I thought we had our session today…

My client Jane was right, I had just missed the therapy session we had booked. It had not happened to me before, and I felt guilty.

Online therapists know how the virtual and body-less nature of the encounter makes it easier to fail each other, be it for the client, or for the therapist. The precious relational tissue seems even more fragile. I always attend to mending these ruptures as well as I can, but with Jane I had struggled. She had that particular quality which made her slip away from me as soon as our sessions were over.

Winnicott often came to my mind when I thought about Jane: “It is a joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.” We all play hide-and-seek with others, and the therapeutic relationship we develop with our clients is no exception. A therapy room easily turns into a perfect place for hiding, with its couch, so inviting to hole up behind.

Jane was skilled in hiding.

The day we connected for our first session, her camera was off. All I could see was her profile picture, with her face concealed behind a pair of fancy sunglasses. It took me some time to convince her that seeing each other was essential for her therapy.

She finally switched on her webcam. She actually looked younger than her picture, her body language transmitting bubbles of anxiety.

Further on, Jane would typically connect from a poorly lit room, with a window behind her, darkening her traits against the light.

Or she would choose a place with a poor Internet connection to call me, her face blurred into a pixelated image.

Reflecting with Jane on her choice of having a therapy online, we ended-up realizing how much this was an integral part of her unconscious hiding strategy: the distance between us preventing me from getting too close, close enough to eventually find her.

She had come to see me about her binge eating and compulsive dating, but her main complain was about the shallowness of her relationships, her inability to get truly engaged with others.

When she finally trusted me enough to share her early history, I could discern its emptiness, a lack of emotional closeness with her depressed mother and alcoholic father. She never expressed anger or resentment towards her parents. She seemed indifferent, empty herself.

She was unconsciously inducing me to forget her, but what she craved for was to make an impact on me, to be remembered, and cared about. Emotionally, she was that child kept hidden behind a couch. Torn between the desire of closeness and the fear to be discovered, she felt consecutively manic or depressed.

Did she really want me to find her? Or was she comfortable and feeling safe in her dark hiding place? She would steadily turn up for our weekly sessions, and that made me hope.

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe… was I counting, every week, looking for her on my screen.

The more she pushed me away, the more I made it clear that she would always find me there for her, counting, seeking her out.

You are really stubborn. She once said, and I thought she would send me away with a simple mouse-click. But she did not, and we kept playing the old game.

My stubbornness responded to her need for consistency.

Eventually, Jane became convinced that I would not abandon the game. She had learnt to count on me. She did not completely give up her ‘behind-the-couch’ corner, but she allowed me in sometimes. Then we would sit there together, in the darkness and dust. Sharing that space with her, I often felt suffocating and anxious to get out, but at the same time terrified to be left there forever. Those moments were the hardest in the sessions with her, but they also helped me to understand how it really felt to be forgotten.

Jane’s therapy is finished for the time being. She went out of my screen, with her usual grin, and I wonder: was I able to make up for those who had abandoned her, hidden and forgotten?

I can only hope that our virtual hide-and-seek practice will have helped Jane to be finally found for real, by somebody in flesh and blood.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Therapy & Technology, Online Therapy