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.
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…”.
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.