‘Tis the Season: Strategies for coping with a therapist’s absence – Part I
This is the first part of a two part series. (It got a little long! 🙂 ) Life has settled down considerably but- of course- I am now working six day weeks because of a very demanding release going out the end of the summer. So I am re-engaging but would appreciate patience with my response times to comments and emails. But it’s really good to be back, I’ve missed everyone! Thank you all so much for you’re understanding and support while I have been away.
If you live in the Northern hemisphere (as many of my readers do), it is summertime right now. For so many folks that means a lot of lovely things: Barbeques, picnics, trips to the beach, freshly picked fruit, fireworks, longer days and swimming. But for those of us in therapy, it is also the dreaded summer vacation time for our therapists. A lot of us face a break in our therapy due to our therapists’ vacations. I myself am in the midst of a five week break (20 days to go, but who’s counting? Oh yes, I am! :D). This is longer than usual; BN usually takes two weeks for an annual family trip. But this year, he has a longer trip planned for Europe. So it seemed like a good time to talk about some strategies for getting through those inevitable interruptions in therapy.
Before I start, I want to recognize something that most, if not all, of us would consider reasonable. Therapists need and deserve a vacation, as much as the next guy, if not more. Their work can be emotionally demanding. If they’re doing it correctly, they spend the majority of their days focused on other people’s needs. Doing that with no break is the perfect recipe for burn out and becoming so drained that you have nothing to give other people. So of course they need to step away, go have fun, not stay focused on other people’s problems and recharge their batteries. Knowing this can make it difficult to recognize our feelings that can be evoked by our therapist leaving such as fear, anger and feeling abandoned. We feel selfish for feeling this way because we cognitively understand that our therapist is doing nothing wrong by taking a vacation. And they aren’t. But nor are you doing anything wrong by having feelings about their break.
And as painful and embarrassing as it has been, exploring my feelings about BN being away have yielded therapeutic gold. Every vacation used to take three sessions: one before to discuss how distressed I was about him going away, one when he got back to discuss my feelings of abandonment and one to discuss my anger about being left. Of course, most of it turned out to be feelings about my parents. 🙂 This particular break has been difficult, in a way they haven’t been for a long time, because I have been depending on him so much. There is a level of anxiousness about having him away; especially since he is in Europe. So I think I am writing this post as much to remind myself how to cope as to share the information with other clients. So with no further ado, strategies for coping with a therapist’s vacation.
Do NOT compare the length of your therapist’s vacation with other people’s therapists: Some will be shorter, some will be longer and the only thing you will do is beat yourself up for feeling bad because other people are facing a longer break so why can’t you get through the shorter one. Or, even worse, you’ll hate the other person for facing a shorter break. 🙂 A gap is a gap is a gap and pain is not a contest. You have a right to however you feel. Comparison’s are fairly useless anyway, because you are rarely comparing apples to apples. People who have been in therapy for a longer period of time and have worked through some of their dependency will tolerate a break better than someone in the midst of doing that kind of work. You also have to take into account therapy units. Therapy units, you ask? What are those? I’m glad you asked. 😉 I define a therapy unit as the normal gap between appointments. So for someone who sees their therapist twice a week, a week is two therapy units. If their therapist leaves for two weeks, that’s four therapy units. I see BN weekly, so a two week trip is only two therapy units. Yes, I know this sounds a bit silly, but we do get used to the rhythm of our appointments. And then you have to compare things like personality, background, available support etc. So don’t. Too complicated to think about when you’re this upset!
Transitional object: If it is at all possible to obtain (and most competent therapists get their client needing a transitional object and are willing to provide SOMETHING) have your therapist provide an object that is a physical symbol of the relationship. It provides security and a reminder of the connection while they’re away. Remember, we are dealing with catching up on some developmental steps if you have disorganized attachment, so think of a three year old with their blankie. 🙂 You can get very creative with this one. I actually bought BN a new chenille throw for his office, so I could take his home with me (it was used in a significant way in several sessions). I love it because I can wrap myself in it. (I take it to really bad sessions so I can feel held). So it’s a very powerful symbol of his care. Downside of this one, my family calls me Linus. 🙂 I don’t have a regular appointment, so BN gives me one of his business cards with my next appointment on it at the end of every session. These are scattered throughout my life: desk at work, purse, Kindle case, bookmark (in fact, a close friend of mine actually has one of his cards, because I mailed her a book and had left the card in it. 🙂 ) I know people who have borrowed a book, taken a pen or some other small object from their therapist’s office. One person I know who had DID with children parts used to make a paper chain with her therapist with a loop for each day of the break and her therapist would write messages on the inside. Every day her therapist was gone, she would cut a loop so that the chain would get shorter. One of my most powerful transitional objects is a voicemail on my phone. I had actually asked BN at one point if he could call and leave a voicemail because I thought it would help to hear his voice but didn’t want to call him all the time. He was great about it and I have this really sweet message on my phone that I think covered every base he could think of. 🙂 Another friend of mine asked her therapist if she could take his picture on her cell phone, because she had trouble remembering what he looked like (He hated having his picture taken but for the sake of his client went through with it). A handwritten note, or even just your name written by your therapist on a piece of paper. Anything really will work that has some kind of meaning for you and reminds you of the relationship.
Outside contact: Before discussing this one, I want to apologize to the people who do not have this option. I know not all therapists offer outside contact, nor should they. Some therapists cannot provide that and take good enough care of themselves. But I know it can be incredibly painful to see other people get that which you cannot get (my list is hugs, hearing “I love you,” and BN initiating contact for anything other than a schedule change. We all have our list.) If your therapist provides outside contact, use it. I know it can be hard, I really struggled with it. But I eventually realized that BN answering an email or talking with me on the phone for two minutes was better for both of us than coming back to a destablized mess because I just gritted my teeth. Sometimes it would help just to be able to express how I felt. Not proud of it, but I once wrote him an email on his vacation to tell him I hated his family(!) because they got to know him and spend time with him in a way I never could, then I told him to have a wonderful time with them. Therapy can lead to doing strange things. A brief contact can be very reassuring and very calming; if it’s available, trust your therapist that they are tending to themselves and take advantage of it.
Journaling: This can be useful both as an ongoing tool and something to do during a break. For a long period of time during my therapy with BN, I would journal after every appointment to describe what happened and would turn to the journal at other times when I needed to get some feelings out. I found that going back over my journal and reading about my positive experiences (and I would write things about how at that moment, in that session, I was certain of his care and how real the relationship was) would remind me of what the relationship really was, and how much I could trust BN. I also found that breaks away from him were sometimes very productive in what came up. I have a difficult time knowing how I feel and recognizing my needs when around other people because I had needed to be so focused on other people to keep myself safe. So often, when BN left, I think it would feel unconsciously safe to allow some feelings out. Since I didn’t have BN to talk to, I would write in my journal instead. My journal is really private, no one reads it but me. The process of writing would sometimes allow me to connect things in the same way that talking with BN would so that I could gain understanding and insight into what was being evoked by his absence. And then it provided a record so that if I did figure out something I wanted to take back to therapy, I had a way to remember it. Journaling can be especially effective for people who struggle to allow their feelings in because it engages both sides of your brain at the same time. I highly recommend it. Or you could start a blog, which pretty much now serves the same function for me. 🙂
I’ll be back with the rest of the strategies soon! The rest of which you can find in ‘Tis the Season – Part II.
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