This time last year I was a mess. The book I’d just finished had felt more like a nervous breakdown than a work of art, and I’d delivered it nearly a year late. My immune system had all but collapsed and I wasn’t sleeping. Everything felt impossible, from the responsibility of raising my two children to the completion of my VAT return. I was snapping at everyone at home. I’d had counselling a couple of times before and knew it was time to seek help again.
My last counsellor, found through my GP, had retired, so I had to start over. It’s fine to ask friends to recommend a plumber or a waxer, but therapy is different; you’re asking them to confess to a vulnerability they might not be ready to share. I turned to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BA CP) website, where understanding the different kinds of therapy on offer – Jungian, psychodynamic, CBT – was a day’s work in itself. I chose Mary (not her real name) because her page was packed with information – her qualifications and experience – without being too wordy or opaque. We chatted via email, I tearfully filled in a form about my concerns and she emailed me her terms. A week later we had our first appointment.
I felt comfortable in Mary’s mumsy but perceptive presence from day one, and just uncomfortable enough in the process to know it was working. We met every week. If I couldn’t make it, I paid anyway, in accordance with her seven-day cancellation policy. I honoured this when circumstances (kids, health, the Beast from the East) kept me away, even when I privately thought Mary could have been more sympathetic. It was a point of respect, from one freelancer to another. And I understood that in this strange relationship that blurs the personal and professional, boundaries matter.
Together we worked out which parts of my life I needed to take responsibility for and what I needed to delegate; which expectations were reasonable and those it would help me to let go of. It went so well, in fact, that I decided to take the summer off, not just from therapy but everything that had been frying my brain. I decamped to Suffolk with my family, shut down all social media and didn’t switch on a computer for seven weeks. After months of navel-gazing, I was looking outwards again. I was calm, sleeping better, cycling and sea-swimming every day, communicating properly with my husband and daughters; even singing around the house. The work I had done with Mary had paved the way for this, but I knew I could take it from here.
Back in London, I emailed her, with the agreed seven days’ notice before our appointment, saying I wouldn’t be coming back. The gist of her reply was: you can’t do that – it breaches our agreement, we don’t have closure, we need to see what you got from this process. Actually, I said, I felt that continued introspection would do me more harm than good. She restated that we needed at least one more session until I got the impression that this was for her sake, not mine. By the end of our exchange, her cold, almost bullying tone was so far removed from the therapeutic warmth of our sessions it was hard to believe it was the same person.
Then the demands for money began. Our termination (as opposed to cancellation) period was apparently 14 days, not seven, a footnote of a document I’d read (but not signed) when in crisis five months earlier. I felt that this was unreasonable after a seven-week break. Mary replied by scheduling an appointment for me the following week, doubling her invoice and threatening legal action. She also attached the Q&A I’d spilled my guts into before our first meeting: the document flashed up on the screen as I was doing my daughter’s homework with her. This insensitivity upset me more than the money or even the fear of legal action.
Letting someone into your head is a bit like letting someone into your bed: they know you inside out, all your vulnerabilities, so when it becomes confrontational it feels personal. The irony wasn’t lost on me: the book that had sent me to the edge, Stone Mothers, is set in an old Victorian asylum and deals with women’s wishes being steamrollered, and here I was in 2018 experiencing the same thing.
Or was I? Mary and I had discussed how the storytelling brain that has served me so well in my career sometimes makes me the unreliable narrator of my own story. I reread her emails, looking for a sign that I’d got carried away. She believed she had been clear about her terms; I believed she hadn’t – stalemate. I knew there was a chance that my feeling I was being punished for ending the relationship might be me projecting something I wanted to avoid back on to Mary. This time, I did ask around, seeking advice from a trusted group of friends and a couple of novelist acquaintances who also practise counselling and psychotherapy.
The first therapist I spoke to said that boundaries are the bedrock of her client relationships and that payment is as much a part of the commitment as showing up: but agreed that in my case, as there was no longer a relationship to salvage, she would be unlikely to pursue payment through court. Another said that respect for her clients’ consent was paramount, and when it doesn’t work out for whatever reason it’s the therapist’s job to suck it up. She did add that usually she has the opposite problem; that clients who don’t need therapy any more are reluctant to stop, using it as a crutch.
Something else emerged: my experience is far from unique. My friend Kerry had therapy after her beloved but complicated father died. ‘I had to bring a picture of me and Dad when I was a teenager,’ she explains. ‘An old Polaroid. I never made a copy. We’d talk to “little me” during our sessions. I really tried this method but it always felt silly and forced so I asked my therapist if we could try a different technique. It took courage to even suggest this – my fear of authority figures was why I was there – but he point-blank refused. It took another month to tell him that we weren’t a good fit. He decided to withhold the photograph until he said I was ready to have it back. My choice was: keep having therapy that’s making you uncomfortable or lose this treasured photo.’
An old colleague, Ben, found himself in a catch-22 situation when he sought counselling after divorce. ‘I intended this to be short-term: someone to help me build up my self-esteem. But every time I said I should stop therapy, my therapist took it as a sign that I still needed it. He’d say, don’t you feel you’re worth spending time and money on? The money mattered more than my needs. Even so, when I stopped it felt like one more failed relationship.’
Psychotherapist Wendy Bristow says that the closure session I was pressured into attending is standard. ‘Endings are powerful: they affect what you take away from any experience. Closure sessions are a chance to look at what worked and what didn’t. They can be moving and joyful. While I’d recommend it, it’s pointless if the client doesn’t want to participate. Whatever form of therapy you practise, the relationship between therapist and client is paramount.’ Bristow does not draw up a contract with her clients but recognises that many therapists find it valuable. ‘We’re all human and do things differently. Psychotherapy isn’t regulated in the same way as, say, law and there is no standard way of terminating the relationship. What all the professional bodies such as BA CP and UK Council for Psychotherapy insist upon is that those terms are communicated to the client.’
It’s important to say that I believe my experience is atypical: for all the stories of clingy therapists, there were ten good experiences. In the end, I settled half my bill just to make the situation go away. I remain sad that things had soured but grateful for the work we’d done: I reap the benefits even today. After I made the payment, Mary wrote back, saying that she would be happy to continue working with me if I ever wanted to in the future, and that she would look forward to it.
Stone Mothers by Erin Kelly will be published on Thursday by Hodder & Stoughton, price £12.99. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has a confidential service for anyone concerned about their therapist: bacp.co.uk/about-therapy/ask-kathleen