was struck by how ordinary the photo is.

I agree. It is a spectacularly average photo of what looks to be an average little girl. And that sums up so much of what I feel when I reflect back on my life. From the outside, it was painfully ordinary. But under the surface, there were layers upon layers of darkness and chaos and misery. In certain photos, you can see it – that haunting aura of hidden torture. But for the most part it is lacking in my history. If it weren’t for my “sister”, who is the sole corroborator of my story, I’m not sure I’d believe anything awful happened at all.

The therapist said this is actually fairly common in abusive families. I know she’s right, but it’s still frustrating because the level of invalidation is just insane.

Then I used an additional burst of courage to ask if she wanted to hear the damn letter. I mostly just wanted to get it out of the way, but I also did think it was important to share everything I’d hope to share despite our weird disruption in session.

Of course.

So I read it to her after explaining that I felt really vulnerable and so could she please go easy on me once I finished? She just nodded, so I started reading. My voice was super shaky and breathy but I managed to get through it.

“Wow. That is all very important stuff for me to know.”


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Yesterday’s session was kind of weird. I wanted to reschedule Friday sessions for reasons I’ll describe in a bit. I’ve had to change sessions before and each time, it somehow managed to be super awkward and trigger some sort of therapeutic impasse. Despite how much effort I put into not being weird yesterday, I somehow managed to do just that. Yet again.

The reason I wanted to reschedule is because our laboratory supervisor was not impressed when I strolled in 90 minutes late for open lab last Friday. I’ve already mentioned this on here before: it’s supposed to be voluntary extra time to practice lab skills, but for some reason, the lab guy takes it incredibly personal if you don’t spend all 7.5 hours there every single Friday.

When I walked in late last week, he said, “Busy morning, Andi?” I replied, “No. I have an appointment every Friday morning, as I’ve mentioned before.” Which clearly did not appease him and instead prompted him to go on a rant about “priorities” and “time management”, embarrassing me in front of the entire class. No bueno.

Honestly, I don’t need the lab time (as is pretty obvious from my academic performance), but I also definitely don’t need public humiliation on a weekly basis. There are only four open labs left in the semester, so I decided I’d rather just reschedule therapy than potentially go to battle with this dude every time I’m “late”.

I told the therapist this story as a preface to requesting that we change our Friday sessions. She started to look at her calendar for other possible session times when I added in that if we couldn’t reschedule, perhaps we could just “let it go for now.”

She stopped mid-movement and asked, “Well what do you want to do?” 

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Pushing Away Empathy

Next week I have three practical exams. Yeah, not fun. My classmates are all losing their freaking minds right now. We’re all putting in crazy long days trying to practice our clinical skills over and over and over again.

Normally we have “open lab” on Fridays from 10am-5pm. We were originally told that it was supposed to be “open” (meaning students can basically drop-in for help with lab skills) but what it actually means is “be there from 10am-5pm”.

I also have therapy on Friday mornings, so I usually stroll into the PT lab closer to 11:30am. Then I leave at 3pm because I have to work. I only scheduled work for that time because my director said open lab would go until 2:30pm. False.

I personally don’t think it’s a big deal because I am an “A” student who works very hard and I grasp material rather quickly. I don’t generally feel that I need seven fucking hours to review one week’s worth of material. Some people do. Fine. But I don’t. I end up so burned out and overwhelmed around hour four that I stop inputting new information anyway.

But the last time I showed up late for open lab, I was given the stink-eye by our lab instructor. And considering we have three practicals next week and he will be the assistant for ALL THREE PROFESSORS, I figured it would be wise to get my butt there in a more timely fashion. I don’t think pissing this dude off will end up benefitting anyone.

I wrote this down on Tuesday as part of my list of things to discuss in session. It was important to me to bring it up right away since the last time I had to reschedule a session, I forget and then awkwardly threw that information at the therapist on my way out the door. This time I wanted to, you know, NOT do that. I was sitting in the waiting area for about ten minutes reminding myself over and over again to bring up Friday morning’s session.

So as soon as I walked into her office, I sat down and rather abruptly said, “I don’t think I can come to Friday’s session.” She replied with a semi-startled, “Oh?” to which I just laughed and said, “You’re funny.” She asked why I thought it was funny and I explained that it’s just amusing because her response is so very therapist-y. I said that in “real life”, people don’t talk like that. They’d probably just suggest another time or assume you’d skip whatever event you couldn’t attend. But therapists? No. They need to analyze everything and figure out what it all means.

Which, whatever,…that is technically her job. I know. But it still feels strange to me. I suppose it reminds me that I am eternally under the microscope and there is no such thing as a “throw-away comment” with her.

Anyway. She later reflected back to me that she thought perhaps I was intentionally trying to provoke her (this was related to the conversation we were having at that moment). I originally didn’t think that was true. I will be upfront if I think that’s what I’m doing, but it honestly didn’t seem to fit. She asked if perhaps I was afraid that she would have responded with indifference to my statement and maybe I felt as though I really wanted to come to session on Friday, so it would have been hurtful if she didn’t respond in a way that showed she cared.

Actually, it was the exact opposite.

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