A few weeks ago, my therapist told me she’s taking a break from seeing clients to work on some other things. She wanted to chat about setting me up for sessions with a trusted colleague from her practice. Even though I only see Natalie once in a while since she “graduated” me (a.k.a. discontinued our weekly sessions since I’m no longer an unstable, anxiety-ridden sad panda at this phase in my life), this announcement was jarring.
My armpits started sweating from sheer panic when she told me. I wondered if I could work out some kind of deal where she just sees me and no other clients. I also wondered if I’d tumble backwards if she leaves me. Sad panda poked her cute, evil little head out of whatever grave I’d buried her in and whispered, I’m coming for you, bitch.
See, I’m kind of in love with my therapist. She rescued me from myself. And when someone rescues you, there’s a weird thing that happens where you permanently look at them with googly fairytale eyes.
First, let me point out that as a receiver of psychotherapy, you’re supposed to adhere to strict boundaries with your therapist that allow you to see them as a clinician, which is supposed to help you get the most fruitful use out of every session. You’re not supposed to ask them personal questions. You’re definitely not supposed to touch them, and they’re not supposed to touch you. The more sterile you can keep this relationship the better, apparently, according to the American Psychological Association. But to me these guidelines essentially indicate that therapists are mental health bots designed to help you better yourself. Even if you can achieve one tenth of that sensibility at first, I promise you that it will all fall to shit if you’re doing any type of real work on that therapist’s couch.
The term “inner work” is kind of woo-woo and abstract, and people who say it also say things like “self-care” and “radical acceptance.” I do not say those things, so allow me to explain less poetically: Working through trauma and other assorted baggage in therapy is like ripping open your already festering wounds and then sticking your fingers inside and cleaning them out, extracting one writhing maggot at a time. There is no anesthetic. And once you’re in, there’s no going back.
A therapist is your guide to navigating those wounds and sewing them up afterward, allowing them—and for you—to heal. All of this is contingent upon whether you find someone that you feel safe doing this with. I’m talking about digging up traumatic repressed memories and identifying which parts of that trauma are holding you back today. As you can imagine, you can really only do this with someone you trust. And I know it is Natalie’s actual job to guide me without judgement, but telling someone all your grimy, sometimes mortifying secrets and then not being judged—that builds a type of intimacy that’s unparalleled. It’s hard to look at this person as a bot, so I didn’t.
Watch this from VICE:
Some people follow the therapy boundary rules to a T, and it’s hella weird. A friend once told me that she noticed her therapist’s stomach growing more rotund with every session but neither of them ever acknowledged her pregnancy. I am not here for that type of pretending, especially in a space where you’re supposed to be completely honest. When it got comfortable and appropriate enough in our relationship (and when it was relevant), Natalie shared some details of her life with me. I’ve asked her how her children are. We’ve hugged goodbye from time to time. She and I found and set our own boundaries within this improvised rapport.
Our interactions, which were based on comfort rather than rules, allowed me to be as open as possible. I remember sitting on the couch in her office, eyelids swollen from crying, one fall morning in 2014. For weeks, we’d worked up to conversation I really didn’t want to have about my loss issues. It’s crazy what we pack away in our minds and actually forget until we are forced to remember. I started going to her because I was working through a separation with a partner, but that ended up being a point of entrance. Through my reaction to that breakup, we discovered a lot of issues that had been preventing me from processing pain in an effective way. These issues had turned into full-blown anxiety that was fucking up my life, one episode at a time.
It’s weird, now, years later, I don’t even remember the details of that conversation. I left that there in her office, in that safe place with my safe person. It’s also now that I realize why Natalie’s a demigod of sorts to me, sitting on a lily pad pedestal, miles above regular humans who say and do stupid mortal things. I thought she was my savior.
She didn’t save me, though. She used cognitive behavioral therapy and her professional skills to teach me how to talk myself down. And then I saved my goddamn self. Over and over again. I’m not in love with Natalie, I’m in love with the person she helped me become.
So screw those boundaries and the concept of a therapist-bot. I found someone extremely professional but also extremely human and it worked for me. I invite you to, within reason, see your therapist as a person. Fall in love with this person if you want to. As long as everyone keeps their clothes on, it could inspire you to do all the inner work and radically accept yourself—whatever the fuck all that means.
I’m still terrified about existing in this world without Natalie. It’s triggered the very loss issues I came to her to confront. At some point, I’m going to have to deal with new wounds and I’m going to have to do that with some stranger named Rene, apparently. I’m not going to sweat it though. I know the drill. One maggot at a time.
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