(or This is NOT a “My Therapist Has Cancer” Blog )
Whenever I get really angry or upset or sad or confused, my default mode is to go quiet, to be very silent and still. Sometimes when this happens, my FitBit will actually register that I am “sleeping” even though I am wide awake and most likely on heightened alert. I think I go into this state because I’m scared to move until I can regain my footing, get my bearings and figure out what is going on around me. And only once that happens do I dare to speak into what I am experiencing and venture out from whatever place of safety I’ve retreated.
And so I think that’s what has happened with this space over the past few months. It’s not that I’ve struggled for ideas of what I wanted or needed to write about – I’ve been wrestling with thoughts on boundaries and closure and growth, but also on what I wanted and needed this space to be. When I started to write this, I never could have imagined that it would become a blog about having a therapist with cancer. And I’ve felt over the past few months that this space has become more about her and less about me, and I wanted to take it back and reclaim it as my own, but was unsure of exactly how to do that. I tried to map out a plan of the things that I still needed to say, in what order, to resolve that part of the story. But I’m starting to realize that it will never be a fully realized and complete story. There will always be an oozing wound, although it doesn’t bleed nearly as much as it once did. And I’m sure it will rear its ugly head every now and again, maybe when I least expect it, and that I will just need to stop and address whatever is rising to my consciousness, even if it doesn’t fit neatly into my current trajectory. I’m never sure where this journey will take me or the detours that will arise. But this is my attempt to get back on the path, and continue onwards.
The trigger for me was a lovely comment left by a reader on my last post. There have been many times in the past few months when I’ve thought about shuttering this whole site, and her comment reminded me of why I wrote and posted most of this in the first place! The unfortunate reality is that therapists do suddenly terminate for a whole host of reasons, valid or otherwise. They burnout, retire, get sick and sometimes even die. Sometimes it’s planned, but many times completely unplanned. Some handle it really well, some handle it badly. Some don’t get a choice, while some don’t think they have a choice. I really think it’s an ignored part of therapy, on all sides, but it is a topic that deserves attention.
So my heart goes out to anyone else going through this kind of therapeutic termination. I can assure you that you are not alone. I’ve heard from others who have had similar experiences, and yet I also know how isolating it can feel. I often think of the other clients of my own ex-therapist and wonder how everyone else is faring, and how unnatural it is that each of us has to grieve and cope in private, on our own.
When my ex-therapist (and yes, I can now say “ex-therapist,” definitively and with certainty) first got sick, she was open and accepting of gestures of support. She asked each client to contribute a charm that she wore on a necklace to symbolically keep her “tribe” close. She allowed me to prepare her family a meal when she was in the hospital. She welcomed and responded to text messages of support. But I was never invited to visit, never given access to the “Care Calendar” of the inner circle. As a client, I was kept at arm’s length, allowed in only so far.
And then things suddenly changed and she cut off all contact. Just like that. Without warning. I think what hurt the most was that it was a unilateral decision. Her decision. And that completely annihilated any illusion of mutuality or equality or partnership that I harbored. She had all the power. She always did. And I realized, too, how much of my own power I had unintentionally acquiesced, given away. I still don’t understand why she wasn’t open to allowing our relationship to transform, to morph into something else that would be supportive and generative to both of us. I don’t know exactly what that would look like, but I believed it to be possible, back then. I’m not sure now. Not because I no longer think it’s possible, but because I have been too hurt to engage with her in this way. Maybe, one day in the distant future, our paths will cross again, but I am no longer sitting in wait, holding onto false hope. My initial grief has turned into anger and resentment and outrage. But at the beginning, there was a chance for transformation, for reshuffling, for reorganization.
I’ve often felt, and felt completely selfish for admitting this, but it would have been easier (for me at least) if she had died. It would have been easier to grieve the loss of someone who had departed this world. Instead I’ve had to grieve the loss of someone who simply no longer wants to have anything to do with me. I feel like a character in my own version of “She’s Just Not That into You.” So in some way I’ve just had to convince myself that she did actually die. And a part of her did. The part that I knew is no longer here on this earth, and I feel quite certain of that. Her cancer has transformed her and I’m not even sure that I would like or want to work with his new incantation. Her values and priorities and goals and principles have changed. The chemo didn’t just eradicate the out-of-control abnormal cells. It changed her fundamentally, at a cellular level.
Even knowing my history, she allowed it to happen again. She actually had a choice, she had agency, and yet she robbed me of mine and let history to repeat itself. And then directed me back to psychotherapy, back to the very institution that caused me so much pain. And in fact I am very angry at myself for letting her in to begin with. I feel naive and foolish and am left feeling angry that she gets to continue to walk this earth holding onto vulnerable parts of me. I would like those parts back. I would like them returned. I want to cry out “can I have my heart back please?”
It took me many months to be able to admit this, but if she opened her door to me again, and invited me back in, I’d have to politely and respectfully say “no.” I no longer want or wish for her to be my therapist. Any semblance of trust is long, and irrevocably, broken. There is nothing she could say or do that would allow me to let her enter back into my heart, my soul.
At one point, before she got really sick and seemingly cast us all aside, there was an offer from a colleague in the same suite to “run a once a month group in my office supporting any clients who want to come together to process this disruption in therapy. My current treatment plan looks like the most intensive treatment will be completed by February, so the group would likely meet just a few times.” I don’t know if the group ever did meet. I’ve often wondered what that would look like now, as “disruption” became “termination.” How might the dynamics have played out between those low-maintenance clients who got to stay and the intolerable ones who were forced to go?
It is true that very few people can relate to this kind of destructive event. To begin with, not everyone attaches so deeply to a therapist, so I did get a lot of blank stares and confused looks when I would tell close friends “my therapist has cancer.” In fact, one therapist advised: “Be very careful who you share this with. A lot of people won’t understand.”
But it tore me up inside for many months, first out of fear of losing her and then when I was abandoned by her.
For a long time I fantasized about manipulating myself to fit into her new world. I imagined taking the least-desirable appointment time, and promising to curtail email contact and suppress any anger and rage in session (as if!). Basically I was doing what I always do when overwhelmed by emotion – making myself small. I was trying to find a way to fit into her new paradigm in a way where I wouldn’t cause further disruption, and actually, in fact, would not even be noticed at all! But I was so desperate for contact, and to not be cut off and I was willing to sacrifice my own needs to make that happen.
But here’s what I’ve also learned and adamantly know. It doesn’t have to be this way. Lots of therapists are able to work through cancer and illness and disruptions. Lots of therapists are able to safely and ethically and responsibly transition clients to other sources of support. And why should we expect any less? This is, after all, a profession and an endeavor all about openness and honesty and transformation. So to the reader who fears that her therapist has cancer, I sincerely hope that no matter what, that your therapist is able to do the very thing therapists are meant to do best: talking. And that you find a different outcome. One where you are able to take what you need from your current relationship and move into a different space, however that may look. This doesn’t have to be the end. There are so many different configurations that can be explored that will hold you and her and both of your needs. And that configuration may have to change, many times. But it is possible as long as two people remain in the relationship. But it’s impossible when one of the parties bolts and refuses to engage further.
So to any reader who finds this space and is facing a similar challenge, I sincerely hope that my experience is the exception (although that is probably a false hope). I hope that more therapists are able to engage with clients in a productive way. Despite, or even in spite of, cancer. Or any other curve ball that life throws. I encourage you to keep talking, for as long as your therapist will talk back. And if she does stop talking one day, know that it’s not you and that you did nothing wrong. It hurts beyond belief, but the sun keeps rising each day, and the attachment fades in time. You may need to retreat to a quiet place, but don’t stay too long. Find ways to redirect your energies elsewhere, outward, forward. Good Luck.