My husband was away today and I spent a lovely sunny day out with the kids, exploring fields and paths, playgrounds and pubs we weren’t familiar with; taking in the scenery and people watching. I drove nine miles from our house so that we could spend five hours doing all of this within a mile (or less) of my therapist’s house. On the way there I tried to navigate a slightly circuitous route, map on lap, that took me past Jane’s (my ex-therapist’s) house – both on the way there and on the way back.
I’m not proud of either action, though to be fair (and partly by way of an excuse), I love the part of the city near my therapist’s house – it’s one of the ‘gut-instinct’ reasons it ‘felt right’ when I had to choose a therapist when my sessions with Jane were ending. It’s the sort of area I would love to live in and so spending time there, with the added bonus of activities for the kids, would be a pleasure whether or not my therapist lived nearby. But I would be lying if I said that feeling physically closer to her wasn’t a factor.
As for driving past Jane’s house – it’s been a very long time since I last did that, and I’m somewhat surprised that I did it today. Particularly given the fact that as described in ‘Progress can be painful’, I have finally accepted that, important though she is to me, she is a part of my past, and though I certainly miss her, I don’t think I’m grieving her in the same way. But as I drove past her house and saw the same car in the driveway, I felt some reassurance and relief, and I realised that I am still worried about her health (which was one reason she decided to retire and could not take me on as a private patient). Although logically the presence of her car means absolutely nothing at all, it felt as though it was some sort of indication that she was still okay.
A few months ago, ‘Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers‘ wrote a wonderful post about searching for her therapist on Facebook. I was struck not just by how much I related to how she felt and acted, but also by her honesty and courage in writing about it so openly. It challenged me to write about my own experiences in this area, and to be honest about events I had not yet dared write about.
Judging by what I have read on other blogs, trying to find out about one’s therapist (most often online), is not unusual. Technology, search engines and social media make this so much easier than it has ever been before, and it must be an extremely rare therapist these days who has virtually no online presence at all. I suspect too, that it is extremely rare for a therapist not to realise or perhaps even to expect, that many of their clients will behave in this way. I think it’s important to remember that the online searching is not just about information: it’s about trying to become closer and feeling connected; and keeping the therapist ‘real’ in between sessions. That’s why the ‘searching’ does not just happen online – behaviour can extend to walking or driving past the therapist’s house, or waiting around places where he or she is expected to be, for example. The client may even dread what they could see or find out, or they may dread being seen; but the feeling of greater physical proximity may over-ride that dread.
Leaving my children out of the equation (because to try and put them on one side or the other would make me feel like an even worse parent than I already do) – my therapist is the most interesting person in the world to me, and I have a very strong desire to know more about her. ‘Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers‘ called this a ‘craving’ and sometimes, that is exactly how it feels. Most of the time I can control the craving – if I want to know something and if I decide I dare to ask, I do so in session, fully expecting (though at the same time dreading) not receiving an answer. But occasionally that craving takes hold and I feel I’m in the grip of an urge too powerful to withstand. That has happened a couple of times in my current therapy, and both times I ‘confessed’ and we had a very helpful discussion about my ‘googling’ activities. My therapist took it remarkably well – if she was perturbed, she didn’t show it. If anything, she seemed completely un-phased by it – for which I am extremely grateful, as my behaviour carries with it both feelings of great shame, and great fear that she will want to leave, or at least withdraw and close herself off from me. Today was the second time I found myself on a walk near her house – when I told her about the first time, she commented not on how close I’d come, but on how I’d stayed away. I was within sight of her house – but turned and went back. In her words, I didn’t ‘close the gap’ – and perhaps tolerating that distance was more significant than trying to narrow it a little in the first place.
I am grateful for my therapist’s approach to this issue – and for the fact that I can bring these occurrences to session, and deal both with the feelings that lead to them, and the feelings of fear and shame that result. But there are some situations that can’t be resolved in that way. I wish I could say that the story of my therapy relationship with Jane ended with the ‘love letter’ I wrote to her in June last year, and with that recent realisation of the gradual passing of my grief. But it didn’t – in between those two events is a story about which I still feel great regret, and which I fervently wish I could change. That story took place on the first anniversary of our last session together, a day I knew I would find immensely difficult, but wanted to use to ‘honour’ her and the work we’d done together.
However, far from honouring either her or our work, I found myself caught inside an intense desire to find out more about her (triggered by accidentally finding out more than I had before, when I googled her to simply get that sense of her existence and reality that seeing her name ‘in print’ had so often brought me, when I was grieving her). I succeeded in finding a few additional details, but it didn’t stop there – I actually paid money to a well-known and widely-used directory enquiries website to receive a brief report compiled from ‘public information’ (e.g. company director listings and census data) which listed individuals of the same name, and current and previous addresses. To cut a long and rather distressing story short, I thought I’d discovered a couple of things which didn’t fit with the picture of Jane I had created in my mind, one of which I soon realised was an error, the other of which I still find hard to believe. I remember rocking backwards and forwards, repeating the phrase ‘I don’t understand’ to myself – it was a fairly minor fact about her professional life, but it felt as though my world had been turned upside down.
But even worse than the ripples in the picture I had formed of Jane, were the feelings of guilt and betrayal that I felt. I hated myself for letting her down; for acting in a way that I was sure she would not approve of, and that I was sure would have disappointed her; for invading her privacy in way that I found abhorrent, despite the fact that the information was essentially publicly available. I was deeply ashamed for what I saw as my betrayal, and deeply upset about the way in which I saw this as ‘sullying’ what I had previously seen as a very honest and trusting (and yes, perhaps a little perfect) relationship. Looking back, I find it hard to ‘let myself off the hook’ and to have sympathy for how I felt. My situation was entirely of my own making – if I didn’t like what I had found, I had only myself to blame. And yet, I have a sincere sympathy for others who are going through the same thing. I know how hard it is to have that intense desire to know more, and to feel so very bad for having it and for acting upon it.
It occurs to me that this post is a logical follow-up to my recent post on how it feels to be excluded from your therapist’s life. Although separate issues, I think that the sense of exclusion and the harsh reality of the boundaries of therapy, can certainly fuel the desire to know more and the need to draw closer. If there’s one thing I hope to achieve by writing these posts, it is to try and encourage others to talk to their therapists about these feelings – however painful they may be and however much shame and embarrassment may be involved. When it comes to those feelings, I think that our fear of retribution and rejection leads us to greatly underestimate out therapists’ capacity for understanding and acceptance; and our twisted desire for uniqueness (I am uniquely ‘bad’ in my feelings or behaviour) leads us to think that we are our therapist’s ‘worst’ client, and least deserving of his or her love.
Whereas in fact what I’m coming to realise through exploring these issues in therapy, is that my therapist’s caring is neither conditional on me being able to please her by knowing more about her and what she likes; nor limited by her need to maintain boundaries and the restricted nature of our contact. This is progress painfully won, but I humbly submit that it is worth it. And I would suggest that the true value in trying to find out more about our therapists’ lives lies not so much in what we discover about them, but in what we discover about ourselves, and about our relationship with them, and theirs with us.