Good and Bad, Stirred In Together

Since the rupture and the failed apology, Nikki has been gentle with me. There have been a lot of silences in sessions, and I resisted a lot of her questions with simple one-word answers, but it didn’t provoke her into seeming frustrated or defensive. Session after session, she’s been able to reflect that I’m feeling wary, and that it’s really hard to come to sessions when I don’t trust her to validate my experience.

I think the extent of the disconnect between us really hit home when she found that I’d been to see a new psychiatrist twice but was too afraid of invalidation to even mention it to her. She seemed almost…sorrowful. Not in a self-pitying or melodramatic way, but just genuinely sad to realise that hard stuff was happening and I’d been really struggling, and coping on my own because I didn’t feel like I could talk to her about it. She’s been emphasising over and over that she wants to listen to me, that she really wants to understand how I’m feeling, and when she says “Talk to me?” my heart flutters with a timid kind of hope. I’ve felt much more connected to her. The day I took Lily back to the animal shelter, I wanted to talk to her, so I called her. I wanted to reach out, so I just called, for the first time – without texting first to check it was okay, or being excessively boundaried or weird about it.

Some things have been clumps of good and bad, all stirred in together. She’s so eager to be validating that she sometimes talks over me, or over-empathises to the extent that it comes across as false and ridiculous (no, actually, misplacing my $10 sunglasses was not “gutting“). One day when she was really encouraging me to open up about something that worried me about going home for Christmas, and give her a chance to start earning back some trust, I looked at the clock, and told her “I don’t think I can explain it in five minutes“. I never did manage to share it, but she let me stay an extra 20 minutes in the hope that I would; it touches me, that she really is making an effort, and it concerns me, that she just can’t or doesn’t hold boundaries even when it isn’t a crisis.

In the last week before Christmas, I was in a pretty hopeless space, with the I wish I was dead mantra playing in my head, and I didn’t have any words for what I was feeling. She got out pencils and our art pads, and encouraged me to draw it instead, but I couldn’t figure out how. The image that kept coming up was a memory of being fourteen years old, sitting on the floor of the family bathroom, cutting myself and crying, repeating “I don’t want to do this any more“. I picked a red pencil, but then just held it, rubbing my fingernail over it repetitively, trying to self-soothe, I suppose. After 10 minutes or so of silence, Nikki looked up at me from her seat on the floor, and held out her hand for it.

I don’t like you having the red one,” she said softly. “Too many connotations.

And that’s lovely. It’s so caring – she cares about me. Is it helpful, though, to have a therapist who expresses discomfort with the thought of me self-harming? Who wants to take back the colour I chose as the most authentic expression of my emotion in the moment, instead of trying to explore it with me?

(Am I focusing way too much into a caring gesture that didn’t cause me any actual distress or inhibition?)

She called me the next day to check in, and I cried on the phone. I didn’t even put it on mute so that she couldn’t hear. I felt very young and sad, and she felt safe. When I mentioned that I’d fainted earlier in the day but hadn’t told any of my colleagues and had stayed at the office until 6pm, she scolded “Reanna!“, then let out a surprised laugh. “Oh god, that was mummy…mummy-ish…using your full name when you’re in trouble.

I get a goofy little grin on my face whenever I think of it. I soak up every bit of affection I can, but the times when she’s openly and reflexively maternal are my favourite. It’s a surprise, given where we started. Back when we first started working together, she would talk about how we’re both adults in an adult relationship, and cautioned that we wanted to avoid getting into a parent-child dynamic, and I felt miserable, because I don’t feel like an adult most of the time. Hell, most of the time I don’t feel like I’m old enough to cross the street by myself, and an “adult relationship” seemed to signal a lack of affection and nurturing that I was (and am) desperate for.

I don’t know what’s changed, or if anything has changed. Maybe if she stopped and reflected, she’d be horrified that she’s admitted to having maternal feelings for me and she’d lock it down. Maybe as our relationship has evolved she’s felt comfortable working in a different way to how she usually does. And that gives me hope, because maybe if she was able to change in that way, she’ll also be able to shift away from the ‘positive psychology’ stuff, and be better at hearing and validating me.

On December 23, two days later, it all went downhill.

Neither of us did anything terribly egregious; we just weren’t attuned. Or actually, I think I attuned to her mood, and that meant I didn’t talk about the things that I needed to, and I ended up feeling alone and abandoned.

I think the first mistake was deciding to go for a walk in the park, instead of having a normal session in her office. The sun was shining, and Nikki was cheerful, and we strolled along casually chatting about her new sunglasses not quite fitting properly, and the reports she’s been procrastinating writing – it felt like a conversation between friends, and at one point she commented “I think this counselling is going in the wrong direction!“. I’d been deeply suicidal the night before, and expecting the kind of warm, attuned care we’d had on the phone two days earlier, but I quickly formed the impression that she was looking to keep things light, and so I didn’t bring it up. It felt so incongruous with the setting and the tone that it didn’t feel like I was allowed to talk about it.

For most of the first half of the session, we spoke about somebody I consider a second mother, who has been closely involved in my life since the day I was born. Her husband, who has always been there forever, is dying of MND, and I’m helping them with something deeply emotional and important, but this was the first time I’d ever mentioned them to Nikki.

With good intentions, Nikki commented that she’s making bad decisions that make her role as a carer harder and increase the pressure on my family, who are helping to care for him. By the end of the conversation, I was feeling really defensive of her, and was visualising standing between her and Nikki, physically pushing Nikki away. I knew that fundamentally, Nikki was expressing concern about her wellbeing, but in doing so she was criticising her. I’m very protective and very loyal, and there was no chance I was going to “side” with Nikki.

The enemy of my friend is my enemy, and so she became unsafe. I completely shut down, and refused to talk to her. It wasn’t completely out of petulance – I did think about explaining what was happening, but I was also aware that she hadn’t really said anything inappropriate and that my feelings of defensiveness would pass. I was afraid that if I was honest and we talked about it, she’d say something awful that would actually upset me, and we’d be left with a huge rupture right before Christmas.

So I shut up, but she didn’t. She tried to draw me out with the two hardest topics (her pregnancy, and the psychiatrist), which seemed colossally idiotic to me, then pushed me to “at least have a witter” with her, because “come on, it’s Christmas” (fuck off: I’m not here to entertain you). I stayed silent all the way back to the office, gave her a Christmas card (with an effort of will), wished her a merry Christmas, and left. The next day, Christmas Eve, I was flying home.

For a few hours, I felt like there was no way I could hold the discomfort until I next saw her, and that Christmas was going to be ruined because the distress I was feeling would block out any possibility of joy. I was completely wrong, of course. I was happy to be home with my family, and when I’m happy my heart opens, and I didn’t feel any aversion to her any more.

Maybe all of this is completely beside the point. If my connection with Nikki is solid and positive, I feel like therapy is going well, but that’s total nonsense. That might be true of tea and sympathy, but I need more than that. A solid connection is a prerequisite to good therapy, but it’s not enough by itself.

For right now, in this moment, though: it’s enough.

Good and Bad, Stirred In Together

I Am Not A Forgiving Person

Nikki apologised, and nothing is better.

I wanted her to throw herself on the ground and grovel, I think. Failing that, I wanted her to be solidly, repeatedly sorry in a self-reflective way. I wanted a meā culpā. Not much to ask, right?

That’s not what I got. I got “I am sorry that I didn’t validate your experience“, in a tone that might have been emphatic or might have been defensive. I got “I mean, I thought I apologised when we spoke about it last time, but obviously it didn’t come across” and “I can see I didn’t pick up on the distress and it’s important I do that“.

On the surface, that seems fine, and it was, I guess. But it left me hollow. It was too detached, I think. Too therapist-y. I mean, she didn’t even attribute the distress to me: it was just ‘the distress‘, like it was floating out in space somewhere.

I can see now that you were really distressed and I didn’t pick up on that, even though I should have – I’m really sorry.

That’s what I wanted.

Then it was “Can we take it as a real positive that you felt you could tell me that? [i.e. share the letter]“. Like it was showing how solid and trusting our relationship is, instead of showing that I’d lost most of my faith in her, and was open to the idea of terminating therapy with her.

What probably upsets me the most, in hindsight, is when she was launching into explaining her ‘agenda’ for the last session, and she commented as a disclaimer “This doesn’t undermine the fact that I didn’t validate the emotion in what you said, and I’ve apologised for that”.

It just sounded so begrudging. That’s not quite the right word, but…it was like, ‘I’ve apologised once, that part of the conversation is closed, we’re moving on to something else now”. 

Why not “This doesn’t undermine the fact that I didn’t respond in a helpful way, and I’m sorry for that – I really am. The agenda underlying some of the things I said last session was…“?  Are genuine, non-defensive apologies usually rationed so strictly?

I can’t help comparing it to the apology my last therapist Anna gave me, when we had a rift earlier this year. It’s been firmly established that Anna was not a great therapist, and I know that comparing only ever ends in tears, but I can’t help it. Anna was present and genuine, and her apology didn’t give me those prickles of frustration in my chest. Nikki’s did.

She was a bit defensive of her good intentions to start with, but to her credit, she stuck with me, encouraging me to keep trying:

“It’s really important to tell me how you feel. I’m listening to it and I’m taking it on board, and I’m learning in my really slow way about it. I’m still not getting it though, I can feel it – I’m still not getting exactly what you’re saying to me, and I need to get it. I want to get it right.”

It took some time, but we got to a place where it felt okay – she told me openly that she’d offered so much because she’d really wanted me to know how much she wanted to support me and be there for me, but that she knew she’d made a mistake and put me at risk, and she was able to reflect on our last session and recognise that she’d been feeling guilty about not being able to follow through on the crisis plan and she’d overcompensated by telling me about the limits over and over again. And then she said, with tears in her eyes:

“It’s hard to stuff up, because I know how hard it is for you. I don’t want to hurt you more. But if I do, I want to do my best not to stuff up again. Having you calling me on it is a good thing.”

The thing is, my unrelenting standards and hyper-criticalness don’t just apply to myself – they apply to other people too. I’m picking apart everything Nikki said, and I’m filtering it through a critical lens. If I felt positive about what she said, I could probably package the exact same words and sell them to you in a way that made her sound like the most enlightened therapist in the world.

It just still hurts. I’m mad at her because I don’t want to be mad at her, and she didn’t say the perfect thing that would make us okay again. I can’t believe it’s been over two weeks and I’m still crying about this – but I am.

I don’t know what the learning opportunity I’m supposed to be taking from this is. To learn to accept that things won’t always be exactly the way I want them, and to let it go and move forward anyway? Or to learn to let go of relationships that hurt me more than they help me, and move on without them?

I Am Not A Forgiving Person

A New Ending To The Letter

I don’t know whether this is any better – it might come off as equally ambivalent and not really add anything helpful. Maybe it’s even more confrontational. I like having you guys in there, and it feels more authentic to share the actual process, instead of just editing the original version, but maybe it sounds like I’m trying to gang up on her. I don’t know. I’m not sure if I even know my own name any more.

I’m trying to mentally prepare myself for her quitting, to picture myself walking out on Tuesday knowing that I’ll never see her again. But I don’t think I’ve actually accepted it as a realistic possibility, and if she actually does, it’s going to come as a horrible shock.

*continued – see previous post*

That was supposed to be the end of the letter. I posted it online, and I asked my friends for their feedback – too harsh? Too blame-y? Too ultimatum-y? As always, they were protective, and affirming, and insightful. DV talked about good therapist repairs, and said “I think that what’s underneath it is the therapist’s own confidence and inner strength – their belief in themselves that they are good enough and they’ll find a way through, and that it doesn’t diminish them in any way to recognise their misattunement and to apologise for not meeting their client’s needs at any given time.”

I really like that – I agree. I don’t think it diminishes you at all, to say you’re sorry. Probably the opposite, actually.

Some of them think the letter is perfect the way it is. Others think there’s something missing.

I worry that you are almost inviting her to quit,” Q says. “She might even read it as though you want her to because you are dissatisfied but don’t want to make that decision. I wonder if you could instead invite her to work with you to create something that can be mutually acceptable.”

Meh. I don’t really want to do that…at least, I don’t want to do it more explicitly than I already have. It feels like too much of a risk. I really can’t predict how you’re going to respond to this, and if I invite you to work with me and you do decide that I would be better off seeing someone else, I’m going to feel a whole lot more stupid and naïve and ashamed.

We’ve put too much blood and sweat and tears into this to terminate over a misunderstanding, though. I know you can and have responded in a helpful way, like this time:

Thank you so much for sending this. I know it’s really hard for you to communicate difficult stuff like this. I want to reassure you that I understand you are trying REALLY hard to communicate in sessions and I get that you have come a long way from the early days of Aisha.

So, to be clear: I am not inviting you to quit. I’m inviting you to let go of the need to defend and to be ‘right’, and of the urge to explain to me why it was so crucial for you to explain. I’m inviting you to recognise and internalise that you did really hurt me, even though you didn’t mean to, and to tell me that you’re sorry. At the end of the day, though, really the only thing that makes sense is to invite you to be authentic, whether that leads us to termination or continuation.

*end*

I didn’t realise how hard I’d been crying, writing this, until I stroked Lily and my hand came away wet.

I went and got in the shower, and before long, I was sitting in the bottom, water streaming over me, sobbing. Something weird happened, though. I felt…real. I was actually inside my body. I wrapped my arms around myself, palms resting against my ribs, and I could feel that they were my arms, that they belonged to me, and having them around me felt comforting. I was crying hard, and shaking, and feeling intense grief, but I didn’t have any urges to harm myself, and the emotion felt safe.

It didn’t last that long – maybe a couple of minutes. I feel like you guys are probably the only people in the world who’ll understand this, but I felt excited. I want to do that again, I thought. Is that how emotions feel, for normal people?

A New Ending To The Letter

She Didn’t Say Sorry

The night before my next session with Nikki, I was awake until 6am, obsessively planning the conversation in my head. We needed to talk about why her text messages upset me so much, and I wanted to do it right, so that she’d really understand. So that things would finally change.

Usually when I try to raise something I’m upset about, it goes something like this: So I kind of wish you didn’t do that, but I totally get where you’re coming from, I think I was probably just grumpy because I was hungry actually, it was no big deal, let’s talk about something else, have you seen that new movie yet?

I didn’t want to do that. It feels even worse to bring it up and then immediately invalidate myself than it does just to never mention it at all.

I was profoundly anxious about it. Not about her reaction, but about whether I’d actually be able to do it or not. I was sure that if I explained it properly, she would get it, and she’d kick herself, and tell me she was sorry.

I couldn’t do it. We sat in silence for a while, and I tried and tried to summon the courage to bring it up, but I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth. I had an opening line in my head, and I kept taking a breath and preparing to say it, but I couldn’t do it. The thought of being vulnerable made me want to bleed.

Instead we played with Lily for a while, and then went over my list of coping strategies. I wanted to ask her if I could pay her for an extra half hour, because I was so desperate to get the conversation over with and I didn’t want to leave the room with it still dangling over my head like a sword, ready to impale me. But for once she was scrupulous about ending right on time – when she looked at the clock and told me ‘We’re going to have to finish in a couple of minutes‘, I felt intensely despairing and….I don’t even know what, but whatever it was, it was intense. She greeted the next client in the waiting room, and I could hear them in her office laughing together while I was paying, and I wanted to kill myself.

We finally had the conversation yesterday, and it went so, so badly.

She was all “In the spirit of perspective, can you see how I was doing as much for you as I could?“, and “It was chaotic at my place – there were shits in nappies – and I was texting, and I was like ‘Aaargh!’, and so I was trying to shut the conversation down“, and “Can you see how we were both making assumptions about what the other one’s thinking and doing at the time?” and “We need to be able to sit with the negative emotion, but it’s difficult to hold that in a text” and “Do you feel like you have a clearer understanding of where I was at and where I was coming from?“.

I was on the verge of tears the whole conversation. It just felt like she was making excuses and she was more interested in trying to make me understand her perspective than she was in listening to mine.

She did say “It sounds like you need more affirmation and confirmation – it goes without saying that things are shit for you, but maybe it needs to be said“, but she was also all “I do believe in positive psychology, and it feels like you’re saying that it’s a blanket no, and to be honest that feels slightly uncomfortable“.

At the end, we were sitting in this tense, awkward silence. Neither of us were making eye contact, and neither of us knew what to say. It was all very civil, and ostensibly resolved, but I think we both felt defensive and misunderstood. She said something generic about how talking things through when you’re upset is one of the most important things to be able to do, and that she hoped the conversation hadn’t brought me down when I’d been in a good mood, and I left feeling like I was on fire.

I burned myself when I got home, and I felt a little calmer, less physically anxious, but still just as sad. I lay in bed with Lily stretched out between my breasts, her head on my shoulder and paws soft on my neck, and I could feel the grief tight in my chest. You feel so sad, baby, I said to myself gently, and the grief immediately spiked. I started sobbing, and I didn’t stop for a long, long time.

In my head I’m calling her a bitch and a cunt, but I know she’s neither. She’s just a person who wants to help me, and keeps hurting me instead.

This morning (okay, fine, afternoon), I woke up feeling better, but my mind kept going back to Nikki. Things that I wanted to say to her kept coming up, and so I started jotting them down, and it turned into a letter.

Back in March, when I was in this situation with my last therapist Anna, I emailed the letter to her, and asked her to tell me by email whether she was able to keep seeing me or not. (The answer was no). This time, I’m planning to take it to my session on Tuesday, and ask her to read it. That’s progress, I guess.

Hi Nikki,

I’m not okay with where we left the conversation last week. It bothers me that you’ll apologise six times for something that I really don’t care about, like starting session fifteen minutes late, but when I explicitly tell you that something has really upset me, you don’t say you’re sorry. Maybe it’s “it goes without saying” again, maybe you’re not sorry, maybe you can hold the superficial things enough to be apologetic but it’s too confronting for you to really reflect when deeper things go wrong – I don’t know.

Rightly or wrongly, I get the impression that you still feel that the way you approached the text conversation made total sense, and that you’ve said you’ll try and listen more and affirm my position more, but that you’re kind of half-hearted about it.

You get to do therapy however you want to do therapy.  There’s no point in me trying to dictate that. And if the feedback I’m giving seems unreasonable or off base to you, maybe that means we aren’t a good fit. I hope not – that would really suck – but I don’t feel at all sure that we’ve resolved anything, and I can’t even consider sharing anything meaningful with you without feeling more assured that you do get why I’ve found your responses invalidating and unhelpful and you do want to change things.

I’d like you to sit quietly for a minute and imagine that you just told someone that something is so upsetting you’d rather die, and they told you to go for a walk and forget about it.

I can hear your brain already saying “But…”.

No.

Shut that off for a minute.  Stop rationalising.  You told someone you’re so upset you’re suicidal, and they told you not to judge, and maybe you should go for a walk and just forget about it.

How do you feel?  Do you feel better?

I know that there’s so much going on and so many things you have to juggle in every conversation we have, and it’s hard. I really do have compassion for that, and for how you want to do the right thing but it seems impossible to figure out what that is. At the same time, though…this is your job. You chose this. I didn’t choose this, and my best day with you is harder than your worst day with me.

You have good intentions, and I always know that no matter how pissed off I am. I also know that sometimes you will get it wrong – we all get it wrong sometimes. And that’s okay, if you can accept that you fucked up, and apologise. Even though you mean well, it doesn’t change the fact that what you do has an impact. It isn’t enough to say “Well, I was trying to help” – I want you to acknowledge “I was trying to help, but I realise I didn’t. I’m sorry, and I want to do things better next time.”

I know I’m really pushing you here, and the easy, tempting thing for you to do is to say “Fuck this; I’ve worked so hard to do everything I can and nothing is good enough; I give up”.  Part of me really wants to just drop this whole issue and not risk you quitting, but all that would do is defer immediate pain to later pain. And I know that it must be pretty scary for you to think about the possibility that I’ll do something destructive if you do step back, so I want to reassure you that it’s okay.  You’re responsible for doing your best to help, and being honest if you don’t think you’re the right person to work with me.  I’m responsible for the rest.

What do you think? Too harsh? Too blame-y? Too controlling? Too ultimatum-y?

If she quits, I’m going to be devastated. If she doesn’t quit, but still doesn’t apologise, or fake-apologises, like I’m sorry you got so upset about what I said, I’ll be just as wrecked, maybe more, because then I’ll have to quit. She’s maybe not the right therapist for me, but she does (did?) care about me, and I’m attached to her. I’ve been seeing her for 6 months – of course I’m attached to her. I’ve seen so many different people and I don’t want to get back on that treadmill again. This part of me doesn’t want to give her the letter, but it doesn’t feel safe with her either, so, I mean…what exactly is the plan, buddy? Keep sitting in silence week after week?

The other part of me knows that the emotion doesn’t fit the facts. If Nikki quits, I have a Jewish mama who will text me sweet messages on the weekend, and take me to the hospital if I need to go. I have another who will hug me as long and close as I need, another who will take me to the park for lunch, another who will pick me up for work in the morning. I’m surrounded by love and support, and even though it would suck to start looking for a therapist again, losing Nikki just isn’t that important.

But it is, though.

She Didn’t Say Sorry