My former therapist, Peggy (names have been changed because DUH) called me fat. Well, she didn’t exactly use the word fat. She also didn’t exactly know what she was doing. I suspect she got her license from one of those shady shops in Manhattan where underaged teens get fake IDs.
We met in 2004. I had just moved to New York from Los Angeles, where I had first begun my recovery from disordered eating. After an unfortunate experience in L.A. where I felt abandoned by my therapy group (read all about it here), I was excited to start fresh with an individual counselor who would hopefully help me really overcome my issue. I was one of those women who didn’t know where she fit in the ED chart: Sometimes I binged, sometimes I binged then purged, sometimes I did not binge but still purged, sometimes I ate normally, and at all times I obsessed about food.
The first thing I did when I got health coverage in New York was Google Image Search 20 participating mental-health providers listed on my insurance company’s website. I chose Peggy, the middle-aged redhead posing by a tree. I was immediately drawn to her: She had a warm smile, her outdoor photo made me assume she was laid-back and probably recycles, and I liked that she wasn’t wearing lots of draped scarves like some of the other older, more stuffy-looking therapists. Peggy was gonna be my gurl.
The first few months were good. She was sweet, listened, and seemed to really get me. Then around month four, I noticed she was doing more talking than me. This is certainly not for a lack of me having things to say, for anyone who knows me personally or as a comedian knows I have a hard time being quiet. No, this was Peggy being too chatty.
I let it slide at first; I mean it’s common to share your experiences with a client in an effort to relate. I appreciate dialogue in therapy; I appreciate knowing my therapist also has flaws. However, by the end of month four, just as I was really starting to dig into how salt and dairy have been my emotional pacifiers since childhood, Peggy would interject with a story about her divorce and issues with her hyperactive daughter.
Her comments didn’t relate to what I was sharing at all; it was as if I wasn’t there. I found myself leaving her office thinking, I wish I had a therapist to talk to about my therapist.
By month five I felt like I had only begun to scratch the surface of exploring me, you know, the person who was supposed to being getting the help? I had been stress-eating (probably because my therapist was stressing me out) and felt like I was putting on weight because I was not purging.
When I brought this up to Peggy she replied “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to tell you that you look a lot heavier since we started working together.”
Wait, WHAT? You’ve been meaning to tell me?
“Your co-pay is increasing by $5” is something a therapist means to tell you, not “Hey fatty, maybe you should cool it with the Pizza Hut buffet.” I didn’t ask her if I looked fat; I was telling her I feel fat. You know, because this was a safe place for me to share my feelings. Perhaps she’d be more aware of MY feelings if she wasn’t so busy venting to me about her kid’s poor math grades.
I responded, “I don’t think you’re supposed to say something like that to me.”
To which she replied, “I’m just being honest. Clearly you are having an issue with food again and we should explore that next week. But right now we are out of time.”
I walked out stunned and craving pizza.
She was right, though. I was having an issue with food . . . and with her.
I immediately called my sister who happens to be a lovely, compassionate therapist and told her what happened. “Is this okay?” I asked.
“Fuck no,” she replied.
Peg and I never explored my issue next week because there was no next week. I called to let her know we were through and luckily I got her voicemail thus alleviating any fear of confrontation. After the tone I said, “I won’t be coming back to see you. I don’t think we are a good match.”
I remember hanging up upset at my choice of parting words: We are not a good match. No, it was that she was not a good therapist. Why didn’t I tell her that? At the time I didn’t know if it was my place, just like it was not her place to tell me I looked heavier. It was one of those situations where after I called her I wish I could have erased the message and said something more direct, profound, and brave.
But at the time I was hurt and shocked. I wasn’t an experienced therapy client. I didn’t know how to handle this uncomfortable situation. Was I supposed to reprimand her? Was I supposed to report her to some therapist Yelp site? I had no idea.
Normally when I need coaching on how to confront someone, I ask my therapist for advice, but who do you ask for advice on how to confront your therapist? I think if I were to breakup with a therapist now, I’d probably say why. It’s not like individual therapists have a supervisor that gives them an annual review; I imagine they rely on their clients to let them know how they are doing.
I know from my sister that she has had her own moments of wondering why a client suddenly stopped seeing her, so maybe some feedback would have been helpful. In addition to not knowing how to handle the split, I also just didn’t want to hurt Peggy. Based on her constant venting, it seemed like Peggy was also in a bad place. I hope she’s since changed her methods or changed careers.
My experience is the kind of thing that makes some people afraid to go to therapy. I’ve had a number of friends quit therapy because they felt like their therapist was rude, judgmental, or in one case, falling asleep. (Yes, I had a friend whose therapist legit napped in the middle of their sessions).
But as with everything, there is always a bad egg that potentially can ruin it for all. I once saw a shitty dentist. This dentist was my friend’s friend, who I later found out didn’t like me and so I’m convinced he did something malicious while giving me a filling, which is why I now need a root canal. I’m also convinced that he inserted a recording device into my molar and can hear everything I say about his bad toupee. I’m also a bit of a paranoid person.
However, one bad dentist isn’t going to stop me from ever getting my teeth cleaned again, just like one insensitive therapist who tricked me with her outdoorsy headshot and scarf-less demeanor isn’t going to stop me from taking care of my mental health.
It’s like dating: You have to find the person that works for you. That will help you grow. That has your best interest at heart.
So if you’re in therapy and your therapist sucks, break up. Whether you are direct about your reasons for leaving or go the simple “not interested anymore” route is up to you. Just please, don’t let the bad experience deter you from seeking another better-suited therapist.
Since Peggy, I’ve worked with two different therapists that have both been wonderful. My current therapist and I have been together over six years, and I adore her. She is open, present, and she even sometimes wears scarves.