In playing tennis, an important axiom I’ve learned is that more points are lost than won. More points result from one player making an error rather than hitting a winning shot. Most of these errors are unforced.

What happens when your therapist lobs an unforced error across the net at you?

This happened to me recently. I was angry and afraid because of what transpired. Ultimately, I decided he made the error inadvertently. Still, I paid a price. He paid a price as well because I chose to sever our appointments completely.

What happened?

On the initial intake form, I stated that my goal in therapy was to deal with residual anger at my mother. I had been diagnosed with PTSD 20 years ago due to childhood sexual abuse, and I wanted to prevent a relapse. The appointments were conducted virtually over Google Meet, and I wasn’t expecting long-term therapy. I just sought a safe place to rant and rave about my mother for a bit.

During our first appointment, I informed him that several years ago I broke my silence and revealed to everyone that my maternal grandfather had been a pedophile who preyed on little girls in our family. In fact, I wrote a book about it that was published in 2020.

In a later appointment, perhaps the third or fourth, he asked if he could read my book. I didn’t mind if he did so. The book is in the public realm, so I couldn’t stop him. I wrote the book very carefully. I stand by everything in it, and I’m not embarrassed by it. I’m very happy that I finally told the truth about being sexually abused when I was nine.

However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he had already purchased the book, read it, and now wanted to “use” certain information and needed my “permission” to read the book.

During the next appointment, he guided the conversation a bit and asked me to imagine myself as a little girl. He used a lot of imagery from WWII, such as Anne Frank and soldiers. My book has many references to WWII. Moreover, he asked me to “tell us who anger is protecting?” The use of the third person surprised me. In retrospect, I believe it was another reference to my book, which details a murder trial from 2002, where a San Diego man, David Westerfield, was convicted of murdering a seven-year-old girl, Danielle Van Dam.

Perhaps he was expecting a verbal response from me. However, that’s not what transpired. I remember when he asked me to “tell us who anger is protecting?” Then he said that he had just given me a lot of information and asked me to summarize it back to him. He wanted to ensure that I understood.

Suddenly, I became aware of a “black hole” in my brain. I couldn’t recall anything between “Who is anger protecting?” and “summarize back.” I had slipped into a dissociative episode, and it shocked me. I had been stable for over 20 years, and I didn’t believe this was possible again. I quickly ended the appointment and closed the laptop.

An alarm bell rang in my head

However, before I closed the laptop, he mentioned that I had given him a lot to work with and thanked me for being so vulnerable. An alarm bell rang in my head.

I called a friend who is a counselor to talk through what happened. Her comments were, “Sometimes, the therapist is sicker than the client,” and “You’ve only seen him a few times. You don’t have much invested in him, and you can always find someone else.” But then she started talking about her sciatica and how much pain she was in. I concluded that she didn’t really hear me and offered me a platitude.

It took me a couple more appointments to tell my therapist what she had said and to explain how the episode had frightened me. I was now spending a considerable amount of time during the day, wary that I would encounter evidence that I had done something that I didn’t remember doing. I did not use the word “dissociation” or any variation of it.

He attempted to reassure me and mentioned that he had personal experience with what had happened. That set off more alarm bells in my mind, whether rightly or not.

I met with him a few more times, even though I had already decided to move on. We only had seven or eight appointments total, and I wanted to get a better sense of him, which can be difficult in virtual meetings. He seemed very caring, compassionate, and empathetic, not as a façade for therapy, but genuinely so. He appeared to be in his early to mid-50s, yet his license was issued only a few years ago. Perhaps this was a career change, which is admirable. He seemed to have a good sense of humor. I had found him through a service for Christian counselors, and we shared our faith in God. And he seemed genuinely surprised when I mentioned “wrapping things up.”

So, what was the true unforced error here? Was he overly eager? Did he fail to truly understand my history with PTSD? Should he have been more transparent about his “personal experience?” Should he have initiated a frank conversation about the episode? Was it a mistake to wait for me to talk about it? One thing is certain, he avoided any more imagery about WWII and didn’t speak using the third person again.

Did I err? I said nothing about dissociative amnesia on the intake form, and even after the episode, I avoided the words completely. Should I have insisted on more transparency about his “personal experience?”

One thing I learned is this: Therapists often talk about the power differential in the therapeutic relationship. They assert that the balance of power is tilted toward the therapist. That’s an illusion, in my opinion. Ultimately, I held the power and the choice to no longer continue paying for appointments.

In tennis, when one player makes an unforced error, the other player wins the point. In this case, the unforced error was a lose-lose situation.


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