[This is a two-part post – Part 2 will follow next weekend and will speak about how my reasons for ‘This thing that I have done’, have changed.]
I’ve done something. And I was nervous about sharing it with you because I don’t know if it was a bad thing or a good thing or a somewhere-in-between thing to have done. And I wouldn’t want you to think about doing it, before I really know how it turns out.
I went on the internet and typed in “Should I…..[do this thing that I have done]”? Out of fifteen responses to a similar question on a forum, all but one said “No“. Why would you do it? What could you gain? Leave it alone. I haven’t left it alone though I still have opportunity to let it lie. But, hidden underneath my bed, the temptation is stronger than I thought it would be.
A few months ago I approached the service through which I saw my ex-therapist, Jane, to ask them if and when they destroyed ex-client notes. It turns out that they did, and that I had a few months left before Jane’s notes would be gone. A few weeks ago I put in a request for those notes; a few days ago I picked them up. For some reason I had always imagined receiving them in a brown, sealed envelope; one that I didn’t intend to open for a very long time, if at all. Instead, they came in a yellow loose-leaf folder; a quick flick through (frantically trying to avoid reading the contents), showed me that they were longer than I expected. I had imagined a few lines, a short paragraph; little time for Jane to write much more, during the ten minutes following our fifty minute session. I think I was relying on that envelope to be my biggest ally against temptation; the glue reinforcing my willpower a hundred fold. But now my willpower struggles on alone; a tiny, weakling part of me, whose main ally now is the fear of disappointing my therapist and doing something she would disapprove of.
I told my therapist months ago, that I was thinking about asking for Jane’s notes. Though she would never say it directly, I know she thinks this thing I’ve done is not a good idea. I know she doesn’t really understand it, though she really wants to work with me to understand me and why this is important to me. There has been a generational shift – from a time when a therapist’s notes, unlike other medical records, were made for the professional’s eyes only, written with the client in mind, but never as the intended reader; to a time when your records belong to you because they are about you, and you are the ‘owner’ of your data. At the service where I saw Jane, some therapists go through their notes with their clients at the end of treatment; these days some therapists even put their notes and resources on secure websites for their clients to access after every session.
But this isn’t really about a change in culture, it’s about me. It’s about me and trying to figure out why I did what I have done, and what it means. I didn’t ask for Jane’s notes because I am the owner of my data. I didn’t even ask for them so that I could read them; part of me felt very strongly that I shouldn’t read them, at least for many years, and certainly well beyond the end of my current therapy. I asked so that I would have the option of reading them, should I want to in future. I asked so that I could postpone making the decision about whether I should ever read them, rather than having that decision made for me.
My therapist asked me what I would gain by reading the notes. And like the responses on the website that I found, I have to say that in some ways I see far more potential for loss than for gain. I have wonderful, warm memories of Jane and our sessions together, and I can’t see how anything in the notes could add to that. It seems far more likely that they might detract from those memories, and leave me unsettled. What if the notes feel clinical and cold? What if the way she comes across in writing is very different to the way she came across in person? What if I read something I don’t like, either about me or about the way she thought about me? But then I try and remind myself that this is Jane we’re talking about – someone I trusted and someone that I trusted cared about me. Could the notes really contain something that might hurt me, particularly as she knew it was possible for me to have access to them? And why are my reasons for wanting them, so difficult to understand?
I want to guard against forgetting. All along, this is what the notes have been about. Right now, I remember Jane: how she looked, how she sounded, some of the things she said. She still feels real, though absent. I have more than just a ‘sense’ of her left; and that is very special. But I’m scared that it won’t always be so – that one day, I won’t be able to recall those things. I’m scared that one day she won’t feel real, or substantial; that all I will have left is a vague memory and a concept that she existed, that we interacted, and that she was important. If that is the shape that my memories of key figures in my childhood have taken, why should the same not happen to my memories of Jane?
My therapist says that we remember who and what is important; and that we never know how and when memories might come back to us. During my very first session with her, when I was in floods of tears over losing Jane, she told me that Jane was still with me; and she makes the same point now. When someone is important, we absorb the relationship into ourselves so that it becomes a part of us. I think she would say that if all we have left is a ‘sense’ of someone, then that is more than we think it is and it is also all that we need.
But still I feel the need to guard against forgetting, and I have a great fear of destroying the notes (or allowing them to be destroyed) and then regretting it. I find it very difficult to live with regret and wrong decisions, and will do anything I can to avoid them. None of this is unique to this situation – it is how I live my life, every day. Worrying about not making notes after sessions, in case I forget; anxious about missing moments and not making memories; scared I will lose the memories I have.
And so I did what many of us do when we want something to remember someone by – I acquired an object that would help to connect me to them. A tangible reminder of Jane, and what she meant. This is really just another way of guarding against forgetting, and trying to keep her real. I asked my therapist why having Jane’s notes was any different to the many objects that she has in her ‘therapy room’ that are clearly important to her, and that remind her of people or of places. She said that the difference was that those things were given and received in the context of a relationship; I think she is saying that although Jane’s notes might be about our relationship, they were not really a part of it, or significant within it.
Neither of these related reasons for wanting the notes, actually require me to read them – at least, not for a long time. Simply having them can provide a sense of connection; and as I haven’t yet forgotten, there is no need to read to remember. In some ways these reasons are motivated primarily by fear: fear of forgetting; fear of regret; fear of the uncertainty of whether I will regret or forget.
I felt so strongly that I should not read the notes; that they would even be an ‘intrusion’ into my current therapy. I worried about the possibility of bringing back intense feelings from the past, and what effect that might have on my current therapeutic relationship, which I very much want to protect. But now I feel just as strongly that I want to read them. And who can tell whether our judgment, if motivated by fear, is any sounder than our judgment in the face of temptation? I don’t know how to tell what the right thing is. All I know, is that this is what my head is telling me: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear”*.
*Quote by Jack Canfield