This week's blog deals with the difficult issue of love in the consulting room and how it can be dealt with appropriately with the patient's best interest in mind, or inappropriately creating long lasting damage.
“I love you,” Melanie says, looking downward.
Twenty-five year old Melanie has been my patient for two years, a lovely young woman struggling with anxiety and depression. One of six children raised on a farm by parents who saw their offspring as laborers, rather than cherished beings, Melanie has come to rely on me as one of the few people who is consistently in her corner. Professing her love for me doesn’t take me by surprise.
“Thank you, Melanie,” I say, “that’s a lovely gift.”
“No,” she replies. “It’s much more complicated.”
I wait, unsure what she means.
“I said that to my last therapist,” she says hesitantly. “You know, I’ve talked to you about Dr. Hopkins. I saw him for a couple of years before you.”
“But I never told you what happened, why I left.” She pauses. “We had an affair.”
I’m shocked. Not that I’ve never heard of therapists inappropriately crossing sexual boundaries, but I’m surprised Melanie never told me something of such significance.
“I’m so sorry, Melanie. How come you never told me before?”
“I was too ashamed.”
The victim blaming herself. Not unusual I think to myself. “Do you realize that Dr. Hopkins abused you?”
“No. It wasn’t like that,” she protests. “I told you, I loved him. And he loved me back. That was the most wonderful surprise of my life. Someone I so looked up to and admired actually loved me!”
“Melanie, how did your therapy with Dr. Hopkins end?”
“Well, for a while we saw each on the outside and I continued to have my regular therapy sessions. Dr. Hopkins was very clear that we couldn’t do anything sexual in the office, that we had to remain professional during our sessions.”
I am beyond furious at this so-called therapist, but hope that I am successful at concealing my feelings.
“But then Dr. Hopkins told me he didn’t think I needed therapy anymore. So I quit and just saw him on the outside.”
Still seething, I wonder if Dr. Hopkins thought his prowess as a lover had “cured” Melanie or whether he just found it too difficult to keeps his hands off her during their sessions.
“But then one day,” she continues, “he said that we couldn’t see each other anymore. He told me his wife was sick and that he felt too guilty being with me. I was devastated. I mean, I knew he was married. I knew it wasn’t like we’d be together forever and ever. But I loved him so much. And I thought he loved me. So how could he just walk away?”
“When you say you thought he loved you, are you now questioning that?”
Melanie starts to cry. “I was a fool. I know I was a fool. Did I really think a smart, educated man more than twice my age would be in love with me? He wanted my body. But I just wanted so much for him to love me, that I deluded myself into thinking he did. That’s what I’m ashamed of, being such a fool.”
“There’s an awful lot to deal with here, Melanie, and I’m sure we’ll return to this many times, but I want to come back to us before the session ends. So what did it mean to you to tell me you loved me? And what response did you hope for – or fear?”
“I’m not sure. I know I don’t want to sleep with you, but I do want you to love me. I guess I want to crawl into your lap and have you stroke my hair and tell me you love me, just as you’d tell your own daughter. Is that wrong?”
“No, Melanie, what you wish for can never be wrong. But acting on that wish is different. You wanted Dr. Hopkins to love you, which really meant you wanted him to care about you, to cherish you and to act in your best interest, not his. He did abuse you, Melanie. He took advantage of your need, of your vulnerability and crossed what should have been an unbreakable boundary. As for us, the wish to crawl into my lap and be my daughter is a more than understandable wish for someone who was so neglected as a child. But if I were to act on that wish I would not be acting in your best interest, because I would be giving you the false hope that you can go back to being a child and get from me what you couldn’t get from either of your parents.”
“That makes me sad.”
“I’m sure it does. Mourning what you never got and never can get, is always sad.”