My First Ever Therapy Session
Somebody was asking me recently about the first time I ever went to see a therapist. What do you remember, they wanted to know. What did you expect therapy would be like? What did you think would happen in therapy?
So I’ve been thinking about that. And although it was just 50 minutes, half a lifetime ago, I do remember quite a lot about that first session. When something has a lot of emotional significance, we’re more likely to remember it.
I remember the drive there. Plump girl in the passenger seat, with messy, bleached-blonde hair and too much eye-liner. Kohl tears running down my pale, tear-streaked face. Crying frightened me immensely because I had scarcely cried in years. Not because I hadn’t felt sad, lost or frightened, but because I was so tightly holding myself in that I had no real sense of what emotions were in me, or how I might express them safely. Sitting in the car, this new, raw emotion felt like it might sweep me away.
My mum had organised for me to see someone. I was new to the area and I didn’t know my way around, so she was driving me to the therapist’s consulting room. I’d been living elsewhere for several years, while I was a student and then for some time after that. But now, here I was, landed like a stranded starfish with my worried mother. I was in my mid-twenties but I felt like a lost young child.
Shame… and Hope
I was struggling with an enormous sense of shame and failure because, as I saw it, I’d failed at being an adult. I’d broken down, had no idea how I was going to live, and was feeling flooded with anxiety and depression. So I’d come to live with family, which wasn’t an ideal move for me to make because they were struggling to manage their own difficulties.
I felt some hope though, because I was going to see a therapist. I imagined the therapist would be able to tell me what was wrong with me. She would tell me what was wrong with me, and then she would fix me. I wasn’t quite sure of the details, but she’d have the necessary expertise. And as long as I sat still enough, for long enough, and tried hard to please her and get it right, the therapy would work. Probably a bit like going to the dentist, I thought, but for your mind.A therapist remembers when she first went to therapy... Click To Tweet
Meeting Rosemary, my Therapist
The therapist’s name was Rosemary. She smiled warmly, which I thought was probably a good sign, although I wondered when the smile would drop. Probably when she finds out that I’m an impostor, I thought. Because I’m not a person that should be going to therapy. I’m fine, actually. I don’t know what those tears were; they’ve gone now, in fact. I don’t cry normally, it’s probably a broken bit of brain but now it’s gone and honestly, I don’t really have any problems.
Rosemary was friendly and gently curious. What was bringing me to therapy now? She asked. What was it that I wanted help with? I explained that I was having these feelings, these moods that seeped into my bones and felt like they’d come from nowhere and would never leave. The feelings weren’t attached to anything, I explained, there was no cause, nothing bad had happened to me, not really, not compared to what other people go through.
Rosemary didn’t ask me to tell my life story, but I thought I’d briefly tell her anyway. I assured her that I’d had a normal, uneventful childhood (why do therapists want to know about your childhood anyway? What’s that got to do with anything?)
And suddenly, just as I was telling her that I’d tried and failed to be an adult, to have a job and run my life in a grown-up way, the tears began to run down my cheeks. No! I thought. How embarrassing. She’ll think there’s something wrong with me. But – there is.
And to my immense surprise, Rosemary didn’t try and stop me crying. She stayed calmly sitting in her chair, and I in mine, and soon my tears came to a stop on their own. As if crying was natural, and normal, and wouldn’t flood us both with feelings that were too big and scary.
I was surprised, too, when the session ended. It hadn’t occurred to me that there would be a time limit. I had expected to stay there until Rosemary had analysed me, figured out what was wrong with me, and issued instructions or whatever it was that therapists gave you. But instead, she explained in a friendly, kind way that our time was up. I paid her some money, and we agreed to meet at the same time the next week.
A huge amount happened over the next four years. I saw Rosemary for 50 minutes every week, apart from when she was on holiday (she loved to head off to south-east Asia for a few weeks in February each year, which I hated but coped with).
Rosemary never did tell me what was wrong with me, and she never did ‘fix’ me. She did something that was better than that. What she did felt like magic, because I couldn’t see the workings of it, I couldn’t understand the mechanisms, but I totally felt the effects. She allowed us, together, me and her, to help me heal and grow.
I came to understand – from the inside, not from being told – some of the ways that complex trauma had deeply impacted my family, and consequently myself. My ‘normal, uneventful childhood’ had actually been in a family where a small band of deeply wounded, brave, creative and loving people were constantly having to make huge, mostly unconscious adaptations in order to pick their way through fields of emotional landmines, every single day. And where people make emotional adaptations around pockets of trauma, there are often huge costs in terms of various levels of functioning, and in the capacity to be happy and to feel safe. Trauma isn’t always visible, and the effects can be deep and profound, reaching right into your core.
In therapy I grieved and negotiated and found new ways of living with the emotional legacy of trauma in my mind, heart and body. And I discovered that this legacy was more flexible than I’d thought, and that more ways of feeling and living were available to me. This was an incredible relief!
I didn’t become a perfectly evolved person. I didn’t stop having feelings, or know how to solve every problem. But I did become a grown-up. I held down jobs, learned to drive, rented a house, and made new friends. I trained, qualified and worked as a teacher. I got my first proper boyfriend. And my emotions stopped being my enemies, stopped being landmines that I needed to tiptoe around.
I discovered that therapy was very different to how I’d imagined. My initial expectation of sitting compliantly whilst my new updated emotional mind was somehow being fitted, turned out to be way off-mark! Therapy with Rosemary was compassionate, not harsh; accepting, not critical; active, not passive; and involved me in a real, gutsy, sometimes challenging relationship with another human being, of a kind I’d never experienced before.
Rosemary wanted to know all the parts of me, and accepted all of me, even the parts that I was certain would be unacceptable. And somehow she managed this without being intrusive or pushy, without being controlling or judgemental. And the funny thing was, the more I felt known and understood, the more I found that I could change and grow. Options began to open up, where before everything had felt quite stuck and impossible.
And over time, although I felt deeply attached to Rosemary, and I loved what our work had allowed me to do, I began to notice that I didn’t feel like I needed to see her in the way I used to. We began to meet less often, and I relished the feeling of growing wings and fledging the nest.
Meeting 20 Years Later
Twenty years later, I went to see her again, for a single session. She opened the door, and looked so genuinely happy to see me (as I was to see her). This was a relationship that had mattered to me deeply, and I realised that it had mattered to her too.
Rosemary was excited to hear that I was about to start training as a therapist. Where was I going to train?, she asked me. When I told her, she was delighted. She knew of the institution, and the person who’d founded it, and spoke highly of them, which I found validating and encouraging. I had to find a psychotherapist to work with for four years during my training, I told her, and I was disappointed to hear that as a member of a different professional body, she wouldn’t fit the criteria required by my institution.
Ready for Another Deep-Dive
When my training began, I started working with Jane*, another therapist. Writing this just now, I find myself writing “I wasn’t sure I needed more therapy, but my training required it”. But really, who am I kidding? I knew at the time that I was ready for another bout of self-discovery and emotional healing. The work with Rosemary had not been undone; in fact, I felt like it had sunk into my bones and become a sustaining part of me. But I was opening into new areas of growth in my life, and I was ready to deepen into another layer of work.
And that’s a whole other story, for another time…
*Jane is not her real name
What Was Your Experience?
Has this brought up any memories of your own? Can you remember what you thought and how you felt when you went to your first therapy session? If you’d like to share, add to the comments below!