When I first started my trauma journey at 18, everyone told me I needed to see a therapist again. I didn’t want to see a therapist- not that I ever had anything against people who go to therapy. I grew up in an environment where therapy wasn’t considered shameful. Talking about my issues was definitely not the problem. It’s just that I didn’t see how I could benefit from interacting with yet ANOTHER medical professional, the type of people who repetitively abused me and my friends. I already had a bad record with therapists. My first therapist failed to talk to me about my abusive rapist partner, and then later blamed me for my partner cheating on me. The second was okay, but her clinic referred me to an STI clinic where a nurse sexually abused me (I found later I wasn’t the only one assaulted). My therapist felt terrible knowing that this happened to me, but she seemed to be new in her career and didn’t know how to help me through that situation. Not to mention, I had already been sexually abused as a child by another nurse. Plus, medical professionals never understood any of my queer identities and were always micro/macroaggressive towards me. I had lost my patience for all kinds of medical professionals- mental and physical.
But the more I got into my trauma recovery, the more pressure I felt to see a therapist. Every survivor self-help book you read will tell you that you need a therapist. At times not seeking a therapist is framed as self destructive. Other survivors everywhere will tell you how important it is that you see a therapist. If you bring up any issues with seeing medical personnel or bad experiences with therapy, you’re told that “not all therapists are like that.” People tell you that if you just try hard enough, you’ll find the right therapist.
And then I went to therapy anyway out of desperation. I was attempting to cure my asexuality and sexual aversion in order to save my long-term relationship. In 2011 asexuality was still viewed as a mental illness or a symptom you had one. So naturally, my therapist thought this was a symptom of PTSD caused by rape. We began to work on my issues and I hoped that this work would make me a sexual person. It didn’t.
And my therapist did some serious damage.
At every turn, my therapist failed to win my trust. There were times I was invalidated. There were times I had to call her out on saying problematic things. There were times she pressured me to talk about the fine details of my assault when she knew I had no interest in that. There were times she made me feel guilty because she said she wasn’t “doing me justice.” There were times I know that she questioned her ability to do her job BECAUSE of our sessions. And then one day she yelled at me during my session because she got frustrated. I was pretty sure I broke my therapist, and that it was my fault she was questioning her entire career. And then one day, she told me I “couldn’t be asexual” when I questioned it. It pushed me into a spiral of denial and self-hatred for “not being normal.”
I quit therapy when I realized it was toxic to me. The therapist I saw was part of my university counseling center. When I tried to talk about this experience later, I was told by a staff member from the university LGBT Center to “stop talking about that experience (being told I ‘couldn’t be asexual’), because it might convince other students to avoid therapy.” I refused to stop talking about it during panels. And I’m refusing to stop talking about it now.
Sometimes, refusing therapy is the greatest act of self care you could ever do. Sometimes, going to therapy is self destructive. While we try to remove the negative stigma behind therapy, we fail to mention narratives where therapy can be toxic. Why? Well, it’s linked to a complicated worship of the medical industrial complex. Health professionals are supposed to be inherently good, but this experience is more frequently true for non-marginalized people.
Here’s the deal: the medical industrial complex is racist, ableist, queerphobic, transphobic, intersexist, misogynistic, and classist. If you are a marginalized person, you have every right to hate health professionals and distrust them. You have every justification to avoid them. I hate the horrible things they have done to me. I hate that every time I have sought help; they have failed me and traumatized me more than I already was. I hate the harm they’ve done to my friends.
Medical professionals of all kinds are well known for abusing every marginalized group known to humanity, and therapists are no exception. But we are told to get over it or told to “find another doctor.” “Not All Therapists” is what someone says when they refuse to see inequality endured by marginalized people trying to receive healthcare. “Not All Therapists” refuses to recognize that telling us to go to therapy is sending us directly to our abuser/oppressor. We’re taught to trust medical professionals from the time we’re young. On principal, they should have our best interests at heart. In reality that’s frequently not the case. Sometimes they’re more concerned about our perceived deviance in the public’s eyes (eliminating stimming behaviors in autistic people), subjective views about healthy behavior (conversion therapy), or gatekeeping our ability to live comfortably because we “obviously don’t know what’s best for ourselves” (counseling requirements to obtain transition related care). These examples could go on and on.
I feel that in survivor discourse we focus a lot on believing we’re damaged by the abuse. While yes, the sexual trauma we have endured was horrible, I don’t think this is a healthy way to look at ourselves. It’s essentially the same thing as the “find your true self underneath the trauma” rhetoric. I attended therapy because everything in survivor discourse told me I was fucked up because of what happened to me, and that I needed therapy to be a “normal person.” And you know what? I’m not a fucked up person. I have learned that my asexuality, sex aversion, and even my PTSD are parts of what make me who I am. I like the trauma influenced parts of myself. I like that I’m a workaholic because it made me a badass human rights activist. I like that I’m hyperaware because it helps me, as a hearing impaired person, know what’s going on around me. My nightmares help me stay in tune with my stress levels and mental health. My numbness helped me get a bachelor’s degree. I love that my abuse taught me how to get out of any sticky situation, outsmart any abuser, and learn to defend myself without physical means. And because of my abuse, I learned how to care for myself better than any other person I know. I do not need therapy to change me because someone else decided I need change.
So for all of the people out there who feel that therapy is toxic: I’m making room for your narrative in the survivor discourse. It’s okay to refuse therapy. It’s okay to be hostile towards medical personnel, especially when they have abused you. It’s okay to talk about your horrible experiences with therapy. And it’s okay to tell the people saying “not all therapists” to fuck off.
Thanks for this article! I personally feel damaged by the abuse I experienced, and really do feel like I need therapy. But as someone who was also sexually abused by medical professionals as a child and has had a lot of other bad experiences in therapy and seeking other medical and mental health treatment, I really relate to the need to not feel pressured into any form of medical treatment.
Very true! The medical establishment is full of flawed people just like everyone else. And that can lead to flawed service -__-
And there’s the way that therapists are so….deeply sure of the psychological research and categorization. So sure of the fact that somehow the researchers have captured all of reality that anyone could ever be, and so they must try to put you into these models no matter how poor the fit. I don’t have a problem with categorization per se, but it’s frustrating when it’s not recognized as just a sampling of reality.
The only thing I see differently is I know I have a true self underneath trauma. And I’m sure I’m not alone. It just doesn’t fit everyone to think this way, like in your case. Trauma has only meant subtractions out of my mind rather than additions; memories, thoughts, feelings lost. And then on extremely rare occasions, they all come back perfectly intact. The realest me is what I’m missing…there’s hardly anything left to even be a person normally. My therapist has also tried to reject my thinking that I have anything to go back to and I think that’s set me back in my recovery. In processing my trauma, I’ve been able to reconnect more than ever with who I am, this time on a more permanent basis.
I love the next to last paragraph of this so much:
“I like the trauma influenced parts of myself…”
Yes! This is the thing I’ve tried again and again to explain to people close to me. Liking yourself, coping mechanisms and all, doesn’t somehow mean you’re giving the perpetrator(s) a pass, or that the abuse was ok…it means this is who you ARE, and you’re allowed to find benefit in that.
I love my workaholic tendencies, they made my career possible. I like my hyper-vigilance , it keeps me safe and makes me sensitive to my environment. The old habit of always having escape routes and multiple contingency plans makes me a really great organizer and planner. I’ve recently learned that body- dissociation is incredibly handy when undergoing painful medical procedures.
I think way to much emphasis gets placed on ” fixing” things that aren’t broken…just adjusted to help us survive our particular life experience.
wonderful article – i’m so glad i found this post. sheds immense insight into the life and times of my Most Important Person.
you seem to have an incredibly strong sense of self, and sense of self-advocacy – do you have any advice for achieving that outside of therapy? (i’m a human who has made it this far with a 50-50 experience with medical professionals, so my default thought when i see my person suffering is to help them seek (affordable, abuse/ptsd oriented) therapy.) the suffering isn’t in the short term – this is lifelong, but a decade of adulthood has just seen it get worse. i’m watching my person fall apart, mentally, physically, medicated for one condition but virtually unable to function as their body deteriorates from neglect and can no longer attend outings with friends without being triggered (by an increasingly long list of triggers).
we’re adults now and there isn’t a manual for this. i’m an empath and a trauma survivor, and i shoulder more of this than i should. if i were only concerned for my own mental health i would severely limit contact, but this is My Person. i can’t do that. and they can’t do therapy. what can i do???