Recovering from therapist abuse is hands-down the most painful experience I have ever gone through in my entire life. Healing was incredibly difficult for so many reasons, some of which make me very angry and some of which have brought me great insight. Because of the impact healing from therapist abuse has had on my life, I find it impossible not to want to reach out to others who have been hurt by mental health professionals. Some people have told me that this is because I am unable to “get over” what happened. I explain to them that there is a difference between “getting over” something terrifying and callously moving on, leaving so many others behind knowing that you were very lucky to have ever healed. (I usually say this right before I tell them what they can go do with themselves.) The reality is that for most of us trying to overcome therapist abuse (regardless of whether it is sexual, emotional, spiritual, etc.), very few other people have any idea what we are going through (even the mental health professionals we finally get up the courage to see after the abusive ones to try and pull ourselves back together). And because of that, healing can be significantly more difficult than it should be.
Just recently, I began reading the Your Stories page on this site. I was immediately reminded of the isolation and fear I felt as I tried to find my way through the aftermath of therapist abuse. I drafted a message for the Your Stories page and then I immediately felt like it was just not enough. I then asked Kristi if I could write a piece that would hopefully reach more survivors. I have found the path to healing. I don’t really know how I ever found it because, looking back, I can see just how carefully hidden the path is. I don’t know if my path to healing will be similar to yours. In the hopes that there will be some similarities, I want to identify the things that helped me find my way through this in case it can help even one survivor.
This time last year, I was just beginning to feel my “old self” returning. I was finally able to leave my house for short periods of time without having panic attacks or near panic attacks. I was beginning to be able to focus on something other than what had happened in the years before. And I have to tell you, I couldn’t have been more relieved. The truth was that for a very long time before this, I wasn’t sure I would EVER recover from what I had been put through. In fact, I truly believed I was broken beyond repair. It was the most frightened I have ever been in my life.
This year, my life is very different. I look back at the woman I was a year ago and I can see tremendous growth. However, I can also see that even as I was beginning to re-find myself under all of the manipulation and destruction I had been through, I still had a long way to go. There were times when I first started out on this journey where I was making progress, but I didn’t realize I was making progress. I would frequently begin to feel stronger only to be dealt a cruel blow of fear and confusion that would set me back for days, sometimes weeks. If I would have known then that this was how the process went, I don’t think the journey would have been nearly as frightening. And perhaps, this time next year, I will look back and see that I have continued to grow, even from this year. It’s impossible to say. This journey to healing has been nothing short of miraculous. Just when I think I have “uncovered” all of the insight this journey has to offer, I am humbled by another incredible phase of insight. I don’t know if this growth and self-discovery will ever stop. Perhaps if I viewed all of this more as a journey and not as simply reaching a destination, I would have found more peace in the whole process. But to be perfectly honest, as I started out on this journey there was nothing peaceful at all about any of this.
The truth is that the very start of my journey, like many of yours, was incredibly painful—almost unbearable at times. I felt completely lost. I really didn’t know how I had gotten to where I was, and I really had no idea how the hell to get back to where I was before. Some of the worst parts of the journey to healing after therapist abuse had to do with trying to make sense out of what happened with the abusive therapist. And because I still missed him, I was convinced there must be something wrong with me. For almost a year after I refused to see him any longer, I replayed everything that happened during the time that I knew him, trying to make sense out of what happened. I tried desperately to understand what I could have done differently to prevent the relationship from crumbling the way it did. I would look at certain aspects of what happened and think, “He must have cared about me and just lost sight of what he was doing.” And I would be at peace with that thought for a few days. And then nagging doubts would creep in, “But if that were true, why did he just leave me to fall apart on my own? Why, after I told him just how much this had harmed me, did he choose to remain silent and not help me find closure?” A person who cares doesn’t leave someone they hurt (even if it was unintentional) to self-destruct in the aftermath. It seemed like no matter which way I looked at what happened, I could not come up with a “reason” for what happened that made any sense at all. And for that reason alone I was doomed to continue to replay the events in my head, searching for an answer I might never ever find. How else could I feel safe against something like this happening again in the future? The only way I could move on was if I understood what happened and why. And the person who needed to help me understand all of that made it very clear that he had no intentions of ever helping me get to that point. And because of that, it felt like he completely controlled my recovery from this.
And then it happened. Driven by a relentless desire to understand WHY, I had searched tirelessly online for something that would help me understand what the hell happened. I had been seeing a new therapist for about nine months (and I have to tell you, doing that took all of the courage I had in my body!). There were so many times that she seemed just as confused as I was about what happened with the abusive therapist. I was trapped in a cycle of reliving everything that happened over and over again, searching for answers. It was driving me to the point of insanity. As I learned more and more about this thing called “Narcissistic abuse” I began to realize that there was a reason why I had been spinning my wheels trying to understand what happened. There are people who exist who lack any ability or desire to feel any empathy or remorse. Even worse, they lack a conscience. They can cruelly destroy people who are loving, caring and honest and not feel a bit guilt or sorrow for having done so. In fact, in many ways they appear to be “annoyed” by the fact that the people they have hurt are making such a big deal out of what happened. Even worse, they are masters at making themselves out to be victims. Oftentimes, people like these leave behind them a trail of broken bodies and wounded souls as they continue on their destructive paths.
I began to learn new words—words like grooming, gaslighting, trauma bonding and soul murder. These were words that I either had never heard before or had never truly understood until I lived them. These words—words that described things that I experienced but couldn’t put into my own words—were a vital part of my healing. Suddenly I felt a lot less alone. I knew that if someone came up with these words and the definitions that explained my story, somebody, somewhere understood.
But learning these words and reading about Narcissistic abuse was really just the start of my journey. Taking all of it in was a different story. I would frequently find myself wanting to read as much as I could about Narcissistic abuse and then I would experience times where I didn’t want to look at anything at all about it. At first I would get angry at myself because I thought I needed to go through this process a specific way and it was not always the same way that I was feeling. I would get so frustrated with myself as I would read pieces that helped me begin to move forward in my understanding of what happened, but then feel like I was moving backwards. I remember thinking that maybe I was just making myself believe that I was feeling better and that I was really not making any progress at all.
It turns out that understanding and reprocessing what I had been through happened in phases. This wasn’t like any learning I had done before. In the past, if I wanted to understand something I would read about it and integrate it into my way of seeing things. With Narcissistic abuse, there were so many “layers” of understanding that were essential to my healing that this linear process of learning that had worked for me in the past was ineffective with this. There were many times where I would read an article or a book about healing from Narcissistic abuse and feel as if I had taken all of the important insight that the piece had to offer. And then later, I would stumble upon the work again and be shocked that there was insight in it that I hadn’t noticed before. It wasn’t that the piece had been edited. It was because my brain was allowing me to take in more of the picture of what I had been through. That brain of mine, that part of me that I thought had surely been destroyed in the abuse, was actually guiding me carefully through the process of slowly taking in what I could handle. In fact, I can remember times where my brain would almost “compel” me to read more about Narcissistic abuse and times where it would want to do anything other than reading about Narcissistic abuse. I slowly learned to listen to my brain and do what it seemed to be urging me to do whenever it would do this.
And there was another aspect to understanding what I had been through. As I began to understand what my abusive therapist had put me through I began to realize that I had seen this kind of abuse before in my life. In fact, many adult survivors of Narcissistic abuse eventually come to learn (if they can find the path to healing) that they have been primed by previous Narcissistic abuse to tolerate later Narcissistic abuse. For me, like so many other survivors of this type of abuse, I found myself not only healing from one emotionally destructive relationship, but several. The grief was overwhelming.
Perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of the abuse that I had tried to understand was where in the relationship with the abusive therapist that things went wrong. For a while, I believed that the therapist had somehow changed, since he seemed so competent for a long time before the abuse actively began. And I found myself searching for some point in time where I should have stopped trusting him. I think I believed that knowing this was important so I could have understood at what point my “screaming gut” was right. It wasn’t until a good friend of mine pointed something out to me that I hadn’t thought of before. He told me that there wasn’t any point in time when I should have trusted the abusive therapist. He said to me, “Michelle, he’s a predator. The only reason why he seemed so competent and trustworthy for so long at first was to gain your trust so he could effectively lure you away from your comfort zone. Tell me, would you have allowed him to say many of the things he said to you if he had started the relationship out doing that? No, your inner alarm bells would have been going off like crazy.” This was a pivotal moment for me because I had not given any thought at all to this possibility. I would never imagine hurting someone like that. It was finally starting to click in my head that I didn’t understand what happened for a reason. In fact, I never saw any of it coming because I never imagined anyone would ever treat another human being like this. My own profound compassion and deep empathy for others was something I assumed everyone else had. I am finding that many survivors of this type of abuse “suffer” from the same naiveté because of their own inner compassion and empathy.
At some point I finally began to understand that healing was going to take the time it needed to take, and the more I resisted it (and beat myself up for it), the longer it was going to take. And so I began to make a commitment to myself to give myself what I needed in terms of patience, self kindness and love—anything that I would give another survivor of this type of abuse. I had to be ready to give it to myself and to do so without apologies to myself or anyone else. If I felt like I needed to read all day long about Narcissistic abuse or browse pins on Pinterest from other survivors, then that’s what I would do. If I couldn’t read another word about Narcissistic abuse and just wanted to look at beautiful sunsets, then that’s what I would do. If I only felt capable of staring at a wall for 4 or 5 hours, then that’s what I did. And I did it knowing that I was actually helping the healing process. I began to trust that my brain knew the way to healing and that I just needed to follow it.
As I continued to do this and I allowed myself to reprocess the events themselves as my understanding of Narcissistic abuse grew deeper, I found myself eventually being able to stop replaying the events constantly. I began to focus on other things. My optimism, creativity, passion for everything good in life gradually came back. I no longer felt the need to hide away from an unpredictable and frightening world. I had emerged from this with a very clear understanding of what kind of person I had been dealing with and what parts of me they had manipulated to harm me. Most importantly, I had learned along the way that my perception of things that had happened, my “gut” instinct, was incredibly precise. I learned that I had a gift and it was the ability to connect with and understand other people. And someone who completely lacked any ability at all to do that, someone who was incredibly envious of the fact that I could feel deeply and they could feel nothing, had set out to destroy this beautiful gift I had been given. And they almost succeeded.
I do also want to mention that for me, I was never able to find justice for what my abusive therapist had put me through. And that added a very painful dimension of retraumatization to my journey to find healing. Together, with the subsequent therapist I had finally gotten up the courage to see after the abusive one, we submitted a 15-point ethical complaint to the Ohio Board of Psychology. The “investigation” they conducted was incredibly concerning. For me, one of the reasons why I finally had gotten up the courage to see a new therapist was because the abusive one, the last time I saw him, was in his office cursing, yelling and throwing things, telling me there was something seriously wrong with me that he couldn’t tell me until I came back the following week to see him. He told me that he had consulted with many colleagues about this (he said more colleagues than he had EVER consulted with for any client before) and they ALL saw the red flags. He began pulling at his hair telling me I was “castrating him” by not believing him and threw his glasses on the floor saying, “You don’ give me any F*ing credit. Please, Paaleease, Michelle. Have some compassion.” It was a frightening scene, really. Finally I said, “You’re telling me that there is some horrible thing wrong with me, some terrible concern that you failed to mention in the nearly two years that I have seen you, that would make all of this craziness you have put me through recently make sense and you can’t tell me until next week?” And he said, “Yes.” I got up and said, “You’re wasting my time.” He got up, acted like nothing happened, and I left. However, as the days went on, I began to worry that maybe something was wrong with me (besides the fact that I had just had my head messed with by a master manipulator). And actually, during the times when I would believe that maybe the therapist meant well and just lost sight of what he was doing, that maybe he was right—what if something horrible was wrong with me?
It turned out, I was never able to know what he thought was so “seriously wrong” with me. The records I finally obtained from this therapist were so sloppily maintained—there was no diagnosis, no treatment plan, no diagnostic work. And nearly every clinical entry was illegible. In fact, my subsequent therapist showed them to me. We were really surprised by how much they looked as if they had all been written at one time—same color pen used for each one, and handwriting very similar. (After working in a hospital for 10 years, I was well aware that at times I could chart on the same patient multiple times in the same day and, depending on the amount of stress I was under or the rush I was in, just the handwriting itself would look different.) My subsequent therapist even called the abusive therapist and asked him for the missing clinical information (like diagnosis, treatment plan, etc.), and he told her he’d given her everything she needed. When the Board of Psychology began to look into the complaint, my subsequent therapist and I asked for clarification about what he had been so concerned about that last time I saw him. At one point the Board asked my subsequent therapist for a copy of the notes the abusive one had sent to be mailed right away to their office so they could review what he had sent. My subsequent therapist told me she had gotten the distinct impression that what he had submitted to the board was different than what he had given us. But neither of us was ever to learn what the reason was. I have never been allowed to know what my diagnosis was, what the treatment plan was for me or what the reason was for the explosive scene in his office the last time I saw him. The Board of Psych refused to release any information—even information that should have been important for any subsequent therapist to treat a client. The board refused to return my subsequent therapist’s calls asking why she could not have the clinical information. Even worse, after over a year of “investigating” the 15-point ethical complaint, the Board completely dismissed the case—not even a slap on the wrist. So I was being told that this therapist did nothing wrong, but yet I was not allowed to know what he was working on with me in the time I had seen him. I have since contacted the APA, my state legislator’s offices, the Attorney General’s office, the Governor’s office and the state Inspector General. After finally getting a response from the Inspector General’s office and being told they were taking my concerns (there were actually more concerns than just the refusal to release the medical records to my subsequent therapist) to their legal team, I was later told that during a phone conversation (that never happened) they had dropped the case months earlier. They had originally asked me to wait patiently for a written report that would be mailed to me explaining the outcome. It wasn’t until I emailed four months later, when I hadn’t heard anything, to make sure that they had the correct mailing address that I was told about this fictional phone conversation.
There were many things that occurred during the course of the Board investigation (and even after) that were deeply troubling. Each failure of the system that was supposed to protect the public from predators like this set me back in healing. Perhaps when I finish writing my book, I will shine a light on those as well. Let me just say that I saw a whole side of humanity and the mental health profession that I would have preferred not to know about.
My point is that you do not have to get justice for what happened in order to heal. Not getting justice can certainly make the healing process more painful and take much longer, but you can still heal.
Another thing that made healing more difficult—no matter how tender I tried to be with myself—was the reactions of people around me. Whether people came right out and told me that I needed to just “forget and move on” or they just hinted around that I needed to “get over it,” the message was the same: People around me didn’t understand what I was going through. Even people who I believe wanted to understand me. They couldn’t. I hated the fact that I would continually search for answers in what happened. Replaying the events that happened was first on my list of things I wish I could stop doing. But the truth is that if I hadn’t allowed myself to reprocess everything that happened as I become increasingly more aware of all of the manipulative elements that made up what I had been through, I wasn’t helping myself “get over” anything. I was trying to “forget” what happened so that I would make people around me less uncomfortable. And that began to make me angry—angry enough that I stopped caring what other people thought I needed to do to heal. In addition, finding people—other survivors—I could reach out to, who did understand because they had been through it before, helped me to care even less what the people around me thought I needed to do to heal. And that’s what makes sites like this so important. Each of our stories and journeys to find healing are an integral part of what helps others to find the strength to keep traveling this road.
So my hope in writing this is to hopefully help make the journey to healing less lonely and unpredictable for at least one person. This journey to reclaim our lives after being harmed so callously by people who were supposed to protect us can be filled with some of the most amazing insight you could ever imagine. That insight oftentimes comes on the heels of feeling like we have taken a tremendous step backwards. I promise you, the view from where I am standing is breathtaking! There is room for all of us here. You can do this. I am holding my hand out to help you.
From one brave survivor to another!
Michelle Mallon, MSW, LSW
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Michelle Mallon has a Master’s degree in Social Work from Ohio State University and currently teaches in the Computer Science & Engineering Department at OSU. Her understanding of therapist abuse came after she was emotionally abused by a psychologist to whom she had taken her two young children for counseling. Now an advocate for victims of Narcissistic Abuse, Michelle is currently working with the Ohio chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) to create a CEU program to prepare social workers to effectively help these victims. For more information about this endeavor, click this link http://www.naswoh.org/?page=mallon.