My psychologist fired me. She believes all people are inherently good. She believes all people are deserving of unconditional positive regard. She believes all people deserve a safe place to share their inner-world without fear of judgment or reproach. I never once skipped a session or missed a payment. I never threatened to cause harm to myself or others. I did not engage in sexual impropriety. Even so, she abandoned me. For more than two years, I shared the most intimate details of my inner-world with her. I depended on her for support through two job terminations, two job searches, an unexpected third child, and an automobile accident on the Interstate that my wife was fortunate to survive. Without warning and within the context of a single session, she involuntarily terminated our therapeutic alliance.
Weeks prior to the involuntary termination, she ended our session about twenty minutes early. She said that something was going on in her personal life and that it was “really bad.” She said that I could chalk it up to her being human. She said that because of what was going on in her personal life she could not be present enough for me. She apologized. She said that her conduct was borderline unethical. She cancelled the rest of her appointments for the day. I paid my full copay, and she billed the insurance company in the usual amount. If I were in her shoes, I probably would have opted to refund the copay and not submit the session to insurance. However, I understand being human and making mistakes. I did not want to make things more difficult for her. Also, the amount of money was nominal and seemed very trivial when compared to the gravity of whatever she was going through. So, I never brought it up.
In subsequent sessions, I kept seeing and hearing things. When a vase of flowers showed up in her office, I saw it. When comforting gifts showed up in her office, I saw them. I heard her when she said that she took a break from listening to her favorite musical because it reminded her of what had happened. When each scheduling of an appointment was followed by the words, “but I might have to cancel,” I heard her. When she unilaterally decided to reduce our number of sessions without discussing her reasoning with me, I noticed. I heard her when she told me that she was trying to reduce her caseload.
I told her what I had seen and heard during our sessions. I told her that it was distracting for me to know that she was suffering but to not know why. She told me that it would be more distracting if I did know why. I wanted to know that she was OK. I wanted to help if I could – I am human too. But I knew which side of the couch I sat on. I understood the relational construct of the therapeutic alliance. I tried to stop wondering and worrying. I tried to ignore the sense I had that she was trying to push me out of the office. But I failed. I told her that I wondered whether she had lost or was losing someone she loved. I told her I wondered whether she, like one of the leading characters in her favorite musical, had given up an opportunity for potential happiness out of a sense of duty or loyalty owed to another person or ideal. I told her that I wondered whether whatever had happened in her personal life inspired her to make changes to her work/life balance so she could spend time with the people she cared about most. I hinted at my belief that she had reduced our sessions for that very reason.
At our final session, I paid my copay and sat down. She asked me how I was doing. I said, “as you might imagine, I am not doing well.” Next, I heard her say, “I think you knew that this was coming, but today will be our last session.” I had suspected that it might be a termination session, because she had terminated me once before. At our seventh session, she told me that, “Today will be our last session.” Leading up to the first termination session, I received a cold and detached email in which her usual warm and conversational tone was absent. The purpose of the email was to reschedule our session. By the end of the seventh session, she changed her mind and decided to keep working with me. We worked hard and developed a strong and trusting relationship after the rupture; we worked well together for many months. But the second termination eventually came, and I did not try to change her mind. She moved up the session two days by sending me a series of emails in which her usual warm and conversational tone was absent. In my reply to her emails, I told her that I would feel better if she could assure me that our next session together would not be a termination session. I also told her that I understood if she was unable to do so. She wrote me back saying nothing more than, “Okay, I'll see you 9 tomorrow.” That is it – just one grammatically incorrect sentence. No salutation. No valediction. Just, “Okay, I’ll see you 9 tomorrow.” Her email was superfluous. She had already written that tomorrow at 9:00 would work, and I had already written that tomorrow at 9:00 would work. It seemed as though the purpose of the email was to communicate her unwillingness to acknowledge my request for validation, giving me additional reason to worry about what was coming.
Her explanation for my second termination was short and to the point. She told me that she felt violated that I would use things she had said in session and things I had seen in session as clues to try to figure out what she was going through in her personal life. She said that it was something that she would never be able to get over. She gave me three referrals. Referral one was to a psychologist who she didn’t know much about. Referral two was to a counselor that she had never met but that she had heard some good things about. Referral three was not even to a specific practitioner but was just a convenience referral to a practice group located in the same building. She did not tell me a single reason why she thought any of the referrals would be a good fit for me. I spent about ten minutes thanking her for the many ways that she tried to help me over the course of our work together and recalling some of the interesting, entertaining, and funny things we had shared. We wished each other the best of luck before parting ways, knowing we would never see or speak to one another ever again.
The day after termination, I began group process therapy. I also spent countless hours researching and emailing and calling therapists, trying to find someone who would be a good fit for me. Thankfully, after a week’s worth of work, I finally found a therapist who I trust and have faith in. Admittedly, my attempts to process what happened with my prior therapist have been a fucking disaster. I do not know how to make sense of it. When I walk into the building she works in to attend group process therapy, I hurt. When I hear a song that we talked about in therapy, I hurt. When I see a television show or movie that we talked about in therapy, I hurt. I don’t even want to do progressive muscle relaxation or mindfulness meditation or any other technique that I learned while in therapy because it reminds me of her, and I hurt. I have yet to talk to anyone in my life who seems to really understand what this brand of rejection feels like… how abandoned, alone, and helpless I felt, especially in the days immediately following termination.
I know that my mind craves closure. But as cruel and ironic as it may seem, my mind does not generally subscribe to the notion that closure exists. As humans, we crave order in a world of chaos. We want there to be a reason for everything. We want to have a take-home lesson. Nothing is more unsatisfactory than acknowledging that we do not get to know the reason why certain life events occur. Even more unsettling is the possibility that certain life events occur for no reason at all.
If I am being honest, I do not really think that I was booted from therapy for saying something offensive or for saying something that violated an established boundary. Sure, such an explanation looks tidy when viewed through the lens of my “Offend Someone and Get Rejected by Him or Her” script. Because I generally believe in this narrative, it gave my psychologist an easy way out. With my tendency toward guilt and shame, there could be little doubt that I would blame myself for the rupture. I was disappointed by my psychologist’s failure to utter a single sentence during the termination session indicating that she played any role whatsoever in the rupture of our therapeutic relationship. Nevertheless, I try to take comfort in this simple logic: But for my psychologist bringing her personal pain and suffering into session in such a conspicuous way, I could not have engaged in the very worrying and conjecture that, in her words, made her feel so violated that she could never come back from it. To openly bring her personal struggle into session and then accuse me of violating her boundaries by worrying and thinking about how that struggle may be affecting her and the quality of our interactions… it quite nearly feels like an abuse of the inherent power dynamic in the therapist/client relationship.
My gut feeling is that I was terminated primarily because of experiential avoidance… surprisingly I am not talking about my own experiential avoidance; I am talking about my psychologist’s experiential avoidance. I think that something about me likely brought up thoughts and feelings that she found unpleasant. Perhaps I simply served as a reminder of her accidental self-disclosure which made her doubt her professionalism and ability to help me heal. Maybe her accidental self-disclosure left her feeling vulnerable, as though she had lost the comfort provided by the emotional shield psychologists put on when working in their professional capacity. Another possibility is that something about me reminded her of whatever it was that she was struggling with in her personal life. She moved very quickly to terminate our therapeutic relationship, doing so two days prior to our originally scheduled session and leaving little time to process the termination or arrange for suitable aftercare. It felt like the termination was an emergency for her… that she needed out as quickly as possible… like she was gasping for air. The whole thing is super weird. But I acknowledge that I am weird. I sometimes bring up weird things for people. Who the fuck knows? Maybe I did simply offend her.
I really hate that I cannot tie this experience up with a pretty bow. I hate that I cannot superimpose some obvious life lesson onto this experience that sounds like a public service announcement or the last 45 seconds of an episode of Saved by the Bell. I hate that I still worry about my psychologist and whether she is OK. I hate that I worry about whether her personal struggles could affect her remaining clients in a negative way. I really hate that I am smart enough to know that as a client, and certainly as a former client, it is not my job to worry about any of this shit. But this obnoxious being human thing… the caring I have for others that is depressingly profound yet remarkably undetectable to them… it makes me care for others even when I don’t want to. Somehow I have to accept all of the uncertainty and unknowing and find a way to move forward in a pseudo-constructive way – all of this even though I don’t really understand why I was run over by a bus and whether there is some wisdom or knowledge mangled pedestrians are supposed to acquire.
There is only one thing I know for sure: All differences, annoyances, and disagreements aside, my former psychologist and I are both human beings who are grieving. I am grieving the loss of my therapeutic relationship with her. And she is grieving the loss of... Sometimes closure can only come by acknowledging that closure does not exist. My challenge is learning to embrace life as a crossword puzzle that is missing half of its clues; I must learn to accept that there are some boxes, regardless of the intellectual rigor applied, that I will never be able to fill in.