Michael (a highly fictionalized/conglomerate but all too real client) was scared as hell and little more than a month away from aging out of the group home he had lived in. At the close of the session he was trembling. I had seen him twice a week for the very first three years of my private practice (many many years ago now) and I had fielded at least as many hours of emergency and crisis phone calls. Hired as an independent contractor by the group home agency, I had watched him, week after week, grow from a gangly coltish boy, into a young self-identified gay man, as tough as he was pretty.

He had no one.
His parents, both severely mentally ill, profoundly sadistic, and long gone. He had lived in an undisputed, unfathomable house of horrors, tortured and feral, until he was removed at age 7. He had then been bounced, through a series of group homes – staffed by indifferent, and often explicitly abusive workers.

He reported being harassed by homophobic staff and peers, called a “girl” a “she-male” and much much worse because of his carriage, style and orientation. He had decided to remain at his current placement as it was “better than all the others.” A month or so earlier several staff members in the group home had been pulled out of their offices by police and taken away in handcuffs.

I had decided that I would remain available, and give Michael the opportunity to continue in treatment with me, and told him of my decision. He knew that the agency would no longer pay for my services after his birthday, and protested that it wouldn’t be fair to me. For my part, I had watched him grow up in my office, and I couldn’t let him disappear into an abyss. He had been through too much. We set a fee of $1 a session.

I wanted to spare him even more loss. And I was inflated and foolish enough to think that I could. Michael knew better, knew that what was to come would be too much.

The truth is I was terrified for him, terrified of the horrors he had absorbed and of the wounds he would carry forever. Terrified that the tortures he had survived, the abruptly cold bureaucratic transition ahead, in combination with the genetic predisposition he had inherited, would result in a terrible psychotic break, one that I could not contain in my office, even if I saw him five days a week. There was no sign, no observable evidence of it yet, but I felt it coming like a storm beyond the horizon.

I wanted to stop it from happening. I wanted to stand between him and what I feared was inevitable. I wanted to hold him together. For both our sakes.

I had just left the mental health system. I knew what lay ahead if the worst happened: I knew what kinds of counselors and rehab techs and psychiatrists, and day programs, and residence workers, and group leaders, and intensive care managers could become his treatment providers. Some caring and gifted, and as many, or even more: hard, shaming and incompetent. I knew the institutionalized food he would be fed, the sedating medications that he would be compelled to take in order to be seen as “compliant” and worthy of treating. I knew the groups he would sleep through, and the hospitals that would re-traumatize him, restrain him and discharge him long before he was stabilized. I knew how committed I had been to offering clients the opportunity to heal in a system that merely wanted to manage behavior and how impossible it was.
I knew how horrible it had been to watch people I cared about succumb simultaneously to their illness and a broken system.

You will see that the analyst is holding the patient, and this often takes the form of conveying in words at the appropriate moment something that shows that the analyst knows and understands the deepest anxiety that is being experienced… There are times when you carry around your child who has earache. Soothing words are no use… but eventually, it will be understanding and empathy that are necessary.
~ D. W. Winnicott in the Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment

There is a question I have been very commonly asked, in varying forms, by other peoples’ clients and by younger clinicians, since first I began publishing my writing on line:

When is it okay to hug a client?
My therapist held me and rocked me, is that okay?
What kind of physical contact is all right in my therapists office?
My therapist takes my hand and it makes me feel better but my friends say it is dangerous. How can that be if I asked her if she would?
Can I hug my therapist?

These questions can only be answered with many many more questions:

What is the need? What is the impulse? What is the intention? What might the outcome be? What is the nature of the alliance? What are the expectations? Why is this emerging at this point in the relationship? What are the forces, conscious, and unconscious that make physical contact in a talking therapy seem necessary, natural, or like a good idea? What does contact communicate? What might the short term consequences be and what are the long term implications? What kind of touch? What is the message being expressed and what is the message that might be received? How are these the same or different?

Will the experience, memory, and interpretation of physical contact be consistent over time? Who is initiating contact? How might the inherent power differentials between therapist and client skew their interpretations and experiences of physical contact? What is the history, examined or unexamined in either party, of infantile or early childhood deprivation? Of sexual abuse? Of severely disrupted attachment? Of sexual acting out?

Is touch in and of itself being seen as solution, a mechanism of cure, an intervention? Why, if the therapist has only been trained in one of the many variations of the talking therapy, would the therapist want, need, think that this form of touch was within their purview of expertise?

Why can’t the wish for physical contact be translated into words? What words might touch suppress, avoid, or circumvent?

As Michael blew his nose, and wiped his tears to leave the session he said:
“Thank you for not leaving me” he said. “I wish I could hug you, but its probably against the rules?”

He looked unbearably young and vulnerable.

I hugged him and he held on tight. I felt life a life guard dragging a drowning boy to shore.

Margaret Little in her lovely therapeutic memoir, Psychotic Anxieties and Containment, (which doesn’t sound lovely at all but it is) speaks about her own treatment, and need for dependent regression to infancy and merger with Winnicott:

“Here I feel it is appropriate to speak of the two things about which there has been misunderstanding – holding and regression to dependence. D.W. used the word holding both metaphorically and literally. Metaphorically he was holding the situation, giving support, keeping contact on every level with what was going on, in and around the patient and in the relationship to him.

Literally, through many long hours, he held my two hands clasped between his, almost like an umbilical cord, while I lay, often hidden beneath the blanket, silent, inert, withdrawn, in panic, rage, or tears, asleep and sometimes dreaming” – Margaret I. Little

Our bodies have needs, and there are wounds that need to be processed in and of themselves with preverbal, experiential, tactile, somatic interventiions. Touch is sometimes felt to be necessary by and on behalf of those who have suffered profound disruptions in their earliest experiences of sorting their insides from their outsides, whose capacity to attach has been disrupted, who have never been safely held.

But that does’t mean it is safe or healthy for any therapist to hold any client.

In the weeks ahead, the break I feared erupted, more violently than I could have imagined. Michael was wild, entrapped in thick and convoluted paranoid fantasies, he had several physical altercations on the street, with others in his group home, with strangers. He continued coming to session, regressed, disorganized.

Michael next began leaving voice messages on my machine in a voice not his own. The last one I listened to, cold hard and threatening, filled with chilling contempt, caused the blood to drain from my face, my hands to shake, and a cold sweat to break out on my forehead. A voice which Michael must have heard whispered his own ear through out childhood said this:

“Don’t you feel stupid? Don’t you feel foolish for caring about me now? You will regret ever having known me. I hate you more than you can ever know. I’ll make you pay.”

When I called the group home – he had not yet transferred out – the worker said:

“Oh yeah, she’s been walking around here for weeks screaming about you, saying she’s gonna kill you. Talking about all the different ways she’s gonna do it. She’s gonna get a gun, get a knife….” All of which were easily accessible to Michael.

Yeah, thanks a lot for letting me know and coordinating care – oh and, remember all that “duty to warn” stuff? Well done. A pleasure working with you and your organization.


If murder threatens, you call in the police to help not only yourself, but also the client. In all these emergencies you recognize the clients cry of despair because of the loss of hope of help.

~ D. W. Winnicot in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment

I called the brand new group home supervisor and told them to have Michael taken to the ER and assessed.

Winnicott was in his primary professional identity, a pediatrician. “Psyche and soma for him were not separable… He kept a stethoscope, sphygmomanometer, and clinical thermometer handy and used them” (Little, Psychotic Anxieties and Containment)

My training is in the verbal therapies: I know many acupuncturists, massage therapists, cranial sacral therapists, that act as defacto counselors and do very deep healing and emotional work. I also know osteopaths and somatic psychologists who are trained and sought out for their expertise in therapeutic touch. I have great respect for their work and I regularly refer clients who need tactile intervention to such care providers – as well as trainers, martial arts masters , and yoga instructors – following the clients leanings and preferences – so that the somatic intervention can be delegated to a specialist and we can hold the case, and the client’s whole Self, together as a team.

That being said:

When I worked with young children, I never once rejected child’s hug, nor would I, but neither would I impose one.

I have willingly and appreciatively, accepted hugs from clients that were clearly spontaneous expressions of gratitude, appreciation, or connection.

I have covered clients in regressed states with the blanket in my office, and sat on my ottoman near to them.

I have been known, on occasion, to hug a receptive client good bye after a long stretch of deep work, or to re-greet the same client with a hug hello after a lengthy absence.

I have escorted terrified, suicidal or decompensated clients to the psychiatric emergency room holding their hand, or with my arm around their shoulder.

I have encountered clients in medical crisis in and outside of the office and held or touched them to assist them in getting to medical treatment, or to keep them calm until help arrived.

I have occasionally put an arm around clients, with their permission or at their request, when they have been in very significant crisis or after a sudden or shocking death, or following a life-threatening event.

And sometimes contact has emerged as a spontaneous expression of joy after a miraculous surprise. One or two clients over the course of the past two decades may even be able to report that I danced a little jig, and engaged with them in a sort of silly mutual square-dance-like ring-around-a-rosey while squealing with glee like kids at the circus.

I recall my own analyst hugging me as I left the office for the last time on the eve of motherhood, as I left to meet and hold the baby boy who would become my son.

We are human and share the need to grieve and celebrate physically together sometimes.

But all these instances are the very rare exceptions that sustain the rule, and were extensions of well-established and mutual trust in the relationship, Moreover, contact was not offered as a treatment, a solution, or as an intervention in itself. Nor did contact stifle or divert us from talking about the feelings, positive or negative, about our relationship, what the physical gesture meant, or the events and context around us.

In my office, we work together to speak of physical impulses, and assign language to the states that move through our minds and bodies. I have expressed verbally to clients that I have an image in my mind of rocking them, hugging them, or some other impulse associated with early holding functions. I recently verbalized an absurd impulse to cross the room and give a client a good tickle – All seemed to have as deep, if not a deeper holding effect than actual contact.

If physical contact ever feels like it needs to be kept secret, if it is ever sexualized or seductive, if the client feels uncomfortable or has mixed or shifting feelings about it, even if they value or initiated the contact – then it was impinging, a boundary violation, a very significant error, and perhaps a sanctionable act on the therapists part.

I never saw Michael again. The hospital that admitted or discharged him never contacted me, or asked about his treatment or my understanding of his history or his future needs. The mental health residence that took him in, the day treatment program that assumed responsibility for his care never asked about our three years of work together.

Michael did call me himself. I would hear from him about once a year. Sometimes twice a year, for six or seven years after our work together, before the calls stopped.

He always profusely apologized for what had happened between us. And I had a several chances to express my own sorrows about my inability to keep us both safe in a way that would have allowed us to sustain our work together. He complained that he had grown unrecognizably fat from the medications he was taking, and that I wouldn’t know him if I saw him on the street. Sometimes he would call, off medication, confused, agitated, disengaged from whatever program he had been “non-compliant” at, and ask if I could be his therapist again.

Once, I got a phone call from his intensive case manager letting me know he had violated the terms of his outpatient commitment, asking if I knew his whereabouts.

The last time I heard his voice, he left this message:

“Don’t hate me. I hope you don’t hate me. You must hate me, you have a right to hate me, but please, please don’t hate me for what I done.”

When I listen to the case, as told to me by my own, younger self, with a supervisory ear, I want to unburden that clinician, to assure her that both she and Michael were caught in an impossible situation, that there was no real holding for therapist or client, that Michael’s break was and deterioration was inevitable, unpreventable in this era, with the resources available, with the current system, and that the wish to hold him together physically, emotionally, psychologically was human, loving and understandable.

But at my core, I still hear Michael’s voice:

“I wish I could hug you, but its probably against the rules?”

What if I had asked: What rules Michael? Perhaps they were his own internal, unspoken rules and parameters – a mandate that his primitive dependence not be activated in any setting that could not truly contain him. If I hadn’t hugged him could we have maintained an alliance through the break? Did I activate primal needs impossible for either of us to contain? Did I make a terrible scenario that much worse? Could I have mitigated or advocated for him within the system? Could I have softened the blow?

If I knew then, what I know now, could I have helped him to hold on?
Could I have held both of us better?

Occasionally holding must take a physical form, but I think this is only because there is a delay in the analysts understanding which he can use for verbalizing what is afoot.

~ D.W. Winnicott in the Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford