First Impressions

(or I’m in Therapist Limbo)

Over the last few weeks I’ve been therapist shopping – never an easy or pleasant task.  Many of the therapists I’ve seen have no online presence at all – no website or Psychology Today profile, certainly not a blog or Twitter feed.  So I go into each appointment blind, not sure of what I am going to find, having to rely just on faith of the referrer who provided the name and contact details.  Suffice to say that connection has been elusive.  This is a hard enough task under normal circumstances, made even harder by my particular circumstances.

You see, I don’t even know if I want to be in therapy right now, as much as I might need it.  One therapist remarked to me that I have to find the will to be in therapy, that she couldn’t provide the will for the both of us.  Fair enough – but truthfully I don’t know that I have the will or energy to start this process over again.  I thought I had found the right therapist for me.  I didn’t think I would ever have to start back at the beginning.  I never thought I’d find myself sitting in strange offices across from complete strangers, re-telling my sad little tale.  I thought that part of the therapeutic journey was long behind me.

And although I always feared it, I never fully considered the possibility that my therapist (or I should say ex-therapist?), with whom I had connected and bonded and attached to, would become so ill as to not be able to work anymore or, worse, circumstances would so dramatically change as to preclude us from continuing our work together.

What really confounds me right now is how we got from “I will be functioning  as a therapist as I can, to the best of my ability through this – whenever I can – because this work is important to me, and because I believe in it, and it is healthy for me to invest in what I believe in…” to “Those that came to me in search of healing, and transcendence – because I erroneously believed  those were the processes I was courting – will now have to go elsewhere…” in a mere 59 days.

Perhaps at the beginning I was in search of a healer, and of healing as a process.  But over time, as the relationship and processing deepened, I abandoned that wish and instead just wanted someone to bear witness to my experiences.  I started to see her as an anchor, something secure to hang on to, and not something that could make it all better.  A quick search of all of our written correspondence over the last 4+ years, revealed the word “heal” (and any of its derivatives), less than 15 times.

I do remember that one time, as we were emerging from our impasse, I remarked that “I feel I’ve really been hurt and don’t yet feel healed or whole again.”  To which she replied “Healed?  Whole?  Were you feeling healed or whole before this happened?  I don’t mean to be silly or smug.  I know I pressed upon an old bruise of yours that caused an old wound to be activated.  I know it hurt.  But I think – it was hurting long long before we ever met.”

So I’ve had a few initial consultations, in which I have been subjected to a lot of snap judgments and quick interpretations.  Therapists have this trick of saying something right at the end of a consultation, a comment or phrase, that seems meant to lodge in your head and turn over and over again in your mind.  Maybe it’s a way to get you to come back.  Clients can drive their therapists crazy with these Last Minute Bombs, but up until now, I’ve never been on the receiving end of such pronouncements.  It leaves me with all of these unfinished conversations, and no chance to follow-up or find out more about the underlying motivations or assumptions or impressions.  Why did she say that?  What did she mean?

One thought that my previous choice of therapist, with such an online and social media presence, was about control.  One surmised that I was using therapy to try to change other people, rather than changing myself.   One was overly quick to diagnose and seemed committed to a medical model that I just don’t believe in.  One predicted the future and declared the certain path towards true healing.  One professed to know, definitely, the key to my own personal happiness.  One refused to say much since she felt (wisely) that she didn’t know me at all.  One deflected all of my questions, another rebuffed my comment on how hard it was to read her.  But this is a relationship, after all, and I need to be able to feel that we are in this together.

When my ex(?)-therapist left me with something particularly thought-provoking at the very end of a session, I would usually email and ask for more data or a clarification or to continue the dialog, so that I didn’t have to carry around my own self-stewing on the matter until our next appointment.  But I don’t have such an open relationship with any of these potential therapists, we are definitely not on emailing-terms yet, and in many cases, I didn’t feel enough connection to go back for another appointment.  So the comments get added to the heaping pile of things I need to talk about but without anyone there to talk to.

I had an unfortunate misunderstanding with one, which turned out to be the result of nothing more than a typo in an email address.  It gave me pause, made me reconsider our bad start, made me even try to put aside all the other red flags that I was desperately trying to ignore but that my psyche would not.  I’m not intentionally trying to sabotage these consultations, as much as I hate the process, but I know that therapists are not created alike and that I need some spark of a connection in order to move forward.  Sometimes I try to override my intuition and make a follow-up appointment, only to go home and think it over and submit to my original instincts.

And so each consultation ends, the therapist offering up other names of colleagues who may be a better fit.  The list of referrals multiplies but I feel no closer to finding a match.  In some ways I feel like I’m just moving further and further away from what once felt like home.  Sometimes I wish there was an eHarmony.com-type app for matching you to a therapist, some magic algorithm that would pair you with just the right person.  But what would that algorithm be?

Should I see a therapist who doesn’t talk, thereby forcing me to talk more?  Or do I go with one who fills the silences with the exact words I was thinking but couldn’t manage to say?  Is it better to have a therapist who seems to share similar perspectives and values and philosophies?  Or do I need a therapist who will completely challenge me on everything?  Do I need a therapist who doesn’t reveal anything, keeping therapy focused entirely on me?  Or do I require some level of disclosure in service of trust?  Is it helpful to see someone with a connection to my ex(?)-therapist?   Or as one suggested, am I better off with someone who doesn’t know her at all?

I don’t know why I am agonizing so much over what may very well be just a rebound therapist.  I don’t know that I’ll ever allow myself to be in such a deep, intense therapeutic relationship again.  As it is, I now need therapy because of therapy.  And so my current goal for therapy is to get out of therapy as quickly as possible.

I’m trying my best to forge a connection, while still respecting my own intuition.  Maybe I’m trying too hard.  First impressions can sometimes be wrong, and as I replay each session trying to make sense of what transpired, I find myself in an infinite loop of questioning and self-doubt.  Even when I do feel the spark of a connection, I distrust it.  One therapist replied to my misgivings with “it’s good to question – you can question all you want.”

It all goes back to just not knowing what I want, what I need, what I can tolerate at this very juncture.  I don’t know what I am asking of this new therapeutic partner.  There are so many unknowns.

It has been hard to let others into the space that was once solely occupied by me and my ex(?)-therapist.  In sharing our relationship and the ways we worked together and the impasses that embroiled us, I find myself questioning it all – tactics, approach, style – as others’ opinions, both personal and professional, seep in.  Her style was definitely unconventional (here I will concede that she is probably right: insurers do not reimburse for the services she provides), but it seemed to work for me, or so I thought.  But was it really helpful?  Might it have been harmful?  One implored me: “I hope you can hold what was good about the relationship before she got ill.”  I wish I could too.  I am trying but it’s really, really hard to do right now.  I’m in shock and in pain and it’s hard to see past that.

I believed the mantra “it’s the relationship that heals” (Irvin Yalom, 1989, Love’s Executioner).  And in so believing, that means it was her, specifically, in the context of our relationship.  I never thought she had magical powers, only that there was something magical about the connection between us.  But perhaps it was an illusion.  Sometimes I feel like the spell has been broken, and I’m now seeing everything out of a different set of eyes.

And yet, I’d go back in a heartbeat – and I don’t know that I even fully understand that pull.  But it’s there and fighting against it feels futile.  I’ve been thinking a lot about how our first connection to each other came out of shared experience of severances – and learning to let go when relationships become toxic as a way of self-preservation.  I just never expected to sever our relationship, not through any of it, not in this way.

There have been times over the past few weeks and months when I’ve felt as if my heart has broken into a million little pieces – again, and I wondered if I would be able to put it back together.  But I know that my heart has been broken before, and will most likely be broken again, and all I can do is piece it back together as best I can.  And like anything fragile that breaks, there will be missing pieces and fragments that will be lost forever, but I know I can salvage the parts that are still intact and try to reconstruct something that resembles a heart.  I’ve done it before.

Severances always leave both real and phantom pains, perhaps more so when the tear is brutal, involuntary, abrupt.  My future-therapist will have to help me bandage my wound, repair my heart, tame the ghost-of-my-therapist-past.  I’m not looking for healing or anything magical here, just a helping hand to get me across this threshold.  Maybe I do know exactly what I need, maybe it’s all right there in front of me, in my collection of first impressions.

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