Topics: Taking Action: What, Why, and How Far?

The first of these two essays was written by a TELL Responder. While she was successful in taking action against her abuser, she is sensitive to the fact that this is by no means the universal experience of victims. She suggests that it is the process of taking action rather than the outcome that affords the greatest opportunity for healing.

The second essay was written by a victim who, after careful analysis, decided that pursuing a civil case against her abuser would be re-traumatizing and not serve her path to healing.                                           

I was emotionally exploited, sexually abused, and ultimately abandoned by my therapist.  It took months to grasp what had happened to me. After I began to realize that I had been victimized, I felt compelled to hold my therapist accountable for his outrageous and reckless behavior while I was under his care.

I filed a Licensing Board complaint, a civil lawsuit, and a professional ethics committee complaint. All three outcomes were successful. My Board complaint was resolved when my therapist voluntarily and permanently surrendered his professional licenses with prejudice.  My civil suit settled out of court.  (Though I cannot discuss the financial terms of the settlement, I can say that I am pleased with the result, and I can discuss all other aspects of my case.)  The ethics committee complaint I filed resulted in a 5-year suspension of my abuser’s credentials.  These are wonderful conclusions to a nightmarish chapter of my life, but I often feel survivor’s guilt because I know this is not always the case for other victims.

I started taking action by educating myself on the complicated topic of therapy abuse.  It took time for me to understand and accept that I had been a victim. I read everything I could, including information about options available to victims.  What I read seemed grim, i.e., that “licensing boards and ethics committees only add to the damage done”; that “those who sue their abusers are re-traumatized by the legal process”; that “even if victims do prevail, victory comes only at great personal cost.” While much in each of the processes was completely out of my control, and there were many times when I did feel re-traumatized, I also and unexpectedly experienced rewards that were more than compensating.

Taking action against my abuser meant I had to stand up for myself, something I had never been very good at doing.  One of the original problems for which I sought help in therapy was low self-esteem. I feared expressing my thoughts and opinions.  When I was asked to speak directly to the committee investigating my Licensing Board complaint, I was terrified. I went alone into a roomful of strangers and answered their questions about the weirdest experience of my life. Reliving the trauma was upsetting and painful. Discussing the sexual abuse was deeply embarrassing.  But the professionals who held the same license as my abuser asked me thoughtful questions. I felt validated and empowered by my experience with the Licensing Board.  They listened.

Months after speaking with the committee, I felt strong enough to search for an attorney.  After several refused for various reasons, I found an attorney willing to take my case.  It was well worth it in many ways.

The civil suit process required me to create a timeline of the relationship with my abuser. Though I had jotted down events earlier, it was not the comprehensive chronology required by the lawsuit.  I had difficulty separating my intense emotions from the facts, but when I was done, I had a cohesive story.  I had verbalized the insanity I had been through.  Getting all of this out of my head and onto paper was a valuable containment process. I saw with clarity that I had not been loved by a warm, caring man, but manipulated by a cold-blooded, calculating predator

The lawsuit meant I was aggressively choosing sides, and I chose not to play on Team Abuser.  Despite the Licensing Board complaint, I still felt deeply bonded to my abuser.  Publicly reframing the relationship from client-therapist to plaintiff-defendant had the painful but useful side effect of helping to dissolve that bond.

I chose to read my legal file knowing that it contained information from “the other side.” Many had told me in advance that my abuser would “pathologize” me, but the impact of reading this for myself was the single most painful event I experienced during the entire ordeal.  As a client, I had given my therapist access to my most vulnerable parts.  My abuser twisted what I had told him to seem like the thoughts and behavior of a psychopath.  I was devastated.

I often felt like two different people during all of this.  Maybe I managed the overwhelming pain and confusion I was in by dissociating.  While one part of me was occupied doing everything possible to hold him accountable, another part of me felt perilously frail.  I felt as close to a nervous breakdown and as suicidal as I had ever been. 

I had the odd sensation of feeling completely destroyed on the inside, yet no one else seemed to notice. Had I been in a terrible car accident, the physical injuries would have been instantly obvious.  But I had no visible wounds from therapy abuse. Though my injuries were invisible, I felt as if I had lost a limb. Taking action had the effect of treating my wounds in such a way that they could heal more easily.  Like virtually all survivors of therapy abuse, I ultimately discovered that I had more strength and courage within me than I ever knew.

I did not do all of this alone.  I am lucky to have had a good support network.  My husband has been a safe haven of love and support.  I have had mental health care providers who understand how to help victims of trauma and sexual abuse.  Through TELL and Advocateweb, I have found other victims and professionals willing to share their experiences, thus breaking my feelings of isolation and of being different.

When I initially contacted TELL, contemplating action overwhelmed me. I was ambivalent and wanted only to protect my abuser.  I was told that I did not have to save the world from a charlatan; that all I had to do was keep myself safe.  Ironically, knowing that I was free to do nothing had the effect of helping me decide to take all available action. I encourage victims to decide what is best for them by considering all available options, including doing nothing.

Though taking action has helped me, it has not been a cure-all.  My healing process continues.  But I want others to know that I found a licensing board that was serious about cleaning up its profession.  I found attorneys who took my case and fought successfully for my side.  I found an ethics committee that did more than just pronounce a member’s behavior unethical; they severely sanctioned my abuser.

By all accounts, I have won, yet sometimes I feel this not enough. His licenses and professional credentials are gone, and there is one less licensed predator among us. There is no more action that I can pursue. Perhaps if one day he feels at least some of the pain he has caused me, then that will truly be enough

I often wonder if my abuser is an evil man, or just a very sick one.  I believe there will come a time when that question and others will no longer matter to me, and I can remember what happened without hurting. I have found behind the suffering the hidden grace of spiritual growth, and for that I am grateful.

Nicole Todd

My attorney called last night to inform me that the courts could order my current therapist to provide all of her records on me. I was overcome by emotion. I felt as victimized as I did when my former incompetent therapist quit on me without any closure or advanced warning because she did not like a financial decision I had made.  She would never admit it, but we were very close ‘friends.’ We did not have a valid therapist/client relationship, but a mutual friendship, and I feel she used me as her therapist. I do not think this woman should ever have been called a therapist or be allowed to practice social work again. Unfortunately that is not my decision, and the state licensing board did not take her license away even though she was reprimanded, fined, and ordered to take additional coursework.  

After that call from my attorney, I tried to evaluate every aspect of this civil suit.  I had felt some measure of closure and validation with the state licensing board findings. I also found it very validating that they suggested I contact an attorney because there was so much more that could be done in regard to her unethical treatment of me that didn't fall within their administrative reach.

On an emotional level, I continued to have nightmares about her, all with the same theme: I'm forced to see her in a formal hearing or court situation. In these disturbing nightmares, she tells me that she's done the best she could do and doesn't understand why I'm taking administrative and legal actions against her. I tell her how broken I am due to her unethical, negligent, and harmful behavior. I remind her that when she abruptly terminated therapy, she knew I was suicidal and still refused me closure despite her ethical obligation to provide 30 days of continued care and referral. I was left to feel like a piece of crap, unworthy of the time of a person I was actually paying to listen to me. When this happened, I asked myself why I felt such a desperate need for closure. Maybe it's me, as possibly another individual could walk away without feelings of hurt and abandonment? I still can't hate her because I look at her and remember that we were very close friends with mutual trust; it hurts me to hurt her even though it seems like it didn't bother her to hurt me. I wish I could end the nightmares by looking at her directly and telling her that I never want to see her again.

I've come to the conclusion that I've made my point! I sued her, and she was served paperwork by a court deputy.  She must have been shocked and mortified because I’m sure she never expected it: I had waited over seven months before initiating proceedings against her. During therapy and in her unethical termination of me, she had all of the power. I never knew of the power differential in therapy, but after I found a competent therapist, it was explained to me. I didn't realize until months later that my decisions to file both the administrative and civil suit allowed me to take some of my power back, allowing me to feel validated and to know that I am not a piece of garbage to be discarded.  

This is where I am right now. I deserve closure that I will never get. Intellectually, I know I will never get it, but there is a part of me still longing for that conversation where she tells me that she's a bad therapist and that she royally screwed up, and, of all people, I most certainly did not deserve what she had done to me. This would be the ultimate validation, but this will never happen. I can't allow that unethical therapist to read my current therapist's file on me or to know anything about how I am currently doing.

My emotional and physical health is much too important to keep this lawsuit going. I find that no matter how hard I try, I cannot move on after 30 months, and I desperately want to move on. Anniversary dates haunt me: when she quit on me, her birthday, her children's birthdays, etc.  It seems like there's a constant date reminder and constant "triggers."  These "triggers" have a tendency to set me back, but I'm trying my hardest to be aware of them and to find ways to deal with them.

I have told my attorney of my decision to drop the lawsuit, and I will not change my mind. We are still hopeful that I can be reimbursed for the cost of the therapy I've needed as a result of her unethical conduct. In dropping the civil suit, I will feel victimized if I end up owing attorney fees, but I cannot continue.  All that matters is that my voice was heard, she was held accountable, and I can finally sleep peacefully.

Anonymous, 2016

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