Trouble with my therapist
August 9, 2019 9:17 AM   Subscribe

God, I don’t even know where to begin. I’ll do my best to be concise.

I’ve been seeing this therapist for childhood trauma and related issues for nearly 4 years. On the whole it’s been a very beneficial relationship for me. I’ve been slowly thawing out of a low level constant dissociation by learning how to feel safe and, as a result, being able to feel other emotions (which is not always fun). I’ve also slowly learned how to begin to feel attached and connected to another person.

Until recently. This all still feels very chaotic to me, so to provide a timeline:

This summer we were supposed to intensify the trauma work with two sessions per week. (Her schedule opens up in the summer.) This was derailed almost immediately by a really hurtful conflict / fight. It was not the first conflict we’d had, and it was not the first time she lashed out, but it was by far the worst: this time she used things I’d said in therapy to hurt me, and, it felt like, punish me. She then doubled down on this over the course of the next week. It was really, really devastating and disorienting.

Obviously this is pretty bad. It took more than a week, and at least two sessions, to get her to see how badly she’d hurt me. I had to tell her I felt abused and why. She admitted that she’d been triggered, partially due to other things going on in her personal life. She also admitted how badly she’d messed up.

She believed our relationship could be repaired, and I…needed it to be repaired, which is not ideal. I at least needed it to not end like that. There are a number of other things going on that really complicate this situation:

- I’ve become more isolated than I can really handle. Partially this is due to self-employment, partially because all my friends have partners and/or kids and I’m perpetually single when I don’t want to be, partially because the relationships that were the most important to me turned out, over the course of doing all this trauma work, to not be super healthy.
- I’m on the waitlist for an evaluation for what used to be called Asperger’s. I’m in my late thirties and a woman (well….we’ll get to that later), so I’ve spent most of my life masking. I’m really good at it. So good at it I’ve lost sight of who I am in a lot of ways, and that I’ve sort of become this weird hybrid, where I know I don’t fit with NT people, but I no longer feel like I fit with most espies either (younger me would have). Both of those things are barriers to connection and belonging, and I think it goes a long way to explaining why some of my relationships have ended badly. But I’m also wondering how much it’s contributing to this situation. Anyway, until I can be evaluated — and given the overlap of symptoms with developmental trauma stuff, there’s no guarantee I’m actually aspie, or if I am I’ll be evaluated as such — I don’t really have access to a lot of resources. Also there don’t appear to be many resources for women in midlife.
- I’m mid career change. It’s not going great. I’m struggling a lot more than I thought I would. My money hasn’t run out, and I have family that will help me, but I’m not feeling great about all this.
- I’ve recently realized that I have some gender stuff to work out. I’ve never felt like a woman, really, and I’ve always assumed most of that had to do with the crap women have to deal with. And maybe it does! But maybe it’s more than that. I don’t know wtf I am to be honest. When I figured this out I cried for two days and since then I’ve kind of shut down around it. So…that’s waiting for me.
- Partially due to the gender stuff, and partially due to some possible serious side effects, I decided to wean off spironolactone. Going on it made me crazy, so I suspect going off is going to make me crazy, too, while my hormones rebalance. My endocrinologist knows about this.
- I have increasingly disruptive sensory issues which are further isolating. A big part of the possible ASD stuff are my sensory issues, but as I’ve continued to become more aware of how I feel, they’ve gotten worse. Public places are barely tolerable for me, noise-wise, unless I’ve got ear plugs, and even then not for long periods of time. (Though now I understand why I used to drink so much; it totally does help deaden things.) I’m also light sensitive and need glasses. I’m apparently also photosensitive now (though hopefully this is bc of the spiro and will resolve itself) and can’t be in the sun for more than like 5 min, so I have to bring a freaking umbrella everywhere. I feel like the world is trying to break me. I also feel, not unreasonably, like a wet blanket. There’s a lot of stuff I can’t do.
- I have pretty obvious attachment issues. Like attachment and connection do not feel safe to me, so I have found ways to sabotage them. (I don't think I'm doing this here, but I also don't think I'm NOT doing it. Like I know it's possible for this relationship to have gone bad because of my therapist's fuck ups AND for me to have contributed to sabotaging it at the same time, but I have no clarity on any of that, and don't want to get stuck in a loop of "well this is what always happens." This is part of why this is so disorienting.)

So with all of this going on, my therapist has felt like the one source of connection and attachment in my life. Again, not ideal. But it’s part of why it was so important to me to repair this relationship.

And then it kind of happened again.

Not the same thing — she didn’t lash out. But it was clear to me that she was triggered, and thus reactive, and she reacted to me in a way that hurt me pretty badly. We’ve talked about and acknowledged how much we care about each other and the fact that I sometimes trigger her, and that it happened again yesterday. I think what is happening is that because of this attachment she is no longer able to maintain the dual awareness / detachment necessary for a therapeutic relationship. Or she wasn’t able to yesterday, at least, and she wasn’t able to at the beginning of July. She acknowledges that she has been triggered by me and overwhelmed and says that she is working on it. I think I am also now triggered by her — I noticed it yesterday, walking into her office it was like a curtain descended and I just became…hopeless and unreachable. And that, in turn, triggered her.

I’m now in this really weird place. I have no outside input into this relationship that has been really important to me but that now seems to have become something dysfunctional, and at the same time it feels like it’s taking over my life. For the last 6 weeks or so this has been the thing that’s eaten up all my emotional energy. My work has suffered. My sleep has suffered. It feels claustrophobic and suffocating. And yet I don’t know what comes next. I don’t know how to handle the grief and loss of ending this relationship, especially like this. I don’t want to end it completely. It especially feels weird and wrong for me to be the one to call it, because then it means she doesn't see how it's gone wrong and I can't get any closure or a post mortem of what happened, and maybe I'm just pushing her away, etc. But…all the other stuff I wrote.

I also cannot imagine another therapist at this point. The idea just exhausts me. This will have been the third therapeutic relationship in a row to go off the rails — the first one, call her therapist #1, about 2 years in she started to get weirdly short and irritable and when I asked about it she blew up at me, ending the relationship; it turned out she was waiting to hear if she had MS while her kid was ALSO getting sick with a mystery ailment and after that she stopped seeing clients entirely, which I only found out months later when she apologized and explained. It was still pretty traumatic. Therapist #2 developed what I can only call a crush on or infatuation with me — telling me in inappropriate detail about her life, her other clients’ lives, talking about one day meeting each other’s friends, giving me her anonymous username to a very popular website on a homemade card, texting me about nothing between sessions, asking me to have a drink with her after sessions, drinking after sessions with me present. I ended that relationship only a few months in and that was also kind of harrowing. And then this one, the one that has been such a good thing in my life until recently, would be #3.

I just…fucking can’t, with the idea of doing this again.

I’ve told my therapist much of this — I told her I’m worried she’s too attached to maintain that dual awareness, I told her I keep getting hurt. I told her I think I’m triggered by this now. I told her it’s claustrophobic and suffocating. She agrees I need other things in my life, but she feels our relationship is still therapeutic and wants to continue the therapy. I told her I was, in that moment, uncomfortable, and worried she doesn't see the situation clearly. She floated the idea of a break.

I see her on Tuesday. She’s going to talk to her mentor over the weekend. I’m asking you.

What the fuck do I do?

Is it possible to repair this? Is it WISE to repair this? Are there ethical guidelines about this? Is there some other form this relationship can take? Right now I’m leaning towards scaling way back, like seeing her maybe once every two weeks or once a month, and seeing how that breathing room feels.

Part of me wonders if this would give me the room and energy to fill my life with other things, outwardly focused things that I enjoy, and if it’s just time for that. But I’m not sure I know what those things would be. And then I wonder if I would just spin out instead.

So. Yeah. Thank you for reading this far. What says the hive mind?
posted by SmockTheSock to Human Relations (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If a friend were talking like this about literally any relationship in their life (doctor, baker, fiancée, it doesn't matter), what would you tell them?

Seriously, this is so far beyond anything resembling a therapeutic journey that I'm surprised nobody's advising you to sue her for malpractice. Yes, it will be difficult to find another therapist (I've been through quite a few in my time, I know), but at this moment, it *really* reads like any sort of relationship with her at all will do far more harm than good. Ie, sometimes it's safer to walk out the door and never come back, and this is really looking like one of those times.
posted by Mogur at 9:27 AM on August 9 [25 favorites]

I'm truly no expert in this area, but sometimes I think it helps to simplify things.

This is a complex situation but in short, Therapy is supposed to be helpful. And this doesn't sound like it's helping you.

I know you stated you don't want to find a new therapist but I think that's your best option here.
posted by JenThePro at 9:29 AM on August 9 [5 favorites]

Your current therapist has treated you in ways that are unacceptable, full stop.

I understand that finding another one seems too hard, but you need to drop this one. This "relationship" is not healthy or appropriate. She is treating you like a friend or lover, not a client or patient. And she's dysfunctional even at that.

Yes, I think she should be reported to the licensing board.
posted by nirblegee at 9:29 AM on August 9 [21 favorites]

If it helps to hear it, from a basically NT perspective, this therapist relationship went bad some time ago, and that the therapist doesn't even seem to have insight into that is frankly alarming. I don't want to minimize all your valid concerns about switching therapists, but I think your current one has the potential to--if she isn't already doing it--make you worse.
posted by praemunire at 9:31 AM on August 9 [11 favorites]

Hi. Therapist and clinical supervisor here. It is 100% okay, at ANY time, for you to decide that you need a break from therapy. This is only speaking for me, but if I was that triggered by a client like that, especially more than once, I would strongly consider transferring them to another appropriate therapist. In my opinion, the therapy ISN'T therapeutic once it becomes emotionally flooding to one or both people. You can't learn and change and grow and develop if your nervous system is in a shutdown state, and it sounds like that might be where you are with this.

It is okay to take a break.
It is okay to end therapy if you are not able to engage with it.

If I was supervising a therapist who was behaving like this in sessions, it would be a serious concern that would need to be addressed immediately. I would not be comfortable continuing to have that therapist see the client that was so intensely triggering to them that they were verbally abusive to that client, which is never, ever appropriate in a therapeutic relationship. Ever.

Please take care of yourself and your own needs, and let this relationship go. You can get through the grief, I promise you that you can, but the longer that this inappropriate and abusive behavior continues, the harder it will be to leave and heal. I am so sorry that this has been your experience with therapy - if you ever decide to go back, there are therapists out there who can be both caring and professional. Take a break and do some of those lovely outwardly focused things you enjoy, and then see how you feel. Much luck and be well.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 9:32 AM on August 9 [44 favorites]

I'm so so sorry you've had so many bad therapist experiences. It will be worse to stay with this one than to leave. I haven't got many words at the moment but solidarity and understanding on the other things & I really root for you.
posted by lokta at 9:47 AM on August 9 [2 favorites]

I would fire this therapist. I would take a minimum of six weeks, maybe more, as a "break" between the fired therapist and trying to find a new therapist. Be kind to yourself during that time, expect yourself to grieve and struggle. Journal or otherwise record your thoughts and feelings, so you have them for later.

If it feels easier, you can decide that you're not going to make any decisions about licensing, malpractice, or discussing the experience with anyone for at least a week after you fire this therapist. It might help if you choose to put off trying to figure out what you want and give yourself space to think and feel.
posted by bagel at 9:53 AM on August 9 [8 favorites]

I'll just join in the chorus. This is not helping you. This is actively hurting you. It's so hard to do therapy. I can't imagine how hard it is to do it with someone who has been verbally abusive to you. You deserve so much better than this. It's totally OK to take a break. I had to do it (for childhood trauma, fwiw). And now I'm going back for a few focused sessions.

You've had some bad therapist. Unfortunately, they're out there. This one seems to have gotten in over her head. But there are also really good ones out there. I wish you the best of luck. Please take care of yourself. Feel free to MeMail if you want to talk.
posted by kathrynm at 9:56 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]

I am very happy to talk over MeMail. I pretty much tick all the boxes that you tick. Im beginning to think that this is A Phenomenon, and that folks like us should connect and organise.

As regards the therapist, can her mentor sit in on some sessions?

It is entirely reasonable to ask your family, if appropriate, to step up and check in with you daily, send good things to you, anything that helps your lizard brain. This might be useful if you need to end things with this therapist, although they are of course not therapists.
posted by Mistress at 10:02 AM on August 9 [2 favorites]

Sorry, I stopped reading when you said the therapist "lashed out" at you. That's not supposed to happen. You have this internet stranger's permission to discontinue this person's services.
posted by radioamy at 10:15 AM on August 9 [17 favorites]

This might sound obvious, but: it won't take four years with a new therapist to get back to where you were at the start of the summer.

You'll need to do some work to catch a new person up, and to build trust with them. But it won't take four years.

When I had to break up with a therapist I'd been making a lot of progress with, it was easy to slip into feeling like I'd lose that progress, or like I'd never find someone again who I could make that kind of progress with. But that's not true. It's your progress. You get to keep it. You get to bring it with you to the next person you work with. You get to keep building on it. The question is who to take the next step with, and not whether to start over.

(Also, holy shit, yeah, fluctuating testosterone levels make me nuts, and going on or off spiro always left me a weepy mess for a few weeks even aside from whatever dysphoria it caused me. That doesn't invalidate the very real red flags your story raises, but please do be gentle with yourself while your hormones rebalance.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:25 AM on August 9 [18 favorites]

The way you write about your relationship makes it sound like an unhealthy romance or friendship - professional boundaries were crossed long ago. The fact that you guys even need to talk about "triggering" each other seems deeply dysfunctional to me. Especially since it seems to be part of an ongoing pattern and not a horrible one-off that your therapist moved mountains to correct in herself. Saying "she is working on it" and yet continuing to see you while she's so susceptible to being triggered by you seems deeply unprofessional, and not at all in your best interest.

It's totally valid to discontinue a therapeutic relationship when it's not working for you (heck, I'm considering "retiring" my current therapist because I'm realizing I need more than just the venting board she's been giving me). I honestly don't see how this could be repaired in a way that would make her safe for you to continue doing the work you need to do to - can you really ever see yourself trusting her again? I feel for you and what you're saying about this being the third therapist you've had to discontinue - that fricking SUCKS, and it shouldn't have to be that way - but I think you're only going to do yourself harm if you stay with this person.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:37 AM on August 9 [10 favorites]

Your therapist is having serious trouble with countertransference. It is a well known occupational hazard and working with it is one of the reasons a lot of therapists have therapists themselves.

If you decide to continue working with her it is a must for you to find out what she's doing. "Working on it" is vague and if it just involves feeling bad that's not going to help. She needs to be talking to someone or forget it.

If she can get it together then having the experience of healing trauma in a relationship could be very helpful to you, but it's a pretty big if.

I would suggest a month's break during which I would look around for other therapists and which your current therapist could use to get her shit together. A month isn't so long as to leave you completely isolated, but is long enough for you to gain some perspective about whether you want to continue the situation.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:04 AM on August 9 [4 favorites]

I want to boost what nebulawindphone said--it seems overwhelming and daunting to "start all over" with a new therapist, but you're not truly starting over and when you find a therapist who is a good fit they will be able to get up to speed quickly. You'll have to go over some things again but the progress you've made is real. Don't be afraid to press the eject button on the dysfunctional relationship you're currently in to go get what you need.

I am saying this from my own experience. I have been in therapy on and off since I was 10 years old and I have tried therapists with every different kind of philosophy. Starting fresh with someone isn't as scary in practice as it is in your head.
posted by zeusianfog at 11:59 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]

I understand the idea of starting with another therapist is overwhelming. How about seeing one just to help with what's going on right now? Talk about how recent interactions with therapist #1 are affecting you -- you wouldn't be there to rag on #1 but to help you with your own experience and reactions. It would give you a safe space with someone who can focus only on you.
posted by wryly at 12:18 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]

I honestly think you'd be better off taking a break from therapy than you would continuing to work with this therapist. You should not be worrying about triggering your therapist or dealing with the fallout from other things in her personal life. That's worse than nothing! Please consider ending this relationship and finding another one at a later date, when it's not so daunting.
posted by Ragged Richard at 12:38 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]

The good thing here is that you recognize this isn't a good dynamic for you.

Taking a step back from therapy is perfectly alright. I really think you hit the nail on the head when you said this might give you a push to engage in other activities. Maybe you'll find some new friends/get out of the house/just have fun.

They say a change is as good as a rest.

I'm in a similar place where I've got A LOT going on, can be a bit isolated, etc, and just doing something different can be really energizing and stress reducing.

I'm also not NT (hello recently diagnosed ADHD!) and I've realized intimately that no one has exactly the same experience, or same symptoms, or same level of coping skills. You've probably learned to cope with (possibly) Aspie traits over your lifetime, which doesn't mean that you're less neurodivergent.

Several years ago I took up mindfulness meditation, which has not only helped me learn how to take a step back from my emotions, giving me space to handle them, but has also given me a group of welcoming, accepting, low key folks as friends and supporters. Meditation might not be for you, of course, but it certainly has helped me. I wouldn't be in the good place I am without both meditation and therapy at the same time (my therapist agrees).

I bet a lot of low key social activities could suit you.

At any rate, it sounds like you need a break. If it helps, you have permission from this internet stranger to take one.
posted by Archipelago at 2:09 PM on August 9

but I think you also have to take some responsibility for the strange dynamic since this has happened three times now

It hasn't happened three times, it's happened twice. Therapist #1 maintained healthy boundaries up until she suddenly freaked out (which I later, after we had terminated the relationship, learned was from these other stressors in her life). Therapist #2 started to get weird and then escalated to Very Weird And Obviously Not Good within the span of a few weeks. And Therapist #3...I will probably have a different perspective on what happened when I have some distance, but as I mentioned, it was a very beneficial relationship for me for a long time. That is objectively true.

These aren't the only therapists I've had in my life; I had one in high school, one for a period in college, and one for a brief period in my twenties. These are just the last three experiences, and it is the last two that have gone this particular route.

I tried to give as much context as I could, but I'm obviously limited by the nature of AskMe. I am grateful for Metafilter's input and attention, but given the nature of this situation -- and that part of it is severe disorientation -- I'm going to ask that you take care not to contribute to that disorientation without being very, very specific. This feels like you didn't really read the question very closely, made a few assumptions, and then said something flippantly victim-blamey to someone who has described a very vulnerable situation.

If there are specific things that you think warrant that take, please share them. But otherwise I'm going to ask, if I can do that within the guidelines, that you take more care than that, given the epic mindfuck that is already going on here.
posted by SmockTheSock at 2:57 PM on August 9 [13 favorites]

but I think you also have to take some responsibility for the strange dynamic since this has happened three times now

Woah, woah, woah. Would you say that shit to a three-time rape victim? The OP's been mistreated in three relationships that are supposed to be by definition nurturing and trust-filled. They are relationships that are supposed to teach trust and be healing to people who may not have had trust-filled, healing relationships in the past. 100% disagree. The onus is NOT on OP here.

OP, I'm shocked and dismayed that this has happened to you three separate times. I'm so sorry. How are you finding therapists? You have had very, very bad luck, and I wonder if there is a strategy to making sure your next one is a professional with boundaries and conduct. I agree with everyone who said this relationship needs to end. A report would be warranted, but you're under no obligation. A report about therapist 2 perhaps even more so. JFC.
posted by namesarehard at 3:42 PM on August 9 [12 favorites]

[Deleted something victim-blaming but left the replies. If you'd rather the whole thing be deleted, OP, hit the contact form and I'll delete the replies too.]
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 3:50 PM on August 9 [9 favorites]

I'm going to go against the grain here and suggest you take a break from therapy, but return to this therapist. therapists are people. It is next to impossible to have a person perform perfectly at all times, and that window decreases the longer they are in that role. I think, especially in America, there's too much...weight put into the idea of "worker" vs "person", that when people are doing a job for money they're suddenly no longer people, but a service provider.

4 years is a long time to perform perfectly. It looks like she's aware of the source of the problem and is tackling it. I disagree that saying she's "working on it" is not enough of an answer. She is most likely being vague because it would be very inappropriate for her to explain to you what is happening to her as a result of your sessions. There is a problem that is in no way your fault, or your responsibility, and the only thing you need to know is that it's being handled.

Honestly she should have suggested a break between the two of you after her most recent mistake, and in a way continuing sessions is a 3rd mistake, but I also understand that therapists are tasked with weighing the risk/benefit of stopping therapy suddenly. You are in a precarious situation, with the therapist being your only source of support, and it could easily be chalked up to her trying to make the best of a very unfortunate mistake.

All that being said, I'd take a break from her, for at least 6 weeks. In the meantime, ask her for a referral of another therapist that you can see to handle the stress of day-to-day life.
posted by FirstMateKate at 1:22 PM on August 11

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