Ending and Unending, Part 2 of 3

In NYC, the traditional psychoanalytic models still reign in lay-peoples’ imaginations. For many, being entrapped in a Woody Allen-esque interminable, lifetime analysis is an active barrier to entering into any helping relationship at all. There is a fear of dependency, a fear that the therapist won’t let them go, that they will be held hostage, infantilized, exploited by the therapist’s never-ending hunger for the weekly check written at the end of each session.

Oftentimes at a first consultation, clients, like anxious airline passengers, want to know if they can find the clearly designated exit before they will settle into their seat. “How long do you usually see people for?” or “I think I will only need to come for 5 or 6 sessions, is that okay?”

And, to give their fears credit, there probably are some clinicians who are reluctant to let clients leave, who do hang on to people as long as possible, for many different kinds of reasons, conscious and unconscious, selfish, fearful, well-intentioned, loving, clutchy or well-reasoned. And all of the above at once.

Traditionally, patients’ attempts at “premature” terminations of the analytic process are viewed as resistance. And many people do choose to take flight from the treatment at the moment when it gets difficult and threatens to re-organize life as they know it: changing relationships, work, or long-held beliefs about themselves.

I let them go. I trust my clients’ larger psyche, their higher Selves, to make their own choices and to assess their own readiness. I also trust Life itself to put any essential lesson they are fleeing from in front of them again and again – until it is either digested and assimilated or it returns in force, threatening to consume them.

And by the way: I’m not going anywhere and I won’t lock the door after you leave. I’ll still be right here, same cell phone number, same e-mail – happy to roll up my sleeves and get right back to work if and when you decide to return.

Many do.

8-10 sessions, a year, two years or ten – it’s all fine with me. I also don’t think that everyone needs to work it out in a therapy office. I’ve known too many people who have taken just one or two small tools received from a very brief “incomplete” therapy, and put them to remarkable use for many years after a consultation or two. I don’t underestimate the impact of brief but transformative contacts in my own history, and I don’t assume that I – or psychotherapy in general – are the only mechanisms for learning and growth.

My own first departure from therapy was in my mid-twenties. Working in restaurants while applying to graduate school, I was struggling to financially emancipate myself and set more adult boundaries with my complicated family of origin.

I told my therapist that after six years of meeting with him, for much of the time twice a week, that – after years when being a patient had practically been my primary vocation – I had to stop. I could see no way to extend my pending student loans to cover school expenses, rent, and therapy and individuate from my family. I had to leave.

What came next startled me. He said: Okay.

He didn’t fight for me, protest, or seem to feel rejected. He also didn’t seem particularly upset or happy to see me go, or insist on over-processing the how’s and why’s and unconscious muck beneath my decision. He just said, OK, and wished me luck.

I was stunned. And a little unmoored. Maybe I even felt a little abandoned. I just hadn’t expected him to drop his end of the rope when I let go of mine. I’d thought that I owed him something for all that he had seen me through. I thought that he would need something back from me, something more than my paid fees and my heartfelt gratitude. I assumed that my leaving would disappoint him. I thought I should feel guilt about disrupting his income stream. But, here he was: kind enough, but essentially unaffected. He hadn’t been dependent on me just because I had been dependent on him? It was confusing and liberating. I understood for the first time that I really did not have to take care of him at all. I did not have to worry about harming him. I did not owe him anything emotionally. We were even. I was not in debt or indebted. Fresh oxygen filled my lungs.

(A year or so later, when my financial circumstances changed, I was happy to get back into his office to resume the work.)

Another memorable termination comes to mind. In my first year out of social work school, I briefly joined a supervision group led by a woman who taught at a group therapy institute in the city. I learned a great deal from the supervisor and found her very specific practice methods borne out of the “modern psychoanalytic” model provocative and intellectually fascinating. But after only six months or so the group was wearing on me. I knew that I was not going to absorb their clinical values as my own. Although I respected the therapeutic model and saw that it had much to offer, it also felt too cold to me and, at times, too calculating. I felt that my studies in this group were stimulating but supplemental to my practice, not essential. I also knew with certainty that I wanted to transition to group work with one of my former teachers from NYU.

As I began the process of trying to extricate myself from the group, my fellow therapists/ co-group members began trying, in earnest, to “solve” whatever problem they felt was causing me to leave. The discussion was becoming increasingly frustrating as the group clung to me. I had wanted to leave gently, respectfully, and with gratitude – not to be pressured into pushing anyone away or devaluing anyone’s practice model.

Just as the tension began to peak, the supervisor said: “Do you need the group to help you to leave? Or help you to stay?”

Help me to leave?

Help me to leave.

Help me to leave you.

What a sacred, generous idea.

I could think of so many people that I wished could have helped me to leave, in so many ways.

It was the most important gift I received from that group, a gift that I still cherish. It is also one of my favorite gifts to pass on. I enjoy watching the surprised, relieved expression on a new client’s face when I promise I will help them to leave, if ever they need me to. And then, they take the first deep breath of the hour and settle more deeply into their seat.

copyright © 2011 Martha Crawford