(or My Therapist Broke Up With Me Via Email)
After 263 sessions, it all ends with an email.
I guess I got my wish after all, my worst fears realized. I also got the answer to my question: “Can a therapeutic alliance survive cancer?” Apparently, no.
I think the fairest and most responsible thing I can do is entrust you into the hands of a therapist who has the capacity to supply an appropriate level of care for you.
This is going to take too long, it’s simply not fair to you, and ultimately even if/when I do “come back” I won’t be able to give you the frequency or regularity of care you deserve.
I know this email was written from a place of love, but it was actually quite a cruel message to have to read, and process, all alone. There was a crassness in her tone, her usual supportive empathic voice missing (not necessarily in the above passages, but in the email as a whole). In the end, it felt like a kindly worded “fuck off,” but a fuck-off nonetheless.
I tried to write back, I tried to make contact, determined to not let it end this way. But my attempts to connect were rejected, met with silence. Maybe the email itself wasn’t that cruel but the silence afterwards certainly was. You can’t send an email like that and disappear, and not invite in or allow any kind of dialogue or reaction. And not only was she not responding to me, she was completely absent online, to the point that I was genuinely worried that something catastrophic had happened and that she was now, in fact, dying. And I had no way to confirm or refute my anxieties, my initial anger and rejection replaced with nothing but worry and concern.
I tried to text, but those were ignored too, until one night I did catch her online. All I got was a chastising: “Please use the supports I’ve directed you toward. That is all I can do.”
BUT THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I HAVE BEEN DOING!!! I wanted to scream out. Maybe in her state of chemo-brain she forgot that I had reached out to another therapist, that I had actively sought out other supports, even when I felt scared and frozen. I summoned my courage, I made the calls, I showed up, I tried to talk. I hadn’t emailed her or called, I had not made any demands or requests of her. What little contact I had was meant to be supportive.
There is always a power imbalance in the therapeutic relationship, despite her insistence: “Who are you? You are my full-fledged partner in this process.” The therapist always has the upper hand. She got the last word.
I was, and still am, confused as to why she felt the need to send such an email at all. It just wasn’t necessary – like salt in a wound. I was well aware of the situation, I knew things were deteriorating. Even when others familiar with the situation encouraged me that this was “temporary” and that we’d be back working together “soon,” and not to “give up hope and assume the worst,” I felt the truth was being masked. I knew in my gut that this might be the end. Even as my therapist started talking of her plans to come back to work, I knew better than to get my hopes up, that it was a long road back with many potential detours. I sometimes wondered if others realized the gravity of the situation, and why everyone else so easily put faith in the overly optimistic assessment of the oncologists. This isn’t just any cancer – this is an unbelievably rare cancer and no one knows how this is going to play out. To pretend otherwise is just being naïve, living in la-la-land.
Looking back, deep in my psyche, I knew something was shifting on the horizon. I was agitated for most of the fall, struggling to stay connected, questioning the usefulness of therapy, in a near-constant state of fight-or-flight. Maybe something was trying to get me to go, ahead of this storm.
Truth is, and I realized this a few weeks ago, I’m not sure that I can go back. Not that I don’t want to and don’t want to hang on to hope for a different outcome, but how can we resume our work if there isn’t a way or a place to deal with this new impasse? How do we carry on if we can’t talk about how this affected both of us, the ways we felt supported and the ways we felt incredibly hurt? And that realization, in and of itself, is truly heart-breaking. This final blow has rendered me unmovable.
So many images come to mind. I have been left on the front lines, in the middle of a raging battle. Or on the side of a mountain, in a blizzardy snowstorm. Or lost in the middle of a deep, dark forest, scared to move lest I get more lost than I already am. All of these things.
How am I meant to keep going forward? How am I meant to just start working with another therapist? After all this time? After all this work? How am I ever going to trust another therapist again – or perhaps anyone for that matter? It’s not that easy. It’s not as simple as just making an appointment.
The first temporary therapist was not interested in a permanent relationship. She said as much, telling me that she only agreed to work with me because she thought it would be temporary. She was not a good match for me anyways. She didn’t talk – hardly at all. And I have a hard enough time talking in therapy as it is – with someone whom I’ve worked with for four years. So our few sessions were strange and awkward and uncomfortable and silent.
I kept waiting a sign from her that she wanted to work with me. That she was willing to take a chance and make an investment in me and a commitment to me. All I got was that it would have to be my decision. But I’m not interested in entering into a relationship unless both people are committed. Perhaps she just sensed my own reluctance and didn’t want to bind me or pull me into a space where I didn’t really want to be in the first place.
I know that one of the objectives of therapy is to deal with parts of your past that need to be healed. My therapist would often comment that in certain moments I would look very young, around age 7. I know that there is a little girl trapped inside who is hurting, and that much of my own sadness emanates from that space. And there is also a very angry teenager trapped inside – an adolescent who had to hide who she really was, who wasn’t allowed to be herself or follow her passions, who had to trade love for survival. Most of my time in therapy has involved letting this part of me be very, very angry and I know that I have said many things from this teenager state that my adult-self regrets, or at least recoils from.
I feel like I’m re-living my coming out experience all over again. When I came out, my parents were advised by a local “therapist” (I use that term very loosely) to cease all contact with me. But no one ever told me that was the plan and I was left desperately trying to stay connected and instead, being met with silence and rejection. Those same feelings are coming back to me now in full force, and it feels as much in the present as 13 years ago.
Abandoned, again. Foolish trust, misplaced, again.
But finally, just as I thought the door was slammed completely shut for good, she left a tiny crack open: “We’ll figure out a way to have some closure at some point but I can’t sort that out right now and I just want you to be in good care.”
As is often the case, one is usually unaware that something is the “last” until long after the fact. I didn’t know that our last session might turn out to be the last. It would be unfortunate if it does. It would be a truly bad ending.
I hold on to hope that if/when she regains her energy and returns to work, that we may find that “mystical third space” that always seems to have eluded us – and that we find a way to still be connected in a way that works for both of us. I can show up with just my grown-up parts. I can leave the little girl and teenager behind and get their needs tended to elsewhere. What is utterly intolerable to me is to both walk this earth without a connection to each other. It is saddening and maddening to think that other people with smaller needs or who are more grown-up and more in-tact may still have access. Strangers online may still have access. But I might not.
The only thing more intolerable, insufferable is if this truly is goodbye. If we don’t ever find a way or get a chance for closure, to say the things that need to be said so that I, at least, can move on… I have no words, just a lump in my throat, a pit in my stomach, a welling in my eyes, a hole in my heart. Perhaps some might think this is over- or melodramatic, but I feel no different about the loss of this relationship as I expect one might feel when losing a healthy, in-tact mother. But since I have no such mother, this was often a next-best substitute, the mother to the little girl and angry teenager. And I am just as gutted, heartbroken.
My therapist shared this dream with me from last May – I was tremendously moved by her visions but I think she got the characters mixed-up:
You and I were together. You were in a motorized wheelchair and you sped up and raced down the middle of a square and then just blew yourself up in a public space, like a suicide bomber. I realized what you were going to do seconds before – and scrambled as hard and fast as I could but you went so fast in your chair that I couldn’t reach you.
At the end of the dream I was being swarmed by press about the events but I was doubled over with the crushing grief. In a ball. Unable to breathe. Unable to speak. Overwhelmed by you being gone. Stunned, horrified. And thinking your death, on top of all the deaths of last year- would actually break me apart.
I woke up bawling.
It was really unbelievably heartbreaking. I’m still shaken by the experience of you being gone even though you are here because it felt so vivid.
She is the one speeding away, me unable to reach her. She is being annihilated, me the one left behind with overwhelming grief. I understand the emotions, acutely, even more so now then back then.
So I am lost, as lost as a child who has lost her mother. A part of me doesn’t want to stray too far from my current spot, in case she comes looking. But I can’t stay here too long, either, without succumbing to the elements. Go forward – it sounds so easy, if only I knew the way.