Monday, March 14, 2016

Trusting a Therapist in Stage One of Healing

My husband and I once took in a few feral kittens. He says that it took three years before they would let him touch them. I saw this meme today and thought of the good therapists and the not so good ones that I've seen. It is no easy job to develop trust with a feral cat, and in many ways, I think that traumatized people have much in common with them.  We have forgotten how to trust, and we need someone with great patience to help us remember and learn if we ever knew how to have healthy trust to being with.

When I sought help a number of years ago, I didn't seek out a specialist in trauma but rather went to someone who had a different specialty. After more than a year, I decided to stop seeing her. It seemed to me that it did far more harm than good. I'd invested so much money and so much of myself in that relationship with the counselor that I felt like I had no right to walk away. (She was supposed to be the expert, and I kept waiting to start feeling a little better, not worse.) For the last two sessions, I took my husband with me under the guise of having relationship problems, almost like I needed a witness to see how mean she was. She also made what I thought were empty promises, and I never saw any evidence that they were true. I didn't have enough confidence to see anyone else for another year and a half after that.

Finally Finding My Voice

When I “couldn't go it alone” anymore, I wrote an email to a Christian counseling group and was very specific about what I wanted out of therapy, that I was only interested in EMDR or neurofeedback for trauma, and that I wouldn't go through what I'd just been through. The center's director responded right away saying that she believed that she had someone ideal for me to see, but I was encouraged because the email gave me the liberty to seek their help to find someone else if it was necessary. When I agreed to meet with the person she had in mind, I received a phone call within an hour of sending my email response. (EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and it has been especially helpful for people who suffer trauma.) I am so glad that I drummed up the courage to see her, for the experience was entirely different.

I told a friend about the drastic difference between the two counselors. He offered this example which made me chuckle: If you go to a foot doctor for a headache, they will figure out some way to cut your foot off and will convince you that it will help your head.” This seemed to be a quite fitting analogy. Specifically seeking out a trauma specialist, for me, was analogous to going to the headache doctor for a headache. Today, I think of many people who are good cat owners, but I know that not everyone does well with feral cats.

In an ideal world, that first therapist would have sent me for more testing and would have found someone more suitable for me – someone who understood my specific needs as well as the role religion played in my life. (She knew nothing about the nature of my faith, and she wasn't willing to learn. I once took an article to her, but she told me that she didn't have time to read it.)

We don't live in an ideal world. I felt more like I did a decade earlier when I was working up the confidence and resolve to leave my cultic church. I'd trusted someone who was not safe and who didn't seem to care one bit, and like many of my “coverings” in the church, she used the power of her place in that therapeutic relationship against me. My primary problem was all about having all power stripped from me, and that first therapist acted as though there was only so much to go around. She made sure that she got it and that I knew who was “boss.”

I think that the lesson I learned from that was radical self-trust, because I needed to leave that therapist who vied for power. If you've walked away from a cultic group or an ideology that offers all the answers, you will understand what I mean. And making the choice to walk away is part of the healing, though it doesn't feel that way at the time.

Finding My Self

The EMDR therapist handled me so well, and I thought of her when I read this meme about feral cats. I didn't take three years to warm up to my new therapist like my feral kittens did with my husband, but I kept waiting for the bottom to fall out of my new attempt to find (and keep!) help. Much like my exit counselor did for me about a decade earlier, my EMDR therapist understood how I felt before I could even tell her because she understood trauma. She treated me like an equal, and my experience with her is much like one author describes: she was my witness and my ally.

She gave me a safe space to say anything, she never grimaced or made a face which I think that almost every counselor before did with me at some point. She also kept a very safe distance from me, too. But I never felt abandoned. I think that the EMDR process did help create the structure of that safe place, too, so it made it easier. Rather than telling me “where I should do,” she let the feelings direct me to where I needed to go. She followed along as my ally.

The Rescue

In five years, I only saw her react with emotion a few times, and it was in a way that was protective without being a rescuer as my previous therapist attempted to be. And I desperately wanted rescued!!! But I again reminded myself to “trust the process.” Her reactions were appropriate, too – calling out bad things that had been said to me by people who meant to be helpful but were actually toxic. And I watched her like a feral cat as she did it, too. She held true to our contract of trust.

She hung in there with me, waiting for me to make my own decisions and my own connections. There was a “rescue” at the end of dealing with a trauma memory, and I think that for the first year, I resisted it. The only person who would rescue me out of a harmful place in my head was me. It must have been tough, because I would hang in that place for a couple of sessions – wanting the memory to change into the fantasy that wished it could be. It always amazed me because that was never the point.

Never did we call evil good. Never did EMDR become a process that left me in a place of hopelessness or helplessness. My therapist waited with me in that place in my head until I was ready to take myself out of the pain of each memory on my own. Every single time, I expected that I would just magically accept what had happened. But once I had expressed what someone should have expressed on my behalf when I was powerless to do so for myself, I learned that I didn't need to stay in that memory. The freedom came in leaving it and taking myself out of that place of fear and pain. It took me a long time to get there and to truly trust the process as opposed to telling myself to trust it.

It reminds me so much of earning the trust and love of a feral cat.

My autonomy was always the end point, even when I couldn't imagine it for myself. I like the image that my EMDR therapist held out the hope of my own power to me until I laid down my pain. Only then were my arms empty enough to receive it.

As I type, Lord of the Rings plays on the television, and I'm reminded of the line Gandalf utters in his captivity: “There is only one lord of the rings, and he does not share power.” My good counselor shared power with me and modeled it until I could embrace it for myself. And I'm still working on that, but I have the tools now to do much of that for myself.

For further reading until the next post: