The Ghosts of Therapists Past, part 1

I have been seeing a therapist for 20 years now. From age 16-36, wow. (I mean some form of mental health professional, not the physical therapists for my back and leg injuries – that story is coming soon) I have learned how to get the most out of therapy by preparing for it first, being honest and targeted within it, and then being gentle with myself afterwards. That’s not how it started though.My attitude towards therapy has changed over the years and so has my actual therapist. Many times. Meet my first 2 here.

When I was 16, and finally able to ask my Mom for help, to get me out of my abusive Father’s home, she made him pay for a therapist for me. This was ugly for many reasons. I was not ready to deal and heal. I was moved from a psychopathic pedophilic Father’s home to a passive-aggressive narcissistic Mother’s home. My life was not instantly better, and honestly not much improved. It was actually more difficult, because now my Father was angry and unpredictable to me.  I was much more afraid of him than when I lived with him and basically knew what to expect. And my Mom was a complete stranger. We had barely spoken our entire lives, and barely saw each other since they divorced 4 years prior. So I had to put my trust into all these adults that I did not actually trust.

Mom drove me to this first therapist without telling me what we were doing. She seemed to have forgotten that by age 16 I could actually read quite well, and knew what building we were entering. I could tell she was nervous, but determined to be strong, to do the right thing. I asked her if I had to go in, and she said Yes, that I needed help. I didn’t understand at the time just how much help I needed, or how anyone on this planet could help me. Mom went in by herself first, for just a few minutes, then we swapped. I wonder what she told them. How to sum up my  life and needs so quickly.

My first impression of my first therapist was that she was just like my Mom, only older and a professional. Old, graying hair swooped out asymmetrically, patronizing smile, strong perfume. She asked me to sit and pointed to a chair, and then just stared at me. I gave her a polite smile, then looked at her book shelf. “Oh Crap” I thought as I read those origins of psycho theory titles. Then this stranger, this very smelly stranger, (I still hate strong smells, highly sensitive, I just wanted to open that door for fresh air) said, “How are you dear?”

I looked her right in the eye, and gave her my best and often practiced “you are an idiot too” look that I gave most adults in my life. Then I answered her first in my head. “How do you F-ing think I am? I’ve been molested for 16 years, my mom never cared until I made her, my Dad is now pissed, I told my boyfriend too and now that’s all weird, and I’m afraid all the people at school will know, and now I have to live with my Mom and everything is different, and all I want to do is leave this crazy life and go to college and start my real life, not this pretend hell I have lived so long” And then I said out loud, boldly, “I’m fine.” And looked away, showing her I did not need her.

Somehow an hour passed with her asking stupid questions, like

“How is school”

“Fine”

“How are your grades?”

“Good”

“What do you do after school?”

“Work”

“Do you have any good friends?”

“Yes”

The Hare-Brained Hypnotist

The Hare-Brained Hypnotist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I saw her a few times a week to play 20 questions each hour. Finally one day they took me to a different room down the hall, and introduced me to a different therapist. I saw “hypnotherapist” among her titles on the door. I was immediately thinking of Bugs Bunny holding a swirling disc and saying “Look into my eyes, you are getting sleepy . . .” I also thought, “well, this could be fun” and this room did not smell like old lady perfume. It smelled spicy, but gently, like cinnamon toast. And she had a rainbow of throw pillows piled on a chair in the corner. And her books were less Freud and texbook, and more Oprah and Buddha and color therapy. I finally looked at the woman leaning over her desk, she was much younger, less smelly, had nice brown hair and caring eyes. She did not ask me anything. She gave me one of those bright colored pillows to hug on my lap, put on some oriental type music, and just watched me. Then she told me about herself. I learned that she was married, but did not have kids yet. She had some cats and dogs, don’t recall the details. She never asked me anything, and so I never spoke that entire hour, other than hello and goodbye and a few nods of understanding. I left feeling very proud of myself for costing my Dad whatever she charged and never saying a word.

The next few visits with her, she had me do various relaxation exercises. We never spoke of my Dad. She taught me how to flex and relax my muscles and breathe deeply. She taught me how to visualize happy scenes. She wanted me to feel good, and I liked her, so I told her it was helping. All these fools thought they could “cure” me in a few hours. Kids are so resilient, and I must be ok I had good grades in school, right? I even let her think she was actually hypnotizing me a few times. She was trying so hard, I just couldn’t let her think she had failed like the first therapist. And I didn’t want to fail either, I wanted a good grade in therapy. I just didn’t know the goal, they gave me no rubric or syllabus, so I didn’t know what to do  in there. And I hated it. I just wanted to be left alone.

One day I went in and she asked me to choose a pillow and place it on the floor. I raised my eyebrows, but did it. Then she asked me to lay down with my head on the pillow. And close my eyes. I did not like that, but I did it. I felt so stupid and exposed lying there. Then she took me through the relaxation narrative we had been doing in the chair. It actually felt really good. And then she started some counting nonsense, and said when she got to 3 I’d be even more relaxed. And kept doing that, over and over until she said I was now at the deepest state of relaxation possible. She asked what color my thoughts were. ?? I stifled a giggle, so she wouldn’t know I was NOT completely relaxed and hypno-anythinged. Instead I very calmly said “Green”. Then she asked me to flex different muscles, and would ask me the color of my thoughts in various states of flex/tension. I said colors to her, and she said “ahh” each time, like it made perfect sense. I thought she was completely looney tunes, and that I could probably help her more than she helped me at that point. She eventually brought me out by reversing the counting, relaxing commands. I played along. She was just so nice and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

I don’t remember how I stopped therapy, if they pronounced me better, or I begged enough to stop, as it was interfering with my busy schedule, or perhaps my Dad and insurance stopped paying. I just know I stopped going after a few months. That was my junior year of High School. I found out I had enough credits to get out of high school early. I was determined to get out of my Mom’s home, get out of this city, and leave them all behind. I went to a Community College my Senior year of high school and thought everything would be OK if I just worked really hard and didn’t have to look any of my peers in the eye any more. I wanted a fresh start, where I was normal, and no one knew I was broken.

I did start using some of those relaxation techniques each night to fall asleep, but didn’t really get good at it until many years later. I was basically trained by my situation to never sleep deeply, always waiting for my Dad to enter my room at night. Afraid to sleep and wonder what he was doing before I woke up. Hated that sense of confusion and powerlessness. He typically left shortly after I was awake and pushed him away. He did it that way to make it seem like I was in control of ending it. Like he only did what I wanted and stopped when I wanted. Sick bastard. I understand this now – I didn’t then. It worked on me. It worked. I would try to barricade my door without being obvious by leaving toys or books in front of it, because he would get angry if he knew I was doing it on purpose. I would try to stay up all night and sleep at school or friends houses. I still have sleep issues and likely always will. But it is a bit better now when I can convince myself I am actually safe.

And I have always used my mind to mentally escape wherever I was. I got through years of abuse, and years of boring classes that way. I have always had my mind elsewhere. Always creating stories and poems in my mind. Always creating wild vacations and meeting amazing people in my mind. Always seeing myself as brave and heroic, exploring new lands, and doing fantastic things in my mind. I daydreamed of living in the rain forest, just me and my best friends, a tiger and a macaw, with a crazy modern lab hidden in a primitive tent to research new species and cure cancer. I dreamed of that until I found out the rain forest is full of spiders. Big hairy spiders. Then I switched my dream to biomedical engineering in an American facility without spiders, and my cats waiting for me at home. I saw myself at award banquets, and people with back injuries like mine thanking me for my research that allowed us all to walk easily again. I also saw my Dad in prison, forever, watching me excel on the news. I actually still struggle to keep my mind in the here and now. That is also getting better too.

And so I am preparing to see my current therapist tonight, what sparked the memories for this post. I am now being completely honest with her, not needing a good grade, and not caring if she feels like she is doing a good job with me. No longer sabotaging my own therapy and healing and growing more this year than ever in my life. I have more moments now looking forward to future moments, rather than dreading how to survive yet another day. Life is mostly good right now. Feels so good to realize that.

 

 

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13 thoughts on “The Ghosts of Therapists Past, part 1

  1. Thanks for sharing your story with therapy–I’m in the process of looking for a new one now–and it’s never easy! Thanks for the insightful post.

  2. My parents never encouraged therapy. “If you need it, then I hope it helps.” Hate those roundabout digs. I ended up in therapy the first time when I fell apart in front of one of my bosses at work. Fortunately, our health insurance paid for 8 sessions. I called and talked to someone somewhere, who referred me to someone local. It was actually a really good experience in learning to take care of me. I didn’t tell my therapist much, largely because I figured it was just me being stubborn, obnoxious, unreasonable. I saw her about once a month for a year. Something else came up, a new issue, and she arranged for 4 more sessions. The amazing part was that she was doing a one-year internship: the year we worked together. We parted feeling like we’d gone as far as we could in our relationship. It was several years before I went back to therapy, another year, and I still didn’t tell her everything, partly because I didn’t think it was real. Then several years later, my sister went to therapy, and I discovered what I thought were outlandish dreams weren’t. Back to therapy, for five years, though it was only every three months for most of those years. Being prepared for the session made a huge difference. I would walk into therapy those last years with things I wanted to know. I knew the only way I’d learn was to ask, and I couldn’t hold back as I had in the past. It helped knowing I didn’t have to convince him.

    I would have hated the smelly perfume, and though my last therapist could hypnotize, he didn’t try. I knew I’d never give over even a smidgen more power than absolutely necessary. Funny, I learned the same things you did from your second therapist in yoga.

    • Thanks for sharing all this! I’m pretty sure child services mandated the initial therapy for me back then during the investigation period. My Dad does not believe in mental illness at all, thinks it what weak people claim to get what they want or out of working. My Mom is supportive of me going, but has never gone for herself. I don’t think she could ever be honest enough to get any help.

      I also met a therapist after an ugly breakdown at work that cost me my first job after college.

      I love yoga! And Tai Chi. My spine is fused, and doesn’t bend into many yoga poses, but I still try, and it feels great. I did mommy yoga during my first pregnancy, and not so much yoga since then, as it is hard to get in the zone with toddlers and infants needing you. I wonder where I stuffed my mat, that would be great to start up again now that they’re a bit older.

      • My physical therapist told me I wasn’t allowed to do yoga anymore, telling me the risk I might hyperextend was too high. I’m okay with that. I’m using the stretching I learned in yoga in a toned-down version. The breathing techniques are also helpful.

  3. Your experience of not wanting to hurt your therapist feelings mirrors mine, though I was much older. Finally after several sessions I simply said to her, I am twice your age with twice your life experience you cannot help me because I can’t take you seriously, I am sorry.

    I am so glad you are getting more out of it now. This was well done.

    • So difficult to get a good therapist-client relationship. I think that may be why so many people give up on therapy. If I hadn’t found the one I currently have, I would think they were all useless. Need a delicate balance that fits your situation and your personality.

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