Two years ago I told my therapist I really wanted to show her the cuts from my recent self-harming. Though I wanted her to see, I never expected her to be open to seeing. I was asking for permission without expecting to be given it. She took me completely be surprise when she told me that if I wanted her to look, then she would. I could hardly believe it – I became flustered. I sat in silence, in indecision. I checked whether she really meant it, pointing out that the cuts were on my hips – a more ‘private place’ to expose, than my arms, for example. She did mean it; and I did show her. I treasure the memories of the powerful feelings of acceptance and closeness that came with that brief moment, at the end of a session.
Two weeks ago I once again asked for a permission that I didn’t expect to receive. Sheepishly, hesitantly, I asked her if any of her clients had ever accidentally called her ‘Mum’ or ‘Mummy’. If she thought the question was strange, she didn’t say so, and she answered it as it was asked, saying something about not being sure, and having to think back…..I realised I was going to have to be more honest, and more direct. I admitted that the question was not about her previous clients at all; but that I often wondered what it would be like to call her those things, myself. Part of me really wanted to; part of me was also worried what would happen and what she would think, if I did so. I admitted, embarrassed, that sometimes when I had conversations with her in my head, I would use those terms – sometimes I would even speak them out loud, to see how it felt to say the words, imagining I was saying them to her.
She smiled. I wish I could remember her actual words. But she told me that just as her biological daughters were free to choose how they addressed her, depending on what they felt comfortable with, the same applied to me, her therapy daughter.
I love it when she calls me her ‘therapy daughter’ – but even the joy of hearing her refer to me in that way, was eclipsed by the surprise at her response. I said something like: “that’s really nice, in theory, but you don’t actually mean it“. I think she looked both amused and taken aback that I would disbelieve her and tell her what she did and did not mean! I tried to backtrack – I really didn’t want to offend her. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I should be surprised. After all, my question was essentially about asking permission, and I wanted the answer to be yes. I don’t understand why I should be so surprised, why it should be so unexpected…..”.
Once again, as happened two years ago, it was the end of the session and the moment passed all too quickly. But my mind continued to ponder the significance of the moment, while my heart and body absorbed the emotions and the sense of acceptance, warmth and safety that flooded through me.
I realised that my question, my seeking permission, was coming from a part of me that still expected there to be limits to her caring and acceptance. A part that doubted she offered something unconditional, and that expected there to be a point beyond which I was ‘too much’ for her. It came from the part that feels untouchable and off-putting – and sees that as the reason my therapist won’t hold me in session, rather than the fact that she simply does not use touch in therapy. It came from a part of me that thought: it’s all very well her being happy to call herself my ‘therapy mother’, but surely the analogy only goes so far – surely she would never actually allow me to call her ‘mother’.
However, to use the word ‘allow’ is to revert back to thinking about things in the way that my own mother trained me to, because she was very specific in how she would let me address her. And as for the ‘therapy mother/therapy daughter’ relationship, it’s not an analogy, it’s a reality. The only reality to some mother-daughter relationships is their biological reality – I’m lucky enough to have a mother-daughter relationship which is real in so many other, non-biological but significant ways.
It’s staggering to know that I have the freedom to call her what I feel comfortable with – just as her daughters do. I know that she knows I’m not going to start referring to her as ‘Mum’ from here on in – but I don’t think that makes her ‘offer’ any the less genuine. I haven’t yet exercised the freedom she has given me – at least, not directly, though I do still ‘try out the words’ at home, particularly when I’m distressed and want to ‘call out to her’. Perhaps I never will take her up on it, though I’d like to – I’d really like to. But it’s enough to know that I can – that I’m accepted and acceptable, and not just ‘up to a point’. The therapy relationship may be boundaried and circumscribed in a particular way, but that’s because it has to be; it’s not in order to keep me out or at a distance, or because there’s a limit to how much of me my therapist can or wants to ‘put up with’.
A few days ago I showed her some fresh marks where I had succumbed to self-harm again, after a fairly long period of holding back from cutting. It was the first time I’d shown her my self-harm since that first time, two years ago. It felt comfortable and safe – there was no question in my mind about how she would react or whether she would be compassionate and accepting. I imagine that if I ever summon up the courage to call her ‘mother’, I will be a little hesitant, and it will feel a little strange. But after the conversation we had a couple of weeks ago, I’m no longer worried about her response. I dare to hope she may even smile and feel a little pleased!
In the meantime, the memory of that conversation is precious and it’s become a part of the view I have of her as ‘new mother’. But it’s also become part of the view I know she has of me; and therefore of the view I am trying to develop of myself. I still find it incredibly difficult to keep in mind the intended end-result of therapy – that I will come to think of myself differently. But moments like these are so significant because they give me an experience of being attended to and being seen in an entirely new way; and just as the ‘old ways’ of being attended to shaped a particular view of myself, so this ‘new way’ of being seen will hopefully give me, in time, a different perspective on who I am. I’m looking forward to finding out more about who this ‘therapy daughter’ really is and can become….