Letting Go of Your Therapist and Other Losses

What shall we do about the people beyond reach? I’m talking about those we’ve lost through broken friendship and fractured romance; death and the end of therapy.

September is now autumn. Never a fan of descending leaves, I’m not a fall guy in any sense, nature’s signal of the close of things.

Soon comes the small tragedy of every baseball season’s autumn-end, a loss to mimic all the others. No less than a Yale English Professor, Bart Giamatti, captured this untimely time of year:

Baseball breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

Our species loses much of value: parents, friends, and youthful bloom; the cartilage in our knees, favorite pens, and jewelry. Therapists who helped us and with whom we had an erotic transference so much like love it might have been an early-stage, “too good to be true” version of the thing itself.

Thoughts return to the peopled world more than mislaid writing tools and bracelets. Here are the ones we meet and speak with and those who live in memory. Let’s talk about the latter, persistent missing partners in imaginary conversations.

Their posthumous life is in us because it is not outside of us. Were the beloved nearby we could touch and share. We could watch, know. An internet search offers little. Some are living, but estranged or unavailable; occupied elsewhere. Others no longer of this world. Why are they often so difficult to get over?

Therapeutic wisdom — a knowledge I relied upon — points to insufficient or postponed grieving of normal losses. Counselors also deal with a specialized version of this problem when erotic transference refuses to disappear. They help the client to recognize their affection and idealization of the counselor as a kind of mistaken identity. He is not their father and, by working out the feelings about the dead parent, the therapist becomes the smaller man he is, not a stand-in on a parental pedestal. The spell breaks, a solution that works except when it doesn’t.

Mourning is essential for everyone, but for many an imprint of the departed remains. We are creatures whose flesh craves the tattoo artist’s needle, a polished steel stylus inscribing a name on the heart.

Take grieving for what it is: an emotional expression of bereavement intended to reconnect us with the world. Not a resumption of life with all wholeness restored. The ache dissipates, but not every wound vanishes.

Recognize this. On the killing fields of today’s wartime, dying soldiers cry for the same person their distant predecessors did before the walls of Troy: mother.

Were mourning 100% successful in erasing the hurt, some of our memories would also disappear. In effective lamentation they diminish, blur, or fade; unless you are so gifted or cursed to relive the bygone like a video rerun.

Bloggers and their readers write about the long-abiding soft-spot for the therapist or an inability to find a love comparable to the idealized counselor. And how many carry a hope of reunion with the absent romantic other (at least in heaven); another chance or a final meeting with a mother or brother or misplaced-lover to say what was unsaid, receive what was never heard, or listen to what was heard before — once more: a “last moment” last moment memory designed to be lasting — beating the door to its bang.

Who would turn down another day with a beloved parent, long deceased? What would happen? I can tell you my imagination of such an opportunity with my dad.

I’d break down hearing his reanimated voice. Seeing him “alive,” the same. Embracing him and on and on. The two of us said everything we needed to say in his lifetime. We shared in words the love we shared in life. There would be no extra closure of something already accomplished, as might occur with sentiments unspoken by you or to you in a past relationship.

But what then, beyond the intensity and wonderful/horrible delight as the seconds ticked away? My grief might reopen. Months after Milt Stein died 18-years-ago, the kids asked my wife, “When will dad be himself again?” Not the single time I also asked the question of myself.

If you were mourning someone still living? Another meeting risks delay or disruption of the needed recovery. Perhaps a desire for renewal, restart. More to remember and sustain one party might bring exquisite pain to the other.

Back to enamored clients again. Consider the stirring inside you — still entranced by the transference — if you talked to the doc every six months post-treatment. Is the offer of such an opportunity a kindness or an obstacle to your 100% focus on your current life partner? Or the quest for one?

Would shared phone reunions be a balm? No answers here, only questions. Many other potential problems exist in post-treatment friendship. Each of you is different and no two of us come through the process or away from it in a unison of emotion.

Perchance you, in the sorrow of ended association or love, will yet be surprised to find someone as important to you, as well-fit to your temperament and interests — to your unique experience of life — as the departed one. Perhaps you won’t, but do you need to put your effort into a new soul despite his inevitable shortfalls — to give yourself whatever chance you have for intimacy? And, if he is not found, then your energy must go somewhere external, be it grandchildren, work, creating a better world, painting, friendship, healing the sick, or educating the young; all beyond the boundaries of your own skin.

Part of what we are dealing with is not (or not only) the casualty of passionate competition or obligation, our unique imperfections or human kindness, but the nature of life. Our time is short. We stretch to grasp and hold tight selected loves. Nothing lasts, as Bart Giamatti knew.

I did not make these rules. Neither did he.

Yet even in fall-fueled dystopic moments, I’m drawn to life’s poetry. The rhythm and rhyme bind me to those I love: those who brought me laughter, beauty, and generosity; past or present. So let Giamatti’s poetic sensibility speak once more of the bittersweet game of ball he did not wish to get over:

It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.

A. Bartlett Giamatti, Take Time For Paradise: Americans And Their Games

——————–

Bart Giamatti was not only a university professor, but spent his last few months as the Commissioner of Baseball.

The first image is A Water Drop by José Manuel Suárez from Spain. The following three are by Roger McLassus: Impact of a Water Drop on a Water Surface, Impact of a Drop of Water, and A Water Drop Detaching from a Water Tap. All were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

22 thoughts on “Letting Go of Your Therapist and Other Losses

  1. Thanks for introducing me to the beautiful thoughts of Bart Giamatti. I share the sentiments about Fall, although, as a former classroom teacher and homeschool parent, the opening of the season did bring a sense of fresh start. As far as the “one last meeting”–whether living or deceased–I’d risk the pain and run toward love.

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    • Thank you, Evelyn. Giamatti was a big Boston Red Sox fan, who banished Pete Rose from Major League Baseball only eight days before he (Giamatti) died of a heart attack at age 51. The Professor, too, clearly had not given up on love despite the heartbreak. He relished the fresh start of each new baseball season. Of course, in the Chicago of my youth, hope was pretty well crushed a few weeks later! Now, for the Cubs, it is different.

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  2. This is timely for me, as I have had a post-counselling friendship with my therapist for several years now, and have just recently identified this as not helpful to me. The cost has become too great and the benefit too little to continue on anymore in this friendship. Thank you, I always love reading your musings.

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  3. This blog was a real hit for me as it echoed all my feelings of aging and life. You are so gifted in being able to put those deep feelings and observations that many of us recognize have into words. Bravo1

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    • Thanks, Jack. We do, after all, come from the same family, which might explain a shared vision. Your praise, for that reason also, means a great deal to me.

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  4. A heartwarming post, Dr. Stein. I enjoyed reading the excerpts of Bart Giamatti’s reflections on the end of the baseball season, the fall, and the cycles of our lives.

    Autumn is, indeed, a time of letting go. But, if we pay attention to Nature’s life cycles, it’s a letting go for new beginnings. It’s a painful but unavoidable process.

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    • You, Evelyn, and a dear local friend Joan, all picked up on the fresh start theme. As always, you read carefully and well. Your intelligence and perspective benefit me and, I’m sure, my readers. Thank you, Rosaliene.

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  5. Yeah – one of my “if i won the lottery” fantasies is I’d get back into analysis, with my analyst. I expect she’s long retired by now.

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  6. Interesting — at least in my case, I don’t think there is really such a thing as “post treatment.” My time was an interesting journey which gave me wings to fly over terrain I couldn’t comprehend from ground level. Then I understood what had held me down. Once you have the wings, you never lose the ability to fly. To date, I’ve never forgotten those lessons and I soar higher that ever. That being said, it’s comforting and renewing to visit these postings!

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    • Thanks, Steven. I think this is a terrific point: that ideally, therapy can change a person enough to be capable (most of the time) to take on life’s challenges in a different way with a new perspective. Of course, the client has to be the right client, one who takes to the process and does the heavy lifting. Very glad to hear it, too. All the best.

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  7. As the shorter days descend upon us, every year at this time I start to become anxious because I have an irrational sense the earth is dying and therefore so am I. I have to remind myself this anxiety will pass, as it always does, but is a symbol of my demise and the demise of all the people I love who have died. I do not enjoy the early darkness but in time will adjust. I imagine when I say goodbye to my therapist for the last time, whenever that will be, it will be very painful. BUT, I am making strides, am self-reliant, and I will mange that pain too. Cannot help but have caring feelings for someone who has helped me so much.

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    • Some dystopian (or realistic) philosopher-types tells us we are dying from the day of our birth. They would not say you are irrational, Nancy. For my part, I’d say you are brave. Here’s to you and to all those who find beauty and march forward even in the darkness.

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  8. I haven’t read your blog for some time, and how lucky is it that I happened to think of it this week while missing a therapist I said goodbye to a while back. I said goodbye to another wonderful therapist over a decade ago, so it’s not my first rodeo, and things are going better this time. I alternate between feelings of deep gratefulness for their presence and help, and sadness that it was always temporary. Mourning the loss of a still-alive person can feel lonely.

    The more recent therapist is planning to return to his clinic as far as I know, so we might work together again one day, but that’s not really relevant. It’s an intense relationship, whether it’s active or not. But it’s intensely healing, and I am intensely grateful.

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    • Thanks, ZD, for returning to the blog. I’m also glad you are doing better than you were earlier. Gratitude is, at least, a partial remedy for our losses. Best wishes.

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  9. This is where my soul rests now – in grief mode. Thank you, Dr. Stein, for this post. I just came across this post today, and I wished I had read this before I made a terrible mistake. In my grief of all my losses, I realized my transference for one of the losses I created (yes, I take responsibility) played a huge role. I used every defense in the book, and I couldn’t see that I was spiraling. Too afraid to admit many different kinds of transference at play, I avoided, I demanded, I argued, I ran away, I hid, I spoke, I complained, I made excuses, and I cried in wake of my own sabotage. I won’t speak of whom I am referring to in regards to transference, but I will say that it has to do with a loss of career and fulfilling my potential in an area I once thought I could withstand, until recently. The transference entailed the familiar ways in which an abusive therapist would infantilize me to the point of insisting that I became her surrogate daughter, since she admitted that she couldn’t have children and thought that implanting false memories, a false diagnosis, and a surrogate mom into the mix would “help and heal” me. It didn’t. Ever hear about iatrogenic neurosis? I was the epitome of that, and every controversial argument that steers toward blaming the victim. Although a victim, I am responsible, and I am a survivor, and I am a thriver in my own right, and I am strong enough to learn from my mistakes, fall on my sword, take consequences with bitterness at first but sweetness later on, learn the hard way, and understand what mistakes I need to correct before I move forward into new possibilities in life. What ripped me apart was erotic transference. I never admitted that one, however. Apart from the transference regarding my own past trauma with therapeutic abuse, I “fell in love” and felt close to a person I should not have – a person whom I thought was like a counselor, but wasn’t. I tried so hard to work with therapists to help me, but their only solution was for me to quit. I should have. It turned out that I quit anyway, but in a horrible way. I danced around everything but the core issue of why I left. I made excuses about me, about my PTSD, about blaming everyone else and every other thing apart from the real issue. I was too afraid to admit that transference, and I was too afraid of the loss that I’d have to face once I embraced reality and let go of fantasy. I fantasized for a few years, and I feared closeness. I feared closeness because I knew this feeling of mine was one-sided, not mutual. I tried to initiate a conversation about transference with this person, so as to set the stage for me to actually get past it, but I had a feeling that person did not take transference so well. So I went back into hiding and suffering in my own fantasy that would not go away. The more I tried to be “professional,” the more I desired closeness, and the more I did the same thing I did with the abusive therapist who had me spend the night at her home, email her incessently, become her surrogate daughter, lay with her while she held me, see her four times a week, and work for her as her assistant with paperwork on her clients (yes, she was highly unethical and broke confidentiality while also having a dual relationship with me). I had just given my daughter up for adoption, and I had just left everyone I knew (including family) behind to get “healing” from her. She made me feel special, but I forgot that I had that special feeling with my own mom. My own bio mom was confused why our relationship was distant and stagnant all these years, and why I changed with her after this therapeutic experience. I transferred that onto a professional super who seemed therapeutic with me. I tried to break it, but then I had these erotic feelings of love, fantasy, sex, everything. I suffered for nearly four years with this pain, and I was too embarrassed to work on these issues. My real therapist at the time only suggested that I quit. But I worked hard to get that position, and I am not a quitter (until now). Years later, today, I mean, I still suffer. It’s a strange loss. I lost a career, a guide, a fantasy, and many other things I won’t know about until I find a therapist who can help me with this.

    All I could do is quit after all this agony and failed professionalism. I acted out just enough to be safe but just enough to get let go. I purposely sabotaged my career, and I have many other reasons beside this for doing so. I wasn’t fit for the career I was going for, but I also wasn’t mature enough to end it appropriately either. I knew what to do, and I chose to not do it. Was I impulsive? No, not really. I thought about every action of mine for some time. I knew what I got myself into, and I knew that I had to get myself out of it somehow. If my cowardly words could not come out to admit these feelings to my super’s super, or to my super, then I had do something else to end it, and to blame myself. However, I started out defensive, and I blamed others, but myself mostly. In the end, I blamed myself fully, where the blame belonged.

    I feel like I had broken up with someone. It hurts, and all I could do is have no contact anymore. I have to move on, but I have been shunning my own friends’ invites for the sake of wanting to cry in bed alone all day. Or, I lift myself up by playing music, decorating my home, and trying to get my mind off of things – alone. I love being alone. I got used to it. But in my fantasy, I was not alone; I was with the man I transferred feelings onto. No one knew this. I suffered this way silently for 3.5 years. This is NOT something you share with friends, and I have pretty supportive friends from all walks of life. Besides, it would make not only me look bad, but also the guy I had transference feelings for. I couldn’t admit this to anyone. I tried to with my therapist, but the notes are visible to everyone at the VA, so I am vague enough to get coping tools, but not detailed enough with my therapist to get the true help I need to move forward.

    Am I treating this like a breakup? Yup! I don’t know how else to respond for my own sanity. I could never face the institution for which I left because of this. All that experience down the drain because I did not know how to regulate my emotions well enough to handle this. Defenses helped me float by and work all this time, but I couldn’t work anymore. Everything got to me. The news, the politics, the flashbacks, and the transference.

    All I can do is grieve.

    I plan on re-reading this post when I’m ready. For now, I will get my mind off of all this by listening to music and cleaning house. That’s how I grieve, or contain.

    -Multinomial (formerly, Peace Penguin)

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    • I have not experienced the letting go of therapists in the same ways as others. I have unresolved issues, so I am in therapy. My desire is to not need therapy though, and I tend to leave therapists before the work is done because of a lack of the kind of bonding I need. My only experience with leaving a therapist is having to leave an abusive therapist. I wrote about it in a confusing manner above, but I had transferred those feelings onto a super (short for supervisor, or mentor) who felt to me like a therapist in our relationship. I had to end it, as opposed to it ending in a better and natural way. I hope to get to the place you all are at after “graduating” anew from therapy. For now, I am still seeking that one who can help me get to that place.

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      • Thanks for this addition, multinomial.

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      • What I meant to say in more coherent terms can be found here, on my new blog: https://multinomial.wordpress.com/2018/10/28/reconnecting-with-my-mother/

        My addition is somewhat unappropriate here, as I realized that your post may have been intended for a different message – one that has to do with the healthy losses one experiences in life when relationships come to an end in an appropriate way. My goal for treatment in the future will be to eventually bond with a therapist, heal enough to live my life in the healthiest way possible, and to say good-bye to a therapist in a very healthy way. I am not there yet, and my only experiences of therapeutic loss were primarily my own doing. I’ve prematurely left therapy – especially some good ones, and I’ve misjudged therapy due to my negative past experiences in treatment. Therapists are human, and I realize that they have a job to do like everyone else. They are uniquely invested in the work that they do, and they have strengths that go beyond what I could ever fathom. I could never be a therapist because I would not be able to differentiate myself in certain areas, and I would be at risk of my own bad therapy experiences in the past. But this doesn’t mean that I have ill will toward the field of psychology or therapists; on the contrary, my hope is that awareness about iatrogenic neurosis and maltreatment in therapy become prevalent in the future, and that new research and policies are set in place to help not only prevent such occurrences, but also to heal the victims of those occurrences. I may not be the right person to speak about such issues because I’m too close to them, but I do have a voice and a heart to at least share my story where I could. I acknowledge that I am ignorant on many levels, but the pain of loss is real in many different contexts. The heterogeniety of loss, especially when differentiating traumatic loss from disenfranchised grief, exacts different outcomes for those who suffer from such losses. For some, the loss affects all areas of their lives, but for others, the loss affects only certain areas of their life. For some, the loss can bring about mental disorders that need treating, but for others, the same type of loss (or different type of loss) can bring about a sort of post-traumatic growth, or non-traumatic insight that strengthens the person dealing with such losses. For me, I found my healing recently with my mother. I’ve reconnected with her since 2016, and I’ve had a strong relationship with her ever since. She is not my therapist, and no therapist could ever replace the love my mother has for me or the losses we’ve both encountered in our past childhood and present, but therapeutic bonds (when healthy) can help to repair the pain people have felt with losses, especially in relationships. That much I know, but I have not experienced yet (mostly due to my fears of engaging with a therapist who may not be willing or able to help me with past therapy abuse). As for my other traumatic losses and disenfranchised grief, I have no idea how to be treated for those. I’ve recently tried to be a good consumer of what doctors prescribe or what therapists treat, but there are some conditions that are not specifically mentioned in literature available to the public, or even scholarly literature available to professionals and those researching areas to improve policy and practice. I may not know much, and I may be highly biased and opinionated, but I do know the laments my mother and I have, and I have a voice to express them – albeit a controversial and painful expression for some to hear. I’ve made mistakes in correcting my own behavior in many areas of my life, and I have avoided the pain it takes to truly see where I’ve gone wrong in the process. I’ve not always taken responsibility, and I’ve not always been strong. For me, today, I have to begin from a place of weakness and humility, and I have to begin with learning to trust again. I may have said some embarrassing or off-putting things in this comment and other comments (as well as to others in real life), but I cannot beat myself up anymore for making a fool of myself or fearing the consequences of failure, others’ disgust, or the kind of caution one has when engaging with another person’s risk factors. If I met myself, I’d be cautious. Self-awareness is not easy when you’re so afraid of getting hurt, or when you keep repeating the same mistakes. Maybe I need to get hurt to learn – and by “hurt” I mean a healthy kind of lesson-learning, or constructive criticism, that enables me to find the humility I need to take action in a positive and healthy direction. It may mean more losses, and I may need to understand that. It may mean rejection, and I may need to embrace that with the freedom I need to change my behaviors, and with the freedom others need to make choices that are best for them. Rejection is part of life, but rejection can also teach us to figure out what we can do to change our behavior so that we can make it easier on others in the future, or what we can do to have empathy and understanding for others who need to reject people, places, or things for their own well-being and goals. There’s so much to do in life, and there’s not enough time to do all the things we love; knowing what to reject and respecting the rejection of others’ are important tools, in my opinion, for life management. Loss may feel like rejection in some cases, or like abandonment in others, but they are part of life. What keeps us going is to not internalize that loss as a negative for ourselves, but rather see the many opportunities that life has to offer in the future. We can grieve over losses, and we can also gain insight from those losses. We can also take time to have compassion for ourselves while we make mistakes and transitions during our grief. Nothing in the future may ever replace the things we lost in the past, but we can move forward by acknowledging that there are many more good things in the future, and in life, that can bring about new experiences (even at the risk of having new losses that will inevitably come). Traumatic loss may differ from non-traumatic loss, but the grief process is important for both. At least that is what I’ve learned from some wise people, such as yourself.

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    • Thank you multinomial. No words. Your strength still shows in your survival. Be well.

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      • Thank you, Dr. S. It was a bit much to share, but I am learning in life and on my own that strengths are not always a positive when we fail to accept ourselves in our weakest moments. When I try the self-compassion mode, it makes it easier for me to have compassion for others whom I may have displaced my grief onto. No one can make up for past hurts; one can only be familiar with new forms of connections and love. But knowing this and accepting this are two very different things. Loss of any form is painful.

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