“Why are you challenging me, Angela?”
When the lead therapist abruptly cut me off in anxiety group with ten other clients during the fourth week of anxiety class, it felt like I had gone from a safe learning environment to being put in the hot seat. Immediately, I felt my body flush with a stark warmth and I started shaking. With tears welling in my eyes and voice quivering, I muttered “I can’t do this” and started putting my jacket on. Then he said, “You can either sit down or leave. You’re being disruptive.”
I tried to get a few words in to answer the initial question to which he replied while slowly shaking his head in a “no” motion,
“Now is not the time. Not the place.”
I was even more baffled because I was willing to discuss and de- escalate the situation so class could continue. While my voice was quivering and unsteady, I did not raise it or cause what was now officially a situation. Instead of defending myself in that moment, I turned to the group of women in front of me and quickly apologized if my behavior had disrupted their learning experience and left the situation. Had I engaged in this judgmental and accusatory provocation, others in the room could have been triggered or feel more uncomfortable than the situation itself had caused. I later learned a few “felt sorry for me” with a few even admitting to similar experience with this therapist.
While this may sound like a normal disagreement between a client and therapist, what preceded these events was what was intended to be an inquiry about the Acceptance- Commitment Therapy (ACT)/ mindfulness meditation we were doing. Fifteen minutes earlier he appeared to be annoyed that I didn’t plant both feet on the floor to do the meditation. Despite knowing about my four year struggle with chronic back pain he insisted again that this is it’s how it’s done, despite the low quality recording instructing us to lie down. He was displeased that I could only lower my right foot while my left leg was bent upward to relieve pressure from my throbbing SI joint.
With this therapist’s accurate proposal of being non-judgmental to all thoughts, feelings, sensations, throughout the body scan I couldn’t help but ask how it wasn’t judgmental to try and prevent something that is happening in the moment without just simply observing it. Most people will feel relaxed and tired; I have been told by many reputable therapists it was OK to fall asleep during a meditation because it means that the person is engaging while getting in touch with the needs of their body. There is not supposed to be a right or wrong way, right or wrong feelings that need changing- the point is to observe what’s going on in the present moment non-judgmentally.
Last week we were advised to not do the body scan exercises before bed because it shouldn’t be used as a sleep aid or relaxation technique. However, I have found relief doing a Jon Kabat- Zinn half hour meditation before bed allows me to relax enough to sleep — something that can be challenging to get when there aren’t many options for relaxation when chronic pain doesn’t allow you to get comfortable.
While sharing with the group about how I benefit from this practice, he was slowly shaking his head with the same grimace noted above instead of being mindful or actively listening to what I had to say. Instead, his explanation was “I’ve been doing it for 10 years and this is what works best“. When I tried sharing from my point of view, including how being mindful to my pain makes it worse (which he expressed is something that shouldn’t happen) he sternly interrupted with, “Why are you challenging me, Angela?“. I knew immediately I wasn’t in an open environment conducive to receiving the help I was seeking out- somewhere I could learn what I need to know, or do, in order to improve my anxiety. To healthy practitioners, challenges on material and concepts are seen as an opportunity to learn from the perspective of a client instead of a need to go on the defense.
I wasn’t allowed to communicate questions about the material, and therefore my overall well-being. A few people have advised me to speak with him to clear things up but I have seen this type of insecurity manifest many times; I know better than to put myself in a situation with people who feel entitled to act out. Upon hearing similar stories from those who personally messaged me, I am confident that this person has no reason to change. He reacted insensitively instead of taking a moment to explain or even say, “I don’t have time to delve into it now but we can speak about it later”. Whether it be Dr. A in FOREVER MARKED: A Dermatillomania Diary or this person now, I am finding it hard to have enough resolve in a one-on-one scenario locally to trust that I can feel comfortable enough to seek out the help I need or disclose more of my vulnerabilities without fear of being attacked or pushed away by professionals.
Even if I was unreasonable, he should be equipped to handle a plethora of symptoms and behaviors from clients instead of acting out by alienating a person who was there to learn- in an anxiety class, of all places. Instead of seeing my inquiries as an invitation to discuss different reactions to the body scan, he not only accused me of being disruptive but also invalidated my experiences. If a therapist is willing to create a hostile situation out of legitimate concerns, there is nothing I can do- or be- that will prevent this manipulation from re-occurring.
I have learned a lot about ACT over the last two years after appearing on The Doctors with Karen Pickett to get help for my skin picking. When completed, my second memoir EMBRACING DERMATILLOMANIA: My Recovery Story will include components from this modality of therapy, which is what I believe was vital in addressing my chronic skin picking. However, I shouldn’t need the professional component of my interest in mental health information as an excuse to probe further into the instructions we were given. I want to understand, retain, and practice what is being conveyed so that I can improve parts of my life I’m struggling with.
It’s better to know what you have control over and what you need to let go in order to preserve your mental health. I will protect myself by not entering a hostile environment when I have already seen indicators of aggression from someone who is supposed to be leading us judgmentally to a better life. If I continue down this path, I’m simply putting myself in harms way. Sometimes it’s better to accept what you cannot change and move forward without the “help” of a combative professional if you’re unable to trust they have your interests at heart.