How I Became Aware of My “Trauma Bond’ With My Ex-Therapist
The coronavirus (COVID-19) has arguably presented the world with one of the most difficult challenges we have ever faced collectively. It has redefined “normal” and has disrupted so many aspects of our lives. One of the biggest shifts for me personally was the shift from seeing my primary therapist in-person to virtual sessions. This transition ultimately led to the end of our relationship and I wish that I could say that it ended on good terms. Unfortunately, it didn’t, but I learned a valuable lesson about “trauma bonding” that I might not otherwise have learned, and for that I am grateful.
Trauma bonding is a term popularized by Patrick Carnes. It is a destructive relationship that is defined by betrayal and it can occur in the context of any relationship that involves a powerful emotional bond, like that between a client and therapist. For those who grew up in an abusive relationship with a caregiver, it can be particularly devastating and extremely difficult to recognize.
When I first began seeing my ex-therapist almost six years ago, I felt an immediate connection to her. She was kind, listened to me intently and felt safe. Within the first couple of months, she helped me to identify the covert incest and neglect I had experienced and continued to experience with my mother and gave me the space to begin to explore the myriad of ways in which growing up in such a toxic environment affected my attachment and sense of self. I also began to have memories of sexual abuse from childhood resurface, which I was able to reveal to myself and to her for the first time in my life. At that time she willingly engaged in lengthy and frequent text exchanges with me, often helping me navigate interactions with my mother and encouraging me to establish stricter boundaries with her.
Since this was my first experience with a therapist, I didn’t understand that this kind of frequent communication wasn’t common. All I knew was that I was quickly becoming very attached to her, relying on her to help me with my emotional regulation and self-soothing. She often referred to her credentials (she has a doctorate in clinical psychology) as proof of her ability and prowess as a clinician, so I had no reason to doubt or question anything she said. When she told me that the therapeutic relationship was the only place an adult could recreate the parent-child relationship and that my growing attachment was normal and necessary for our work together, I gleefully obliged. I was finally getting the attentive mothering I so desperately wanted my entire life and it felt almost addictive.
As our work together progressed, red flags began popping up that I was frankly blind to. After the first year of therapy, she notified me that I had been texting her on her personal phone, not her work phone, and she asked me to use her other number. I was confused because she gave me the wrong number and I never had a clue I wasn’t using the correct number. Then she began shifting her protocol for texting, alternating from encouraging me to text her, to putting a moratorium on texting, to only texting non-therapy stuff (like dog photos which she was particularly fond of), to texting if it helps me offload my anxiety. The boundaries were constantly changing and they didn’t match what I perceived was occurring with other patients. At one point, I heard her tell another patient to “text (her) anytime” and “(she) doesn’t have to go through this alone.” I found myself constantly frustrated by the lack of consistency and clarity as to when, how much and what was acceptable to text her.
She also had a habit of always arriving late to sessions, something I overlooked because I didn’t want to rock the boat, but that irked my husband to no end as he found it to be disrespectful of my time. I ignored him and brushed it off because I thought she was the best thing since sliced bread.
Other red flags included asking me to donate to a charity she was involved in, answering other people’s texts during my sessions, opening her mail during my sessions and openly expressing her frustration with me when I said or did something that annoyed her. Again, I didn’t think anything of these issues because I was just so grateful to have her as my therapist.
When my complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) symptoms began really affecting me and my sexual trauma began taking over my life, she acknowledged that she was not a “trauma therapist” and referred me out for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. When I found a trauma therapist and asked for them to consult with one another to orchestrate my care, my primary therapist was reluctant, which baffled me. My new trauma therapist did in fact attempt to communicate with her to ensure they were coordinating my care but this became a repeated source of consternation for me as the years went on and my therapy needs evolved.
Fast-forward to March 2020 and lockdown. At this point, my therapist shifted to doing sessions via FaceTime. Unfortunately, her WiFi often didn’t work and throughout the summer, our sessions would begin via FaceTime, five to 10 minutes late, we’d spend the first five minutes not hearing each other and then shift to the phone, leaving about 30 minutes for my session. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t feel any urgency to address her connectivity situation or invest in a more consistent and secure Telehealth option considering we knew this was likely going to be the way we were going to have to do therapy for a long time.
Our sessions began to become increasingly less productive. She would easily get agitated and it felt like, week after week, she would say the same thing (just feel your feelings) but offer no real recommendations as to how to handle my increased anxiety. I was frequently overwhelmed because our business was closed and my panic attacks were becoming more frequent. All of this would audibly annoy her and on numerous occasions, I would get off the phone feeling even worse than when I started the session.
Ever the “good patient” and wanting to be empathetic to the fact that she too was enduring this pandemic, I was reticent to voice my dissatisfaction. I also knew that being angry with your therapist was an opportunity for growth if the rupture could be repaired constructively in session, so I tried repeatedly to bring things up in-session that perhaps upset me or that I thought were out of line. Her rote response was always “you misheard what I said,” placing the blame on me for somehow not interpreting her correctly and saying I wasn’t being clear with my needs. In hindsight, I recognize her behavior as gaslighting, but at the time I was all too willing to concede that I was the problem because it’s my go-to coping strategy to take responsibility for everything to ensure that others are not angry with me, especially someone who occupied a position as my caregiver.
Sometime in November, I had had yet another series of triggering interactions with my mother followed by her getting admitted to the hospital with suspected COVID-19. Knowing my mother’s underlying poor health issues, I panicked. I was wrought with guilt for being angry with her and conflicted with simultaneously wanting to maintain my distance from her, but worrying that if she died I wouldn’t know how to deal with it. In my angst, I texted my therapist seeking some support. What I got was a completely unempathetic reply telling me to leave her alone.
The next week, I brought up my anger about her response. She said she didn’t understand why I was so upset and failed to see what was so triggering to me. I was flabbergasted. I said, “Of all people, I’d expect you to understand the complexity of my feelings toward my mother possibly having COVID-19 and dying.” (My mother did not, by the way.) Then I proceeded to ask my therapist what she defined as a crisis. Her response is what finally pushed me over the edge and woke me up from my trance. She said, “Unless you [are about to kill yourself], don’t contact me,” including suicide methods. When I hung up, I knew it was over.
I relayed this interaction to a few trusted friends, all of whom were horrified and in total disbelief that a therapist would say this. I spent the better part of the next week reflecting on what I knew in my heart and soul was true… I was in a trauma bond with my therapist and she had betrayed my trust. I felt gutted, I felt “stupid” and I felt shocked that I didn’t see it sooner.
After telling my EMDR therapist what happened and that I intended to “break up” with my therapist, I felt a huge sense of relief. I knew deep down that this was the right thing for me to do. I sent my primary therapist a final text thanking her for the work we did together and telling her that I felt like I needed more support from a therapist who was trauma-informed. Her reply stung to my core: “Good luck with your growth.” That was it. No warmth, no acknowledgment of the years we had spent together, no inquiry as to why I was terminating. Nothing. I was frankly heartbroken.
I continue to grieve the loss of that relationship. In many ways, she ended up hurting me as much as I was hurt by my mother. The sense of abandonment was familiar. In my desperation to find an ersatz maternal figure, I lost my sense of self. My focus became on pleasing her and not causing her any trouble. Instead of the relationship being about me, it became about my adapting to her, trying to “earn” her care. I take full ownership for allowing my judgment to be clouded by the sense of belonging I thought I felt within the perceived security of our therapeutic alliance.
But ultimately, I acknowledge that the demise of the relationship rests solely on her. It was up to her to establish clear boundaries and to reinforce them. It was up to her to fulfill her end of the relationship by showing up on time, being fully present and acknowledging when she said something that was hurtful, thereby mirroring healthy conflict resolution. And… since I have no way of knowing what might have been going on in her personal life, it was her responsibility to do her own self-care and to do whatever she needed to avoid burnout without taking it out on her patients.
The good news is that I continue to work with my EMDR therapist, or just “my therapist” as she is now the only one I see. She has from the beginning established and maintained healthy boundaries, is on time, puts my needs first and treats me with the respect that I deserve. And… I see her not as a substitute parent, not as a friend, not as a superior, not as some kind of supernatural being who can do no wrong. She’s just my therapist. And you know what? It feels right, it feels safe, it feels good, and I feel proud of myself for putting my needs first… finally.
For more on reasons why someone might leave a therapist, click here.
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