Recovering from a toxic relationship can be a daunting task. Now imagine that the relationship in question is between you and your beloved therapist. Hurt and betrayed by the one person we thought could help us. How can we trust another therapist? How can we trust anyone?
This was my predicament not too long ago. It was July 2014, and I had just found the courage to leave a therapist who was hurting me—using me for his emotional and sexual gratification. An elder at my church and a well-respected psychiatrist, he had come highly recommended. I had been seeing him for a year and a half, and finally God had given me the strength to escape. At the time, I saw no way to recover from therapist abuse.
I turned to my Pastor and his wife, and they sat with me during my first missed session while the doctor called and called and I cried and cried. After an excruciating two hours, I realized the unthinkable had been accomplished—the stronghold the doctor had had on me for over a year had finally been severed. But now what? I was shattered—a shell of a human being. Who would help me recover from therapist abuse?
A toxic relationship between a therapist and client is not a mutual affair between consenting adults. A patient is not able to provide consent in such an imbalanced relationship. The professional holds all the power!
I needed help desperately, but family and friends didn’t understand. Most of the time I didn’t even understand. When loved ones did offer words of encouragement, it usually made me feel worse. Some told me to look past the abuse and try and find the positives in my experience with the doctor. Others defended the doctor by suggesting he had a breakdown of some kind or a momentary lapse in judgement.
In time, I reached out to a couple attorneys and they continued the abuse with their hurtful questions: Why did you stay? Why did you go back? It heaped on more shame, more self-hatred. Didn’t they understand that I was desperate for that answer myself? No, they didn’t. Well meaning but uneducated, they prolonged the abuse.
I vowed I would never trust another counselor again, but I was a married mother of three trying to function while bursting at the seams with pain and betrayal and self-hatred. My husband said he believed me, but did he really? At one point, I called the Suicide Hotline, and I am not ashamed. Before they answered, my husband took the phone and gently led me back to bed. I just needed someone to listen. And I really wanted someone to understand. I thought I was the only person on the planet who ever found themselves a victim of their own therapist. In my desperation, I googled therapist abuse.
Therapist abuse is sadly more common than any of us realize. Many victims never come forward for fear of judgement.
Amidst all the articles about how therapists can help victims of abuse, I found a website called T.E.L.L. It stands for Therapy Exploitation Link Line and I reference it in my Resources page. Is there really a need for a website designated to nothing but helping victims of therapist/clergy abuse? I thought this was such a rare experience?
T.E.L.L. offered a sort of email hotline. A victim can email them at one direct email address and it goes out to many “responders” across the world who have been through therapist abuse themselves and have healed. Immediately, I had real people on the other end of the computer who knew what I was going through. To reach them, simply email them at email@example.com.
The first things they said to me were the most healing…
It’s not your fault and you are not alone. I want you to pause and reread those statements if you are a victim. Hear me when I say, IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. It was never your fault, and it never will be your fault. A therapist is always in a position of power over the patient and in that situation a victim CAN NEVER GIVE CONSENT.
Those two statements were like water to my parched soul. I didn’t know if I could accept them as true, but just hearing the words was a first step in the process of forgiving myself. Finally, I knew other human beings—normal, healthy, educated, highly functioning individuals—who had been duped in a similar fashion.
If that is the case, maybe I wasn’t the defective loser I assumed I must be to fall prey to such a thing. Could predators just be really skilled at what they do? Could we merely be empathetic people who give others the benefit of the doubt? Maybe…just maybe…there wasn’t anything wrong with us at all. Wow, wouldn’t that be something? It seemed too good to be true. I simply entertained the thought, but it sure brought a sense of relief.
In time, I needed more than just a computer screen. There was so much to sort through, and I wanted to sit across from another human who could listen with compassion and insight and help me sort it all out. They could help me muddle through it and try to make sense of it. More than anything, I wanted to connect all the pieces so I could see the “big picture.” If I could understand how this happened to me, maybe then I could forgive myself…
At the advice of a friend, I decided to talk to a local therapist days after the abuse. I told her my story through gasps and sobs and three hours later, I stumbled out of her office. Realizing I didn’t feel safe with her because she knew too many of the players involved in my case, I looked farther away from home, to a town an hour from mine.
I decided to see a psychologist who offered a treatment called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). I did find EMDR helpful, and I recommend it. For more information regarding this technique, follow this link: https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/. We started with the very most painful moment I could pinpoint from my abuse with the doctor and after meeting weekly for almost a year, the pain began to subside so much that we moved on from the doctor to other issues. Up to that point, I felt safe with this therapist and was pleased with my progress.
That is until one day. I came in for my usual session and found the doctor in an agitated state. I had begun a civil suit at this point and the defense lawyers were busy collecting every record on me that ever existed. My current psychologist had apparently received in the mail one of those standard requests for medical records on me. Shouldn’t have taken her but a few minutes to fill out. Anyway, she started waving paperwork in the air in front of me and screaming…”They always call me into court and I miss two days of work and you have to fix this! You signed an agreement with me in the beginning…” Wait, you mean one of the fifteen pages of office paperwork I filled out through my tears on the first day I sat scared in your office? One of those forms?
Stunned, I watched her ranting and raving and waving papers in the air. I was devastated, confused as to what on earth I did wrong that warranted such treatment (nothing) and crushed that the first therapist I came to trust after my abuse was now verbally assaulting me in her office. She kept threatening me with “You better fix this!?” As if I had any control over the lawsuit and what records they wanted. I am not telling you this story to discourage you, so please keep reading. I want to make a point.
For the first time, I recognized the mistreatment, and it angered me. I didn’t cower under her tyranny as I would have in the past. I didn’t start crying and asking how I could fix it so she could care about me again. For once, I could see the inappropriateness of her actions and shock of all shocks I didn’t think I did anything wrong. In retrospect, I guess she didn’t want me to tell my attorney I was seeing her, but everything went through my insurance so there wasn’t anything in my life that was confidential. It was all fair game.
I looked at her and said, “This hasn’t exactly been convenient for me either. I had to mail my attorney my diaries. They have my dental records!” With that I stood, grabbed my things and stormed out. I fully expected a phone call with a profuse apology and explanation, and I never got one. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. It was completely out of line and uncalled for.
So I bet you are thinking…and that is why I will write off counselors for good…those worthless bleepity bleeps. Wrong. I tried to go it alone for a long time after that. I decided maybe I had accomplished enough with the EMDR. The work I did with her had eased some of the pain and trauma. I just knew that I couldn’t stay angry with her and the doctor and all others who were a part of this betrayal. I couldn’t remain bitter. It would have been easy to walk away at that point. So far, if we are keeping score, the therapists are down by three.
Breaking free from a toxic relationship with your therapist is not something you can tackle alone. Seek out a reputable professional to assist you. They are out there.
Unfortunately, the damage the doctor had caused me had bled into my family so that we were all suffering in our own ways from its effects. I needed to help myself help my husband and kids so I looked for a new counselor. I learned of a therapist in town who was really good and who was Christian. The only problem with that was…my abuser was also a Christian (supposedly) and this therapist attended my old church where my abuser had been an elder. He was also a male. Eeks.
I called him on the phone and had a sort of “come to Jesus” meeting with him. I told him I wanted to work with him, but that I had a lot of anger for certain ex-members of his church and I wanted to make sure that would not be a problem for him. After explaining briefly what happened to me, we decided it was a good fit.
It proved to be a good decision, a great one really. He guided me gently and respectfully through some of the toughest periods of my life. Believe it or not, the abuse was only the beginning. Its effects continued to trickle into my life and my family’s life and the suffering took on many forms. My son became suicidal and needed treatment. My husband had his own struggles. We had all been victimized. It was a challenging time. I couldn’t have gotten through it without his help. Of course, Jesus was my rock, but I needed the “body of Christ.” I needed someone to walk alongside me, to be Christ’s hands and feet.
Eventually, God brought healing to my me and my family, and we have come a long way since then. I still call my therapist whenever I need to. It’s been six years since my abuse, but triggers come in all forms and at unexpected times. One thing I’ve learned in this process is to be patient with myself and the healing process.
I always felt like my healing was slower than it should be. Again, something must be wrong with me that I am not feeling better quicker. Shouldn’t I begin forgetting all of this by now? People around you will want you to forget. No, you never forget. It just slowly fades away until something triggers it. And over time the triggers will lessen in intensity too. When the waves of emotion hit, they deserve attention and once heard they too will pass.
The therapist helped me, but there was an even greater benefit that came from taking the risk to trust again. It allowed me to leave my self-induced cage of anger and bitterness. Holding onto my anger for the abuser and for all subsequent therapists who hurt me kept me imprisoned. And I had just left one cage. I had no desire to walk into a new one. That is exactly what anger does—it locks us into an “emotional prison.” And God’s love cannot penetrate those bars.
The moral of this story is not to continue on until you find a therapist you like. It’s not even to recommend that you resume therapy. Finding a subsequent therapist has been a huge part of my healing, yes, but what I want you to hear is this…not all therapists are predators, not all people are predators…and remaining angry and isolated and alone will not lead to healing…ever.
So please find someone you can talk to…a friend, me, a TELL responder, a pastor, a therapist…please don’t try to go it alone. To contact me, follow this link: https://amynordhues.com/contacts/. After all, we are social creatures designed to be in community with one another. God can and will help you, but He may ask you to reach out…so that He can minister to you through other believers.
Finding a new therapist to help you heal from an abusive one has another hidden benefit. It will give you one more small victory over your abuser. Your abuser would like nothing more than for you to cower in mistrust and fear. To believe everyone is out to get you and the world isn’t safe. If you think about it, isn’t that essentially the same place you were in when you were in his or her clutches? So step out and claim your freedom. You aren’t in bondage anymore!
Please leave your comments in the comment section below. I look forward to hearing from you! And if you haven’t already, consider signing up to follow my blog. When you do, I would love to send you a personalized photo with scripture.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: