Allison Carrboro: Hi, My name is Allison White, calling from Carrboro, North Carolina. I just have a quick story about my relationship with my shrink...
Mary Harris: This is a voicemail we got from a listener. Alison started therapy to deal with the usual stuff like family and relationships. But about six months in, something really terrible happened.
AC: I walked into her office one day, sat down on her couch and in shock told her that my partner had taken his life two days before. And I'll never forget her coming across the room, sitting next to me and just holding me as we both cried. She later told me that that was the first time she had ever done that in her 15 years of practice and that she had never done it since. And I'll never forget just kind of how powerful that was for her to just be human with me in that moment and just sit with me in my pain. There aren’t many people on this earth that I consider myself more intimately connected with after walking through that season of my life. Just wanted to share that story.
MH: I’m Mary Harris, this is Only Human. We all have this idea of that therapy is supposed to look like. There’s that couch and then there’s an objective counselor sitting across the room scribbling little notes. For tons of people, this works. But in this episode, we have five stories, some of them from you guys, about the fringes of therapy. When things don’t quite go as expected.
What happens when your therapist isn’t really a therapist? What about when the counselor is the one in tears? And what happens when you want to have sex with your therapist?
Amanda Aronczyk takes it from here.
Amanda Aronczyk: In talk therapy, there is one basic requirement: talking. When Shaunacy Ferro responded to our callout, it was with a story about not being able to talk. She started therapy because she was having panic attacks and anxiety. And her therapist? She was making her even more anxious.
Shaunacy Ferro: I would be walking to her office after work and I would be trying to think, ‘oh my God what am I going to say? Like can I come up with like some bullet points?’
AA: Sometimes her therapist would push her so hard to talk, that Shaunacy would shut down. She’d stop responding.
SF: Because I wasn't talking a lot she would try to make me more comfortable and draw me out by talking about herself in ways that I wouldn't expect a therapist to do and maybe didn’t think it was entirely appropriate to do. So she told me about her other patients. She would also talk to me a lot about her own life. She had an on again, off again relationship, that she would tell me about. She was an avid like martial arts practitioner and she would talk to me about that. We talked about cats a lot because I have a cat and she had cats and if I was clearly upset or kind of like shutting down in therapy, she’d be like, ‘oh well how's your cat?’ And then we would talk about that for a while. Sometimes she would show me Facebook videos usually pertaining to cats.
AA: This sounds like the world's most awkward date.
SF: Yeah, for a year.
AA: During their weekly sessions, her therapist would sometimes confront her. She would tell her telling her she was awkward and obsessive. Shaunacy ended up feeling worse about herself and then she realized something truly depressing.
SF: What am I doing? I'm paying to watch these cat videos. But also, I don't want to have to go back to that chair and like sit there and I want this to be over. You know it felt like I had to dump her.
AA: Now, how do you dump your therapist? Do you have to talk about it? Can you just not show up one day? Shaunacy decided she had to do the dumping in person. She gave herself a deadline. She went to therapy, chickened out. She went to therapy again, chickened out again. And then finally her deadline arrived and this would have to be the break up session.
SF: It started out kind of a normal session, where I talked for a little bit and then she talked for kind of a long time. I think she went on for like maybe fifteen minutes, just kind of talking. And it was a session where weirdly I had some things to say, outside of the dumping, I like had felt a little bit more talkative than usual and so I was like, ‘I feel like you're kind of interrupting me to talk about you.’ Finally she was kind of like, ‘ok well like wrapping up the session.’ Um…
AA: And you're like, I know but I have to dump you we still need some time for the dumping.
SF: Right. And so I kind of just kind of blurted it out like, ‘ok, so um just to let you know, this is going to be our last session. I really feel like you've done a lot of good things for me and this has been really helpful.’
AA: But neither of those things are true?
SF: Correct. Yes, but I am conflict averse.
AA: What was her reaction like?
SF: There was kind of an immediate turn where it was one of those times that she got mad at me and things got really awkward, really fast. And she said to me, ‘you know that you're doing the therapist equivalent of breaking up with me in a text message?’ And I thought, oh I thought about breaking up with you in a text message and this was like the more mature route.
AA: How did you feel the moment you walked out that door?
SF: I felt like I had experienced a breakup. Where this person that I had spent a good amount of time with for this fairly tumultuous period in my life was gone and I wasn't gonna see her again. You know, it wasn't like, oh bye, like I'll come visit later. It's was like, this is done-zo.
AA: And did you ever see her again?
AA: You’re not friends on Facebook?
SF: We are not friends on Facebook. I still have her number and like in my nightmares, she would text me, um but sometimes I have to talk about her in therapy.
AA: You talk about your therapist in therapy?
SF: Yeah. Because you know I go through these periods where I think like what went wrong? Why could she be so mad at me, you know, what's going on? And so there are points when I kind of I still feel some resentment about it. I wasn't the professional in that situation. So it wasn't on me to like, make this work.
AA: Since Shaunacy Ferro broke up with her therapist, things have gotten much better in her life. She has a new therapist. And she looks forward to seeing her every week.
So after I spoke with Shaunacy, I realized that we really didn’t know what we were talking about and we had no idea if there are rules about this kind of thing. How do you breakup with your therapist?
Dr. Jeffrey Younggren: (laughing) Uh, it's a great question.
AA: I asked this question to a psychologist, his name is Dr. Jeffrey Younggren. And he has spent his career arbitrating issues that come up between patients and therapists.
JY: There isn't any protocol the patient needs to go by, there is a protocol that the therapist needs to go by.
AA: The patient can stop whenever they want.
JY: The therapist has a duty to make sure there's a transition opportunity to another therapist, to reach out to that individual, to find out what happened, to see if maybe things are fine and they don't want to come any more. I mean there could be a variety of reasons, but all of those responsibilities fall on to the shoulders of the therapist.
AA: And it's not surprising to you, sometimes that it just doesn't click, it just doesn't work.
JY: Not surprising to me at all, I practiced for thirty five years. As much as I loved to be loved, not every patient that I saw blended well with my therapeutic styles.
AA: He says it’s fine if you’d rather see a woman, a man, old person or a green person, it’s up to you to decide what you need to make you comfortable.
JY: Fit is so very important in therapy. And when that doesn't work you facilitate that individual in going to somebody else because your relationship isn't working.
AA: I heard this next story on a podcast, called Story Collider. And the storyteller’s name is Steven Puente, he’s a social worker. And this story brought up something interesting which is, what happens when a patient tells you something horrible and you don’t know what to do? For Steven, this happened within his first few months of training at a VA hospital in the Bronx. A man came in for counseling.
Steven Puente: You know, in the beginning it’s kind of freeform, you know, why are you here? OK a little depression, you're struggling socially, this and that and you're like OK what else? You know, I don't have any answers, but I'm willing to listen.
AA: They meet regularly for a few weeks. There’s nothing exceptional about their sessions. And then finally, this:
SP: He says to me, you know, I want to tell you something, and I've never told anybody this before. And um he takes uh a moment to compose himself and he begins to tell me the story. He was at his grandmother's house and he's probably around eight, nine, ten. And next door is where his dad lives. And one day he’s outside in the backyard playing and his dad comes out and um calls him over, ‘come over here and sit down.’ And says, ‘I figured out a way that I’m gonna take care of you.’ And his dad looks at him and he says, ‘I'm going to shoot you and then I’m going to shoot myself.’ He was shocked and then his dad kind of retracted the statement, but what was said was said. This is just like the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. What are you supposed to say to that? How, how do you make sense of that? And so he leaves and he shut the door and, yeah I just fall into myself and weep.
AA: Steven doesn’t ask the patient about it because he’s at a loss. What do you say about the saddest story ever? He doesn’t want to bug the man with a lot of questions and he doesn’t want to ignore it either. They have another session, they have another session. About a month goes by and finally the man asks about it.
SP: And he’s like you know, ‘why haven’t you brought this up?’ And I said, ‘I don't know. What does it mean to you to bring it up now? And do you want to talk about it again?’ ‘Yes.’ And this is where um as he's talking about it, maybe how it played, manifested itself, this experience in the rest of his life. I'm just listening and then I just start weeping. I'm composed but just tears are coming and I know, to the point where I’m all, yeah he notices, he has to. I ask him um, ‘do you see that I'm crying?’ And he's like, ‘yeah. I'm glad someone is crying for it. I can't.’
You realize that you’re a conduit for people. And in this moment he got to see his feelings manifested through me.
AA: We are going to take a short break and then coming up next: sex. Do I really need to give you any other reason to keep listening?
MH: Our last episode was about transgender kids and a clinic in North Carolina that treats them. A lot of you wrote in about this one, including Fred McConnell, who works at the Guardian in London.
Fred McConnell: As a trans person myself, I can tell you how surreal it is to feel a certain way your entire life and to have that dysphoria with you every single day, but to, to wait til you reach 23 to have a word for it.
MH: Fred tweeted at me. He says our story verged on scaremongering, because it raised this issue of regret. He says he’s never know any trans person who’s regretted their choice.
He says people like me, who’ve never questioned their gender, just can’t get it. Last week, when I asked a kid named Martin how he knew he was trans, Fred said that whole conversation sounded familiar and not in a good way.
FM: I’ve had this conversation with friends of mine who are gay and lesbian. And yeah, said those exact things like, ‘how do I know if I’m trans, you know if I’m watching you transition and I'm butch,’ And firstly I’m like, ‘I don’t know like maybe you are, every individual feels differently about it. But also if you were, you would know.’ Even the fact that you're asking me that question suggests to me that you're not trans, because there's a difference between gender expression which can be like masculine or feminine or butch or whatever and your gender. And people who are trans know they’re trans.
MH: Yeah, we're all kind of limited by own experience here.
FM: Yeah, abs, and there’s a huge empathy gap because it’s this really hard thing to explain.
MH: Yeah, exactly, like I never have to prove what my gender is. It’s like the privilege of never having to explain myself.
FM: Yeah. I think trying to explain it and then talk about it in those terms of like clothing and even bodies to some extent is quite unhelpful. Transition for me is like changing my body to match what I feel inside. So the rest of the world can see who I really am. It's because you feel invisible, and that you’ve got this dysphoria, this kind of deep-seated discomfort that you can't explain. That’s what it feels like, but that’s harder to explain because you get back to this whole idea of like, ‘what do you mean you feel uncomfortable?’ You know I don’t like wearing dresses and they’re like, ‘it’s not about that.’
MH: Fred says the only way we’ll close that empathy gap is by talking to each other.
FM: Yeah, I think most people who say hurtful things, there’s not any malicious intent there. Even people who leave horrible comments under pieces that I write on the Guardian (laugh). You know, I’m sure if I was just in the room with them, I could just sit down and have a chat, everything would change.
MH: I’m really glad we sat down and had a little chat (laugh).
FM: Cool (laugh).
MH: I love hearing from you guys. So weigh in at OnlyHuman.org or on Facebook, we’re at Only Human podcast. Or you can do what Fred did and just tweet right at me. I’m @marysdesk.
This is Only Human, I’m Mary Harris. Today we’re hearing stories about what happens when the relationships between patients and therapists gets messy. Including some calls from you guys.
Amy: My name is Amy and I'm calling from New Jersey. I actually am a therapist and I have an interesting story that I thought I'd share. So when I was in school training um to be a therapist I was always told to watch out for dual relationships as in not becoming like friends with your clients. And I never really thought that that would be a temptation or something that might happen to me, but actually did. I met somebody and worked with somebody for over a year and we just had a really, what they call a therapeutic bond. I really liked her as a person and I thought, I wish that we could be friends, but we just can't it's totally unethical. And then one day she just stopped coming to see me, sort of disappeared. I miss her (laughs) and I know she goes to the gym I go to. Sometimes I wish you I’ll run into her even though it would be kind of awkward and I don't think I really ethically supposed to be talking to her, but it’s weird. It’s been like a year and I, I still miss her. Anyway. That's my story.
MH: When I listen to Amy, all I can think is just how little we know about these people we share incredibly personal details with. This relationship with your therapist, it’s a complete mystery, wildly intimate and totally distant. Another listener named Mike Heintzman told us what may be the ultimate story of a therapist who isn’t quite who they seem to be. Amanda Aronczyk gave him a call…
AA: It worked, it worked. Do you mind um looking out your window and telling me what you see.
Mike Heintzman: What I see is my woods out back here...
AA: 1987 was a rough year for Mike Heintzman. He was 31, he had just moved to New York and he was launching a career as an actor and a comedian. And almost immediately his wife of a few years announced that she was leaving him and Mike did not see this coming. He was a mess and he needed help and his friend gave him the name of a therapist.
MH: I go to the Upper East Side and um I walk into this basement of a brownstone and very dark and there's these wild paintings on the wall, figures kind of on fire and a lot of black in them, Amanda, a lot of a lot of red and black, I remember.
AA: This is his office?
MH: This is his waiting room and then I go into his office and he's got more paintings of this.
AA: You feel like you've walked into a circle of hell here?
MH: Yeah, it looks like Dante’s inferno and I walk in and it's very dark in there and he’s sitting behind his desk. And he’s kind of a portly guy and he’s got this heavy accent and you know I picked it out as probably German. Uh he says, ‘what can I help you?’ And so we start to see each other and I see him once a week and it's, it's helpful. I remember it being helpful you know it's any kind of therapeutic talking about your problems has helped me anyway.
AA: He continues to see this therapist, for almost a year and then something odd happens during one of their sessions. It was while he and the therapist were talking about his soon to be ex-wife.
MH: My ex-wife used, you know, her credit card a lot and uh, I didn't like credit cards. I just, I still don't like them and he opened his drawer and he had credit cards, tons of the credit cards and he said, ‘give your credit card to me, I'll take care of it. I take patients’ credit cards so they don't spend.’
AA: So that was weird. And then it got even weirder.
MH: So then I remember going into the office and sitting down and I remember glancing over to the left ‘cause I heard someone go out another door. I said, ‘do you have another exit?’ And he goes, ‘no.’ But I looked in the other side room and there was this unmade bed.
AA: A bed, at the therapist's office?
MH: Yeah but a real bed, like a bedroom, like I thought well he sleeps, I don't really understand, it was, it was weird. Yeah, it was weird. And I pretty much stopped seeing him soon after that.
AA: Mike thought that was the end of it. Strange therapist chapter, closed. A few years go by. He’s doing better. And then he gets a call from a friend, who says...
MH: You’re not going to believe this, but your (laughs) therapist is played by Rip Torn in an ABC Monday Monday movie of the week.
AA: Oh my goodness.
MH: And I’m going, are you kidding me?
AA: It’s a movie called Betrayal.
Dr. Hartog: Julie, I’m going to propose something to you I want you to think about very seriously. Okay?
Dr. Hartog: I want you to think about you and I having sex.
MH: It's pretty simple story. It's a New York psychiatrist, who begins having sex with his patient, telling her it'll help her with her therapy.
Julie: It’s not right.
Dr. Hartogs: It’s done all the time.
AA: Mike’s therapist was none other than Dr. Renatus Hartogs, infamous for seducing his female patients. Dr. Hartogs was convicted of this crime more than ten years before Mike wandered into his Upper East Side basement. But Mike had no idea.
MH: So when I saw him he was not legal, per se, you know he wasn’t suppose to be doing any kind of therapy. I just kind of pieced together that he was probably still sleeping with patients.
MH: I mean I don’t know what else to make of the unmade bed and then someone leaving out the other way.
AA: Now knowing what you know about your therapist, um, do you regret it? Would you have done anything differently?
MH: I think I had a red flag just seeing the paintings and the darkness of the man, in that room. I probably wouldn’t have stayed with him. If I been a little more worldly, I would have said, ‘you know what? Maybe I'll check out another therapist.’
Dr. Hartog: You learn to love me and then you transfer that love to any man you find more suitable. Wow. You have a wonderful figure...
AA: Of course, doctors and therapists are not supposed to have sex with their patients. This issue’s even in the Hippocratic Oath, which was written in 400 BC. The oath isn’t very long and amazingly it addresses this issue. It says, ‘ I will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption and, further from the seduction of females or males.’ The message is clear, no afternoon delight with the patients.
JY: Now if it walks out the door? We've got a major legal problem.
AA: This is our ethicist again, this is Dr Younggren.
JY: I mean it's not a question of ethics, the law is clear you cannot have intimate relationships with your patients. So we have psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers in prison right now for having sex with clients.
AA: From the patient’s perspective, the therapy relationship is easily idealized. You know, it doesn’t have the body odor and dirty clothes of really being with somebody. So it’s not surprising patients sometimes fall for their therapists. And this comes up often enough there’s even a term for it, it’s called erotic transference.
JY: Erotic transference just means that someone sees and identifies their therapist in a sexual fashion and it’s an artifact of therapy.
AA: So what happens if you have the hots for your therapist? Our next story is from a guy who had to figure that out. His name’s Michael Stahl and he went to therapy because he was feeling lousy, and he was doubting his ability to make good decisions. A few years before, he had given up a tenured position to become a full time writer. And he wasn’t sure if he’d made the right choice. He was doubting all of his decisions in work, in dating. And he found himself single, stressed, uncertain, barely sleeping.
Michael Stahl: What I was doing wasn't working. Felt helpless.
AA: So he made an appointment to see a therapist.
MS: I opened the door and Lori, who we're going to just go with her name is Lori. She says, ‘Mike, you know, come on in.’ And she's beautiful. Long brown hair, bangs, really beautiful blue eyes, just gorgeous woman.
AA: Is she your type?
MS: My problem is that I like so many different kinds of women. I don't even know that I have a type, if I do she's, she's one of them, for sure.
AA: So you walk into your therapy session, and she's gorgeous.
MS: Yeah, you know right off the bat, I just felt a connection to her and you know in one sense that was a great thing, you know, you want to have a connection to your therapist.
MS: But on the other side of it, half the things I'm saying to her, I have almost the intention of just trying to get her to fall for me. Like I'm on a date, you know.
AA: But you're not on a date, you're at therapy.
AA: Michael started to fantasize about waiting for his therapist outside of her office. He pictured following her to a bar and oh, look at that, she’s going to a happy hour. And he would casually saunter in, ‘hey, you’re here. I’m here.’ And this whole time he’s trying desperately to figure out: is it just me, or is she interested too? By the third session, she’s really flattering him.
MS: She says, ‘one of the things you have to accept about yourself, that why you’re in therapy, why you’re anxious, is something that is great about you, is that you’re sensitive.’ And she says, ‘frankly it’s what is going to make you a great catch out there on the dating scene.’ So now I blush.
AA:Is this the first moment that anyone has actually said dating out loud?
MS: Yeah, yeah.
AA: Do you think there's something mutual going on?
MS: Yes and certainly hopeful. So she brings it up and I just blush and I can't speak and she's like, ‘what's, what’s wrong? Why, why are you reacting like that?’ And I said, I just, I, I and she says, ‘is it because you're attracted to me?’
MS: Yeah. So I say, ‘how did you know?’ And she just grins and she says, ‘Mike, I knew you were attracted to me, the second you walked in here and you just flashed me this bright smile. And then at the end of our first session you said, you know, just casually as you're walking out, so where you from? you know.’
And she's just like listen, this happens all the time. There's nothing wrong with being attracted to me. So I said, ‘ok,’ and she says, ‘let's not let it interfere with the work, just accept it.’ So I leave, go home. Still part of me is thinking, I hope I have a shot.
AA: A few more weeks and sessions go by and Michael is desperately trying to put aside his feelings for his therapist. But Lori can tell, he is not succeeding.
MS: She's feeling this tension from me still as hard as I’m trying to bury it, she still feels it and she brings it up. And I say, ‘you know, why are you bringing this up? It's fine. I thought we're just going to move past it.’ And she just says, ‘listen. Don't think it doesn't make me feel good to know that a guy like you is attracted to me.’ So now again, I’m, I’m losing my mind. I am in love with this woman and I, you know, we are going to walk down that aisle and you know.
AA: You've planned the names for the kids?
MS: Sure, you know, this is like the hottest thing ever. And I just keep muttering and stammering and she just looks at me and just says, ‘do you want to have sex with me? Right here, right now in this office.’ So….
AA: (laughs) What are you thinking?
MS: (laughs) I say.
MS: I just, I really am struggling with, is she serious? But, you know, there was a secretary sitting right outside and it still was therapy, it was a professional setting. So I said no.
AA: Mike, no?
MS: And she says, ‘why not?’ And I said, ‘I wouldn't do something like that.’
MS: And she points at me and she goes, ‘that's what I thought.’ She was pointing out that even if I have the urge to make poor choices, I can make the right choices.
AA: Michael says this was actually all about empowering him to be confident. The whole charade was to show Michael that yes, he could make good decisions. He was a little broken hearted, but it worked.
MS: She just knew I was a good person as she put, pretty good at life. I can make pretty good decisions and she wanted to empower me. And I don’t think she really thought for a second that I would actually go for it. And she was right.
AA: That was Michael Stahl. His story first appeared online in Narratively, which is a platform for digital storytelling. Michael now has a girlfriend, who he adores and he still sees the same therapist.
One more thing, if you were wondering, as I was, what our ethicist thought about this whole scenario, I did ask. And he couldn’t weigh in on this exact situation, but in theory, his concern was: why did the therapist ask the question? Now, if sexual tension is distracting from the therapy, then yes, it’s reasonable for the therapist to ask, but the question’s more like, ‘do you want to have sex with me?’ rather than, ‘do you want to have sex with me?’ If the therapist does in fact want the answer to be yes, then there’s a problem.
Mary: That was Amanda Aronczyk. Thanks to all of you guys who wrote and called in, we love hearing your stories.
And if you liked this episode, go to our website you can see photos from inside therapist’s offices all over New York City. And you can read more about why they decorate the way they do. Those water pitchers, those family photos, everything can have a meaning.
Finally, Only Human is going on a short summer break. Doesn’t mean we’re all gonna be sipping margaritas on the beach. We’re going to be working on a lot of exciting stuff to get ready for you to hear in the fall. To keep tabs on what we’re doing, subscribe to our newsletter. We’re gonna have fun projects for you to help out with and extra bits of audio and other exclusive stuff. Sign up at OnlyHuman.org.
Only Human is a production of WNYC Studios. This episode was edited by Kenny Malone and Leital Molad. Our team includes Amanda Aronczyk, Elaine Chen, Paige Cowett, Julia Longoria, Kenny Malone, Fred Mogul and Jillian Weinberger. Our technical director is Cayce Means.
Our executive producer is Leital Molad. Thanks this week to Danielle Fox and Stephanie Daniel.
Jim Schachter is the Vice President of news for WNYC.
I’m Mary Harris. Talk to you soon.