(or 35 Days Down, 14 Days to Go…)
I find it hard to believe, but here we are, already at the end of August. Yes, August, that glorious month of the year when shrinks everywhere go off and do something else. What, I’m not sure. When I asked my own therapist what she does during this mysterious August sabbatical, she replied “oh, it changes each year.” Which is a typical shrinky-response but does not, actually, answer my question. Who knows. Perhaps she is off relaxing on a tropical island or attending an international conference or making lesson plans for the fall semester or catching up on sleep. Maybe she just sits in her office and basks in the quietness and emptiness of it all. I honestly have no idea and, as she is not giving any hints, I guess I must just let my imagination run wild.
After I asked her what she would be doing this August, and after she gave her non-response, she then inquired “do you have any feelings about that?” I simply said “no.” Firstly, I’m not going to spend any more time in therapy talking about any feelings that I have because of something that a therapist did or did not say or do. For me, that shifts too much of the focus from me to them, and maybe I’m still squeamish at that prospect. It’s much better to keep everything squarely focused on me less I get pulled into someone else’s shit. And secondly, and more importantly, the feelings that I did have were actually ones of relief and anticipation.
So I said “no, I don’t have any feelings.” And then “I think we all need a break, every now and again.” And that’s the truth. I need a break from her and therapy probably as much, if not more so, than she needs a break from me and her work.
The break last August showed me that I can actually get through life just fine without a therapist. The break this year has reinforced, and even magnified, this reality many times over. I wonder how many clients choose not to come back after the August break, realizing that it is a “nice to have” and not actually a “need.”
For me, therapy is a luxury that I get to bask in because I have both the time and financial resources to do so. Many are not so lucky, and I am keenly aware of this. Many people who actually need therapy aren’t able to get access to it, or are not able to get access to good therapy. It is also not lost on me at just how “well” I am now that I am no longer in contact with the ex-therapist. It’s amazing to me that once-a-week therapy is actually more than enough.
In her break-up email to me, the ex-therapist wrote this: “I’m not going to be able to give you the kind of consistency, attunement, and investment that you need and deserve in order to get better.” The phrase “get better” really gnaws at me, even after all this time. I find it interesting that not one of the “professionals” the ex-therapist ever referred me to in order to “get better” even considered, for even just a moment, that perhaps the very reason that I was “unwell” was because the ex-therapist was making me that way. No one even suggested that maybe she was the source of much of my distress. So I’m really fascinated by just how “well” and functioning I am without her. And I wonder why no one else could see this in the moment and why it went so undetected for so long. Not that I would have listened to any such suggestions, but I am curious as to why it was so easy for others to join in and prop up this projection that I was “unwell” and needed to “get better.”
So I’m enjoying this break and not having to make up excuses in order to skip a week, which I’ve felt the need to do a few times this year. I’m sure I could be honest and just say “I need a break,” but I know that will entail a lot of questions and we will have to delve into my reasons and fantasies and desires. And it actually pretty simple – I just want a break every now and again. From what exactly, I don’t know. It’s not like the sessions are intense and overwhelming or that we are working on the depths of my psyche. But still, sometimes I just need a week without therapy. Usually I naturally get such a break due to holidays or vacations or work commitments – but there have been long stretches with no such “bump” in the scheduling. So I’ve taken to putting one in when I need it. Maybe I just want to break up the monotony. Maybe I’m continuing to play with exploring what it’s like to not be in therapy. Maybe I’m just tired. Maybe I fear this is all just a big waste of time and money.
Earlier this year I actually tried to quit therapy. I halfheartedly tried to go. I announced my intentions but then I found out that there was a waiting list and that if I left, I’d lose my coveted lunchtime appointment and might even have to wait for an opening should I choose to return. Well, that got me thinking. And actually, this information rather caught me off guard. Never in a million years did I imagine that my therapist was so busy and in such demand that there would be a waiting list! Of course, she has never told me exactly how many clients she sees and I don’t think it’s very many, which may explain why there is a wait-list. Even still, I guess I thought I could walk away and take a break and that I’d be able to come back if I discovered that I had made a terrible mistake. I assumed that her small practice would mean that I could leave without risking much.
So it was enough to give me pause and make me reconsider. Even in deciding to stay, I don’t think it has budged my commitment level. I’ve hardly been able to embrace my inner-Girl Interrupted:
“Whatever l was, l knew there was only one way back to the world and that was to use the place to talk. So l saw the great and wonderful Dr. Wick three times a week and l let her hear every thought in my head.” ~ Susanna Kaysen
Right before the break, I caught myself using my therapy appointment as a bookmark in time, as in “oh, this will happen before my next appointment.” And I perked up at this because I used to do this all the time. With the ex-therapist I was always marking time in my head by counting the days – maybe even hours! – until our next session. Therapy had become this way to mark the passage of time. Life could be measured, even calibrated, by its proximity to my next therapy appointment. So when I going to therapy twice a week, this meant that I saw the ex-therapist every 3-4 days, and with hindsight and perspective and a lot of distance (of course!), I see how this appeared to be “supportive” but in reality created so much false dependency that I couldn’t cope with a break of only 2 weeks. I used to blame myself for this inability to cope, which I attributed to my own short-comings. I now see that the situation was manipulated against my own self-control and I was left powerless and defenseless. When I next see my therapist, it will have been after a 7-week break. Yes, that’s right, seven. This would have been unheard of and absolutely unfathomable to endure before.
I actually had many alternate titles for this blog, including “Three Cheers for the Summer Sabbatical” or “Seven Week Stretch” or even “The World Does Not Revolve Around Therapy!” Of all the things I’ve had to wrestle with in the wake of the ex-therapist, my relationship with- and reaction to- time, within the therapeutic construct, has loomed large. In moving away from a “therapeutic” relationship that, at times, felt all-consuming and wholly-dependent, to one that has been far more measured and boundaried and restrained, I’ve really had to re-examine my own feelings and responses to time, both in and out of session, then and now.
My entire view of therapeutic time and breaks in that time has undergone a complete 180-degree transformation. No longer is time this stranglehold on me or my ability to be in relation to myself or my therapist. It has been one of the most freeing aspects of the break-up and this newfound perspective has allowed me to breathe again. Not surprisingly, I hadn’t even realized that I had been holding my breath. But I had, because it was an unhealthy relationship and also probably because I rightly intuited that it was all going to come crashing down. This business of living is a lot easier when you can take deep, wholesome, cleansing breaths.
And here is the most surprising thing: in the past 5 weeks, I have not missed therapy or my therapist. I have not once noticed the session that I did not go to each week. I had planned to set aside the time to write and tend to this neglected blog, but instead my calendar filled up with work-related meetings and commitments. So my “therapy-time” passed me by and I didn’t even notice it, much less miss it. And it wasn’t until trying to come up with a catchy name for this blog that I even noticed the countdown – the number of days passed, the number still to go. I guess there’s no need to take stock of what you don’t miss in the first place! Although I will admit, I did not experience this complete “release” from therapy last year. This is definitely a newfound feeling of being at peace with time in the here-and-now, breaks included.
As I left the office after my last session, I was struck by this awareness: it is very easy to come and go from my appointments, and that far from loathing the break, I am embracing the pause. I used to dread leaving the office after seeing the ex-therapist, often needing to linger in the waiting room before finally being able to leave. How refreshing it is now to seamlessly come and go, with nothing pulling or holding me back. I can slip into the office, and 45 minutes later, slip out just as easily. Same goes with the summer break. We’ve taken our leave, quietly, unassumingly, and will slip right back into our routine in 2 weeks’ time, likely both better for the restorative, reflective time apart. There is no angst, no upset. Who knows, maybe I will even be able to “let her hear every thought in my head.” Then again, maybe not.
I’m not at all foolish enough to think that my decisions around therapy arise from a place of self-actualization or enlightenment. More likely, it stems from a place of ruthless self-protection of my mind, heart and soul. It is easy to imagine a therapy-free life because I am only minimally committed to this process and this person who now assumes the role of “therapist.” A part of me has already steeled myself to the very real possibilities that she may get sick or decide to retire or that my insurance may run out or something else out of my control may happen to bring this to an otherwise abrupt end. And I’m actually okay with that. I like this new therapist and I feel connected to her but I am not in any way, shape or form attached. Nor do I plan to be. And that’s the best I can do for now. That may be the best that I can ever do. Which maybe isn’t actually a very good recipe for a productive “therapeutic alliance” but that’s where I am right now. Which is also why I am savoring this expansive therapeutic void.
I’m not sure I will be returning any less ambivalent to therapy than I was over a month ago. Maybe I am mostly driven by curiosity. Or perhaps it’s really fear of the unknown. Or maybe I hold out a sliver of hope that something good can come out of this if I give it enough time. Or maybe it’s just a nice space that I am willing to claim for myself since it’s there, but that I don’t have to fear losing or having it ripped away.
So I am going to keep showing up, maybe even being more forthright in naming and claiming breaks when I need to, marking time by the revolution of the Earth around the sun, just like everyone else.