I’ve had therapists I’ve loved, hated and forgot existed until I started writing this sentence. The therapists in the latter two categories taught me what to avoid in counseling.
And the ones who made a lasting impact? They retired.
If a therapist (or two, in my case) tells you they’re calling it quits, your first question will probably be, “What happens to me now?”
Eventually – usually after the therapist tells you they’d like to spend more time traveling or pursuing a hobby – you’ll move on to the realization that they have a life outside of their office and they’d like to go live it. Each time one of my therapists retired, my emotions were mixed. There was a sense of upheaval as well as a time to reflect. During those moments, I recalled the progress I’d made and I knew I could continue forward.
Here’s a look at the two therapists who made an indelible mark on my life before retiring.
Therapist One: Joan
I arrived in Joan’s office not long after I moved to Seattle.
Joan was the antithesis of my Boston counselor. Soft-spoken and kind, she made me feel at ease immediately. She sat in a regular chair in a regular office, not on a crushed velvet couch inside a $2 million brownstone. I often spent the first five minutes of my Boston sessions wondering if my therapist was wearing ALL her diamonds that day. Joan dressed in plain slacks.
Joan’s modest adornments, made of stones or earthy materials, gave a hint of her style and interests. She wasn’t flashy; she was substantive. She was understanding, but firm. She had a sense of humor, but never found it funny when I was hyper-critical of myself.
The Joan Sessions
As I attempted to navigate a new city – 3,000 miles away from everything I had ever known – I laid a lot on Joan in a short time. I spent countless hours with this woman. She pointed out the unrealistic expectations I put on myself, and made sense of my never-ending anxiety. She reminded me to be compassionate to myself and others. Joan taught me how to strengthen relationships in every area of my life. She taught me to protect myself, but not in a selfish way.
Joan was able to explain what led me into depressive fogs, and gave me specific tools to lead me to a healthier place. She listened more than she spoke, but her words were some of the most powerful I’ve ever heard.
In January 2014, Joan told me she would be retiring six months later. I was shocked. I always bailed on therapists; not the other way around. Could I manage without her sage advice?
We continued our sessions through the spring and behaved like her retirement wasn’t looming. June arrived. As I walked into my last appointment, it felt like the final day of the school year when you don’t really expect to do any work. I wasn’t sure what I would talk to Joan about that wouldn’t be a “to be continued…” situation.
My thought process went something like this:
“Do I ask her what she’ll do in retirement? No, you’re not supposed to ask your therapist personal questions. Wait, she won’t be my therapist after today so it’s ok, right? No, this is your hour, use it or lose it.”
When Joan opened the door, she looked drained. Saying goodbye to patients was exhausting and sad, she told me. We ended up continuing a conversation from the week before and then she said the classic words:
“Well Jen, that’s our time today.”
Joan was always a stickler for the 50-minute hour, but not then.
I started to cry. I was sad to say goodbye to someone I appreciated so much. I benefited from her years of experience as a clinical social worker. It hit me that I wouldn’t hear her perspective again.
Then she handed me something – a poem by Derek Walcott:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
She also gave me a multi-colored papier-mache heart and said, “This is to say thank you for giving me a piece of your heart.”
Therapist Two: Jo Ann
Joan referred me to a new therapist, but I waited several months before I contacted Jo Ann.
I wasn’t perfect, but Joan had left me in a far better place than when she found me. I felt mentally strong, and frankly, I wasn’t ready to retell my whole story to someone else. So, I took a few months off.
There wasn’t a dramatic impetus that led me back to therapy. I saw flickers of anxious behavior returning and I didn’t want the progress I made with Joan to fade away. What I didn’t do in my 20s – address my mental health concerns before it spiraled – I did in my 30s. It was time to call Jo Ann.
The Jo Ann Sessions
I met Jo Ann for the first time in October 2014. She was professional – she gave me a two-pager about her background and therapy methods and laid some groundwork about respecting boundaries outside the office.
“If I see you in public, I won’t say hello. I’m not being rude, I just know it can be awkward to have to explain who I am if you’re with someone,” she explained (I’d never considered that scenario before).
Jo Ann’s 2-room downtown office had dim lighting with a forest green décor and dark wood furniture. She had long, dark hair and consistently wore black. Her voice was calming and she often clapped her hands together when talking. I liked her and I wanted to be fair. She wasn’t Joan, but I knew she could help me. I just had to become accustomed to a new style.
Jo Ann regularly drew from past experiences in her own life. When I was coping with a professional challenge, she relayed a story about her husband going through something similar. And when she discussed male-female dynamics, it wasn’t uncommon for her to refer to the “women’s movement.”
Referring to real-life scenarios made her methods feel more personal. But she utilized tried-and-true clinical methods, too. For example, visualization was a technique she often pulled from her tool kit. Time and again, she would remind me to envision negativity bouncing off a suit of armor when I was in an undesirable situation. When my self-critic appeared, I was instructed to think of a stop sign.
Jo Ann and I worked almost solely on current-day obstacles instead of discussing how my past defined my overall being. Many of our discussions centered on the actions I needed to take to move forward. She referred to our sessions as “maintenance” because I saw her once a month for a check-in. I’d calmed down to some extent; I knew what triggered anxiety and depression better than ever.
She taught me how to express myself more effectively and she cheered me on when I’d overcome obstacles. Those moments of reinforcement were more important than they sound; I think of them when I find myself in similar situations and I feel stronger.
In January 2017, Jo Ann told me she’d be retiring in three months. I didn’t see it coming, especially because I didn’t think the odds were favorable that I’d have two therapists retire in three years.
I recently said my goodbyes to Jo Ann. Our last session went over by 30 minutes. While there was no poem this time, Jo Ann shared her thoughts directly. She mentioned the heartbreak she felt when she watched me grapple with something for more than two years. She shared that she enjoyed our sessions because she felt I worked really hard at getting better. And one last time, she told me she wouldn’t say hello in public if she saw me.
Except this time, I told her she could. I run a website about depression, who I am really hiding from now?
Where Do I Go from Here?
Probably to a younger therapist.
I’m going to take a break before restarting therapy with someone new. Jo Ann referred me to a few people, but I may search for one on my own. I’m even considering a male therapist, something I’ve never had before.
But I won’t be gone from therapy for long. I’m a firm believer that every one of us, even well-adjusted folks, can benefit from it. It doesn’t always mean you’re sick. It definitely doesn’t mean you’re selfish or self-indulgent; working to become a better person benefits everyone around you. Most importantly, therapy isn’t a punishment. If you’re lucky to find a therapist who makes you work hard and affects you positively, it’s truly a great reward.