I want to offer some tips and suggestions for any victims of therapist abuse and exploitation who may be considering taking legal action. While I would encourage anyone who has been victimized by a therapist (or other professional) to consider taking legal action, I want to be clear that it is not an easy thing to go through. It may actually have been to my advantage that I was still quite dissociated at the time I made the decision to proceed, because it really didn’t occur to me what I was getting myself into. I had some strange, out-of-body certainty that I was in the right, Dr. T was in the wrong, and I would win, darn it. So there it was. As it turned out, my experience was relatively benign (all things considered) and my lawsuit resolved fairly quickly. Compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard, I consider myself quite fortunate.
Here, in no particular order, are my suggestions for those who are considering legal action. Please bear in mind that I am not a lawyer. These suggestions are based on my own experience and should not be considered legal advice.
1. Get a good attorney
A friend once told me that winning a lawsuit isn’t about who is right or who has the most evidence, it’s about who has the best lawyer. Whatever kind of action you’re considering, even if it’s a licensing complaint, find an attorney who specializes in therapist abuse and knows what he or she is doing. If you can, get a referral from a trustworthy source.
I highly recommend that you take someone with you when you go to meet with your attorney. When I’m stressed out, I don’t hear half of what someone’s saying to me. It’s a good idea to have another pair of ears along in case yours aren’t working as well as you’d like.
2. Create a timeline of events
Write down a chronological history of everything that happened between you and your therapist as accurately as you can remember it. Did you record events in your day planner? Make notes in your journal? Write down the story as completely as you can, while it’s still fresh. That way, you’ll have it ready for your attorney should he or she ask for it, and if you find that, like me, you tend to forget things when you’re under stress, having something written down will be a great help during this process.
3. Gather evidence
After I got slapped upside the head with my wake-up call, I wasn’t thinking about a lawsuit. As I said in my post Aftermath, mostly I was just scared. When I got home from my appointment with the woman who did this upside-the-head slapping, I did what I could to immediately sever my ties with Dr. T and get him “out of my house.” I gathered some of the things he had given me, as well as the 70 photographs that I had taken of him in July 2003 (because he just didn’t have any decent photos of himself and thought maybe I could help him out…), and promptly threw everything in the dumpster. About half an hour later, a word popped into my head—Evidence—shortly followed by another word—Shit. I got my stepstool, took it outside, got into the dumpster, and retrieved every single photograph, postcard and piece of paper that I could reach (at least without having to touch anything disgusting). It was probably the smartest thing I could have done. When I decided to proceed with a lawsuit, I had some great evidence to back up my side of the story.
My advice: Gather whatever evidence you can find and put it somewhere safe. Whether it’s photographs, a birthday card from your therapist, emails (make a backup copy!), your journals in which you went on and on about all the things that happened, gifts, phone messages on your answering machine—whatever it is, KEEP IT. Yes, you may have to spend hours at the copy shop reproducing your journals (I had a stack about a foot tall!), but you’re going to be glad you have it.
4. Don’t believe everything you hear
These days, it seems like everyone has had some kind of experience with the law—a nasty divorce, a medical malpractice suit, a dispute with a neighbor—and they’ve all developed their own very strong opinions about lawyers and the legal system, based on what they went through. Maybe they had a crappy lawyer and now they think all lawyers are jerks. Maybe they got rich off some huge settlement. Whatever happened, their experience is not your experience. Don’t let anyone tell you what to think or what to believe. Suspend their judgments and make your own.
Also, beware of believing anyone who tells you that taking legal action will help you get your power back. While winning or settling a lawsuit (at least for a satisfactory sum) can go a long way toward making you feel validated, the legal process itself can feel quite disempowering. Once you file a lawsuit, you have no control; the attorneys are in charge, and you just have to let them do their jobs. There’s very little for you to do, and unfortunately, you just have to deal with it. Which brings me to Tip #5—
5. Try to be patient
Frankly, I doubt that anything could ever move fast enough for a victim who’s anxiously awaiting some kind of justice or validation. The process can feel interminable.
This is what it feels like to be in the middle of a lawsuit:
What’s going on? Why isn’t anything happening?!
OHMYGOSH SOMETHING’S HAPPENING! OHMYGOSH! I HAVE TO DROP EVERYTHING ELSE THAT IS GOING ON IN MY LIFE BECAUSE NOTHING IS AS IMPORTANT AS THIS AND I WILL GET MY LAWYER WHAT HE NEEDS THIS VERY DAY THIS VERY HOUR THIS VERY INSTANT AND—
SOMETHING’S HAPPENING! SOMETHING’S HAP—
What is taking so long??
It’s kind of like that.
The litigation process does not move quickly. Basically, it’s as if your attorney and the defense attorneys are trading paperwork back and forth, and every single little step seems to come with a thirty-day deadline. Of course, the defense doesn’t want to wrap this up quickly, so while you’re responding immediately to your attorney’s requests, chomping at the bit for action, the defense is going to push everything until the last possible minute. It takes TIME. You may think your attorney is dragging his feet or that your case is not a priority, but it’s far more likely that there’s simply nothing for him to do. He’s waiting, just like you.
6. Get support
Surround yourself with people who love you, believe you, and can help take care of you. A lawsuit is a stressful process and you will need care, especially if you’re simultaneously dealing with the aftermath of abuse and exploitation.
You will especially want support after your deposition or any other legal proceedings. (A deposition is an out-of-court testimony that is taken as part of the discovery process. You, as the plaintiff, will be questioned by opposing counsel. This is about as much fun as having your teeth drilled.) After your deposition, you may be exhausted, weepy, angry, and wishing you had a dartboard with opposing counsel’s face on it. Having someone around who can bring you dinner, or at least offer you a shoulder and a cup of tea, is a really good idea.
7. Have no contact with the perpetrator
This is a general suggestion for anyone trying to recover from therapist abuse and exploitation, but particularly for those considering legal action. If you can avoid having any contact whatsoever with your therapist, I highly recommend it. I believe that if I had had continued contact or communication with Dr. T, it may have been impossible for me to take legal action and see it through. I think he could very easily have talked me out of it.
I suspect that ongoing contact is one reason why many victims have a hard time taking legal action. The perpetrator is going to keep on doing and saying whatever he needs in order to manipulate you, keep you under his control, and prevent you from acting against his wishes. So, if you can, get him out of your head and out of your life as much as possible.
If you’re struggling with your attachment to your therapist—maybe you believe you’re in love with him, that you’re somehow responsible for what happened, maybe you feel guilty about taking legal action or are afraid it will harm or upset him—try to understand that holding this person accountable for his actions can be an act of kindness and respect, for him as well as for you. You are teaching him a valuable lesson—that what he did was wrong and that you will not tolerate abuse. You are also helping others, by doing what you can to prevent him from perpetrating this type of abuse and exploitation on anyone else.
Remember: You have been the victim of a crime. Your therapist has BROKEN THE LAW and has seriously harmed you, and you have every right to take legal action.
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These are just a few suggestions based on my own experience. For legal advice, talk to an attorney.