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Opening Up
I found a therapist I can trust
Natasha Santos
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“So what do you think about that?”

“What do you think I think about that?”

“Well, I think that you’re avoiding the question.”

For months that was a typical conversation between my therapist and me. Rachel would ask me a question, and I would ask her the question back. I wasn’t going to easily give her access into my deepest thoughts. I had been seriously traumatized by bullsh-t therapists before. If this lady wanted to me to trust her, she would have to work for it!

That’s exactly what she did. I hated it when she would ask me seemingly obvious questions like, “How do you feel?” and insist that I answer them. I usually wouldn’t at first. I’d give her an annoyed look and a blank-eyed stare and hope that she would let the stupid question drop. She never did.

I decided to go to therapy when I was 16 because my mother had died, I was having trouble in school, and my adopted family wasn’t the best at helping me handle my problems. First I went to my school social worker. She encouraged me to go to a therapist. I went to the intake (first session) with my mom, feeling very wary and uncomfortable. I was on the lookout for fake pity and stereotyping therapists.

From ages 9 to 12 I had gone to court-mandated bi-weekly therapy sessions with my last foster mother. She spent 30 minutes telling the therapist I was a liar and a thief and how disgusting I was, and spent the remaining 15 minutes lecturing me about how I could be better and more loved if I would just change. “Just try, that’s all we’re asking, Tasha,” Diane would say with a smug smile on her face. Not really listening, I would nod and smile. My therapist wasn’t a very big part of the session. It seemed like she was just there to agree with whatever my foster mother said.

At 14 I returned to the same therapist—and finally realized how clueless she was about my real needs. She was all about dealing with my current problems, like what I had done in school that day or if I’d had an argument with my new foster mother. Her advice felt generic and uncaring. “Talk about it with them” was all she would say. I never did and she never followed up.

I stopped going to her after several sessions. I didn’t say why. I just told everyone that I didn’t need therapy. I felt that no one could do me any good. If I needed something I would have to find it someplace else or not at all. If I was feeling sad or upset about something I would go to my older sister, but even that had its limits. I usually ended up in my room crying and sulking until I couldn’t pity myself anymore.

Those were very depressing times.

Then my mother died and school troubles followed. About four months after my mother died I was beginning to fail classes. I felt the need to talk, but I didn’t have anyone to talk to. My adoptive mother recommended therapy. But I wasn’t going to open myself up to that hurt again. Instead I met with the social worker at my high school. When she asked me if I would consider seeing a therapist, I said no.

But after meeting with the social worker a third time (the maximum allowed), I began to consider it. The school social worker listened to me and seemed to care about what I was saying, so maybe her colleagues would be the same way. The school social worker didn’t condemn anything I did, but considered—and asked me to consider—the reasons behind my actions and feelings.

So my mom and I went to the intake just to see what it was about. We sat in the waiting room filling out form after form about my personality and what I was there for and my past history in therapy. I was nervous and slightly uncomfortable.

image by Teo Romero

As we sat in the small waiting room, a group of about 20 kids filed out of a corridor and into the street. “You guys have 10 minutes for a smoke break,” a woman called to them.

“Maybe this won’t be such a bad place after all,” I thought with a slight smirk. “What kind of place is so free as to allow teens to take a smoke break?” Unconventional. Good. Conventional therapy hadn’t worked for me in the past.

I started seeing Rachel every week. I like Rachel’s persistence. She has a calmness about her, which is good in case I ever decide to go completely emotional. One of my biggest fears is that in the midst of dealing with something I’ll go all emotional and do something I can’t take back. I’ve told Rachel about my fear, but she doesn’t seem too concerned about it.

She wasn’t in a rush to get me to the version of myself she thought I should be. Rachel seemed more human to me than any of my shrinks; she liked to talk about clothes, she listened to music and she’s even let me borrow a CD or two. Rachel is real in a way none of my other therapists were.

A couple of months into our sessions, Rachel suggested having a session with my adoptive mom. I had been telling her about how my mom and I were having trouble communicating with each other. Rachel felt that we needed a safe place to talk. I was completely against it because of my past experience with my old foster mom. But she was insistent, so within two weeks I was sitting across from Rachel and next to my mom, feeling dreary and acting as bitchy as possible. If they wanted war, they’d get it.

“So Tasha, why are we here today?” Rachel said.

“I don’t know, why?” I said, looking at the floor.

“Natasha, if you want us to help you, you’re gonna have to communicate with us,” Rachel said.

“I don’t need this kind of help,” I said, reaching for my third piece of chocolate from the candy dish she kept on her bookshelf.

“Why don’t you put down the candy and talk to her,” my mom said in exasperation.

image by Teo Romero

I wasn’t talking to anyone. I’d been against this meeting from the start, and if it was going to go to hell, I sure wasn’t going to waste my breath and energy trying to save it. The session proceeded like that until we left.

My mother exited the room stiff and silent. Rachel seemed severely annoyed. I was oddly pleased with myself. Later that night, at home, I apologized with a smirk on my face and my mother knew it wasn’t real so she didn’t accept it.

In the next session, Rachel wanted to talk about what had happened. I was interested in her analysis. “You have told me in the past,” she said, “that you had been hurt when you had your foster mother in the room. And when you were put into that situation again last week you were saying, ‘No! I am not going to do this! Other people have hurt me in this way, and I am not letting you in to do the same thing.’”

“Yeah,” I thought, “she got it.” Maybe I could trust this one after all.

After six months, I began to open up to her more as I realized that everything we did and spoke about was really on my terms. I wasn’t consciously aware that a connection was taking place. I noticed that I was talking more and that I wasn’t always dreading the sessions, but I would never admit to trusting her as much as I did. I wasn’t sure about how safe my feelings were. Hadn’t I allowed other people to get close in this way before, only to get hurt?

Now, after two years, I finally feel comfortable enough to start conversations with her and tell her when I don’t agree with her without being rude. I feel like she really cares about what I have to say and I value her opinion as well.

I used to begin a session by telling Rachel to ask me a question. If I liked the question I would answer it, and if I didn’t like it I would tell her to ask me another one. Sometimes I didn’t want to talk about myself, just what was going on around me or in the world. She never pushed me to talk about myself in every session.

After a while I would freely tell her about what had gone on that day. Soon we were having conversations about Diane (my former foster mother) and the state of black people in America.

Now Rachel and I usually discuss how I’ve been feeling over the week, and how much of that is from my past experiences and how much of it is a feeling that anyone might have in a similar situation. One time I was telling her about a boy I liked and how afraid I was to approach him. I was mortified that he would say something really mean and self-esteem-destroying to me and I would run home crying.

Rachel asked me how much of my fear came from what I knew about that boy, and how much came from my past experiences living with foster parents and “wanting to be loved and accepted but getting rejection,” as she put it.

image by Teo Romero

I eventually came to the conclusion that I hadn’t really seen or heard anything that should make me so nervous about approaching him. My fear came from my past. Experience had taught me that if I tried to gain acceptance from someone, they would reject me. (I never approached the guy, though. As is the way of crushes, I was over it in another week.)

Learning how my past experience is affecting my present life has made me more aware of what I think and feel, and more aware of what others may be thinking and feeling. I’ve become more confident knowing there’s more than one way to look at any given situation.

It’s taken a long time, but we recently started talking about why I had come there in the first place. It’s been a slow process. It’s not about how much I trust Rachel but how much I feel ready to deal with.

We haven’t gotten around to talking about my mother’s death (it’s still too painful) but we have spoken about the memories I have of her, good and bad. She hasn’t pushed the issue, and I appreciate that.

I eventually changed schools and we spoke about what that meant to me in my educational career and life. I had a feeling of failure and terror similar to the one I’d had when I left Diane’s house. We spoke about how a part of me felt that it was essentially my fault Diane didn’t want me and that’s why I had to leave. And how I felt the same way about my school. We decided that sometimes people and places don’t click and that it may not be anyone’s fault.

The main thing that we are still working on is my adopted family and my place in it. I was adopted when I was 15 and have found it hard to understand my family, which comes from an entirely different culture. Rachel tries to get me to consider who my mom is and how impossible it is to make someone change.

Just last weekend my mom and I were arguing over the rules in the house and how I should be neater and more respectful of her rules. I felt—and still feel—her rules are unfair and odd. I feel like she wants me to behave like an adult but still treats me like a child. We argued for about an hour until she left.

She hasn’t really spoken to me in the past five days and I haven’t really had anything to say to her. But I got to thinking last night about how she must feel about me and the place she’s had to make for me in her life. Perhaps she’s worried that I still don’t feel a part of the family, and that I’ll start going crazy now that I am 18. Perhaps she’s worried that if I haven’t learned neatness and respect at 18 then when will I learn it?

I’ve decided to bring all this up with my mom the next time I see her. Before I met Rachel I probably would never have considered looking at things from my mother’s point of view. Rachel taught me to try to see things through others’ eyes.

It’s a good thing I’ve done it, too, because I’m only allowed to be in the program until I’m 19. Before I leave, I want to be able to deal with things by thinking them through, and understanding people’s limitations. I’m working toward that with Rachel. I feel more confident and safe knowing that I’ve learned how to think and solve my problems myself.

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