It is unusual for a psychologist to collaborate on a blog or a book with a former therapy client. My only fear about writing this blog is that people familiar with therapeutic “boundary issues” will see that a former client of mine and I are working on a blog together and will write me off before even reading it, assuming I am not aware enough of or am not taking seriously enough, the issue of therapeutic boundaries.
Without clear, appropriate boundaries defining the therapy relationship, clients are left confused about what to expect and are vulnerable to therapists knowingly or unknowingly taking advantage of them. Clients should be able to count on sessions being on time and lasting a certain length of time, having the focus of the sessions be on their issues, and the therapist always keeping their best interests and well-being as the top priority. Therapy should generally take place in an office. Contact between sessions on the phone should be limited or at least well defined. All of these guidelines provide a clear, predictable framework that creates a sense of safety for the client and a way for therapists to maintain their objectivity to the best of their ability.
I was rigid about therapeutic boundaries throughout the first decade of my career. It was the experience with Robin which helped me understand that while therapeutic boundaries are crucial, it is equally important to know when those boundaries need to be extended for the sake of the client. There is so much to be said about boundary issues with Robin and I that will be detailed in the posts to follow.
My hope is that reading this story will help both therapists and therapy clients understand and get clearer about boundary issues. This is an important topic that, in my opinion, does not get discussed nearly enough by mental health professionals with each other or with their clients. We are all afraid to make ourselves too vulnerable with each other. We therapists don’t ever want to be judged negatively by our peers and we don’t do nearly enough processing with our clients about the impact of the therapy relationship on them. These are some of the many lessons my experience with Robin taught me.
So how did Robin and I get to the place where it feels okay for us to be writing a blog and a book together about our experiences in therapy? Sharing Robin’s experiences surrounding her “meltdown” impacted me in ways that changed me dramatically, permanently and positively. I have tried to verbalize how this experience impacted me to my friends and family without much success. I can only explain it by writing about it. The story is so significant I have always felt it needed to be shared. I began to think about writing a book during the first few years following Robin’s “meltdown year” and even began trying to write it. It became impossible, however, to tell the story in enough detail without violating Robin’s confidentiality, so I abandoned the idea.
Knowing how smart Robin was I had been encouraging her to journal as part of her treatment process for many years without success. She always resisted writing. So, imagine my shock when several years after I had started and then abandoned the idea of writing a book about our experiences together in 2003, Robin came into a session and said, “I was reading a book by someone with bipolar disorder. I think my experiences are just as interesting as hers. I am thinking about writing a book about my life.”
I don’t know if Robin saying that, out of the blue, was a sign from The Universe or not. But I could not resist telling her I had also considered writing a book about how she had impacted me. I don’t remember when it happened or even which one of us first mentioned that it would be a unique idea to write a book together. We talked about how potentially helpful to others that book might be, but we were still working together in therapy at the time. It was a great idea…but the timing was not right.
In 2010 I got to a place where I needed to end my time as a therapist for many reasons unrelated to Robin, coincidentally at about the same time that she was recovered enough to stop therapy. Since then she has continued the process of rebuilding her life and accepting herself and her illness. She is now in a good place and is feeling just as compelled to tell her story as I am to tell how she impacted me. It is finally, after many years, the right time.
Sharon DeVinney, Ph.D. February 9, 2014