The precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face. —D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, 1971

Thirteen years ago I gave birth to my very much wanted third child. Eight months later I ended up in the psychiatric ward of a public hospital for exhaustion and post natal depression. That was when I met my therapist.

For a long time in therapy I did not have a coherent narrative. My stories were long, rambling, confused and disordered. I did not have the discretionary powers to summarize a situation in a succinct, global and philosophical sense. This gave my therapist a pretty clear idea what sort of upbringing I had experienced with my biological mother.

Finally, here was someone who intuitively understood my battered and tenuous relationship with my mother and managed to approve of and validate my feelings without denigrating her. Only I was allowed to whine irritably and incessantly about my mother — no one else was. Blood is thicker than therapy and my very clued-in and astute therapist knew this.

I thought she was amazingly wonderful even if she did wear Ice Queen pin-striped skirt-suits to work and called herself Ms. I have watched her wardrobe change over the years from power dressing to casual clothes that don’t require ironing, from polished high heels to comfortable flats, from black stockings to polka-dotted, multi-colored, frilly-topped socks and from crisp business shirts to sleeveless polyester vests.

I have watched the many years etch lines of wisdom onto her face. We have both grown older and wiser in the same space and time. Because we are very similar in height, hair color, eye color and complexion I sometimes think she could be my real mother. It’s like looking into a mirror and seeing your own reflection. But I find it overwhelming and intimidating if she stares at me for too long.

Heinz Kohut believes that empathic mirroring is an essential part of the mother-child/therapist-client bonding experience. One day it dawned on me that my therapist was mirroring my movements. I leaned forward and rested my hand on my chin and so did she. My foot would jerk upward when I mentioned my mother and it was very enlightening to watch her foot jerk up occasionally as well. When she involuntarily took a sharp intake of breath I knew I had said something of significant value. When she scratched her neck I reveled in perverse delight knowing I’d said something that highly irritated her.

Having a good belly laugh in therapy is most important. My therapist, my Winnicottian good-enough therapist, had a great self-deprecating sense of humor. When I arrived one day she was wearing crooked orange (orange!) lipstick. I finally mentioned it to her about a year later and she hooted with laughter and has told the story to other people, although not mentioning it was from a client. I once, on a very rare occasion, caught my mother without makeup on and grimaced. I was severely punished with a long, penetrating, icy glare that made my armpits itch ferociously.

Psychologist John Bowlby believes that attachment and bonding between mothers and children is socially significant and a powerful force in human nature. My therapist, to all intents and purposes, at that stage, was my mother and the little girl within me suffered separation anxiety every moment of the day I was without her. Especially when she went away on overseas holidays. Although she always let me know where she was going, and with whom, the pain of knowing she was in another country was sometimes horribly indescribable.

When I got too frightened and lonely I could contact my therapist either by phone, fax, post, text message or email. If all those forms of communication ever failed I would have been willing to give smoke signals or carrier pigeons a go. Although she was very busy at times, if need be she would fit in an extra appointment slot to see me. Knowledge of almost immediate contact soothed me considerably and I was able to cope with whatever demon was confronting me at that particular moment. And there were a lot of devils dancing on my front door step.

My therapist’s job was to exorcise those demons, which she has managed to do with considerable aplomb. The most life-transforming example of empathy and exorcism with my Hakomi-trained therapist was the resonating limbic experience of watching tears fall down her face after I told her how unhappy I was experiencing life at that particular moment in time.

It wasn’t the first time she literally felt my pain. But it was knowing that my grief and depression had been recognized and experienced as having affected her in a deeply emotional and intimate way, a way in which it hadn’t with the significant others in my life, that had a long-lasting limbic healing effect. She cried for me because I couldn’t.

Sometimes when my therapist got under my skin and I got really cross with her, I’d force myself to remember all the good times, all the smiles and laughs, synchronous moments and feelings of profound connection. I would experience a spontaneous, deep warmth radiating from the brain in my heart right to the tips of my fingers and toes. That position of mindfulness would give me the psychic space to enable me to see our disagreement from her point of view.

Our sometimes unconventional therapy was working very well. We did break many a boundary, but there was always a common-sense line that we never crossed. Paradoxically, the same person I fantasized about having a real friendship with was the very same person I knew I would actively cross the street to avoid. Such is the very unique and publicly misunderstood, approximate, almost-but-not-quite-relationship between client and therapist.

I decided to study psychology at university. I learned many new words there. Because of her humble motherly stance, I was very naïve and completely unaware of my therapist’s vast intellectual and academic capacities and it was therefore, with much enthusiasm and excitement, that I emailed my self-actualized clinical psychologist with a Masters degree in psychology and numerous other highly sought-after qualifications, and asked her if she’d ever heard of “transference” and “countertransference.”

In the early days, I didn’t even think she knew who Sigmund Freud was, although had she mentioned his name, I would have backed out of her room and possibly never returned because I was still had a rather edgy relationship with the “father of psychology.” This was due to a middle-aged male psychiatrist who, in 1984 when I was 22, asked me, with white spittle dribbling from the corner of his mouth, whether I was bottle- or breastfed. I thought he was coming on to me and I never went back.

But I always went back to my therapist because finally, I felt loved unconditionally and felt able to love back completely and unreservedly. Love can make you get up in the morning and look forward to being alive rather than hiding under the blankets till midday and beyond.

My therapist is Joanne Woodward to my Sally Field, a restorative, peaceful oasis in the middle of a harsh, unforgiving desert. In an ever-increasing world of violence, hatred, bullying, narcissism, disintegration, disconnection, rudeness, bad manners and regressive meltdowns, there is comfort, solace and deliverance to be had in the presence of someone who knows how to behave well, to teach by example, to forgive unconditionally and be able to maintain poise, dignity and elegance at all times. It is also heartwarming to know that she has passed on (for the most part) those same qualities to me.