I once read that therapy, like a poem, is never finished, but abandoned. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I decided to leave therapy after six years, I felt that my life’s narrative had been thoroughly excavated, and that significant internal shifts had solidified. Feeling psychically sated, I assumed that the wind-down would be a quiet and somewhat boring review of all the work that had brought me to this point.
Turned out, there was nothing quiet or boring about it.
On the contrary, exiting therapy proved to be as emotionally consuming and stirring as entering it had been years earlier. Yet, no one I knew who’d been through it ever spoke a word about this final phase.
Could it have something to do with the fact that it’s called, termination? Leave it to psychology to come up with such a warm, fuzzy label. The first time my therapist discussed my termination, I wondered if our final session would conclude with my being taken out and shot.
Once I got over the unsettling lingo, however, I leapt into termination with cheerful gusto, excited to head for the promised land of Post-Therapy. My first task in mentally packing up was organizing my psychological work. Roaming the aisles of my psychic Container Store, I searched for a stylish, yet accessible repository to hold the unwieldy heap of emotional zigzags and breakthroughs accumulated through the years.
I quickly found the perfect storage system: A playlist of songs tracing the arc of one of the major relationships I’d wrestled with.
I chose the songs carefully, making sure their lyrics accurately reflected the peregrinations of my heart. I confess, I found this secret scavenger hunt indescribably thrilling, and fairly trembled with giddy joy whenever I seized on yet another “perfect song” to add to the list.
The deliciousness of my task was further heightened as I imagined my therapist sliding my brilliant compilation into her car’s CD player, rolling up the windows, and tooling around town, my amplified musical presence filling her car.
Then during one of our sessions, I happened to mention the termination playlist.
“It probably means more to me than to you,” I added lightly. And then I saw it: the almost imperceptible nod accompanied by the tiniest smile.
In that lightning flash of communication, I understood—with not a small amount of horror–that accessorizing my therapist’s car with the vocal score to my psyche was tantamount to creating the shrink-stalking version of “My Mother the Car,” a 1960’s sitcom in which a man’s mother is reincarnated as his prized vintage automobile. Through the car’s speakers, she continues to micro-manage her son’s life, the disturbing message of the show being that the inconvenience of being dead didn’t stop some mothers from literally driving their kids crazy.
From the speeding car of my mind, I wadded up my fantasy of a Volvo hatchback humming my inner mix tape and flung it out the window.
But it did make me wonder: Was I alone in wanting to give my termination a form and a shape? And where did this burning need to concretize my leave-taking come from?
My guess is that its roots are in my many years at summer camp, for I seemed to approach this last phase of therapy as if it was the summer’s crowning event: The Termination Olympics. As captain of my one-person team, I was busting to sing about my therapy, cheer about it, create the winning plaque in wood and tempera paint expressing the multiple hues of my emotional journey.
Hey, maybe a diorama depicting unresolved grief would bring extra points!
This is not to say that I didn’t face the impending farewell with deep-felt anxiety. I did. At weird, random moments, I wept. In the last few months of our remaining sessions, I wept.
One night, in the foggy space between wakefulness and sleep the words, “Don’t let me go…” kept scrolling in my mind. But when the words finally ceased their looping, a surprising sense of calm settled inside me. “It’s good that you let those words through,” my therapist said, pointing out that the grieving had brought some peace.
And yet, while I was sad to be leaving, I also had my eyes on the prize, knowing that when I crossed the finish line, my therapist would give me something I hadn’t gotten from her in all our years together—a hug.
“The Hug Thing,” as it came to be known, had come up years earlier when I’d expressed consternation over my therapist’s total abstinence from hugging–even when events in my life deemed it natural and appropriate. In contrast, I pointed out, the Argentinian therapist down the hall often embraced her patients, or welcomed them with a peck on the cheek.
Each time I witnessed these warm greetings from the waiting room, my heart sizzled with envy as my thumb ticked vexingly through the pages of “Real Simple” magazine. Because apparently, there was nothing simple about getting a hug from my therapist.
Her Freudian training meant that before the need could be gratified, we had to discuss why I wanted the hug, what the hug meant, and even acknowledge cultural differences. All of which made me want to shout across the room: “Sometimes a hug is just a hug!”
In his influential work on the topic of holding, psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott believed that therapists offer a holding environment for the patient by providing sensitive analytic interpretation. In this way, the patient feels embraced while undergoing treatment.
Yeah, yeah. But it sure didn’t satisfy my craving for a good old-fashioned squeeze.
As our final session wound down, I gave my therapist a scarf to add to the kaleidoscope of colors and patterns that encircled her shoulders through the years. And if this was yet another manifestation of my need to extend my presence in her life, so what? Leaving long-term therapy was tough. When you’re in the Termination Olympics, you do what have to in order to power through.
At the closing ceremony in the doorway, I stepped into my therapist’s arms and at last, claimed my hug. But even before that moment, a somewhat startling internal shift had occurred, so that I no longer yearned for the hug as much as I wanted to give it.
Perhaps in some sly, unconscious way, the termination process had spurred me forward in this final leap to the finish line. For after all the analysis, and beyond the playlist or the scarf, what I needed most to abandon all this wasn’t gifting my therapist with the perfect souvenir of our hard work. It was simply showing her my deep gratitude for having embraced me with both her words and silences, for holding my unspooling narrative with exceptional insight, humor, and compassion. She had done it all so well, without ever putting her arms around me.
Though I have to say that when she finally did, she proved herself a champ.