When it comes time to stop seeing your therapist, hope like hell that it’s not right after your marriage ends and your mother dies. From a stress perspective, that makes ending therapy feel like skydiving without a parachute.
Recently, I became ill and had to miss several sessions with my therapist, Sharon. Then, Sharon took several weeks off, which made our break even longer. While I waited for our sessions to resume, I saved up things to talk about, sorting them into first-, second-, and third-string concerns. First-string concerns were those that made me lose sleep and succumb to anxiety and depression, like my husband’s infidelity and caring for my ailing mother. Second-string items usually started with some kind of outrage, like “Can you believe my sister said . . . ?” or “Can you believe how badly I screwed up . . . ?” Third-string issues were those I was usually unable to wrap my conscious mind around until the last couple of minutes of a session, when they’d suddenly rocket to the surface and urgently demand attention. Although I couldn’t keep track of those, I knew they were lurking.
By the end of the month, I was desperate to talk to Sharon. Admittedly, I was more interested in getting everything that had built up off my chest as quickly as possible than I was in hearing what she had to say about any of it. So when we finally reconvened face-to-face (or screen-to-screen, rather), I released my pent-up litany of grievances. The first-string concerns were very painful to share and took a while to recount. Then, as Sharon listened patiently, I segued into the morass of second-string complaints. Finally, I experienced a rare moment of self-awareness and clarity. “Oh God,” I exclaimed. “I’m going on and on. You must be thinking, ‘This chick is such a loser. If I have to listen to her bullshit one more second, I’m going to hang up.’”
A heavy silence followed my joke. Sharon inhaled. “Well, actually,” she said, “I did want to bring something important up with you.”
“You really do think I’m a loser?!” I panicked.
Sharon didn’t respond. She gave me one of her get-ready-to-get-to-work looks and waited for me to calm down.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“It’s time for me to start thinking about retiring,” she replied.
“Re-retiring?” I stammered. “From what? What are you talking about?”
“Closing my practice.”
Even though Sharon and I were the same age and I myself had retired from private practice a few years earlier, it had never occurred to me that she would ever retire.
“You can’t,” I blurted out. “We haven’t finished! Therapy isn’t a job. It’s a calling. Like a marriage . . . no, forget about that one. But this is your vocation. You love what you do. You’re gifted.”
My time with Sharon had been so good. But I tend to fall in love easily. Honestly, I think what I fall in love with most is the process—whether with a husband or a therapist—of being known, really known, and yet still accepted. Intimate, trusting relationships hold so much promise. They’re full of learning opportunities, changes, experiences of giving and receiving comfort, and laughter.
With Sharon, I fell in love almost immediately. She could say heavy-duty things softly, in a way that made them easy to digest. She was funny. She thought I was funny. And she was a psychological explorer, who celebrated my creative side by encouraging me repeatedly to express myself through my writing. If I read a few lines to her, she didn’t pull that “well, what do you think?” bullshit. She responded genuinely, letting me know how certain phrases I’d penned made her feel. One of the most pivotal moments in our work was when I read a poem out loud to her. I’d never written poetry before, so I was putting my trust in her and taking a leap of faith. After I’d finished reading, she’d clasped her chest. “Wow,” she’d said. I knew then that I’d stepped into something new, different, and scary—and I was safe.
I didn’t want Sharon to retire. I didn’t want my husband to divorce me. I didn’t want my mother to die. All my sources of deep connection and validation were leaving me in the same year. But unlike my husband, Sharon had never promised we’d be together for the long haul. Instead, her presence had simply felt like a constant, and it hurt to let her go, even though our ending, I suppose, was inevitable.
I’d taken her constancy for granted. In that way, she resembled my mother. What would I do without her advice (much of which I rejected)? What would I do without that person who always saw the best in me? Who believed things about me I couldn’t yet see? Who was convinced I had what I needed to prevail?
I guess those precious experiences don’t go away when someone dies or retires. They’re a legacy you carry with you. Nonetheless, I know these will be wretched times without my therapist. My heart is breaking. My whole body hurts. Yes, Sharon will get me through some of this, but I’ll have to go through the rest of it on my own.
With her voice in my head, I’ll keep writing poetry, and then I’ll read it aloud, to myself. When I finish, I’ll pat my chest and try to hear—and feel—Sharon’s admiring “Wow” resonating through me, even though I won’t be seeing her in session anymore.
Illustration Source: Svetlin Rusev
Martha Manning, PhD, is a writer and clinical psychologist who has written five books, including Undercurrent: A Life Beneath the Surface. She has published frequently in the Networker as well as other magazines.