I have a great therapist now, but I have a checkered past of good, average and shitty ones. My reminiscing over this personal history was sparked by a very good new video by Shahida Arabi on how therapists can be personality disordered just like anyone else can. I thought it might be useful to run through mine and think about them in terms of THEIR issues and their functionality for me.
Caveat #1: I don’t expect therapists to be perfect. But I don’t think it’s asking too much for them to be thoughtful, communicative and kind. (Even confrontation can be kind, when done appropriately.)
Caveat #2: I think I have often sought out professional help at stress points in my life because growing up in my family of origin left me often second-guessing my decisions, thoughts, emotions and perceptions. You’d think that therapy would help more with that. With a few notable exceptions (including my current therapist), I think I’ve gotten more help from the experts and the experienced amateurs I’ve encountered on YouTube and Facebook and in books.
Just a snippet of background first, for context: I grew up as an only child in what I usually just refer to as a “chaotic” home. Here’s what chaos means: My dad died when I was 6, and my grief-stricken, strong-willed, highly emotional, co-dependent and boundary-obliterating mother remarried to the benign town drunk when I was 9. (She inappropriately told me in later years that he had a HUGE schlong, though, so there’s that.) He drank so much vodka that he would sweat out that sickly yellow stain and the rotten-sweet vodka-y smell on their sheets, a smell that triggers my anxiety to this day when I’m around chronic drinkers. I grew up hearing bitter verbal diatribes and the occasional physical fights when my mother’s frustration got the better of her and she would take off a shoe and hit him with it. Occasionally, there was worse, like when I was 15 and I came home to Mom holding a loaded and cocked .38-caliber pistol to his head. I was so numb to drama at that point that I told her I really didn’t give a shit. My stepfather squawked my name as I walked past to my room, where I locked the door. He was still alive and sleeping off his latest drunk binge the next morning.
Around age 13-14, I also went through a difficult first romantic relationship, after which I was stalked and relentlessly bullied. Very stressful.
So I grew up mostly on my own.
Age 15, a snap diagnosis: I couldn’t take my home environment anymore and finally convinced my mother that I really *needed* therapy. I only saw that therapist two or three times because my mother kept hovering anxiously at my elbow afterward, talking about how expensive it was. (Sort of like this: “Are you okay now? When do you think you’ll be okay? … What about NOW?”)
At the first therapy session, I just poured out a description of stresses in my life and what I thought about them, the people in my life and myself. It was cathartic and I was calm but intense, if you get what I mean. Briefly, I was stressed out to the point of pacing in the room when I talked about how maddening my mother was. I also felt buoyed up because it was such a release to hand this information over to a profession for analysis and advice.
About 10-15 minutes into that first session, the therapist said, “I don’t think you’ll ever have a normal relationship with a man.”
… W.T.F. …
Can a girl not talk about her rage, grief, and confusion without being labeled for LIFE? she gave me a prescription for a tricyclic antidepressant that helped how I felt but which didn’t teach me any better coping skills. I’m not knocking medication for people who have a chemical imbalance or just simply need some relief (I take two medications now). What I mean is that a lot of my issues were environmental.
Assessment of this counselor: Maybe she meant that my home environment was so toxic that it would be difficult for me to climb out of the injuries/impairments inflicted on me. (<–There I go making excuses.) But that’s not what she said. What she said was both blaming and damning. She quickly labeled me, pushed me into a slot and dismissed my future, on 15 minutes’ acquaintance. My label for her: Superficial and damaging.
Around age 23-24, marriage counseling with first husband: My first husband, A., was a bad match for me. He was very smart, sweet, sexy and funny, but he was also quite manipulative, rigid and sexist in his thinking. He approved of me at a time in my life (college) when I badly needed and wanted that. If I hadn’t been reeling from a terrible senior year of high school, I think we would have just been friends. We dated for four years and then were married for four years. He drank bourbon, fairly frequently.
I think we only went for one marriage counseling session, and he refused to return because the counselor had made some deprecating joke about football and the kind of people who are obsessed by sports. **cough, cough** Definitely A. **cough, cough** That earned him A.’s designation of “asshole.” I was fine with not going back too once I realized the guy had a very strong Christian perspective and I didn’t want someone else’s beliefs imposed on my marital therapy.
Assessment of this counselor: Average counselor, as far as I could tell. Not particularly perceptive, at least on short acquaintance.
Around age 30, marriage counseling with second husband: My second husband, J., was also a bad match. He was nice to me when I needed and wanted that. (God, I sound so needy. I guess I was. That, or recovering from trauma.)
He wasn’t nearly as intelligent as I am, but he was competent, skilled at his job, and canny in a blue-collar man way. He had endearing qualities, like the awful way he danced and how close he was with his family. We could have had a good life if I had been content with the bare minimum of involvement and commitment from him. He belonged to two softball teams, a bowling league, fished, spent quality time drinking on his best friend’s back porch, and it seems like he was involved in other sports but I forget the details. He also drank heavily and often passed out on the sofa. He considered our baby my “little project.”
We dated for about a year and were married for about two years, divorcing before our child’s first birthday.
Our marriage counselor spoke cryptically to him on the point of alcoholism at one of our sessions. She confirmed the frequency and quantity of his drinking and then asked if he thought he had a problem. He said no. Then she asked me if I thought he had a problem. I said yes. She said, “He doesn’t have a problem. YOU have a problem.”
What he heard was, “You’re not an alcoholic; your wife is just uptight. You’re right, and she’s wrong.”
I heard it differently. For me, it was like a penny dropped and the gumball machine spat out a delicious nugget. What she meant and what I understood (as I later confirmed) was that a person who doesn’t think he has a problem DOESN’T HAVE A PROBLEM … from his perspective. The person who objects to that behavior is the one with a problem — deciding whether to tolerate it or not. I decided not. It was rather freeing. We divorced shortly afterward, and I felt peace at that decision.
I saw her for a while afterward individually but felt that she was ineffective as an individual counselor. She urged me to journal but rejected my preference for typing rather than handwriting. She felt that handwritten journals were a stronger connection to the emotions. But I was beginning to feel the arthritis in my hands and found lengthy writing sessions to be taxing.
She wore these black cat-eye glasses back before that retro look was widespread, and she was a comfortably solid short fat woman with finger waves in her hair. I thought of her as the Owlish Woman because of those pretty glasses.
Assessment of that counselor: Smart but far too cryptic and subtle in her comments. Her failure to explain and communicate clearly made her much less effective. She was also too rigid on the journaling thing. I could have dealt with that if I connected with her otherwise. (See my note further down about seeing this same person for family counseling. I found that trusting her competence was actually dangerous.)
Around age 31, group therapy as a single mom: I had bad experiences in a group counseling session when I was trying to work through lingering issues with my intrusive, dramatic mother. I hooked up with this group via R., the man I was dating at the time. His professional work also colored my state of mind: He was 22 years older than me, retired from the military, and working as a drug and alcohol counselor at a nearby men’s treatment facility. (He was not a social worker, psychotherapist or psychiatrist.) He loved the diagnoses of his own issues (alcoholism, sex addiction and a few others) and would relish wallowing in them like a puppy will roll in his own piss and shit. I got to know this after we dated seriously for a while and realized he wasn’t all sensitivity and vegan recipes.
He strongly urged me to join the large group of about 15-20 people who met weekly at a local hospital. He didn’t run the group, but he had been in it before as a patient and really liked it. For me, the group sessions were sometimes cathartic, and it can be validating and normalizing to realize that other people also had strong reactions to and injuries from their upbringings and their parents, spouses and other significant people in their lives.
What didn’t work for me was when where we acted out scenarios at the sessions. For example, someone would be talking about how his dad always invalidated him, so the counselor would have that person stand up and select others in the group to participate as actors in the scene. We’d re-enact what happened, then we’d let the person experience a healthier way of working through the experience. At the end, the counselor was supposed to remind the group that each actor was only playing a role, not expressing their own views or personalities. The counselor often forgot to do this, however, and it really didn’t matter. People saw you as the role you took. Apparently, I was good at channeling the role of domineering, intrusive people. (I only had to think of my mother.) I often got picked for those roles, and people in the group began treating me as if I was those roles. Technically you could decline to participate, but there was group pressure and counselor pressure to “participate” in this “therapeutic” exercise.
Sometimes we’d also be invited to use Nerf bats and other safe tools to bash these big sturdy foam rubber cushions when one of us had anger issues to work out. Apparently, my anger was frightening to some of those. I had so much rage from my childhood and parts of my adult life, so I really whaled on those foam-rubber cushions. People would be aghast afterwards. (What? Did they all have vanilla childhoods and idyllic adult experiences? I didn’t. And anger has long been my refuge where I reclaim personal power. I work on that now.)
I had two definitive traumatic experiences in this group. In one, I was expressing vulnerability and was crying about something (I forget what) when I was telling part of my personal story. The group listened as they did for everyone. When I was through, the counselor said something like this, instead of just asking for feedback from the group as he did with others. He looked at his notes, frowned, and eventually said that, well, he just “wasn’t feeling it.”
I was floored.
He continued, saying that my emotions seemed forced, inauthentic and perhaps even manipulative to him. A few in the group (mostly one guy who was his total shill) also murmured agreement. Most were silent. I’d like to think that some didn’t agree with him but were too intimidated by the group dynamic and his pronouncement to speak up. I protested feebly that I didn’t agree, that I was sincere. He smiled faintly and indulgently at me and said that maybe I thought that but perhaps I should look deeper.
What. A. Mindfuck.
So there I was, trying to dig into myself and figure out my issues, and I was stigmatized. A scapegoat once again. I left there feeling defeated, broken, misunderstood, confused and resentful. I knew that I’d been told that this kind of therapy could create some inner upheaval, but this kind of pain? It didn’t feel therapeutic at all. I still don’t think it was.
The second incident with this group therapy was when I was doing what others were doing in a session, going around the room and telling of a moment from childhood that had a lot of impact. Mine was a traumatic but funny incident with my mother. The actual event had comical elements, but the boundary violation, embarrassment and shame for me were the points I was mostly trying to communicate.
Now I know that a person can’t force others to hear and understand what she’s trying to say. Their reactions are just that — their reactions. But the only thing … I mean the ONLY thing … the group did was chuckle, like I’d told a great story at a cocktail party. It was like they didn’t see me as a person who had actual pain from this memory. I expected humor, but I also expected something affirming like the other members had gotten when they told their stories.
I should explain that this group had several long-time members who felt they had really “graduated” and were just hanging around to put the final shine on their emotional and mental magnificence. I’ll call this one guy Mr. Ha-Ha. Ha-Ha was of the belief (as was the counselor) that the pinnacle of recovery was to authentically express your emotions and thoughts without reservation or remorse. Don’t get me wrong — I too think we are all entitled to have our feelings and to express them, but life isn’t that simple. One person’s words, body language or actions can hurt another. And I think that it DOES matter if you hurt another person; isn’t a total disregard for others one of the signs of sociopathy? There is a balance to good mental health.
Sometimes, it’s the mark of a healthy person to have a little restraint out of deference to another person’s pain; perhaps temper remarks out of kindness, without totally suppressing them. I don’t think people should be self-effacing. But I think it’s healthiest if a person has discernment between expressing one’s authentic self and recklessly swinging an emotional hammer that hits another person.
Do you get what I mean?
Mr. Ha-Ha differed. He guffawed, brayed, hooted and threw his head back with laughter at my story. He almost fell out of his chair. It was like he thoroughly enjoyed someone who often was pressured into playing the group’s villain having a painful memory. He didn’t temper it even with a “Man, that’s fucked up” comment or a statement like, “I don’t mean to laugh at you, but you described that painful scene in such a funny way.” I must have gaped and stammered out something, such as asking him if he had any other feedback, because he quickly shot back that he wasn’t going to apologize for his reaction (not that anyone asked him to). The counselor quickly rose to his defense, as if my slack-jawed response was an attack. But I was just reeling. Each “Ha!” felt like a light punch. Mr. Ha-Ha laughed even more uproarously at my slack jaw.
I spent hours after that at home, replaying the session in my head, questioning whether I was being unconsciously manipulative. Can a person do that? Was I doing that? And was it selfish or manipulative to have a mild expectation that people might say (as they had for other people’s stories), “Yeah, I can see how that would feel awful. I’m glad you’re working on that now. We see you as a human being and we care.”
I quit the group for obvious reasons. I fucking REFUSE to be anyone’s scapegoat. That was the only good lesson I took from the group: I can say no. I’m not defined by what anyone else thinks of me. My reality is one of authenticity, straightforwardness, strength, empathy and kindness. Those who don’t see that are welcome to head in another direction to their own little stinky patch of reality.
Oh, and my boyfriend and I eventually broke up too. One of my better decisions. He left at my request. He actually held some of my most prized personal possessions hostage for a while afterward out of some weird fear I was going to be hurtful to him. He said he didn’t have them, but the items were quietly mailed back to me anonymously about six months after the breakup. I think of him as the Assaholic.
Assessment of the group therapy counselor: He didn’t have emotional distance, he gifted me with the negative halo effect, and he was just generally shitty. He hurt me.
Sometime in my 30s: I searched a while to find a good counselor while I was sorting through this decade. I don’t recall the order I saw them in. They were peppered in and around the other counselors when I was trying to find someone who wasn’t incompetent, malicious or cuckoo to help me sort out myself and my life.
One was a male counselor who sat behind his desk facing me during the session, and he was impressed when I declined to sit on a small sofa on the other side of the room and instead asked to sit in the chair right in front of his desk. That was the only memorable note from a session with him.
Assessment of this counselor: He was totally unremarkable. He seemed unsure, tentative, and superficial. He might have been competent; he just didn’t feel like a good fit for me.
Another was a tough, joyful older woman with a gray bob and merry eyes. I really liked her. She was married to an alcoholic who didn’t always stay on the wagon, but she only rarely mentioned her personal life. (I’m undecided on what I think about that.) One of her thoughtful comments to me was that I often came to my sessions with funny little stories and observations from my life, and she said that she enjoyed them but that I seemed to use humor to protect myself.
It made me start thinking: Yes, I often use humor as my social coin. I guess that’s a neutral or positive thing, as long as it is genuine and doesn’t interfere with my ability to be honest and real with people. But it did make me aware of when, where, why and how I was being funny. I appreciate that from her.
She also once observed that, under my humor, I also carry around a vast, simmering sea of boiling hot lava-like anger. She was right about my anger reservoir. It was often my shield and energy when I was a kid. I don’t cling to it now, but sometimes I feel naked and vulnerable without it. I’m still thinking on that one. I realize that just because I *can* obliterate someone verbally with my direct, no-bullshit words doesn’t mean that I have only that way of communicating. I’m not sure that’s all I need to deal with regarding my anger, though. Still pondering this one off and on, all these years later.
Assessment of this counselor: Excellent. Observant, helpful, personable, and not afraid to present herself as a flawed human being who is helping her clients examine their past, their current reality, their capabilities, and their perceptions. She sometimes overshared, to the point where we at times felt like friends, but she would catch herself too. I believe she retired or moved, or else I had to stop seeing her when my family moved.
In my late 30s, probably around 1998: I was working on a college campus and enjoyed the benefit of getting very inexpensive counseling. My mother was living with my family and a constant source of stress. I had a blended family with one elementary-age child from a previous marriage and a toddler, as well as a nice but maddeningly wishy-washy third husband who I’d married a few years earlier.
The therapist asked me why I didn’t just go to my bedroom sometimes to escape my mother instead of sitting in the living room with everyone else while I was reading, watching TV, or studying for a class I was taking at the time. I guess I just wanted to be among my family and not be a recluse. She asked how that was working for me. Not great, I confessed.
She gave me some coping strategies, one of which was a self-hypnosis visualization script that I still use to this day if I have trouble sleeping. She also taught me that it’s okay to take care of myself, to be a little selfish. (You can’t pull cookies out of an empty cookie jar. Gotta take time to refill it.)
Assessment of this counselor: Excellent for what I needed at the time. She had a rather narrow focus on coping rather than digging up the root causes of distress, but she helped me make my life livable.
Around age 46-47: I was struggling with middle age, frustrations with my ineffective husband, and a child (“G.”) in her senior year of high school who just couldn’t cope with her classes and her uncertain sexuality (we love her whoever she loves, but she had a hard time accepting that because of her sweetheart’s bitter whispering in her ear), as well as her growing independence and her ADHD. It was brutal trying to get her to graduate. We got tutors, got up at 5 a.m. to take her to school for a special math help session before school began, took her to school counseling, had fights, made up, took her to a family counselor, argued, hugged, and generally had an exasperating and exhausting year. (She told me once that we didn’t appreciate all her hard work. I was agape because we had heaped sincere praise on her accomplishments, and I wanted to say, “We don’t appreciate YOU? Try the other way around.”)
I ended up taking her to the most conveniently located insurance-covered family therapy office in our city to try and help her as best I could. They had a good reputation and had been around a while. I ended up with the woman who had counseled me and my second husband many years earlier. The Owlish Woman. It took me a while to recognize her because it had been 16-17 years at that point since I’d seen her last.
Her counseling was competent, except for that unfortunate subtlety, lack of explanation and lack of clarity in her comments. In our last session, my daughter surprised me by saying that she wasn’t sure she wanted to go to college. The counselor said she didn’t have to. I was surprised as this was the first time G. had even mentioned this. I asked a question to clarify whether she meant ever, or to a specific college (she had almost a full ride), or just a delay.
The counselor jumped in to chide me not to pressure her.
What the fuck? How is it pressure to say, in a mild tone, “I’m shocked you haven’t mentioned this before. I didn’t know. I thought you liked the school you picked. Help me understand what you’re uncertain about.”
She also mentioned that she wanted a tattoo and that I wanted her to wait. (I wasn’t making her wait, but I asked. She took that as forbidding it.) The counselor said of course she could get a tattoo. I found myself being blamed for a position that I never actually took.
What my daughter took away from that is, “Fuck Mom — this is my life.” I never said it wasn’t. But she ran away from home a week anyway after she graduated and turned 18, and she was gone for a year. She eventually reached back to us, and we never closed a door on her. We’re on good terms now. She admits she got bad advice from the person she was dating and that she misjudged me. And I admit that I had my own flaws in how I related to her. She knows that I love her, though.
I went back to the counselor a week after she ran away, and she assured that G. would eventually return. I said (with as little evident frustration as I could manage) that the counselor’s own words were what encouraged her to leave. She denied saying any such thing. I don’t recall the actual words now (many years later) but I did at the time. I repeated them, and she shrugged me off and said that G. would understand what she meant some day. I kind of wanted to stomp her cat-eye glasses into the tile floor.
Assessment of this counselor: Her subtlety may be useful for a reflective academic adult, but it’s lost on a troubled teen at a crisis point of decision in her life. She fucked up. She was not able or willing to tailor her approach to the needs of her clientele.
Age 51, June/July 2012: I researched local marriage counselors on psychologytoday.com to find a qualified marriage therapist after discovering that my husband had conducted a long-distance covert emotional affair with an old girlfriend. After 2-3 sessions, and only 3-4 weeks after I learned of the affair, she expressed that I was obsessing too much about the affair and needed to stop asking questions and start moving forward. She also decided I was too dominant and needed to create situations where my husband was in charge. I won’t rehash this one as I’ve already detailed the depths of my distress and pain and what it was like; see here and here.
Assessment of this counselor (said to her): Oh, FUCK YOU.
Age 51, a few weeks later: After attempting suicide in despair and being in a mental health facility for 10 days, I found that getting a therapist for talk therapy and a psychiatrist for possible medication were requirements before I could be discharged. I lucked out with who I chose. A friend recommended Dr. G for the therapy, and the therapist recommended Dr. B. for the psychiatry.
With my long history of unsatisfactory therapy and the recent abject failure of my marriage counselor, I was very clear with Dr. B. from the very start. I told him I wanted a doctor who actually give opinions and advice instead of just asking questions and using the Socratic method. I wanted someone who would then hear my feedback and help me make adjustments so I could think more clearly, understand and cope with my feelings, grieve and heal, and live a healthier and happier life. I said I wanted someone who would be real and frank but also observe and listen sensitively. I said I was going to be very upfront about my anger and pain and that I often swear when I’m going through strong feelings, so he needed to tell me from the start if that wasn’t for him, because I wasn’t about to stop being a potty mouth when I was in duress. I also said I’m an atheist and am respectful of other people’s decisions to believe differently, but I wanted a therapist who could work with me without injecting a particle of religion or “spirituality” into my therapy. I also said I find New Age “woo” interesting and sometimes mention topics about it, but I’m very grounded in reality and evidence-based views and therapy.
I know that sounds very confrontational, but I spelled it out more gently and over a 45-minute session. What I led with was that a friend who had used his services in the past had highly recommended him and that she is one of the people in my life whose judgment I truly trust.
He was a good fit for me from the start. Sometimes I would tell him a story from my childhood, such as how my mother used to lock me in my bedroom at night (read about that charming reality here), and he would visibly recoil, telling me in professional terms how fucked up that was. Other times I would talk about my husband, and he helped me see patterns in his behavior and also unhealthy patterns in how I interacted with and viewed my husband. I’ve found him to be very, very insightful. Not perfect. But great.
I saw him weekly at first, then every other week, then once a month, and then had a hiatus. I’ve gone back a couple of times when I felt myself slipping into depression or stalled in my marriage recovery. He’s helped each time.
I have fewer comments regarding Dr. B., but she’s prescribed me medicine that helps, listened to brief updates, and kept me on schedule for periodic check-ins. She also has worked with Dr. G. in the past and has great confidence in him as a therapist. These days, I see her periodically just to refresh my prescriptions.
Assessment of these two counselors: Professional, competent and a good fit for me.
*Whew* … that was a mouthful. Or should I saw a screenful? (Okay … SEVERAL screenfuls.) Anyway, I should probably have some insightful wrap-up here, but I think I’ll stop for the day.