Therapy is about trust: Trust in the process, in the relationship, in the person, in the cure. It is easily lost, and hard to win back.
I had coffee the other day with a friend who is actively searching for a therapist. She’s a believer in the process and has seen 12 so far, each for two sessions. And yet, she still hasn’t found someone that she can work with. She’s still looking, though, because she is a believer.
But my mum isn’t. She’s lost faith in the process. She’s an atheist, in the context of therapy. I’ve struggled to understand this. I’ve had good experiences and great therapists, but in a way, it’s like love affairs: If you have been loved well, then you are more likely to love well in return. If your heart has been broken, then you actively withdraw from the possibilities that love presents. And my mum has been hurt.
Seven years ago, when my mum first started struggling with depression and anxiety, and when I lived close enough to get home, I accompanied her on some of her first forays into therapy. I drove her around to therapists’ offices for appointments that dad had booked through the Internet. And it is two of these early experiments with therapy that come to mind when I’m trying to figure out why I can’t get her to go and see someone again.
Mum’s First Foray
The first was with a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist in Stoke, an industrial town in the North of England. I remember that we sat on a frosted bench, outside a detached house that had been converted into offices, waiting for our appointment. It was winter; there was no reception, no waiting room. My mum was distraught. I held her hand in mine, for warmth and comfort. When called for the therapy hour, we walked in together (mum had asked me to go in with her).
It was an odd situation. Mum had never been in this kind of relationship, a therapeutic one; for 50-or-so years she had never understood or thought much of therapy. But here she was, finding herself with a strange woman who was asking her to rate on a scale of one to 10 how bad she felt.
“No, within the scale, is that ten?”
She demonstrated resolute difficulty and unwillingness to do the exercises, to get them right — to perform the role of the good patient. But also, my mum’s mind doesn’t work this way; she was unable to grasp the connection between these exercises and her condition, our situation.
Sitting in the therapy room with her, I listened to her frustration that the therapist couldn’t grasp what she was going through. The therapist couldn’t understand that my mum believed this was the worst that it would ever get (though we now know that’s not true and, at that stage, she was probably around six out of 10 on her own distress scale).
The miracle cure, of course, doesn’t come that hour. My mum comes out, saying, “That was a waste of time. How did that help? I’m not bloody going back there.” I tell her it takes time. She doesn’t understand and wants it fixed. “Forty pounds down the drain,” she says.
The Second Saga
This time it’s at a swish private clinic, in the more chic town of Altrincham with a therapist my parents have seen once before. My dad had to go to work; life doesn’t stop for everyone when one person’s does.
I drive this 40-minute journey, trapped on the motorway with my mum, who is raving. I start to disconnect from this version of my mum. I even get angry with her. I say those words you shouldn’t say: “Pull yourself together. You can try harder. You are not listening to me.” The script that we’ve lived with has begun. Mum says, “I’ve been a good girl. How can I live with this thing in my head? It’s like an engine.”
We arrive at a building that feels like a residential home. There’s a waiting room at the bottom of a staircase, between a dining room and the reception. It feels like we are in transition. There’s one other pair: a young man and his mother. We try not to make eye contact. He seems to be the one that’s sick, and not her, but who can tell? It’s quiet. No one speaks. It seems inappropriate to read the magazines on offer. This isn’t a dentist or doctor’s waiting room.
We’re called in and up a flight of stairs, through an anonymous corridor with many doors and no life. The therapist today costs 140 pounds per hour. Mum has mentioned that this therapist is a senior professional in the psychiatric ward at a local hospital. She’s already conscious that this woman is posh and educated. The therapist intimidates my mum, whose tirades stop when she enters the therapist’s room. Her polite upbringing kicks in and she realizes it is inappropriate to act with this woman the way she acts with us.
There’s something else going on, though: this therapist wasn’t actually that interested. She listens to what mum says, but it’s not empathic; she’s humouring her. Then, for my benefit this therapist runs through her resume.
“I’m not interested,” I tell her. “We’re here for my mum.” I start to get frustrated, as I listen to more of the words that I know won’t reach my mum. Why can’t she see who her patient is?
Then my mum mentions something about panic and anxiety. The therapist latches on to this: “I have something for that,” she says, and mentions something about a relaxing CD. She then spends five of our very precious 50 minutes trying to find it.
Eventually, I volunteer to go to the reception and collect a copy. I leave mum, walk downstairs, and collect the CD. I am told it will cost 20 pounds. I pay the money, go back upstairs, and hand the CD to the therapist. She says she’s never used this one before, but she’s sure it’s good.
You’re kidding, right? This is your advice – take a CD home and follow it on your own, and you’ll get better? I thought. How can she not see this woman who can barely dress herself? How can my mum possibly listen to a CD that the therapist has not even heard, and how can the therapist possibly recommend it?
We listen to it in the car on the way home. Before long I’ve turned it off, furious, but mum and I are also fighting again. Once more that day, we sit in traffic while mum replays how the tinnitus started.
Fear, Coping, and a Case for Trust
I’ve since learned that there were other therapists, like you hear rumors of love affairs. There were many of them. We did find one wonderful therapist, who saw mum for a while in San Francisco when she visited. But long distance relationships don’t last — even therapeutic ones.
She’s been burned, badly. And so have we, her family members. I understand her ambivalence about allowing therapists near her. I share that too. She feels so fragile. Will they make her unravel?
While we’ve reached some kind of equilibrium now and we’re coping and can manage, sometimes we wonder, why pick at the wound? Why break the leg again? Even if it heals badly, at least you can still stand, even if you can’t walk. And when mum is in crisis, when she can’t function, we wonder, what’s the point? Can therapy even get through to her?
But I firmly believe, too, that she needs therapy, and that if any relationship could bring her fractured mind and self back together, it is the therapeutic one… If only she can learn how to trust again, and if only we can, too.
A Brit based in northern California, Claire Hodgson is a writer and curator, and the founder of Joe’s Daughter (joesdaughter.org).
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