(or The Ghost of a Therapist Past)
I was awoken the other morning by the most disturbing dream. It was one of those dreams that felt so very real that it took me a few minutes to realize that it was only, thankfully, just a dream. So here goes:
I was at my old summer camp, or a place that felt and reminded me of camp. I was there with a group of cousins and their spouses. Actually, they are my first cousins once removed, the first cousins of my mother, but due to some wacky birthing patterns on that side of the family, I am closer in age to those cousins than my own actual first cousins. There was also a group from KAAN – the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network – at this camp-like retreat, and it became clear that the space had been double-booked, and we were forced to share this communal space for our respective gatherings. We were tolerating each other – and each other’s presence – but only barely. Suddenly, I said out loud, to no one in particular, “I never thought I’d live long enough to actually feel home-sick, to actually want to go home rather than be a camp.” To which, the ex-therapist, who was sitting in a rocking chair across the room, replied “but you did” in the most snarky and cruel tone.
Perhaps I should stop and explain. The ex-therapist has 2 adopted children from Korea, which is why my unconscious put my family gathering in conflict with this KAAN meet-up. That part makes some sense to me. What I do not understand, at all, is why the ex-therapist is still showing up in my dreams and what in the world I can do to expel her, once and for all, from my unconsciousness! And I don’t have any idea of why my unconscious needed to send me this message or what it even means. Was the ex-therapist making a statement on the length or quality of my life as compared to her own? Was she a ghost or spirit in the dream? And why was she and her chosen family intruding upon my own family gathering at my beloved summer camp of all places?
And then a few days later, I had another dream:
I was in the ex-therapist’s office. I knew this even though it didn’t look like her office at all. This office was falling apart, with plaster coming off the ceiling, leaving visible holes above, and the general state of the office being in disarray. I had this plastic Tupperware container with me, filled with relics of my childhood past. I don’t know why I had this with me, on this day, but I did. I didn’t bring it to my session with the intent of showing her anything inside, but since I had it with me, I decided to share. Later, as I looked through the box on my own, I discovered that it was filled with old programs from conferences and pictures of other people. There was nothing inside that was sentimental or even really about me at all.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am terrible at interpreting dreams. I usually have no idea what the dream means or what to do with the messages within. And these, in particular, really bothered me. Not so much by the content but by the fact that the dreams happened at all.
When I awoke, both times, I just felt disturbed and confused. Why, after all this time, is the ex-therapist still appearing in my dreams? And why, in particular, is she showing up now?
It is not lost on me that the beginning of the end with the ex-therapist occurred almost exactly two years ago. In some ways that feels like a blip of time, and in other ways it feels like an eternity. I can’t believe that it’s been two years since it all came crashing down, and I can’t believe all that has happened and transpired and changed in my own life since then. I can’t believe that our paths so diverged so quickly and that I’m still here, nursing an oozing wound, two years later. I guess I thought I would have moved on by now. But I also know that conventional wisdom tells us that after a breakup, it takes half of the length of a relationship to get over it. So by that measure, it should take me two years to get over the ex-therapist, which puts me at just about the present day.
Early on in our work together, I remember asking the ex-therapist if she ever dreamed about me. She told me “no” and explained that she wouldn’t expect to dream of a client but that a client dreaming of a therapist is quite normal, and that often the therapist is really just a symbol or stand-in for another person, for example, a mother or mother-figure.
I bought this explanation then, but I’m not sure it rings true now. Firstly, I had never dreamed of a therapist before or since. My new therapist is just fine, but we will never have a relationship that will allow her to start showing up in my dreams – of this I am quite certain. And if she ever does show up there, then I’m done with therapy immediately, without pause or hesitation or regret. That boundary over into the unconscious is one I intend to preserve for myself, alone, this time around.
Then there’s the fact that she actually did dream of me – and told me so. She dreamt that I blew myself up, suicide-bomber-like. She described it as “unbelievably heartbreaking” and feeling “shaken by the experience of you being gone even though you are here.”
As I was thinking about my own recent dreams, this one of the ex-therapist came back to me in full force. So her answer to my question should have been “not yet.” I don’t think she had dreamed of me when I first asked the question, but she did later on and furthermore, she chose to share at least one of those dreams with me. I’m not sure why. It probably would have been better if she had kept that one to herself.
So here we are, two years’ later and it’s me who is still shaken by the experience of her being gone even though she is here. It has been incredibly hard knowing that she has gone back to work and has returned to former clients and taken on new ones too, but that she felt the need to abandon me. And I get angry thinking that she gets to walk this earth without remorse or consequence for the harm she caused.
My new therapist says that the only way to expel the ex-therapist from my psyche, short of engaging in some shamanistic ritual (which I have halfheartedly considered) is to talk about it. I realize that I have spent very little of the last two years talking about the ex-therapist. Once the initial shock wore off, I just buried most of the hurt and anger and rejection. And I think I’ve been resistant to using therapy to process a bad therapy. I get angry that I have to spend my time, energy and money rectifying a harm caused to me by someone who promised to take care of me, someone who should have known better. I sometimes want to send the bills for my current therapy to the ex-therapist, just like I wanted to send the bills for the ex-therapist to my parents. It is history repeating itself and I fear I will never break the cycle.
And part of me doesn’t want to give her any more airtime. I try not to just write about the ex-therapist and all the ways she hurt me, but I guess it is bound to come out in my writing since I’m not processing it anywhere else.
One of the problems, I’ve come to realize, is that when I lost my therapist, I also lost all of the good feelings I had about therapy as a process. This has made it very hard to fully engage in this space. I’m working much harder to keep my therapist at an arms-length distance, never letting her get very close, than I am at actually processing anything.
Of course, I try to remind myself that what I had with the ex-therapist wasn’t “therapy” and much of it was very hurtful and harmful, as it turns out. But I get so confused and conflicted here, in this space, trying to reconcile just what it was, actually. And sometimes I catch a part of myself wishing that I was one of the few who survived, one of the few granted permission to stay. And I’m not sure why. Stay for what? And then I just get mad. The ex-therapist unleashed a very young, very hurt part of myself, and then when that part started acting out like the very young child that she was, the ex-therapist decided it was too much for her to handle. She unleashed the beast within but then wasn’t capable or willing to deal with the outcome.
I have to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t because of me, or anything that I did. It was entirely due to the ex-therapist’s narcissism and negligence and inability to adhere to any acceptable frame or model of therapy. So why do I feel, even for a fraction of a second, that I would want to go back to that? Knowing what I know now and how her approach is unorthodox and unethical, why is there still a pull? I think sometimes I hang onto the very few, very small things that did feel right. Things that should be completely overshadowed by all the things that were wrong, but yet still manage to flicker to life from time to time.
Most of me is very grateful that I was released from her grip before any more damage could be done, that I was able to get away. And another part of me is still very angry that she flaunted all normal therapeutic boundaries and that she used me in service of her own needs. And a part of me feels rejected and cast out and abandoned. But there is this one part that still longs to return to the mirage, which I know isn’t real but still looks so delicious even though I know that it’s sand that will only pull me under and suffocate me.
I guess one of the things that the ex-therapist was able to provide was a place to breathe. It’s ironic because she took far more from me than she gave back, so I’m not sure the cost of those deep breaths was worth it, but it was intoxicating and invigorating and restorative. I think that’s what I crave sometimes and I haven’t found a place or way to “fill up again” in a manner that doesn’t come along with destructive, harmful side effects. I want that piece of the relationship without the rest of the garbage. And I know this isn’t possible. That it sounds like a have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too wishful scenario. Maybe I could get this with the new therapist, if only I dared enough to open up and let her in. But I’m far too scared and my heart is far too hurt to risk that. I know it’s always a risk to open up your heart to someone, but I guess I’ve gone into lock-down, especially where therapy is concerned, and I’m not sure anything will ever change that.
So why is it that the ex-therapist still takes up so much space in my psyche? Why does she still show up in my dreams? Why do I never ever think about my current therapist in-between sessions, but thoughts of the ex-therapist wander in, uninvited, unannounced way more than I want, way more than I want to admit? Is it that she is just casting some voodoo spell over me? Is it that I can sense her presence being close? We do pass through the same train station, twice a day each weekday. Sometimes I even catch a train headed in her direction before transferring to my final destination. I often think of what I will say or do if we happen to bump into each other, unexpectedly, coincidentally crossing paths. Do I engage? Do I make polite conversation? Do I turn the other way and run as fast as possible? Do I unleash all the rage and fury I feel inside because why should I have to carry this burden while she gets to float around this world without even an ounce of awareness or acceptance of the hurt she has caused?
I’ve been thinking about that ill-fated discovery of the ex-therapist’s blog and how that one small blip in time had such a profound impact on my life and affected so much that has happened since then. And here’s the thing – you never know in the moment that such a transformational shift has happened. It was just a blog. I had no idea the course it would set me on.
But it profoundly impacted me by manipulating and distorting (well actually, fucking with), my own sanity, sense of self-worth, morals, values, beliefs, goals, energy – and by extension, my marriage and my capacity to be fully present for my children. I think that is what really angers me the most – the energy and moments stolen from my wife and children that I will never get back. This has really hit me hard lately, as I watch my children growing up before my eyes much faster than I would like. The time seems to go so quickly, the changes coming so fast. I long to go back to the days when they were still really young and just hold them again and savor every sleep-deprived moment of it. Sometimes I get a glimpse of that lost time courtesy of a Facebook memory and, while grateful that the moment was caught with a camera, I’m saddened that I lost the chance to take it all in at the time.
So I don’t know if I’ve missed the precious moments of my children’s childhoods because I was too exhausted and overworked to take it in at the time. That is part of it. But I also fear I missed some of it because I was preoccupied with energies that were neither self-serving nor self-actualizing.
Some of the things the ex-therapist took from me I can get back. Some I can’t.
It was also through my relationship with the ex-therapist that I was introduced to a whole host of people whom I would have rather never known. Any introduction was just a narcissistic extension of the ex-therapist and all of those severed connections of bad relationships are just additional burdens of one bad choice that I continue to bear. It’s not just the ex-therapist that I have to shake away but any and everything attached to her. I wish I could permanently banish her – past, present, future. Maybe I should consider some kind of exorcism to try to rid her from both my consciousness and dreams. I’d actually happily accept a memory curse, my own personal “obliviate,” and get rid of her altogether.
Sometimes I get to see the actual search term that led someone to my blog, and then I reverse Google search that same term to see what else is out there on that same topic. One such internet scavenger hunt led to this refreshingly honest post from Jane Edwards writing in Contemporary Psychotherapy. She at least had the decency to admit that once she became ill, also with a unique presentation of a common infection, she just stopped caring for her clients.
I felt overwhelmed with feeling both responsible and worried about what my clients would make of me having all this time off. Competing with these concerns was the shameful acknowledgement that actually I didn’t want to go back to work – I couldn’t face it. I’m sure I am a typical therapist, in that an interest in and compassion for other people is central to how I see myself. So it was strange indeed to observe how little I cared about anything much beyond my immediate family, and if I’m really honest, I didn’t much care for them either. I literally had no energy for anyone else. I didn’t have the capacity, or shockingly, the desire, to care for my clients. I wasn’t fit for purpose.
I think that would have been a relieving message to have received two years ago, instead of being strung along with false hopes and promises. And interestingly enough, Jane only lost one client through her illness and even the clients with the most “complex presentations” were allowed to stay. These clients “were the least interested in what was wrong with me. They were much more preoccupied with the impact of me not being around for them and what that meant – which of course is as it should be.”
I’m sure that the ex-therapist would have lumped me into the “complex presentation” category, even though that was one of her making. Perhaps that is another thing that I am still so angry about – that I was never even given the opportunity or chance to show that I could adapt, adjust, accommodate. Maybe it’s because I was cast as this super-needy client with no ability to empathize. Whereas in reality, I was deeply concerned about her as a person and far less concerned about me. But I was never allowed to show that.
I guess what I really want, what I am still stupidly holding out hope for, is an apology. I want her to actually admit that she fucked up. That her direct actions hurt me and caused me pain she could have otherwise prevented me from enduring. Of course, I want the same thing from my parents, mainly my mother, but I’ve come to accept that the chances of that happening are null. Maybe sometimes I still cling to the illusion that the ex-therapist was “enlightened” or at least far more “self-aware” than she actually was. I guess I had hoped her own training and analysis would let her see and acknowledge her own faults and attempt to make things right. My mother, on the other hand, can’t see her own shadow, even when you shine the brightest light on it. But she isn’t a social worker and hasn’t spent a single minute in analysis. I guess I stupidly expected more from the ex-therapist and am destined to live forever with the regret of my own choices and a complete lack of closure to this chapter of my life. Of course, I think it would take a sincere apology, and that’s what I know will never happen.
In thinking about why I was dreaming of the ex-therapist now, I caught myself wondering if she was still dreaming of me. I sincerely hope the answer is “no,” but it is possible, I suppose, and may also explain why I find it so hard to shake the thoughts of her. I’m sure there’s unfinished business in her psyche too, but I just wish her spirit and energy would leave me alone.
So I don’t know why she appeared in my dream, mocking me for living long enough to move on. Or why I am dreaming of sharing parts of my past, coupled with the wishful twinge of hope that I didn’t actually share anything real or important, as we sit in a falling apart office. Maybe she’s about to relapse and her make-believe world is finally going to come crashing down. Maybe that’s my own psyche’s wishful thinking. I guess only time will tell.
I’m tired of being haunted by this particular ghost, one of pain and regret and longing and mixed-up emotions and hope for a different outcome, over which I have no control or influence. It’s been two years and I’m still at a loss as to how to banish her – time hasn’t done the trick, I seem unable to use therapy (and remain unconvinced that it’s the answer anyways) and I don’t have the discipline of mind to keep her out of my daydreams or nightmares. So how do you banish the ghost of a therapist past? Or will I ever? Is this some kind of penance for my mistakes – to have to carry her, and the memory of bad choices, forever? Maybe my unconscious will try again to send whatever message I’m meant to receive, but I hope it picks a different symbol next time.