When I started working with Anna all of my weird crazy behaviours became exaggerated… I wasn’t even aware of what was happening but basically I pushed every button, crossed many boundaries and in her words, ‘tested her to the max’… she says I was so certain she would leave me that I laid it all out on the table in the first couple of months like a challenge… ‘this is as bad as it can get so if you’re going to leave, you better leave now!’ That made me chuckle and squirm because it felt familiar, and embarrassing. One particular instance around session 20, I sent her a long text message which went along the lines of, ‘everything is awful, nothing’s getting any better, life is bleak and black and all things are dark and hopeless and I don’t know if I can keep myself safe tonight but I’m worried that you’ll terminate our work if I can’t look after myself…’ In my head I was freaking out because the previous night I’d been triggered during an intimate moment with my husband, had a flashback and then cut myself. All this came out of the blue and hadn’t happened for years… I was worried that if she knew I’d hurt myself she would stop working with me. A few hours after I sent the message she phoned me. I was completely shocked and didn’t answer. She had been very clear about the fact that she would never reply to a message unless it was about session timings and we would only speak on the phone if I asked for a call. I quickly sent her a message saying I was fine and that I would see her at the next session. I then sent a few more texts apologising if she thought I was trying to manipulate her with my initial text and then finally the following day I couldn’t take it anymore and I asked her to call me. She arranged to call me the following day and when we spoke on the phone she was reassuring and brief. She gave me a ten minute boundary and instructed me to not get into the depths of the issue on the phone. I asked for reassurance that she wasn’t planning on leaving me and she assured me that she had no intentions of leaving and that she would be there at the next session to talk to me about all this.
At the next session she started by saying she wanted to address the messages. She was very formal and stern seeming, she laid down some pretty solid new boundaries around texting. She called it ‘hammering in the posts’. She made it clear what I was and wasn’t allowed to say and that she wouldn’t reply to any texts other than session time arrangements. She told me that I was harming myself by sending those kinds of messages in full knowledge that I wouldn’t get a reply, it was a re-enactment of getting no support for my cries for help as a child. That made sense but it was so excruciating. She then talked about the frame of therapy and how she needs to keep herself well and that means having sessions in a protected space and time… she said, ‘your messages are encroaching on the rest of my week… I didn’t think you’d need the text support for this long…’ among other things. She tried to help me understand that in order for her to be able to help me, we needed the boundaries. She explained that boundaries are a caring and loving thing to do, not a rejection but a way to maintain health in a relationship… presently I can see how that is true however back then I was swimming in shame and triggered rejection wounds. I was sure she hated me, that I was ruining her life and that she regretted ever agreeing to work with me (though she ensured me that wasn’t the case). I couldn’t look at her, I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to peel my skin off and set my bones alight… I was in pure agony.
I have held the shame and pain of that session close to my heart for nearly two years. I drew about it to try to express to Anna how her delivery and choice of words had built a wall between us but I never showed her (see image at the start of the post). In the session yesterday I finally told her how I’d felt. I awkwardly blurted out how painful it had been to hear her say that she basically felt burdened by me. I don’t know if I missed something but I feel like she wasn’t fully absorbing what a big deal it was to me. She did say it was great that I told her, she encouraged me to keep going when I wanted to stop, she felt like it was a good sign of progress that I was being honest with her and not keeping it bottled in. But something inside me felt full of doubt and fear, certain that she must hate me. I feel like I lost the connected, bonded feeling and just became very isolated. I told her it had frightened me when she called me after I’d sent that text, that she had broken her boundary and that unsettled me. She explained that part of the boundary we set when we created the contract around texting and phoning was that if she felt I was at risk of harming myself she would call me or my named person on our contract. I said, ‘well maybe I needed you to believe that I was going to be okay and felt like you over reacted..?’ she said, ‘I didn’t know you well enough back then to take that risk, it was my duty to make sure I followed up, I was very concerned about you because of the way you worded the message which is why it’s really important you don’t send texts where you’re expecting me to read between the lines… it has to be clear communication… does that make sense?’ I said it did.
I said that when I was working with my last therapist it felt like I was a box of fireworks that had accidentally been set alight and he just sat me down in the corner of the room to fire off inside myself, sparks ricocheting around the room, with him sitting unscathed occasionally offering compassionate glances. He would let me email him as often as I wanted and he never reacted to the evocative things I wrote in them. I interpreted that as ultimate acceptance, ‘unconditional positive regard’ as he kept referring to it… but I wonder now if it was too passive… a bit neglectful… lazy? Working with Anna has been starkly different. She opened the box immediately and my sparks hit her and it scared me… it maybe frightened her too… she showed me how my behaviour and the things I said could impact her. She wasn’t going to let me ‘misbehave’ while she turned a blind eye. She was going to let herself care enough about me to really see me and I was going to need to bare that in mind if we were to form a healthy connection.
At our session yesterday I told Anna that at the end of our second session she looked me in the eye as I was leaving and said, ‘you don’t need to do this on your own anymore, Lucy.’ I told her I felt two things when she said that. A small part of me lit up with hope and wonder, gratefully ready to receive all the help and care, while a much more powerful part was furious. I said, ‘it was like who does she think she is, she doesn’t know me, she doesn’t know what my life is like, I am completely on my own, I walk out of here and I have to deal with this all by myself, I only have her one session a week… what a generic, shitty thing to say!’ I stopped and scanned her face. She had a curious, open expression and seemed intrigued by this insight, I asked if she was hurt by what I was saying or if she felt anything negative at all towards me and she said, ‘no keep going, this is really good…’ so I continued explaining how maybe a part of me took her up on the challenge… ‘maybe I thought okay – you wanna show me how I don’t have to do this on my own? I’m gonna give you a window into the bleakest, most desperately alone moments of my life and see how you handle it…’ she didn’t say much but she was listening. I wonder if she was reflecting on how unhelpful her statement of support had been, or maybe she was hating me… who knows. She talked about how this really shows us that we can be hurt by people, we can hold anger for them, but we can also have a relationship with them and like other parts of them… something was lacking, I think I wanted her to apologise for it all, to really connect to what I was saying rather than give a general overview of the therapeutic learning. I told her I wished it had never happened – that I was ashamed of my behaviour back then and I know better now but back then I’d never experienced her kind and caring nature, I just saw her as harsh and very boundaried. Anna talked a little about how I wasn’t able to take in any kindness when we started working together and that she needed to establish safety within our relationship, then build trust, then introduce care.
Writing out my thoughts on the session is helping me process it all. I don’t feel as anxious about it now and I can see that Anna probably thinks it was a great session and would be very surprised to learn that I had such a massive kickback from what was discussed. I no longer feel an urgent need to check that we’re okay. I will wait and see her the day after tomorrow and check in with her then.