by Dr. Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW, author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way
[Note: As somewhat of a departure this week, I decided to try and intertwine theory with my own personal experience. After more than 35 weeks of writing this blog, I wanted to take the risk of shifting from the traditional style of this blog into something more intimate. I hope you enjoy it!]
I met Jane, the therapist of my life, in 1995. I was a sophomore in college, and I had just come out. I was working hard to stay afloat amidst the work of individuation, managing adult-like responsibilities, getting decent grades, and facing the truth of the chaotic family that I had left behind.
The vernacular around having a love of our life is well established. But we don’t talk as much about the therapist of our life.
I had therapists before Jane and I have had wonderful treatment after her, too - but none quite qualify as the therapist of my life in the same way. And I don’t imagine anyone ever will. Like a first love, the spot is filled.
I had interviewed several therapists, most of them culturally familiar to me and archetypes of those I had long known, before finding my blond, blue-eyed, Connecticut born, tall lesbian therapist. I decided that I wanted a therapist who did not remind me of my mother in any way. I certainly found her. She was confident, clear, and struck an unusual balance between kindness of bossiness.
I cancelled a session early on in our treatment for the “snow,” and she told me that she was sure that I could have made the walk and charged me for it. She was right. I could have. I was just playing my typical game of hide and seek, creating intense moments of intimacy and bowing out immediately after. She wasn’t having any of it.
While she kind of drove me crazy, I couldn’t get enough. I tried to come in once a week; she said we needed twice. I tried to have my parents pay for the sessions; she said that the checks should be coming out of my own account. She wouldn’t let me off easy for anything. While she took up a tremendous amount of space with her beliefs about the therapeutic frame, she also removed herself from the treatment in ways that were completely confounding for me. I asked her a million questions, all of which were met with the same response: “Well, what is your fantasy of what kind of car I have?”
Because I would unrelentingly invite her into an enactment, a repetitive form of interaction designed to recreate toxic and familiar dynamics, she had to remain incredibly steady. No matter how much someone has boundaries with me, I would push up against them. I would answer in whatever way I could to get the information that I wanted. I was always crafting answers strategically to collect data that would assure me that we could somehow fuse into one, rather than remaining and surviving between two separate people.
I would say that it would mean a lot to me if she had a Toyota, because it would give me a feeling of twinship, and I would have to work hard to understand if she had an American car, but I could probably accept it. I finally gave up and would just hang out in the parking lot of her office, trying to get the answers I wanted. I became a literal detective, tracking all the data about her life that I could find. It was pre-Google, but I still found her doctoral dissertation in the Columbia University library. The acknowledgments page was like straight porn for me.
Over the years, her protectiveness eased. As I gained insight about the excessive amounts of emmeshment in my family of origin, her need for a hard line softened. I also started to let myself know what I had come to know about her by just being in her presence for two 50-minute hours a week. I saturated several soothing pieces of knowledge - she was a Mac person, which at the time was sub-diagnostically subversive. She wore two different earrings, religiously, suggesting some bits of arrested development or just pure quirk. I came to know about her gayness by simply accepting my growing gay-dar and the revealing tenor of her gender performance. While I still searched for her all around my college town on our non-session days, I calmed down a lot and simply started to take her in during our actual time together.
Taking her in changed me. I went from functioning in a way that aligns clearly with an anxious attachment and started to experience my relationships with a certain level of security and equilibrium. Instead of constantly feeling like I was going to be left or that someone that I loved was going to die, unless awash in deep enmeshment, I began to discern based on my actual desires and burgeoning feelings of an actual self, shadowed with incubating feelings of self-respect.
In all of my detective work, I came across her home address one day. I held off on driving by before I finally surrendered to my insatiable curiosity. She had a sweet white house with black shutters and a basketball hoop in her driveway. Hanging over the fence of her front porch were wet kids’ bathing suits and towels. I knew she had kids - this had come out over our time together. But the pedestrian representation of their safe and secure life with her was stirring. I confessed, of course. I could never hide anything from her. In the sharing, there was a recalibration of my understanding of her role in my developing psyche.
I told her that the idea of two little wet, chilled kids' bodies being wrapped in towels by her warm capable hands elicited searing desire in me. I wanted to be one of those kids. I wanted to have one of those kids myself one day. I wanted her as a mother, a model, a representation of what was possible within the confines of a predictable, parental system. I grieved for what I never had and feared for what I might not be able to create because of my own history of attachment ruptures and experiences of multiple forms of abuse by my narcissistic parents.
She told me that I could use the bathing suits, that it was okay to need to drive by and to take it all in as a symbol of my neglected childhood and as a possibility for my own future. She wasn’t scared of my need for it and didn’t make me feel gross for my needy scrutiny.
It always appeared to me that Jane deftly maneuvered her way around my standing invite into an enactment. If I wanted her to bend the treatment frame, she held it more firmly. If I wanted her to see me as the toxic stalker that I understood myself as, she helped me to re-see myself through kinder, gentler eyes. If I wanted her to reject me because of self-destructive life choices, she held me closer with authentic care and concern.
As our work ended, and I moved away from my safe college town, where I also completed graduate school, Jane and I embarked on a long, thoughtful, and curative termination. In our distance, I learned what it meant to have the presence of a relationship in soul and spirit. I learned that love didn’t mean staying close, but sometimes moving toward one’s goals and dreams. I also learned that I could see another therapist and this did not change the breadth or depth of our work together.
Perhaps two or three years after our final session, building my own career as a therapist, opening my own practice, Jane sent me a form letter saying that she was closing her practice. She was becoming a consultant to schools while I was renting my first space. We met to discuss this and I asked her for her therapist chair. She said no. She said I needed a chair of my own. She was right. I was hurt. But I found my own chair for $765. Thirteen years later, I sit and hear the intricate stories of others hour after hour.
Thirteen years later, I also received an invitation to see Jane in my home city. She was coming to a conference and wondered if I wanted to meet. I suggested lunch, but I don’t know why. She agreed. Her train was getting in at 2, and she would text me on her way. To say that every level of this interaction was vast departure from how we had been does not do the alien nature of it justice.
I texted a few hours before, insanely nervous and shaky, and suggested tea instead. She rebuked and said, “Let’s stick with lunch.” So, there I was, sitting at a table alone waiting for my waspy Connecticut, older therapist to arrive. I picked a Chinese restaurant, a cuisine that makes me feel at home. She gets dropped off by Uber, is wearing jeans, has a red rolling suitcase. I want a ginger ale to settle my stomach, but worry she will judge my sugar intake. I don’t even know where that idiosyncratic fear came from.
She opens the menu and says that she hopes that the restaurant has gluten-free options. She is gluten free? She lays her iPhone 6 plus on the table. She has a 6 plus, not a 6? She has an iPhone? Her 19-year-old son texts her during the meal. I peek to see what he wrote. Her son texts her? She tells me that he has ADHD and is trying to make college work as much as he can. She tells me that her daughter is thinking about boarding school. She muses about the adolescents today and their addiction to electronic communication. I say almost nothing about my own kids, more than happy to step aside and eat her life up for lunch.
The curiosity, hunger, and desperation are as powerful as ever.
I tell her that sometimes I worry that I will run out of rice halfway through the meal. It is a long-standing anxiety of mine. No longer in the business of meaning making, she says: “Well, let’s nip that in the bud and order another rice.” I am soothed, but not really. Because it isn’t about the rice, of course. We discuss how we will pay. She says she thought about it in advance and thinks that we should split it. Well, okay then. I hand her $40 cash, and she puts the whole amount on her card. The fact is that I paid more, but I always do, because that is another thing of mine that she is no longer studying.
I wait with her for the next Uber ride to her hotel. She texts me that she arrives safely.
I drive home in aching pain, knowing that once you order rice together you can never go back. Knowing that I will never have the space to process with her the overstimulation of all the tidbits that I collected about her life in the span of just about 92 minutes. Tidbits that would have taken years to learn about in the safe confines of her office, that had a turquoise iMac, soothing colors, and a revolving set of paintings that shifted with each season of our work. I cry because I didn’t even know she was taller than me until we were standing side by side for the first time.
Maybe I thought Jane was better at navigating enactments than she is. Or maybe enactments prevail despite our best efforts. When I say my family was unboundaried and emmeshed, I know that those words fall short of the sweeping reality of our ability to function as a fully fused unit, blind to the real human need for individuality and growth.
When I wanted to fuse with Jane all those years, perhaps she wanted the same. As I said, enactments are best understood as co-created. We had the therapeutic frame to hold the tremendous desire that I felt for her, but what about all the desire she may have felt for me? Did it all finally come out in a text about meeting because of a randomly scheduled and geographically located conference? And will ordering an extra rice ever actually make me feel less of a scarcity of relational resources? I don’t know.
I do know that we have no more 50-minute hours left to find the answers to these questions. I also know that I won’t ever have lunch with one of my patients. But I will do other things that enact their deepest fears, which will only be remedied by the fact of my office, my chair, and our 50-minute hours together.
Dr. Danna R. Bodenheimer, LCSW, is in private practice at Walnut Psychotherapy Center in Philadelphia, PA, and teaches at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. Read more of her clinical perspective and tips for developing clinicians in her book, Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way.