I was thinking about how helpful therapy can be–and how not helpful. When we are very vulnerable, we can’t always judge, or don’t dare believe our own judgment. Bad therapy is not just a waste, but it can even represent a big step backward.
Quite a while ago, I wrote about working with my first therapist, Hannah. She made an enormous commitment to my well-being, helped me crawl away from an unhealthy marriage and into a job. But that job took me to a new city, where I had a new job but no friends and no therapist.
Newly separated, with a demanding new job that didn’t pay all that well, I wasn’t going to be able to afford to see anyone who wasn’t on the insurance company’s list of preferred providers. I scanned the list in front of me. Only a few that were taking new clients. I definitely wanted a female therapist. One of those taking new patients was Fay. Why not? I thought. It’s a good name, and how am I supposed to know who to choose? I called her. She had an opening. I made an appointment.
The first time we met, I had immediately had a few reservations. She seemed a little impulsive, in a hurry to make assumptions about what I was saying, in a hurry to sign me on as a regular client. She didn’t exude that calm warmth that Hannah did. I’m not even sure if I mentioned childhood sexual abuse in our first session. I focused on describing my situation at that time, that I had been dealing with a very severe depression for the past year and a half. I was freshly separated from a difficult husband, new to this community, new to my job teaching at a local university. I had very little money. I had two small children. Their father was furious with me. In brief: high stress, few resources. She immediately offered to take a reduced co-pay, $10 per session instead of the $20 my insurance said I was supposed to pay. I accepted, grateful.
But I don’t know what her approach to therapy was. I’d tell her how afraid I was of my husband’s anger about the separation. I’d tell her about nightmares I had from my past. I discussed how overwhelmed I felt at my new job, and how hard it was to get by on so little money. She’d say, “You know, you can buy used children’s clothes at Goodwill. Sometimes they have really cute things.”
Number 1: Telling me to shop at Goodwill is not therapy.
Number 2: Did she honestly think I was buying my children anything but used clothes?
Number 3: How about addressing my emotional turmoil?
I felt offended that she didn’t help me work on the issues that shook my core. I felt patronized by her advice. But I didn’t speak up. I didn’t want to risk her disapproval, because after all, who else did I have to talk to? And maybe Hannah was an anomaly. Maybe Fay was trying to help me function better in my day-to-day life rather than focus on emotional issues.
The holidays were a dark time. I pushed myself to find energy to make Christmas as magical for my young children as I could but didn’t feel any of it myself. After Christmas, they went to see their father for a week, and I had two weeks off from work. When the kids were gone, I dove deep into the dark waters of loneliness and depression. But I saw my upcoming appointment with Fay as a chance to focus on my emotional well-being. I still hoped that maybe she could help me.
It snowed the day before our appointment, more than usual. But the roads weren’t too bad. I drove to her office for the appointment. The door was locked. I sat on the floor outside her office, waiting. I waited an hour (why?!?) before I went home. There was no message from her on my phone. I wondered what happened, and of course decided that she didn’t want to meet with me. She never did call about that appointment.
When I saw her the following week, in early January, she told me, “Oh, sorry about that, but there was such a lot of snow, I didn’t think it would be worth it to come in. Normally I would call you, but you know I had left my list of clients and phone numbers in the office, so I couldn’t. You came in? Really?”
I could feel a hard, cold stone in my chest, but I didn’t protest. I don’t remember what we talked about in that session.
The next time I saw her, she started the session by saying, “I have something to tell you. I am moving my practice to [a city about an hour away]. I’m very excited about it. So this will be our last session. But I bet you have a lot to talk about anyway, right?”
I looked at her and realized that after three or four months, she knew nothing about me, cared nothing about me. “No, I answered her. “I don’t think I have anything to talk about.” I got up and left her office, less than five minutes into our appointment. And I never saw her again.
After that, I went months without any therapy, afraid I’d get more of the same, unsure how to choose someone who could help me. I mostly coped with my stress, loneliness, anxiety and depression through denial and when needed, by burning myself. It was a very hard time.
This was a long time ago. Now that I have experienced a lot more therapy, I can see how unprofessional and really incompetent Fay was. I feel sad for the frightened, depressed woman that I was at the time, the one who thought Fay was better than nothing. But I smile when I remember walking out on her that last day.
P.S. She forgot that she promised me a reduced co-pay and for months kept sending my bills for the full co-pay. I didn’t pay them though.