Healing Journey: When Therapy is Harmful, Not Helpful

Trigger warning: perinatal psychiatric crisis, psychiatric incarceration, systemic violence

In a previous post, I wondered if I outgrew therapy. I questioned whether I worked through or “got over” my trauma. I was ready to quit. However, instead of breaking up with my therapist, I was able to have a powerful conversation in which I realized that therapy itself was blocking me from engaging in a therapeutic process.

Therapy really is not for the faint of heart. It’s like dating in New York City. You may have some information about the person from the internet or word of mouth, but for a while you really don’t know who you are dealing with or whether it will work once you get to talkin’. It’s an investment of time and money with no guarantee of a happy long-term relationship or any positive outcome in return. As a person living with bipolar disorder, I’ve had to deal with therapists who did not really understand my diagnosis. I felt like a lab rat to some therapists who were intrigued by my energy and creative ideas, but they couldn’t help me keep track of my moods or bring awareness to changes in my behavior or affect as I lost myself in my moods.

Before my last major manic episode, I had been working with a Black therapist, who I thought was a great fit, for two to three years. In hindsight, I was NOT in safe hands. I thought that finally finding someone who looked like me and could relate to my racial and gender identity would provide a safe heaven, but I was wrong. There were many points along my descent into a deep and disturbing madness that my therapist could have intervened. Despite religiously attending our weekly sessions, she never made me aware of my dangerous escalation from hypomania into acute mania and psychosis.

Before I got pregnant I was in and out of altered states getting downloads from the astral realm about my future child and partner, who had not yet manifested in my physical reality. I had the conviction that I needed to get off my meds to avoid the (very real) possible risk of my child developing a heart defect. Once I was pregnant, I told my therapist the news and asked her not to tell my psychiatrist. I had an appointment with her that weekend and wanted to tell her the news myself. Realizing the risks at stake for my own mental health, my therapist informed my psychiatrist without my consent.

Two days before my appointment, my psychiatrist sent me a text message voicing her concerns about my vulnerable state. The contents of the text appeared on my phone’s homescreen right as my partner was looking over my shoulders. I was horrified. I had not even told him the news yet. I felt violated by both my therapist and psychiatrist for betraying my confidence and making me feel like I had no ownership over my experience, my private medical information, my pregnancy, my own body and mind. In all my of years of dealing with shitty therapists and scamming scumbag psychiatrists, this was my tipping point. Therapy lost my trust. My psychiatrist pleaded that I stay on Lithium, but all her justifications sounded deceptive. I believed she was more focused on her fears that I was a legal liability rather than my concerns. Disbelieving that she and my therapist had my best interests at heart, I gave up on both of them and decided to navigate my pregnancy on my own.

As a person with a diagnosis that severely increased my risk of perinatal psychosis and suicide, it’s outrageous that I began my pregnancy with no mental health care. I reached out the The Motherhood Center hoping that they could take me into their outpatient program, but they required me to be medicated before I could work with a reproductive psychiatrist. Why? Again, I’m sure liability was the culprit. Instead of providing support they told me to check myself into an ER. But despite my best efforts, I did not get urgent psychiatric care. A turnstile patient at several ERs, I was sent away without care because I refused to confess that I had thoughts of hurting myself and others. I knew that such a confession would result in involuntary hospitalization where I would not have any say over my treatment plan or control over my discharge date.

Early in the pregnancy, I braved a short but horrific involuntary hospitalization after I called 911 while in acute psychosis. I endured dehumanizing care and conditions. The forced medication regimen caused my jaw to lock, my heart to palpitate, my lungs to constrict as well as troubling fetal movement. I knew there was no way I would risk returning to a situation like that by revealing the full extent of my psychological distress. I also had a heightened awareness that any record of my scary thoughts could put me in danger with New York’s Administration for Child Services (ACS) who may very well take away custody of my child once she was born. Being a Black and Bipolar mom is double jeopardy.

Thankfully after a long battle, I came out of my psychotic mania in my second trimester. Sleep is truly the best medicine. I was forced to rest and recover after emergency eye surgery from retinal detachment. There really is a mind-body connection with mental health. Finding a brief moment of balance before the pendulum swung into suicidal depression, I found a new psychiatrist who saw me through my labor, postpartum and is on my mental health care team to this day. Returning to my meds and working collaboratively with this new doctor during the later stages of my pregnancy and beyond has been key to my healing journey. However, my return to therapy has not been so easy.

My new therapist confronted me about my ambivalence in our work together. We ended having a really productive conversation about my trauma from my past experiences in therapy. Since my last experience, I learned how to cope without therapy. I mostly dealt with the cognitive damage, post-mania PTSD and relational struggles on my own. After working with a few Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) workbooks, I managed to contain the trauma of my experience well enough to function and keeping pushing forward. However, I have not dealt with the grief and loss I carry from my past experiences with therapy that have been preventing me from growing in a therapeutic setting and evolving past my traumas.

I cried as I began telling my therapist how I had been let down by the people I counted on to help me stay safe, aware and well. To my surprise, my sadness quickly turned into anger. Underneath all of the grief, I felt rage bubbling to the surface. Once I clarified that I was not angry at my current therapist, she was able to become a proxy for the entire mental health care system that let me down. This enabled me to unleashed my rage. My holy, justified Wrath. I’ve learned that, like a volcano erupting at the bed of the ocean, my rage is the root source creating my tidal wave of grief.

“The cycle of rage is like any other cycle: it rises, falls, dies, and is released as new energy. Attention to the matter of rage begins the process of transformation.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Women Who Run With Wolves

Where does that leave me today? I guess I’m now going to therapy to work through the trauma of therapy! Recovery isn’t a straight line. Even the things that are supposed to help us can harm us. And healing from that too, I guess, is part of the journey. So here’s to this next phase of transformation 🙂

Image Description: A white melancholy flower amid dark green leaves.

2 thoughts on “Healing Journey: When Therapy is Harmful, Not Helpful

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