I went into therapy as a 26-year-old mother of two suffering from extreme bouts of depression. My life wasn't the problem. It was my past that haunted me and held me captive, leaving me unable to break free from the chains of oppression.
I'm a survivor of childhood abuse, sex trafficking, and childhood homelessness. Though I had a turbulent start in life, I was determined to become a normal, functioning adult.
I had trouble sleeping, a fear of intimacy which, in a marriage, can and did have devastating results. I distrusted everyone around me and I lived my life in isolation because of that fear. I had the kind of tired that sleep couldn't remedy. To be able sleep, you have to feel safe, and it’s not safe at shelters or sleeping in the car when you're a teen girl.
Enter the therapist. Because I have trust issues, I made sure to check out my therapist. I searched practitioner databases that rate and review health-care professionals. I looked up his credentials, peer reviews, and consumer reviews. This professional was exactly what I needed. An older male in his 50s, Christian, a Ph.D with over a decade of experience. I had finally found someone that could help me work through my trauma, which had largely been brought on by males.
I needed him to be different and help me heal. Since males abused me and caused me to be the way I am, perhaps, it would be a male who could help me heal through it.
Therapy was working for me. I felt better than I had ever felt in my life. I felt my burdens begin to lift as I told him my secrets. I felt empowered instead of ashamed of my past. It felt so good to feel like someone knew my secrets and still liked me. He went above and beyond to make me feel safe, valued, and respected.
Most of all, he made me feel special. That sounds silly, right? I'm an adult. Why would I need to feel special? Well, first of all, we all need to feel special, and we need it even more when we didn't get it as children. I grew up feeling like a burden as well as a protector. I took on the role of the adult long before my teenage years.
One time that I remember like it was yesterday, I was awoken to the sound of screaming. In a panic, I ran down the hallway to see my mother grabbing the phone trying to call 911 as my father had her in a choke hold.
He quickly managed to rip the phone cord from the wall.
“Heather, Heather, help me, plug the phone back in," she screamed. I dashed toward the floor and grabbed the phone cord and plugged it in and grabbed the phone and dialed 9-1-1.
The next thing I knew my tiny body was flying through the air from the kitchen into the living room. I saw the wooden arm of the sofa coming toward my face. Lights out. My mother cradled me in her arms crying, but she never called the police.
These are the kinds of memories that I shared with my therapist. I needed so desperately to heal from these traumas to be able to be the person I could have been if not for my life going the way it had.
Along the way in therapy, I started to notice some behaviors that made me uncomfortable. He began making a lot of comments about my physical appearance and asking about my sex life. I didn't like this part of therapy. I liked how it used to be, when I felt like he was my biggest supporter.
Each therapy session he would cross the boundaries a little bit more and each time, I told myself that it was me who had the problem. He was a professional with years of experience, education, and training. He knew what he was doing, and I was the one that needed help.
He started making demands and his attitude went from cheery and supportive to brash and critical. I started to feel like he would punish me in therapy if I didn't do what he wanted me to do outside of therapy. I started to feel rebellious toward him and angry.
He would ask sexual questions or make sexual jokes, and I would just stare at him from across the room. He was turning my therapy into something that existed for his own pleasure.
I'm not a quitter, though. I stayed in therapy and relentlessly tried to get back to where we were. The question is not why didn’t you leave?, but with the life I had experienced, why wouldn’t I stay?
Then in June 2011, he sexually assaulted me in his office. That day had been a good one. I was celebrating my recent weight loss and promotion. I walked into his office, and he asked to see the print of my dress. Without hesitation, I walked over to him and did a twirl in front of him with a big smile on my face. It was almost like I was a child waiting for her father's approval.
As I went to turn away, he grabbed me bear-hugging my legs. I was in SHOCK! I thought about hitting him, but I didn't want to hurt him. I thought about screaming for help, but I didn't want to get him in trouble. I just wanted him to stop.
He rammed his fingers inside me, and I pushed him away and said, “Please stop, I don't want to have to scream." He wouldn't let go, and I had to step out of my panties and pushed to get away from him.
He said, “I’m sorry, nothing like that has ever happened to me before. I've been doing this [therapy] for 12 years and I've never had that happen. There is something about you that made me do that."
I believed him because I had been repeatedly victimized before. It took months before I was able to get the courage to report him to board. He guilt-tripped me, begged and pleaded for me not to report him. "You'll hurt my family," he said. "Think of my kids".
When that didn't work, he turned to scare tactics to coerce me into not filing a complaint. He told me he was a convicted felon who had spent 4.5 years in prison for assault on a child. He threatened to harm my family.
In November 2011, my therapist was reported to the board, but it wasn't until July 2012 that the board allowed him to voluntarily surrender his license in lieu of criminal prosecution.
I would never see justice. He would never face a jury and never spend one day in jail.
How did a violent convicted felon get a license to become a therapist?
The reality is not many states actually require criminal background checks for all mental health professionals and none have a prohibition from violent felons, sex offenders, or anyone who surrendered or had a license revoked in another state for a crime of moral turpitude from getting a license in another state.
State boards don't communicate with one another and that makes it all too easy for professional predators to state-hop. I found others just like me who have been sexually abused by a mental health professional and they, too, were denied justice.
Often times, even when the sexual abuse involves a child, the professional gets a slap on the wrist and is allowed to regain their license. The National Practitioner Databank houses all the disciplinary records of all health-care professionals, but it remains closed to the public.
I started Lynette's Law two years ago in Maryland. It’s a two-bill package piece of legislation. One bill requires criminal background checks for all mental health professionals and the other criminalizes sexual exploitation in therapy. I passed HB 56, which required criminal background checks for mental health professionals in Maryland in 2013. I’m still fighting to pass the bill that criminalizes sexual exploitation in therapy in three states which mental health associations largely oppose.
If you or someone you know is a victim of abusive therapy, please go to our website.