After recently reading Patricia J Grace on her experience with one of her therapists (Chapter 21-Matt), I have started to think more about my experiences in therapy. This post started as an appreciation of the first therapist I worked with but also evolved into a partial life history.
I first went to Hannah in my late 20s. Some background: I was married, in graduate school, and had two very young children. We had recently moved to this medium-sized town in the Pacific Northwest, far from my family and far from my graduate school. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call my first husband Miguel. Miguel had accepted a job in this town without consulting me and had moved without me, leaving me with the babies, a part-time job, and school. I still wanted to make the marriage work, so I finished up the semester, packed up the apartment, and moved west. This put me in a very vulnerable position with Miguel. He had a new job, worked long hours, and charmed his co-workers. I knew no one, only had money for part-time childcare, and was trying to work on a dissertation. I was home a lot. So why wasn’t the house spotless, the shopping done, wonderful meals prepared? Why were the children still in dirty clothes from daycare when he came home? Millions of women juggle a job and children, what was wrong with me? Couldn’t I see how hard he was working? Why was I not a better wife? I tried hard to please him, but if I did one thing right, I did another thing wrong. Why wasn’t I making more progress on my dissertation? How long was it supposed to take anyway? Why wasn’t I teaching the children more geography or history or science? I tried to talk to him. I asked if we were going to counseling together. Finally, I decided that there were two people in the relationship, and if he wouldn’t change, I would. And that’s what brought me to Hannah.
Hannah worked a lot with women trying to find their own voices in relationships. She was warm and funny. I liked her immediately and felt hopeful that I was doing the right thing. I would learn how to say and do the right things to put some balance back in my marriage. Early on, she told me two things that I have remembered all this time:
- When you start to change your behavior in a relationship that is not working for you, the other person will increase the pressure to get you to go back to your former behavior in order to keep things from changing.
- Starting therapy is a little like starting to clean out the garage. You think it won’t be so bad, but in the middle it seems much worse than you imagined. Then it gets gradually gets better.
I found the first of these to be true almost right away. She helped me find small ways to set some boundaries with Miguel. She practiced with me so I could calmly say, “I know you don’t want to go to Jenny’s wedding on Saturday, but I do, so I will go anyway, and you can stay home if you want.” I tried it. I actually went to the wedding and took one of the children with me. I came home and he pouted, “I can’t believe you went without me. You don’t care about my feelings at all.” When I took slightly bigger steps, his reaction was to scream and threaten me, to stay away more, to behave unpredictably, to arrive late and disrupt our plans. I felt very discouraged. I was exhausted and needed a rest. Miguel was indignant–after all, he was the one with a job. Why should I need a rest? How lazy could I be? I wondered if he was right. I became very stuck in therapy, no longer able to take any steps forward, more discouraged and hopeless than ever.
Hannah encouraged me to go to my doctor and get a prescription for Prozac. I started taking it, praying it would at least give me the energy to keep trying.
Hannah asked me, “This feeling of being stuck, of not seeing any way out of a bad situation, is this something you have experienced before you in your life?” That day, I said I didn’t know. That night, I thought for the first time in years about being raped by a “friend” when I was about 14. And that the friend’s father had molested me earlier. And that several other family friends had kissed and touched me in my teens. I literally had never allowed myself to think about these things after they initially happened.
That was the part that resembled the cleaning out of the garage. Hannah had prompted me to move a bunch of boxes, and I was horrified to see discover what was behind them. I started having anxiety attacks and suicidal thoughts for the first time in my life. I felt physically sick. My arms tingled so much I thought I had bugs crawling up them. Some of these were Prozac side effects, and some was the disgust I felt when I looked at the garbage in my metaphorical garage.
“Ok,” said Hannah. “I can’t let you go home like this. You can go to the hospital, or I can call Miguel and tell him what is going on.” I hadn’t even told him I was seeing a therapist–I knew he’d make fun of me for it–but I thought that was preferable to going to the hospital, so I let her call him. He was polite and concerned on the phone. He picked me up, brought me home, made dinner, played with the boys so I could rest. He made me a nice breakfast the next morning. Then he said, “Ok, enough already. Now you need to pull yourself together. I don’t have time to cater to you like this.”
You don’t need all the details to imagine how the following months went. I went off the Prozac and started seeing a psychiatrist, trying various other medications. Hannah and I probed deeper into my past and turned up more fragmented memories of things that happened even before the series of family friends decided I was there for their entertainment. I was filled with self-disgust. I wanted to die but didn’t want to leave my young children without a mother. I berated myself for being a depressed mother. I discovered that burning myself could ease some of my anxiety and stop some of the dissociating for a little while.
Miguel berated me for looking for pharmaceutical solutions to my problems when I should just change my attitude. He was furious that I wasn’t making progress on my dissertation. He said Hannah was poisoning me against him. When he discovered that I was burning myself, he threatened to have me locked up so I could never see the children again. He said I should go ahead and kill myself because he and the children would be better off without me. I learned to hide my true thoughts because he was good at using them against me. I learned to hide my burns better.
I ran out of insurance (my insurance, like many others at the time, only paid for 20 sessions per year). Hannah continued to see me for free. She nudged me into traveling back to the city where I’d attended graduate school, to stay for 6 weeks, restart the dissertation and surround myself with friends. It meant leaving the children with Miguel for a month and a half, which was a risk. I consulted an attorney on whether Miguel might be able to use that to say I had abandoned our children. I was sick with fear before leaving. But I went, and while those weeks away were not easy, I rediscovered remnant of my former self and made progress toward finished the dissertation, which meant progress toward being able to get a job and have my own life. I was still depressed. I had terrible difficulties sleeping and frequent flashbacks to the abuse. I was burning myself regularly. Yet somewhere in that messy garage, I’d also found a little box with hope inside.
While I was gone, Miguel alternated between calling to say how much he missed me and wanted things to go better and calling me to say I was selfish and unreasonable and didn’t know how to appreciate him properly. He also emptied our joint checking account, leaving me without a penny because he said he “couldn’t trust me anymore after all my unpredictable behavior.”
I returned home after six weeks, missing my children desperately but afraid to see Miguel. He was nice to me, for a day or two, but then his hurt and rage dominated again. I asked my mother to loan me money so I could move out. She said no. I told this to my younger sister, who was single and didn’t have a well-paying job, but who scraped up $1000 and sent it to me. I cried. My other sister came to town and helped me find an apartment because I was too depressed to find one myself. To this day, I’m more grateful to them than they can imagine.
Hannah kept seeing me once a week. Sometimes I thought she was annoyed if I was having trouble taking steps on my own behalf–but I was acutely sensitive by to any potential sign of disapproval, so I may have imagined it. I was very afraid she’d quit seeing me.
I moved out of the house I shared with Miguel. I finished my dissertation and defended it, while still burning myself and feeling suicidal half the time. Miguel often called or emailed to ask me why I left. What was the real reason? What did I talk about in therapy? Did I talk about him? I shouldn’t ruin his reputation. I had embarrassed him by leaving. I was ruining things for my children. I listened to that and felt guilty and finished my dissertation anyway. I applied for jobs and interviewed badly, but somehow found one anyway, in a city about four hours away. To be honest, I don’t know how I did accomplished all of this. I do know that Hannah was a huge reason I was able to do it.
Sometimes I was frustrated in therapy because I was so confused about my past. I wanted to make sense of it, wanted to figure out what had “really” happened. I distrusted my older memories because of how fragmented and dreamlike they were. Maybe I made them up? There was a lot of coverage in the news back then about “false memory syndrome.” I was terrified that’s what I had. And I wanted to talk about this with Hannah. But she pushed me to focus on my the needs of my life at the time: Finish the dissertation. Get a job. Talk to an attorney. I know she was right, and it worked. I got out of the marriage and found a way to support myself and the children. But it meant I left for a demanding new job, in a new city, with two young children, no money, a raging case of PTSD, virtually no coping strategies, and an urgent need for a new therapist to help me stop tripping over stuff in the garage. But that’s another story.