She began by saying how sorry she was that she had to tell me over the phone. I had canceled my appointment that morning by text, and she had pushed back—asking, in not so many words, if I was positive I couldn’t make it. It was unusual; I have autoimmune conditions with frequent illness and chronic pain, and she had always been understanding. When I said that yes, I was sorry, but I was really very sure I couldn’t do it, she asked if she could call.
She needed to tell me she was closing her practice. I had six sessions before she terminated therapy.
I’d had other therapists in the past. Plenty of them. There was one I saw when my parents split up, one when my own marriage was failing, one after a death in my family. There were times when I was confused, or depressed, or so anxious that even a pack of cigarettes a day couldn’t keep my heart from hammering a constant staccato of doom in my chest. I saw them work through problems or rough patches. Then I went on my way, making my insurance company happy and resolving nothing deeper than the problem at hand.
This therapist was different.
There were people in my life—my kids, my friends, a man for whom I cared deeply—that were hurting because I couldn’t function. Something had to give and I suddenly understood that it was me. I made a list of everything that was wrong, a curriculum vitae of problems and trauma, and I brought it to this therapist. I was sure she would tell me she couldn’t see me, that I needed some kind of cartoon superhero psychiatric team to address what I lovingly refer to as my junk. Instead, she took a deep breath and said, “Okay.”
That was five years ago. Friendships and romances have come and gone, and I’ve gained and lost thirty pounds several times. There have been numerous flares of my physical illnesses and the slow realization that this is my life now. My pain got worse. My depression cycled, as it does. Sometimes I thought I was okay; sometimes the mission was to make it through another week. And we still, to this day, haven’t dealt with everything on the list. There are still things I’m not ready to talk about.
She gave me lists of therapists to contact. I put them in my purse.
She asked what I saw as my next steps. I said I would figure it out.
I was angry, and I needed to talk about it, and I couldn’t because I felt so irrational. This was her business; she had every right to shut it down. I was just a client, a consumer of a service, and it was time for me to move on. But none of that felt true. It felt like the person who had been my lifeline out of the big bad dark, the first person I had trusted with everything, was abandoning me. It stirred up my junk so thoroughly it became a frothy mental meringue. I had not been so junky, if you will, in years, and the person to whom I brought all my junk was the person churning it up. You remember, back in high school, when you fought with your best friend and you needed someone to talk to about it, and there was no one to talk to because you were fighting with the person you talked to about everything? Like that. Except worse. Because what kind of loser has those feelings, at 40 years old, about her therapist?
I was determined to be cool and to handle this on my own.
“Your therapist is quitting?” said my oldest friend. “The one you have been seeing for-like-ever? Dude. This is serious.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’ll figure it out.”
“Uh huh,” she said.
I glowered. I ran through the stages of grief a few times. I went to Taco Bell more than is reasonable. But I kept it together.
A trademark part of my junk is holding everything in and maintaining a facade of calm until I don’t, and then blowing like an overfilled balloon of anger and ugly crying. When it happened, I ran my therapist out of tissues and lost one of my contacts on her sofa.
“I’m just not in a place where I feel like I can start over,” I said. “Drag out that long horrible list I brought you at the beginning and tell the whole story again. I just can’t face it.”
“Then don’t,” she said. “You don’t have to. You’ve done a lot of work. You’re not where you were when we first met.”
I sniffled more quietly for a moment while I considered it. All the hours I had spent in her office, all the time I ruminated on the things we had talked about afterwards, all the epiphanies I brought to her and all the crises I had weathered in five years of therapy—was it possible that she was right?
Of course, she was. And I hadn’t even realized it.
A temporary reprieve: at the last minute, she found an office she could rent on a per diem basis for the next few months to work with “a few” clients who are having trouble transitioning.
How I hope and pray that “a few” clients is more than just little old me.
Here’s the point: I spent five years working through my junk with someone, and then I found out I was losing her, and it was hard. But I didn’t hurt myself, consider suicide, blame myself, or torch another relationship. I didn’t decompensate into a puddle of a liquefied middle-aged lady. I kept taking care of my kids, I kept taking care of myself, and when I got through my initial reaction I realized I was healthier than I thought. There is less junk than there used to be.
At my first appointment in the temporary office, she said, “Here’s an exercise I thought we could do. If you were meeting with someone new for the first time, what would you think that you needed? What would you tell them today?”
I knew what she was doing, but this time it didn’t hurt. I took a deep breath and I said, “Okay.”
I was ready. We began.
Sarah McQuade lives in Maine with her two sons and her magic dog, Baxter Dave. Disabled by lupus for ten years, she spends her time reading, writing and advocating for social justice by any means ready to hand. You can find her on Twitter at @sarahwhelmed.