(or Is It Time to Quit Therapy?)
I did something over the holidays that would have been unthinkable this time a year ago. I cancelled a therapy appointment simply because I had something better to do with my time. I chose to spend a day in the city with my wife, taking in an art exhibit followed by lunch and uninterrupted conversation with each other. If I had kept my appointment, we would not have been able to do both, or we would have done both but would have been rushed and it would not have been as enjoyable or pleasant. So I cancelled and didn’t feel the least bit of regret or remorse or concern. I was forthright in my decision and never questioned it or second-guessed it. It was actually a really easy decision to make.
It’s not like I didn’t try to make it work. I did inquire if there were other appointments available. This was, after all, that dead week between Christmas and New Year’s. How many people were planning on keeping their appointments that week anyways? Surely there was an alternate time that wasn’t smack-dab in the middle of the day, and thereby in the middle of my date too. If there was a morning or late afternoon appointment, I probably would have made the effort. Although in hindsight, it was really nice to have a week “off” and have a day that was just about spending quality time with my wife with no diversions. And after having several hours on our own, we collected our kids from the back-up day care a good 2 hours earlier than we had expected. It turns out that we don’t need endless time together – just a decent block of time in order to feel restored and connected and ready to return to the duties and demands of motherhood.
So this got me thinking, naturally, about this radical shift in how I view therapy. A year ago, therapy was a requirement and a need, rather than merely a want. The ex-therapist had convinced me that I could not live without her or her services. In fact, when things started to fall apart, I remember feeling that my very life was at stake, such was the dependency she created. With the ex-therapist I did cut Christmas-week dates short and routinely re-arranged my personal and work-life so as not to ever miss an appointment. Therapy was the priority and everything else came second. The thought of cancelling an appointment, when the ex-therapist was in the office and available, was inconceivable. If she was there, I would be there too, without fail.
Perhaps I first noticed this shift in my dependency on either a therapist or therapy over the summer, when my therapist took her 6-week summer sabbatical. Before, I would have referred to this break as long and torturous and I would have been counting down the days until her return. In fact, it was the ex-therapist’s mere 3-week sabbatical one spring that was the beginning of our unraveling. I simply could not bear to be separated from her for that length of time, even though we were in communication during that period. I even knew where she was and what she was doing, but that did little to soothe my anxiety.
Transpose that with the new therapist and it’s about as opposite of an experience as you can get. Actually, everything about her is opposite from the ex-therapist. I have no idea where she was for those 6 weeks or what she did and we were never in communication. When she came back, she never talked about her experiences, which is standard for her. And what I realized recently is that when she did get back, we just picked up where we left off. I would almost say it’s like old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while, although I know we are nowhere near close to being “friends.” But it was that same feeling, of reconnecting and moving forward without getting stuck in the space of time since you last met or spoke. We just carried on. There was no drama or anger or upset. I didn’t feel abandoned and I never once begrudged her for taking this time off. I certainly never punished her for doing so, as I did with the ex-therapist, such was my anger and despair at the time.
I think part of this need to go now is so that I can leave on my own terms. The ex-therapist robbed me of the promised experience of a “good ending,” so I think a part of me craves that now. Even before the ex-therapist got sick, a part of me wanted to leave but couldn’t escape her grip. I would practice saying the words “I need to go” in the hope that I would be able to actually say that phrase out loud. But I never got my chance. She beat me to it. So perhaps part of this is my own redemption and my chance to create my own ending, and with it also gain vicarious closure with the ex-therapist. It’s my chance to leave on a high note, of my own accord, and not because of external forces over which I have no control. The reality is that the new therapist could decide to retire or also get sick herself. And it’s not that I’m running away from that possibility, but that I no longer feel the need to stick around until something outside of me forces me to go.
Besides, I know that in my mind I am framing this as just a break from therapy. I know that it doesn’t have to be an outright ending and that I can always come back. I know that if and when I decide that I have a need for therapy again, and that if my current therapist is still seeing clients, that she will welcome me back and we will pick up where we left off. And if she’s moved on too, then I’ll just have to search for another therapist. But that’s okay, I’ve got a lot of experience in that department. Plus I’m much more guarded now than I was with the ex-therapist. I will never let a near-stranger that far in, ever again. I did learn that lesson, at least. So my criteria of what I need in a therapist is vastly different now too. I don’t need someone to idolize, just someone to listen.
This fortress that I’ve created around my heart is also a reason why I am questioning the need for therapy at this point in my life. Maybe I’ve gotten all that I need from this experience. The new therapist helped me safely navigate my way through the shit-storm, and now that I’m on the other side of all of that, I’m not sure what else it is that I want to gain from therapy. I’m sure I could keep going each week and we could just talk about that. Or maybe it would be better to use this time for something else – to read or write or go to a yoga class or go for a walk. Or just sit quietly and breathe. I know that I’m not capable of opening myself up to some deep analysis, not right now anyways. Maybe at some time in the future, when more time has passed and I have more perspective. It’s still too soon for any of that. I still struggle with how to once again trust in the very process of therapy that hurt me so deeply. I may have survived and come out the other side, but not without scars that may take a long time to fully heal, if at all.
So while the hurt is mostly gone, I still hold a lot of regret about my relationship with the ex-therapist. I wish I had not told her so much. I wish she wasn’t still walking this earth in possession of my secrets. I wish I had not so easily trusted her or believed in her false promises. I wish I had not been so easily influenced and fallen under her spell. I wish I had not sacrificed and risked so much of my own self. I still struggle to reconcile the real nature of our relationship; it couldn’t have been that important or meaningful if it was so easily discarded, once it no longer served her purpose or needs and instead became a distraction and an energy-drain.
Some schools of therapy suggest that the goal of therapy is to learn to internalize the voice of your therapist, and that once you do so, then you can leave. I disagree with this notion, and knowing what I know now, actually find the idea unsettling. I don’t want the voice of any therapist taking up residence in my head! On the contrary, I want to be able to hear my own voice and to be able to follow that guidance. One of the many problems with the ex-therapist is that her voice completely drowned out my own, and that’s how I lost my way. I’ve spent much of the last year finding my own voice again. I’ve finally exorcised the spirit of the ex-therapist that made it so hard to see clearly, and now that her spirit is expelled, I actually have room in my life for more important things.
As it is, I stayed far longer than I had planned. When I started to see the new therapist, about this time last year, I told myself to give it to Spring Break. Which I did, and then I told myself to give it to the summer and see how the sabbatical break felt. And by the fall, I no longer felt the need to impose some kind of deadline and maybe finally allowed myself to settle into the relationship. But now, as we round the bend of an entire year, something has shifted. As I look out onto the horizon, I see minefields of work commitments that will conflict with my standing appointment. I sense a need to take a break, stand on my own two feet for a bit, experience life without therapy.
I feel like I’m in a good place with a clearer vision than I’ve had in a long time. Is this newfound sense of ease because of the work of therapy? Am I foolish to walk away now, just because the latest crisis feels mostly behind me? I know that I don’t need therapy to survive, but I’m even questioning if I still need it just to make the daily grind of life a little more bearable. It suddenly feels like an indulgent, “nice-to-have” experience and I’m questioning if I even need that anymore. I don’t know how much more I want to invest – financially, emotionally, energetically – if I just don’t feel committed to the process, or at least a long-term analytic process. I’ve lost my faith in the ability of therapy to enact any real change. I know what I need to do. Years of analysis won’t change or speed up that reality.
One blog reader, who lived through the same experience with her therapist, offered this encouragement almost exactly one year ago: “In less time than you may believe now, you will not be in this much pain.” I really struggled to believe that at the time, but she was exactly right. And not only am I in far less pain, but I’m still standing. I’ve been reminded many times this year that life can knock you down, but each time I’ve been able to get up and keep going.
Don’t you know I’m still standing better than I ever did
Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid
I’m still standing after all this time
Picking up the pieces of my life without you on my mind
I’m still standing yeah yeah yeah
I’m still standing yeah yeah yeah
~ Elton John, “I’m Still Standing”
If I do manage to finally quit therapy, one thing I will really miss is the chalkboard sign outside the nearby coffee shop. Each week, there is some insightful saying written on just the back of the board – so I only see it as I leave the office and head back to work. I have survived and maybe it’s now time to make that new ending. Besides, I figure I can still use my appointment time to walk down to that coffee shop and take in the free wisdom offered on the board. Maybe that would be just as good of use of my time and energy right now.
Of course I brought all of this up to my therapist. We’re going to keep talking about it.