I started seeing a new therapist this week, which is as simple a sentence as it is a complicated reality. I’ve been alternately planning and dreading this move for a couple of years now, mostly terrified of leaving behind someone who has seen me through so much of my pain and recovery. But forced to see that our relationship honestly honestly wasn’t working out, I gathered my courage and walked through the terrifying door of my comfort zone. Now I’m in the thick of an unsurprising observation:
Transitions are utter garbage.
Six years ago I was in a profoundly dangerous crisis. The trauma of my son’s stillbirth had me suffering through insomnia, hallucinations, and gruesome intrusive thoughts that made me long for the relief of an inpatient mental health program. I felt unsafe because I was unsafe. I needed help.
And then, there was Em.
She was gentle, she was accepting, and she made space for my grief the way nobody else in the entire world could, except my husband. Three times I week I dedicated to exposing the shards of my loss, talking about my dead son in the present tense when I needed to, agonizing over speaking about him in the past when I needed to do that, too.
As I shared parts of myself that I had never really shared with anyone else, we came across the same tripping points over and over again. Comments meant to be the lead-in to larger issues I was grappling with turned into the subjects of many sessions. The side notes derailing my therapy sessions usually revolved around Hawaii. Being Hawaiian. Culture is a huge part of who we are and of course I related to the loss of my son as a Pacific Islander mother. I mean, that’s who I was coming to her as. It is fundamentally who I am.
Em tried to help me explore my cultural identity, and I thrilled to see evidence of her efforts. It was obvious when she’d done research, or when last month’s tripping point became this month’s statement of fact. Utilizing her compassionate guidance, I finally started actively engaging with what it means to be a Pacific Islander in the Pacific Northwest. How I love my life in Seattle but loathe living anywhere else that isn’t home.
It didn’t take long for my growth to outstrip my pregnancy loss grief therapist’s expertise. That is not surprising. But I kept going because we had spent years building both history and rapport. It was a good enough arrangement I was reluctant to dissolve.
A couple of years ago Em made drastic changes to her missed appointment policy, removing the possibility for cancellation regardless of advance notice. Sure, she gave her clients a week “off” for vacation, but other than that we were expected to pay her full fees for any appointment we needed to break. I bristled at the unfairness but was redirected whenever I brought it up. Instead of discussing the oddness of her policy, she wanted to “explore” the anger this sense of unfairness raised. And while I never tallied up her vacations and absences, she seemed to be gone more often after she made the change.
I started seeing Em in a new light. An unfavorable, skeptical light that had me really questioning her place in my life. Still, I was reluctant to leave her. I searched for new therapists in my area, plugging in key words like Hawaiian and Pacific Islander to narrow down my searches. I found someone right away but talked myself out of contacting her.
I stayed with Em mostly because I was comfortable enough. I was accustomed to the commute, knew where to park, and I really enjoyed passing pleasantries with this one particular maintenance worker in Em’s building. I know how ridiculous that last part sounds, but in all honesty she reminded me of my aunties and I loved seeing her beaming smile.
But I never recovered from the sense of injustice I felt whenever I thought of Em’s new absence policy. It festered every time she took a vacation. We talked about it again and again, going in circles. I got stuck in a cycle of being angry with her and looking for Pacific Islander therapists, then talking myself out of contacting any of them. For the better part of two years.
At the beginning of the month Em and I had yet another unproductive, frustrating session during which she puzzled over things that really weren’t much of a puzzle. She belabored my petty annoyances and the exhaustion that comes standard with being a parent and always in charge. During the same session I related walking into the kitchen and seeing my teenage son hacking at a block of cheese that he was holding in his hand. Instead of asking about the fear of my son being hurt, she asked why I always immediately obsess over worst case scenarios. The session devolved rapidly from there, ending with me raising my profanity-laden voice at her and storming out the door.
I spent the weekend livid but knowing exactly how our relationship had soured. I recounted all of my frustrations to my husband, my sister, my twitter. I understood our explosive previous session wasn’t some kind of one-off occurrence, but rather an entirely foreseeable manifestation of our declining productivity as a team.
That didn’t make it suck any less.
Also, knowing it was the right thing to do didn’t make it easier to show up at my next appointment and apologize to Em for my language. Or to tell her in person I was moving on. I was still angry with her and didn’t pretend otherwise, but I didn’t escalate it either. Arguing with her would be fruitless, and I was more interested in leaving her care in a way I could live with.
It was hard. My heart thudded in my chest and my cheeks were hot with the bright red I always wear whenever I’m flooded with fury or panic. I cried. I told her I was excited to move on but terrified I wouldn’t. And then I left, not really knowing what I was going to do next.
And then, I called that therapist I’d been circling for years. Did not slide the little x over to decline when she returned my call the next day. I spoke to her as clearly as I could, made an appointment for the following Monday, and had a cookie to celebrate my bravery. I’d earned it, and ain’t nobody on this Earth could tell me I didn’t.
I earned another cookie just a week later when, shaking, I opened the door to an unfamiliar building in a familiar part of town and waited for a stranger to call me back to her office. Face flushed hot again with the fear of doing something, everything wrong, I shook hands with the woman I hoped would offer the guidance I need to take the next step forward in my uneven journey.
I sat on her sofa and opened my mouth, pouring out nearly an hour’s worth of trauma and loss that will become the backdrop of every therapy session I will ever be in for the rest of my life. And then I left, exhausted but optimistic, eager with promises to see her again next week.
We’re in that first stage of our relationship: getting to know one another and trying to nail down a scheduled time for it. She’s fitting me in for now so I have to be flexible rather than relying on the clockwork schedule of my sessions with Em. I have to learn all the best places to park and seek out new faces to become pleasantly familiar.
My stomach is in knots. I am exhausted from the not knowing and the anxiety that I might miss an appointment even though it’s in my phone and written on my paper calendar. I’m afraid this therapist won’t be a good fit either. I’m worried that I’ll get discouraged and stop going altogether even though I know just how much I need therapy in order to survive.
But I’m doing it all anyway. I’m a mess, but I’m determined. I’m taking the next uneven step forward, and I’m moving on.
I made a whole batch of cookies, too. And I’m earning every single one.
image: Puʻu ʻŌʻō Beach by T.J. Takahashi via Wikimedia Commons