Therapist Abuse Victim Spotlight: “Betty”
Mental health professionals typically enter the lives of their clients when the clients are at their most vulnerable. The balance of power rests solely on the therapist, giving them the ability to do extreme good or extreme harm. When therapists abuse this power and fail to keep their clients safe, the damage to the therapist abuse victim can be severe.
The issue of therapist abuse is not going away any time soon. Sadly, it is a very common occurrence. In fact, “The two earliest national prevalence studies based on anonymous surveys of psychologists (Holroyd & Brodsky, 1977; Pope, Levenson & Schover, 1979) suggest that perhaps as many as 12% of male therapists and 3% of female therapists engaged in sexual intimacies with at least one patient (for a review of research in the area of patient-therapist sex, see Pope, 1990c, 1994, 2000).”
In these victim spotlight posts, I hope to give a voice to the otherwise voiceless, to victims who have suffered from this heinous abuse of power and whose story may otherwise go untold. The following is Zoe’s story. It is her truth as she recounts it. Her abuser is simply referred to as Betty.
She swept into my life while I was at my lowest. It was my first time being in a private hospital for my mental health, and she was my nurse. I remember being blown away by the level of care shown towards me, which sat in stark contrast to the public hospital I was in a few years back. She told me she felt protective of me like she was my big sister. She was always looking out for me and said that during handover she would ask to hear about me first.
I slept on the floor with a sheet draped over the bed and a chair forming a little cubby. I hated the night nurses looking at me while I was sleeping. When I first met Betty, she told me how funny my chart notes were. The notes said it could be difficult to tell if I was in bed because I hid under a sheet on the floor. My age was also written wrong; the notes said I was zero. I even still used a child’s dose of Nurofen, which Betty found in my bathroom the day I had to call a nurse due to excruciating period pain.
This all led Betty to start calling me her baby. It was harmless at first, but soon I found myself taking on this role. I felt like a little child with her. She was so attuned to my needs. She became like a mother, friend, or even a partner to me. She was everything I had longed for but had been denied all my life. All these ancient feelings I had not felt since childhood came rushing back. Once again, I found joy being with another human being. Betty made me laugh so hard I told her she must be magical to make a clinically depressed person laugh like this. I loved it when she told me I looked cute in my fluorescent green wig, and I loved it when she touched me affectionately. I found joy with Betty, and I found safety.
When we were together, the world around me faded away. It no longer seemed like such a scary and dark place. I felt I could endure anything as long as I had Betty. Betty tore down the walls I’d spent a lifetime building around me. Symbolic of this, I even removed the chair holding up my cubby so we could both sit down and talk. There were signs on my door telling the nurses not to come in during the morning, but it never bothered me when Betty came in. Betty bragged to the other nurses that she was the only person I’d let into my room.
I always think of Betty when I listen to the song “Innocence” by Avril Lavigne. Our relationship was so beautiful it made me cry. I sat with Betty and cried tears of happiness. I had not felt more loved in my life. Yet mixed in with all this happiness was the worst pain I’ve felt in my life as I knew I could not stay in the hospital forever. How could I ever say goodbye to Betty? I could talk to her about anything, so I told her how I felt. She said she felt a friendship between us too. She even said she’d get my number off my hospital notes when I left and send me a message. I couldn’t believe it. Finally, my happy ending had arrived! I went from wanting to die all the time to being afraid of dying. It was like my life was only just beginning. My so-called treatment-resistant depression was gone—just like that.
The day I was discharged Betty didn’t come to see me which I thought was weird. It was an awful day. I was not feeling good about leaving. I had spent three months in the hospital, and it was beginning to feel like home. Another nurse was in charge of me that day. I was at the nurse’s station with her when she shoved discharge papers at me and told me to go pack up my room so another patient could have it.
I didn’t know if Betty was still going to get my number. A part of me, deep down, knew that something wasn’t right. Days went by and I never heard from Betty. I lost my will to live again. I stopped eating. I stayed in bed all day. Weeks passed. Then a whole month. I screamed and cried and threw things around my bedroom while my dad cried with me on the floor as he felt so helpless. Finally, my psychiatrist suggested I call the hospital and ask to speak to Betty. The mere thought made me dizzy, but somehow, I found the courage to make the call.
The receptionist told me Betty was on lunch break and took down my number so Betty could call me back. I didn’t know if she would, but she did. She even called me from her mobile phone, so I had her number. She told me her whole face lit up in front of the receptionist when she saw my number there on the page. She said the hospital had closed my file before she could get my number. She said she had missed me so much, that she felt sad every time she passed my old room. “We’ll definitely keep in touch” were her final words before she hung up. It was like I was riding a crazy rollercoaster and I’d just reached the very top again.
Another month passed and there was no peep from Betty, so I figured I’d have to be the one to text first. I wrote her a text and she replied immediately. We continued texting every few weeks. It was always me who initiated the texting, and me doing all the disclosing. One day I asked if she’d like to meet up, and she said “sure” with a smiley emoticon. I was over the moon. I went out and bought a Navman GPS so I could get to her house. I waited for her to tell me when she was free, but she never did.
I don’t know what happened, but eventually, Betty stopped replying to me altogether. I tried calling her but couldn’t get through… all I got was an automated message. I sent a few texts, one of which read: “If you don’t want to be friends can you just tell me so I don’t keep texting you and can begin to move on.” Still, I got nothing back. I told her I didn’t understand the silence and it hurt. Still nothing. It was like speaking to a brick wall. She used to be so responsive to me; I barely recognized the cold, heartless person she had become.
A friend, who is also a support worker, offered to call her for me. At first, she got the same automated message. But then Betty texted asking who this was. Betty also called her back. Yet when my friend answered, Betty hung up. My friend proceeded to introduce herself in text. She said she was deeply concerned about my wellbeing and asked if they could talk. Betty defensively asked how she got her number. My friend told her that I gave it to her, of course. Betty then said she had the wrong number, and there was no further correspondence after this.
At the very end of last year, I decided to go back to this hospital. I called Betty’s ward and asked to speak to Betty before I came in.
“Hi Zoe,” said Betty.
“Why did you take this call?” I asked.
“Errr, because the phone was handed to me?” Betty replied.
“You haven’t been speaking with me all year. I’m guessing you blocked me. So why did you take this call?” I asked her again.
“I think you’ve got the wrong number,” Betty told me, and then hung up.
I began crying and called again. “Was that Betty?” I sobbed to the kind receptionist. “I barely recognize her.”
“Yes, yes it was,” she said. “She remembers you from your last admission. What is the matter? I’ll get her again for you.”
“No don’t!” I told her.
I ended up speaking to intake and they admitted me that day, but to the other ward. My mother threw a few things into a suitcase as I was too distraught to pack, and we got in the car. I didn’t even bother getting changed out of my pajamas. We reached the hospital and even though I wasn’t in the same ward as Betty, the reminders of her were everywhere. I lay face down on the bed as the nurse filled out my intake forms. Another nurse came in.
“We’re going to get you better,” he told me.
While my nurse was busy preparing my stay, I went into the bathroom, turned on the cold water, and sat, fully clothed, under the shower. I felt like I was in a dream and could do anything. I imagined my pain gushing away with the water. My nurse called one of the female nurses who came in to help. She turned the tap off. I lay on the bathroom floor soaked.
“Are you ok?” she asked me.
“No,” I wailed, sobbing.
When I was calmer, I was moved closer to the nurse’s station. I found it hard to tell them about Betty as I didn’t want to get her into trouble; I only spoke of losing a “friend.” I loved Betty but I hated her too, and at one point I nearly went up to her floor to scream at her. I ran into the elevator, but the nurses stopped me. I’m glad they did because going up there would have been too triggering. When I went to a group on that floor, my nurse came up to give me some Lorazepam. Still, my anxiety was through the roof. I had a dream that I saw Betty again and passed out.
My stay was so distressing that I dissociated for a good part of it. I did things that I’d usually be too self-conscious to do. I was almost sent to a public psych ward again as they felt they couldn’t manage me there. I tested their nursing skills, and I found that some nurses were quite incompetent. One evening two male nurses held me tightly by the arms and yelled at me to “walk straight” and “stop playing up.”
Betty was my favorite person, a term used in the BPD community. She broke through the walls I’d put up. I trusted and loved this person and to be abandoned, so unceremoniously too, has hurt me more than I can ever put into words. I remember sitting with Betty and the hospital’s psychologist and sharing how every therapist I’d gotten close to eventually left. I’d hoped that Betty would be different.
It has been a long time since Betty and I stopped talking, but I still mourn her as though somebody very close to me died.
“I no longer see my therapist, and she has requested no more contact,” writes Rebecca Donaldson, who has had a similar experience as me (please do read her article “The Aftermath of a Therapist Having No Boundaries”). “Some see me crying in my office at work, or alone in a café, and ask if I’m okay. They assume I’ve been dumped or someone died when I say I’m just missing someone whom I lost. The truth is that the tears I cry each morning when I first wake up are not for a partner or a blood relative, but for a woman I never knew much about.”
I still dream about Betty. In my last dream, I was on a cliff watching some people in the surf. The dream said I had been lured into trouble by Betty. I don’t know who the others were, but I think the fact that I wasn’t IN the surf with them was a positive thing. However, sometimes the waves were so big they’d crash over the cliff. They were more like tsunamis. I feel this dream was saying that I have progressed a lot with my grief, but it still hurts. It also suggests that I was “lured”… that this dangerous situation I and others have found ourselves in is not entirely our fault.
In closing, this is what Rebecca expresses in her article: “To all therapists out there, please make boundaries clear from day one for all your clients, so they don’t experience this pain. We aren’t your friend or child. We are a client. We will walk right up to you and want to befriend you if you let us. Try your best not to have my experience be the experience of your clients. Show them love and compassion, but make sure they know that you are not their friend.”
Story by Zoe
If you are a therapist abuse victim or have experienced abuse in any form by someone in a position of power over you, you are not to blame. The abuse was not your fault. See http://www.amynordhues.com/resources/ for a list of helpful websites, books and groups. For help specifically related to abuse by mental health professionals or clergy, contact: https://www.therapyabuse.org/contact_us.htm.