As soon as I pluck the pink message slip from my box, I know. There is no other reason why Cleo would call me.
When she answers, I chatter as though her news will be different if I talk fast enough. But Cleo hasn’t been a therapist for twenty years for nothing and she interrupts me gently, but firmly. “Nell died last night.” She is quiet then. She and Nell were both comfortable with silences. A few times I had spent most of my private session with Nell, my therapist, in silence.
“I’ve called three others, Vera and Chris from the Tuesday night group and Dorothy and you from Monday night. I’m leaving it to you four to decide about letting the other group members know.” I nod into the phone. “Let me know how I can help. If you all want to meet, I’ll be glad to join you, either as a therapist or as a friend.”
I wonder what that might look like, Cleo coming to our group as a friend. Nell would not have approved; it would have been a huge violation of her boundaries.
After we hang up, I call the others. Dorothy is at work and will call me back tonight, but Chris and Vera have already talked and are at Chris’s house.
“Come over,” Chris says. “We can call everyone from here.”
“I can’t. I have too much work to do. There’s no way I can take off for the day.”
When I hang up, I hear Nell’s voice in my head as clear as if she is standing next to me. “But what do you need?”
Tears spring to my eyes and I call Chris back. “I’m on my way.”
How are you supposed to grieve your therapist? There is no book such as On Your Own: Life After Your Psychotherapist Passes. The domestic violence agency where I work offers days off for deaths in the family, but not for the person who helped you recover from the damage your family inflicted.
For almost seven years, I sat in her office at least once, sometimes twice each week. A bird feeder hung outside one window and an air conditioning unit filled the other. Some afternoons we had to wait until the train outside passed before we could continue. Two couches and four cushy chairs crowded the room. Bookcases overflowed with books about incest, child molestation, rape and domestic violence. Trinkets from her clients – lopsided baskets, feathers, polished stones – crowded every surface. A startling Georgia O’Keeffe flower faced a Carol Grigg print of two Native American women – “One Speaks, One Listens.”
An appropriate sentiment for a therapist, except she didn’t always listen. Sometimes she jumped in my face – pushing my buttons, pressing me right up to the limit of what I could stand and then, just when I thought I might break, she’d soften. “I am a child advocate,” she once told me. “If I see that you are not taking good care of your little Mary, I am going to be all over you.”
When I walked into that room for the first time, I thought I’d need about six appointments and then I’d be fine. After all, I had been working with survivors of sexual and domestic violence for years and I knew a lot about the dynamics, and how childhood sexual abuse could set you up for a lifetime of violence. Nell had other ideas. “It’s true,” she said. “You do know a great deal. The problem is, you don’t know it inside. Your adult knows it, not your child. That’s what we’re going to work on.
“When we are deeply wounded we bury that wound and after a while it scabs over. But it is still there,” she explained. “My job is to find as many of those places as I can and poke them. Then the healing can begin from the inside out.”
Nell sat with me while I relived every scary painful thing I could remember that ever happened to me. “Now tell it in present tense,” she’d say. “Tell it as though it is happening right now – you’ll get more news.”
I held my breath when I relived the first time Pop Randall slid his thin, callused fingers up my shirt. “His fingers are cold and scratchy. I can’t breathe. My heart beats too loud. I’m afraid I’m going to throw up.” And then I darted into her bathroom and actually did vomit.
My face hot with shame, I worked through a history of sexual assaults sounding like the sexual abuse continuum we taught in the high schools, each incident increasingly more humiliating and demeaning and vicious. I left every session utterly spent.
Once, I choked out a memory of the time in college when during an argument, my boyfriend strangled me until I passed out. I told Nell I had just remembered it the night before. She said quietly, “You talked about this last week.” I had completely forgotten. Her voice was kind, not accusing or judging, I knew I could talk about the same thing over and over as long as I needed to. There was never the expectation of ‘letting something go.’ “You let go of something when you are done with it. You’re not done yet.” But that instance of remembering, and then not remembering, my strangulation scared me. What else was I remembering and then not remembering?
Of course I loved her. What can possibly be more seductive than having someone give you their full attention without asking for anything in return? But I wanted to listen to her too. I wanted her to be my friend.
At least half of my first appointment was spent with Nell explaining her boundaries to me. I had thought I understood boundaries – in my work, we were very conscious of power differentials. Yet, after a period of time had passed, we welcomed former clients as volunteers and even staff members.
“As your therapist I will never be your friend. There will always be a power imbalance. Our relationship will never exist outside this room.”
My heart fell. “Never?”
Nell squinted her eyes at me and tapped her index finger against her lips. “Well, maybe after you end your therapy and ten years later you have a lawn mower repair shop and my mower needs repairing, I might bring it to you. But I’d have to think very carefully about it first.”
For the first six months of my therapy it was a recurring theme.
“I feel like I’m not good enough to be your friend.”
“That’s a thought, not a feeling.”
I pressed my face into my hands and rocked against my elbows digging into my thighs. Then I looked back up at her. “I feel hurt. I wonder if you think I’m not good enough to be your friend.”
“Are you asking me that?” she asked after a moment.
“Yes,” I whispered, struggling to maintain eye contact.
“You are very brave to ask.” She looked at me with a combination of admiration and wonder. Like I was some kind of miracle. “Good job.”
Then she explained, “If you hadn’t been molested by so many different adults when you were growing up, this wouldn’t be such an unfamiliar concept. Most of the adults in your life didn’t have appropriate boundaries with you.” We sat in silence for a minute. “Know what I mean, Jelly Bean?”
After a few months of individual sessions, she suggested I join one of her closed groups for adult women survivors of sexual abuse. “It meets Mondays at 3:30 for two hours. Afterwards, I encourage everyone to go out to supper together. Usually group members become very close.”
“I have enough friends,” I said. Individual was hard enough. It would be even worse talking in front of a bunch of people.
“Each group session runs for about twelve weeks. The last meeting is a celebration for everyone’s hard work and successes. Then a two-week break before the next session begins. Most members continue on.”
Fine. I’d sign up for one session, no more.
Nell held two groups – her Monday group, which she facilitated, and her Tuesday group that she co-facilitated with Cleo. Cleo substituted for Nell in our group if for some reason Nell had to be gone. I stayed for nearly seven years, long after I stopped doing individual. Those women became my family. One of them is named in my Advanced Health Care Directive to make end-of-life decisions on my behalf if I am unable to.
We wore surgical masks to group as Nell underwent chemo. As the months wore on, she looked pale and tired. She seemed smaller. She waved away my offers to carry her briefcase up the stairs on the days I arrived at the same time she did. “It’s not your job to take care of me.”
“It’s such a little thing, carrying a briefcase – not exactly taking care of you,” I’d respond. Though I did want to take care of her. By then we’d be at the top of the stairs.
“See?” Nell would say a little breathlessly as she unlocked the door. “I’m fine.”
Later, afterwards, we all agreed that Nell should have ended her groups sooner. She had lost her edge. Her individual appointments had stopped months before, but she clung to her two groups. It’s possible at that point she needed us even more than we needed her. By giving her a sense of purpose, we may have been keeping her alive. If that was true, she violated her boundaries with us. Though maybe her need was so great she couldn’t afford to see it.
We thought Nell was going to come back. I think even Nell believed she’d be back. She talked to me about being a “seed” person when she started her groups up again; that it is helpful to have someone with group experience when there are a lot of new people. It’s not that I ‘loved’ being in group – I do not recall a single instance when I thought, ‘Yay, I have group today!’ But the weekly group kept me balanced. There’s magic in being with people who care enough about you to confront you when you need it, remind you who you are when you forget, love you even though they know the things you worked so hard to hide before you started therapy.
Nell left in the middle of my twelve-week group session so Cleo came in and finished it. Mostly we spent those weeks processing Nell’s leaving. Nell’s Tuesday night group had already ended and they continued meeting on their own, without a therapist. I talked with them about joining their group at the end of my session.
It’s a wet dreary December day. My wiper blades need replacing; the left one swipes just the top half of the windshield and the right one the bottom half. The whole world is grey.
Chris and Vera, huddled under an umbrella, meet me in the driveway. I tear up at the sight of them – earth mama Chris with her flowing white hair and Birkenstocks, Vera’s round face always on the alert for possible injustices. They are dearer to me than sisters. “We lost the good mother,” Vera says as she pulls me into her comforting hug.
After crying for a while, we make a list of all the people we should call. I saved group phone lists from over the years, but they are at home. When I talk to Dorothy tonight, we can decide who will call whom. Chris and Vera have already contacted a few women from their Tuesday group.
When I leave late that afternoon, I tell them that I’m not doing very well, but I think I’m doing really well with my not doing well. Then, as I drive down my street through the rain and see my neighbor’s pink Christmas tree glowing through his front window, I start sobbing.
I call Dorothy as soon as I get inside and our conversation echoes everything Chris and Vera and I said. Dorothy was already in group when I first started and saved her phone lists too. When we hang up, I start calling. Hours later, after many heart-breaking talks with current and former group members, I am spent.
That night I dream I am wandering through a rambling old house searching for Nell. I stand at the top of the staircase to the basement and call, “Nell? Nell? Are you down there?”
Nell’s memorial service is scheduled for that Sunday afternoon, but the newspaper says it’s for family and friends only. Someone calls Cleo and she confirms the family asked that Nell’s clients not attend. I’m stunned. We are all hurt and most of us are angry. “We were her work!” Vera says.
I wonder if it was something Nell had specifically requested. If so, she may have been concerned about our confidentiality. Or maybe she or her family thought it was a boundary issue.
I didn’t know the Nell her family and friends did. And they didn’t know my Nell. It strikes me in a whole new way how unique the therapeutic relationship is – to be known so intimately by someone and yet be so separate from their life. No one would ever know me as well as Nell did.
We decide to hold our own celebration of Nell that Sunday morning. My office, a lovely old home, is chosen as the location. We call Cleo and she is delighted. “Though I am coming as a participant, not as a therapist,” she says.
I get to the office early to start setting up and rearranging the furniture. One of our former shelter residents comes by with a basket of muffins for ‘my’ celebration. She often drops by on weekends if she sees my car. Anticipating this possibility, the week before I told her that someone important to me had passed away and we were going to have a remembrance for her here on Sunday. I take the basket and thank her for her thoughtfulness. She looks pleased. The muffins are still warm.
Chris and Vera arrive and drape purple fabric over a table to use as an altar. Cedar boughs and candles cover the mantle. The office is cozy and welcoming. Chris has brought the CD her husband made for us of the music we chose and it plays softly.
Fifteen women come. Keeping with our group structure, we sit in a circle and take turns. We name the feelings we’ve experienced since we learned of Nell’s death. We talk about her impact: how she helped us learn to trust ourselves and become who we were supposed to be. Dani told how Nell had once met her for a walk on a Sunday afternoon during a particularly hard time. (I am a little jealous when I hear this.) Constance reminds us of the time Nell had wadded up her group goals and tossed them across the room saying, “You can do better than this!” We laugh – each of us had suffered through something just as mortifying.
Cleo says Nell didn’t create enough space in her life for friendships. I think of all the times she berated me for not connecting with friends more often. At the end of every session she asked, “Who are you going to call when you get home?” Listening to Cleo reminds me that Nell wasn’t perfect. Yet I always knew that, really. If she hadn’t had her own demons, she probably wouldn’t have been drawn to the work she did.
From my office window I see Nell’s partner, Willow, get out of her car. Nell never talked about her personal life, but this is a small town and we all knew who Willow was.
She is opening the trunk of her car. People come all the time with donations, I tell myself as I go out to meet her. “Hi, I’m Mary,” I say. “Can I help you?”
Willow’s eyes look old and sad. “I have some things from my partner’s office.”
I spot Nell’s whiteboard, her loopy scrawl in magic marker: Doing My Inventory. There’s the box filled with stuffed animals she kept for us when our feelings got too big and we needed something to hold on to. My throat constricts.
I pick up the floppy dog with the long ears and press him to my chest. “Nell was my therapist,” I say. “I was in one of her groups.”
Our eyes meet and Willow nods.
“All of her group members got together and had a memorial service for her here Sunday morning. Come in and I’ll show you the space.”
Willow carries the white board and after reluctantly placing the floppy-eared dog on top, I pick up the box of animals. She walks slowly, like every step is an effort. When we get inside, she leans the board against the couch. “I couldn’t erase it,” she says.
I can’t imagine I’ll be able to either, I think. Need healthy acceptance of human-ness. Compassion. Insight. Self-awareness. Non-defensiveness. Personal accountability. How many times had I heard Nell go over the things to consider when assessing one’s personal growth?
I force myself to look away from the white board and at Willow. “We had the couches and chairs in a circle. A table was here and everyone placed something on it that reminded them of Nell. Look – there are still some sparkly stars and glitter.” I point at the floor.
Willow gazes around the room. “Thank you,” she finally says.
At the door, she turns to me and hesitates.
“I loved her too,” I say, blinking hard against tears. “She gave me back my life.”
Willow’s eyes brim over. We stand there looking at one another, crying. Then, we embrace.
And for just that one sliver of a moment, there’s no such thing as boundaries.