The first time I went to see a therapist I was 20 years old
and a student of psychology. I was referred by a close male
friend who was already seeing the guy. Fresh out of a psychiatric
residency, the good doctor's sessions were plagued with errors
To save on costs, he did not have a secretary and found it
necessary to take calls during sessions, a therapeutic no-no.
In the middle of heart-wrenching disclosure, I would be stopped
and forced to listen as he wrote down his wife's grocery list.
He also ate during sessions. I'm not talking about a small
snack. The doctor would announce that it was his lunchtime
and then disappear into a large closet where he kept his fridge
and microwave. He would proceed to heat up provocative looking
leftovers, a mixture of Chinese food perhaps, and then finish
our session while happily gobbling it down.
There were other indignities. The fact that he would ask
me to accompany him on errands (he was tired of sitting all
day). I would traipse after him to the cleaners or the ice
cream parlor (he did enjoy his food). It did seem odd, but
he acted as if it was weird when I tried to insist that we
spend our time in the office.
I knew a couple who would actually have dinner with him over
their marital counseling. They are now divorced. He was able
to double bill for those two hour dinners.
My friend admitted to me that what he liked about our mutual
therapist was that he was able to avoid dealing with any real
issues. It was easy enough to stay off topic, as they took
their walks together.
I, on the other hand, was becoming increasingly frustrated
by his lack of professionalism. Another year went by. Upon
comparing notes, my companion and I discovered that the doctor
would often impart the same words of wisdom to both of us.
Instead of a personalized reaction to our problems we were
getting a preconceived lecture or anecdote. A picture of his
newborn son meant that we were all basically innocent. Or
a description of his 'five rules of friendship' would be dutifully
read from the slip of paper that he jotted it on the night
before, so as to remember to mention it to all of his clients.
Finally, when in my final year of my BA in psychology, I
mustered up the courage to confront him. "Have ever you
heard about confidentiality, uninterrupted sessions... the
need to create a safe environment where the patient can open
up?" I demanded . " I don't want to discuss my love
life standing outside of a donut shop!"
He looked slightly shocked but regained his quirky smile
and gazed at me out of his half-closed eyes.
"Let your anger out," he said." I know that
you are frustrated by your lack of progress."
"No, it's you," I replied.
"Very common, projection onto the therapist, your father
ignored youright- so you think that I am. I assure you that
you have my full attention." This was mumbled from his
closet as he prepared himself a cup of coffee.
"Not this time," I shouted. "It's you and
I am leaving."
"No you're not, no you're not," he muttered, as
I slammed out of his office.
During the years that followed, I have had many opportunities
to ponder the ethics of the therapeutic relationship, from
both sides of the desk. What is therapy anyway? The dictionary
defines it as the act of helping, advising, or counseling
another individual. However, certain norms have developed.
Confidentiality, an uninterrupted session, but most importantly,
the ability to help people through an introspective process
to make positive life decisions and changesto help them
to help themselves. This is how I was trained and what I attempt
Yet, all around me I see people who are talked down to, told
what to do, badgered, and judged.
On the radio, on TV, in offices, so-called therapists are
using people's problems as an excuse to push their own agendas.
People are turning to therapists for advice, for answers,
to learn the difference between right and wrong. It's the
quick fix, the five-minute call. If we are given answers we
don't have to think for ourselves.
We don't need therapists to tell us the answers; they are
all locked somewhere within. A good therapist asks the right
questions and stays with you on the road to your personal
answers. Like life, it is a process fraught with ups and downs,
yet fulfilling when fully experienced.
And whether it's Dr. Laura or a Chief of Psychiatry or my
former doctorwho still practices in the same way, almost
20 years laterwe all have the right to be treated with respect.
If you aren't getting that much, you are with the wrong therapist.
The only thing I got out of my two years of therapy was a
course on what not to do as a therapistknowledge that put
me in good stead.
Copyright © 2002 Neilia Sherman. All
Neilia Sherman is a full-time psychiatric
social worker and some time freelance writer. She lives in
Toronto with her husband and two sons.