A fellow blogger said that I should write more about Jane, my ex-therapist, because she sounded like a good therapist. I said that I wanted to – that I wanted to write about all the things she did that made her such a good therapist, and more importantly, such a good therapist for me, as ultimately, I think that it’s the therapeutic relationship that is the key to how well a therapy works. But I also said that part of me was afraid. Afraid that if I wrote about it, there would be nothing else left to say. That all we went through and the work we did together, will make up just a few words on a page. That that will be the end of that.
But the reality is, that is the end of that, and in a way, that’s another reason for writing. Not just to show why she was indeed such a good therapist, but as a way of saying goodbye. And that is something I find it so hard to do. So hard, that my reply to Jane’s last email was a ‘holding reply’, while I tried to gather my thoughts and feelings enough to figure out what it was I truly wanted to say. That was two weeks ago, and the longer I wait, the more apparent it becomes that I’m simply postponing two things that feel impossible – finding the perfect words, and bringing our relationship to a conclusion. I can’t promise that this will be my final word on the subject of Jane, but it will be my final word to her.
And if this ‘final word’ sounds a bit like a love letter, I guess that’s what it is. But if there’s one thing that therapy has helped me to realise about love over the last few months, is that it is complicated, and so are its origins. That although the Ancient Greeks may have tried to carve it up and separate it out into four different types of feelings, it defies simple definition, compartmentalisation or categorisation. I don’t try to analyse my feelings about Jane. Not just because they scare me (though that is true), but because I don’t need to. My feelings just are – and they don’t have to be of one type, or another.
So how do I answer my fellow blogger? What did Jane do, that was such ‘good therapy’?
She held me. Figuratively. By which I mean, that she held and contained everything I was and felt, without judgment and without becoming overwhelmed by it. She was a vessel into which I could pour out everything that was hurting me, but without diminishing either her, or me, in the process. Her capacity to contain me was intimately linked to her capacity to stay bounded. I was acutely aware (in a way that was both painful and reassuring) of a gentle but unyielding boundary – of the fact that I was ‘fully known’ but that she was ‘hidden’ from me. She reassured me that what I did see of her, was real, and not a mask. That ‘Jane the therapist’ was part of who Jane was, and not a pretense, or a role. And I was grateful for that reassurance. But I was even more grateful for both the infinite containment and acceptance, and the immoveable boundaries that made it possible. Because of those things, she was the ultimate safe place.
She gave me permission. She gave me permission to feel the things I felt, and to talk about them. And she gave it explicitly – she said, “I give you permission”. At first this sounded strange, but now I know she did it because she knew what I needed to hear, even when I didn’t know. She knew I didn’t, in reality, need her permission (or anyone else’s) – but she also knew that I couldn’t give it to myself, because there were certain things I had never been ‘allowed’ to feel or be. And hearing her say it, made it feel okay. It made the feelings themselves, okay to be felt.
She finished my sentences. She really saw me, into the depths of me, and the words that she used, demonstrated that. My hunger for intensity; my need to ‘merge’ with her – she saw, and spoke, about them both, without me needing to say very much by way of explanation. For that hour every week, we shared the same mental space, as well as the same physical space. If ever there was someone who I felt was ‘on my wavelength’, it was her.
She walked alongside me. She knew that it was my journey, to be taken at my pace. She told me that it was okay that I couldn’t yet commit to wanting to get better, because it felt as though for that to happen, part of me would have to die. She took subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) cues from me about what I was prepared or ready to talk about, and she opened up painful areas slowly, carefully, and so very gently. She was happy for me just to ‘be there’, wherever ‘there’ was – I didn’t have to do, or say, or feel, anything that I wasn’t ready for.
She related to the different parts of me. I often felt I had two ‘modes’ in therapy: the adult who relished what felt like a truly ‘equal’ relationship for the first time in her life; and the twelve year old who felt completely vulnerable and just wanted to be guided, protected and sheltered. She made them both feel valued, and gave them what they needed. She praised and encouraged the child, for example, by letting her know that she ‘led’ the conversation, far more frequently than she thought she did. And she reminded the adult that therapy was a partnership, that they worked well together, and that she was making progress. At the same time, when the adult (or was it the child?) was desperate to lay certain ‘victories’ at her door, she saw that need and desperation, and graciously accepted those victories.
She wasn’t afraid of how I felt about her. Even though I was terrified that my attachment and my intense feelings for her would repel her, and would drive her away, she repeatedly reassured me that nothing I said or felt, changed her view of me. And she understood that even though I truly believed her when she gave me those assurances, I still doubted and panicked that I would lose her and that she would end therapy with me, when I was out of her presence.
She reached out to me. In the silences, when I could not talk because I was so ashamed or afraid of how she would react to what I was thinking and feeling, she let me know that I could do it. That I could talk to her. She always gave me time, but she didn’t just leave me drowning in wordless space – was it because she knew that the space would have felt horrifically empty, and full of abandonment?
She cared about me. Professionally, of course. But she cared about me. The same blogger who said that I should write about Jane, also said that you can train yourself to look for cues or signs that your therapist cares about you. I don’t think I trained myself to look for them – although I think it’s fair to say that my idealisation of her probably led me to look for those signs, wherever I could find them. I cannot list all of the ways in which she made me feel cared for – there are too many. Even the fact that she was always up-front and direct with me, which I had originally seen ‘just’ as evidence of the fact that she realised how important these qualities were for me in order to establish trust – I now look at as another form and demonstration of caring.
But there are two instances that I cling onto, dearly, when it comes to reminding myself of that care. Two phrases that I will never forget, that she didn’t need to say, but that meant, and mean, the world. Our penultimate session was charged with emotion, and somewhere along the way, wires got crossed – I thought she’d misunderstood something I’d said, and she thought I’d misunderstood something she’d said. When that became clear, she replied: “we were afraid that we had hurt each other”. “We were afraid that we had hurt each other”. She was worried about hurting me. It took my breath away.
But perhaps not as much as when I said that I wanted a hug but knew I couldn’t have one, and she said that I could have a “metaphorical hug”. A metaphorical hug, a ‘safe embrace’ – the most that she could legitimately give me. But in giving me that, she gave me so much more – she gave me the sense that when it came to holding me, she would have, if she could have. I hope she will forgive me if I’m misinterpreting her words. I hope she can allow herself to be misinterpreted if she knows what it means to me – if she knows that it will allow me to hold myself in her caring and in her regard, indefinitely.
To me, this was all ‘good therapy’. It was all good therapy for me. And all of it, ultimately, amounts to this. She validated me.
Validating: ‘causing a person to feel valued or worthwhile’.
She ‘held me’. She gave me permission. She finished my sentences. She walked alongside me. She related to the different parts of me. She wasn’t afraid of how I felt about her. She reached out to me. She cared about me. She validated me. Validation – so much more than the sum of its parts. So intrinsic to the source of borderline pain; so intrinsic to its solution.
All we went through and the work we did together is so much more than the words on this page.
This is my final follow-up to the ‘holding reply’ I sent to Jane’s last email.
“I want to say ‘thank you’ for being held. So gently, so honestly, so safely. So acceptingly, so caringly, so validatingly. You will always mean so very much, and I am so very grateful for you.
Just this last time, I won’t end by saying ‘with love’. Just this last time, I’ll say what I never had the courage to say to you before.
I love you.”