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.