Written by Charlotte Sandy, Blogger & Advocate
This month, it will be five years without you.
Five years of moving through the waves of grieving a person society tells me I shouldn’t grieve. Who grieves the loss of a therapist, anyway? Mental health organizations and professionals always voice a message of hope: “Therapy can provide hope and healing. It can be transformative.”
I’ve been there. I’ve seen transformation and healing in my own journey. But what about the other side? What happens when therapy hurts– when I need therapy to get over other therapy?
What happens when therapy becomes part of the problem, rather than the solution?
Everything began with a chance call to a local therapist who specialized in eating disorders. I remember our conversation like it was both yesterday and an eternity ago. “Hi, my name is Charlotte, and I’ve had an eating disorder for years now. I’m not doing well. I’ve seen a bunch of therapists, and none of them seem to help, but then I read about you, and I’m interested in seeing you.”
This therapist, who I’ll call J, listened to my story, and then spoke. Her first words to me were confident and concise: “I think I can help you.”
And in that moment, I believed she could.
Prior to that moment, by experiences in therapy could be characterized as sub-par at best and generally a waste of my time. I wasn’t ready for help yet. Then, after a series of slips and then a major eating disorder relapse, I admitted for the first time I really, truly needed help. Then I met J, and on the very first visit I knew: This was not just any therapist. This was someone special.
As I got to know her and let her into my story, I felt her radiant warmth and unconditional love. For the very first time in my life, I felt understood, and not judged. As I learned about Carl Rogers in graduate school, I began to think of J as the embodiment of what Carl Rogers believed therapists should be like.
It is remarkable feeling when someone radiates love, compassion, and support in such a way that is overwhelming and life-changing. J saw the good and bad, the flashy and ugly, and showered me with support and care in the midst of this beautiful chaos. She saw into the pools of my eyes and the depths of my being in a way no human had ever been able to do. It is hard to describe how it feels the first time someone knows and gets the essence of you. J didn’t just sit and nod as I talked about my academics, aspirations, and struggles for 45 minutes a week, then give me a “That will be all for this week.” She truly understood me.
Working with J was life-altering. At first J met me in the darkness of relapse and struggle, but as I worked with her, my eating disorder symptoms faded away. We then got into some deeper work, discussing at length my fundamental, deep-rooted insecurities, fears, and struggles.
J helped me see that I was not starving and hating myself for a fundamental flaw in my DNA or for something I did or didn’t do. She helped me see I was hemorrhaging inward due to emotional pain. Discussing these difficult topics was the most vulnerable, painful thing I’ve ever had to do. J assured me she’d stick by me through the process. She told me that this type of therapy was hard work, but it would be worth it.
I trusted her.
All of a sudden, a month before everything began, I became worried about her husband’s age. I knew he was almost two decades older than she was. I asked her, “What would happen if he died?”
She answered, “I would probably take a few weeks off, but then I would be back. I’m not going to leave.”
I would always remember that conversation.
The weekend of the beginning of the end is something I will always remember in slow motion. I can barely remember what I ate for dinner last night, but I remember that weekend as if it was a slow reel tape. That Friday, I was frustrated that I was running late driving to a conference in Monterey, so I needed to take the boring 5 freeway versus the much more scenic Pacific Coast Highway. I remember the way I was sitting on the hotel floor in Monterey reading the words J emailed me: On the eve of her husband’s birthday he suffered a major heart attack, and by the next morning, he was dead.
After that, everything changed. Even after J took a month off for bereavement, she was different upon her return. Her fuse was short and her eyes darker. In a convoluted way, I tried to comfort her using the only thing I knew to cope: my faith. She didn’t want my God or my hope.
Then, out of the blue, I got an email that she was terminating therapy with me. There would be no closure, no termination or transition sessions, and no referrals. Despite the history of gut-wrenching, tear-saturated years of therapeutic work, J provided no attempt at closure. Just like that, she was gone.
J was not emotionally stable following her husband’s death– she admitted that to me. Upon the termination email, I asked J if she was stopping her therapy practice altogether or only with me. J responded that she could still do therapy but just not with “difficult cases.” After years of feeling like I was “too much,” I felt her response as a blow to the stomach.
When we were working together, J used to question my abandonment fears. I hadn’t been very vulnerable and raw with anyone before, so I worried that my feelings of need and trust of J meant she would leave. J would asked if anyone had left me in the lurch like I so feared. I said no, but it was a deep-rooted fear. It was as if all my fear was preparing me for the trauma of losing a person who I trusted the most…J herself.
My once-hypothetical abandonment fears were solidified because in a moment, email, heartbeat, or text message, someone can leave, just like that.
She was gone. I felt the loss in my bones, into every crevice of my being. It was the emotional equivalent of a train plowing at full speed towards its’ next destination, only to stop suddenly in its tracks.
I attempted to contact J for closure. I wondered if she could coordinate with my new therapist. She would not do any of that. Even worse than the actual abandonment itself, J’s emotional coldness and unwillingness to provide me with even another therapy referral was invalidating and incongruent with years of work with her.
This was the second cruel lesson I learned and internalized. Not only can people leave one instant, but they can make you feel like you are nothing the next. Even if they showed you nothing but care and support in years of working together. Even when there were no warning signs. No one– not even a beloved therapist– is safe.
The ruminative thoughts in my mind were circular and maddening: Had I just been a paycheck for her? What if I acted better? What if I weighed less or was nicer or had different issues? Could I have placated her more?
At the heart of it all, I wondered, quietly, painfully, in tears and raw grief: If you cared about me like you said, why did you leave? And how could you leave me in the lurch like this? Don’t you realize you fulfilled my biggest fears? Was this whole relationship a lie?
I never got answers from J, so I found my own meaning. I wish I could say I coped in a healthy way with this loss, but I didn’t. I resorted to eating disorder behaviors and shut down emotionally. I didn’t deal with my feelings– in fact, I did everything to stuff down the pain and grief, deep down where I would never find it. I walked down the street and went to work numb, as if I was a ghost. I decided therapy was stupid. I was repulsed suddenly by my graduate psychology program, which spoke of therapeutic healing. Now disillusioned about such discourse, I decided to leave my graduate program.
A friend reminded me recently we had taken a class together the semester everything happened. “You were there, but you seemed like you weren’t really there.”
I knew what he meant, and he was right.
The next year, I moved back to Michigan, partly for emotional safety. My life and graduate program in California didn’t seem to fit anymore, once the dust had settled following J’s departure from my life.
In Michigan, everyone knew J, as she is well-known locally and even internationally for her work in treating eating disorders. Even the mention of her name caused me to burst into tears.
I sent J an email a year later asking for the termination session we never had. I desperately wanted to ask J, “Why?” I felt I needed some semblance of closure from her to move on with my life. J refused to meet with me. She said some variant of, “Have a nice life.” That was the last email we ever exchanged. No more discussion with her was warranted. Her message was loud and clear: I would have to move on without her.
As if the initial abandonment wasn’t enough, J left me over and over again in my dreams. It was always the same dream. I would be in a crowded room, and I saw J’s face. I ran through the crowd as fast as I could, desperate for a word, a sentence, something. But like vapor, J would disappear. She was gone…even in my dreams she was gone. The dreams were so emotionally laden and vivid, I would wake up with a fresh, crushing feeling of deep abandonment. I started my mornings sobbing and shaking in my bed.
It took years of more therapy for me to come to a place of acceptance and closure. It also took years to learn to truly trust a therapist without fear of abandonment. Going through the grief and trauma felt like agitating a gaping wound, almost how antibiotic cream over a cut stings even though it is necessary for healing.
It is not culturally sanctioned to discuss mourning the loss of a therapist or healing from a traumatic therapy experience. There is much writing and work regarding the loss of a sibling, parent, or pet, but what is there to say in research of pop psych about healing from hurt inflicted by someone whose profession is by definition to help with these very issues? Little, if anything, is written about the subject, as it turns out.
Fearing judgment or further stigma, I quietly mourned my loss and trauma for years. My current therapist has been my rock in this whole process. She understood my pain and supported me through my overwhelming waves of grief and loss. I can’t say it has been easy to learn to trust again, but I have.
Sometimes I wonder: If I saw J on the street, if I had five minutes, alone with her, what would I say? Years of therapy and oceans of tears later, I think I have my final words to J:
It was five years ago, this month, when you left my life. Luckily you no longer haunt my dreams.
The funny thing about time is how much I have forgotten already. I forget the way the creases of your mouth folded up when you smiled, and the shape of your eyes. If I stumbled into you at a restaurant, I don’t know if I would recognize you anymore. You are fading into what is only now a memory. Even though I don’t know if I would be who I am today without you, I don’t know if I would do it all over again, knowing what I do now.
For better or for worse, you changed me.
That change is fundamentally good and bad at the same time. I cannot go back to the way things were, when I heard your voice on the phone so many years ago saying, “I think I can help.”
I still struggle with self-blame over the whole experience. My brain spins with the ways I screwed up, my faults, and what I could have done to change the outcome of the story. I don’t think I could have.
I hear you are doing singing and songwriting much of the time now, instead of therapy. It’s funny how so much has changed in five years.
Five years of personal and professional milestones later, and you are neutral in my mind. I don’t have those lingering flickers of wonder, “Couldn’t you just come back into my life?” You have been solidified in my brain as someone who was once important to me, but is no longer. I don’t regret missing five years with you. I have done all that I have by myself and with the help of people I love.
It has all been without you.
My name is Charlotte and this is Where I Stand.