After completing a women’s group counseling program, the psychologist who led the discussions recommended we each see someone twice a month to maintain our progress. 

Most of the women in our small group had never been in any type of therapy before, and I can’t remember any of us wanting to sit with a one-on-one therapist since the group meetings were so exhausting — but in a positive way that physical exercise exhausts. 

Wouldn’t individual therapy be that much more difficult?Or can therapy make you worse? But our facilitator assured us it would help. She gave us the name of a group practice she was familiar with and paired each of us with a therapist. That’s how I met Brenda. (not her real name)

I sat in the waiting room that day mentally measuring the distance between my feet and the door. Once, I stood, ready to bolt. I didn’t want to talk about my past anymore; I had grown tired of revisiting trauma. I wanted to move on. But I went because I had liked my group and had trusted our original group leader about the progress and maintenance ideas. It made sense.

Brenda sang my name to call me into the office (she literally sang it, first in an operatic way, then with a rap beat, and then, finally, rhyming my name with “Anne, O Ban, O Banah Ah-Nah…) She waved me in with a huge smile and rapidly told me about her experience and qualifications as a professional. 

Brenda was bouncy and happy which I thought, at first, was some kind of caffeinated technique she had developed for reluctant clients — which I was. She went on to talk about how much she disliked and disagreed with Freud. I smiled a lot, grateful she was doing all the talking.

“So,” she said, leaning back into her lounge chair, “tell me why you’re here and what you would like to accomplish,”

I told her the truth: I was there because I had a successful experience with a women’s group and I trusted the psychologist who had led it. I wanted to ameliorate my PTSD symptoms more fully, and…

“Stop right there,” she said, holding her hand up, her palm facing me. The first thing we are going to do now, and I mean right now, is to have you stop labeling yourself that way. It’s limiting. You’re more than a diagnosis. Besides, we all have a little PTSD.”

I nodded. Did we? I was there, specifically, for PTSD…

She went on to tell me about a car accident with injuries she had witnessed as a child, proving she, too, had PTSD. And that experience hadn’t limited her in the slightest, not in the slightest. Labels, she said, are not doing anyone any good. I listened. I thanked her. She hugged me. 

It all got a bit blurry: she played soft, twangy New Age (I think?) type music and had little blasts of fragranced air puffing out all over her office. The overhead lighting was replaced with a village of candles. Between the muted light, the ambient music, the lavender pulses of scent, and the guided meditation she ended our session with, things got borderline surreal in there.

I learned a lot about Brenda during our sessions. She understood addiction well as she was a recovering alcoholic. She had “mucho” (her constant, predictable adjective) sympathy for the addicts in my life who had been abusive. 

Empathy toward addiction was important as I had to work on forgiveness and forgiveness began by giving mucho sympathy to the disease of addiction. Forgiveness redeemed not only them but me as well. 

To say there was an element of the evangelist-type gospel in this therapy is abundantly fair. Brenda was born again and often mentioned God’s plan.

Only I did not want to give sympathy to addiction. And forgiveness has to develop a thorough understanding, at least in me: it’s not a knee-jerk response. 

The idea left me with the same hollow sense I had when someone apologized and then continued the same behavior. Of course, I had, and have, a modicum of sympathy for addiction. It’s an evil, invasive illness with a fully downward trajectory. 

But I also needed to get away from the addicts and the disease to understand my behavior with it and to become adept at establishing boundaries with the family members who continued to use. Brenda assured me boundaries would begin to form naturally as I gained more clarity into myself.

“They just form?” I asked, not quite believing her. “Don’t I have to first gain some insight?”

She smiled. “You have to give yourself time and when you reach a certain level of understanding, you will know.”

It seemed strangely oracle-like, and I think mysticism is a good opposite of clarity. I left the sessions feeling the same as I did when I left the mall: I had gone out and had some mild amusement, and once home again, I had to focus on important things. 

There was no emotional hangover as I thought about things we had discussed. I remembered my previous group and how I had to switch sessions to later in the day because I was so emotionally and spiritually exhausted when I left that I could do nothing for the remainder of the day. I also remembered progress.

Maybe…I was just getting better? Was therapy simply less demanding because my last counselor had been so adept? Was there something magical happening in these seemingly superficial appointments with Brenda? Who was I to question her professionalism? I had no point of reference. One experience with therapy, in a group no less, didn’t exactly make me an expert. Still, I woke in the silent darkness of 3 am wondering if any of the appointments were doing any good.

At the next meeting, she told me when I hugged her, she didn’t feel reciprocity. I was stiff, she said, unyielding. I needed to think about the reason I could not hug her. Hugging should be natural and full she advised me; holding back on hugging her meant I was holding back on other things, like the details of my abusive marriage, so we needed to look more closely at my lack of receptiveness.

I apologized. (I know — looking back on all this, I wince, too) Truth be told, I don’t like touching on demand, let alone hugging, people I don’t know well. Double that for people in a professional capacity to whom I feel vulnerable. She said, this time, when the session ended, she wanted a good hug. She needed it. It would mean I was opening up my body and my mind would follow.

I began dreading the end of the session. The dread made me not want to talk so we talked about how a date she had gone on the previous weekend. He was not what she expected. I viewed pictures of the man on her phone, wondering if I should know any of this. But again, I had never been in one-on-one therapy before. 

The domestic violence counseling had been small group, with occasional individual meetings. I didn’t even know my therapist’s last name there. And now I was looking at a phone picture of a shirtless man she had met on a dating app while she pointed out his toned abdomen.

I gave her a better hug, though I didn’t want to touch her at all. I don’t know why I did this — I felt if I didn’t, she would think more negatively about me. Or ask me questions I didn’t want to answer. 

Brenda said, “That was a good hug. Finally! See? You can do it!” I smiled weakly and backed up into the oxygen.

What I didn’t say was that night I had one of the worst panic attacks of my life. For thirty minutes, I stared at the blackness of my bedroom window, trying not to shake. That forced hug had triggered situations where I had been touched when I had not wanted to be touched. How could she not know that? I had to say something. And here’s the difficulty with that: my ex-husband had an advanced degree in gaslighting; I didn’t truly trust how I felt — at least not yet.

“You need to get back ownership of your body, Anne,” she responded when I told her I wanted to just stand and leave our sessions hug-free. “I can sense your difficulty in hugging others.”

“I hug my kids,” I mentioned, “without any problem, and they’re nearly adults. I hug friends. It feels very…awkward here. I think it’s bad for me.”

Brenda scoffed. “Hugging is like putting the seal on the deal. I’m glad you brought that up though. We can work on that.”

So we did. She would open her arms at the end of each session and I would obediently hug her, hating every second of touching her, of getting close to her overly fragranced skin, the musk of her sweat, the heat of her body. I held my breath during the second’s long exchange and breathed only when it was over. She would ask, “Is that so bad?”

By about session six, Brenda began texting me a few times a week. I would be teaching or getting groceries when cheerful memes appeared on my phone. A lot was similar to one I remember well: a bunch of daisies bloomed words: breath, relax, you got this! I was startled awake a few nights with midnight texts telling me to have a restful sleep. 

Sometimes in the morning, I would look at my phone while in traffic to see Brenda wishing me a productive day at work. I blamed myself for viewing them as intrusive. Someone was thinking of me, and wasn’t that a good thing? Wasn’t it?

Around month four, we started talking more about my situation, how the anxiety was related to the violence and the betrayals I had experienced, and she suggested I begin taking something pharmaceutical to relax. “You can start with a low dose of Xanax,” she told me. “It would make it easier for you to talk. I see how upset you are when we revisit these events. Your GP can write you a quick script. Pop one before coming in. Only use PRN, ya’ know?”

Again, I agreed, even though I dislike all drugs and rarely even have a glass of wine.“Maybe I could try meditation first.” I said this meekly. “There’s Valerian…”

“I would go with the Xanax. We know that works.” She winked. I said nothing for a full minute. At that moment, I had my first real sense that I disliked her as a person. I was forming the language to tell her this when she leaned forward and told me how much she was enjoying our sessions.

“You’re a favorite,” she whispered, “I enjoy talking to you. I connect with your intelligence.”

I kept looking at her, and I remember smiling very slightly. I had the beginnings of a dissociative moment. In that instant, I recognized that my sessions with Brenda were, absolutely, unquestionably increasing my anxiety. I had again begun having the recurrent nightmares and insomnia that had so marked my PTSD.

After telling me I was a favorite, we talked about her latest boyfriend. Since we were almost the same age, she also confided that she had begun menopause and was suffering from vaginal dryness. She took her phone out and showed me different kinds of pelvic rings that would provide lubrication.

“The dryness gets so bad, I chafe. That certainly won’t help my love life.” She laughed. “This is the best way to moisten us ladies up again.” She sang the word “moooy- sin” after saying this and looked to see my reaction.

I didn’t have one.

By our next appointment, she told me how well the ring was working and I heard about the consummation of her date and his oral sex technique. She explained how her vagina responded to the ring, her date’s manipulations, and how she was now “flowing like a river down there” — I nodded crazily, wondering how things had gotten like this.

We talked briefly about a new event in my life, but not long before she began to cry. It seemed the man who had gained access to her newly flowing vagina had not contacted her in over a week, not since the consummation. We spent the rest of the session speculating as to why this might have happened.

After suffering through another bear hug, I went home and called Maddy, a friend who had been in as much therapy as a Woody Allen character. “You have to shop,” she advised, “some of them became therapists because they have so many personal issues. This isn’t a fit. You need to tell her you’re leaving.”

I thought for a while about what I was going to say to Brenda. I wanted to be truthful. I wanted to be fair. I had trouble asserting myself back then. I had to say I thought we had different styles of well, living, of talking. I needed also to tell her that the sessions made me regress. And I would not be making an appointment to get anything resembling Xanax.

But she surprised me at our next session. She had consulted with her supervisor about how she believed we connected so well that she had confided details of her private life to me. Her supervisor, according to Brenda, understood that I had trust issues, and establishing a pseudo-friendship would help me to delve into events I still had trouble discussing.

“I honestly feel such a special connection with you.” She sat in her chair, leaning back, the puffs of the fragrance emitting from little pots on bamboo shelves, the music twanging in the swampish light. I stared straight ahead. I wanted to say I only wanted a professional relationship, how I needed to be able to function without flashbacks, how I wanted a guide, not a friend. But I wasn’t able to do that. Not then.

We had a frank discussion, but it wasn’t about me. It was about a new man she had begun seeing. She liked Oliver, she liked his energy and his good nature. I looked at his picture. I listened to her talk about how their dinner went. She asked my opinion. I told her to go for it. I told her Oliver sounded wonderful. I wished her the best with him. And I left, knowing I was walking out of her office for the last time.

Brenda called me multiple times. She also texted me asking when I would be back. I texted her that I wanted to work on myself by having a more peaceful time, more time when I wasn’t dwelling on my past.“I can help you with that,” she texted back. “I miss our conversations.” This was followed by a series of hearts and crying emojis. I blocked her after seeing them. When I saw her office call later that week, I blocked that number also.

For a time, I felt there was something so wrong with me that even therapy could not help. How counterintuitive is it to feel worse and more muddled after talk therapy? So I began reading about other people who had had experiences similar to mine, or at least not productive experiences in one-on-one therapy. 

One quote from a Psychology Today article stayed with me: “Any technology that has real power to clarify and heal, by definition also has the power to distort and harm.” I wish I had known that going into that situation.

I never saw Brenda again. But when I think of her, when I think of that time in my life, I realize she taught me something of huge value. I had entered into marriage, into having children, into my life believing that people did what was best for other people, that boundaries were real and inviolable, that the world worked with a system of checks and balances that kept us all safe. 

None of that was true.

When that system went awry, my world spun out of control. 

I had no resources for dealing with abuse or addiction — both distortions of a stable, healthy life. Brenda reminded me that there are distortions everywhere, that you have to lead with your instincts and be the architect of your boundaries, even if those boundaries lead to complete and permanent absence.

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