Someone asked me to write this. Sort of.
They asked me if I could state, in tangible terms, the kinds of healing that I have seen take place in my work as a therapist.
And I can’t. Because it didn’t and doesn’t somehow seem to be my prerogative to codify or co-opt my client’s experiences to say how I think they have been healed, or not. That is up to them to define. I have no idea what they think has helped about therapy unless they tell me.
Sometimes they point to powerful defining words – for good and ill – that I said, years, even decades earlier, that I have no recollection of ever saying.
I do this to my psychotherapist too. If you’ve read my writing over time you’ve seen me do it, and you should know he is a very good sport about it.
Is healing always even the goal? Sometimes the goal is just surviving.
Some weeks, it is an extraordinary accomplishment and more than enough that we are all still here, and still pursing hope, meaning and connection and living out of our values in the face of life’s suffering.
Certainly I’ve seen people transform their lives in front of me: Leaving abusive scenarios behind, finding love, healing relationships with partners, becoming parents and more attuned parents, getting through school, sorting through confusion, negotiating and resolving crises, mourning deaths and other unfathomable losses, facing down fears, coming out of all kinds of closets, changing careers, owning their true identities, at first managing, and eventually shedding symptoms and anxieties.
But I don’t think these accomplishments were because of me. Sometimes the client does though. When they thank me, I try to stay gracious and not too self-effacing and accept their gratitude as a sign of appreciation of my sticking near them through it.
But often that is all I am doing. Staying near. Bearing witness, and letting what I am seeing change me. Staying out of the way, and trying to clear some thickets here and there that may be blocking their true path. Babysitting their most vulnerable needs until they are ready to value and care for them on their own. Making a dark time a little less lonely, and a little less terrifying. Normalizing some stuff that they worry is crazy. But the growth is theirs and may have happened without me. Maybe I made the unfolding a little easier. So I try to accept the gratitude – but it always feels strange to do so. Like a plant thanking me for its growth and harvest when all I did was water it once or twice a week.
But here is what I can talk about – and will try to do so briefly. Briefly. Ha!
I will try to talk briefly (that is hilarious) about almost thirty years as a client in my own psychotherapy.
I arrived in New York City in the year after my 21st birthday, to work in the theater and to be near a boy – who I thought was a man, a few years older than me – but I see now was just a boy. The boy fell in love with someone else, and for some reason didn’t tell me. I don’t know why. We weren’t living together, we weren’t committed – perhaps he felt bound by an underlying and crushing dependency that I barely contained – as I lashed myself tightly to any peer, friend, lover that I could, hoping to survive the sinking ship of a family that I had left behind. Perhaps he feared that if he left he would sink me. And he was kind of right. But he still should have left for the girl he did love rather than making me feel increasingly crazy, confused, burdensome and complaining about my “jealousy problem.”
I had other problems, certainly. I had inherited them. My father had come from a deeply abusive, very wealthy and epically pathological family – and spent his life trying to expel his pain with unnecessary surgeries – over 20 times under the knife – narcotics, religion and rage. He remarried to a woman with three sons who became his real family and I was at best a tolerated guest. My mother had left him when I was ten, after falling in love with our parish priest, who was also a terrifying narcissist, and ultimately “defrocked” by the Episcopalian diocese. He also eventually left, taking the house out from under us.
So maybe that is why the boy was scared to leave me. But he agreed to go to couples therapy. So we went. We were matched at a fee for service clinic with a young man fresh out of his internship, maybe about the boys age – 25 or so – much older than me, so I thought. I don’t remember much of these sessions, except that they eventually helped me to tell the weak scared boy to go, for Gods sake.
And then I sunk. Which was necessary. Which was practically mandatory – because I thought, up until that loss, that the life I had inherited was sustainable. That it was wacky, funny, unconventional perhaps, but I was sure it was all fine. And that life would keep unfolding that way and that I could keep making a funny story about it at cast-parties after rehearsal, and that there was no harm done.
And suddenly, it was clear to me that something had happened again, that I never ever ever wanted to happen again, and that there was plenty of harm done. Plenty.
I began seeing the 25 year old therapist myself twice a week. I began noticing that I had symptoms, which I had never noticed as symptoms before. I would spend hours getting dressed, unable to see myself accurately in the mirror not because I was fussy about clothes but because I unable to tell what I looked like. I was not a night owl, I had regular, and pretty severe insomnia, terrible nightmares, intrusive memories, flashbacks, night-shame from my increasingly obviously not-so-normal childhood.
I began trying to tell the kind young therapist the story so far – to recount, recall and reorder for myself what exactly had happened. I came in to each session and told some other part of the story. I told him, and myself for the first time what it actually felt like, parts of the story that I had ignored, the distressing, disturbing, terrifying, traumatic memories that swirled in my head instead of sleep. There was no familial or social relationship that would have listened. And my own shame and dissociation made it impossible to tell even if there had been.
This was it. Psychotherapy created the space for me to locate myself in the middle of a swirling tornado of chaos and confusion.
It took me years to tell it all. I barely noticed the young therapist because the need to tell it all was so overwhelming.
At the end of seven years, I said: “I think I am finished telling you what happened.” And I noticed that he was still in the room. And that he hadn’t left, or become terrified himself, or ever once looked away. That he had stayed through all of it. That I finally had a witness, who had heard the whole story, who had traveled from my first home, and then after my family exploded, back and forth, between my parents houses with me – who had made it through with me, and this meant that perhaps, I had made it through as well.
Then there was the present to deal with. How would I protect myself and how could I exist outside of the chaotic family that I loved and was attached to? How could I separate and individuate – and jump into the void and all the unknowns of adulthood from a platform so unstable? How had I been and how would I continue to repeat this story? How had I projected it on to others? How was I, without realizing it, recasting the characters from the original script in my adult narrative? How could I do something new, create something healthier for myself? Would I even recognize, or be attracted to available relationships when I encountered them? Would I always over-adapt to compensate for the wounds of others?
The flashbacks receded. I slept soundly through the night most nights. I could get dressed and leave the house easily enough. The panic attacks faded away. I don’t know when. I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t come to therapy for symptom reduction. I came to save my soul.
And eventually this (although for many years this was too terrifying): How did this all show up in my relationship to my therapist himself? How did fear, distrust, anger, injury, paranoia, anxiety, chaos affect my ability to see him clearly, to connect to him? I began to actively use the therapy as a chance to watch the slow-motion replay: I could see my error, my out-of-bounds, my avoidance, my need, my indirection, my suspicion, my fear as it effected my participation, my attachment, my authentic presence in therapeutic relationship right in front of my eyes. I saw what triggered my reactions and over-reactions, and learned that forgivable acts can activate memories of unforgivable ones.
This felt like a super-power, x-ray vision. With this discovery I was suddenly able to see myself, and others – and assess if I was giving what I should, if I was receiving what I needed. I could sense balance and imbalance, sustainable mutuality, and untenable lopsidedness in my relationships. I began to seek out others who could sense and speak of this too.
My joys and sorrows were increasingly responsive to the real events and stressors in my daily life – and less and less and less about an unprocessed past bleeding out all over a messy present. I created reliable, loving, respectful relationships with friends, and chosen family in the present and the salvageable and loving members of my family of origin.
I mourned for all of those I had to let go.
I took up the profession for myself somewhere along the line, graduating from social work school just after I turned thirty, and eloped, marrying a man I had met five years earlier, the summer before graduation. And I continued in therapy to deepen my examination of how my limitations and history were activated and projected into the therapeutic relationships in my own office and to keep my relationship with my husband and my in-laws – another family! – growing and healthy. And that parallel process – of being a psychotherapist – and being a client – strengthened and healed me even more.
And the relationship still exists, and always will. I don’t know how a 25 year old boy was able to contain a deeply traumatized 21 year old girl. But he did. And we have grown up together, and practiced parallel to each other now for over twenty years. I see him when life permits or requires. And that is less important than all that is absolutely permanent between us.
So: Can I say, in tangible terms, how I have seen psychotherapy heal, as a psychotherapist?
I guess the answer is yes.