Secrecy makes up a large part of the picture of abuse by psychotherapists. The subtle chipping away at boundaries is often not even noticed by a patient who is concerned with the struggles that have taken him/her to the therapist. By the time there is some awareness that things are not right, terror usually keeps us silent. Confusion is rampant. Secrecy is safer.Secrecy is implicit in the drama that plays out. When we pay a psychotherapist to help us make sense of our lives, the power differential is huge. Psychotherapists have been bestowed with qualifications, and so we bestow them with trust. We must trust that whatever is said or done is for our benefit and that the Other knows what s/he is doing.
The therapist will often convince the patient that s/he is special and has an extraordinary impact on the well-meaning therapist. For the patient, there is immense pleasure in feeling special, being listened to, and feeling understood. The therapist becomes the special and only one in return.
Once in the realm of ‘love’ and the deep well of dependency, the price paid for being made to feel special is to give away one’s voice, one’s personal judgement, and one’s confidence in one’s integrity. Because the patient is an adult, s/he believes that s/he has gone to sessions out of free will. It is little recognised that an adult cannot decide about continuing such ‘treatment’ because emotions have been severely manipulated and unconscious deals done.
As it becomes clear that things are going wrong, it is the patient who feels stupid for making assumptions and for bringing about the bad outcome. This self blaming is intensified when the context is psychotherapy. Early power relations come to the fore and are enacted within the therapist/patient dyad. Just as children blame themselves when things go wrong in family relationships, patients may revisit this territory and believe it is something they have done that has caused the problem. Further and further into shame the patient goes. Shame is not conducive to disclosure. Shame compounds secrecy.
Dr. Susan Penfold, a child psychiatrist, wrote her story of abuse by her psychoanalyst in two voices, i.e., the healthy, sound adult voice and the vulnerable, abused child’s voice. Dr Penfold describes feeling like a puppet. Others write of feeling like automatons, zombies and numb creatures.
When I first contacted TELL, my correspondence with TELL responders felt like a charade. I did feel relief but berated myself for receiving compassion I did not deserve. I was clear that I was in control of my situation and that I was just unfortunate to have found my true soul mate too late in life. I was already married with children, as was he.
He was twenty years my senior and had grandchildren. I was clear that I had seduced him as he was vulnerable due to his weak, tired marriage of which I had heard plenty. The fact that he was using me for his own relief in talking about his marriage is way out of the bounds of proper therapy. He had me believe that this was acceptable because we were colleagues, It was true that I worked in the same field of psychoanalytic psychotherapy and had my own practice, but I had made very clear why I had sought his help. I was there as a patient: There had been no doubt in my mind. It confused me that there was doubt in his. I now realize he was fudging the relationship in order to have me doubt myself.
So why did I contact TELL? Well before the “therapy,” my life was good. I had sought help for unresolved grief about my father. I was now on medication for the first time in my life. I had lost much weight and was suffering debilitating anxiety and insomnia. I had none of these before seeking therapy.
I did know something was wrong with this “therapy,” but it certainly wasn’t a case of exploitation: I was the one who kept it going, and I was the one who paid and travelled to sessions. So I wrote of my symptoms to TELL and went along with talk of being exploited and talk of him being a weak, predatory, and amoral bully. In my heart, I did not believe this. I knew he was the love of my life, and I did not want to lose him. I felt dishonest toward the good TELL women who obviously had been truly abused by their therapists.
It was nearly Christmas. I was sitting in front of the screen reading several responses from TELL and feeling overwhelming gratitude for the kindness and thought I was receiving. The penny dropped. Perhaps exhaustion played a part, but I think it was that I had not been able to give up the idea of him as good until I had a safety net. This is TELL—the safety net for those who eventually have to jump from the burning building of fraudulence and self-denial.
I am writing this because now, as a TELL responder, I read it between the lines of so many emails we receive. Some victims write: “...my story is different,” “My therapist isn’t that bad,” “My therapist was kind to me,” “I really love mine,” “I have to confess I still ring him,” and “I want him back.”
To retain these feelings while seeking help causes immense shame. It is not unusual: It means you are still in that building, and it is on fire. Writing to TELL is looking out the window. Stand there looking out that window for as long as you need. When you are ready to jump, know that there is a net waiting. We are here to help break your fall.
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