It’s not about the money. Even when it is.
* * *
I imagine that a lot of people, when they consider therapist abuse and exploitation, don’t really give much thought to the money factor. Sex grabs the big headlines and distracts people from the more practical and mundane elements of a therapist’s violations. Yet, we patients and clients are paying this person for their services. And when money is introduced into the equation, any personal issues we have with the green stuff are along for the ride, whether we like it or not.
So when I first walked into Dr. T’s office, let’s just say I already had plenty of issues about money. My relationship with money was (and continues to be) complicated, conflicted, and steeped in a thick, smelly stew of unmet needs and feelings of low self-worth.
Hey, grist for the mill, right? Isn’t that what therapy is for?
When I started seeing Dr. T, I didn’t exactly have money to burn. I was working very part-time and living largely off the inheritance I’d received when my father had passed away. After my dad died, I’d quit my administrative job to go back to school. I hated the work I was doing and was desperate for a change, but I had a hard time focusing on a new path and found myself easily derailed. I presumed that therapy would help me sort myself out and I put my faith in Dr. T to help me. (I guess you could say that was a mistake…)
I figured I could coast financially while we started this “sorting out” process. Still, I knew that the money wouldn’t last forever. And since I didn’t have much of an income, I regarded my resources as not just limited but finite. I only had so much time to get myself unstuck and move onward and upward. The pressure was on; I needed results.
Of course, once the abuses started, any chance of success was gone. Too bad I didn’t realize it. Every week I’d show up and hand over my rapidly diminishing funds for sessions that had become excuses for sex and exploitation. Though I wanted to believe that the “therapy” would, over time, help me work through my issues, I found myself having doubts. My life was at a standstill. No matter what I did, I simply could not move forward. Dr. T didn’t seem overly concerned about my lack of progress, but then, he wasn’t the one dishing out the bucks. Me? I felt confused and worried. Why wasn’t I making progress? Was there just too much wrong with me? Maybe I was unfixable, a lost cause. Or maybe talk therapy didn’t work for me. Maybe…
For those of you in therapy, have you ever hit a plateau? You know, when you’re going every week but nothing seems to be changing and you’re not quite sure what to do about it? Do you ever take a step back, look at your therapy objectively, and see if it’s working for you? I think that can be a real challenge. Especially when you like your therapist and appreciate having someone you can talk to every week. Why mess with it? If you had to think about whether it was “working” and whether you were getting your money’s worth, you might come to the conclusion that something needed to change—and maybe you don’t want to change. You just want it to work. But what if there’s a money issue? What if you can’t afford to be paying for something that’s not working? What are you going to do then?
For some of us, the answer, quite often, is nothing. It’s ever so much easier to stay in denial and cling to the fantasy that says, It will all work out if I just keep doing what I’m doing. Or, Maybe if I just try harder…
That was my answer. So I just kept showing up and handing over the checks.
But here’s the interesting thing: Even though I was inhabiting some alternate reality where being screwed by my therapist was about Love and Spirit and Dr. T was an enlightened servant of God who had my best interests at heart and would never knowingly do anything to harm me, I was upset about the money. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the fact that he was okay taking money from me for sessions that revolved around sex. Given his “superior consciousness,” I just didn’t understand it. It didn’t seem right. I found myself…disturbed.
My experience went something like this: I’d arrive for my appointment with my check to Dr. T already filled out, and when I walked into the room I’d simply place the check on his desk. Doing this at the beginning of session saved time and worry, especially since I never knew what state my brain would be inhabiting by the end of the session.
Then…well…we’d greet each other and there’d usually be some funny business. In my fantasy world, hugs and kisses were okay. The hand down the back of my pants…maybe not. The longer the funny business went on, the more likely I was to get worried.
See, I knew I needed therapy—that’s what I was paying for. That’s what I could afford to pay for. But— It was just so damn hard to say no to Dr. T (and heaven knows he didn’t want me to say no!)—and once he got started I didn’t know how to get him to stop. (Because, of course, that was my responsibility.) Once we were having sex, his were the only needs that mattered. I lost my voice, my sense of self, and my will to do anything other than exactly what he wanted me to do.
Still, he could be going at it, my body right there with him, and my mind would be on my check sitting there on his desk. I’d be in some whacked out, altered state, yet intensely aware that $140 of my inheritance—all that was left of my dad—was there on Dr. T’s desk, waiting to be swept up and deposited into his bank account.
Sometimes I felt anxious, panicked about the money I was “losing.” I knew I couldn’t afford this, but—what could I do? I’d try to put the panic from my mind, stay present, focus on the sex (!), try not to see the check on his desk. But it was like trying to ignore a wound that keeps seeping blood, no matter how hard you try to staunch the flow. All I could feel was loss.
I knew we weren’t really doing therapy (despite his occasional claims to the contrary). Whatever fantasy I’d made up about our sexual “relationship” I still knew that I shouldn’t be paying him for…love, sex, or whatever this was. Besides, if he really cared about me and the sex really was about Love (as he told me repeatedly), how could he take my money? He was well aware of my less than sufficient financial situation. How could he, in good conscience, let me pay him for this? Didn’t that mean I was paying him for…sex? Wasn’t that wrong?
But Dr. T did let me pay him for every session, sex or not. He even took payment for “house calls.” Those were the days when, due to a cancellation, he’d end up with a longer than usual lunch break, and—what the heck, why not just go over to Kristi’s place and have the session there? He’d show up, maybe bring his lunch, and we’d sit and talk for, oh, maybe a half hour—you know, “therapy talk”—and then he’d say, “Why don’t we go lie down?…” And we’d spend the next hour or so in bed until it was time for him to jet back to his office in time for for his next patient.
My dependency on him was so great that I didn’t dare question him. Money was never an easy topic to discuss with Dr. T, a self-made man who was proud of both his nice shiny toys as well as his knack for frugality. Any complaints from me about my financial situation were likely to result in my being teasingly admonished for my lack of gratitude, my inadequate employment status, you name it. Being shamed by one’s therapist—an excellent therapeutic technique!
Instead, whenever I became sufficiently freaked out about my finances, my solution was to try to leave therapy. I wanted to be a peer, not a patient, and I didn’t really want to keep paying him for sessions. We were having a sexual relationship, for heaven’s sake, and it had become nearly impossible for me to regard him as my “therapist.” I wanted out.
Unfortunately, my attempts to leave therapy never worked. Using a devastating combination of charm, false sincerity, and regretful apologies for his limited availability outside of scheduled appointment times, he would inevitably hook me back in whenever I attempted to stray from his clutches. I couldn’t bear the thought of not having him in my life, and I was willing to do whatever it took to hold onto him, no matter the cost.
So it was a HUGE relief when we (and when I say we I mean he) finally decided to terminate therapy. At last I was no longer financially beholden to him—and man was that a good thing.
When my wakeup call came many months later, I had no trouble understanding that he had been wrong to take my money. This made it a whole heck of a lot easier for me to pursue civil litigation. Dr. T had, essentially, stolen money from me and I wanted it back. I knew I deserved to be compensated for my loss.
I thought that being recompensed for the money I paid him would make me feel better. It didn’t.
This was partly due to the fact that Dr. T only had to pay $500 of the settlement. (His insurance company paid the rest.) And mostly due to my own sense of shame about what I’d handed over to him.
I know, I know—it was abuse, he held an enormous amount of power over me, I didn’t really consent—I know all that stuff. But knowing it intellectually still doesn’t wipe away the grief and the shame I feel about what I gave to him.
I gave him that money. I gave him…me. I gave him so much that I simply could not afford to lose.
Despite my efforts at recovery, I continue to have trouble forgiving myself for those losses. I feel ashamed of giving so much of myself away to someone to whom I meant so little. I wish I had valued myself and my money enough that I didn’t need to look outside myself, to Dr. T, for a sense of worth.
The settlement from the lawsuit may have compensated me for my financial losses, but as for the rest of it? It’s going to take a little longer to get that back.