(or How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?)
Whenever I need to engage in some emotional self-flagellation, I know exactly where to go. The ex-therapist still maintains a very active Twitter feed, and if I am stupid enough to look, I am bound to find something there that upsets me and makes me feel bad about myself. I had stopped lurking altogether, for a time, but as the seasons started to shift and the cooler weather finally arrived, my psyche felt pulled back, still trying to reconcile the events of the past year. A year ago she first told me she was sick. In a few more weeks, it will be a year since our last session. And in a few more weeks after that, it will be a year since she dumped me. I can still feel it all deep in my bones: the fear, the disruption, the panic.
The ex-therapist has tweeted ad nauseam about how clients have “agency” and don’t have to read or follow any of her postings online. I find this defense to be ignorant at best, and grandiosely self-justifying in reality. She probably knows that she should be more careful with her tweets and words, knowing that there are clients and ex-clients out there, but she just can’t help herself. So she constructs this elaborate justification for her actions, to make it all seem reasonable and okay. The problem with this outlook is that the relationship between therapist and client can be intimate and intense in a way that is unlike any other relationship. It’s also imbalanced, with the therapist usually knowing more about the client than vice versa. So it is only natural that the client will seek out any information available to try to make sense of the person on the other side of the couch. And the ex-therapist made that information so tantalizingly available, like leading a kid into a candy store. It is irrational to then expect the kid to not indulge in the candy laid out before them.
I could buy some of this “agency” argument when I was still a client, when I was still seeing the ex-therapist. If she posted or tweeted or blogged about something that affected me, good or bad, I always had the option of talking to her about it in session. I could bring it up and maybe we could have a sensible discussion about the content and my own reactions. Such discourse is no longer available to me. She expects ex-clients to still have “agency” despite any lingering trauma or upset. She carries on like there are no hurt ex-clients still out there, still able to read her words and be impacted, but without any way to confront her on any of her public statements. Even if I was on Twitter and tried to engage, I know she would just block me.
I know I just shouldn’t look, but to retort that when I do, I do so with my own “agency” is to overlook the deep wound that she created when she severed our relationship. Perhaps I would have more such agency had I been able to leave of my own accord. But this is not the case, and with her heartless termination, she stole some of my own agency and sometimes my psyche gets lulled back in, futilely in search of clues for some way to make things right.
So for example, this tweet got under my skin: “So my client case is smaller, and more autonomous… I can’t carry as much dependency…” This just made me feel rejected, knowing that I wasn’t one of the ones invited to stay. I had to go. And I know in my head that it wasn’t me, and that she created the very dependency that led to our undoing. I know that I all too willing sacrificed my own autonomy and that it was a high price to pay. So it leaves me jealous, not really of those who got to stay, but of those who didn’t have to give as much to be in connection with the ex-therapist. And I find it frustrating that there is no sense of concern or remorse that maybe, just maybe, carrying so much dependency was neither healthy for her nor for the clients. She implies that this smaller client load is just a side-effect of the cancer, not actually a healthier way of working for everyone.
Or this one: “Getting lovely dream come true updates from former clients who have labored hard to transform their lives and live their values.” Ouch. Who are these “former clients?” Are they ones who got to leave ahead of the cancer storm, with nice happy therapeutic endings? Or are these somehow more in-tact clients who also got the boot but don’t seem to be as harmed? And what about those of us who are still laboring but have yet to reach a state of transformation, in part because of setbacks and detours caused by her own behavior? What about those of us who haven’t achieved such nirvana but are hanging in there just the same? Don’t we deserve some Twitter accolades?
Or this latest one: “And my tour of duty on the front lines has come to a close.” She makes it sound as if she was just doing some volunteer stint, which wrapped up on schedule as planned. I would love to see her actually talk about her feelings of abandoning clients on those same front lines, but she is either incapable of discussing this in public or maybe is still in complete denial herself. It’s as if the left behind clients have just vanished.
(And don’t get me started about this idea that she is now “teaching.” I’m not sure if I’m more disturbed by the idea of her peddling her unorthodox ways or by the idea of clinicians actually paying for this “advice” and “knowledge.” Shudder.)
What I’ve come to realize is this: I’m not very adept at sewing up emotional wounds. Or maybe I just use the wrong kinds of stitches or the thread isn’t strong enough or I just can’t seem to leave it alone long enough to heal. Every time I come into contact with the ex-therapist or my family of origin, even though it is because I am the one who goes looking, the stitches pull apart, again. It’s no wonder that my heart feels perpetually broken. It never seems able to heal before it comes apart again.
I see a similar pattern with my physical body. I have a nasty persistent habit, which started when I was very young, of picking my skin. It’s usually my cuticles or somewhere on my fingers. It is rare for me to not have at least one Band-Aid on my hand. Sometimes I pick at my skin when I’m really nervous, but more often than not it’s an unconscious response and I’m not even aware that I am doing it. Sometimes I just want to get a loose piece of skin off and in the process, make a mess of things. Sometimes I need a Band-Aid because I’ve made my skin bleed. Sometimes I need one just as a reminder to try to not pick at my fingers. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that I seem to pick at my emotional wounds too.
Our dog had surgery the other week to remove a cyst on his back that was infected and ruptured. He came home from his operation with an incision nearly twice as long as I was expecting, with 17 stitches. He had to wear one of those really annoying cones on his head that is probably as uncomfortable as it looks, throwing off his depth perception and ability to kennel into his crate. But we knew that without it, the stitches would be open within minutes. You can’t tell a dog to leave stitches alone and let them heal.
I need such a cone for my heart. I need something to physically force me to let my heart heal for once. When it comes to emotional wounds, I am as bad as a dog, giving into animal instincts even when my head knows better.
When I had knee surgery back in college, I was completely calm and collected about the surgery. I knew what needed to be done and went into the operating room with complete confidence, repeatedly reminding the doctor that it was the right knee to be operated on (so okay, I was a little paranoid that they would accidently operate on the wrong knee). Then after the surgery, when talk turned to removing the stitches, I got exceedingly nervous. I was far more worried about the stitches coming out than I ever was about them going in! I knew that for the surgery there would be anesthesia and drugs and that I wouldn’t have to actually feel anything for several days. But when the stitches came out, it meant I would have to confront the injury in my body and the hidden pain. Without the stitches holding everything in place, it was all on me to heal, on my own (and with the help of some skilled physical therapists). And yes, if you are wondering, it took immense self-will to not pick at the 3 inch scar on my knee. Instead I lovingly applied vitamin E oil to it every day, hoping to leave as little of a scar behind as possible.
But now, twenty years later, the physical appearance of the scar on my knee doesn’t bother me at all. It actually serves as a reminder that when left to heal properly and with good help, the body can be repaired. And it reminds me of all the hard work I put into healing my physical body, those many long grueling months of physical therapy, re-learning how to walk, ride a bike and run again.
Sometimes the stitching is the easy part. But there will always be scars and sometimes the scar tissue in my knee causes a lot of pain. And my knee can’t support my wish to run 20 miles a week. The wound always has to be tended to and respected, and sometimes you have to work around it.
Maybe the real issue is that the heart is not so easily stitched.
A few months ago I accidentally sliced off the top of my thumb with a cheese slicer. After several hours of not being able to control the bleeding, I went to the ER. My options were limited: there was nothing left to stitch, the source of the bleeding was unspecified so the wound could not be cauterized. I could have had a clotting agent applied, but that would require a follow up visit to a hand surgeon. Or I could let it bleed, but was assured it would stop in 2-3 days. And so we wrapped my thumb tightly in non-stick gauze, and sure enough, the bleeding eventually stopped. And my thumb healed and looks normally shaped again. And I’ve learned my lesson: do not use a cheese slicer on pepper jack cheese!
The wound on my thumb seems an apt parallel to the wounds in my heart. Stitching and cauterizing won’t help. Specialists could be called, but really, the best course is to just let it bleed. The bleeding will stop eventually. The wound will heal. It might even look semi-normal again. Closure will come in time, maybe because of time. It can’t be rushed or forced. Any attempts at intervention won’t hold or will require more care than I have the energy to undertake.
I know I need to stop picking at the wounds too, stop intentionally doing things that only serve to hurt and upset me further. I need that emotional version of a gauze pack or a dog cone (I don’t think a simple Band-Aid will cut it!).
Non-mutual endings of relationships will always leave a hole, a brutal severance that may heal in time, in its own way, but will leave a scar nonetheless. But you do have to close the wound first, one way or another, before any of that healing can happen.