A Chance Encounter

Just the other day I was stopped at traffic lights when I noticed a man with a bike at the side of the road, adjusting the chin strap of a very silly hat – the woolen kind with ear flaps that Sherlock Holmes might have worn, had he ridden a bike on a cold day. As I looked at him, so he turned to look at me, and the ‘Well, whaddya know’ expression on his face was terribly familiar. He started to raise his hand in greeting, the lights changed, I attempted to both shift gear and wave back, and his tentative wave gained purpose. Then I was halfway down the road and the moment had passed. I realised it was my old therapist, who I hadn’t seen in three years. I could see him now, framed in my rear view mirror, watching my car as I drove away.

I found I was relieved and also surprised that he’d waved at me. The manner of my leaving therapy hadn’t been easy or comfortable, and I remembered very clearly his response to me when I’d asked in the course of a session whether one day we could be friends. He’d said it wasn’t possible, because the relationship was such a delicate and particular one, it might alter too many things inside my head to shift its foundation in such a drastic way. I did understand; the relationship with a therapist is so unlike anything else, simultaneously intense and indifferent. And this therapist had been so keen on being a screen for me, not allowing himself to intrude on the space between us, which was bizarre at times because he practised from his home.

There’d been the long months when he was having an extension built and the noise of drilling and hammering had been a real irritant, and then other times when his young sons did their piano practice in the next room, or occasionally exclaimed to one another ‘That is so cool!’ which always made me laugh. I thought he was a good therapist, but the psychodynamic approach was the one part I never appreciated. I wanted there to be a real person opposite me, letting me know what he thought, giving me some emotion to work with. I often wondered whether he actually liked me, which I knew was not a question ever to pose to an analyst; it provokes such a tiresome fuss about why you need to know you are liked, when it’s a perfectly ordinary human desire that can be let alone. Still, it made it all the more surprising when I wanted to leave therapy and he was dead set against it.

He was not my first therapist. The first was a woman in her 50s, a gentle, fluffy sort of person who always dressed nicely in soft, expensive-looking fabrics. She had a hesitant manner of speaking that I was put off by, until I realised it was a typical therapy voice, one that writes into every word a great deal of de-energised flexibility so as never to get in the way of the client’s feelings. I came to therapy because I had not recovered from an awful illness I’d suffered two years ago, and now, with a new job as a lecturer and a five-year-old child, I really didn’t know which way to turn. I felt I’d been run over by a truck. And then crawled to my feet to be run over by a truck coming from a different direction. And then… well, you get the idea. I was also very interested in therapy. All my research had been into questions of identity and I had read a great deal of psychoanalytic theory. This made me a difficult client, I knew, over-informed and too self-aware. But I didn’t think of therapy as an admission of failure – I thought it was something everyone should do, given the chance.

I was under the illusion, however, that its purpose was some sort of acceptable chastisement: I had lost all grasp of myself, after that series of overwhelming life changes, and I was afraid I was to blame; someone else would have relished the challenges of my life while I was mostly exhausted and alarmed by them. I felt that my inability to recover from the illness was in some way my own fault; and as such I was making the mistake (much encouraged by society) of confusing illness with moral weakness. I didn’t realise I had begun a long journey towards accepting myself as I was, rather than changing myself into what I ought to be.

I grew very fond of my first therapist, who was warmly and tenderly supportive. And it was a relief to have an hour a week that was about me, when the rest of my life was jam-packed with dedicated service to others. This was something else I felt I should manage without a qualm and any resentment on my part was a selfish inconvenience. So I did my best to take it well when my therapist told me she was moving to Australia to be with her sick sister. Surely I’d had enough therapy to set me on the right path now?

Well, eighteen months later I started therapy again. I now had a demanding contract with the university as well as with college. My health was still bad and I was in the thick of pretending that it wasn’t. But unable to keep up that pretence at home, my marriage was in difficulties after the sheer strain of the past few years. I didn’t think we’d make it. My career success was balanced on a knife edge with looming personal disaster, and I seemed to have nowhere to put my burdens down. It was at this point that I began work with the therapist who would mean the most to me. He was a funny-looking man, tall and thin, all teeth and glasses with a wild corona of brown hair that danced around a bald spot like a monk’s tonsure. The first time I met him and poured out my tale of woe, he managed to make me laugh about it within the first five minutes. I have always been a sucker for anyone who makes me laugh and my sense of humour was the one thing that felt strong enough to hold me together. I loved the way he would talk so clearly and forcefully to me, his words a firm bridge on which to walk across the chasm between what I wanted and what I thought I ought to want. I felt safe with him, I suppose. And when I least expected it, I fell into transference, which I’d read all about, only the reality was very different to the theory.

Transference is a fancy name for what inevitably happens when you tell your troubles to someone who really gets you. But it’s undercut by the artificiality of the relationship, the cheque at the end of each session. He got me through a very difficult time and I was beholden to him, but I knew we were not united in any meaningful way. My mind loved him, but I suppose my heart didn’t. Or perhaps it was the other way round, these things are hard to judge. In any case, when he told me he was giving up counselling (he’d had a bad break up with his wife and felt it was affecting his ability to help others) I found I had tears falling silently down my face. I was astounded; I’d given up crying at that point in my life because it took more energy than I possessed. Then, astonishing myself again, I walked out of the session and never went back. It did feel like a love affair of sorts had ended.

So by the time I began work with my third and final therapist, several of the plates I’d been spinning so diligently on the end of their long sticks had fallen. I was off work sick, and had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue. But my marriage had not split up and we were working on it. I also had a chance now to be with my son much more, and that felt right. At best I could say I had chosen my family over my career, but I was very angry and frustrated with myself for not being able to have it all. Therapy felt like picking over the aftermath of a tremendous battle, and this therapist was a somber, serious man and our sessions had a melancholy tone. In a sense this was appropriate as I was mourning the loss of my ideal self. Though when I looked at that ideal, and the standards I’d held for her, and the sheer number of boxes I’d had to tick even to meet my minimum requirements, I could see why she hadn’t been feasible. For the first time, my life was quiet enough for me to actually focus on myself, and I made by far the most progress now. Though I knew I was holding myself back, having been the kiss of death to two therapists already. He often said to me, ‘I’m not going anywhere, you know.’ But one day he also said, ‘I do worry that I’m just not a warm enough person for you,’ and I knew there was truth in that.

Therapy is a strange thing; you bring your deepest feelings up to the surface and magnify them, so you can see what’s really going on, but once there they tend to look disproportionately large and take up too much oxygen. When I knew I wanted to leave, I had the mantra running round and round in my head: ‘there is nothing wrong with me.’ In a sense it had taken all those years for me to reach this point – where I recognised that failing to be perfect in every way was not a desperate flaw in my character, but the result of normal, human limitations. And therapy was only adding to my sense of being someone who needed to be fixed and brought in line with ‘normal’ people. I’d felt so ashamed of myself for being ill, and now it was time to draw a line under that kind of thinking. It was time to live the way I wanted to, which was admittedly an unusual way. But now I had my longed-for wide margins to the day, the peacefulness I’d craved, and I could not let that go. As my third therapist so often used to say: ‘if you let others down you feel guilty, but if you betray yourself you feel desperate.’ He wouldn’t be so keen on that thought when it was his own wishes I was contravening. But I did leave therapy; I was all talked out.

It was so funny to have seen him unexpectedly like that, and to think of all that had passed between us. It was odd to think of all the recent changes to my life, and to know he was in ignorance of them. But I didn’t feel any regret for my decision to leave. I was enormously grateful to all my therapists. They had all given me something vital – their life force, when mine was weakened. But there comes a time when only living can teach you the things you need to learn.

51 thoughts on “A Chance Encounter

    • Marilyn, writing this I was aware of merely scratching the surface of all that could be said! I was very committed to therapy for a long while, but then my experience with anxiety did make me think twice about it. But, as ever, I’ll keep writing about these things and hope to find more space another time to go deeper.

  1. I’m so glad you’ve pulled through all this – with humour in tact too. It’s slightly weird to know that therapists have their own lives to live too, which of course is a stupid thought, but one that matches how they’re often portrayed – always deflecting back. getting you to talk yourself out of whatever is ailing you. How fascinating to hear about the three totally different people that you worked with.

    • I was always terribly curious about the lives of my therapists. I knew theoretically I shouldn’t be, but I really was! Sometimes I would slip in details of their lives that I’d noticed, just to throw them (and it really annoyed the last one when I did that, which of course, did not make me stop). I would have loved to be able to go back and find out all the things I didn’t know – they really were such different types!

  2. Very thoughtful, very interesting and I have noted your comment about laughter too!🙂
    One day I might tell you about my approach to some issues that came close to destroying my life and the (typically feline) way I have arrived at (only partial perhaps) solutions.
    P x

    • Well there’s a conversation I’d be very interested to have! I will drop you an email very soon – got caught up in a new project which I’ll tell you all about.

  3. I’ve often wondered about another form of therapy that does allow for the revelations and interchanges that come with a true deep friendship within that relationship of trust.
    It’s a shame I can’t seem to find a way of creating such a form.
    I really enjoyed this account; thank you.

    • Viv, you echo something I felt very clearly and strongly when I left therapy. I felt that lasting change could only be achieved if a person felt secure, loved and understood, and whilst the therapist can do one and three, number two poses too many ethical problems. I wondered whether, ultimately, it had to be the people who are fond of us who can help us take steps towards proper change. I certainly think it’s immensely hard to do it without them.

  4. Despite its topic this is a lovely post, full of insight into the human mind and its unaccountable tendencies, all of which are familiar to me. What I always wonder is what is it that makes us take up the desperation that is the desire to be some form of ideal person in the first place. Is it in us or does it enter from outside like an insidious charm such as offered by the greatest of all confidence tricksters. What perpetrates this ghastly joke on humanity?

    • I am so very glad you liked it. In a weird way, I see our longing for an idea to be one of the most beautiful parts of humanity – but then I think our strengths often get us into more trouble than our weaknesses. In psychoanalytic theory, there simply isn’t a choice. We have to have ego ideals or we can’t be people at all – the myth of Narcissus embodies the problem. Because Narcissus is in perfect love with himself just as he is, he’s completely stuck – he has no one to become, no future ahead and no interest in anything else. Life is dynamic, but Narcissus can’t progress. It’s why a narcissistic wound, as the therapists call it, damage to our sense of self, can almost obliterate the rest of the world for us and become mesmerising. As ever, too much striving or too little is problematic, it’s that damned happy medium that is so hard to achieve!

  5. wow.

    this is beautifully written, subtly illuminating the dark shadows of the soul/psyche – whatever we get to call the essence (?) of who we really are underneath all the stuff that gets piled on top and sort of sticks even when we know – like a jacket that’s cut just all wrong – it doesn’t hang right.

    particularly this line: “I didn’t realise I had begun a long journey towards accepting myself as I was, rather than changing myself into what I ought to be.”

    yes.

    *exhales*

    sending wonderful appreciative thoughts that you write and let it fly out onto the web-of-magical-ideas-and-dreams

    *wavingfromlosangeles*

    _tg xx

    • *wavingfromcambridge*

      I really like your jacket analogy. I think we do take on personas and roles and ideals and goodness only knows what, and they can feel exactly like clothes that don’t fit. But it’s too compelling to wear them, particularly if they are in fashion or we consider them a uniform of suits. Oh I DO like this analogy – it works so well!

      It’s so lovely to have you drop by! LLxx

  6. I love that last sentence; the first time I read it I think I misinterpreted it. I’m guessing its intended meaning was to be taken to mean that at some point all the help one gets from others is not as good as just getting out there and experiencing life, maybe with a Zen secondary meaning as well (just BE)? ime solitary people like myself need to be aware of this – I know I spend way too much time with my internal thoughts, and tend to get off-kilter when alone too much.
    Sometimes I wish I wasn’t so ‘English boarding school uptight’ and open to the idea of therapy not being a negative thing.
    Anyways, another fantastic post. Thankyou.

    • “Sometimes I wish I wasn’t so ‘English boarding school uptight’ and open to the idea of therapy not being a negative thing because I think it’d do me a whole lot of good”

      Sorry for the potential bad-mannered interpretation of what I said initially.

    • Yes, that is exactly what I was trying to get at. I feel the same as you – having a decidedly solitary inclination, I forget how useful it can be sometimes to go out and do things, with other people. But only sometimes, no need to go mad about it.🙂 Therapy is one of those things that just have to appeal – like fairground rides. I wouldn’t go on a fairground ride if you paid me big money – it’s just not the kind of experience I want. I imagine a lot of people feel the same way about therapy! And bless you for returning to reword your sentence, though I did know just what you meant and wasn’t in the least offended. It’s very considerate of you to check.

  7. A wonderful post, Litlove! (The psychodynamic approach has never done a thing for me either — I talk about feelings constantly in my regular life, but when it’s therapy I want the homework-giving-est no-nonsense cognitive behavioral therapist in town.)

    • Heh, your mention of homework makes me laugh. I would sometimes even ask for it! (But maybe that’s a lifetime in educational institutions that does not speak well of me…). I’m really interested in what you say about talking of feelings generally in life – maybe that is the key. When the issue is not putting words to feelings, then it’s because something quite different is required… hmm, food for thought!

  8. Such a wonderful and deeply felt post. I had a period in my life last year when I was desperate in the way your therapist identified – I felt so guilty about all my self perceived failings and inadequacies that I couldn’t function – and going to see a therapist was a huge turning point. She was bland and blank sometimes, and animated others, and it took me ages to realise that she was using these different styles to provoke me and reflect my own moods. It was simultaneously confusing and clarifying.

    • Oh that’s so interesting! I am completely fascinated by other people’s experience of therapy. There’s a book, One on One by Rosemary Dinnage in which she goes around interviewing people and reporting their very different experiences. I was utterly spellbound by it. I send huge sympathy for your feelings about your perceived failings – I know just what it is to feel that way, and it can be crippling. I am so very glad that your therapist brought some clarity, though sometimes I feel a few more clues while we work things out wouldn’t go amiss!

  9. You write so eloquently about your therapeutic experiences, and so honestly. When I read, at the end, ‘I was enormously grateful to all my therapists. They had all given me something vital – their life force, when mine was weakened. But there comes a time when only living can teach you the things you need to learn,’ I clapped. The only thing I know that can help us, deeply, is the talking cure. But the only way we can live our lives deeply is to take responsibility for them, when we’re strong enough again, and live them. Thank you for having the courage to post this (and, tangentially, thank you to your therapist for being there with his bike and waving at you.)

    • Bless you, what a wonderful comment. I think you put it really well. I don’t think there is any other way forward than facing the demons, and it’s such a difficult thing to do, it does help to have someone with you who has no vested interest in the outcome but plenty of professional experience. Then after that, it is about taking responsibility again. Which is also very hard to do, and can only be done alone.

    • You are very welcome. I can imagine how opaque and confusing therapy can look. It’s not all that clear when you’re in it! But I did find it was useful. Heaven knows life is hard enough already – we need all the help we can get!

  10. That chance encounter could have sent you some unwanted memories, but I’m glad you’re in control and have grown from leaving therapy. I still remember your post describing that experience. So glad you have gone past the episode and continue to look forward with renewed strength and insight, Litlove. And I know you won’t regret for choosing your family.😉

    • Arti, you’re so right. My family is definitely worth it. I was always so very glad that I had time with my son, when in his early school years in particular, I’d been working so hard and then always so tired. It felt like a real gift to be able to be with him and we both got a lot out of it. Thank you for your lovely comment.

  11. Do you know that experience when what you are reading is expressing your feelings so well in words you’ve never been able to string together before? Well, you do that to me with your writing. Thank you.

  12. That’s a wonderful piece of writing, litlove, so clear and thoughtful! Perhaps not easy to write, but fascinating to read. I have read a little about different forms of therapy, and know people who have benefitted from it, and yet I’d never dare go myself – I don’t know why, perhaps a deep-seated prejudice like the one AndrewL described, perhaps fear of what I’d discover about myself…🙂

    • Well the number of things I wouldn’t countenance doing is legion! I understand the urge not to do things far more than the urge to do them.😉 And it doesn’t suit everybody. I think you would probably find you are more than sane and balanced enough, dear Helen, not to need it at all!

  13. I agree with the above comments – lovely writing (as usual) Litlove. And perhaps it is an alignment of the planets, but you often write about something that is current to my own situation. (I have never been to therapy. Although I sometimes wonder if my best friend since we were 12 qualifies. We’ve pulled each other through some stuff, let me tell you.) However, what I wanted to say is just this morning someone was so apologetic about a mistake they made. A fairly big one – but no one will die. Anyhooo, I finally was able to calm her by saying, “I don’t expect perfection from myself and do not look for it in anyone else.” It seemed to work. But the truth is, I do expect perfection from myself and I am inevitably disappointed. We put such burdens on ourselves, and then punish ourselves for failing to carry impossible loads. It is very difficult to let go of those expectations, isn’t it.

    • Oh it is SO hard to let go of expectations of perfection. And in some ways it’s okay to keep a few in a drawer somewhere. It’s just preventing them from getting out of hand and turning into big bullies that can be hard. They will so insist on burgeoning out of control. It was very kind of you, btw, to be so comforting to your colleague. I expect there would be a lot less need for therapy if the world were a bit kinder place! And if we could keep the lovely friends around us who see us through the tough times. I’m so very glad to know you have one (probably lots!) of those.

  14. Living… and blogging. I have heard people say that they blog instead of having therapy and one of the interesting things I find is that being the “listener” or “therapist” is in some ways therapeutic itself. Knowing that you are not the only one struggling with perfectionism, and also someone’s life, so different from yours, taking you out of your own problems.

    There’s so much to say in response to your post. Your description of not crying because it took too much energy – I’d forgotten about that period in my life. Now that I cry again, it’s because things are *better* than they were.

    I think therapy is great for bringing things to light, and for learning to live so that you can find your answers in the people you love, and the people you can exchange experiences with. Although in itself, I don’t think it can be answer, it just helps you find your way.

    • It took me years before I felt brave enough to start posting really personal stuff on this blog. At first, I thought I’d want to write about chronic fatigue and it turned out I didn’t at all – I just wanted to write about books. But when I did start on personal posts, the response here was always so very kind and understanding that I found it to be immensely comforting. It really did help me to integrate all sorts of past experience that I wasn’t happy with or able to accept myself. Writing about it for others and finding so many people had been through similar things was extremely therapeutic in its way. I completely agree with you – therapy is about creating a reliable pathway you can walk along, though the ultimate goal is one you have to get to yourself. No one else can undertake the journey. But sharing experiences, putting events and feelings into words, I’ve definitely found they all help a great deal.

      • I think it’s definitely better to recognise your needs and go to see a therapist than not. Therapy has helped lots of people I know. There’s a danger of over-reliance and not taking that step to becoming independently responsible for your own well being, but that will I guess affect only a proportion – many people I know didn’t find that at all.

  15. As I am having my first experience of therapy to help me manage life with ME/CFS here you are, sharing and reflecting on yours with such insight and wisdom. Am left almost speechless but want so much to thank you for this beautiful writing, so am plunging in no matter how inarticulately.

    It is an unprecedented experience for me to have the full and compassionate attention of a professional who is offering me a way to accept myself, flawed and frail. She encourages me to treat myself with a consideration that I would offer to a much loved friend. Very freeing but also very challenging after so many years of perfectionism.

    Just thank you!

    • I love what you say about your experience of therapy. Yes, that was very much a component of mine – learning to be kind to myself rather than hostile and harsh. Isn’t it hard to let the perfectionism go? I definitely found that to be the case! I am SO glad that you are working with someone who gets you, and whom you can trust. And bless you for your wonderfully kind words about the post. Good luck on your journey into health – let me know how you get on if you can. I’d love to hear more about it.

  16. This is a very generous post, Litlove. And beautifully written.
    I very much like that one of your therapists made you laugh. I knew a therapist who was proud he could make people cry in every session. I found him a manipulative, hostile – I’d even say passive aggressive person. I went to him for a couple of Autogenic Training sessions and some of the people in the group went to him for therapy.

    • I’m so glad you didn’t have to go to him for therapy! My last therapist was, I felt, a bit over-keen on the sad stuff, as if it held more weight, and I didn’t always think that it did. But to think that someone trained as a therapist is proud of being able to make his patients cry does send a chill down my spine – those poor people who go to him!

  17. Wonderful post. I love the honesty and clarity and generosity with which you approach life. You’ve also reminded me that I want to write about my many experiences of therapy. I’ll get there eventually.

    But to come back to your experience, it sounds like that chance encounter with your therapist was a good one. A moment of acknowledgement that meant a lot. Even though you left therapy and it was difficult, he respects you and wishes you well. Acceptance of difference perhaps.

    Your writing is definitely a therapy – to yourself and others. Thanks for sharing it with us.🙂

    • Dear Pete, I would LOVE to read about your experiences of therapy. Any time you want to share! It’s funny, I’d been thinking only a few days ago about what it would be like to bump into my old therapist. I don’t know why it had come to mind, probably just because it’s been a while since I left, we both live in the same small town and I was surprised that our paths hadn’t crossed. (My second therapist worked as a postman for a while – I nearly crashed the car when I noticed him zipping past on the other side of the road!). So it was good to see him and to score a line under the whole experience. I was very glad we both waved.

  18. Oh dear, I’ve waited till you’ve already posted something else again, but I must say something before this scrolls away – I so loved reading it; perhaps the summit of your lovely writing for me. It’s perfectly formed: through your eyes to the image of the therapist in his hat, on his bike, and through your mind and memories and feelings back to his receding image in your rearview mirror.So I loved the form, and then the tone: your elegant and slightly caustic phrasing of such deep and problematic stuff. And finally I deeply recognise the painful mixture of acceptance and ambivalence that you evoke in describing your therapy and therapists.

    My therapist is gentle, elegant and wise. She must be some years older than me, and I’ll be sixty this year. She’s local and I wish I’d met her in a different context – I would have liked her very much. (I think this while admiring, sidelong from the couch, her new boots). I do like her very much. But about the time we spend together I feel – ouch – all the mixed and troubled emotions I harbour towards myself.

    So thank you for ‘holding’ this for me by writing about it so beautifully, for holding up an image of this difficult and uncomfortable enterprise in such a knowing and pleasurable way.

    • Jean, what a wonderful comment. I think the last time we spoke, you had just begun work with your therapist and were feeling optimistic about it – and it sounds like you had good reason to feel that way! I particularly like what you say about feeling the mixed and troubled emotions that arose in sessions in the memories of the time you spent with her. Yes. I hadn’t seen it in that light before but you are very astute, there’s definitely something important there. I do hope I’ll end up the kind of 60-year-old who wears boots other people admire. I think that’s highly aspirational!

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