Letter from a Reader: My New Therapist

I can’t verify the specific claims about the therapist’s behavior in this email. The emailer provided her real name and basic details about her life that check out, and the therapist she named is real and does online appointments, but I have no ability to know what went on between the two of them in private therapy sessions. Nothing in the story strikes me as remotely implausible.

For the record, the email was sent without any expectation of publication; I am printing it with the emailer’s blessing at my request. I have cut sections before and after this story as they are not germane, then lightly redacted the relevant portion for privacy, based on dialogue between us. I will note redactions with ellipses where appropriate. I receive emails about the social and emotional costs of the unfortunate, unfair, and ridiculous consequences of when social justice politics go wrong every week. Usually I say “that sucks” and move on. For whatever reason this one moved me, perhaps because the story is so mundane and the harm so unexceptional. The emailer asks that, if you too are moved by her story, you consider donating to the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, as I have. For the record, I understand that the basic issue here is one therapist and am not drawing outsized conclusions from this email. But I would ask that you consider the incentive structure we have created for people like this therapist and what the inevitable consequences of those incentives are.

Dear Freddie,

I have been reading your work for about 5 years. A friend sent me a link to a piece you wrote about protesting at the execution of a serial killer….

I am a 48 year old divorced mother of two. I have been in therapy for the past two decades. For over 7 years I attended in-person meetings with the same therapist, forced onto Skype early in the pandemic… he was fine and I was comfortable though I never felt a lot of progress…. In October of last year he abruptly quit the profession for vague reasons. This would have panicked me in the best of times, but the pandemic made me feel especially alone, especially because my younger daughter is still in middle school. I began a long hunt for a new therapist and it truly sapped me. The context here is that my old therapist accepted $50 a session cash from me because of a personal connection and my sob story about my recently-departed husband (at the time). I have health insurance for me and my younger girl but it’s not great. I was unable to find a local therapist I could afford, but at the advice of a friend I tried online therapy. A friend recommended [company] enthusiastically so I tried an text-only service for a couple of sessions because it was so cheap but it was a just not for me. It just never felt like a conversation…. I felt lucky to find a [white female] therapist in St. Paul that I could usually video with but who I could drive to… [after the pandemic]… when I really felt I had to. She came highly recommended, great reviews.

The intake appointment was great, she seemed really professional and friendly. A female therapist was definitely different but I felt like I vibed with it right away. She asked me right away about sexual issues and it made me feel welcomed …. When I was an adolescent I was repeatedly raped by [a family member] and a friend of his. I’m not here to give you my sob story but it ruined me for years. I have had one bad relationship after another since and when I think back to my marriage I see so much of those moments in my husband. Anyway there’s a lot I feel like I need to talk about, especially stuff at work, but it’s the stuff from earlier that I want to fixate on with my therapist. Obviously. Anyway I felt really encouraged and was excited….

My first annoyance (and I admit it’s only that) was with the land acknowledgments, where she begins every session by proclaiming that we are on land stolen from the local Native population. This can’t take more than a minute each time, so my rational brain tells me it’s nothing. But I can’t help from thinking, it’s just you and me, I know America is stolen land, I told you I know America is stolen land, and anyway we’re in cyberspace, we’re not on land at all, and by the way you’re charging me by the hour. But it’s not really costing me anything so I kept my mouth shut….

But it’s where she takes therapy that has me currently researching new therapists. Over and over again, she asks me to put my trauma in perspective with those of theoretical “Black indigenous” women. I was in the middle of talking about what drove me to finally seek help for trauma caused by my repeated sexual assaults when she asked if I had “a particular orientation” towards my therapy. I told her I didn’t know what she means. She said something like “do you want to discuss your orientation towards expressing this in this setting?” I was confused and again I asked what she meant. She told me that many women, particularly Black and indigenous women, would never have the resources to be able to discuss this with a licensed therapist, and they are more likely to be the victims of sexual assault, and how did I feel about that? I was really taken aback by this and struggled to respond. She rushed to say “this is normal, this is part of the process.” I told her that I understood that I was, in a sense, privileged to have access to her. This seemed to please her and she began talking about her special duty to Black and indigenous patients. Before I knew it the session was over, and of course a few hours later my credit card was charged.

That was, I think, four sessions ago. We have since returned to this theme again and again. It almost seems like a trigger for her: I use the word “trauma” and she feels moved to remind me that my trauma is not as real or meaningful or important as other women’s. It felt like I wasn’t the real patient in the room, so to speak. Eventually I lost my temper and said something like “there are white women who can’t afford therapy also.” I know it wasn’t constructive but I am struggling to pay for these sessions and while I know this isn’t factually true it felt like we had spent more time on the Black and indigenous women than on me…. After I said that the whole mood changed and I knew it was over between us. She acted shocked and eventually said that I “wasn’t grasping the situation.” I babbled a bit for the rest of the session and it was over. Since then the last couple sessions have been terribly awkward and I hate it, but I have not had it in me yet to tell her I want to quit. But I’ve checked out.

I understand the plight of Black and indigenous women, as much as a middle-age white woman can, and I care. I want everyone to have access to therapy and for the record I support universal healthcare…. But when I have a therapy session I want it to be about me…. It has taken me a lifetime to be able to say that, “I need right now to be about me,” and having a medical professional treat me like I’m less important than imaginary women hurt, especially when I am struggling to pay her. She talks about women lacking resources but she is the one taking my resources. For some reason I often think of my daughters about this and it makes me more angry.

I’m writing to you because I know you take this stuff seriously. All of this makes me feel like a racist old woman, selfish and left behind….