Many of my readers have lived through highly traumatic childhoods where love and affection were missing and in their stead was fear and abuse.
So, when we entered our therapist’s office for the first time, we entered not as whole and confident adults, but rather as hurting children looking for what we did not receive when young.
In this article, I’m going to talk about something that is extremely painful for me, how I, and I would imagine, you, look for love from our therapists.
Looking and Wanting Love is Normal
When a child is born, they have instincts and hard-wired behaviors to get their needs met. We are born small, almost blind, nearly deaf, and helpless, so, naturally, we reach out to our caregivers for everything; food, shelter, and changing. If our caregivers are not capable or willing to do their part, we find other ways to cope with the raging instincts inside our minds.
If our caregivers are dangerous and frightening to us, we shut down and some children will die.
We can say that we needed love, and perhaps that is true. It all depends on how you define the word love.
Our caregivers should have also acted on their instinctual need to care for our needs. For some reason, and there are many, they chose to not answer our distressed cries or became enraged by them.
We learned, growing up, three things about ourselves that are not nor were ever true.
I am bad.
I am no good.
I do not deserve love.
The reason we blame ourselves is two-fold. For one, admitting that our caregivers did not love us was akin to emotional suicide. It goes against everything our instinctive-selves are telling us. Second, children always internalize what they feel and hear in the voices of others. If your dad yelled at your mom, it was your fault. If your mom was constantly drunk, it was your fault.
Then, to make matters worse, abusers and those who neglected our needs often told us, using the same language, that we were indeed horrible children.
The Enigma of Attending Therapy
I have read the works of therapists describing transference and how their clients are maladjusted adults who will do anything for attention. However, in a recent article, I read by Dr. Jeffery Smith and his explanation of what transference it blew me away.
Dr. Smith stated that “I have personally, abandoned the term, transference, and simply think of an “inner child” with his or her own agenda. It is far more accurate to picture a being who seeks to feel better through methods that are appropriate for a young person. This is so much truer to life than thinking of transference as an adult with errors in perception. In addition, thinking in terms of an inner child encourages compassion and understanding rather than judgment.”
In other words, Dr. Smith is advocating for therapists to stop seeing us as badly behaving adults and to look underneath at the hurting little kid in all of us.
I know when I began therapy with Dr. Paula McNitt, I didn’t know what exactly it was I needed. I knew I wanted the chaos I had been experiencing in the months before I saw her for the first time, but that was all. After our therapy sessions got to the point where I could remember going, I found Paula to be gentle, kind, and above all else, caring. Thus, I fell in love with my therapist as my surrogate mother.
Now, seeing your therapist the way I saw (and still see) Paula is okay if the therapist knows how to control what is occurring. If not, well, there is big trouble brewing.
I remember feeling terrified that Paula was going to disappear, die, or tell me to go away. I would drive past the clinic where she worked to see if her car was there to reassure myself that she was not gone. I even had a hallucination where I imagined I heard on the radio her husband had died, which sent me into a panic reaction that was devastating.
Terrified of Caring and Respect
Terrified of telling Paula how much I needed her, I hid as much as I could my growing dependence on Paula for support. However, Paula recognized what was happening and began reminding me that the day would come when our sessions together would end, but that I was a capable adult. At the same time, she also reassured me that, beyond circumstances that she could not control, she wasn’t going anywhere.
After the first time, she told me that, I set out to test her statement that she was not going anywhere.
I was so afraid of the caring and respect that Paula gave me that I brushed off any compliments and suggestions she gave me. I began to play games with her, telling her what she wanted to know and then getting angry at her for believing me.
It was if the fear was so intense that I could not get around, under or through it.
Indeed, the first nine years of seeing Paula as a client, although not totally wasted, did not gain me the healing I could have realized if not for the fear. It took losing her as a therapist and afterward becoming so ill I lived inpatient for over seven years to beat into my thick skull that games get you nowhere.
The Pain of Losing Your Therapist
After I had grown up a lot from my fifteen-year hiatus from seeing Dr. McNitt, miraculously we were reunited. My first visit to her office after so long was joyous for both of us. It was then that I realized just how much Paula did care for me.
I was no longer willing to play games, so I began a very honest dialogue between myself and Paula that carried on for another four years until her retirement in 2016.
I wish I could tell you that I took the retirement of Dr. Paula McNitt well, but I would be lying. You see, I am made up of so many children, and I said in the beginning, children need love and understanding from a grown-up. If they do not get it, they stop responding or die.
Paula spent a year preparing me for her departure from my life, and on our last day together I appeared calm, rational, and happy for her.
Inside was a different story.
I could feel little hearts breaking because their mommy was going away. Even now, as I’m writing this piece, tears stream down my face because I feel lost.
For all intents and purposes, Paula has died. I will never see her or speak to her again. Not because I do not wish it, but because that’s the way she wants it. She understands, or she thinks she does, that I need to stand on my own two feet.
I need to grow up and be my own mommy.
The adult in me understands this and welcomes this new reality. But my children cry all the time because their mommy is dead.
It has been nearly three years and the pain is just as palpable today, as it was then.
Dealing with the Loss of Your Therapist
In an ideal world, I would never have seen Dr. McNitt the number of years I did. After at most a few weeks or a year I would have moved on and she would be a distant memory.
That isn’t what happened.
Hell, I didn’t cry hardly any when my real mother died, but I have cried for three years after losing Paula.
I am dealing with the situation, and like all else I’ve been through, I will eventually conquer this too.
But I gotta tell you something. The world is a lot bigger, scarier, and cold without Paula in my life. I find myself fearful more than not these days with no mother- figure to sooth the rough edges.
Becoming my own mom seems to be the only solution, so I have been hugging and holding myself and my inner-kids (who are me) as much as I can. I’ve also been trying to find friendships where I can vent my fears and needs, but that is more difficult than it sounds in a world where the disabled are frowned upon.
The Moral of This Story
I started this piece to rationally discuss the problem of transference and how it can make things difficult when your therapist needs to leave. That is not where it ended up at.
The despair I sometimes harbor is extremely painful sometimes, but I am managing.
I guess, the moral of this story is this:
You are not alone in your suffering and pain. There are others like you who feel alone and frightened. There are others who need and try to find love and hope.
You are not alone.
“Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake
Ditto sir, ditto.