A Letter To My Former Therapist

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Dear J,

The three years we worked together were the best and worst of my life. I knew at the beginning– in my bones, I knew— that you were it. You were my ticket out of misery and into living a full, rich life. My first thought about you was, Wow, this woman seems like the reincarnation of Carl Rogers. Your empathy was unprecedented.

I didn’t have a solid enough sense of self at the time, but I could feel that you believed in me. When I doubted myself, when I slipped back into old patterns, whatever happened, you were there. You treated me like I was a worthy, capable, real human being.

Sometimes, I could believe that. Other times, I relied on your strength, and you believed that for both of us.

You cared about my feelings– no — you loved them. You acknowledged whatever I was feeling and took it seriously. I was stunned by how much you cared about me. Maybe even by how much you loved me (in the most platonic of ways).

In your eyes, I was a capable, intelligent therapist, prone to struggles, yes, but worthy of love. You trusted me not only as a human but as a professional.

Words cannot describe how you changed my life for the better. You helped patch my ragamuffin, broken self into a mosaic of messy parts. The mosaic was in the making.

But then again, words cannot describe how you changed my life for the worse.

In a whirlwind, what became a healthy, therapeutic relationship led to your emotional unraveling and at the end, a break up via email, with no closure.

To say that the end of our relationship destroyed me is cliche but true. My life, just like yours, unraveled at the seams, and everything was turned upside down.

You, the person who believed in me, who laughed and cried with me, who I would send my most personal writing, who was my rock, disappeared into thin air. In a moment, you were gone.

Just as I was starting to trust you and the walls were down, you left me without defenses. I was raw, cold, crying, emotional, and numb all at the same time.

I developed a disgust for therapy. I left graduate school. I moved back home to be closer to family. I changed my life completely because I didn’t believe in people anymore, and I didn’t believe in myself.

Almost 3 years later, the scars are still there, and sometimes, they bleed. I cannot trust my new therapist of almost 2 years. She reminds me so much of you, it’s scary. I see you in her sometimes, in her mannerisms and words, and I quiver. I don’t know if I can let anyone into my heart again. Not after you. 

“I wish I could do something to make it safer for you to open up,” my new therapist tells me.

“People always leave, just when you count on them,” I respond.

This has become our therapeutic struggle. I can’t trust, and I think about abandonment constantly. Would I get hurt now if my new therapist leaves? What about now? I can’t hurt again like I did with you. My sense of self can’t sustain another loss of that magnitude.

I think about you less and less over the years. I don’t cry every time I go into Ann Arbor anymore, nor do I listen on replay to Sia’s “Titanium,” a song I remember playing at the time of our relationship’s demise.

I still grapple with this: What happens with all the memories, the loving, painful, bitter, scattered memories?

I have tried locking them all in a box, and it never works. The moments we spent together spill over, sometimes through tear-streaked eyes, and sometimes with a smile.

I’m not back to normal following this experience. I have occasional flashbacks of you, and I remember every moment from when our relationship turned sour. I remember the angry emails we sent back and forth. I remember where I was when you broke up with me.

Then, I remember your face and how you used to laugh at my weird humor. I remember your expressive eyes, and your frown. I remember how you advocated for me. I remember the good things sometimes, and I don’t want to forget those. You were a huge part of my life and my story, and I can’t only hate you and have that be the end.

You weren’t just the “bad object,” you were the “good object” too. 

And yet, what you did and how you ended things caused me so many abandonment issues and trauma, I have needed years of therapy for years of therapy.

The sad thing is, nobody talks about the death of a therapeutic relationship. Nobody talks about a loving, trusting therapeutic alliance gone south.

If I was grieving the loss of a best friend or family member, it would be socially acceptable to feel grief. With a therapist, not so much. Does one ever hear, “Hey, I am a wreck, my therapist broke up with me today”?

Psychotherapy can be wonderful, yes. It can be healing and transformative and beautiful. 

… but it can also hurt. It can cause trauma and pain. It can sting, hurt, and wound on a gut-level. Nobody talks about the latter. 

But you know what, J, I am coming out of the closet. I want to say goodbye to you, but I also want to publicly acknowledge my grief. For years, I was quiet about the matter. No longer.

I am left, almost 3 years later, with no answers, ambiguity, and lots of pain. For a long time I thought it was me. Something I didn’t do. Maybe, despite all odds, you could come back to me if I did x or y.

Now I am learning that it was never about me.

It was about you.

It was your baggage and emotional issues that ended our relationship, and it wasn’t my fault. We will likely never meet again. On a good day, I can be okay with that.

So goodbye, J. You were a great therapist… one of the best. You started me on a path to healing that I hope I’ll one day finish. But I won’t finish that journey with you.

Sincerely,

Charlotte

 

 

 

Lessons Disney Taught Me

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I was not born silent, but I came to be that way.

When I was young, my favorite movie was The Little Mermaid. I insisted on being Ariel for Halloween, played mermaids with friends, and watched the movie over and over again (probably to the point of nauseum). I never questioned the subliminal messages that perculated into my subconscious as a result of my role model.

Ariel taught me important lessons about silence and identity. On some level, I came to see that perhaps who and where I am aren’t good enough. In fact, in a quest for the unknown promises of freedom, I might have to give up my biggest gifts– my passion in life, and most importantly, myself, or at least my state of being and relating in the world. I might be rescued off the beach by my soul mate without having any reciprocal communication. The fact that, “I want more,” could lead me to drastically change my physical state and expunge my previous existence in pursuit of a new self that means giving up who I am. I learned that I would find happiness in silence and sacrifice. I could get anything I wanted… as long as I sold myself in the process.

I never questioned the story, but I learned. Over the years, I started talking less and less. I cannot blame Disney for my silence. I cannot blame my females who chose to defer to powerful men and culturally-accepted social hierarchy rather than their own feelings. However, this culture that socializes every child to the point of gluttony and extreme excess certainly reinforced established patterns or made things worse.

It was not Disney that was the problem in my life. My idolization of Ariel was a symptom of something that became much more profound: I felt like my voice didn’t matter, and there was something wrong with who I was.

After years of struggling with my identity, I came to see how I did not come to exist scared and voiceless out of a vacuum. There were factors– a lot of them– I started addressing that were part of the problem. In order to move forward with my life, I was going to have to start thinking differently.

Disney hadn’t even gone through my mind until a few years ago, a Little Mermaid ride opened up at Disneyland. After going on it for the first time, I was disgusted… or perhaps more like repulsed by Disneyland’s depiction of Ariel. Ariel looked like she was struggling with anorexia, and her ghost-like figure looked all of 10 years old.

I saw Ariel differently that day. She was not just a carefree mermaid who wanted to be free anymore. She was a Disney product– a doll modified to meet standardized cultural ideals. Even in that form, she was small and silenced. I was haunted by her emaciated form. At Disneyland, I had this urge, a) to call whoever created this ride and yell at them and b) to re-consider what I once valued as worthy of idolization. Ariel was not as ambitious, spunky, or musical as I remembered her as a child. She was muted and sad. It was heartbreaking to see the tattered aftermath of a character I once wanted to be; to envision how this character affected me and how my perspective had so drastically changed.

I am reminded of myself when I see children partaking in everything related to Disney princesses (aka Disney crack/ brilliant marketing scheme). A child might light up and ask me, “Which Disney princess is your favorite?” I watch the abundance of princess costumes and know how often kids watch the movies. Then, I think of the haunting figure of Ariel at Disneyland.

How many times does a child need to watch Sleeping Beauty or Snow White or Cinderella or The Little Mermaid to conceptualize women differently? How long until that message of sleeping, submission, and inadequacy without a man penetrates so deeply that they change who they are?

In some ways, I am so encouraged by our culture and even Disney. I saw Frozen this week, and it avoids many of the pitfalls of previous Disney movies. Frozen was controversial and brought up issues that Disney has not yet brought up. A queen was crowned with no discussion of a king needing to take the throne. Characters who knew each other for a day didn’t end up married. The movie Miss Representation (which is on Netflix and worth seeing) is like a breath of fresh air, and I am so encouraged that the public is speaking out about the lack of women in power positions and the effects of the media as it pertains to the sexualization and objectification of women.

However, in other ways, I am so discouraged by things that are displayed in this video. As a culture, we have so much more work to do. Once you begin to identify sexism and advocate for gender-related issues, it is hard to go back. I can’t un-know things I know. I can’t un-feel the disgust I feel about this culture’s predominant views of women.

It is about us. It is about what we value as a culture. It is about what we, as a culture, idealize. There is a lot of discussion in the eating disorder world about making more realistically-sized Barbies. While that is well and good, it is not just about a woman’s body. It is about how children grow up understanding gender. In this era of constant media consumption, it is ignorant to think that these childhood role models and toys don’t have an effect on people. Being saturated with a certain agenda is likely to leave a stain (if not far worse). I want to be a savvy media consumer in my life as an adult, but what about young children, who are too vulnerable to know what messages inundate them?

Disney princesses sell, but at what cost? Who do we have to objectify to sell a product?

At the end of the day, the point of this post is not about Barbie, or Ken, or Disney, or any toy at all. It is not about me complaining about how Ariel was a bad influence on my life (although she was, and she’s a very questionable individual). The whole Disney princess franchise is something deeper and more political. It is about sales and sexuality. It is about media controlling the way a woman comes to understand herself.

I think of my tendency towards silence and my impulse to self-sacrifice, and I wonder if we are raising another generation of girls to struggle with the same problems.

I have no easy answers for parents who want to raise their daughters by empowering them. I am not a parent, so I don’t even want to open that can of worms. There is such a tension for parents between the child’s saturation in our culture and the desire to prevent girls from learning about gender exploitation. My interest is more in the systemic issues present in our culture so that in the future, parents won’t have to be put in such a difficult dilemma.

One female senator said the following in 2013 after being ignored: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand for her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” She got a round of thunderous applause. That’s one step toward our gender having an equal voice.